New York

Howard Halle

Randy Alexander

Though some have referred to Howard Halle’s work as neo-Conceptual, no less likely moniker could be found to describe what he does. Forget explorations designed to reveal or challenge mechanisms of meaning in art; Halle’s work amounts to little more than a thin form of social realism for the ’90s. Its focus is the middle-class, suburban milieu. As if we didn’t know this already, Halle seems bent on telling us that all is not right in the bucolic ’burbs.

His re-creation of this environment, vaguely reminiscent of the make-believe habitats created in putt-putt golf courses, is tastefully sparse and cleverly animated by a sense of dark humor befitting a Stephen King scenario: everything looks right for a moment, and then the goblins come out to play. Wall-to-wall plush-pile sod blankets the gallery floor, simulating the tide of manicured green that stretches coast to coast. Some decorative metal signs (and one outdoor barbecue bell), ornamented with cutesy images of a running deer or a mother bird feeding her young, for example, proclaim clichéd credos—“FREE TO BE YOU AND ME,” or “THE PERSONAL IS THE POLITICAL.” It’s all a joke, in a way: the regimentally clustered blank address signs planted, tombstone fashion, in the turf; the grassy lawn that ranks right up there with Mom and apple pie as an icon of what suburbia is supposed to be but never is; the kitschy, Americana-style, slogan-bearing objects that suggest that the antiestablishment rhetoric of the ’60s has been subsumed by the establishment it challenged. The best laughs come from two rosters of titles mounted on opposite walls. At first, the schmoozy Sturm and Drang of phrases such as “LIVING TOGETHER FEELING ALONE,” or “DO I HAVE TO GIVE UP ME TO BE LOVED BY YOU?” seem to have been lifted from country western songs. But “CO-DEPENDENT NO MORE,” a popular book in certain New York circles, makes it obvious that the titles are borrowed from self-help books. It’s also obvious that Halle’s humor only partially disguises his contempt for a place that he knows better than he wishes he did, but to which he is compelled to return with us in tow.

Not that suburbia isn’t fertile stomping ground for sociological study; it’s just that we know its problems by heart: the superficiality, the menace of the status-quo, the claustrophobia. True enough, suburban culture epitomizes the ideological miasma of tradition that sustains collective amnesia, but we can experience this “here” as well as out “there.” So much for cultural afflictions. Does Halle’s social realism add up to more than a lite fun fest? How could it when he picks such an easy target? Perhaps a few additional self-improvement titles like: “WHEN ARTISTS TELL US WHAT WE ALREADY KNOW,” or “BEATING A DEAD HORSE IS ALL I KNOW HOW TO DO” could have leavened this hackneyed exposé.

Jan Avgikos