New York

Gregory Crewdson

Gregory Crewdson’s new series of staged photographs, “Twilight” (1998–99, all Untitled), shows a suburbia run amok. People who can’t take the subway to work grow obsessed with the underground, tunneling holes in their living rooms or digging gardens there. Or else they look up at the sky, from whence falls light—whether from the local traffic copter or from a tuneful spaceship out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we are not told. Look out your window in Crewdson’s Lot and you’ll see your pregnant neighbor alone in the street, stripped to her undies to take the cool evening air on her skin. Peek into a garage and you might find a woman building a pyre of flowers higher than her head—perhaps preparing for some fragrant rite of seppuku, but again, we can only guess. Natural phenomena catch the eerie mood: When a car engine catches fire, radiance glows not only from under the hood but also out of a storm drain around the corner. Yet for all the photographs’ ethereal atmospheres, the characters are sweaty and grimy and scratched, more dazed than entranced. They don’t look happy. It is, in Richard Brautigan’s phrase, the revenge of the lawn.

It’s also disappointingly weak tea. Urban planners have written a lot lately about emergent modes of suburbia in the US, but these aren’t Crewdson’s interest. Where Steven Spielberg, in Close Encounters and other films, made special effects sing by framing them with the detailed clutter of tract-house family life, Crewdson is satisfied with the special effect by itself. In any case, a photograph that looks like a film still has a built-in issue, namely, that it is a photograph that looks like a film still. It presents itself as a particle not only of a larger whole, but of a whole that contains countless other images ranging from the breathtaking to the banal—so why isolate this one in particular? How to put the illusion of the fragment to use? Cindy Sherman, Crewdson’s great example, knows how, and Crewdson himself is an example to a little legion of young acolytes at work on the problem. His followers, often likable though seldom as yet truly memorable, have the advantage of seeming to portend some fresh sensibility or identity, and Cindy Sherman has the advantage of being Cindy Sherman. Crewdson has it tougher: Applying Hollywood-like devices to supposedly more thoughtful effect, he succeeds only in reminding you that a film director must invent and oversee literally thousands of such images to fill the allotted ninety minutes and still can end up with a mediocre movie.

Crewdson did better in David Lynch mode than he does in Steven Spielberg mode; his late-’80s bug’s-eye views of a nature as natural as Astroturf had the look of Lynch’s Blue Velvet and seemed to mine the same vein of artifice. Lynch used an obviously mechanical chirping robin as a sign of hope and joked about the already blatant Freudian subtexts in his tale of sexual perversity by naming an apartment building the Deep River. In those days neither he nor Crewdson had any depth—rather than make you decipher a Jamesian figure in the carpet, they did the decoding for you, draining their symbols of mystery and slapping them down like dead fish. The strategy, paradoxically, made overused images weirdly vibrant. Perhaps it was an approach that couldn’t last—perhaps the artists found that those images rapidly began to look overused again. Crewdson’s solution is to run back to enigma like a lapsed Catholic rediscovering the Church. But his mysteries pose no interesting questions, and to feel them you have to have faith.

David Frankel