THE WORD "Homeland" these days is capable of suggesting something far more sinister than merely the country of one's origin. At least that's what Paul Brewer, the director of exhibitions at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, hopes. That's why he chose that name as the title of the school's latest exhibition, a keen-eyed and richly suggestive group show now on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art's Hemicycle Gallery.
Several of the six artists Brewer has assembled here -- four photographers, one videographer and one digital animator -- make work that utilizes the notion of surveillance. These images explore (or, more accurately, exploit) the vague feeling many of us now have that something menacing could be lurking behind the quiet facade of middle -- read suburban -- America. It is, on the one hand, a suspicion that we are being watched and, on the other, a realization that we are the ones doing the watching.
Yet, in addition to "Homeland's" allusions to the issue of security/insecurity, the title refers to another, equally strong image. For many of the pieces in "Homeland" powerfully call to mind the idea of an artificial reality. Think of any number of those fill-in-the-blank-lands, the theme parks, utopias and fantasy/nightmare worlds that bear as much relation to where we live as Frontierland does to the Old West. This is a show, Brewer's wordplay hints, that is about a construct, an idea of Home -- as much as it is about the houses, bedrooms, swimming pools and carports that populate the art work.
Note: There are no people here. Oh, there's plenty of evidence of life, in the photographs on the walls, the vehicles parked outside, the TV sets and the occasional set of footprints left on a towel on the floor. Otherwise, "Homeland" is a ghost town.
This sense is sharpest in "Sprawlville or Life at the End of the Highway Ramp," a marvelous digitally animated tour of Anytown, U.S.A. created with 3-D modeling software by Norwegian artist Sven Pahlsson. Depicting a suburb so generic as to be almost spectral, Pahlsson's high-tech cartoon, set at night and apparently "videotaped" from both a slow-moving cop car equipped with one of those high-intensity lights and a police helicopter on a search mission, alternately creeps down the street past one sleeping household after another then zooms in from a great height with a telephoto lens, at times seeming to peer conspiratorially at the cars parked in an otherwise deserted shopping center lot.
Aspects of Pahlsson's multimedia piece -- it has a synthesized musical score as well -- bear a kinship to other works in the show, such as Todd Hido's eerily beautiful photos of houses and apartment buildings. Hido's work, shot at night using only available light, also bears the hallmarks of surveillance. And it is that apprehensive undercurrent that heightens their deadpan formality.
What exhibition artist Susan Black accomplishes with her digital videos is closer still to the effect of "Sprawlville." Yet, unlike Pahlsson's virtual drive-by, Black's "Home" and "Heaven on Earth" were actually shot from a car cruising past block after block of suburban homes.
The difference is that Black's plotless travelogues are played upside down. After the initial visual joke wears off, a sense of profound strangeness kicks in. Then, gradually, the images actually start to look normal again, or as normal as any Maple Avenue would look to a saucer full of E.T.s doing some upside down home shopping. It's a surprisingly simple yet effective distortion that turns something familiar into a scene that we feel we're encountering for the first time.
Photographers Michael Fisher and Kate MacDonnell exhibit work in a single vein here. Shooting the interiors of people's homes -- in some cases those of family members, in others the homes of strangers who responded to ads -- Fisher and MacDonnell find odd, sometimes surreal beauty in the part-organic, part-planned decors of the unrich and unfamous. A child's bedroom discovered by Fisher, sweetly ungainly with it's Pokemon bedclothes and wall dressing and crucifix made of clothespins, betrays an effective mix of ironic detachment and unabashed affection. In some cases, though, as with two of MacDonnell's photographs that highlight the television set as a kind of kitschy altarpiece or shrine, the tone of mockery (even if it's unintentional) feels a bit too obvious.
Jason Falchook turns his gaze on the interstitial spaces of the suburbs: the lawns, pavement, pools and scraps of sky that both connect and separate our castles. By shooting mostly from a very low perspective (call it a worm's-eye view) and with a very shallow depth of field, Falchook makes art that falls more into the realm of expressionism than documentary. His pictures, deliberately smudged with the blur of failing memory, evoke feelings that are both unburdened by the specifics of place, yet impossible to dredge up without it.
Just as it's always the visitor who notices the overflowing cat box before you do, each of the six artists in "Homeland" is able to look at the suburban home with the fresh senses of the outsider. By taking advantage of subtle -- and sometimes not so subtle -- shifts of perspective, lighting, physical orientation, framing and, in one case, foreign nationality, "Homeland" turns the landscape of suburban American on it's head (in one case, quite literally), making those of us who grew up there feel as if we're coming back to a place we never knew . . . yet never knew so well.
HOMELAND -- Through Feb. 10 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202-639-1700. www.corcoran.org. Open 10 to 5 daily except Tuesdays; Thursdays to 9. Admission $5; $3 for seniors and guests of members; $1 for students; $8 for family groups. Free admission on Mondays and Thursdays after 5.
Susan Black's "Home," featuring inverted images on digital video, makes the normal seem fresh, and then, familiar once again.