From: Art in America | Date: 12/1/2006 | Author: Ruble, Case
Motel swimming pools are an apt subject for a summer exhibition, but those depicted in "No Lifeguard on Duty," J. Bennett Fitts's first New York solo show, are far from light summer fare. This tidy group of large-scale C-prints is the result of the artist's search across the U.S. for roadside motels built in the 1960s. In that free-wheeling decade, motel pools epitomized a lifestyle that fit with the times. As Fitts's photographs reveal, however, many of them now sit in states of disrepair.
For example, in Salton Sea (2004-05), an empty, hourglass-shaped pool has been marred by crude graffiti: "Ruth," "I [love] U," "Blaze It!" The chain-link fence surrounding the pool is falling down, the patio pavement is cracked or partially missing and the pool's shallow end is filled with gravel and dirt. In the seashell-shaped pool of North Shore (2004-05), a shallow puddle of putrid brown water remains; in Huntington (2004-05), an unused basketball hoop leans at a precarious angle near an empty aquamarine pool stained by grimy watermarks and ringed by overturned lawn chairs. The only figure appearing in any of these photographs is a woman in Grand Junction (2004-05), the sole image of a maintained pool. She slouches by the handrail in a pose of Hopperesque alienation.
These neglected relics of a bygone era may seem like a depressing subject, but Fitts's deft handling of his medium lends clarity, if not optimism, to the work. Inspired but not constrained by the New Topography photography movement of the 1970s, which documented man's alteration of the natural world, Fitts employs a precision of palette that links the manmade to the landscape. Fences or barbed wire may physically separate the swimming pools from the barren deserts, scrubby lowland or expansive bodies of water behind them, but the pinkish browns and faded turquoises of the natural environments are identical to those of the empty pools themselves, rendering these real-life barriers visually negligible.
Although it is tempting to relate Fitts's work to Bernd and Hilla Becher's surveys of obsolete industrial architecture, the poignant beauty of these photographs ties them more closely to Robert Smithson's 1970 Partially Buried Woodshed, in which the artist heaped dirt on an empty shed near Ohio's Kent State University campus until the shed's roof beam collapsed. Similarly, Fitts's photographs remind us that social structures--ideological or physical, contemporary or historical--are ultimately vulnerable to the forces of entropy and change.