Retro chic: more artists are taking road trips through a vanishing North America these days, rendering retro imagery, candy-coated nostalgia, neon and noir scenes and vintage cityscapes

Retro chic: more artists are taking road trips through a vanishing North America these days, rendering retro imagery, candy-coated nostalgia, neon and noir scenes and vintage cityscapes – Retro Scapes

Laura Meyers

Yesteryear has become more than a fleeting image in the artist’s rear-view mirror. Picture today’s retro-inspired artists as Easy Riders along America’s blue line highways, or on Main Street, Anywhere, USA. These artists, themselves often a product of a post-WWII upbringing, are reveling in a love affair with America’s mid-century towns and cities, old billboards and neon signs, sleek or faded gas stations, roadside diners and motels, highway overpasses and big-city bridges. And don’t forget the 1950s-era cars and trucks that populate the streets and parking lots of this retro world.

Everyday objects and buildings, the detritus of a less-complicated era, take on a life of their own in these paintings and photographs-whether the images are of today’s Memphis, Tenn., or of 1960s Los Alamos, N.M. Throughout the country, contemporary artists are documenting the retro life, at times with a nostalgic view and in other instances with an ironic edge or an eye for the offbeat. “This art is about icons and architecture and a way of thinking that is gone,” explained R.R. Lyon, owner of Seven-O-Seven Contemporary Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M. “The artists either take photographs or they render their paintings as if they were photographs. It’s very exacting, and it takes us back 30 or 40 years'”

There are many artists working with these icons and themes. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Michelle Muldrow, who said she “grew up moving all over America, with a lot of time spent in automobiles,” now documents the city as it passes before her eyes, from highways and bridges to suburban tracts. Fullerton, Calif., artist Michael Chapman’s almost-surreal paintings and prints offer a momentary flash of time suspended, with 1950s-era automobiles parked in contemporary downtown and beach town settings. Houston-based Janaki Lennie paints her urban neighborhood at twilight, its eerie greenish-glow streaming through electric wires and dancing across freeways. “She addresses the ambivalence and tension of our relationship with the urban environment,” said art dealer Sean Rudolph, owner of Houston’s Rudolph Projects. Starting in 1993, Los Angeles photographer Jeff Dunas crisscrossed the United States in search of scenes representative of the 1950s. His “American Pictures” series documents places and people living out often eccentric, yet charming, American dreams.

Comfort Food Art

Lyon has slated a group show of paintings and photo-based art, titled “Vanishing America,” of iconic retro imagery for October. Among the included artists are Don David, Jeff Scott, R. John Ichter and Michalopoulas, who all find source material in a waning American scene. “It’s a trend, and it’s focused on guys like me who saw those icons along the side of the road when we were on road trips with our families at age 12 in the 1950s and ’60s,” Lyon said. “I call it ‘Cultural Comfort Food:

“Especially after 9/11, people seem to want to go back to a quiet, honest time in safe surroundings; added Olga Cartaya, national sales manager for Side Roads Publications in Miami. Side Roads represents Don David, whose originals start at $2,800 and prints fetch $1,400. Cartaya noted, “David’s work is all about capturing icons of a vanishing America. He’ll photograph and then paint a generic 1940s barbershop, which could be in Topeka Falls or somewhere in L.A. It speaks to all of us.”

Other art publishers have also taken note of the universal appeal of the urban retro look, including Valley Art Group, which recently introduced limited editions of the “Urban Slice” series by Mike Welton. The prints are priced from $195 to $350, while his originals sell for up to $3,800. Welton describes his work as being “closely aligned with the pedestrian street level building design employed at the turn of the 20th century, back when buildings and signage were designed to be seen, not driven by at 50 miles an hour.”

Even collectors not touched by a wave of gooey sweet nostalgia are still drawn to retro material, said Santa Monica, R Calif., Gallery Owner Terrence Rogers. “There is so much interest in mid-century architecture, Eames furniture and Modernist design,” he said. Many of these pictures fit like a glove into a mid-century Modern setting and-decor benefits aside-they strike a chord of memory in people.”

Original Retro is Hip Again

The retro trend among contemporary painters and photographers is F supported by renewed interest in period works by well-known artists like Ed Ruscha, whose new retrospective book featuring his seminal 1960s roadside gas stations is due out this fall. Photographer William Eggleston also has a new book and traveling exhibit focused on imagery from the American South in the 1960s and ’70s.

