This show of American landscapes by photographer Jeff Brouws held one's attention because of the range of moods it seemed to reflect, from amusement to anguish. The first work you saw, in the entry space, was a portfolio titled "Signs Without Signification" (2003-07), its prints ganged on the wall, comprised of images of blank or empty metal frames that had once held illuminated roadside signs advertising local businesses. The repeated vacuity was what made it a sight gag, and in the next room the motif continued in a photograph that pitched a glowing red Target-store logo on one side against the soft pink gleam of snow-covered Colorado mountains on the other side, as if the light given off by American consumerism is what really colors this wild, primitive landscape.
When you moved into the second room, however, the mood became mixed. Here were North Dakota panoramas, each work composed of two prints in a single frame (a kind of photographic double-wide) and a single print in a separate frame. The panoramas depict elements of the local economy—a convenience store, grain elevators, a meadow dotted with commercial beehives—while the single prints show Minuteman missile silos; wall labels note how many miles the two subjects are from each other. The lightness of being is gone in these pictures. An unmistakable chill has set in. But what does the shift in mood mean? Is the point that these North Dakotans still have to live with the Cold War's reign of nuclear terror? Or is it that these silos are just another local enterprise that has gone out of business?
The final room tipped the scales toward the dark side, for the subject here was failed and abandoned factories from the northeast to the Midwest. "Discarded Landscapes," Brouws calls the series. Three of the four studies, including the most recent, from 2007, are black and white, an effect that, in the age of digital photography, suggests we're looking at an irretrievable past. Informed, articulate wall text written by Brouws summarized the conditions we're all aware of now—first suburbanization, then regionalization and now globalization—that have led to this seemingly irreversible decline of American prosperity. Having begun by being amused, we have ended feeling hopeless. The range of the work leaves no question about Brouws's acute intelligence and considerable talent as a photographer.
The American landscape has been homogenized into tracts of modular housing and big box stores tied together by highways. Catherine Opie's American Cities and Jeff Brouws's Approaching Nowhere both respond to this loss of geographical identity. Opie has set about defining the essential characteristics of five American cities. She laments, "We have lost the original dream of what a city was with the proliferation of the building of suburbia throughout America." Her search is for the remnants of unique identity that can inspire and provide a model for community. Brouws photographs the places in the United States that have lost their identity: the farmland turned into a Wal-Mart, the abandoned inner city. His photographs "[...] capture a more melancholic, alienated environment that speaks less of freedom or hope, and more about the failed expectations and promises of the American experience." He photographs places that have been designated as on the way to somewhere else, places that bear the scars of globalization.
Opie's images define the identity of five American cities with one essential, distinctive feature for each. New York is reduced to Wall Street, L.A. to its mini-malls. Chicago is represented by its architectural monuments at night. The black and white, panoramic images are grand and filled with nostalgia. Empty of any direct human presence, the lights of the city at night imply the concentration of people and ideas that make cities great. These images present a dream of a city, a place with no suffering, segregation, or poverty.
Brouws divides his work up into three categories: the highway landscape, the franchised landscape, and the discarded landscape. In the photographs, roads lead to more of the same, walls and facades create literal dead ends and images of ruined industrial-era structures surrounded by empty lots. His photographs are of places no one specifically recognizes yet they seem familiar to everyone.
Compare any of Opie's romantic, nocturnal images of Chicago to Brouws's Wal-Mart, Indiana, 2006 also shot at night. Two-thirds of the square frame is empty, black, underexposed. The site is represented as a literal void. The building is inescapable; it is shown to have no doors or windows. Lights on the roof form lines of perspective indicating that this building is huge. The lights do not indicate presence as in the Opie photographs but instead serve the purpose of surveillance. They indicate an absence both of people and the trust of community.
Opie's American Cities longs for the vitality of the shared space of the city. Idealized, each city becomes an icon of difference, a talisman against homogeneity but ultimately an illusion. Brouws's Approaching Nowhere depicts without glamour the lonely void that emerges from the destruction caused by the economic forces of globalization. Both Opie and Brouws use the built environment to create images that place difference, individuality and nuance in the past. While American Cities presents a nostalgic view of an American ideal, Approaching Nowhere depicts a devastated present.
