“sad poems.” Exhibit Reflects the Reality of the American Dream

“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, pictured above, depicts the hardships of immigrants in the West during the 1930s.

A boy standing against a white background stares out from a large photograph on the main wall of the Addison Gallery of American Art Museum Learning Center. The photograph is mostly black and white with a slight army-green tint. Wearing a dark hoodie that casts a shadow on his face, he looks to the side with a solemn expression.

“Hoodie Boy,” photographed by Lonnie Graham, is one of the 23 pieces in “sad poems.,” an exhibit curated by Brandon Qi ’18 and Campbell Munn ’19. In the fall, Munn and Qi took Art 400, Visual Culture: Discovering the Addison Collection taught by Stephanie Sparling Williams, Visiting Scholar in Art History and Assistant Curator at the Addison.

“What Brandon and I wanted to explore in our exhibition is the relationship between poetry and photography as well as the ubiquity of sadness and, in keeping with the Addison’s tradition of speaking directly to American art, how the American Dream is often a hollow idea,” said Munn.

“It’s really profound. I think that they really succeeded in capturing the desolation of these transient moments and bind them together in a way that amplifies each one’s respective shortcomings when compared to the standard of the American Dream,” said Sarah Chen ’21, who viewed the exhibit.

Munn and Qi found inspiration after exploring the book “The Americans,” a collection of photographs by Robert Frank. According to Munn, the title of the exhibit alludes to the foreword of the work, in which Jack Kerouac writes that Frank “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film.”

“Hoodie Boy” by Lonnie Graham, pictured above, captures the often misleading allure of the American Dream.

“That is something that Brandon and I encountered really early in our exhibition research when we were planning what we were going to be talking about and what we wanted to explore. From that, the entire exhibition kind of flowed in rediscovering pieces we wanted to work with and the broader theme of what we wanted to refer to,” said Munn.

“Coltrane and Elvin,” a piece by Roy DeCarava, features a close up of John Coltrane playing the saxophone while a blurred Elvin Jones is hunched over drums in the background. The photo is mostly tinted a dark purple and out of focus, save for the light reflecting off of the saxophone.

“I particularly liked the Roy DeCarava images since his photographic philosophy is probably the closest to aestheticism, and in that sense, since it’s more detached from the narrative component from some of the more journalistic or political images of the exhibition, speaks closer to my heart,” wrote Qi in an email to The Phillipian.

Another piece in the exhibit, Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” taken in 1936 in California, shows a mother with short, dark hair breastfeeding a baby on her lap. The mother sits on a cardboard box and furrows her eyebrows as she squints downward, hugging her child close to her. They sit inside a canvas tent held up by several tree branches. The land outside their tent is flat and desolate.

“Through images such as [this], we see something that was supposed to be the American Dream, moving to California, moving out West, but in her hollow expression we see complete defeat, amidst the Great Depression,” said Munn.

A more colorful piece, part of the “Dream House” series by Gregory Crewdson, is set in a living room. A young girl in pajamas sleeps on the green carpet, while pencils and papers lie scattered on the floor in front of her. Behind the girl, a woman wrapped in a blue blanket lies on a beige sofa staring at a television. Outside, a man gazes at the scene through a large glass door.

“The series deals a lot with suburbia and how Gregory Crewdson portrayed and looked through that. And essentially, he’s created these really haunting scenes that should in a lot of people’s opinions be the epitome of what America should be, but the lighting and the actors’ facial expressions look depressed, almost, while sitting in this 5,000-square-foot house on the top of a hill with everything you could ever ask for, but still there’s something missing,” said Munn.

The “sad poems.” exhibit will be on display until March 4, 2018.

Editor’s Note: Campbell Munn is an Associate Video Editor for The Phillipian.