Brian Tolle in Whitehot Magazine

By Paul Laster

Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes made of ticky tacky/ Little boxes / Little boxes / Little boxes all the same / There's a green one, and a pink one / And a blue one and a yellow one / And they're all made out of ticky tacky / And they all look just the same – Pete Seeger

Questioning the utopian nature of suburbia, Brian Tolle’s colorful sculptures from his Levittown series reveal that the once idyllic perception of these middleclass communities is fading as fast as the American dream. Tolle, who’s celebrated for his public art installation Irish Hunger Memorial in New York’s Battery Park City, is presenting eleven of these poetic pieces, along with a whimsical model of the façade of a 17th-century Flemish canal house, in his current solo exhibition, BENT, at C24 Gallery in New York.

Primarily considered a suburb on Long Island, where the first community was built, Levittown is actually the name of seven housing developments, which are comprised of assembly-line-style structures that were built in New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico between 1947 and 1970. The communities played a major role in the rise of the middle class, as well as the urban flight that devastated big cities. These housing developments also became the butt of a lot of jokes after Pete Seeger made a hit record out of his rendition of singer-songwriter and political activist Malvina Reynolds’ catchy tune, Little Boxes, back in 1963. 

Taking this classic suburban house as his point of departure, Tolle created a detailed mold from a scaled-down architectural model of one of the “ticky tacky” homes, which he cast “just the same” from silicone rubber in a mix of lively colors and then incorporated into quirky assemblages of various found objects that are symbolic of life in the burbs. 

A green house comically grips a pair of crutches in Out of Service; a pink home ironically tops a rocking horse, a bicycle with training wheels and a rusted wagon in Outgrown; a blue habitat with white trimmed windows and red shutters and door lazily rests atop a wheelchair in Old Glory; a yellow dwelling smartly covers a metal shopping cart filled with nativity figures in Jerusalem Ave; while a flattened fuchsia abode amusing conceals a bean bag chair in Go Ask Alice.   

Paired with these witty works are large and small versions of Eureka, the artist’s 40-foot high sculpture of the façade of a 17th-century canal house. Commissioned by curator Jan Hoet for an exhibition in Ghent in 2000, the three-dimensional work required digital technology to add the reflection and wave movement of the canal to the facsimile of building’s surface. Here we see the structure surrealistically laid out on the floor of the lower gallery, which can be dreamily viewed from above.

Curiously enough, dreamy is an apt metaphor for the whole show, as if you’re recalling the relics of an earlier life or discovering your family history—be it 50 or 350 years in the past. WM

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