a white house at dusk with balloons floating on mailbox

The Suburbs as Our Collective Human Experience: The landscape paintings of Ericka Sobrack

The suburbs, usually spoken of in disdain or blame, are home to about 70% of the US population.

Place attachment, nostalgia, and memory are important aspects of finding our way through life. Can the suburbs offer these things to the many people who are growing up or have grown up in them? I’ve been curious about what the icon of the suburban house represents for people, particularly, realist artists who have selected the suburban home as their subject matter. they spend considerable amounts of time creating realistic work of this taken-for-granted architecture and have found a market for it.

What do the suburbs and suburban houses mean for them, and us? Can we all develop more place attachment with our most common cultural landscape? (Besides, I love the genre and want to learn more about the concepts that drive the artists). See the whole series of interviews (currently under construction).

The following is edited from an interview I had with Ericka Sobrack.

The suburban environment is a perfect place to start a story because “everybody can read it”, says hyperrealist painter Ericka Sobrack. “I think it’s the closest we can get to recognizing some sort of collective human experience.” Sobrack believes that the acceptability and common understanding of the suburbs allows viewers to take in the depth of her paintings more easily.

painting, alley view of houses with a garage slightly open
E Sobrack Roam 2021. All images used with permission. © Ericka Sobrack

Setting the stage

Sobrack started what she describes as painting her village, in graduate school. She questioned how she could inject herself into the street-scene genre of work she was creating. For Sobrack, that meant “painting suburban environments, because that’s what I’m exposed to in my everyday space.”

“Suburban environments are always going to be the forefront of my work because they can represent so much and talk about this human experience that we have, that we don’t talk about” – childhood memory, the isolation and loneliness of suburban life, safety and threat within these spaces, intruders – “these little instances that disrupt that American dream.”

An important step came when she painted a pair of Converse sneakers in the background, hanging from a large playground piece. “The introduction of that recognizable icon, injected within the landscape sparked something for me that I could respond to. There’s this misplaced object within this scene and contextual associations within the viewer.” That’s where “the magic started to happen within the studio. … I could create this suggested narrative.”

Sobrack says she’s “excited about mystery, and storytelling, and being vague with my story.” Sobrack explains that she’s playing to her personal fears within these environments.

She began injecting subtle narrative elements into her work, using iconography such as the suburban home and childhood toys as placeholders to tell a story. “We all can relate to it because of the iconography of suburban environments.” These are key factors, she explains, in wielding the emotive power of nostalgia. She doesn’t even have to be present in the story. But says “I’m still in every single one of the pieces”, even if not physically.

“I am completely against using figurative work within my environments,” Sobrack explains, “which I feel is very personal, and it starts to stray into somebody else’s story… [I’m trying to create] the artifact of human existence within these spaces without having to show [figures].”

How viewers respond to suburbia

Sobrack explains that her goal as an artist “is to talk about these universal concepts where [viewers] are injecting their own story within it. It gives them permission to read a painting however they want.” She likes to keep the narrative ambiguous. “I think it’s a joy to see how many different narratives can come up.” Sobrack will never tell them they’re “wrong” in what they see: “That’s not my job, to tell [the viewer what to see]. It’s my job to make the work and be passionate and excited about it.”

She thinks audiences will recognize Southern elements in the images, but they are not meant to define a place or be completely place specific. Generally, viewers first talk about the structural elements. The style of home (commonly Mid-century modern) is what resonates with people.

Sobrack says viewers are convinced with the imagery of the home. People relate to the suburban house with a “nostalgic code”. They know how to interpret it. They can be grounded in that understanding of the environment. Then Sobrack feels she can expand upon that comfort and familiarity with the image. “Suburbia tricks our brain. … Their textbook definitions of what it is to live in these spaces, it’s their grounding [for a deeper narrative].. It opens up the door for more.”

What the suburbs mean to us

Sobrack describes Mid-century homes as remnants of the post-war American dream, the boom in the 50s. “Everybody thought that they’re going to have this wonderful nuclear family household life… The Icon of the American dream is the white picket fence, the happy family, the manicured lawn.”

She feels her paintings have the façade of that, but the intention is to “bring something else to the table… I find that suburban environments [offer] a haunting comfort in artificially created nostalgic spaces.”

