Chris Verene Draws Our Attention to the Effects of Economic Downturn

Chris Verene has photographed his family, friends, and neighbors in Galesburg, Illinois, for the past 30 years. His frank depiction of their day-to-day lives may read like Nan Goldin photographs—if not for his diaristic approach, then for his selection of compelling subjects rendered in saturated colors.  “Home Movies” features a body of his work—photographs and short videos—that serve as a poignant afternote to a previous exhibition at Postmasters Gallery in 2010, “Family.” By chronicling the personal details and idiosyncratic particularities of his subjects’ lives, Verene draws our attention to the effects of corporate greed on the working class and the role poverty plays in shaping society at large.

With Travis’s New Dad and Zeus (2006), all the key elements of an idealized American dream are present—car, dog, nuclear family—but with each turned slightly off-kilter. The car has seen better days; the dog looms large and potentially threatening; family relations are seemingly unstable. Though five people are seen within the shot, the fact that none of them are making eye contact with each other feels significant. The narrative feels cut all too suddenly, with tires, a child barefoot in the street, and an RV camper cropped tightly to fit into the film’s square frame.

The disjointed, fragmentary sense of reality that Verene produces in many of his works is particularly strong with Jayden and Mercedes (2012), a photograph of a young boy on a front lawn surrounded by stuff: a jumble of denim, plush animals, and broken furniture. A pink sheet stretches across the center—held up by and obscuring the scene’s second protagonist—drawing attention to the boy as if he’s posing in front of a mall studio backdrop. It’s as if we are witnessing the aftermath of a big domestic upheaval, a natural disaster, or perhaps a family hit especially hard by the recession. (Many families in Galesburg were severely impacted by the 2008 economic downturn, especially those employed by Maytag, many of whom lost their jobs and pensions with the factory’s relocation to Mexico.)

Verene’s photographs feel intimate and raw without seeming exploitative. Though Verene himself does not appear in any of his shots, one can feel his presence throughout—in the tender embrace between two figures, in a bright flash used to illuminate a subject’s dress, and in a child’s candid expression. It seems clear that Verene is more than just a sympathetic observer, but an involved participant in his subjects’ lives—and this is precisely where his work derives its power.

Anna Furman

Home Movies” is on view at Postmasters Gallery, New York, Nov. 29, 2014–Jan. 17, 2015.

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