Issue 366: October 3–10, 2002

Paul Shambroom, "Meetings"

Julie Saul Gallery, through Oct 5.

In the 1997 Whitney Biennial, Paul Shambroom exhibited a series of color photographs of secure nuclear-weapons facilities, taken in various remote areas of the United States. Gazing upon row after pristine row of shiny warheads produced chills, in large part by conveying the sense of having been smuggled into these dangerous, sequestered sites.

Shambroom's new project extends the artist's interest in exposing hidden power, in this case, the behind-the scenes action of local government. Eight new works show town and city councils and boards of aldermen hard at work in various convocations and assemblies. The vast expanses of wood paneling in the chambers and official quarters on view, coupled with acres of khaki and plaid, indicate spaces that are uniquely small-town American.

Shambroom shot these scenes on regular print film and then scanned them into a computer, where he softened the colors and contours to achieve the effect of brush strokes—as if to transform his pictures from photographs to large-scale oils. To authenticate the conceit, he printed the digital files onto canvases, which were subsequently stretched and varnished. The resulting "paintings" look as if they came straight from an 18th-century atelier. Shambroom's aim is clearly to evoke academic history painting (once the most highly regarded of painterly pursuits) and thereby, one presumes, to ennoble his commonplace subjects with a grandeur beyond their modest stations.

Indeed, in viewing Shambroom's works, one realizes that these seemingly marginal moments are in fact loaded with consequence. The pictures show people who look much like ourselves (or, rather, like our relatives) enacting the very real machinations of municipal power, their solemnity at upholding their elected offices infused with the real authority that they possess. The towns whose governments are represented in the show—none of which has a population greater than 2,500—may be negligible on a national level, but as the local cogs that turn the federal gears, their significance cannot easily be dismissed.—Noah Chasin