TV Sets and The Suburban Dream illustrates Mark Bennett's cut-to-the-chase approach to American popular culture. His elaborately detailed floor plans of the homes of some of America's best-known families will bring a shock of recognition because they capture and quantify the straight line of television narrative. Who can see the layout of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's home without hearing, "Honey, I'm home"? On the other hand, his collages, collectively entitled The Effects of Fords on Barbara, tell a darkly ironic, multi-chaptered story of the American love affair with the material world. In both cases, the artist acts as supreme editor, distilling our collective memories, hopes, and desires by isolating and highlighting the places we seek to inhabit, the things we strive to own, and the people we most admire.
It is tempting to take Bennett's drawings and collages at face value. It would be a mistake, however, to assume naïveté on his part. While it is true that the artist is a child of the television generation who remains emphatic in his fan's appreciation of his favorite television programs, Bennett is also a sophisticated artist who couches his appropriations of icons of American popular culture in a language that expertly straddles the borders between high and low. His ink-on-vellum architectural drawings and his full-color collages tap into an American collective consciousness that marries our innate desire for comfort, security, and happiness with the manipulative agendas of mass-marketing.
As a child, Bennett was addicted to television, mesmerized by the way the happy, organized lives of the families featured on Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, or The Dick Van Dyke Show accomplished what his own family life could not. "I was try ing tofind a family and to escape from reality," he says. "I watched the programs over and over, obsessively, and I especially loved the reruns because there were no surprises." During long hours of viewing, he familiarized himself with the minutiae of more than forty-five situation comedies, noting the location and appearances of such ephemera as furnishings, appliances, addresses, and telephone numbers. It is this detailing of such particulars as the "wooden hangers" and "lots of new clothes" in Mary Richards' apartment (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) that gives Bennett's cool, diagrammatic architectural renderings the patina of collective memories. While his seemingly straightforward floor plans narrate the details of a fantasy world we hold in common, his collages are hybrid entities that contrast real-life family structure with the idealized and stereotyped lives portrayed on the small screen. These two bodies of work suggest the bipolar opposites of hot and cold that, seen together, comprise the artist's aesthetic vision.
Bennett came to his love of other people's homes naturally. When he was growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of his parents' weekend pastimes was visiting open houses hosted by real estate agents. Bennett remembers accompanying them and formulating new fictional lifestyles for himself and his family as the imaginary inhabitants of these upscale domiciles. Bennett's childhood dream was to develop a veritable "TV Land," an entire suburban enclave composed of homes with designs taken from his favorite TV families. Prospective buyers would choose between specific styles, such as "Cleaver;' or "Partridge Family," instead of "California Ranch" or "Cape Cod Cottage." This adolescent vision is eerily prescient of Celebration, the Disney Corporation's recently inaugurated planned community in Orlando, Florida. Here inhabitants live in a completely new, artificially composed environment with a social structure mirroring a 1950s American town; they choose their house style from selections that include "Classical," "Victorian," or "Colonial Revival." "My TV Land wouldn't work in reality, though," the artist admits. "I don't want my treasured interiors to become common. They are better in my head, as abstractions."
In 1982, while living in New York, Bennett began to dream of California, a locale he imagined to be the perfect setting for an opulent, stress-free lifestyle. Despite having never ventured west of the Mississippi, he nevertheless developed an obsession with Encino, California, because game-show contestants often mentioned it as their hometown. He began to devise his own personal situation-comedy narrative set in Encino, which featured a lead character based on Barbara Billingsky (the actress who played June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver). Through this character, Bennett explored America's love affair with the automobile. "Although I had never been there, Encino seemed like an ideal place to be, the kind of town Barbara would live in, where people shopped for fresh vegetables and drove around all day looking for the perfect sunglasses." He began searching through vintage print advertising in magazines, calendars, and newspapers he unearthed in flea markets, seeking images that he thought best represented the sunny, tropical ambiance he wanted. The Effects of Fords on Barbara #Z5(1985) is a classic example: a prototypical suburban housewife gazes out at us while the controlled chaos of an upper middle-class neighborhood afternoon unfolds behind her. She is surrounded by a cloudless sky, a sun-filled afternoon, and plenty of consumer goods, including a package of Ring Dings. Distancing herself from the baggage of home and family, Barbara declares, "Only the Cars Are Mine," suggesting a glamorous but rootless life, a domestic story that can end at any moment because of the call of the open road.
Making up his own story, and casting the movie, Bennett uses his collages to allude to the mythology of America's recent cultural past, when a home in the suburbs and a new car in the driveway were the ultimate symbols of status. However, in the Barbara series the exterior trappings of societal interaction crash head-on with media images of a perfect society. Bennett's clipped, insinuating narratives place a pin-point focus on the dark undertones of a life dominated by forces that impel people to buy things, whether they need them or not. In the days before product placement was such an all-pervasive aspect of marketing, the relationship between programming and advertising was clear and symbiotic. It was no coincidence, for example, that everyone in Beaver Cleaver's hometown drove Ford automobiles, as Ford was the sponsor of the show. During commercial breaks from The Andy Griffith Show, the sheriff of Mayberry and his deputy Barney Fife could be seen pitching certain brands of cereal, further blurring the lines between fictional reality and consumer fiction. And should sponsorship change in the real world, in the world of television one brand would replace another — Ford for Chevrolet, for example — with seamless, breathtaking efficiency. But behind the unison calmness and clean-cut appeal of television lie the same anxieties we all possess. Bennett expertly manipulates his found materials to shape a window onto private dreams that reveals our shared passions and weaknesses: fear, ambition, illness, pride, selfishness, desire, and ignorance.
"I used to look for pictures that would tell my story," Bennett noted. "Now I make stories from pictures." Bennett's exploration of popular culture finds its roots in 1960s Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Yet Bennett's work emphatically portrays the structure of our lives through theimperfect but still powerful images that flicker freely across the television screen. His search for the definitive ideal of homeand family - whether perceived through the relatively uncomplicated lens of architectural drawings or via the IP-ore complexand layered narrative of the Barbara collages - tells a deeply personal story. Grounded in the artist's memories, Bennett's imagestell a story that is also our story, because, as author George W. S. Trow has noted, "The history of the media...has been ourhistory; the history of our, by now, hopelessly conflicted collective personality."
Terrie Sultan, Curator of Contemporary Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art.
(All quotes by the artist are taken from the interviews conducted by Sultan on October 18, 1996 and March 27, 1997)
Organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art
Top image: Mark Bennett, “Home of Fred and Wilma Flintstone,” 1993-1995, ink and pencil on vellum paper, 24 x 36 inches (60.96 x 91.44 cm), Collection of Dean Valentine, Los Angeles