Doug Waterfield's 'Doomtown' Exhibition Brings Back the Atomic Age

The necessity of "doomtowns" (also known cheerfully as "survival towns"), built by the Atomic Energy Commission to measure the effects of various detonations in the Nevada desert, is questionable following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After all, the mass killing of Japanese civilians seemed evidence enough that the mannequins posed as happy families in fallout shelters and at dining tables in fabricated communities wouldn't fare too well. Nevertheless, the replica men, women, and children placed in soon-to-be-obliterated houses were tagged, presumably for later identification.

Doug Waterfield, an artist and art professor at the University of Nebraska Kearney, says he became intrigued by the subject matter of his Doomtown painting series when watching civil defense-oriented educational films about the Nevada Test Site. Apparently, the symbolism of mannequins inhabiting an anonymous suburban landscape, poised for annihilation, was too ripe to pass up. Waterfield's 16 canvases on view at Oak Ridge's American Museum of Science and Energy through Jan. 20 address a range of testing era–related topics; the show includes works in oil that depict doomtown scenarios, Las Vegas, fantasy images with frolicking pigs and dancing skeletons, and a cartoon-like composition alluding to sci-fi movies that reflected our mid-20th-century paranoia.

It's hard to say whether or not Waterfield's often stiff rendering of the human figure is intentional. What he calls "human analogs" are supposed to look unreal, just as images in black and white (about half of the art displayed) suggest a second-generation representation drawn from film and photographs. But in addition to the mass-media feel that most of the pieces are clearly meant to capture, there's a surreal quality to Waterfield's work that corresponds with the absurdity of doomtowns and the hard-to-grasp reality of the bomb itself, whether it's uranium, plutonium, or hydrogen. The mushroom cloud present in almost all of these paintings is familiar, but it has acquired a present-day iconic status, for better or worse.

"Doomtown II: Miss Atomic Bomb," one of Waterfield's color works, shows several pieces of Detroit iron in a field, the car in the foreground imprinted with the message "THIS CAR WILL GO THRU THE ATOMIC BLAST" and the date March 17, 1953. On the horizon looms a mushroom cloud, with a smaller cloud acting as a giant fig leaf superimposed onto a scantily clad show girl. The woman's St. Teresa-in-ecstasy facial expression and upward-thrust arms make her a sex bomb of sorts dominating the sky. A street scene of 1958 Las Vegas seems innocent, despite the distant signature cloud. The hues Waterfield employs, as well as the automobiles pictured, inspire an unsettling nostalgic response, given the testing theme.

Along different lines, there are small, highly detailed paintings titled "See the Little Piggies" and "The Dance of Death (Blissful Ignorance Mix)," the latter populated with hundreds of skeletons in the landscape and up-close ones seemingly worshipping a glowing green bomb. "Atomic Pop: What's That, Daddy?", an image of a father and his children gazing at the "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" bombs dropped on Japan, is the most Oak Ridge-relevant piece in the show. Its uncharacteristically loose brushwork represents a shift in style that Waterfield might wish to pursue in future works.

Waterfield's spare use of color in predominantly grayscale paintings lend the recurring ID tags and fallout-shelter symbols punch, but also make the overall images that much more graphic by virtue of contrast. Mannequin scenarios like "The Technicolor Dinner Party" and "The Not Living Room" rely more on the insanity factor of what Waterfield calls "projected identities" for impact. There's even an ashtray on the living room's coffee table—one that might end up holding what's left of the people lounging about.

It's therefore the juxtaposition of make-believe, child-filled everyday settings with the omnipresent, blinding mushroom clouds that best represents the show's theme. However, Waterfield seems especially in his element with his large-scale painting "The Sons of Atom", a comic book–influenced tableau with an array of monsters, giant insects, zombies, you name it. That tension between the mass-media metaphor of widespread fear translated into movies and the very real threat of atomic bombs is another thematic jolt—in this case, exposing what is arguably our extreme naiveté as a nation awkwardly holding the key to global devastation.