ArtForum, Nov. 2002: Paul Shambroom - Reviews: New York
Paul Shambroom - Reviews: New York
Paul Shambroom's "Nuclear Weapons" photographs--images of soldiers climbing on and around nuclear warheads--introduced the Minneapolis-based artist to a national audience at the 1997 Whitney Biennial. The series, which was impressive for Shambroom's ingenuity in gaining access to these classified spaces as much as for its formal rigor, toed the line between reportage and art, engaging a kind of watchdog politicism that characterizes much contemporary photography. In his second New York solo show, Shambroom showed a new series, "Meetings," begun in 1992, that continues his "documentary" examination of instruments of power. The artist traveled across the United States, photographing smalltown council- and other local-government meetings--showing participatory democracy at the grassroots level. If "Nuclear Weapons" put macroscopic power in this country on display, these images presented the microsopic counterpoint.
Whether taking place in Van Buren, Indiana, or Stockton, Utah, the documented meetings are almost identical. Typically, a few middle-aged folk sit with. apparently serious, thoughtful attention in fluorescent-lit rooms--surrounded by maps, file cabinets, and flags--to debate issues such as utilities permits and abandoned vehicles. (Shambroom included the minutes or agendas of these meetings in a binder at the gallery desk.) Shooting his subjects from an eye-level frontal position typical of classic documentary photography, Shambroom inserted his "Meetings" in that tradition, while nodding simultaneously to the tropes of painted civic-group portraiture. The artist's eccentric technique underscores this unlikely marriage of Rembrandt and Walker Evans: The large images are ink-jet prints on canvas that are then brushed with a glossy varnish. Against the nubby canvas surface, the prints' ever so slightly blurred lines give Shambroom's council members a hallucinatory glow that makes them look unreal and not unlike Duane Hanson sculptures. Teasing the latent surreality from these seemingly transparent scenes, Shambroom reminds us that reality, documentation, and especially political representation are, to varying degrees, constructed. Perhaps unconventional means are not needed to make this point--straight photographs of these scenes might be compelling enough--but "Meetings" revealed a powerful critical perspective nevertheless.
The real strength of these images lies in their details. Dassel, Minnesota (Population 1,134), City Council, March 15, 1999..., was one of the more memorable photographs here. The council's four members were unsettlingly similar: female, Caucasian, in their forties, and apparently middle-class. Despite their almost identically permed hair, however, these women have managed to eke out a modicum of individuality. Each has her own kind of Coke: Caffeine-Free Diet, Caffeinated Diet, and Classic. (The fourth woman drinks from a thermos in the corner.) The cans of soda-strewn across the table in a council meeting that could have taken place anywhere in the country-- were a distressing (if perhaps unsurprising) example of choice in the current washed-out landscape of centrist American politics.
The most recent image in the show (and the only one postdating September 2001) had a different feel entirely. Breaking from the distancing frontal angle that characterizes the other images, Sedgwick, Arkansas (Population 112), Board of Aldermen, May13, 2002..., had a sweeping, diagonal composition that invited viewers into the scene, providing them a place at the table. By making the image more inclusive, Shambroom highlighted the urgency of the current political situation and the need for diverse points of view, even at the most local levels.
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