Battle of Hickory Ridge

Peat Duggins brings his cardboard suburbia to Fresh Up Club, through Oct. 20.
Peat Duggins brings his cardboard suburbia to Fresh Up Club, through Oct. 20.

Battle of Hickory Ridge

Through Oct. 20. 916 E. Springdale, in the Blue Theater.

Peat Duggins' imaginative and witty "Battle of Hickory Ridge" installation at Fresh Up Club takes on a big topic. The installation is a room-sized cardboard mock-up of a stereotypical suburban community, with little houses and cars around the painted streets and driveways, accompanied by a planner's desk with various layered diagrams. A flotilla of blimps is suspended from the ceiling by strings above this scene. A surreal aerial battle with a similarly suspended phalanx of commercial airliners is implied, creating a tension between humor and horror, and referencing the artist's earlier paintings. This is one of those shows that you can really spend time thinking about.

Duggins is one of Austin's better artists in terms of well-considered content, and this show hits a lot of the different ways that meaning can be conveyed. Whether an artwork is commercial or not conveys meaning; since Duggins is making a big statement about consumer culture, the fact that this is not your typical middle-of-the-road art purchase communicates a stance. Likewise, the space where an artwork is shown can influence the perception of its content; as an experimental art forum, Fresh Up Club is not what you'd call commercially polished. The materials an artwork is made of can convey meaning; here the cardboard conveys several: It is deliberately left blandly brown, to depict the uniformity of suburbia; it's commonly used for commerce, referring to the anonymity of big-box trade; and it was once made of trees, just as the modeled community was once forested. The whole piece is put together with tape, referring to the less-than-stellar quality of the construction characterizing suburban sprawl.

The artist is using all these subtle cues to support his concept. The planner's desk and its attendant diagrams (attractively layered when lit – this talented draftsman couldn't quite suppress his urge for beauty, even in portraying dreary suburbia) supply further clues toward decoding the artwork. Beginning with a set of idealistic goals, the planner repeatedly compromises until the result becomes monstrously conformist and the common space is a sludge pit. A list of names the planner considers for the community is visible; not surprisingly, the names are mostly of things the community's construction has destroyed. It becomes clear that the battle Duggins has portrayed is no less than the battle for the future of our culture, as we struggle to balance the need for order with the value of individuality.

(By the way, the blimps are supposed to be the good guys. See, I haven't decoded it all for you, so go ahead and have fun thinking about why.)

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