For a painting that seems, at first glance, empty, Fifth Street is loaded with ideas. This dramatic noir streetscape from Tobin Sprout’s early 90’s sprint into large Photorealism has just been listed for sale, for the first time, online.
In the profession of journalism, it is said that the most important part of the story is the part that isn’t being reported. It seems like the initial report Sprout is giving the viewer in Fifth Street is much like an initial media report of a major incident: A very accurate description of not-the-story.
While Fifth Street does a great job describing what is visible to the eye, a precise description that renders a familiar feeling scene, the apparent normalcy of the scene obscures nearly every key element of the work.
Once again, Sprout is using the cover of realism to disguise the story, or maybe just wrap it in layers. It’s a painting of a street corner, so what? Much like his other Photorealistic work, it’s the deliberateness of Sprout’s choices and execution that gives us clues to why he’s going to all this trouble to render this street corner so precisely.
THE BILLBOARD IS KEY TO MAJOR THEMES
The massive, street-level billboard that’s advertising discount brand cigarettes is an obvious artistic choice, and a good one to look at first. The unique positioning of the billboard at street-level, combined with strong receding lines creates a sense of depth. Without these lines and this billboard, the painting would feel a lot more flat. Visually for the painting, it’s clearly a compositional anchor.
But this visual anchor also happens to be ‘ugly.’ This billboard is not attempting to win any beauty contests. Its primary image is a giant oversized cigarette. It’s what my mother would call ‘hideous.’ Already, we’ve made it one step closer to discovering Sprout’s modus operandi in this painting: He’s not in this to make a ‘pretty picture.’
ON THE CONSTANT OFFENSIVE
The cultural aspect of the billboard could not be more important to the story of the painting. The buildings themselves have a character that feels low-rise, mid-century, inner-city American but, stripped of the inappropriately placed billboard (and the fire hydrant), the streetscape could also depict low-rise, mid-century, inner-city Bucharest, Romania.
The flag’s red and white striped theme evoking the U.S. flag is no accident of commercial art either. It’s a compelling, patriotic image dreamed up by the manipulating minds over at the ad agency with the Cambridge cigarettes account to sell maximum cigarettes through maximum psychological leverage.
For the viewer of the painting, the presence of this billboard is also, literally, the presence of American culture in an otherwise undefined landscape.
Putting a visual meant to be viewed at a distance of at least 100 yards and an elevation of at least 25 feet at eye level on a wall abutting a sidewalk is a kind of an f-u to the humans who are subjected to it day in and day out.
More likely, it’s an unintentional outcome of the callous disregard for human tranquility built in to advertising culture as it is traditionally practiced in the United States.
The Cambridge billboard pictured in Fifth Street is a perfect example of how advertising culture can inadvertently control and dominate the physical and psychological environment, and define the environment as uniquely American – even in its ‘wrongness.’ Making the Cambridge billboard a singular, anchoring element in the painting shows the painter making an interesting observation about a somewhat outrageous cultural norm.
Also noteworthy is the transience of the cigarette brand itself. The billboard projects brash confidence, the veneer of success America loves, or maybe just requires from everything. But the discount brand is like any other upstart, presenting its case as best it can, while striving for permanence and greatness in the marketplace worthy of the Marlboros, Lucky Strikes and Camels. Isn’t this the reality of the world we all live in? This striving reflects a universal truth about life in America.
Today, it’s the Instagram influencer with a 100,000 followers who just wants to be, and can never be, the cultural force known as Beyonce or Kanye.
The commercial imperative of the billboard even inadvertently provides the dominant light for the scene. The overlit fluorescent light, exclusively dedicated to illuminating the billboard, is shown carelessly creating large areas of visual glare that overexpose the advertisement itself.
Like vision, painting depends on light. The primary lighting of Fifth Street is actually made from the remnants of billboard light. Using this leftover light to make the painting is another nod to our conscious or unconscious immersion in, and our willing or unwilling dependence upon, the commercial environment.
CAREFULLY DESCRIBED TERRAIN, PART II AND PART III
The environment created in the image of the billboard sets the stage for the drama of collective and individual memory. In the next two essays, I’ll be examining the nature of the light in Fifth Street, and the human drama in the scene. Join us here again the following two Thursdays, March 22 and March 29, for an extended analysis of yet another remarkable Tobin Sprout painting from 1993.
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Original analysis by T.R. Brogunier, posted March 17, 2018.
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