There subsists an idealized conception of suburban middle America that is utterly familiar: a blanched-white picket fence circumscribes a neatly manicured lawn. Children, usually three, play house. The father, donned in his weekend Gingham, customizes his sports car (it is often cherry-red and surely American — a Chevy or Ford). The mother watches her husband and children from a kitchen window, toiling at baked goods with a smile from lips as red as the hood of her husband’s car. These are the perennial images made popular by films, television shows, and politicians who harken back to a bygone America. These pastoral images are anchored in the time period before and after the Great Depression (1929-1939), fitted with narratives including first kisses, first drives, and picnics. This is precisely the American ideal that Carriage Trade’s excellent group show, Model Home (New York), After Wisconsin Death Trip disputes.

The exhibition is an evolving archive of American calamity over the last 150 years. It surveys images and narratives of localized crises in various locations, from suburban Wisconsin to metropolitan Manhattan. The issues include gun violence, racial violence, and the exploitation of immigrant workers. In total, the show not only shatters clichés, but also presents America as a country long-marred by natural disasters, class antagonism, and racialized violence. The exhibition is anchored in the book Wisconsin Death Trip (1973), in which American photo-anthropologist Michael Lesy arranged prosaic photographs by Charles Van Schaik documenting the myriad crises of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, during the 19th century.

John Schabel’s “November 22, 1963” (1963–2023), a blown-up childhood penmanship exercise penned by the artist on the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, introduces the exhibition. The pigmented ink is fitted with stick-figure drawings of the infamous Dealey Plaza motorcade. This event prompted many Americans to begin questioning both the abstractions of the American dream and the putative narratives unspooled by media outlets to make sense of calamity. 

Sihan Cui, “After 365 Days 1” (2019), matte vinyl, 32 inches x 48 inches (image courtesy the artist)

The photograph and video artworks by Sihan Cui consider Chinese immigrant stories local to New York. “After 365 Days 1” (2019) shows the family of Yang Song, a Chinese sex worker who died following a 2019 police raid of a massage parlor in Flushing, New York, protesting the police narrative. The video recounts recent Chinese immigrants’ stories of harrowing isolation and grueling labor conditions, supplemented by a reprint of activist photojournalist Corky Lee’s documentation of a 1975 Chinatown protest.

In subsequent rooms, we see panels of photographs and snippets of text that juxtapose fragmented stories from Wisconsin Death Trip with Van Schaick’s photographs of anonymous sitters. Scott’s curation queries the inveterate 24-hour news cycle’s means of distilling tragedy into mere parcels of fleeting information. The perennial nature of our media ecosystem’s dehumanization is evinced by Paul Auster/Spencer Ostrander and Mona Leau’s works, which archive present-day bloodshed and the “red state versus blue state” reductive apparatus. 

“Wisconsin Death Trip,” a collection of photographs from Charles Van Schaick and press clippings from the Badger State Banner (c. 1880–1910), (photo by Nicholas Knight, courtesy the Wisconsin Historical Society)
Installation Detail, Mona Leau, “The Wall: Journal of Times” (2021–2023), matte vinyl, dimensions variable (photo by Nicholas Knight, courtesy the artist)

Far too often, Chinatown galleries are divorced from the issues of their neighborhood’s working-class community. The galleries and the people who live in Chinatown occupy two separate worlds. Carriage Trade has deftly challenged this by veering from sweeping abstractions through the likes of the aforementioned, idealized American idiom. The gallery also avoids privileging the urban or rural, a testament to its comprehensiveness. This is an impressive and poignant exhibition that sensitively deals with issues that myriad galleries are disinterested in. 

Model Home (New York), After Wisconsin Death Trip will be on view at Carriage Trade (277 Grand Street, Chinatown, Manhattan) through May 21. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Ekin Erkan is a writer, curator, and researcher whose academic background combines philosophy and art history. Erkan’s areas of specialization include the history of modernist aesthetics and German Idealism....