JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the divided back gallery space. All of the works are chromogenic color prints, made between 2006 and 2012. Each of the prints is sized 36×30, and is available in an edition of 6+AP. The exhibit also includes a darkened area showing a series of 8 video clips (2009-2014, total running time 29:34 minutes, in an edition of 3+AP) on a large screen in a theater-like arrangement and a series of 2 clips on a video monitor (2013-2014, total running time 4:33 minutes, in an edition of 3+AP). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: When seen in the larger context of his successful photographic career, it seems entirely natural that Chris Verene would start to experiment with short videos. Having made a name for himself by taking heartbreakingly honest pictures of his extended family and friends over several decades in the community of Galesburg, Illinois, his newest show finds him capturing short vignettes and interviews of these same people in video form, extending his single frames into rounder portraits of loved ones that highlight nuances of personality, voice, and gesture. It’s as if the frozen moments of his formal photographs have come to life, making the everyday challenges and emotions they depict that much more real.
Verene’s Home Movies aren’t the nostalgic milestones we might expect from such a title; there is no little league baseball, no grandma’s birthday, no Christmas morning, no weddings or new puppies. Instead they chronicle families wearily struggling to get by, pushed further toward the breaking point (or perhaps over it in some cases) by the personal devastations of the recent economic crisis. His videos put an authentic face on lost jobs, foreclosed houses, broken marriages, and dashed hopes, in ways that photographs miss – it’s the glimpse of a sigh, or the fleeting sorrow, or the exhausted reaction that hits like a ton of bricks.
Verene is a quiet, even handed listener, letting hardships unfold without sentimentality or criticism, finding unassuming universality in his American stories, but with wrenching new consequences. Verene’s friend Amber cashes her welfare check and buys lottery tickets, scratching them off feverishly in the car; we know this will end badly, but somehow Amber wins $100, and the genuine joy and relief in her reaction is tragically poignant. The story continues as she reinvests her winnings in more tickets, which bleed away into nothing, and she’s left with an emptiness which is predictable, but no less achingly sad. Another moment captures her flash of unexpected happiness at receiving flowers from her boyfriend, only to later understand that he found them in the garbage, which deflates her a bit, but she makes the best of it. Taking showers at the campground (and combing out her mother’s hair), applying for a job at McDonald’s, venting about the family court taking away her kids (their heads shaved after a bout of lice), she puts on a brave face, but the situation is deteriorating and she knows it. Seen together, the emotional weight of the seemingly casual videos piles up, their struggling intimacy bringing us right inside the silent trauma.
Verene’s photographs pick up where his previous show left off (from 2010, review here), bringing us up to speed with various families we’ve come to recognize. His cousin Candi’s kids now watch TV from a cramped camper (having lost their house), the age appropriate distractions of headphones and a doll bed jammed in tight. Amber’s kids are literally an armful, one in her grasp, one over her shoulder, and a third in a bassinet at her feet, the pile of hangers nearby a reminder of laundry that needs doing. Other kids play in the yard with piles of jeans, stuffed animals, and leftover couches, pose in a demolition derby truck, complete with antlers and winning trophy (baby held high), or pile into a car with the dog hanging out the window. There is a unspoken sense of families retrenching, making do with less, sharing space with more people, and supporting each other, even as the larger situation unravels around them. Verene’s photographs pack this detail in, many with multiple figures seen subtly interacting, their looks and poses giving us clues to relationships and mindsets.
There has always been something intensely unguarded and personal about Chris Verene’s work, as though we have been let farther inside these lives than is altogether comfortable. His new videos take this empathetic intensity to a new level, revealing hard realities with supportive tenderness, making the unfathomable abstractions of widespread economic meltdown very specific and tangible; lives that were already at risk in more ways than one have been toppled over. Verene’s art lies in gently telling us these layered stories, allowing us to feel all the conflicted emotions that come from fighting through such tough situations as though we were living them ourselves.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced in ratcheting editions, starting at $3000, and moving up in $1500 increments; the pricing for the video works (as individual works and as a complete set) is still being finalized. Verene’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.