Charles Loring Elliott, Portrait of Matthew Vassar, 1861

In the News

Utopian Mirage: Social Metaphors in Contemporary Photography and Film group exhibition at the FLLAC, May 25 - July 29, 2007

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY - "Utopia" is the notion of an ideal society - a peaceful, harmonious place or community where social contradictions are annulled in a collective dream. There are utopias of the past, utopias of the present, and imagined utopias of the future. But what has come of our dreams of utopia in the twenty-first century?

Salton Sea

J. Bennett Fitts, Salton Sea, 2003-05 (Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery; © J. Bennett Fitts)

The artists featured in Utopian Mirage: Social Metaphors in Contemporary Photography and Film reconsider these dreams - with some surprising results. "They discover that our utopian ideals have often been overtaken by the realities of urban decay, corruption, loss of innocence, disregard for natural resources, and nature's chaotic cycles," said Mary-Kay Lombino, the Art Center's Emily Hargroves Fisher '57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator. "The utopian impulse, and its failure to come to fruition, can be summarized by a number of classic oppositions in Western thought: nature versus technology, local versus global, rural versus urban, and individual versus collective."

Utopian Mirage, to be presented May 25-July 29 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, explores many of these dramatic conflicts through a group exhibition of approximately 50 contemporary works. Artists working in photography and film examine landscapes, cityscapes, architecture, interiors, residential communities, suburbia, as well as fictional scenes that serve as social indicators and metaphors for failed utopian ideals.

Ruins of Drop City, Trinidad, Colorado, August 1995

Joel Sternfeld, Ruins of Drop City, Trinidad, Colorado, August 1995, 2005(Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine Gallery; © Joel Sternfeld)

"These works transport the viewer to another place, be it a city, a construction zone, a resort, or an Arcadian dreamland," said Lombino. The exhibition largely addresses four themes that recur in the works: dreams, ruins, screens, and Eden. The work dealing with dreams speaks of the hopeful attitude towards the future found in many utopian projects and societies. Images of young people living in harmony with nature are featured prominently in these works. The work that addresses the theme of ruins reckons with what remains of monuments built to utopian ideals, while other images examine the role of artificiality in the utopian scenario — and reveal the facades, or screens, that hide the failed utopias lurking in our midst. Primarily images of suburbia, vacations, and urban renewal explore the notion of Eden, not as a dream of the past, but as it has been revised and retrofitted to correspond to our utopian ideals today.

The majority of Utopian Mirage displays large-scale color photographs, shot at a wide range of locations around the world. Revealingly, romantic notions of the human race living in harmony with nature are viewed through the lens of a decidedly post-romantic contemporary social reality, according to Lombino.

"Many artists today use photography to provide hopeful antidotes, for the prevailing view of the world as a place of danger and despair," said Lombino. "Others depict a loss of hope and virtue in current attitudes about the state of our world today - and in our ideas about the future. Others still create images that look beyond the rosy facades that we perceive, to reveal disturbing truths that lie just below the surface of our reality."


Tom Bamberger's black-and-white photographs of the suburban lifestyle feature people grilling outdoors, an activity that is emblematic of the American dream. On closer inspection of the individuals portrayed, this dream seems tinged with the melancholy side of living in the suburbs, where boredom and mischief often run amok.

Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian artist, creates images that represent the dilemma of our modern existence - particularly, our desire to utilize land as a means to fulfilling utopian dreams. His photographs in the exhibition, taken in China, explore the intricate link between industry, man, and nature.

Gregory Crewdson creates elaborately staged, large-scale cinematic photographs that depict trouble in paradise. His Twilight series is known for the surreal world he fabricates in which the sinister side of suburbia is revealed through inexplicable and mysterious events.

The Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra focuses on young people in urban parks from New York to Amsterdam to Barcelona, revealing each city's Arcadian escape from inner-city realities. She captures adolescents and youngsters enjoying the natural environment as it protects them from the threat of city life.

J. Bennett Fitts, an emerging artist who resides in Los Angeles, recently completed his Pool series that led him more than 20,000 miles from Arkansas to California in search of motel pools, some abandoned and decaying, and others simply deserted. Often set against a background of innate natural beauty, the man-made pools reveal their failed attempts to mimic nature.

Carlos Garaicoa, a Cuban artist, addresses architecture as a metaphor for utopian ideals, in particular, the failure of the utopian ideals held by the Cuban government.

Chris Gergley, an emerging Canadian artist, captures the bleak desolation of the urban environment in a series of photographs called Queen City. In his Apartment Series, he reveals contemporary attitudes toward once fashionable modernist apartment buildings whose gold-lettered names, red carpets, and vibrant colors have faded over time.

Beate Götschow, a German artist, explores the tradition of the pastoral idyllic landscape in her L Series of large-scale composite photographs. She combines groups of people she photographs on the streets, and in parks and other public places, with Arcadian scenery. In her more recent S Series, the backdrops are composed of recognizable buildings pieced together to form futuristic cityscapes often deserted or scarcely populated. The images capture a post-apocalyptic moment in time that takes place in an unknown, yet familiar, location.

