PRINT January 1993


ON THE ROAD to discover America, our hero makes a quick stop and disembarks from his vehicle, a turbo-charged bird of prey aptly named The Eagle—symbol of freedom as flight, and of flight as both sovereignty and exile. “One small step for man,” he says, looking at his boots, “one giant leap for mankind.” It’s his mystery that makes this character so recognizable: dressed in white, he’s the good sheriff, yet he’s also a masked man, never removing his motorcycle helmet, keeping its visor down. He’s the Michelin Man as a latter-day Lone Ranger—a man on the move, the man on the moon. He’s the ultimate Hell’s Angel, a model citizen of God’s country who roams half in hopes of finding a home in heaven’s kingdom on earth, half in fear of succumbing to the desolation in which the fallen land. He stays just long enough to survey this sublime silver frontier, in which he plants an American flag. And as the flag freezes in mid wave, time appears to stop: our cosmic biker stands on the threshold of eternity, yet he perceives only the same nagging contradiction—paradise at once found and lost, a world perched at both the beginning and the end of history, a garden of dust.

So goes the climactic scene from one of this country’s all-time classic road movies. Alongside another, in many ways complementary highway epic released only months later, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, the moon landing headed a decade-long convoy of social crusades and cultural experiments, its mission: to scout the mythic territories the ’60s had opened up, to confirm the many recent sightings of the promised land that America has always claimed to be. Yet the reports that came back helped confirm deep-rooted suspicions as much as anything. Faith in the American Dream had inspired the journey, but couldn’t make the dream come true; in fact, the nearer it grew the more miragelike it became. The promise of deliverance remained a promise not delivered on, a carrot dangling from the end of a nightstick. “We’ve made it,” space cadet Billy sighs at the end of Easy Rider, to which copilot Captain America replies, “No man, we blew it.” It’s a fitting finale to a search for the land of opportunity, a search that seems at once culturally essential and inherently doomed, since such a land lies in the future, in what could be, and therefore can never be reached in the present. Which is why the best way to experience this land is to head down a road that never ends, a road to nowhere.

It’s down this very road that Cady Noland travels. Since the mid ’80s, her installations, sculptures, and wall-bound assemblages have featured seemingly haphazard arrangements of, among other things, a wide variety of transportation equipment—not only car parts (headlights, license plates), but also rubber runners, horse saddles, exit signs, and open gates. In several installations Noland mounts metal pipes waist high between floor stanchions or along walls, as if to suggest handrails, hitching posts, and retail racks. In the corners of a couple of her rooms, entangled four-legged walkers collect like errant metal tumbleweeds. Disparate accessories such as bungee cords and monkey wrenches are often found dumped here and there among small piles of empty beer cans. Everything by Noland resembles an abandoned construction site, as if it hadn’t been completed yet. She makes terminal works in progress.

Though a can-do spirit seems to run through all Noland’s art, the work runs scared, both away from and headlong toward impending breakdown. Take for example a series of sculptures from 1989, each consisting of a wire basket filled with non sequitur supplies, collected appendages—camera cases, jumper cables—severed from the endeavors they’re meant to aid. Each basket appears like a cross between a toolbox and a trash can (the reference to homelessness here is made more direct in an early work from 1986, which employs not a basket but a shopping cart). Though drawing mostly on new, functional hardware, Noland’s industry nevertheless seems doomed to failure, in part because she uses only auxiliary items and replacement parts, a vocabulary of temporary solutions and makeshift repairs. She seems intent on fixing something that can never work, staying on the job when there is no job to do. What we’re left with is the material expression of hope against hope.

Dominated by things ancillary and portable, Noland’s work still conveys a sense of monumentality, of scale and expansiveness. The incomplete networks of handrails, the gates, the occasional units of chain-link and fencing, all combine to recall the horizons and vistas of big-sky country. The installations feel as archaic as they do ephemeral, like vast landscapes seen from the window of a passing car. This is especially true of those installations in which Noland stacks hundreds of Budweiser six-packs along the walls, erecting sheer cliffs at the base of which shorter rows and pyramids of beer cans are ordered. Presented here is an image of overwhelming intoxication and, at the same time, incredible waste, the whole mighty edifice destined to be chugged and pissed away; and, behind that, another image, that of the eroded canyons of the American West.

The landscapes these works evoke have been made symbols of America’s majesty—freshly clawed landscapes such as the Grand Canyon, providing everlasting proof of His hand in the creation of this country, even as the erosion that crafted them promises eventually to turn them to dust. Recent art linked with these landscapes would include Robert Smithson’s entropic earthworks and, before that, the energetic canvases of Abstract Expressionism. Noland somehow manages to entwine the contrasting characteristics of both in her installations, so that they appear at once fossilized and protean. She too superimposes the geological and the cultural, but the landmarks she seems most enthralled by are more secular: her prime referent is the crash site.

Actual photos of car wrecks and airline disasters have begun to crop up in Noland’s latest metallurgy. This is where the road to nowhere ends, where the biker’s journey is neither completed nor given up on but rather cut down in midstride, a terminal work in progress. Off course and out of control, locomotion no longer serves as a means toward an end but becomes an event in itself, a fiery crescendo of unbridled expenditure. To burn up the road, to die behind the wheel—these are the cherished images by which our culture pays its final respects to the fated pioneer. (Think of the turbo-incineration of the Challenger astronauts, whom then-president Ronald Reagan eulogized as having, at the moment of death, “touched the face of God.”) The accident site is the one mark the speed demon leaves behind, and Noland treats it as a quintessential national monument. American flags fly throughout her work, though they’re never raised high, appearing instead folded on rails or draped over hardware—Old Glory at half-mast, decorating both a celebration and a funeral, an accomplishment and a sacrifice.

