artist-in-residence (north studio)
My work is an investigation of the midcentury traces within America’s populated landscape seen in ruins along the nation’s highway corridors. Focusing on the tropes of the motel, the fast food franchise and the automobile that carries us to them, I ask my viewer to look again at the literal and implied signs that surround us. Specifically, I am interested in the mythology of the American hyperreal which semiotician Umberto Eco defines as the confusion of reality with the symbol for reality. Eco writes, “The American imagination demands the real thing, and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake”1. As a culture, Americans have come to define ourselves by what we want to be true rather than reality. We prefer Astroturf to real grass because Astroturf is greener, requires no upkeep and will not die. It is better than the real thing.
The hope of mobility is an American construct and tradition exemplified by the open road. With roots in the 1920s, franchising gained momentum in the midcentury when the relative affordability of automobile made it possible for the middle class to experience leisure travel for the first time. Motel chains were locales of innovation, introducing many to their first color television sets, residential swimming pools, incandescent lighting and shag carpets. Simultaneously, these franchises profited off the idea that “The best surprise is no surprise!” —The Holiday Inn’s slogan for much of the last century. Their consumer demanded the safest and cleanliest experience of the new. I have referenced these themes in my hand screen printed wallpaper, which I made by extracting imagery from 1960’s automobile and camera advertisements and collaging these commercial goods into a pattern of excess.
The now defunct motel and restaurant chain Howard Johnson’s (HoJos) embodies the themes of franchise and leisure. Yet when it was sold to Wyndham Hotel Group in the 1982, much of its extensive archive was lost. In an effort to find pieces of the chain’s history I attended a number of postcard conventions in the spring of 2016 and began collecting. HoJos postcards are, by all accounts, plentiful, and most are valued at about $2, yet they are they are the only know documentation of some of the more than 800 original locations. Where they were once partly propaganda they now reside fully as souvenirs of places that cannot be visited ever again.
The piece Gatekeepers further memorializes these vanishing structures. I built a three dimensional model of the iconic HOJOs gatekeeper building and then flattened it to create a design which I screen printed on paper and hung in a grid on top of a mass produced midcentury floral wallpaper pattern. I’m interested in the opposing optics of the handmade and the machine made as well as the play of scale between the play-sized building and the real- sized wall décor. Placing the piece in the gallery further draws attention to the idea that none of this is the real thing because the real thing no longer exists.
The American populated landscape today is comprised in part of distributed places that like, HoJos, emphasize sameness through design and thus provide the comfort of the familiar. American vernacular architecture has reached its most distilled form in fast food franchise’s bright mansard roofs, mini-cupolas and ample wrap-around parking lots. These architectural elements and the use of materials like brick, clapboard and glass tap into the thirst for the hyperreal. Chain restaurants are “free to act as a barometer of public mood,” so known is it that they are temporary additions to the roadside that may change form or color palette within the decade2. My edition of artist books, American Monument, is comprised in part of mixed media drawings I created of food franchises, some of which are still in existence and others long extinct. I believe that franchises are our most ignored national monuments, landmarks that stand testament to the fickle and changing tastes of the American people.
I meld select period elements with contemporary methods to achieve a choreographed riffing. I see my role as an artist as incorporating a mixture of historian, archivist and researcher. My work represents a collapsing of time through photography, mixed media and painting becoming an examination of recent history made as the result of reading and watching primary sources. It is naturally a second-hand telling as I research a time period before I was born through the lens of today.
Theorist Susan Stewart writes, “The nostalgic is enamored of distance, not of the referent itself. Nostalgia cannot be sustained without loss. For the nostalgic to reach his or her goal of closing the gap between resemblance and identity, lived experience would have to take place, an erasure of the gap between the sign and the signified, an experience which would cancel out the desire that is nostalgia’s reason for existence.”3 Nostalgia, much like hyperreality, is a critical element of our national identity.
I am interested in why certain aspects of the recent past remain and others are lost. In documenting the traces of a once ubiquitous roadside icon like HoJos I am asking, what does the ephemeral nature of landscape say about our culture at large? What will be the HoJos of the future?
1 Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. “Travels in Hyperreality.” San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1983, 8.
2 Langdon, Philip. Orange Roof, Golden Arches. “The Browning of America.” Alfred A. Knopf, Inc: New York, 1986, 133-165.
3 Stewart, Susan. On Longing. “Objects of Desire”. Durham: Duke University Press, 1984, 132-169.
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Suzy Kopf currently lives and works in Baltimore, MD and Brooklyn, NY. She graduated from The New School University with a BFA in Fine Arts from Parsons and a BA in Art History from Eugene Lang College. She is the recipient of several residency fellowships including VCCA, Byrdcliffe, Hambidge, Elsewhere and the Vermont Studio Center. She was the 2012 RAW Brooklyn Visual Artist of the Year and received a Design History Society Travel Grant as well as several graduate research grants. She was the Denbo Fellow at Pyramid Atlantic in March of 2016. She will be the Jordan Faye Contemporary artist-in-residence for the 2016-7 season. She has shown throughout the United States and is in private collections on five continents.
As of June 2016, she is completing her MFA in Studio Art at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She is the co-founder, creative director and curator of the Gowanus Swim Society, a Brooklyn, NY based art collective.