United, divided, or indefinable? "Peripheral Views: States of America" at the MOCP | Bleader

United, divided, or indefinable? "Peripheral Views: States of America" at the MOCP


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Photo from Martin Hyers and William Mebanes Empire series
The curators of the Museum of Contemporary Photography's "Peripheral Views: States of America" suggest that any effort to distill the complexities of 21st century American life into one exhibit would be an exercise in futility. "Ultimately," the wall text reads, "the works underscore the impossibility of creating an encompassing picture of contemporary America." The 12 artists included in the show, which occupies all three floors of the museum, approach this open-ended subject from a range of viewpoints.

Harry Shearer's video installation Silent Echo Chamber features multiple television sets showing satellite footage of individual talking heads—John McCain, Karl Rove, Anderson Cooper—in the moments before they go on air. The installation is thoroughly unsettling: the figures fidget nervously, blinking and practicing their smiles for the camera as we, the voyeurs, observe these public figures in moments that no one is supposed to be watching. Swiss artists Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs embarked on a road trip to explore the wildness of the American west, creating elaborately staged, ominously lit images of barren landscapes.

The sense of unease present in these two works permeates the entire exhibit. Despite the range of media used and locations visited by the artists, the America that emerges most clearly in "Peripheral Views" is a nation haunted by devastating economic inequality, political isolation, and a lack of interpersonal interaction. Almost entirely devoid of portraits or human figures, the works focus instead on isolated landscapes and rundown neighborhoods.

Michael Mergen traveled throughout the country photographing the factories and clapboard houses that share the White House's street address (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) to highlight the separation of those in power from the general populace. Doug Rickard's excellent series A New American Picture uses images taken from Google Street View to create street scenes of neighborhoods across the U.S. that have been particularly hard hit by the recession. On this remote road trip, we see an overgrown lot in Detroit or three men standing outside a discount beauty supply store in Camden, New Jersey—images made all the more unsettling by the figures' pixilated, unidentifiable faces. For Object Orange, an anonymous group of artists working in Detroit drew attention to the hundreds of abandoned homes scattered throughout the city by coating their facades with bright orange paint, successfully pressuring the local government to demolish them.

The dominant narrative of the exhibit is one that is immediately familiar to those of us living in the midwest: one of cities blighted by the economic downturn, of Wonder Bread and semiautomatic rifles, of houses left to rot in the snow. Yet I found myself pondering several notable absences. Issues of race are addressed only indirectly, in Rickard's series, which underscores the persistent connections between ethnicity and economic inequality. There is little reference to immigration, minimal emphasis on technology, and an overall focus on suburban rather than urban America.

A phone conversation with photographer William Mebane, whose Empire series occupies an entire room of the museum, led me to rethink at least some of these perceived absences. Between 2004 and 2007, Mebane and his collaborator Martin Hyers embarked on road trips to 25 states with the intention of creating a photographic archive of the objects and homes of strangers from a variety of ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds. Yet according to Mebane, many people interpret the series as a nostalgic look at the American heartland.

"People assume that they are all rural or middle-class or midwestern and it's just not the case," Mebane said. "It's because we have feelings of what certain places are like. Many of those photos were taken in Atlanta, LA, Washington, D.C."

Mebane and Hyers archive the keepsakes of people's private lives: a shelf of trophies, a pacifier, a set of monogrammed towels, or a framed painting of Martin Luther King Jr. Each object is photographed separately, confined to its own frame. Despite the photographers' conscious attempts to seek out a range of subjects, little in these photos suggests that they were taken in the 21st century or speaks to the diversity of the objects' owners. Yet Mebane and Hyers set out to create a documentary archive of people's belongings—an accurate representation of the building blocks of our daily experiences.

"One thing that gets raised a lot is that there is a lot of old stuff in the photos," Mebane remarked. "That is a conflict of interest with how we think of ourselves in America. We as a culture tend to view ourselves through the lens of TV. We assume Americans live in cool urban apartments like on Friends, with all these new gadgets. But when Marty and I went out and met people in gas stations and supermarkets and went to their houses and backyards, we certainly found some places like that but more often we found older stuff. Seeing the series through the lens of the post-2008 bubble, we know that that isn't the way that most Americans live. Most Americans just get by."

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