“Because we are so familiar with our suburban environment, it creates a false sense of security. I tried to actively work against that [sense of security]” so that what was “once an icon of comfort and familiarity becomes this empty dread.”

painting fo two suburban houses with a tire swing hanging
E Sobrack Choke 2023

A lot of the decisions she makes, she explains, are because of her personality and upbringing, of her associations with suburban environments in general. “I’m a very private person, and you can see a lot of that within the work.

“I had a very challenging upbringing, and you can definitely see those instances in the work as well, talking about vulnerability, voyeurism, angst, not feeling safe or sound in these environments, and I wanted to flip this script with suburban homes in general, creating conflict in a suburban environment where you’re supposed to feel safe.

“I never wanted to be home. I didn’t feel safe. So, it’s that feeling of the unknown or the uncertainty that sparked my…it’s not resentment towards the suburbs, but it’s that feeling of never having that ideal American life.”

She points out that she never allows the audience within the homes. She restricts the amount of information. Sobrack contrasts this with the painter Edward Hopper: “He allowed the audience within the scene, to view inside it. He’s allowing that vulnerability. But I’m actively rejecting that vulnerability. And it’s that privateness that I feel I need to protect within suburban environments.”

Sobrack reflects that she has worked to move on and elevate her work into something that was healthy and that she’s passionate about. At the same time, she can’t deny how the influences from her difficult past bring themselves into the execution of her scenes. “It’s reinforcing how I felt with the uncertainty and the unknown. There’s the feeling that the facade is fake, and you really don’t know what’s going on within it.”

white suburban house with fallen chairs in yard
E Sobrack Expell 2022

Directing the suburban stage

“Of course these works are in general melancholic, but that’s not my original intention. They’re supposed to be moody and mysterious and exciting, and talking about the unknown.”

Assessing the tone of her work, Sobrack explains that “I never really wanted to drive the idea of nostalgia, but because of my research into space and the artificiality of space, the idea of nostalgia keeps coming up. It’s basically the key to somebody’s connection or memory with something. And it’s a visceral, emotive feeling [when] that [memory is] recreated visually… Nostalgia is always there.”

She describes her style as hyper-realist landscape painting, her scenes as a hyperreality, because “they’re using reality as a jumping off point.” Sobrack is strongly influenced by film and directors such as David Lynch. She says he’s more interested in showing the evidence of something rather than showing the thing happening.

She also admires the work of photographer Gregory Crewdson (Instagram). Sobrack explained that Crewdson creates compelling narrative scenes and takes one photograph of this hyper-elaborate setting with a mysteriously vague narrative, with figures. She thought “How do I parallel this process into painting?”

suburban house with a minivan that has an open door
E Sobrack Plight No2 2021

In that vein she says “I love composing these stories within these suburban environments. You know, the underbelly of suburban life.”

Sobrack sees herself as a director as much as a painter. “As the director of the work, it needs to work in a design standpoint, a narrative standpoint. And then it also needs to have that something special that I bring to it.” She tends not to use other people’s photographs. “I don’t want to have to specify that I used somebody else’s reference. It gets messy and because I just feel like it’s kind of taking the directors imprint out of that work. And it has to be all Ericka Sobrack.”

I asked her about the balance between form and concept. She describes it as “a little teeter totter. If you have too much of the form, then you have illustration. If you have too much conceptual, you’re going to have to work harder to get to your audience.  It’s about learning when to reinforce the narrative element.”

suburban house with fallen chairs and a smoking fire in the yard
E Sobrack Snuffed 2021

The highest importance for Sobrack is first that an image is compositionally strong, “and whether or not it can read the way that I want it to read.” Then she reinterprets it in a different way, moving elements, changing colors, and creating spaces. “I feel like the successful pieces of artwork are the ones that you want to come back to and redigest and reassess.”

Sobrack says nobody is really doing “this hyperreal suburban, uncanny narrative landscape work.” She feels she is in a good place with her art, taking the universal sign of the suburban home and asking “How can I twist that on its head?”

white suburban house at dusk with broken lattice
E Sobrack Facade No4 2023

See other featured artist Terry Leness, Leah Giberson and T. Michael Ward.

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