Art in America, Sept. 1998: Paul Shambroom at Tanya Bonakdar - New York, New York - Review of exhibitions

Paul Shambroom at Tanya Bonakdar - New York, New York - Review of exhibitions - Brief Article

Melanie Marino

In a recent issue, the New York Times Magazine used several photographs from Paul Shambroom's "Nuclear Weapons" series to illustrate a cover feature, "So You Think the Cold War is Over?" By reframing Shambroom's work as a form of photojournalism, the Times deftly highlighted its troubling ambiguity.

This show, Shambroom's first solo in New York, featured seven large-format color photographs depicting nuclear weapons facilities and military installations. They stem from the latest of several photographic series in which the artist has investigated "Places of Power" (the title of a Shambroom exhibition at the Walker Art Center) such as factories, corporate offices and police stations. influenced by baby-boomer recollections of atomic bombs and air-raid drills during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, his pictures of actual weapons are meant to supplant the abstract mental image of a mushroom cloud. Yet while these photographs transmit information fluently enough for the public record, the nature of their esthetic ambition is less clear.

The photographs in this show are united not only by their subject matter but by a common expressive code which hones the attitude of objectivity to the point of affectlessness. One photo, made at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, displays a row of gleaming white B-83 nuclear bombs arrayed along a diagonal axis. However, the effect is by no means dramatic. This is less a terrifying portrait of a nuclear arsenal than a glimpse into a commonplace, fluorescent-lit industrial warehouse. Similarly, a 1992 photograph of a soldier preparing four Minuteman II missiles, his camouflage pants and combat boots exposed, could well depict a mechanic repairing a car.

According to the artist, these works aim to demystify. Yet Shambroom significantly revises the classic documentary objective of revealing truth, seeming to aim instead at merely informing without moving the viewer. However, his matter-of-fact presentation is contravened by the large scale of the prints and the occasional use of modernist pictorial devices. For instance, in a photo of the ceremony commemorating the delivery of the first operational B-2 Stealth bomber to Whitman Air Force Base in Missouri, a palpable tension is created not only by the presence of the four soldiers who stand guard before the plane but by the red and white cords which stretch tautly across the center of the image, enhancing the lean, triangular form of the bomber. In this case, the structural rigor of the image enhances a mood of anxiety.

The inconsistency of affect in Shambroom's work muddles its artistic and ideological effectiveness. The confusion, in the end, lies not in the crossing of the pictorial with the documentary but in the relationship of these modes of visual commentary to the subject at hand. One wonders: just how would the artist respond to the question posed by the Times?

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