I’m not sure how or when photography became the province of socio-anthropological investigation. Was it with Dorothea Lange in the ‘30s? Diane Arbus in the ‘60s? Nicholas Nixon in the ‘70s? Sally Mann and Nan Goldin in the ‘80s? Gregory Crewdson in ‘00s? In truth, the urge to document and categorize with the camera dates to the invention of photography itself. What’s new is how academic and how formalized and narrow these types of investigations have become. And, how thoroughly bloodless they can be. I remember spending a week wandering around Art Basel Miami (and its 20 plus “satellite” shows) in 2007 wondering just how many Candida Hofer interiors the market could bear. (Many, as it turned out.)
Which brings me to “Personal Lives”, a recent group show at Verge. Like so much current photography, it has the look, feel and focus of a scientific study. Its incubator is academia. Its practitioners are recent MFA grads, and their subjects — families, teenage coming-of-age rituals, clandestine couplings and home décor – are all familiar and academy-sanctioned.
But surprise: here is a show of almost uniformly compelling work.
Juliana Pacciuli specializes in “set-up” photography: building and recording scenes that look like movie stills crossed with department store window displays. The results of this approach are generally about as appealing as cellophane-wrapped vegetables. But in “Maria, Amy and Louie,” an image of three skimpily clad teenage girls, one of whom is applying Calamine lotion to the bare back of another, Pacciuli creates a sort of pubescent demimonde. Like the suggestive Coppertone ads of yore or the propagandistic illustrations of Norman Rockwell, the picture lures viewers in a way that is both hygienic and voyeuristic. Part of the effect has to do with the oval shape that offers us a literal keyhole through which to spy. But Pacciuli also throws parts of the picture out of focus at various depths, which lends a photorealistic patina to an image that probably began as thoroughly scrubbed exercise in hyperreality.
In contrast, Cynthia Yardley trains her camera on domestic artifacts: closets, bookshelves, bathrooms sitting rooms and the like. She makes large-format photographs and cuts them into rectangles which are displayed in large grid formations that recall the early composite Polaroids of David Hockney. But where Hockney manually pasted prints together to create visual dislocations, Yardley re-photographs select objects within each scene and sews them together electronically. The effect is subtle but certain: You really do wonder about the inhabitants of these spaces: the guy who owns the “casual Friday” wardrobe in “West Village Manhattan”; the loft residents whose grungy, richly hued bathroom is pictured in “South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY”; and the collector whose military memorabilia fills a room in “Toronto, Ontario.”
Rebecca Crowther’s project, “Crowning Achievements,” is an installation of 84 high school homecoming pictures arrayed across a wall. It’s a time capsule of nostalgic Americana whose subjects — judging from the hairdos (flips, bobs, bouffants, Afros, mop tops) and the apparel – were coronated between the late ‘50s and the mid ‘70s. It’s great fun to look at; but it ultimately feels more curatorial than creative.
Jessamyn Lovell isn’t celebrating anyone’s glory years. She comes from a poor New England family of hippie farmers who suffer poverty but somehow survive, and her simultaneous self-distancing and bonding are the subjects of an 86-picture series that is, by turns, poignant, wrenching and triumphant. With a snapshot aesthetic applied consistently and unflinchingly to every aspect of her family’s existence, Lovell gives us a project that rings true.
Greta Snider and Johunna Grayson’s intentions are a bit murkier. They serve up 20 pairs of obscure, somewhat surrealistic images that promise or imply something dark and smutty without delivering. I wondered if I was missing something. As it turns out, the series was originally conceived as an installation of overlapping slides with voiceovers which the gallery showed only once during a presentation by the artists.
Missteps notwithstanding, Verge, with this show, scores yet another hit in its short life as Sacramento’s most-closely watched new space.
“Personal Lives” closed at Verge Gallery & Studio Project on April 18, 2009.