{ Melwood Photography Gallery's Suburban Dreams }
Leslie Hoffman
photo courtesy Pittsburgh Filmmakers

The first suburbs began after World War II outside New York City with a small pre-fab housing plan called Levittown. Its rows of boxy, analogous houses were then a phenomenon, but in the past fifty years, the suburb has become a stereotype, an American fixture. Today, suburbs are a haven for the wealthy and comfortable middle class, and though the subdivisions of the suburbs still maintain some uniformity, they have grown beyond simple caricatures of homes to large, safe, elaborate and carefully groomed communities.
   It's here, in the immaculate houses and picturesque subdivisions of suburbia, that Beth Yarnelle Edwards chooses to photograph her subjects in her new exhibition, Suburban Dreams, which depicts real people in their real homes.
   Like the stereotypical oversized homes, SUVs, and strip malls of the suburbs, Edwards' tableaux scream with excess: The photographs pinpoint the quality of suburban living with movie still elegance and lush colors, exposing the well-fed, well-clothed, and well-educated lives of her subjects. In "Backyard Play", the rich, primary colors of a plastic basketball hoop and log cabin complement the stylish ensembles of the slightly bored, blond children left alone in their fenced-in backyard.
   It's important to note that it is indeed a Fisher-Price basketball hoop and a Fisher-Price log cabin inside the fence and that these children wear GapKids designer diversion wear—product placement maintains a stealthy presence in nearly every photograph. In "Weekday Dinner", we watch a half-Japanese family dine on spaghetti and meatballs; a container of Kraft Parmesan cheese and a near-empty bottle of Wishbone Italian salad dressing sit on the table. The labels are not clearly visible, but it's clear what brands the families have chosen as material backdrops to their lives. You are left with one question—are these recognizable products a comment on the viewer or the subject?suburban dreams
   Despite the general health and wealth of the subjects, a pervading feeling of isolation floats about the artwork: Even when a family sits down to dinner, there's a teenage daughter on the cordless in the corner, and when a family watches a video together in their elaborate home theater ("Home Video"), they sit in separate La-Z-Boys, facing the flat-screen television, not each other. A sense of darkness creeps at the corners of the photographs, too—literally as well as figuratively. Edwards may capture the bright, happy colors of the American Dream, but at the edges, shadows frame the moment. The staged feeling of the photographs is strange as well; most of the photos have a slightly odd quality, but some of them are just bizarre. "The Toxic Calamity" is a portrait of a woman wearing a surgical facemask sitting in a living room draped with plastic. A shop-vac sits in the foreground, and a pair of legs juts into the photograph from the side.
   That Edwards' photographs comment on the underlying darkness, isolation, and peculiarity of suburbia is actually rather boring. Such movies as Pleasantville and The Virgin Suicides and such directors as David Lynch have played to death the idea that life in the suburbs is not exactly placid and fulfilling. The problem here is that artists want suburbia's dark side to seem novel and new but, in reality, it's much easier to accept the fact that life is not always as it seems—no matter where you're looking.
   All this aside, Edwards' photographs remain fascinating and somehow familiar. Still images of people in their own homes hold perhaps a certain allure of voyeurism, but throughout Suburban Dreams, it's hard to shake the feeling that we're only looking at ourselves.

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