Garden Rant
Gardening While Intoxicated
Buffalo Spree


A year ago, Licata became the fourth member of a group of garden bloggers with an attitude. Garden Rant one of my favorites: A blend of gossip, news, crusade and, yes, raw rant, it blows the cobwebs out of gardening's mustier corners.

–Adrian Higgins,
Washington Post

... co-curators Elizabeth Licata and Amy Cappellazzo have magnificently transcended the limitations of what is, at bottom, a show of books. ...Preciousness—the bane of such exhibitions—is nowhere in evidence.

–Richard Huntington,
Buffalo News

"Garden Walk Buffalo: A Celebration of Urban Gardens," is a tour guide into dozens of gardens during the annual event held the last full weekend in July. It's knowingly written by Buffalo Spree editor Elizabeth Licata, and packed with gorgeous photographs...

–Mark Sommer,
Buffalo News

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Art Writer

"Who the Hell Would Live There?"

That's what a newly returned World War II veteran asked as he beheld the beginnings of Levittown from a Long Island Railroad car in 1947. A few years later, that vet, Herb Kalisman, was one of the first settlers to live in William Levitt's visionary "planned" community of mass-produced homes.

Star Trek aside, America's final frontier is the vast, bland territory of contemporary suburbia. That's where developers boldly go, as cities are abandoned by the middle classes, gradually emptying out in a depressingly familiar outward spiral. Norman Rockwell's quaint ideal of the Middle American small town has become a series of circular streets with confusingly similar names, placed just close enough to strip malls and major transit, and just far away enough from the urban centers that spawned them.

At first, Joshua Marks' sculptural critique of the American dream would seem to be as brusquely dismissive as Herb Kalisman's. But it quickly becomes apparent that Marks, like Kalisman--like many of us--has been at least partially seduced by the bright and shiny comfort of suburbia. Marks' little ranches and cape cods, surrounded by flamingos, gnomes, flags, and neatly pruned shrubs, are endearingly compact. For the same reasons that we construct model railroads, collect miniatures, and create biospheres, we are drawn to the suburbs as little worlds that at least convey the illusion of being subject to our control. The real wilderness is filled with natural hazards, and the urban jungle is stalked by the dangers of man. In the suburbs, we strive to keep both the evils of nature and mankind at bay--though a severe attack of domestic violence or a random tornado can break through with ruthless efficiency.

In Marks' small universe, the hubris of suburbia remains an underlying murmur. Though it's obvious he's creating little parables of obsessive consumption and cookie-cutter "success," it's also obvious that he's finding a way to turn these rather ugly social compulsions into an amusing game for those who get it.

When Marks painstakingly builds an oversized Lego sculpture, he's saying something about our longing for the prefab, but he's also saying that he loved Legos just as much as we all did, and, in the case of many, still do. There also must be something very satisfying about a Lego to a young sculptor trained under the still-powerful legacy of minimalism. For that matter, the simplified four-room boxes built by William Levitt must also bring some kind of glow to the minimalist heart. Not to mention their mantra-like repetition throughout the development. Marks deliberately exaggerates the simplicity and repetition in works like Field of Dreams (1999), in which a small model house and tree are surrounded by a sea of erect American flags, or Keeping Up with the Jones (2000), in which not only the houses and surrounding forms are repeated with slight variations, but the repetition of the encasing vitrines makes its own formal statement.

Sameness, like many of the concepts Marks deals with, is both comforting and disturbing. Shoppers are relieved to see that supermarkets keep stocks of their favorite products in seemingly limitless abundance, and weary travelers are relieved to see a MacDonalds and a Comfort Inn at every rest stop--familiar conveniences where they know what to expect. But there's something very scary about a world in which your ability to make an unknown, untested, non-mass-produced choice is gone. And we don't need Marks to tell us that we have made very large, very efficient strides towards such a society over the last fifty years.

Thankfully, the artist doesn't dwell on this gloomy prospect. In his latest work, he returns to the discarded games of childhood, but this time he invites the viewer to join him. Believing that "real life" simulation games like Monopoly and Life help indoctrinate us into the mysteries of consumer culture, Marks has prepared an interactive Life-like simulation where we can spin the wheel to see what kind of careers, incomes, possessions, and families we'll wind up with. Rather than being a totally dark, cynical experience--though there's a touch of that--Marks' version of Life, played, one assumes, largely by grownups, throws the multiplicity and incredibly varied directions our actual lives have taken into stunning relief. It's actually rather cathartic to reflect on the series of mistakes, accidents, lucky chances, and stubborn impulses that make up a life's direction, particularly when confronted with Marks' hilariously lockstep model.

Marks' critique of consumer culture takes place on various levels--the most interesting being where Life--and Levittown--become art. He endows kitsch with elegance: a plastic house encased in shiny silver, a gilded flamingo next to an impeccably constructed cherry case, hopscotch markers made of maple, walnut, brass, and velvet. Marks stills the ever-mutating impermanence of disposable consumption, freezing and enhancing its elusive beauty. Through inserting the stern aesthetics of craftsmanship into entities where craft is usually considered irrelevant and unnecessary, Marks asks us to consider the potential of all objects, no matter how seemingly abject, for transcendence and transformation.

And transformation is what eventually happened in Levittown. Over the years, the little houses and the landscape that surrounds them have been radically altered--either by their owners or simply by time. The homogeneous community planned by William Levitt has become more diverse, including every-increasing numbers of Hispanic and Asian families. Second floors, dormers, breezeways, and garages have been added to many of the houses, so many that it's difficult to find the outlines of the original Levittown ranch. The houses, put on the market in the late 1940's for $7,990, now sell for $150,000-$200,000.

The desire to defeat conformity exists paradoxically at the same level as our desire to have what everybody else has. What results is a cycle where new paradigms of consumer fulfillment replace or transform the old ones, and the old paradigms that have survived without replacement or transformation become "historical" and worthy of preservation. In the process, Joshua Marks' sculptures, now so redolent of the familiar, could become as mysterious and inexplicable as anything scratched on the caves of Lascaux. Or they could serve as useful and informative clues for understanding cultural evolution.

Levittown history was researched at Newsday, Inc.'s site, Long Island: Our Story ( The individual stories were published in New York Newsday from 1997 to 1998.

Big Orbit, May, 2000

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