Lisa Sanditz, Subtropolis, 2006
Lisa Sanditz casts a simultaneously critical and celebratory eye over the vast American landscape, capturing its often-overlooked wonders and peculiarities in exuberant paintings that are as fantastical as the places and structures she depicts. Focusing on the “flyover zone,” a term given to the expansive region of the country that lies between the major metropolitan hubs of the East and West Coasts, Sanditz strives to generate attention for places that are underappreciated, underexplored, and which, together, constitute the quintessential, mid-American experience. Although now living in New York, Sanditz is a native of Saint Louis, Missouri—located in the center of the “flyover zone”—and is well acquainted with the heartland’s secret eccentricities, as well as the rampant development and commercialization that are quickly transforming the country into a labyrinthine network of homogeneity built on entertainment and consumerism. In her paintings, modern human intervention leaves its mark on the natural world, sometimes for the better, most frequently for the worse, but often somewhere in between. This buzzing equivocality, the intermediate place—just like the flyover zone itself—best summarizes Sanditz’s attitude and approach, which is a wrestling match between abstraction and representation, emotional expression and truthful reportage.
Although the sites Sanditz portrays often seem improbable and in some cases downright fantastical, they are in fact existing places, most of which the artist has visited and observed firsthand (she takes photographs and makes sketches, and supplements these images with information gathered from the Internet, books, magazines, and other sources). Sanditz infuses her paintings with a quirkiness, humanity, and emotional resonance by applying a host of painterly effects, decorative embellishments, scale shifts, and exaggerated color schemes. While truth is often stranger than fiction, in Sanditz’s hands fiction underscores truth’s absurdity and peculiarity.
Among the most intriguing sites Sanditz explores in Flyover is SubTropolis, Kansas City’s limestone mine-cum-subterranean industrial park. The world’s largest underground business complex, SubTropolis encompasses nearly five million square feet of leasable space; houses more than fifty local, national, and international companies; and will soon become the first non-border foreign customs center in the United States. Ironically, with an area larger than downtown Kansas City, few residents know of SubTropolis’s existence, much less its potential to affect international trade.1 Sanditz’s painting of the man-made cave is a study in contrasts: the limestone pillars and ceiling are gesturally rendered in broad striations of rich, deep color that suggest the rugged, irregular texture of the stone itself, while the warehouse buildings—diminutively scaled in comparison to their natural surroundings—are tightly painted, arranged in a geometric order, and bathed in the greenish-glow of artificial light. Industry appears slightly toxic, but nature is rich, earthy, and seemingly ready to subsume its industrial parasite. In Sanditz’s view, the 270 million-year-old limestone deposit, while bearing the scars of decades of human-inflicted excavation, remains the true dominant force, and will surely outlast the totems of industry within its walls.
Sanditz explores another subterranean venue in “Cave Painting” Meramec Caverns II (2005), a confectionary-colored rendition of a magnificent natural cave complex in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains that bills itself as a “fun, affordable vacation for all.” Boasting amenities such as a gift shop, restaurant, and snack bar, Meramec also thrills visitors with a spectacular light show and displays that illustrate tales of the cave’s history and local folklore (for example, it was once a hideout for Jesse James and gang). Practically eclipsed by this spectacle is the tourist attraction’s raison d’être: the majestic stalactites, stalagmites, and onyx formations that line the twenty-six miles of underground passages (which are conveniently paved with checkerboard linoleum tile). Natural wonders, as this model suggests, are on the verge of becoming obsolete; in a hyperactive, over-stimulated world, they can no longer compete with man-made wonders in a play for tourists’ attention, desire, and, ultimately, dollars. In her painting, however, Sanditz evens the score. Although she references the added attractions and conveniences (as oddities), the caverns and mineral formations are the stars of her show. Both here and in SubTropolis (2006), Sanditz takes the caverns’ implicit juxtaposition of nature and artifice as a springboard for her painting style, deploying the opposing modes of hard-edged geometry and gestural abstraction.
While Meramec supports several money-making ventures within its walls, above ground along hundreds of miles of interstate flanking the caverns’ highway exit, numerous retail and service vendors also feed off of it. This parasitic cluster of commercialism represents a widespread phenomenon in which an enormous tourist-driven economy surrounds America’s natural wonders, whether large or small, celebrated or obscure. Sanditz comments very directly on this occurrence in Dolly Parton’s Peaks, Knoxville, TN (2003), a humorous but dispiriting look at how protected wilderness areas and national parks—in this case, the Great Smoky Mountains—are increasingly being merchandized by an expanding fortress of “civilization.” Sanditz depicts the rosy mountain-laurel-tipped peaks named in honor of the well-endowed country music singer whose legacy continues to thrive nearby in the ironically wholesome amusement park, Dollywood. Nestled between the magnificent peaks are the requisite entertainment venues and tourist amenities that purportedly augment the area’s attractiveness to visitors.
Sanditz also explores the spectacle of “enhanced” nature in Pussy Den (2006), her interpretation of the multi-million-dollar icy-white environment of artificial icebergs and palm trees that is home to magicians Siegfried and Roy’s famous white tigers at the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Outfitted with swimming pools, fountains, and special prismatic lighting, the open-air tiger den is a dazzling vision of nature that could never exist in reality. (Or could it? The catch phrase “tropical-arctic” is gaining currency in recent discussions about global warming.)2 That Sanditz omits the habitat’s exotic stars—the world-renowned pale-furred, pink-pawed, and blue-eyed tigers—is revealing: their absence hints at their status as an endangered species, one of many falling victim to illegal wildlife trade as the demand for that which is exotic or bizarre runs rampant. The more unusual or scarce something is in nature, the more highly prized and consumed it is; acquisition rather than preservation seems to be the prevailing attitude, whether in ivory, tiger skins, or oil. Furthermore, as a result of such human activities as land development, industrialization, and co-opting of natural resources (all of which are byproducts of the casino and resort industries’ global spread), increasing numbers of endangered species are falling prey to environmental damage and the shrinking or loss of their natural habitats.
