Thursday, September 17, 2009

Steven Shore at JAG

IN SOUTH AFRICA our view of American culture is most readily gleaned from the glut of mainstream cultural contrivances that find their way to this end of the African continent. On some level they might be illuminating of American society but rarely do they evince a level of self-reflexivity that might offer us a glimpse into the heart of this multifaceted global power. However, this exhibition, which is sponsored by the Roger Ballen Foundation and presents two bodies of work from Stephen Shore, one of that country's most respected photographers, offers us a unique perspective. Not only does it capture the visual texture of American life in the Seventies, but considered an innovative photographer of his time, Shore's work gives us a window into the development of art photography in that country and how the photograph operates as a cultural object.

Certainly in setting out on a journey to photograph the length and breadth of America, Shore had intended to get a handle on the elusive character of the American urban landscape. American Surfaces and Uncommon Places, the main bodies of work on this exhibition - which are, incidentally, his most famous series of artworks - document this trip. Such journeys of discovery aren't just a staple theme in Western culture, but the "road trip" is a leitmotif of American film and literature.

In American Surfaces Shore offers an alternative twist on this theme, because in his desire to capture and analyse his experience he ends up celebrating the physical or material persona of the scenes he encounters, thus denying the inner reflection which these physical journeys are supposed to awaken. It is not in the natural landscape that Shore fixes his gaze but rather the urban locales through which he travels, such as motels, gas stations and roadside diners - all ubiquitous markers of American culture but also places that cater for transient dwellers in a state of transition. It is the mundane minutiae of these locales that Shore presents; silver trays containing apples and carrots, a plate of salad drowning in mayonnaise, a table and lamp, a television. It is also the facades of stores, houses and motels that he captures, implying that the traveller never really is able to probe beneath the surface. A few feature human subjects but always the image is banal and prosaic. There is nothing startling about his encounters nor is there a sense that they are psychologically nourishing, thus they evoke a pervasive and inescapable sense of ennui and emptiness, a kind of restlessness.

Shore is known for a dead-pan brand of photography and with his American Surfaces series, which are all small snapshots displayed in a grid in much the same way he first exhibited them in the mid-1970s, he presents his audience with a familiar style of photography: the holiday snapshot. He tries to replicate this kind of photography, but his voracious visual consumption of everything around him is an exaggerated form of this everyday compulsion to record the unimportant. In this way he is able to draw our attention to the manner in which it is the trivial details that best allow people to reconstruct the past. Consequently the snapshot operates as a visual anchor that keeps people moored to a certain time and place. Because not every detail can be captured, the occurrences and experiences that take place outside the frame fall victim to the imagination, elaboration and obscurity.

That this compulsion to document experience tends to play out only when people travel outside their familiar settings not only underpins the manner in which the "road trip's" significance has been inculcated, but people's excitement with the new, the foreign. A lamp on a bedside table has no significance at home; but in a hotel it's as if we are seeing this object for the first time. With this series Shore intended to create less-mediated photographs, which he has succeeded in achieving; their ordinariness implies they are spontaneous products.

But this mode of narration achieves another end: it offers a highly personalised and subjective view of the world, thus destabilising the traditional objective position of the documenter. It therefore becomes quite a voyeuristic experience not unlike perusing someone's holiday snapshots on Facebook. Such photographs only appear banal because we don't understand their significance to the individual. The photograph of a bathroom in a motel conjures an experience that is not directly related to that object, the object simply evokes another time and place. Taken in the Seventies, Shore's photography obviously conjures the visual character of that era; the putrid greens, dull ochres and dark browns - the colour palette of that epoch.

Scenes of banality dominate the Uncommon Places series too, but these are much more mediated images - one can observe the structures of his composition: focal points drawing the eye into the distance or in other occasions where he manipulates the eye's natural gaze. In this way he treats the urban landscape like a 19th-century painter would the natural environment. Here the images are larger in scale and the viewer is automatically consumed by them: they are more visually alluring than the American Surfaces series.

Shore's gaze is also more encompassing here: there are no close-ups; he offers up almost panoptic scenes that encompass streets, buildings and the sky. Many of the scenes recall the American Surfaces series - a motel bathroom or swimming pool - so there is this sense that he is inhabiting the same milieu. But while the bathrooms or interiors of homes or motels that he captures look uniform, they are also different, engendering the notion that an essential American character is similarly within and beyond one's grasp.

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