JTF (just the facts): A total of 41 color photographs, framed in white with no mat, and hung in the reception and two main gallery rooms; a few additional images are apparently available for viewing in the office. All of the works are square format chromogenic prints with hand written captions. The prints are sized either 24×20 or 36×30, and both are printed in editions of 6+2AP. There are 11 images in the smaller size and 30 images in the larger size in the show. All of the works on display were taken between 1992 and 2010. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Twin Palms (here) and is available from the gallery for $65. (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: If we were to organize a hypothetical photography exhibit called “The Family as Muse”, there would be a nearly endless variety of superlative imagery to choose from. Maybe we might select images from Sally Mann, Nicholas Nixon, and Tina Barney, or perhaps Doug DuBois, Larry Sultan, Mitch Epstein and Nan Goldin, or really any number of deserving others. Chris Verene’s pictures of his extended family would happily fit into this sprawling exhibition, and would stick out for their unflinching sense of documentary reality.
Plenty of photographers have pointed their cameras as loved ones and come out with images that are filled with dignity, tenderness, and inner strength. Verene’s images have these same qualities, but it is his willingness to see eccentricities and quirks, weaknesses and failures in these people that makes these photographs original. An outsider might make these same pictures with a sense of subtle mockery or condescension, but with Verene as an insider in this story of real family struggle, the images become alternately heartbreaking and hopeful.
Part of the reason this happens is that Verne’s images are adorned with small texts that act like a quiet voice over, providing an oral storyline to go with the visual one on the wall. By giving these people names and context, the stories become specific, individual and personal, even though they may represent more universal conditions we can all identify with. A man stands with a strange expression on his face, near an empty swing set made of old hubcaps; the text reads “after the divorce, Steve never saw his girls again”; suddenly an odd and unidentifiable scene is transformed into something crushingly woeful. A mother tends to a pair of girls in their carseats; the text reads “Amber and her girls are living in her car”, and again, a thin film of agony alters the mood.
As you wander through the galleries, the stories cover multiple generations and chronicle divorces, lost jobs, babies, packs of kids and dogs, trailers, making due and getting by. Time passes and we see kids grow and parents age; new challenges replace old ones. And yet there are surprising moments of simple joy buried in these hard and often depressing situations: kids being swung in circles by their arms, the delight of a Renaissance Faire costume, the bliss of lying on your back in the driveway.
At their best, Verene’s images are condensed emotion, densely packed moments of aching, where the action has taken place off stage and the results are less obvious but all the more distressing. His pictures successfully put an intimate face on the economic hardship and poverty that has touched many in recent years, his true stories more subtly tragic than any he could have dreamed up.
Collector’s POV: Regardless of size, the prints in this show are priced in ratcheting editions, starting at $2500, moving through $3500, $5000, and $8000, and ending at $10000, with the last print reserved for institutional buyers. Verene’s work has not reached the secondary markets with any consistency, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.