Pop artist Ruscha was widely recognized in the 1960s for depicting roadside signs and architecture seen from the vantage point of his own travels along American highways. In particular, Ruscha’s 1960 painting, “U.S. 66,” captured the famed Route 66, the key highway for those who made their way “out West” in mid-century.

“Ruscha traveled this road frequently in the early 1960s and often documented his trip with black-and-white photographs of gasoline stations along the way,” writes Richard Marshall, author of Ed Ruscha, the new monograph published by Phaidon Press Limited. These road trips resulted in Ruscha’s book of photographs, “Twenty-six Gasoline Stations,” and a series of paintings of Standard Oil Company gas stations as icons, including “Burning Standard.”

During the same period, from 1966 to 1974, William Eggleston was taking road trips through the American South and Southwest. These offhand photographs of the vast American terrain are from another time and place, and yet they appear very contemporary. The dye-transfer process Eggleston used–a technology borrowed from advertisements of the period–allowed the artist to control the photographic palette and subjectively assign specific colors extra saturation and intensity.

Eggleston compiled more than 2,200 photographs, which remained in his private archives until lately. Now, Scalo International, in collaboration with the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, has published Los Alamos, a collection of 82 of these images. A concurrent exhibition, which is currently touring to various European venues, reaches the United States next year, bowing at the Dallas Museum of Art in September 2004, with a subsequent outing at San Francisco’s MOMA.

The retro wave isn’t limited to American icons. In London and Santa Monica, Calif., recently, presentations of a photographic series from the 1960s and ’70s of British “Holiday Camps” have proven popular with collectors. In post-war England, the somewhat kitschy chain of “Holiday Camps” designed for the British working class were popular recreation meccas. They reached their heyday in the 1960s, when John Hinde and his crew of photographers–David Noble, Edmund Nagele and Elmar Ludwig–were commissioned to create a series of highly art-directed tableaux postcards. The images, recently on view in the Martin Parr curated exhibit, “Our True Intent is All for Your Delight” at RoseGallery in Santa Monica, are soaked in artifice and saturated with color added during the printing process. Unlike Eggleston’s vernacular photographs captured in the fleeting moment, these pictures were staged to promote Butlin’s leisure utopias. In their time, these photographs’ orchestrated amusements promised Brits the fulfillment of their vacation fantasies. Today, the Hinde Studio photos, the same images blown up to large-scale prints, speak to the optimism of the times and our nostalgia for that cheerful sanguineness.

“Americans find these photographs truly surreal and kitschy,” said Andrea Bronte of RoseGallery. “Overall, the reaction has been positive–no one leaves the gallery without a smile on their face,”

Nostalgia captures artists worldwide, it seems. In Vancouver, Canada, photographer Chris Gergley has been documenting a series of three-story Modernist apartment buildings with names like “Silver Maple,” “Cedar Villa,” and “Flamingo” constructed in the early 1960s. “Over the years, many of these buildings have been torn down or altered. Gergley is documenting those that remain,” explained Monte Clark, owner of Monte Clark Gallery in Vancouver. “He’s interested in the Modernist aesthetic and how things evolve over time:’ In the 48 structures he’s photographed, some are pristinely correct in their mid-century decor, while others now wear contemporary furnishings.

Many artists documenting their own urban neighborhoods and road trips start with a camera to create a photographic record and memory jog. For example, Los Angeles painter Michael Sokolis, who exhibits at Gallery C in Hermosa Beach, Calif., takes a Canon camera and studies the urban landscape of period structures near his home. Then he paints from the photographs.

The roots of much of this material lie in Edward Hopper’s depictions during the 1930s and ’40s of the American scene. Hopper depicted the modern age, its man-made environment and the loneliness of big-city people. Hopper was also one of the first fine artists to utilize actual signage as a motif. Ruscha and other Pop artists found inspiration in Hopper’s studies of gas stations, just as Hopper’s work plants the seeds of inspiration for some of today’s retro artists. Indeed, Lyon intends to include a Hopper painting alongside contemporary works in his “Vanishing America” exhibit, “to show the lineage,” he said.

A New American Scene

Today, artists like Sokolis and Patricia Chidlaw of Santa Barbara, Calif., chronicle contemporary American life with a touch of the Hopper-esque, painting portraits of familiar places that are now are a bit faded in architectural fashion, desolate and somewhat strange. For these artists, the scenes are both nostalgic and isolating. In Chidlaw’s “White’s Motel;” for example, the viewer confronts a gleaming but empty 1950s era swimming pool; the neon sign is lit, but there are no guests.

