Documenting everyday people

Artwork based on Depression-era photos by Lange

Art Review

April 22, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Dust Bowl Refugees, Nancy Linden's latest show at Resurgam Gallery, continues the artist's earlier work on the theme of marginalized people while pointing out the problematic relationship between photography and truth.

The show's title piece, an installation of paintings and collage that fills the entire front room of the gallery, is based on a famous Depression-era photograph by Dorothea Lange of six tenant farmers who have been thrown off their land.

In Lange's picture, the men stand stolidly in front of an old-fashioned country store with their arms folded across their chests or hanging loosely at their sides as they stare into the camera.

It is a picture of men who have been defeated by circumstances but who have not surrendered to despair. They wear expressions of fierce determination, even defiance, despite the hopelessness of their situation, and one gets the feeling that they do not yet know, as we do, that economic and social forces far beyond their control have rendered their old livelihoods obsolete.

Linden's installation re-creates the life-size figures of the farmers along one whole wall of the gallery. But she has replaced the store behind them with a blank horizon line that extends around the room and continues across the opposite wall. This device, coupled with the sound of recorded folk music from the period played through speakers in the gallery, has the effect of making the viewer feel as if he or she had stepped back in time into the same space inhabited by the dispossessed men in the photograph.

All but one of the figures are painted in oil on canvas, to which Linden has affixed scraps of yellowed newspaper, old documents and other found objects that evoke a bygone era. One of the farmers, however, is drawn directly on the wall with graphite and pastels. The effect is to give the group of figures as a whole a heightened sense of three-dimensionality.

Dust Bowl Refugees is thus not simply a series of paintings based on a photograph but rather an environment that viewers don't so much look at as enter imaginatively; the installation is simultaneously an image and a physical site where past and present intersect.

I find this use of photographs immensely interesting because it raises in visceral terms the problem of how photography represents social and political reality.

Lange's photograph was made as part of the documentary project organized by the federal Farm Security Administration, whose mission was to garner support for government relief programs during the Depression. Lange and the other FSA photographers traveled around the country in search of images that showed the kinds of problems the Roosevelt administration's programs were meant to address.

The FSA photographers worked on the assumption that photographs depict an "objective" reality that exists independently of the camera. But photographs, like other images, are in fact densely constructed works whose subject matter, framing and other formal qualities are all designed to produce a certain response in the viewer.

As the writer Dennis Price has pointed out, "We speak of taking photographs rather than making them, because the marks of their construction are not immediately visible; they have the appearance of having come about as a function of the world itself rather than as carefully fabricated cultural objects."

Linden deconstructs Lange's photograph by revealing it as a fabrication, and in doing so she also calls into question the social purposes for which the photograph was originally made.

Roosevelt's social welfare programs were an attempt to save capitalism from its own excesses, which had brought the country's economy nearly to ruin.

These programs -- and the photographs which "documented" the need for them -- were thus part of a reformist political agenda that aimed to substitute liberal social values for the revolutionary change that many on the left were demanding in the 1930s.

Linden's work makes no overt political judgment about these alternatives. But by deconstructing the naive realism of the photograph into painting and collage, she suggests that embedded within the picture's apparently "objective" depiction of a social condition lie unexamined issues of power and control that were central to the making of Lange's photograph and therefore to its meaning for us today.

This is a subtle and evocative artwork that achieves its effect through sight and sound and generates meanings on multiple levels. I think it is by far the most effective piece of its kind I have seen by this artist, whose powers of expression seem to grow more persuasive with each passing year.

The rear gallery at Resurgam is devoted to several large paintings and collages from Linden's previous shows as well as new works that extend the artist's range of subjects in the portrait and landscape forms.

Dust Bowl Refugees

Where: Resurgam Gallery, 910 S. Charles St.

When: Through April 28, Thursday through Saturday noon to 6 p.m., and by appointment

Call: 410-962-0513.

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