Brian Tolle on Art in America


REVIEWS APR. 07, 2009
by Nancy Princenthal

On the one hand, Brian Tolle’s small-scale painted silicone reproductions of the mass-produced houses of Levittown are ghastly specters. Detailed and highly evocative flayed skins (not quite Michelangelo’s self-portrait in the Sistine Chapel Last Judgment, but that’s the idea), they are draped over haunting, period-appropriate supports. On the other, they are big, goofy busted toys—rubber balls with the air let out. Or, each is an unstable mix of the two, a drama deflated, the loss in grandeur a gain for situation comedy.

Tolle made all 14 works in this show (all 2009) from the same mold, a model, roughly 4 feet on a side, of a single-story, clapboard house of the kind favored for the legendary postwar experiment in wholesale suburban housing. The siding in each is given a distinct color; window trim and shutters are painted in a more limited palette. The roofs are always gray, the little chimneys always brick red and generally slumped in comic resignation. And each house participates in an arch, middle-class-American tableau.

Father Knows Best involves a lazy yellow structure slouched in a cordovan leather armchair, which sits on a round braided rug; the whole is raised on a little platform that seems ready to turn, like a World’s Fair exhibit of a home of the future. As a wifely counterpart, there is a prim white house hung over an ironing board that folds out from a wall-mounted wooden cabinet (I Stand Here Ironing). But true to the ethos of its subject, Tolle’s “Levittown” is mostly about the kids. Cheaper by the Dozen shields a coven of stout-legged, life-size baby dolls who huddle under the too-snug roof of a tight little turquoise house; the baby-blue residence that hangs upside-down from a basketball hoop’s rim in Nothing but Net is a slam-dunk image of doing the right thing (the ball goes in) but not quite making the team (it’s stuck at home, no points scored).

As always in Tolle’s work, attention to detail is minute and rewarding. The single outstretched doll’s hand visible through a translucent window in Cheaper by the Dozen is a little scary and genuinely poignant, ditto the luridly spotted forelegs of the worn hobby horse that protrude from Outgrown, a jumble of precariously balanced rusty toys mostly covered by a pink home. Indeed the seriocomic tension of a house that is tidy on the outside but dangerously crammed within is a presiding metaphor. (Unfortunately it seems to have been used as an installation strategy too, resulting in an overcrowded gallery.)

As he has demonstrated in explorations of colonial America (“Overmounted Interior,” 1996) and 19th-century Ireland (the Irish Hunger Memorial, 2002), Tolle is a keen observer of domestic life as expressed in—and shaped by—its material circumstances. His “Levittown” is similarly faithful to the stylistic and experiential coordinates of its subject: simple structures, broad strokes, barely concealed mayhem.    

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