Presented in two parts, Brick & Mortar / Seven Trees explores two major themes of Longstreth’s work. His architectural scenes for Brick & Mortar depict the ubiquitous commercial hubs that proliferated the United States in the 1990s. Today, these familiar beige structures still stand in the era of online retail, but for how long? In Seven Trees, Longstreth depicts trees and landscapes distinct to Southern California, all illuminated through the region’s characteristic smoggy atmosphere. Both themes, taken together, demonstrate Longstreth’s interest in the broad cultural and economic forces shaping our world.
Brick & Mortar is primarily focused on the ruinous monuments of the recent past – dying or dead retail giants like Circuit City and Toys R Us. Longstreth started photographing these chains in the early 2000’s, before the 2008 recession, when their proliferation seemed unstoppable. Online retail wasn’t as entrenched then, and today, in an odd irony, these corporate stores have acquired a charming, if grotesque nostalgia, like naive ‘main streets’ of their era. Nowadays, a physical store is an extension of a successful online brand – a virtual lifestyle made material – and the surviving ‘brick and mortar’ establishments wane in the shadow of online behemoths like Amazon. The ambitious scale of Longstreth’s latest body of work adds to the feeling that we are observing latent giants: fast food restaurants and big box stores sprawled and spent like wearied volcanoes that detonated too far too quickly.
In the Brick & Mortar series, Longstreth marries a stark, graphic realism with a landscape painter’s sensitivity to light and atmosphere. Despite the bleak subject matter, he extracts a bit of humor and levity out of these scenes. In Homestead Avenue, as we face the sun-bleached parking lot and blackened windows of an abandoned Wal-Mart, we are greeted in the foreground by a median full of cheery yellow flowers. In the nearly monochromatic Peach Tree Drive, rainbow colored tile-work gives us a vibrant respite from the grime and faded paint of a shuttered Toys R Us. In Los Coyotes Way, a bizarre amalgamation of Southwest and Classical architecture gleams under a radiant blue sky. The facade of an imposing Office Max is viewed from a low angle like a Roman aqueduct under raking light. Such a grandiose depiction of banality is not without smiling irony. Longstreth straddles a line between humor, beauty and a frank appraisal of what we’ve built.
If Brick & Mortar explores a landscape defined by a cookie-cutter corporate version of “Anywhere USA”, then Seven Trees goes the opposite direction: exploring the specific, local ecosystem in Southern California. One day on a hike above Glendale, Longstreth decided to depict several of the tree species characteristic to the region and the city of Los Angeles: Canary Island Pine, Eucalyptus, Fan Palm and Live Oak. Presented essentially as ‘tree portraits’, the individualized trees become a stand in for the human perspective, gazing out at an arid and smoggy horizon. A weary, late-summer sense of heat pervades. The artist’s distinct style is epitomized by the glowing, gradating skies where rich blues seamlessly fade into filthy browns and ashen greys. Longstreth’s past landscape work occasionally featured towering plumes of wildfire smoke or other man-made intrusions like parking lots and tennis courts. For Seven Trees, he pares the compositions down to trees, hills and sky. Yet these works are not sentimental or idyllic depictions of nature; a troubling tone permeates the smoggy air. Even the welcome respite from the relentless sun takes the form of a looming, foreboding shadow in In Glendale (Live Oak). As the artist was finishing up the series, Longstreth learned of a synchronous, if unsettling statistic: each human on the planet requires seven trees to sustain their oxygen intake – for every year that they breathe.