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Timothy Van Laar (USA)

Motel Series: Desert Gem, 4 postcards, 2008

Timothy Van Laar is an American artist who appropriates found photographic, printed materials to examine and critique social relationships and conditions. Much of his recent work uses travel postcards to construct images that consider such things as the unraveling of modernism, the social construction of Nature, and a consumerist sublime. He is particularly interested in the banality of widely distributed images that somehow fail at their announced intentions.

The act of collecting lies at the heart of his art practice. Through collecting, he examines the social use of materials and the way they represent various narratives. “While the point of the souvenir may be remembering, or at least the invention of memory, the point of the collection is forgetting—starting again in such a way that a finite number of elements create, by virtue of their combination, an infinite reverie.” (Susan Stewart, On Longing)

In the Motel Series, Van Laar presents postcards of motels that foreshadow their own demise. The collection of over two hundred postcards from the 1960s and early 70s expresses a cheery optimism (signage, modern architecture), luxury (swimming pools), and freedom (the road). The subject matter originates in a general post-World War II prosperity, fully embracing progress and celebrating freedom and mobility. They epitomize the Modern.

These are images that at first seem oblivious to the darker aspects of contemporary culture. But their utopian dreams are contradicted by the suggestions of decay and doubt that are embodied in their emptiness, distance, and frequent failure to indicate what is important. Their hopes are often countered by their banality and the way most of them fail in their attempt to clearly represent the motel—often the buildings are in the far background, walled off by a highway, or they are strangely cropped, or obstructed by power lines. Frequently they suggest an uneasy relationship with the larger environment.

These postcards are a tangle of ambivalence. The architecture depicted in them, which originates in the early years of the cold war, is ironically destroyed by another product of those times—the interstate highway system that began in the mid-fifties and was planned for national defense. Eventually these motels were no longer on the main road and were replaced at new highway interchanges with the efficient structures of large corporate motel chains. The utopian longings expressed in these buildings, have been replaced by the appetites of global capital. In the postcards, the viewer’s nostalgic longings are thwarted by the ambivalence and banality, the little failures, of the images themselves.


Timothy Van Laar, born in Ann Arbor, Michigan / USA lives and works in Chicago and Champaign, Illinois / USA.


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