Of course, in the fantasy world perpetuated by Las Vegas, one does not need to—and, according to its promoters, should not—wallow in the alarming or disheartening facts of reality. An empire based on illusion, Las Vegas lures rabid and desperate consumers with fantastical promises, but unfortunately for most, the fantasy only lasts as long as one’s financial reserves. However, for individuals with the necessary resources, the possibility of creating an enduring fantasy world exists. Take, for example, The Village of Hiddenbrooke II (2005). Sanditz depicts a master-planned housing development in California’s arid valley which was inspired by the kitschy, mass-produced paintings of Thomas Kinkade, the wildly successful American entrepreneur widely known as the “Painter of Light” (a phrase trademarked by Kinkade). Although the “cottages” have been adorned with bits of Kinkade’s signature stonework and architectural detail, they are situated in the parched and treeless landscape of the California valley, far removed from the lush and bucolic English countryside that Kinkade reveres. Sanditz’s Kinkadian village is a smattering of isolated, cookie-cutter homes, each of which functions as a personal entertainment unit equipped with the requisite portals for escaping to an imaginary world: satellite television and a Thomas Kinkade painting. Once again, disparate modes rub up against one another as Sanditz underscores the dissonance between this bleak reality and the whimsical source of its inspiration by shifting her painting style, palette, and intensity of brushwork.
Sanditz takes a more reverent and celebratory approach to fantasy-inspired architecture in other works, including Oklahoma City on New Year’s Eve (2005) and Chevrolet Cabriolet Chapel (2005), both of which feature dome-shaped structures whose glowing surfaces and reflected light symbolize the innate hope and positive social thought behind their construction. Built in 1958 and inspired by the geodesic dome designs of Buckminster Fuller, the shimmering Gold Dome Bank is a landmark building in Oklahoma City that was the first of its kind in the world and was recently saved from demolition (the property on which it stands was slated for a Walgreens store). The dome huddles in the foreground of a skyline illuminated by office buildings strategically lit from within to form fluorescent high-rise crucifixes. In Chevrolet Cabriolet Chapel, Sanditz creates an ebullient imaginary composite of two buildings designed and built by the late Samuel Mockbee and his students from Auburn University’s Rural Studio. A proponent for the architecture profession’s moral responsibility to better communities and improve the lives of the poor, Mockbee helped create simple but astoundingly inventive structures constructed of inexpensive, mostly salvaged or donated materials. In her celebratory painting, Sanditz couples elements from Mockbee’s Yancey Chapel (made from automobile tires) with those from the magnificent Mason’s Bend Community Center (made from salvaged Chevy windshields) to form a luminous temple to the car which speaks not only of ingenuity and vision, but also to the inherent possibilities of renewal and transformation.3
Sanditz investigates a somewhat less-altruistic kind of architecture in Sock City (2005), the only work in the exhibition not based on an American attraction, although given its subject matter—the global spread of consumerism and its attendant Western influences and values—it might as well be. Sanditz remarks that the work “alludes to a different connotation [of] flyover, one enabled by easy access to travel and trade in an ever-widening global marketplace.”4 In this painting, Sanditz depicts the Chinese coastal city of Datang, which, in a relatively brief period of time, has grown from a tiny rice farming village to one of the world’s chief manufacturing centers for socks, hence its nickname.5 Like surrounding cities that are home to specific garment industries (such as Necktie City and Underwear City), Datang has rapidly evolved in response to a growing worldwide demand for cheap merchandise, but not without a reinvention of its environmental and sociological order. In a composition that loosely alludes to Chinese landscape painting, Sanditz employs a pastiche of painting styles reflective of the buildings’ diversity. Traditional, modern, and postmodern all fight for space and dominance in Sanditz’s painting, as well as in Datang.
As an artist with a heightened social conscience, Sanditz is intent on exposing how landscapes are defined, manipulated, promoted, and too often exploited within the contexts of entertainment and industry. She balances her critical views with an equal dose of exaltation, and symbolically expresses both perspectives by employing the full arsenal of painterly modes and tactics available to her as an artist working in today’s postmodern world, where every choice—from color to paint handling to scale relationships—carries implicit meaning. Although viewers may initially be captivated by Sanditz’s painting ability, once lured into an extended dialogue with her works, it is impossible not to contemplate what the effects of human existence are having on the globe, for better or worse. Sanditz accomplishes a difficult feat—she seduces the aesthetic senses and then activates the mind. What happens next is up to you.
Elizabeth Dunbar, Curator
1. See Kay Barnes, “Kansas City: The Corridor to the Future,” The Next American City, May 2006, 6–7 for additional information about the role of SubTropolis in the North American Mid-Continent Trade Corridor.
2. See Andrew C. Revkin, “Studies Portray Tropical Arctic in Distant Past,” The New York Times, June 1, 2006.
3. For an in-depth explanation of the Rural Studio and its work, see Andrea Oppenheimer Dean and Timothy Hursley, Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).
4. Lisa Sanditz, e-mail exchange with the author, July 27, 2006.
5. Datang produces an astounding nine billion pairs of socks annually, more than one pair for every person on the planet. David Barboza, “In Roaring China, Sweaters Are West of Socks City,” The New York Times, December 24, 2004.
Born in 1973 in Saint Louis, Missouri, Lisa Sanditz currently lives and works in New York City and Tivoli, New York. She received her BFA from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1995, and her MFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, in 2001. This is her first solo museum exhibition. Sanditz is a visiting artist at the Kemper Museum.