Seeing is believing: Taking a deeper look at Unseen Columbia

Mar 13, 2020 3:14PM

Written By Aarik Danielsen, Columbia Daily Tribune Aug 7, 2016

There are as many different Columbias as there are residents of the city.

For most of us, our Columbia is constructed of places we live, work, study, eat and play -- and the shortest possible routes between each.

We easily can overlook other Columbias and, if we’re not careful, even miss what is hidden in plain sight along our routes or just outside our residences.

A masterful exhibit at the Montminy Art Gallery, then, functions like a new prescription, a fresh pair of glasses so we might see what otherwise exists outside our field of vision.

Unseen Columbia is the work of street photographer Jon Luvelli, a Mid-Missouri resident whose work is nationally known. Images taken between 2013 and this year drive home the point that just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

With the purpose of a documentarian and the eye of an artist, Luvelli captivates by capturing individual scenes that give a fuller picture. There are no isolated images here; they are all pages of a story still being written -- the story of us.

He shows us the prides and joys of people, their lifelines, the routines known only to those who engage in them.

We see mystical messages spelled out on asphalt, read the stories told in storefront windows, experience moments of dizzying intimacy and painful isolation.

All are equal in Luvelli’s viewfinder. The children and aged, the black and white, the police and the passed-out in the street. The photographer forces us to reckon with economic realities we would do anything not to see.

In his work the lines between “the beautiful people” and those we might call “freaks” -- the tattooed, the masquerading, the street preacher, the Hare Krishna -- virtually disappear.

And Columbia landmarks such as the “No Gas” convenience store and University of Missouri are treated with equal reverence. The outliers, Luvelli seems to say, aren’t really outliers.

The exhibit contains delightful neighbors -- the pure freedom of a dog bounding across a Columbia College athletic field sits next to a picture of college “bros” enjoying a spirited Slip N Slide session in East Campus.

Luvelli captures a wide range of magic hours -- witching hours to some -- dawn at Stephens Lake Park, the first hint of sunset over downtown, hours long past when your mother said good things stop happening. Yet each moment teems with life, breath and community.

Even as Luvelli captures moments of anxiety, there is a calm to this body of images. He uses a black-and-white palette, but the images are soulful and somehow seem more colorful than most.

Luvelli’s greatest gift is composition -- he occupies tight spaces and explores the nooks and crannies of our city.

There is a particular delight in images such as “IC,” in which a young woman’s face peers over the silver door of an ice machine, only the I and C visible.

Among the most resonant images is “Graffiti Beach,” which captures the beauty of outsider art in a corridor near Flat Branch. “Inhale” is the portrait of a young man in what appears to be a mouse costume, smoke exhaled out of an unzipped mouth hole.

The main figure in “Morning Song” is a young musician playing his guitar while sitting against an exterior brick wall. He assumes that position so as not to wake his roommate, still inside. Walking out of frame, a man that looks as if he could be the guitarist 25 or 30 years from now.

“Another Reason to Love Ninth St.” beautifully explains the show. Two policemen, mounted on horses, give wry looks to the camera. To their left are a pair of street musicians -- a standing guitarist and a snare drummer, seated, cigarette dangling from his mouth, with the look of a young Joe Strummer.

Rather than exist in conflict, these two duos display co-existence, a sort of co-dependency. They convey the idea that everything and everyone in a city are connected. That we are not individual actors but forces perpetually acting upon each other in small, simple, hopefully beautiful ways.

The curator’s statement for the show mentions that even though the Montminy is situated within the Boone County Historical Society, the gallery can support “art just for art’s sake.”

But it is absolutely fitting that Unseen Columbia is on the BCHS grounds. This is our history -- it might not make the textbooks or even the nightly news, but is the lived experience that keeps our city humming and moving forward.

In “If I Had Your Faith,” we see a woman’s face partially hidden behind a spider’s web, its mischievous maker prominently perched in the foreground.

The title card contains this statement: “Have faith and look closer at the beauty around you.”

This is the heart of the exhibit and its greatest hope -- that we might look closer, see more and have faith. Faith that others’ Columbias are not a threat to our own. That in fact they can bleed into one, the unlovely getting a little love, the unwelcome turning into something we cherish.

The Bible says faith is the substance of what we hope for and the evidence of things unseen. Luvelli seems to agree in a strange way, though he offers things once unseen as evidence for our collective faith.