As the Fourth of July approaches, Culturehall features artists whose provocative work challenges us to consider, or reconsider, the American experience. These four artists draw from a variety of sources - personal relationships, historical representations, cross-country tours - to examine our national identity through their images. When viewed together, their work collectively asks us to look at America's religious groups, its vast working class, its legacies of sexism and homophobia, and the impact of its foreign wars. Their pictures of America, real and invented, recognize diversity, complexity, inequality, and humanity.
Clayton Cotterell's All in the Family series contributes to a broader dialogue about the effects of United States military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan on American soldiers, their families, and their communities. Included in this dialogue is Nina Berman's startling photographic series of returned soldiers wounded in Iraq, Purple Hearts, as well as Oren Moverman's 2009 film, The Messenger, dramatizing the experiences of two officers assigned to the Army's Casualty Notification service. Cotterell's ongoing, and more directly personal, photography project focuses on his younger brother, Ian, at various stages in his career as a U.S. soldier deployed to Afghanistan. Cotterell made portraits of his brother before he left for war and continued to photograph him when he returned on leave. These haunting images describe a boy engaged in the rites of passage into manhood still baby-faced, with a profound sense of apprehension cast in his expressions bearing tattoos and trying on his Body Armor. Cotterell's intention to complete the series upon the end of his brother's tour underscores an implicit sadness about the uncertainty of the future for Ian and indeed for a generation of young Americans in a time of war.
A recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts graduate program in photography, Debbie Grossman's thesis work consists of a series of historical photographs altered by the artist to present a version of the American West populated exclusively by women. Grossman borrowed images from the Library of Congress of a settlement called Pie Town in west-central New Mexico shot by American photographer Russell Lee for the Farm Security Administration in 1940. Using Photoshop as a drawing tool and changing text to re-imagine the gender of and relationships between Lee's subjects, Grossman created My Pie Town, a fictitious parallel reality where women perform both traditional male and female roles, exist within lesbian partnerships, and demonstrate positions of leadership, strength, and authority. Her homesteaders don boots with spurs, rope calf, grow crops, raise families, and manage town politics. Grossman transformed an iconic American scene by subtly changing the gender of one of Lee's original subjects from a man to a masculine woman to portray a lesbian couple strolling harmoniously with their young children on her Pie Town's Main Street.
Greg Reynolds' Jesus Days is a pictorial memoir of his experiences as a closeted gay man working for an American evangelical movement in the late 1970's and early 80's. Prior to coming out and moving to New York City, Greg Reynolds spent eight years as a youth evangelist counseling Christian students, leading prayer meetings, and participating in missions and evangelical projects in Central America and Florida, where Christian students proselytized to beach vacationers. While homosexuality was regarded as a sin within his organization, Reynolds' collection of personal snapshots from this era of his life conveys the affection and attraction he experienced and suppressed towards his adult male friends and colleagues. The eroticism in his gaze at male bodies and personalities, so clearly expressed in his pictures, suggests that photography was an outlet and perhaps a source of revelation for deeply repressed and forbidden desires.
In the tradition of photographers like Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld who explored America through road trips, Brooklyn-based photographer Marc McAndrews has developed an extensive survey of working-class people and environments through a series of cross-country journeys in his van. Combining a sense of reality and fantasy, McAndrews produced large-format images of bikers, mechanics, motel clerks, waitresses, bowling teams, and prostitutes in legal brothels in Nevada. His subjects and the spaces they occupy appear uncannily vivid and almost three-dimensional, such as Sheree Tucker at her desk with a burning cigarette in hand, an assortment of coffee mugs on her large wooden desk, and family photos and taped notes decorating the wood-paneled walls of her office. The heavy dose of Americana in McAndrew's work is imbued with warmth and remarkable detail.
Tema Stauffer is a photographer based in Brooklyn and a curator for Culturehall. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1995 and received a MFA in Photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1998. She participated in seven group shows and a solo exhibition, American Stills, at Jen Bekman Gallery. Her work is currently represented by Daniel Cooney Fine Art Gallery in New York, and she teaches photography courses at William Paterson University and the School of the International Center of Photography. She also writes a blog about photography, PalmAire.