There's something undeniably, seductively American about the concept of the road trip. The phrase necessarily conjures images of vast expanses of land, endless open roads, lonely pit-stop diners, and garish neon motel signs forever winking VACANT into the night—images all uniquely American. It's no wonder; qualities inherited from our pioneering predecessors—a (sub)conscious desire to embrace uncertainty, pursue possibility, seek the unknown, and, of course, to be free—find perfect expression in the art of the road trip.
All the expected images were there: the empty road stretching to the horizon in Dorothea Lange's The Road West, New Mexico, large format photographs of a desert gas station and roadside motel with their 50's Americana aesthetic, blurred landscape photos taken from a speeding train or car by Catherine Opie and others.
Less expected was the cultural mash-up of Indigo Som's Chinese Restaurant Project. Woo's Pagoda, Eau Claire, Wisconsin shows a squat pink building in an empty dirt lot, an American flag painted across one wall and a pagoda stretching over the roof. The two iconic cultural images sit in juxtaposition—not quite separate, not quite a whole—hinting at a tangential Chinese-American experience and identity. The title of the photograph itself surprises with its cultural multiplicity, Chinese and French names appearing unexpectedly in small town America.
Best of all were the maps. I can look at a map for hours—the concentrated information, the detail, and the unique point of view invite close and careful inspection. I found myself captivated by the maps on show, particularly Nina Katchadourian's Map Dissection I, in which major routes and highways have been excised from their surroundings and mounted on a pane of plexiglass. Blue and red threads branch out like veins across the glass, conjuring the human circulatory system. What's striking is that the physical outline of the country remains, for the most part, intact, as many roads follow coastlines and borders. America truly lives through, and is defined by, its roads.
(*Images, from top to bottom: Amy Stein, Outside Lexington Kentucky, from the series Stranded, 2006, digital print, 24 x 30", courtesy of the Artist. Lee Friedlander, South Dakota, 1969, gelatin silver print, 8 1/2 x 13" image size, 11 x 14" sheet, courtesy of the Fraenkel Gallery and the estate of the Artist, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco. Margarita Cabrera, Vocho (yellow), 2004, vinyl, thread and car parts, 5 x 6 x 13', courtesy of Sara Meltzer Gallery, New York.)