Chris Verene, "Galesburg Series," Sept. 11-Oct. 17, 1998, at Vaknin Schwartz Gallery, 1831 Peachtree Road N.E., Atlanta, Ga. 30309.
Chris Verene's "Galesburg Series" of documentary color photographs represents 11 years of looking closely at life in a small town -- specifically, Galesburg, Ill., where Verene was born. But it's not just any trip through a family photo album. Verene delves repeatedly and delightedly into the oddly comic beauty of his family, their neighbors and friends in the economically depressed town.
Bored teenagers hang out in the Jewish cemetery and pretend they're witches. An abusive husband, cousin Steve, is abandoned by his wife and moves in with his sweet old aunt. A resident of the local Cottonwood Home wavers between depression and bliss.
Verene, who is Atlanta-based, considers Galesburg "an absolute lifelong commitment." He has shown his work at Thread Waxing Space and in the Paul Morris Gallery in New York. His current exhibition is his first solo at Vaknin Schwartz in Atlanta. It includes 20 chromogenic prints, each measuring 20 by 24 inches.
His untitled photographs are accompanied by handwritten subtitles that work best when minimal. Though the images could be either fact or fiction, Verene's "Galesburg series" is not a sequence of staged scenarios or a judgmental statement. His subjects are sometimes disturbing, though seemingly comfortable with the camera.
Verene prefers a hard frontal light that catches his subjects in a shallow, compressed space. Steve and his Car is the subtitle of a rich blue-against-blue image: Verene's blue-clad cousin stands before a sapphire car, a small frame house and a sky as blue as the Virgin Mary's robe. He looks as if he's been cut and pasted into the scene. A more menacing view captioned Steve in the Garage shows him emerging from a haunting, dark space with a rope in his hand.
Every image holds quirky reverence to symbols of ritual, tradition, home and relationships. There's My cousin Candi with her two favorite customers from her job at the Sirloin Stockade, Verene's frequently exhibited signature image of a cousin's wedding. Against the backdrop of an American flag quilt, the bride-cousin, her groom and friends pose for the camera. Their plastic perma-smiles are part human, part zombie.
Verene also celebrates pathos in objects such as the orangey-yellow holiday food his family enjoys, their kitsch home furnishings and a forlorn county-fair flower competition between the zinnia and the rose.
Sometimes Verene's dearest subjects are represented only by their reflection. A reflection of his grandmother in a mirror evokes a strong sense of intimacy. Sitting in front of her dresser with curlers in her hair, we catch a glimpse of her vanitas.
The town's juvenile misfits, new babies, maiden aunts and rehabilitated mental patients present an edgy, cinematic narrative parallel to Nan Goldin's debauched nightlife and Larry Clark's delinquent Kids.
Verene makes it clear that what may feel like an insignificant or terribly uncomfortable moment in personal history, could be the hook on which we hang the keys to our identity.