American Pastoral review

Art, Contemporary art Free
3 out of 5 stars
American Pastoral review
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein Courtesy Gagosian

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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The American dream is always on the verge of collapse. That’s the point of it, it’s a dream: something far away, unreachable. Try to grasp it and it’ll slip through your fingers. Artists have tangled with it ever since the country’s foundation, and this neat little show looks at the ones who pull at its countless threads of hope and optimism to reveal the truth beneath.

There are big names here: Warhol, Koons, Frankenthaler, Ruscha. And lots of the work is lovely. The Helen Frankenthaler especially is gorgeous – a green vista dotted with red and black splodges, like someone exploded a Monet. There’s a lot of pleasantness going on: bucolic nineteenth-century landscapes by Albert Bierstadt and Joseph DeCamp, a lovely little Edward Hopper seascape. That's the pastoral bit of the title (which is also a reference to Philip Roth's book of the same name).

But those images are the utopian mask that America is wearing, and the overwhelming sense in this show is one of foreboding: of a nation struggling to hold itself together, of cracks starting to show, of that mask starting to slip. You’ve got a Roy Lichtenstein’s ideal little Pop Art house next to Sally Mann’s hauntingly empty Southern home; the hopeful vision of John Frederick Kensett’s Niagara Falls next to Thomas Cole’s desolate stormy seas. Then Ed Ruscha lays out the reality of a nation built grubbily on industry, Richard Prince steals from the muckiest corners of pop culture, John Currin idealises and exaggerates sexuality, Cindy Sherman satirises through dress-up.

The Jeff Koons sculpture is odiously naff and you do get the feeling that the gallery’s just trying to shift distressed inventory with a lot of the work here, but it’s a good concept, and there are some great pieces on show. But the thing that makes the exhibition worth coming to see is the tension. Promise and disappointment, hope and despair, all balancing on a knife edge. And then, just as you’re about to leave, you realise that the awkward terror of the American dream feels eerily like Britain in 2020. Yikes.

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