The title of Jeff Brouws's show of photos of postindustrial American towns, "Approaching Nowhere," had the unfortunate effect of making it sound as if the artist's mission were to establish a bleak vision of America. However, the pictures themselves tell a more nuanced story.
Some of the images did look hard at rural or suburban towns deserted by the industries that once kept them alive. Others, however, hinted at something more than sociological dimensions as saturated color and spot-on composition gave rise to peculiar, unanticipated glories.
A large 2004 diptych was the centerpiece of the show. One half - Superstore under construction in farmland, Indiana - focused on a long, high concrete wall, braced by steel struts on one side, dominating a muddy terrain strewn with construction rubble. The second half - Farmland adjacent to superstore construction completed the panorama from a vantage point closer to a passing roadway, with a distant cluster of farm buildings, the overcast sky, and cement-colored mud lending the whole scene a foreboding mood. Yet the photographs themselves, beyond their documentary function, have a grandeur that redeems what they describe.
Although the threat of superstores portends a dark future for the residents of the landscape, Brouws found inspiration for rich and vivid work there.
Brouws calls his new show of American landscapes (and the book they're taken from) Approaching Nowhere, but his view of our national wasteland isn't uniformly bleak. That's probably because he delivers the bad news - abandoned factories, shuttered businesses, empty highways, lifeless inner cities - with pained regret and concern. And because Brouws works in color even the dreariest images have a subdued sensuousness: muddy puddles at a superstore construction site, the greenish glow of a highway sign in the fog, the dull gleam of orphaned "Inc" letters on a brick wall. No matter how despairing, the work stops short of the dead end.
Jeff Brouws' photographs come from love and worry, and at their best they elicit the same. An ardent admirer of the vernacular and obsolete, he has photographed drive-in theaters, old signage, shuttered factories and declining urban centers across the country. He also chronicles, with evident sorrow, what has risen in their place: homogenous housing developments and generic big-box malls.
Approaching Nowhere, a selection of images from 2000-05 at Craig Krull Gallery, coheres into a moving meditation on the loss of place and texture in the contemporary American landscape. Working along the lines of Wright Morris and Walker Evans, Brouws photographs the vernacular like a portraitist concisely extracting character. His images of an Ohio diner interior and a Montana roadhouse read as tender acts of preservation.
Broad cultural and economic shifts are at work behind the scenes Brouws photographs, and his commentary for a forthcoming book details his interest in the sociology of place. The images may be dense with political content, but they have a formal clarity that is often stunning.
Brouws is an astute colorist, his palette of gleaming primaries in one image or stolid grays in another intensifying his take on each slice of Americana. The depth of the work owes as much to his perceptions of the country's changing face as to concern for the shifting shape of its soul.
Something like the German photographer August Sanders' "Man of the Twentieth Century," Brouws' American Typologies catalogues a national identity. Instead of using people, though, Brouws uses icons - the work is a series of visual alphabets. Here, signage, houses, trucks, strip malls, farmland, and gas stations, are all unpeopled, richly colored, and arranged in discrete grids. The effect is surprisingly heartening. The individual prints - of an aggressively lavender stucco house, an expectant parking lot, a neon sign reading "Terrible" against a purplish, swirled-ink sky - are beautiful, but also one admires the ambition, sociological inquisitiveness, and organization of the project itself. One of the show's most memorable groupings is a grid of nine photos of street signs and billboards that collectively form a found poem about the commandments and bylaws of American life: "We Have," "Try," "Money," "We Can Help You," and "Temperance."
American vernacular, a catchall term under which might be lumped low-end architecture, kitschy roadside phenomena and artifacts of rural-urban nostalgia, has been a theme for several generations of photographers. And the work of Jeff Brouws is a fine addition to the canon. Over the years, Mr. Brouws has assembled series of photographs of repetitive mundanities that dot the American landscape, like abandoned gas stations, advertising signs, beat-up pickup trucks, surveillance devices, parking lots, barns and strung-out storage facilities for consumer excess.
