From: Artweek | Date: July/August 2007 | Author: Duford, Daniel
J. Bennett Fitts and Stuart Hawkins at Quality Pictures

America is the empire now. This statement is neither original nor is it controversial. It’s a fact. When such a statement is possible, perhaps it is the first symptom of encroaching decline. If I could say, “America is the empire now,” with such nonchalance, then the empire has come and gone. Quality Pictures, which opened its doors in Portland in December, presents a new show that demonstrates this decline. J. Bennett Fitts’ No Lifeguard on Duty and Stuart Hawkins’ multiple series of photos from Nepal both examine the role of the American at leisure and in travel. Fitts’ large-scale photographs depict the decline of the roadside motel, empty pools that once denoted suburban triumphalism. Hawkins sets off-kilter scenes in Nepal, that Shangri La of ecotourism and upscale spiritual authenticity, casting herself as the ugly American tourist.

No Lifeguard on Duty is a gorgeous and engaging meditation on decline and abandonment. Fitts has traveled all over the United States photographing empty swimming pools in roadside motels. American ascendancy goes hand –in-hand with the rise of the automobile and the interstate highway. So much of our identity and fiction stems from this, the beatniks, the promise of suburbia, expectations of the summer family vacation, fast food and rock’ n’ roll. The 1960’s motel harkens back to a time in which summer was long and the livin’ was easy. Fitts’ photos show those pleasure palaces in ruins. Overgrown and mucky, the pools sit empty of water and promise. The adjoining motels in the photos appear to be symbols of downward mobility instead of a site for the freewheeling fun and carefree youth.

California has often been the end point for the road trip and but is the beginning-Hollywood-of national fantasies which are distributed throughout the world. Fitts’ Salton Sea shows the polluted, over-salinated inland sea encroaching on an abandoned motel swimming pool. The palm trees, once a symbol of endless summer, look sickly and alone. As Woody Guthrie sang in Do-Re-Me, “California is a Garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see, but believe it or not, you wont find it so hot, if you ain’t got that em>Do-Re-Me.”

Fitts engages in a conversation between photography and historical painting. Photos such as Jacksonville shot at sunset have the sumptuousness of a Claude Lorrain or John Constable painting. But their romantic sense of elegy, ruin and regret most vividly recall fellow American Thomas Cole’s cautionary Course of Empire (1836). Here Fitts’ ruins are ruins of the future. Postwar modernism sought to be ahistorical. The future was always just around the corner, always bright. In this sense, Fitts’ photographs have a bite. The images speak to an entire range of economic failures and cultural aspirations. He also shares Ed Ruscha’s and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s formalist rigor in cataloging vernacular structures. The pictures contain such a range of contradiction and beauty that they settle in your mind like an irritant. They are difficult to forget.