French artist Pierre Huyghe created an elaborate film installation entitled, Streamside Day Follies. The film is set in a new residential settlement in a bucolic landscape that evokes historical representations of the Hudson Valley. He employs a diverse range of cultural representations, garnered from nineteenth-century utopian social projects and Hollywood films, Disney animation, contemporary fiction writing, and romantic landscape painting, to create his fictional construct.

Eirik Johnson's large color photographs concentrate on the strange, chance beauty that occurs where the fringes of the urban terrain intersect with the natural landscape. Johnson's scenes - formed when man-made structures, such as discarded objects or tire tracks, interact with natural elements such as tides, overgrowth, shafts of light, and fire - appear to be carefully arranged but are, in fact, serendipitous.

Soo Kim constructs a fictional city and presents both the inte rior and exterior spaces of its built environment in her collage photographs. Through densely layered and reconstituted photographic imagery, Kim suggests an urban environment in which reality mingles with the imagined texture and pattern of anonymous cities.

Justine Kurland travels across the United States photographing the members of surviving communes, as if she were searching for some lost utopia. Her resulting images, which bear strong traces of the classic documentary tradition, are portraits of the communal inhabitants posed as they wish to portray themselves.

Richard Misrach depicts the complex relationship between humans and the foreboding landscape. In his two series, Desert Cantos and On the Beach, he juxtaposes the two in ways that reveal our vulnerabilities in the face of the sublime natural world.

Katherine Newbegin, an emerging artist based in New York, takes photographs of The Sugar Maples Resort, an abandoned vacation getaway in the Catskill region of Upstate New York that shows vague evidence of the luxury once enjoyed by visitors. The American dream of enjoying the countryside at a peaceful resort seems to have crumbled after years of neglect, as families abandoned their once cherished ideals.

Clare Richardson's work suggests a pre-industrial time of idyllic tranquility. For her Harlemville series, she spent two years photographing a small community in North America that adheres to the philosophical writings of the Austrian Philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, and his Waldorf schooling system. The community, a modern utopia of sorts, encourages freedom of expression, creativity, and imagination. Richardson's images often feature children alone and free in the landscape, reverting to a more primeval state of existence, evoking a nostalgic sense of innocence.

Mark Sanderson, a London-based artist, is an architectural photographer whose recent project, entitled Derelict Utopias, features Italian holiday resorts for children during the Fascist era. Many of the buildings are now derelict but still show signs of the utopian ideology that informed their construction.

Susan Silton, who lives in Los Angeles, recently completed a series entitled Infested, which addresses themes of the American dream and the fear of its ruin. Driving around the city, Silton stops to photograph homes in otherwise pleasant neighborhoods that are tented for termite fumigation.

Alex Slade creates compelling images of vacant lots and raw hillsides around Los Angeles that reveal a sense of barrenness and abandonment. His newest series documents a similar set of locations at the brink of transformation into the newest suburbs, in the sprawl of the Inland Empire just miles from the city center.

Joel Sternfeld, whose practice has involved chronicling the American landscape, recently completed a photographic survey of experimental utopian communities in the United States. In his recent series Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America, he offers personal visions of idealized utopian architecture and societies, and the people who inhabit them. Evidence of the struggles to live in harmony appears in various forms, but a general feeling of benevolence emerges from the images.

Althea Thauberger combines a view of the failed utopian ideal of living communally with nature - seen in the devastation of the planet's forests and alarming evidence of unsustainable industrial practices - with a glimpse of the hopeful outlook of a proud, youthful woman determined to regain a reciprocal relationship with the land.


A small publication for Utopian Mirage: Social Metaphors in Contemporary Photography and Film will include illustrations of a selection of works, as well as a curatorial essay.


Friday, June 8

By Mary-Kay Lombino, The Emily Hargroves Fisher '57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator
Utopian Mirage: Social Metaphors in Contemporary Photography and Film
3:00 p.m.
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie
(845) 437-5632,

Utopian Architecture in Theory and Practice
4:00 p.m.
Taylor Hall, Room 203
Panel participants will include members of the Vassar College faculty, an artist featured in the exhibition, and a guest scholar.

Utopian Mirage: Social Metaphors in Contemporary Photography and Film
5:30 p.m.
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie
(845) 437-5632,
Hosted by the Friends of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

Saturday, June 9

By Mary-Kay Lombino, The Emily Hargroves Fisher '57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator
Utopian Mirage: Social Metaphors in Contemporary Photography and Film
2:00 p.m.
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie
(845) 437-5632,

3:00 p.m.
Sculpture garden (rain or shine)
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
Hosted by the Friends of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center


In addition to an active photography exhibition program, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center currently owns close to 3,000 photographs ranging from nineteenth-century works to images by photo icons such as Walker Evans,Alfred Stieglitz, Weegee, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Berenice Abbott, to the most cutting edge contemporary work being made today, including work by Cindy Sherman, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Vik Muniz, and Sherrie Levine among many others.


The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building's primary donor, opened in 1993. The Lehman Loeb Art Center's collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 16,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college's inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American twentieth century painters. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar's extensive collections.

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Friday, April 6, 2007


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