Consuming Passions

Ads from the '50s trigger 'Retro-Angst.'

Everybody knows what America looked like in the 1950s: All the houses had picket fences, all the people were white and all the cars were very, very big.

At least, that was the world according to Madison Avenue. Advertising did not originate in the '50s, but that prosperous postwar decade was the dawning of a Golden Age of commercial manipulation. With the help of sophisticated graphics, the ad men in their gray flannel suits artfully argued that happiness depended entirely on the right washing machine or the most mentholated cigarette.

The white suburban utopia they created was blissfully devoid of social problems. The ads' grinning housewives in pearls, wholesome little boys in dungarees and all-knowing husbands in suits weren't worrying about poverty or racism. No, their job was to persuade the American public that consumption was next to godliness.

It's not hard to lampoon these impossibly perfect icons of conformity, as the cartoonist Tom Tomorrow so brilliantly demonstrates in his weekly cartoons. His square-jawed men and perfectly coifed women, every last one of them descendants of 1950s advertising, revel in received ideas. Not only do they never question authority; they wallow in their abject obedience to it.

For Retro-Angst, a show now on view in the lobby gallery of the Hotel Congress, Tucson artist Dorothy Nevitt delved into the same period material to create satirical collages about American life. She's excavated print ads published from the late '40s to the early '60s, poring through such all-American magazines as the Saturday Evening Post, Time, Life and Better Homes and Gardens. The resulting work is by turns scathing and hilarious.

Most of the time Nevitt cleverly combines disparate images to deliver her subversive message that the Golden Age was tarnished around the edges. With the help of Nevitt's Exacto knife, a cop shoots a little boy dressed up as a movie Indian. A woman rides a toaster into the stratosphere, accepting breakfast on a silver tray from a uniformed black waiter. A couple stepping into a sleek convertible is oblivious of a shipwreck beyond the horizon. The piece is a perfect metaphor for the sanitized '50s, which carefully papered over the looming social ills that would explode a decade later.

"No Man's Land," a collage blown up to mural size, pictures the typically self-satisfied male of the period's ads: pompous, patriarchal and puffing on his phallic cigar. This smooth fellow is riding in a luxurious rail car; he's dropped his newspaper to his lap to take in the view outside the large picture window. But the landscape he surveys so approvingly is hardly scenic. Nevitt has patched in a picture of destruction, a forest decimated by fire and logging. Underneath, she's added more irony, running an advertising slogan that asks, "Ever watch a miracle in the making?" Back in the '50s, hardly anybody was thinking about the environmental costs of America's postwar economic miracle.

Nor was Big Tobacco thinking about the Big C. In the caustic "Marlboro Man," Nevitt has made a death's head skull-and-crossbones by floating a baby's head in front of two criss-crossed cigarettes; beyond is a hell hole of darkness and ash.

And in "Intoxicated," Nevitt takes on the alcohol industry. A drunken man and woman dream otherworldly dreams of each other, full of gods and shooting stars. But it's the cocktails teetering on their heads that fuel these sodden fantasies. This one is placed, bravely, right above the Hotel Congress's lobby bar.

The '50s were the great age of the domestic gadget, and sometimes Nevitt just allows the original insane ads for this stuff to stand on their own. One priceless piece, "Fetish," which the artist swears she is not making up, pictures a housewife, in heels and pearls, natch, ecstatically clutching a doohickey called the Eureka Roto-Matic. A graceful turquoise script reads, "Pete is my husband--but my new Eureka Roto-Matic is my honey!" Standing by is said Pete. He's still got his pipe, but he's taking the news of this new rival badly, turning away disconsolately from his delirious wife. This over-the-top ad is nothing if not explicit. Nothing in life matters so much as your stuff, not marriage and not sex. In fact, stuff replaces sex, as numerous car ads then and now are at pains to point out.

Nevitt works only in this long-ago imagery, but in her artist's statement she links the messages of 50 years ago to what we're hearing today. The quaintness and hyperbole of the old ads, she says, makes us think that we would never be taken in the way our parents and grandparents were. Think again. Consumerism may not be godly nowadays, but it has become patriotic. After September 11 exhortations for good Americans to buy, buy, buy were ubiquitous. Unfurled American flags joined the pretty girls draped over cars in the TV and print ads. The message was, Save America from terrorism. Buy stuff today.

"Is the angst really retro," Nevitt asks, "or are we still living in the legacy of the '50s?"

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