The myth of modernism was that we would all live in a world of surfaces and spaces emptied by technology. In the utopia that would rise when all that was solid had melted into air, as Marx had predicted, pure prisms would disport themselves in light. The architecture and art of the modern masters, whether Mondrian or Mies van der Rohe, were only place holders for the realization of this world of perfect stasis. What we built was a flawed version of perfection. The office buildings, homes, hospitals, hotels and schools that sported the right angles and synthetic surfaces proper to modernism were empty of human life and history, but did not bring an end to either. They instead became the always already slightly soiled emblems of a newness that was dated as soon as the buildings were constructed or the ad for better living by smoking a particular kind of cigarette was published.
It is this hollow memory of the future Damien Smith documents. What appears in most of his images is the world of second-, third- and nth-rate versions of the monuments of modernism. He documents the schools, hospitals, and other public institutions with fake wood, glass and metal surfaces, their “super graphics” and evenly lit rooms that were either dedicated to very specific functions or amorphously “multi-functional.” These spaces are not neutral in themselves now, even if the once pretended to be so. They remind us of a period when the state and its institutions sought to build a better world in the artefacts and places of daily life. They also bring back to us the reality of that dream, which was one in which the meanness of execution – the reality of the peeling linoleum or the anemic glow of fluorescent lights-belied the grandeur of that vision. Smith manages to convey this sense because of the process of removal and craft he applies to the subject. Working form period photographs of these anonymous buildings, he finds the particular angles that make the essential emptiness of these spaces, but also their gleaming promise and depressing reality, come through in the images themselves. He then draws them with great care, converting the pixellation of the photograph into the smooth and even tones of graphite. The images take on the quality of precious views or perspectives of the sort a proud home owner might have commissioned in the seventeenth century. More than anything else, the images present themselves with the even tones and sense of disassociation of images we remember. They are snapshots transformed into high art, with all the burnish and craft we expect from this realm of fetishes. But these are fixed fragments of our memories, our dreams, our nightmares or visions of another place that is yet also somehow our own. Smith literally draws out the oneiric quality of modernism from its relics.
After a period of trying to escape his haunted world by drawing contemporary spaces, Smith has now moved on to Los Angeles. This is the very site of the Hollywood “dream factory,” but also happens to be the place where the modernist dream has been most fully realized—and where its failures are most clearly on display. We all think we know the landscape if Southern California because we have seen in the movies or television, as well as in the popular culture derivatives of “the industry.” That sense of an artificial and universal, if not to say generic, environment we see on our screens no longer is tied to a particular place. It does have a quality: it presents us either with the dream of a world we could inhabit or the nightmare of that same vision. What is both utopian and dystopian at the same time is embedded in the very constitution of California as a place. The state as an image is a collage of themed environments, from the Spanish Colonial suburbs to the Surfotopia of Muscle Beach.
Central to L.A.’s mytho-poesis is the machine in the garden: the engine of artificial lives sited in the middle of an Edenic landscape. It is the technology that lets us inhabit this artificial landscape that anchors its dreams. This is true both for the generic tract home that has been the site of so many sitcoms and epics, but also for the experiments of Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and the architects who produced the Case Study houses. The car, the engine of so much of the logic of Southern California’s landscape, is in some ways no more than the compaction of this very image. It is to these images of modernity stranded in an abstracted landscape to which Damien Smith turned when he made this series of drawings for and of Los Angeles. Without ever visiting the place, he worked with its imagery. With a pseudo-technological precision, he tried to unearth not the real place, but the reality of its constitution as something produced by a dream factory. In this case, he started not just from documentary or architectural photography, but also from movie stills, paintings and newspaper images. In some cases, one wonders whether he did not dream these images before he “documented” them in his drawings. In Smith’s version of L.A., the sun is always setting over the dream house. Cacti and palm trees stand watch over intersections between glass and steel. There are no figures, and all objects are generic. Nothing leads anywhere else, as the plane flattens and closes at the end of every perspective. The patio is a white plane, the wall pure black. In this scene of absolutes, nothing moves and nothing could ever change. All the action has already taken place or will someday happen: has Hockney’s boyfriend not yet splashed the pool or has the water already subsided? Is the murder about to take place in Nicole Simpson’s condo, or have the stains been wiped out a long time ago?
What is left is only emptiness. At the intersection of sunshine and noir there is nothing but the gradations of gray that non longer even tease out dreams, but only cover up absence. There is no color, no life, not even a sense of failed dreams. Space, that which we can never see, but which places us, is defined by lines and planes, but not (yet?) filled. Material disappears into sameness. There is no wind, and such light as there is either fills every pore of the image or is dying. There is only a sense of what is not. The dream has emptied out to leave us nothing but drawings hovering at the edge of disappearance. With a tenacious tenuousness, Smith draws out only this: nothing.