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10: Contemporary Currents - Suburbia as a Paradoxical Entity: The Social Commentary of Alberto Ortega

Today, we're excited to delve into the world of contemporary artist Alberto Ortega. Celebrated for his engaging and thought-provoking artworks, Ortega has established a unique presence with his innovative methods and deep themes.

Welcome to today's podcast episode, where we explore the fascinating world of artist Alberto Ortega. Born in Sevilla, Spain in 1976, Ortega creates captivating oil paintings based on miniature sets he meticulously constructs as references. These small-scale sets, reminiscent of the 1950s, allow him to control every detail, from the angle and point of view to the lighting and placement of elements, giving his works a strong cinematic quality.


In this episode, we will delve into Ortega's artistic progression, his creations, and the narratives that underpin them. We will examine the unique style that distinguishes his art and the conceptual storytelling embedded in his pieces.



Bio

Alberto Ortega (Sevilla, Spain 1976) creates oil paintings made after miniature sets that he builds as references. The small-scale sets enable him to recreate suburban scenes using details that recall the 1950s. Since he’s able to control the angle and point of view, the lighting, the location of every element, much like a film director would do, his works have a strong cinematic feel.


As an immigrant to the United States, Alberto is intrigued by American suburban life as depicted in film, literature, and visual art. Through these images of American homes, buildings, and neighborhoods, he portrays society and some of its contradictions. These scenes represent hopes and dreams, the threat of their failure, and alienation.


His paintings are filled with subtle hints that suggest the stories behind each house, such as parked cars, porch lights, and windows. Beyond their beauty and intrigue, Ortega’s paintings offer insightful reflections on the society we live in. 


“My landscapes are places where people live and work, although the people themselves aren’t seen. The quality of light becomes the central subject: human presence is suggested by parked cars, the flicker of television sets, or the glow from a bedroom leaking out to the quiet outside world. As an immigrant to the United States, I am intrigued by American suburban life as depicted in film, literature, and visual art. Through the images I create of American homes, buildings, and man-made environments, I seek to portray society and some of its contradictions. These scenes represent hopes and dreams, the threat of their failure, and alienation. I hope that my paintings set a stage that allows a drama to play out within the viewer.”


Unreal World


In his 2023 body of work, the suburban neighbourhoods are painted under night. A perfect block of houses beneath eerie light. The sense of disquiet. Sometimes houses are lit but most of the light in each painting is from a cold street lamp or distant water tower. This treatment of light over a modular suburban landscape subverts the idealization of the perfect American life. It suggests something might not be as picture perfect as it seems.


Process


Ortega paints from his own constructed dioramas. A process of extreme control adds another layer of facade. Suburbia is about presentation, Keeping up with the Joneses - the comparison to one's neighbor as a benchmark for social class or the accumulation of material goods. The swimming pool, the mercedes, material possessions that signify class and social status. The dioramas Ortega builds could represent the mask of perfection people build as their own armor. 


Questions


What are the advantages and disadvantages of presentation, whether it be false presentation, or curated? Can presentation be necessary to navigate societal constructs? How does this translate into being a successful artist? We must accept that the audience may find it hard to separate the art from the artist.


Suburbia. Building the American Dream (CCCB)

Annunciation, 2023


The exhibition "Suburbia. Building the American Dream" at the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona (CCCB) explores the enduring impact of an American urban planning model that has been adopted globally.


Judit Carrera, the CCCB director, highlights "suburbia" as both a tangible and conceptual space. She describes the city as a paradoxical entity that encompasses both idealistic and problematic aspects, representing potential, liberty, and conflict. The North American suburb acts as a reflective surface, enabling critical consideration of urban conditions and aspirations. Urban design significantly affects political, social, and cultural dynamics, emphasizing the role of architecture and planning in fostering more democratic urban environments.


The typical American suburb, with its standardized single-family houses, manicured lawns, and wide driveways, has permeated popular culture. This exhibition examines suburbs through a range of media, artifacts, photographs, and artwork, tracing the evolution of US suburbs from the 19th century to today.

The exhibition reconsiders the role of modern cities, showcasing work by artists like Jessica Chou, Gabriele Galimberti, Gregory Crewdson, Thomas Doyle, Weronicka Gęsicka, Alberto Ortega, and Kate Wagner.


Carrera notes the influential power of culture and imagination in making certain urban models universal. The exhibition aims to center the city in cultural discussions, showing how the American suburban ideal, which originated in the industrial revolution and peaked in the 1950s, has shaped urban areas and impacted European planning. It explores the rapid development of these neighborhoods post-World War II, built to house returning veterans and their families.


These suburbs became aspirational symbols for predominantly upper-middle-class white families seeking more space and tranquility. The rise of personal vehicle ownership and road construction spurred suburban growth, leading to increased isolation and loneliness, particularly for women out of the workforce, and heightened poverty and crime in city centers.


The exhibition also addresses the disillusionment with suburban ideals, especially during the 1960s when these areas diversified and issues of racism emerged. Photographers like Angela Strassheim, Gabriele Galimberti, Amy Stein, Todd Hido, and Gregory Crewdson capture the darker aspects of suburban life, including isolation and environmental harm.



Angela Strassheim's Untitled work (2005) from her series "Left Behind" examines the darker side of suburbia, like the isolation that comes with it.


Curator Philipp Engel also highlights the global influence of the suburban model, drawing comparisons with Spanish cities like Barcelona and Madrid, which have adopted similar housing patterns.


Engel notes the renewed appeal of suburban living during the Covid-19 pandemic as people sought more space and nature. Despite its unsustainable nature, the suburban model remains attractive. The exhibition examines the political motives behind promoting this lifestyle and addresses its lasting impact.


Presenting suburbia as both a paradise and a hauntingly empty backdrop, the exhibition serves as a collision point for national issues and a model for other countries. 



Artist Thomas Doyle's sculpture "Bend" examines the environmental impact of suburbs.Alice Brazzit, CCCB, 2024


It encourages viewers to reevaluate the value of cities and public spaces in a world where the suburban dream persists.


"Suburbia. Building the American Dream" is a thought-provoking, captivating, and occasionally moving exhibition that provides a comprehensive exploration of an uneasy American ideal. It is on display at the CCCB until 8 September 2024.


Conclusion 

And that brings us to the end of today's episode. We hope you enjoyed our deep dive into the life and work of Alberto Ortega.


We’d love to hear your thoughts on Ortega’s work. Which piece resonated with you the most? Reach out to us on social media or leave a comment on our website. And don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast platform. 


If you enjoyed today’s episode, please leave us a rating and review.


References


https://www.euronews.com/culture/2024/03/21/barcelona-exhibition-examines-the-promises-and-illusions-of-us-suburbs

https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/1950s

https://albertoortega.art/


Images of Alberto Ortega's work are courtesy of Alberto Ortega.

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