Art on Paper, Dec, 2002
Paul Shambroom: Meetings. Julie Saul Gallery.
Grassroots democracy, with its humble participants and even humbler surroundings, is the theme of photographer Paul Shambroom's mordant tribute to American community meetings in small towns. These makeshift governing bodies, serving populations of a thousand or less, often assemble after hours in school classrooms where the decor generally consists of state employment notices taped to the wall and Old Glory crammed in behind a Formica lectern.
As in his 1993-97 series on America's nuclear arsenal, Shambroom wants to photograph power. But here, letting go of a documentary look, he has more openly explored the theater of picture-making. "Meetings" is about the public face of government and the charade of its mighty actions at the local level.
Shambroom treats these unnewsworthy proceedings with the gravitas of David at Napoleon's court. Enlarging the gestures of bureaucrats to a monumental scale (six of the eight color prints were 66 x 33 in., and all were digitally retouched to soften contours), he both celebrates civic-mindedness and exposes its limits. Instead of scepter and crown, Bic pens and legal pads are the glue holding the country together.
We don't know what was said at the Van Buren, Indiana (pop. 955) Town Council on July 21, 1999, or at a meeting of the Board of Aldermen in Sedgwick, Arkansas (pop. 112) on May 13,2002. But the evidence here indicates the audience for those deliberations was neither large nor enthusiastic. The dirty secret of American political life is not that oligarchs pull levers behind closed doors, but that most citizens can't be bothered to vote, much less attend drowsy gavellings in airless rooms.
Shambroom's tableaux aggrandize the many faceless heroes who daily perform the necessary tasks that many of us shirk.
The camera can't tell us if matters of import were settled at these meetings. But it blessedly shortens into instants the droning hours these men and women must have spent reaching less-than-momentous decisions. Their drained faces under fluorescent light prevent Shambroom's portrayal from being too Capra-esque. Suffused with artifice yet engaged with a world beyond art, Shambroom's series presents a fresh, smart, and ironic take on the ruling class, small-town American-style.
-Richard B. Woodward