On Exhibit: words and pictures by Jeffrey Wolin | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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On Exhibit: words and pictures by Jeffrey Wolin

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"We're out at the lake having a good time when this white dude pulls his dick out in the middle of the parking lot, starts to take a leak. So I walk up to him. Hey man, I say, could you pee in the woods? There's women and kids here and you're in plain sight."

The story is hand-lettered on a large black-and-white photograph by Jeffrey Wolin titled Kevin Is Shot. Kevin, a young black man, is shown at his kitchen table. The story continues. The white dude leaves in his pickup and comes back with his shotgun. That puts an end to the good time Kevin was having. The shotgun blast puts a couple holes in his thigh. In Wolin's split-toned silver gelatin print they look like craters.

Wolin, an artist who teaches at Indiana University, says the police never documented the wounds, so Kevin took Wolin's photograph to the prosecutor to back up his charges. That photograph, now on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, goes beyond the call of duty as documentary evidence--it also embraces such arresting details as a crumpled loaf of white bread, a can of Purple Passion pop, and a Garfield-the-cat greeting card crying, "Now That I Have Your Attention . . ."

Wolin worked as a police photographer in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the mid-70s. "It was a real eye-opening, rich experience," he says. When not shooting arson scenes, mug shots, or good citizens of the month, he would read the case reports the cops wrote up.

Wolin sees himself as both a writer and a photographer. The texts he composes to go on top of his prints aspire to literary reportage, transcending the role of mere captions. He looks to medieval illuminated manuscripts and contemporary African American folk art as models for blending words and pictures.

One of Wolin's projects is a series of portraits and stories he has collected at the Crestmont Housing Project in Bloomington's Pigeon Hill, near the campus where he has taught for the last 11 years. Murder on Pigeon Hill (1991), also part of the Museum of Contemporary Photography exhibit, relates how the decapitated body of a former Indiana University graduate student was found there. Her head never was. The photographic half of this work is of Kenny, the creator of "a life-sized robot to help the FBI flush out the murderer." Wrapped around Kenny's image, Wolin's text also inventories the deer meat, cockroaches, unfiltered Camels, and chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies in Kenny's domicile. He writes of Kenny's beloved urethane creature: "It knew right from wrong. It knew God. It was jealous of other women."

Wolin says he has gotten close to four extended families in Pigeon Hill. His art is "a way their voices have gotten out, for better or worse," he says. His subjects have been compensated for their cooperation with free photographs. "I've provided families with really nice photographs they'd never be able to afford." They cost $800 apiece at art galleries.

Another series of his photographs--now on exhibit at the Catherine Edelman Gallery--reports on his own family with a similar unsparing scrutiny. On his photograph titled My Mother (1990) he writes, "My mother is losing her mind," and the upper edge of the frame cuts her outstretched hand off at the wrist. "This woman who had memorized great works of literature in dead languages could no longer read an airline ticket," he laments.

My Wonderful Sister Rita (1991) describes "a horse of a woman" who is "an inveterate liar," works as a switchboard operator, and was once president of the Arlene di Petro Fan Club. The text crawls around a photograph of a baby doll with one leg yanked off. The pacifier in its mouth visually echoes the empty hip socket.

Wolin doesn't name his ex-wife in Insanity (1991). "The last I heard of her, she was living in the streets of Washington, D.C. She had become a homeless person," he writes. Before that, he says, she'd been hitchhiking along interstate highways. The image is a naked brain, hatched from someone's skull and at rest on a smooth surface, perhaps after an autopsy or in a classroom. "In retrospect, I guess she didn't go insane all at once," Wolin writes.

The text of Insanity begins with Wolin's recollection of a job he once had at a summer camp for emotionally disturbed children. Reading the psychiatrist's report, Wolin finds that the boy with the worst autism had Auschwitz survivors as parents. Miso Remembers Auschwitz (1987) depicts a man who survived five different concentration camps. His parents, two sisters, and two brothers did not.

Wolin's works usually link a visual present with a verbal past, often tragic. One of his texts reads: "On a quiet country road in southern Indiana Del killed a two-year-old boy while DWI." The photo shows Del, haggard, the very picture of regret. But in Little Stevie and the Waterballoon, Wolin captures the moment of impact on the boy's bare chest; in this exception, the image and the text coincide in time.

Children are granted future chances, however slight. Tike Dreamed of Being a Superhero shows a boy in his Batman shirt looking aghast as the flash goes off. Another portrait of a child reads, "Taraja wanted a real-life daddy. Someone like Bill Cosby on TV," but from the rest of Wolin's account you learn she may be lucky just to have a TV that works. Two Marvins shows a father and son. They share a name. Their faces show a fruitless pursuit of happiness.

Wolin developed an interest in photography while studying medicine in Antwerp to avoid Vietnam, as he reveals in Self-Portrait With X-Ray. He switched his area of study, but a residue of medical imagery remains in his stories. There's a lot of unseen decay in Wolin's accounts--his ex-wife's brain, his sister's teeth, and his father's arthritic hip are all described as rotting.

Wolin's oeuvre ponders how destiny gets etched in his subjects' faces. As his art testifies, Wolin has been personally hit, more than once, with mystifying traumas that he inscribes in his photograph-stories. Insanity asks, "How does one explain the case of my ex-wife who went stark raving mad one day while we were married, as if some hidden switch in her head had been thrown?" It's a shutter release, not a switch, that arrests Wolin's subjects in moments anchored in their pasts. "Perfectly good people wind up in bad environments, and we never know what we're doing next," he says.

Wolin's photographs will be at the Catherine Edelman Gallery, 300 W. Superior, through October 5 (266-2350) and at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan, through October 26 (663-5554). On Thursday, October 17, Wolin will give a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Photography starting at 2 PM. Admission is $5.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Neol Jones.

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