His photographs, in color and black and white, are arranged in grid formats, giving his deadpan subjects a sort of narrative content. One lively series is "Freshly Painted Houses, Daly City, CA" (1991), a grid of 24 mid-1950s tract houses, once drably uniform but in these photographs perked up with brilliant color schemes by Asian immigrants who in the 70's began to supplant relocating Americans.
Mr. Brouws acknowledges a deep debt to Ed Ruscha, the California Pop and Conceptual artist who applied serial photography to American commonplaces in the 1960's, beginning with his enormously influential "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" (1962). Mr Brouws's own shots of 26 abandoned gas stations are an homage to Mr. Ruscha. He carries on the tradition with verve.
The flashy kitsch of traveling carnivals is grist for the lens of Jeff Brouws, California-born, who has been photographing these and related dying American attractions - now subsumed by Las Vegas and Disneyland - for more than a decade.
Serpentine roller coasters, dazzling neon signs, sideshow freaks, intrepid high divers, hokey games of chance, fortunetellers, Ferris wheels and targets that you sock with a ball have found their way into his large-scale color prints along with faded signs that proclaim the glories of carnivals past.
An awesome orbital phenomenon is the tilted red, white and green whirl of a toplike neon sign (1987) in Ventura, California, while a weathered vignette (1998) of two bumper cars about to collide, painted on a peeling white wall in Ashbury Park, New Jersey, reveals the anemic state of one Ace Amusement palace there. Playland, designated a National Historic Landmark and still hanging on in Rye, New York, is represented by a surreal night print of an ornate snack shack whose striped awning advertises "Roast Beef & Rye."
Mr. Brouws, whose photographic interests lie in sites that reflect what he refers to in an accompanying book as "abandonment and loss," has previously focused on derelict gasoline stations and other highway phenomena. This mixed show, with some superb prints and others somewhat flat, still offers a fine wallow in carny nostalgia.
Jeff Brouws' photographs are often compared to the 1930's documentary work of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers, as his images explore many of the same vernacular themes. His ongoing survey seeks out the quiet dramas within humble structures, amusement parks, small towns, and back roads. If his images recall the incisive documents produced by the FSA, it is due to his close study of, and affinity for, the period; a decidedly personal interpretation of contemporary American culture, a visual study of its characteristic traditions and its shortcomings.
In 1987, about the time he started to experiment with color photography, Jeff Brouws began exploring the subject of the carnival. A spring exhibition at Robert Koch Gallery showed the extended carnival series in a selection of luminous, digitally produced prints (from a LightJet printer), revealing his broad treatment of color, from the saturated early images to the more minimal works for which he has become known. Here Brouws turns his wry, subdued vision to the spectacle and nostalgia of the carnival midway. He singles out one crystalline memory at a time, each image isolating a specific detail from the larger chaos: a single figure preparing for a high dive; a solitary red bumper car abandoned in an empty parking lot; a self-serve cone sign glowing against the night sky. Even the spinning carnival rides are reduced to flat discs of brilliant color. Brouws delights in revealing the carnival's illusions - false fronts, broken-down rides, peeling paint, ridiculous signs - but he gives equal attention to the enduring spectacle, even in demise, of the carnival itself. In one image, jumbled cables snake their way across the pavement in front of an ice-cream stand, pointing to the energy that fuels the stand's brilliance.
Through long exposures, the crowds all but disappear, effectively restoring the crowds to the photographer's private space of memory. This unpopulated view serves to intensify the experience, framing the amusement park through isolated, iconic details. The result is an elegiac rendering of a subject that is more frequently regarded as faintly sinister, even grotesque. Painted signs announcing a giant rat, for instance, and the heavy male figure that sits at the entrance to the exhibit, become surprisingly poignant. The images momentarily suspend the noise, confusion, and smells, and we experience the carnival as though under glass.