Among the things Noland seems determined yet unable to fully construct is an updated mythology of the frontiersman, shuffling into her jigsaw-puzzle artwork wayward props, stock characters, bits of costume, and written anecdotes pertaining to the Wild West. On the many aluminum panels and sheets of paper heaped into her rooms, she prints pictures of fatal joyrides, of lone cowboys and deserted log cabins; there are texts about the history of guns, references to Vietnam. Tossed into the pile of tripods and other paraphernalia that make up Celebrity Trash Spill, 1989, is a copy of The New York Post blaring news of Abbie Hoffman’s suicide. Each piece of information reads like an outtake from a once ambitious project gone awry, a crusade that marches on zombielike without the idealism that once guided it. Noland seizes on two zombie crusaders in particular—in a number of installations Patty Hearst and Lee Harvey Oswald strike confrontational poses, Hearst shown in a black beret, leveling a machine gun in front of a Symbionese Liberation Army banner, Oswald at the moment of his assassination, hunching forward, fists raised like a prizefighter. Both represent implosive centers of attention, broken compasses leading the rebel charge—they’re media figureheads even though they face the camera like deer staring into oncoming headlights. Twisted and two-faced, at once heroes and victims, Hearst and Oswald are action figures who’ve lost control of their actions. (Indeed the more they act, the larger the web of puppet strings to which they seem attached.)

Dream-seekers on an increasingly aimless pilgrimage through a landscape of rapidly decaying symbols—such is the portrait Noland renders of life in America. It’s as if she had taken Smithson’s esthetic of decay and applied it like a vacuum hose to the brave new commodity world of Pop art, sucking the latter’s recreational visions (with which Noland shares her cars, flags, and beer) of its youthful optimism and athletic physique. But there’s another, earlier body of images Noland’s work more strongly recalls. In 1958, beatnik shutterbug Robert Frank published The Americans, a book of photographs in which he, like Noland, sketched a world centered around the road and its attendant pit-stop culture. Everything in Frank’s book appears angled toward some unreachable horizon, people looking away from each other into the distance, as if there were some place they all needed to get to, or away from, even though their mobility only seems to worsen a pervasive sense of waiting, either for the day when they actually do beat the odds or, more likely, when the odds catch up. Like Noland, Frank documents a social twilight zone, a life spent in permanent exile, oblivion as our Manifest Destiny.

Combining the two artists’ projects is not just the road but the excruciating grayness they cast over all their work. As Vince Leo notes in a recent catalogue essay, Frank made his photographs on overcast days, which “replaced the possibilities and eventful drama embodied in directional light with an ambient grey visibility.”1 Like the space through which Frank’s characters orbit, Noland’s rooms are dominated by a silver pall, by chrome plating and aluminum. Such decor conjures up a purgatorial state between the light of day and the dark of night, in which nothing is able to emerge into the one or recede into the other, everything trapped in a seemingly endless hall of fogged mirrors.

Chrome and aluminum are perhaps America’s richest symbolic materials, more capable than stone, brick, or steel of grounding our culture’s myths. The matter-of-fact reality of these metals appears to have been transformed into something more indeterminate: chrome bestows the glossiness of eternal youth, turning heavy metal into speed metal, its surface miraculously wiped clean of the marks and stains of history. Little wonder then that the culture of the road is covered in chrome—on hubcaps, bumpers, handlebars, gas tanks, exhaust pipes; on truckstop lunch counters, spurs, gun barrels, jackknives. Or that aluminum panels bracket one of the most emblematic of Pop art’s mythscapes, James Rosenquist’s The F-111, from 1965. To a certain extent, it’s possible to see Pop’s vivid projections as placed between mute gray parentheses, between Frank’s sunless roadsides and Smithson’s eroded dirt-works. “They bring to mind the Ice Age rather than the Golden Age,” Smithson once wrote of his art and that of his peers. Which recalls yet another classic road movie, also pivoted around a Technicolor promised land and circumscribed by conflicting feelings of longing and resignation, by an endless road and gray skies—a movie called The Wizard of Oz.

In the dim voids of Noland’s silver panoramas, it’s possible to detect the promises America finds itself clinging to even as it knows they’re empty. We’re back in Kansas, under the dark clouds of the Ice Age, but we still insist on looking off into the distance, imagining what lies at the sunny end of the endless road. It’s as if Noland were trying to depict in her work what she sees on that far horizon—as if she began with the same aluminum paneling as Rosenquist did, but can’t seem to find any dreams that’ll stick to its surface. In excavating the Good Life, she arrives at something closer to the survivalist’s gray bunker.

That she keeps trying is significant, though. Pop art might have come and gone, but we remain a society of controlled consumption, the main difference being that consumption’s become all the more controlled. That was the agenda of the ’80s, of Reagan/Bush: to make our service economy more like military or religious service, a goal achieved through the official sanctioning of runaway economic injustice, increased unemployment, decreased entitlements, resegregation, union busting, urban oblivion, etc. Not to mention the creation of inconceivable debt in every sector, which has condemned the citizenry to a seemingly unfulfillable symbolic contract, an endless obligation. The lush futurism that characterizes much of Pop art has come to reveal an underside of surplus lack and dead ends. And so the classic American road movie, a story of getting ahead and getting what you want, appears in Noland’s art as a bankrupt production. Its symbols, heroes, and settings have all but faded away, leaving behind perhaps the most sublime American landscape of all: a blank silver screen, the void behind the promise, a desolate highway on which we imagine ourselves lost, searching, running on empty, yet still running.

Lane Relyea is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.



1. Vince Leo, “Fünf amerikanische Fotografen and Edward Hopper,” ed. Georg-W. Költzsch and Heinz Liesbrock, exhibition catalogue, Essen: Museum Folkwang Essen, 1992, p. 162.