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A Tale of Two High Schools

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LIZ CHILSEN

at Columbia College's Hokin Center Gallery

Of course no two high schools are alike, but it can be shocking to discover how extreme the differences can be. In her exhibit "Class Pictures: Photographs From Two American High Schools," which continues through November 30 at Columbia College's Hokin Center Gallery, Liz Chilsen has placed photographs of a large urban high school with an ethnically diverse student population (Carl Schurz High School on the north side) alongside photographs of a small rural high school in a homogeneous farming community (Marathon High School in Marathon, Wisconsin). She began by photographing Schurz, which was hailed as a "palace of learning" when it was built in 1910; after seeing the high school in Marathon while visiting her sister there, she decided to photograph that school, built in 1963, as well.

As she writes in a statement accompanying the show, her purpose in exhibiting photographs of the two schools together was "to raise questions. Not only about the values that have led us to construct these spaces, but also about the evidence of change in our society's attitudes about schooling." The exhibit consists of nearly 40 color and black-and-white photographs of the two schools' interior spaces. They are arranged in groups of two or more and are not titled, so that as we consider individual images we are also encouraged to analyze relationships between them. This arrangement prompts us to consider how students' education, aspirations, and sense of self are affected by their school's physical condition. It also brings into focus distressing inequities.

One pair of photographs in particular succinctly presents the differences between the schools. Both photographs show a hallway and lockers. In the Marathon photograph, we see a long tiled hallway lined with gray metal lockers; at the end of this hallway another tiled wall is punctuated by a porcelain drinking fountain. Light pours in from an unseen window or entry on the right and glances off numerous reflective surfaces. There's so much brightness in this hallway, you're tempted to shield your eyes to see the image better. In this photograph Chilsen demonstrates a fine ability to control active, intense light--a light that reveals the nuances of gleaming surfaces, but also conveys a disturbing sterility. It's hard to believe this pristine space has ever been occupied by teenagers.

None of the lockers in the Marathon hallway bear marks of any kind, and each is just like the others. In contrast, the accompanying Schurz photograph presents a corner of a hallway with a set of six dilapidated lockers. Dented, with doors ajar, they show signs of constant use. One door is decorated with pictures of clouds and rainbows, another with an "Army--Be All You Can Be" bumper sticker. Light floods this space too, but it settles slowly and quietly onto dull surfaces, calling our attention to the chipped and cracked plaster of the wall opposite the lockers and to the numerous places where this wall has been summarily repainted with colors that don't quite match the original pale yellow. "This is all you get," each blunt roller marker of paint seems to say.

On the south wall of the gallery, Chilsen has placed a row of five photographs of Schurz. The series begins with a shot of the prairie-style building's still impressive exterior; from here Chilsen takes us through a number of interior spaces, including a hall and staircase, a lounge, a math classroom, and a boy's bathroom. Here her interest in marks made in the school comes to the fore: the once grand staircase is overpowered by the graffiti that surrounds it, and the equations on the blackboard in the math classroom vie for attention with gang symbols and other graffiti on the walls and teacher's desk. The floor in this room is littered with bits of paper. The color photograph of a lounge shows a number of vinyl-covered chairs lined up against a pale blue wall. Again the light that flows into the space is interesting in and of itself, but it also points to significant peculiarities of that space by accentuating marks of neglect--the clumsy patches on the blue chair cushions and the peeling paint on the wall.

Across from this series five photographs of Marathon take us through different kinds of spaces: an entrance hall, a science classroom, a home-economics room, and another entrance with sparkling glass doors. There are marks here too, but of another kind. Instead of graffiti the science-lab wall bears a laminated sign that reads "Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few engage in it--Henry Ford." In the photograph of the home-economics classroom, which has a row of labeled canisters in the extreme foreground, the absence of marks is most noticeable: not one smudge of flour mars their metallic surfaces. The neatly arranged desks in the science room are probably no older than the mismatched desks in the Schurz math classroom, but they appear to be in mint condition. One brown vinyl seat sticks out like a sore thumb among all the red ones, a lone element of diversity. Similarly, by its sheer unexpectedness a tiny speck of dust resonates with importance in the photograph of an entrance hall, dramatically punctuating a slab of light on the waxed linoleum floor.

Chilsen photographed Marathon during the summer, when classes were not in session, but took many of the pictures of Schurz during the school year. While this strategy certainly emphasizes the differences between the physical condition of the two buildings, it also distorts reality. As I viewed the show, I found myself growing increasingly suspicious of the pristine appearance of the Marathon interiors. If at least some of them had been shot while school was in session, the comparison of the schools would have been less manipulative.

The emphasis on peeling paint and graffiti in the photographs of Schurz eventually dulls their impact. But then, perhaps that's the point--our experience begins to parallel that of the students and teachers who use the building. And some of the pairings, though pertinent, make rather obvious points: a photograph of a teacher's desk that bears signs in three languages exhorting students not to write on desks is juxtaposed with a close-up shot of a desk top covered with graffiti.

For the most part, however, the show gets beyond simple oppositions of maintenance and deterioration, order and chaos. Though physical disorder reigns in the Schurz photos, evidence of learning and the consideration of contemporary issues is present: above a blackboard bearing notes on good and evil, love and hate, and the question of identity are posters detailing women's contributions in history. This scene is quite different in atmosphere from the tidy Marathon home-economics classroom, which suggests that girls there are still being guided toward traditional domestic roles. In fact, despite the presence of computers and abundant supplies, the Marathon interiors seem to exist in a kind of time warp, which implies that what's expected of the students and the values imparted to them may be more in tune with the 50s than the 90s.

One of the most informative pairs of photographs in the show juxtaposes two unlike subjects. A color photograph of a Marathon science classroom focuses on a set of shelves bearing stacks of new textbooks, rows of labeled jars, horticulture magazines, and a large mounted Future Farmers of America banner. A great deal of care has gone into the arrangement of objects on these shelves; the scene indicates a benevolent, reassuring world. At the same time it hints at an unchanging social structure in which, like the jars on the shelves, everyone stays in their place. The accompanying black-and-white Schurz photograph presents a view of an old wooden door covered with fingerprints. A bell schedule, framed under glass, is mounted on the upper half of the door, and the glass has been shattered. A cross section of a tree trunk has been mounted on the lower half of the door--whether by some caprice or to patch the door, it's hard to tell--and a dark liquid has been spilled on its surface.

What kind of message does a door like this send to teenagers when they confront it for the first time? And are their options--though perhaps different--any less rigidly defined than those of the Marathon teenagers? These two photographs pointedly ask how and why, in a country ostensibly committed to equality, one school is in disrepair while another is spotless, filled with new books and up-to-date equipment. Yet Chilsen wisely refrains from serving up easy, immediate answers.

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