POSTMASTERS GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 10 – OCTOBER 16, 2010
Increasingly, Chelsea is not an environment where emotional intimacy is the norm. But a curious thing happened to me with Chris Verene’s photograph “MY MOM VISITING DOROTHY” (2005): tears welled up.
This wasn’t a response to gratuitous tearjerking. Verene has compiled a profoundly compelling body of work, centered around a locale, Galesburg, Illinois, and the intimacy of long-term relationships, that is both unsentimental and generous as it lays bare the lives of his family and friends. At no point in their stories of separation, divorce, remarriage, and birth across generational ties, class differences, and economic changes do they seem any less than Verene’s co-authors in the construction of their narrative. Children are children—not sexualized infantas—at times awkward or confident, and adults express rich and manifold emotional lives.
Verene, one might surmise, is interested in how he belongs and does not belong to this place and its people. None of the photographs are staged, except perhaps, “HEIDI IN HER RENAISSANCE FAIR DRESS” (2006), of Verene’s cousin who looks as if she really wanted this memento of herself.
“MY MOM VISITING DOROTHY,” belongs to a series of interconnected portraits that loosely portray ties between Verene’s parents and the people they worked with for over 25 years: Rozie and her mother, Gary, and Dorothy. The captions, written on the white borders of the prints, provide the facts of their circumscribed lives while leaving something to the imagination. “MY FRIEND ROZIE AND HER MOTHER USED TO LIVE IN ‘THE RESEARCH’ HOSPITAL. AT ROZIE’S APARTMENT ON HER MOTHER’S BIRTHDAY” (2004), shows Rozie’s mother, an elderly woman seated before a tray of cupcakes, smiling at her middle-aged daughter. Evidently, it is Rozie’s mother’s birthday, and Rozie is decked out in a red hoop skirt and bonnet. In the next image, also taken in 2004, Rozie appears outdoors in the same apple-red color, this time a winter jacket. Her body twists away from the camera, hands cupped around her mouth. A bouquet of red flowers wrapped in a cone of white paper lies on the grass. The caption above reads: “CALLING OUT TO THE ANIMALS AT HER MOTHER’S GRAVE.” The last image shows Rozie, this time in a bright blue kerchief, in her new apartment. Scrawling on the wall about Jesus and daemons describes Rozie’s inner discord and her life after her mother.
“DOROTHY SAYS THAT WHEN SHE WAS A LITTLE GIRL, A STAR FELL ON HER. DOROTHY LIVED IN ‘THE RESEARCH’ HOSPITAL WHERE MY PARENTS USED TO WORK” (1995), shows a black woman smiling for the camera, framed by swishing curtains in a bedroom. In “MY MOM VISITING DOROTHY” (2005), she is now white-haired and shrunken, cradling her head against Verene’s mother’s neck.
Verene takes a documentary approach while decidedly embracing the bias of his lens. As a member of this genealogy, he claims no freedom from subjectivity. While other photographers such as Sally Mann and Nan Goldin have accomplished similar feats of complicated intimacy, Family seems closer to chronicling emotions than mediating them. In an image of his cousin Candi and their two children squinting in the yard, “CANDI AND CRAIG LOST THEIR JOBS WHEN THE FACTORIES MOVED TO MEXICO. CANDI CODY AND CAITY” (2005), the bonds of human interdependence are tested by corporate relocation and joblessness, culminating in Candi’s later divorce. But restraint tempers what could otherwise have been a plaintive cry. Struggle is muted fact; life goes on.
An interesting problem Verene tackles, as a function of his storytelling, is the delicate relationship between the captions inscribed in the borders of the photographs and the images themselves. The viewer’s job of negotiating the word-object that constitutes the title of an artwork and its verbally resistant visual element is not only a play on words and theory, but also a site of peculiar interest when sussing out an author’s intention for a work of art. I often regard untitled artworks as general expressions of the insufficiency or irrelevance of naming. Another approach, as expressed in Robert Motherwell’s titles, such as “In Plato’s Cave” and “The Spanish House,” is the move toward a verbal equivalent of the image either through description or evocation, which allows a space for non-literal interpretation. A painting like Pollock’s “Cathedral” proclaims an unapologetic spirituality in both the image and the word. Verene’s approach removes language from the titular and applies it to the narrative postscript, while still leaving much unsaid and open.
Verene has consistently shot and printed color film for 26 years. Visual consistency renders life in a cross-section. Time appears like an interloper, altering people’s looks or reconfiguring their family structure. Domestic sameness is set against the inhabitants’s wear and tear, a counterpoint of constancy and change. Galesburg, Illinois is Verene’s Yoknapatawpha County, and his insistence on using color film despite the advent of digital photography allows this rural backdrop to appear as though at a standstill.
Interposed faithfully over 26 years, Verene’s loyal lens reveals a sensitive narrative of epic realism. Verene is hardly Martha Rosler’s “Liberal Documentarian” who, with the condescension of “the ascendant class,” exposes social blight without a gesture towards activism. Nor is he Michael Moore, exhorting against injustice. Instead, Verene lives quietly among his family circle, yet apart from them, commenting on significant moments and exposing time’s round indifference.