Road Trip,
San Jose Museum of Art
By Julia Bradshaw

Fifty years after the publication of Robert Frank’s The Americans – the seminal book of photographs of the American road trip – curator Kristen Evangelista has assembled a most remarkable collection of artworks about this quintessential American experience at the San Jose Museum of Art.

Road Trip, which is on view at the museum until Sunday, January 25, 2009, is a grouping of photographs, paintings, installations, videos, mixed-media pieces and sculptures by a number of different artists who use the American road trip and it’s geography as the motivation for their artwork in some form.

Evangelista includes a photograph by Robert Frank at the beginning of the exhibition – a quiet and lesser known photograph of Butte, Montana taken in 1956 – and this is the touchstone for the exhibition’s meandering observations of the American view of travel and tourism. Fifty years ago, Robert Frank’s book The Americans broke away from the notion that photography had to show America’s best side. In his selection of photographs, Frank was unafraid to expose America’s overt racism as well as the dull stare of the elevator girl. Frank advocated the concept of travel as an adventure into the unknown, where you opened yourself up to new experiences and allowed places and people to wreak their effect on you.

Likewise, Road Trip at the San Jose Museum of Art shows travel as it really is. Artworks express the boring and the frustrating aspects of travel alongside the political, the comical and the perilous.

Jeff Brouws
Gas Station, Groom, Texas, 2008
Archival pigment print
18 x 18 in. image on 20 x 24 in. paper
Courtesy of Jeff Brouws and Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco

Photography is particularly well-represented in the exhibition both in a documentary form as well as in more conceptual pieces. Jeff Brouws photographed a motel and a gas station at night to evoke the spirit of a 1950’s road trip – implying a time when the lights were brighter and the sky more vibrant. Brouws – who visited SJSU as part of their public art lecture series a few years ago – is an artist inspired by Ed Ruscha’s photographic books and Farm Service Administration photographer Walker Evans’ pictures of the everyday and the straightforward. It is fitting then, that Ed Ruscha’s book 26 Gasoline Stations is also exhibited in the exhibition. This is a book where the title of the book describes the content precisely. Viewers wishing to see more than the single image on display are encouraged to see the book in its entirety in the San Jose State University Library Special Collection.

A photograph by Walker Evans of Joe‚Äôs Auto Graveyard ‚Äì a pile of discarded 1930‚Äôs style Ford vehicles ‚Äì is echoed later in the exhibition by Joseph Wilhelm‚Äôs image of a burnt-out R.V. taken in 2005. This R.V. is a mere representation consisting of its metal skeleton, a perfect negative-space rendition of a three-dimensional object. Wilhelm is a proponent of the photographic tradition of searching for the unusual among the everyday. His image of five crosses clothed in t-shirts evokes the young lives that must surely have been lost. A photographer who uses the road trip as a form of photographic excursion, Wilhelm describes his photographic process as follows: ‚ÄúRule number one for me, avoid the Interstates with a passion. If I can’t stop and do a three-point turn in the middle of the road then the camera might as well be broken.‚Äù

“Burnt Motorhome, Southeast of Susanville off Highway 395, CA, 2005″
by Joseph Wilhelm, Courtesy of the artist

In her Stranded series, Amy Stein photographed marooned motorists and their passengers as they linger beside their vehicles awaiting help. She photographed a girl dressed entirely in pink with her arms pulled inside her t-shirt for warmth: an indication of someone who is inadequately dressed for the interruption in travel plans. As an avid reader, I responded to the hard-stare of the young boy who stands reading a comic book on a roadside verge. This is a boy who looks seriously inconvenienced by the disruption to his mode of transport and who is beyond boredom at this point. This fine series of photographs manage to capture some of the bewilderment of people whose travel plans are suddenly rendered uncertain.

Amy Stein
Outside Lexington, Kentucky from the series “Stranded,” 2006
Digital print
24 x 30 inches
Courtesy of the artist

Artists who consider maps and mapping, GPS coordinates and directions are also part of the exhibition. Stanford born Nina Katchadourian creates most impressive dissections of maps. In Map Dissection I, she has taken a AAA map and removed all details except the major highways. This delicate web of roadways is then sandwiched between two pieces of glass. In Coastal Merger, she once again takes a AAA map but this time she merged the West and East coastal regions of the United States to create an elongated peninsula. The implication is that a mere 3 hour road trip will take you from San Diego to Charleston – a delightful thought, as well as a political statement about the relevance of the middle States, perhaps.

Lordy Rodriguez has also re-imagined the map of the United States. In his painting America, 2008, he has recreated the political map of the United States. It appears familiar because of its shape and the reference to the arbitrary division of the land into States. However, in re-imagining the map, he has created new States identified as ‘Disney’ and ‘Internet’ and he has ensured that Massachusetts is now land-locked. This is a fun map to traverse. Political questions also arise. For example, what would the politics of Rhode Island be if it was adjacent to Mexico as Rodriguez has imagined?

Also drawing notice through a sly political wit, Margarita Cabrera’s soft-sculpture of a Volkswagen Beetle, Vocho, appears cartoon-like with its drooping sides and dripping loose threads. Vocho honors the labor intense factories that are part of the Mexican establishment along its border with the US and the knowledge that in 2003 the last Mexican built Volkswagen Beetle was produced.

Margarita Cabrera
Vocho, 2004
Photo credit: Sue Tallon

Included in the exhibition is Sophie Calle and Gregory Shephard’s 1992 diarist road trip video titled Double Blind. Calle represented France at the Venice Biennale this year, also with a personally probing piece that was deemed incredibly impressive as well as deeply personal. However, “Double Blind” feels long and drifting and requires staying power as it is 75 minutes long. It is recommended that viewers wanting to see this piece should find out the start times before visiting the museum.

Aspects of tourism are also present in the exhibition. San Jose artist collective, C5 Corporation, invites the viewer to consider the data behind a perfect view. They asked creators of geocache (a form of high-tech treasure hunt) to send them the GPS coordinates of any cache placed near a view deemed sublime, thus removing their bias from the collection of perfect view data. Corporation member Jack Toolin then visited these locations as part of an extensive motorbike trip during which he collected the objects in each cache and photographed each perfect view. The Road Trip exhibition includes the cache contents, photographs, satellite imagery and computer graphic renderings from this project.

N 44Àö 21.184 W 068Àö 13.514, 2005
(GPS latitude/longitude coordinates for Acadia National Park, Maine)
from the project Perfect View, courtesy of the artist

Also attracted to officially designated viewpoints, Roger Minick’s images of sightseers from the 1980’s are interesting for their curiosity value as they offer a reminder of a time when tourists were fonder of the excessive suntan. Minick’s portraits at Sunset Point and at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah have thus turned the camera on the vibrancy of the sightseer instead of the view.

Travel can also be perilous. Sasha Petrenko creates wood and paint constructions of miniature Winnebago’s. These tiny scenes suggest a form of touristic travel that can be incredibly frightening – any venture into the unknown leaves us open to floods, snowbound vehicles and accidents. Despite an R.V. being a home-away-from-home, where the travellers are encased in metal and plastic, equipped with kitchens and satellite dishes and divorced from nature, Petrenko’s R.V.’s – and by extrapolation their owners – seem to be in jeopardy.

Artworks by Catherine Opie, Tracey Snelling, Lee Friedlander and Dorothea Lange among others round out this exhibition which is smart and witty and well worth a road trip to see.

Comments are closed.