Contemporary urban retro realists have been inspired by other artists as well, such as Reginald Marsh, Walker Evans and Richard Estes. Another influence is the Ashcan School of a century ago. The so-called Ashcan artists, including Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, John Sloan and Everett Shinn, quite literally opened the windows of their city studios to peer at the often-blighted urban streets for content and inspiration.

Pop art of the 1960s, which looked to signage and advertising for inspiration, is another foundation anchor to the retro trend But where Pop artists look to commercial and comic book illustration to explore mass media and popular culture, retro urban artists like Chidlaw or David evoke the emblems and icons to mirror their own experiences.

“Patricia [Chidlaw] often paints what you remember about your childhood, contrasted with the way a place looks now and how you experience it now,” explained gallery owner Rogers, who will be showing her work (priced from $2,800 to $9,500) in November. Another artist Rogers represents, Michael Chapman, “combines vintage elements–1950s cars–with places that seem familiar, using elements from mid-century in contemporary terms,” said Rogers. “Quite often these artists and others are inspired by the disconnect–maybe it once was grand but now it is faded.” Chapman’s prints are priced under $1,000, while his oil paintings fetch $4,200 to $25,000.

Faded or renewed, retro iconography connects the viewer with a piece of the past. “Even the signage then was a wonderful art form,” Lyon noted. Along with the signs, he said, the roadside motels and cafes are themselves art objects. Lyon’s “Vanishing America” show is inspired in part by one man’s efforts to rejuvenate a mid-century motel, the Blue Swallow in Tocumcari, N.M. “The owner spent nearly three years restoring it,” said Lyon. “Today it is a designated landmark, and photographers love to go there and shoot it.”

Old signs–“Texas,” “Chrysler Plymouth,” “Dixie Hamburgers,”–become tokens in these paintings and photographs. “My art is all about grabbing at urban fragments of society, taking pieces of narrative and reconstructing it,” said Dallas artist Jeff Scott, who takes photographs of historic and vintage American structures and signage, then deconstructs and abstracts the images with painting, drawing, collage, etching and even surface scratching. “My starting point was historic, disappearing America,” Scott observed. “I started going to small towns, trying to figure out how to preserve them visually as their structures were literally decaying. Buildings can tell a compelling story.”

Similarly, Los Angeles artist Greg Miller noted,” I like to paint those small, isolated, found images from our past,” whether it is the Mulholland Drive street sign from the hills above Los Angeles, a matchbook from Las Vegas or a sign from the down-on-its-luck Formosa Cafe in Hollywood. Miller often scales his work like a billboard, and, in fact, aging billboards are among his artistic inspirations, he said. “On old billboards, they glue new ads on top and sometimes the old image comes through.” Miller’s multi-media paintings reflect this interest. “Each one of my paintings is about 30 layers,” he explained. San Francisco’s Bucheon Gallery exhibits Miller’s work, which is priced in the $3,000 range.

Artists often paint where they live, and retro-urban realist painters and photographers are no different. “This urban work is a reflection of artists’ environs,” observed Nancy Silverman, director of Gallery C. “These artists are not complaining about the environment, and usually they’re not celebrating it–it’s just tangible evidence of their lives.”

It’s true, added Rogers, “they see things that are in a state of faded beauty or urban decay, but then these artists elevate the images to a place where they command your undistracted attention. On some level, we have the discrepancy between blight and beauty in the neighborhoods we live in. There is a vision of urban life today that doesn’t square with what we think it should be, or what we think it used to be. And in that rift is the seed for artists’ creativity.”

Main Street may be disappearing, but retro images tug at us, he concluded. “I stay away from the word ‘nostalgia, but it is amazing how people respond to thug works. These paintings are mirrors of people’s own experiences.”


* Ataraxia Studio, 888-245-5420

* Bucheon Gallery, (415) 863-2891

* Gallery C, (310) 798-0102

* Monte Clark Gallery, (604) 730-5000

* RoseGallery, (310) 264-8440

* Seven-O-Seven Contemporary, (505) 820-1888

* Side Roads Publications, (305) 438-8828

* Terrence Rogers Fine Art, (310) 394-4999

* Valley Art Group,888-470-7303

By LAURA MEYERS ABN Contributing Editor

COPYRIGHT 2003 Advanstar Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group