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Review: Meg Aubrey limns an uneasy suburbia, of soccer moms and sameness, in “Domiciled”

Meg Aubrey: "Queen of the Cul de Sac" (Photo by Alex Williams)
Meg Aubrey's "Queen of the Cul de Sac"

The new paintings and drawings in Meg Aubrey’s “Domiciled,” at Whitespace through October 13, reflect an increasingly familiar social condition. Whether you talk about “liquid modernity” with sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, or “Noplaceness” as in the book of that title that ArtsATL co-founder Catherine Fox and I co-wrote with Cinqué Hicks, large parts of American life entail being “domiciled,” in the neutral legal term, in communities that could be anywhere, engaging in styles of life that are largely indistinguishable from one city to another, if only because the people who engage in them have often moved very recently from one city to another.

But Aubrey finds it curious that she lives in a place in which so much of daily life is limited to so few activities, and so much of the setting for those activities is designed to melt or meld into the background. So her wall of small figure paintings of metro Atlanta women (“Soccer Moms” and “Tennis Moms,” to use the series’ titles) focuses on the faces and costumes and dispenses with the backgrounds altogether. It comes as a shock when a soccer goal appears at the edge of the small world of “Soccer Mom #5,” instead of the minimally rendered green grass and blue sky of most of the paintings. Close study reveals different sartorial details of these similarly attired suburban individuals, but viewed en masse they seem identically dressed — almost as much as the two “Lawn Workers” in the mix, who wield a lawn mower and a leaf blower. Only the sense of style is superior.

This is a matter of keen observation as much as (if not more than) it is one of social critique. Aubrey captures postures and facial expressions as well as the particulars of clothing and the unnoticeable quality of the setting, and this careful analysis of the excessively ordinary is carried through in the two larger paintings on the opposite wall, “Before the Match” and “Match Time.” The in-between moments of conversation or pre-match concentration that are revealed in them will never be pictured in tennis magazines, unless by some unnoticed accident of photo selection.

Aubrey's "Match Time" . . .

This relentless looking at the overlooked (a phrase borrowed from art historian Norman Bryson) culminates in the immense, shocking close-up portrait “Damaged,” in which the figure faces us with a stitched-up split lip, the sort of injury one might get from a tennis ball in the face, a household accident or domestic violence. It is the first hint that all might not always be well in this world of shopping and sports competitions.

The next hint that life in the ’burbs is less securely routine than it seems is found in the completely vacant new strip mall shown in “Space Available” and the adjacent painting’s “For Sale” signs lining a street where the identical wheeled containers set out for garbage day next to the identical signage indicate that the neighborhood is fully occupied but in rapid transition. What sort of transition is left for us to guess. In good times or bad, nothing stays the same for long except the sameness.

Queen of the Cul de Sac” is the symbolic chef d’oeuvre of the exhibition. Standing in a void defined only by cookie-cutter brick mailboxes on a dead-end street, the woman poses confidently if not arrogantly, and it is up to us to figure out what lies behind this look of at-homeness in a place that shrieks that it is anything but what we used to think of as “place.”

. . . and "Coffee Time"

The shifting identity of “homeness,” like that of “placeness,” may be indicated by the contrasting audience responses to the remainder of the exhibition. According to gallerist Susan Bridges, the provocative painting of a highball-glass-carrying woman checking her mailbox in “Mid Morning” elicited reactions ranging from insult to identification.  “Coffee Time,” on the other hand, seemed to delight the opening-night crowd. Aubrey has drawn small portraits of friends and neighbors on the sleeves of a series of differently sized carry-out coffee cups, and pieces with titles from “Tall Melissa” to “Venti Meg” have frequently been bought by the women portrayed.

It’s the ultimate spin on the differently generic genre that began with Renaissance portrait painting, and it makes for a lighthearted end to a show that has more than a few moments of unease in it.

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