The highlight of the Socrates Sculpture Park EAF exhibition in 2013 was a piece so subtle and well-integrated that one might have mistaken it for part of the grounds. While other pieces at Socrates are generally plopped around the larger lawn, Tamara Johnson sited her work, A Public Pool, in a small area surrounded by hedges, suggesting that it was the remains of a backyard swimming pool that had been filled with dirt, grown over with grass, and left as a ruin.

By skillfully faux-aging the concrete and crafting the details, including a drain, ladder handles, and signage, Johnson made the work convincingly uncanny. A Public Pool was both poignant and witty, evoking a sense of loss while inviting playful improvisatory acts. Kids loved it, pretending to swim in the grass. Visitors sat comfortably along the edges; the work created a new social space.

The piece was so successful that a Long Island City developer asked Johnson to make a second version in the summer of 2014 on a very public corner called The Lot that stages a series of summer festivals, music, and events. The second pool again became a site for interaction and play. This iteration, Backyard Pool, is kidney-shaped, with a diving board and a ceramic tile interior—that hint of blue inside both pools suggests the depths of summer childhood that can’t be reclaimed.

Born in Waco, Texas, Johnson makes work that cleverly straddles humor and desolation, evoking memories of the aspirational yet dysfunctional family life of the American heartland. The work also summons larger political themes, perhaps of futility in the face of climate change. The New York Times critic Deborah Solomon tweeted “No work better captures this summer of our discontent than Tamara Johnson’s waterless Backyard Pool.”

Written by Janet Zweig, an artist who lives in Brooklyn, NY, working primarily in the public realm.

[Featured as a web-only piece during print publication of] Public Art Review #51*.

*This project was also included in a Public Art Review #52 feature story about how artists are affected by various funding mechanisms.