Suburbia Painter Sizes Up Advance of Americana

Just east of Levittown, N.Y., America's quintessential mass-produced suburb, Lane Twitchell looks up a side road and grins.

"There!" he shouts, jabbing a finger into the Long Island air. "Right there! Make a left. That's it. That's perfect!"

The object of his excitement is a small neighborhood of tract houses - the very fruit of suburbia. Shingles. Aluminum siding. Square-cut stone. Two-car garages.

For Mr. Twitchell - artist, Mormon, critic of suburbia, and muddler-through of all themes American - this is nirvana and purgatory wrapped into one neatly mowed package.

Some artists find inspiration in nature, others in the human face and body. Twitchell's canvas is the American suburb, circa 1960 to 1975 - the strange, virtually indescribable mix of gaudiness, alienation, and familiarity that a generation of Americans called home.

The artist has a theory: The soul of his nation, whatever sort of soul it possesses, lies in the communities that sit on the edge of its cities. He's not sure yet how - or why. But in his paintings - and in his mind - he is doing his best to find out.

"What I'm talking about is the formal advance of American civilization," he says. "And the suburbs - whether you like them or not, whatever you think of them - are at the forward edge."

His paintings of suburban houses are spare and filled with angles and sharp contrasts - strict formalism, as he calls it. They resemble nothing more than colored extensions of architectural blueprints. But there is something beyond the straight depiction.

In each, the sky is strangely in focus - almost too focused. The angles are too perfect, the front lawn too manicured, the sidewalk and curb too uncracked, the landscape too precisely flat and angular.

This neighborhood of the mind has been Twitchell's focus for much of his life - unconsciously for a long time, consciously for the past three years. He has painted it a dozen times and more.

Architecture has long been a means of public discourse, but Twitchell is using the depiction of architecture to encourage that discourse. And Miller Road, off the Hempstead Turnpike in Bethpage, N.Y., is the perfect opportunity.

"This is the peak of the American century - right here, in this architecture," he says. "You sense it from the generosity of the space."

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