PRINT March 2001


SOMETIMES THE RICHEST NARRATIVES have the humblest origins. Eudora Welty's worldly-wise fictions, for instance, were drawn almost entirely from her hometown, Jackson, Mississippi. Likewise, Chris Verene is elaborating an intricate narrative in his ongoing series of photographs about his birthplace, Galesburg, Illinois, where his family has lived for three generations. A railroad town of some 33,000 people, Galesburg has few sights to offer the occasional visitor besides the childhood home of Carl Sandburg and a charming if faded Main Street. If you have a job in Galesburg, chances are you work in a factory or on a farm. The town has fallen on hard times, and the agrarian idyll of Sandburg's boyhood has all but disappeared, having given way to such contemporary realities as chronic unemployment and alcoholism; the closing of a large mental institution and forced discharge of its inpatients, the influx of gangs moving west from larger cities, and the building of a state prison right in town have further distressed the social fabric.

Verene, who currently divides his time between New York, Atlanta, and Galesburg, has now been photographing his family and friends for thirteen years and says he's committed to the Galesburg project for life. A selection of these images was shown simultaneously last fall at American Fine Arts, Co., and Paul Morris Gallery in New York and published as an artist's monograph (Twin Palms, 2000). Verene has an acute eye for the local idiom, and he's a natural storyteller—though the story he tells isn't fiction, of course, but a visual disclosure of the people and predicaments of Galesburg as the artist understands them. “The key to my artwork,” Verene has written, “is that it can only be born out of real and deep friendships and bonds with the people in the pictures.”

This narrative gift is precisely where Chris Verene and Eudora Welty's similarities begin—and end. Unlike Welty, who seldom strayed from Jackson, Verene long ago left home for Atlanta, where he went to college (and later earned his M.F.A.), played in alternative bands, and developed a pinup and performance persona, the anagrammatic Cheri Nevers—like Duchamp's euphonic Rrose Sélavy but a bit more louche. Performing as his androgynous alter ego, Verene hosted The Self Esteem Salon (for models in need of a make over and therapy) at the Whitney Museum of American Art last year in conjunction with his “Camera Club” photos, which were then on view in the Biennial. In that series, Verene caught amateur photographers flagrante delicto—as they snapped shots of nude women for their “camera clubs.”

The Galesburg photos betray a taste for lurid colors and oddball characters reminiscent of William Eggleston. But unlike Eggleston, Verene doesn't attempt to shoot “democratically,” to photograph everything around him with equal interest and attention. On the contrary, he has spent years waiting to capture moments that crystallize entire constellations of meaning and emotion. In one picture, taken in 1992, a man sits with a little girl in a McDonald's. The caption reads: 'My cousin Steve with one of his daughters. His wife had just left them.“ Steve looks off to the side distractedly, while the girl gazes blankly into the lens. The drab backdrop, rather than trivializing the moment, serves to intensify the discord between the implicit pathos of the scene and its utter banality. The photo's power lies in the tension between the discomfiting intimacy of looking in on a family breakup and the almost comical impersonality of the fast-food setting. One can't help but note that the girl's eyes are the same shade of blue as the vinyl banquette on which she sits. The caption on the next page reads, ”After the divorce, Steve did not get to see the girls anymore."

We then see further sad-sack images of Steve (hanging freshly painted hubcaps up to dry from his daughters' now untouched swing set, for example), documenting his crisis in a seemingly empathetic way; but there's also an underlying sense of menace—though the pictures themselves provide no answers. The captions Verene used in his New York gallery shows (at times different from those printed in the book) were, however, more forthcoming: “My cousin Steve with one of his daughters. His wife had left town to go to the battered women's shelter.” And “After the divorce, Steve moved in with his mother. The girls are not allowed to visit.” Learning that Steve has abused his wife certainly complicates our reading of the work, but the ambivalence was present in the pictures all along.

In another wry family portrait, a listless boy named Travis lies odalisque-like on a matted, buckwheat-colored shag carpet. He tugs at his hair and bends his leg back in an unself-conscious pose. Behind him, his mother and a suspiciously drowsy male friend sit slightly out of focus on opposite ends of a couch. Captioned “Meeting Mom's new boyfriend,” the image has the makings of tragicomedy: Travis's doleful expression—a recognition of the grim family reality on the sofa behind him?—is mediated by his Tasmanian Devil T-shirt and goofy posture.

Verene's pictures have been compared with the work of various photographers, from Nan Goldin to Richard Billingham, but his provocative images of small-town, working class lives seem more akin stylistically to recent films depicting America's gothic landscape, such as Harmony Korine's Gummo (1997). Diane Arbus, too, has been invoked in discussions of Verene's work, but the artistic perspectives of the two seem in many ways antipodal. Whereas Arbus ventured outside her privileged background and sought disturbing images almost as if to violate her own innocence, Verene's photographic milieu is his own family, the town where he spent his childhood, the arena of his most personal memories.

His 1994 picture captioned “The Galesburg Christmas lights contest winner” was taken in the flat light of impending dusk, the sky quilted with storm clouds, from across a fallow cornfield blanketed with snow. From the photographer's distance, the glowing lights gilding a two-story home, detached garage, and a few trees look tawdry yet undeniably glorious against the panchromatic grays of field and sky. A star on the roof angles up, absurdly large, above the telephone wires. Blazing a warm, incandescent yellow, it stretches out its arms, as if reckoning with, or in defiance of, the darkening sky. The photographer's perspective from across the field seems a metaphor for Verene's relationship to Galesburg: It affords a view that's inclusive and empathetic, while figuring the psychological distance enabling his clarity of vision—an ironic acknowledgment of Verene's ambivalent position as both townie and auteur.