PRINT April 1993


On the branch of a tree, larvae cling to a jellied blue egg sac, a yellow butterfly hovers, berries grace the foliage. Below and in the background are houses—a door is open, there is a patio, a picnic table. We have been here before, only now it is not quite so familiar. There is something odd about our position, menacing, as though we were burglars come calling on our own lives. The foreground, these bugs, this scrofulous sac, are in hyperfocus. The detail is cinematic; neither imitating nor illuminating life, the image suggests something beyond, where color and light key the story to a pitch the human eye only registers in states of duress—the high hysterical hues of shock, horror, and ecstasy. The picture is excruciating yet the scene is still; there are no screams, there is no blood. Still, we are afraid. We are afraid and we are at home—we are in our own backyard.

A mound of earth, some boards, a fence, in the distance houses and hills. The earth comes alive. Is it the great mound constructed again and again—most memorably out of mashed potatoes—by Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Was it placed by man or displaced by nature? Did it emanate from within, pushing up from the core, breaking the surface of the earth’s skin like a tumor or a zit? It is surrounded by a fence, dividing and defining, marking the difference between wild and tame, known and unknown, safety and danger. The mound is on the other side, contained. We are safe. But the mound is close; the boundary could easily be crossed.

David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, David Cronenberg, Steven Spielberg, Wally and the Beav, Creepy Crawlers and Incredible Edibles, the stiff-stocked dioramas in museums of natural history, train-set suburbs spread out across Ping-Pong tables, the high happy colors of Disney. This is the world of Gregory Crewdson, an intensely realistic unreality, in which the landscape of life is transformed into a heightened blend of nature and artifice. At 30, the artist is an amalgam of the period in which he grew up, a time that celebrated artificiality in everything from fabrics to foodstuffs, when the manmade held firm over the natural until the great ’80s burst of ecoconcern finally gave way to the organic ’90s. Coming up this way has given Crewdson the freedom to mix and match at will, unself-consciously combining reality and fantasy, whatever best achieves the desired effect: the dirt of the great mound, for example, is artificial, selected for its color, presence, and personality.

Crewdson creates a seductive visual science fiction, gleefully calling into question our notions of truth and reality. Brooklyn-born and -raised, he significantly chooses not to explore the actual suburban landscape; instead, he conjures it in the studio, approaching the garden with a certain romantic awe, a love for the mythology of suburbia, and a deep-seated fear of what lurks beneath its surface. Crewdson’s process involves meticulous attention to detail: he makes a diorama/tableau from scratch, developing it over five to six weeks into a 20-by-15-foot construction that fixes in time and space a civilization that has never quite existed, a motionless world unto itself, filled with colors, sensations, and objects that signal life. During the construction, Crewdson shoots up to 100 Polaroids, adjusting and readjusting the elements until finally, when he deems the tableau complete, he takes a single photograph with a four-by-five view camera. And when this photograph has been developed and printed, and has proven acceptable to the artist, he destroys the set, cleans his studio, and prepares to begin again.

Crewdson’s unique view is arrived at in part from the position in which he situates himself: the fertile and underexplored middle ground between the artifice of the post-Modernists (Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, James Casebere) and the straighter brand of photographic self-expression in which the image presents a less heavily processed version of American experience. Crewdson’s images constitute a mysterious and magical unknown, where anything can and will happen—real, imagined, or dreamed. Simultaneously seductive and shocking, his work captures a most private psychological moment, where repulsion becomes attraction and fear meets desire. Certain of the contradictions inherent in being human and alive today are thrown into the air, fixed there, and made blazingly clear: “progress” has toxified the environment, and the family has fragmented, yet the veneer, the skin of a society, remains. Like a magician, a sorcerer, Crewdson has shown us this exterior and has illuminated the interior at the same time, handling the disjunction with such artful and seamless grace that ultimately one can’t tell where truth stops and fiction begins.

A. M. Homes