Here and Away: Five Midwestern Photographers came about as a result of happenstance and good timing. I had been in the midst of organizing the first large pop-up gallery show presented by Young Space this past winter, and was contacted about a programming vacancy during the month of July at The ARTgarage in Green Bay, WI. I said yes before I even knew what I would put together there.
It all began with one image that I happened to see on Twitter. Andy Adams of FlakPhoto, notably also based in Wisconsin, happened to post an image of a photo book called Midwest Dirt by a photographer based in Illinois. Following through to his website, I learned that the maker of the book was Nathan Pearce, whose series inspired a Young Space blog post about its depiction of a time in his twenties when he felt the tension between living in a large city and growing up in very rural southern Illinois.
After a while, I was certain I would do a photography show, but still wasn't sure what shape it would take. I started keeping track of photographers whose work I ran across either in person, online, and through other artists. One theme kept cropping up again and again: the Midwest. Whether photographers were from here originally or photographing Midwestern subjects, the range of contemporary imagery from and about this region was astounding. Eventually, I confirmed the five photographers whose work is presented at The ARTgarage: Max Cozzi, Barbara Diener, Ethan Aaro Jones, Nathan Pearce, and Adam Turner.
The artists are all "emerging" in one sense or another. They approach their subjects from different perspectives, informed by backgrounds that vary as much as their subject matter. Max Cozzi, for example, focuses on landscape in Wisconsin, while Adam Turner's first body of work explores a setting closely linked to his childhood. Barbara Diener and Ethan Aaro Jones happened to know one another when they were both pursuing MFAs in photography at Columbia College Chicago. Here and Away displays work by self-taught artists just getting their start as well as formally trained photographers whose work has recently been acquired by large collections.
I enjoy how the presentation of the subjects, whether in size, scale, or the mounting (or lack thereof) of the prints reflects each artist's particular emphasis. Nathan Pearce's images have a gritty snapshot quality which he presents in a purposely low-budget format as a reflection of the setting in which they are produced. The smaller color images from the series Nothing Ever Happens are scanned at a drug store to add to the effect. One gets a sense of a no-nonsense kind of place, with straightforward people and amongst Pearce's subjects, a youthful, punk-influenced style. His impressions of life in the rural Midwest are translated often into photo books and zines.
Both Barbara Diener and Ethan Aaro Jones' images reflect on a sense of loss, of something missing. Diener's series Sehnsucht (a German word loosely translated to mean nostalgia) puts figures and their surroundings at a distance from the photographer. A sense of isolation can be found in these works, depicting a quiet sadness associated with the slow loss of the traditional rural lifestyle. Diener splits her time between Chicago and Germany and explores the elusive meaning and feeling of "home" by correlating these two geographies with the feeling of longing.
Jones' photographs from the series Last Summer are warm and inviting, but express how in the endless pursuit of the perfect American summer, the subjects--and by extension, all of us--are stuck in an idyllic yet false sense of the past. The warm temperature of these images reflects what we expect summer to be, yet at the same time addresses that what we think of as "summertime" is a cultural construct that belies underlying imperfections.
Max Cozzi and Adam Turner, like Nathan Pearce, are both quite early in their photography careers. Cozzi's interests focus on the landscape in Wisconsin, finding moments of understated beauty in both natural and urban landscapes. His subjects are simple and straightforward as well as familiar, provoking at least a second thought about the sort of scenes we are more likely to pass by without even noticing.
Turner's series of images from They Used to Nail Catfish to the Telephone Poles look back at his childhood in Missouri, focusing on his grandfather, and a combination of interior and exterior spaces that feel exquisitely lived-in. The inclusion of Missouri in the exhibition is interesting, as Missouri is certainly officially a Midwestern state, but depending on who you ask, it could even be considered the South.
This informal boundary between the northern and southern (or for that matter, east and west) Midwest region is an intriguing spectrum within which, with only five artists, only the very tip of that iceberg is exposed. Yet it is wonderful to see the similarities and differences between them. It was just by chance that all of their work depicted the rural Midwest as opposed to urban settings, despite that most of the artists live in urban centers such as Chicago, Kansas City, or Minneapolis. But perhaps this isn't just by chance, and instead one of the aspects of a Midwest show I should have expected, as by virtue of its moniker as America's Heartland, it's the rural expanses and lifestyle that first comes to mind, and this aspect of it is certainly represented here.
Here and Away: Five Midwestern Photographers runs July 3-30, 2015 at The ARTgarage in Green Bay, WI. Visit theARTgarage.org for gallery opening times and directions.
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