Pass the Stuffing

What is under your wallpaper?  -Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, 1999.

Crewd 1998 2002 Untitled Woman In Flowers

GREGORY CREWDSON. Untitled, 1998 - 2002. Digital Chromogenic Prints. 48 x 60 inches, (121.9 x 152.4 cm) © Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian

Recently, I was rummaging through some old stuff (notes, quotes, images, bibliographies) related to research I did on the contemporary photographer Gregory CrewdsonAn earlier version of this essay was published in 2002. See: “Stuff: Gregory Crewdson’s Gaze Upon the Domestic Sublime,” Thresholds 23 (Cambridge: MIT Press)..

I was initially drawn to Crewdson’s photographs - in particular his “Twilight” series from 1998 - because they seemed to mirror a renewed interest among some architectural historians on and around the domestic sphere. Think Teyssot on lawns, Harris and Burke on the everyday, Colomina on domesticity and war…. If quotidian life suggests banality and repetition alongside the heterogeneous and the incidental, a critical line of inquiry into these images could begin with a few questions: How can mental space be rendered visible? How do discarded and cherished ephemera alike register their effects alongside chance occurrences?

In Crewdson’s disquieting settings, nature engages with the iconography of the American suburbs to produce effects of fear and desire, repulsion and beauty. The unhomely—strange but recognizable—resides in both the making and the reading of these photographs. The natural and artificial lie in an uneasy proximity. ‘Home’ is presented in all its Technicolor glory, hyper reality and violence. Kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms, and garages index real and imagined histories. Neither reality nor fiction is suppressedGregory Crewdson, interview by Bradford Morrow, Gregory Crewdson—Dream of Life (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1999): 19.. In fact, both are depicted with equal rigorJames Casebere and Gregory Crewdson, “The Jim and Greg Show,” Blind Spot 2 (1993): unpaginated..

In the instances where the grown intervenes with the made, we are actually made keenly aware of the artifice of both. The question, “Is it real?” is irrelevant. The flowers are flowers and the wallpaper is wallpaper. Nonetheless, life appears to have gone awry, as if to remind us that the project of Good Housekeeping is one of removal and concealment. Watching TV or making dinner – much like an otherwise unremarkable bout of insomnia – instantiate fear and loss. Opposing forces are at play with disquieting simultaneity: inside and outside, humor and terror, sacred and profane, human and beast, supernatural and biological.

‘Stuff’ is enacted as both noun and verb. Everything is kept, even disused objects of daily consumption are brought back to the scene of the crime. Crewdson parodies our HGTV fueled compulsion for order by exerting explicit control over the staging and the crafting of his “scenes.” The irony of the resulting disarray is that it is born out of a need to control with precision, which nonetheless fails to order tame nature – to make sense of things. Crewdson’s hoarders are the primary agents of accumulation. Physical objects and mental states – both precious and dispensible– enact procedures of duration. Crewdson controls details, and fixes new limits within the parameters of the visual frame. But how and what way these limits are defined is not always clear.  The self-consciousness of these photographs dramatizes the creative collision between perfectionism and failureIbid.. Architects are conditioned to think about space abstractly. Crewdson leaves everything in the picture plane. Nothing is concealed or eliminated, and yet one could argue that everything is left to our imaginations.

Crewd 1998 2002 Untitled Man Sod Interior

GREGORY CREWDSON. Untitled, 1998 - 2002. Digital Chromogenic Prints. 48 x 60 inches, (121.9 x 152.4 cm) © Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian

Crewdson’s interiors bely persistent consumer demands for ‘open’ plans. In this respect, it is perhaps not coincidental that the homes are well-worn examples of suburban ranches distinguished by their ubiquity, as much as they are by their idiosyncrasy. In a supernatural state, both previous and present occupants comingle. Tactility (or better yet hapticity), impoverished by the postwar advocacy of streamlining, has given way to shag and chintz, where trash, wood paneling, and “Laz-I-Boy” recliners maintain their structural and material integrity. Crewdson places the anxieties of modernism in full view by reinforcing the false transparency of the glass box and by choosing instead to preserve the banished and outmoded. He revels in the toxicity of ordering and the symbiosis between progress and pollution.

As the word to the name series implies, the timeframes of Crewdson’s photographs exist in the luminescent interval between day and night. The dioramic quality of his images is achieved by the use of both natural and artificial light, as well as the construction of sets. Context is crucial for Crewdson: Site specificity is taken as a precondition for the scenes that are created. His photographs engender further paradoxical readings: the central characters often appear in a frozen state – they find themselves in a place where language is suppressed, but the de-sublimated refuse of their day to day lives accumulates to visual excess. He directs elaborate mises-en-scenes, yet this process-driven methodology of making cares little for process: laborious hours of tweaking and fine-tuning give way to a flash. As such, the resultant image becomes the sole survivor of a largely hidden pre-history.

The saturated world that Crewdson imparts on us is marked by the shared experience of a collective unconscious. This world provokes discomfort because it is a mirror - not escape - from our state of affairs. My use of the term intentionally channels Walter Benjamin, who thought of collectivity as an index of the material and the dream of the phenomenal. Similarly, the sublimity of Crewdson’s photographs is a product of obsessive inscription of details within an atmosphere of invisible traces and unspeakable traces. Twenty years later, these photographs emerge newly charged in their diagnostic of the current cultural-political climate: the familiar and the fantastical coexist in an uneasy alliance, yet one that may, at any moment, tip over the edge lest we stop paying attention.

Crewd 1998 2002 Untitled Bird With Loaves

GREGORY CREWDSON. Untitled, 1998 - 2002. Digital Chromogenic Prints. 48 x 60 inches, (121.9 x 152.4 cm) © Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian