By Paul Krainak
Decades before Pop Art and a subsequent stream of voyeuristic postmodern imagery, Clement Greenberg believed a micro-climate of introspective abstract art and an ill wind of kitsch was a public battleground. He reasoned that the latter quelled industrialized society’s nerve to embrace the avant-garde’s redemptive social contract. He lamented that a parasite of socioeconomic expansion was undermining the new middle class’s ability to represent themselves with anything other than ersatz culture – an instrument designed to occupy the void left by urbanization and industrialization. He believed it was the obligation of an elite order of artist-intellectuals to develop experimental alternatives to predictably conceived and cheaply manufactured amusement. Ever the incisive cultural logician, Greenberg could not have predicted how a strain of sentimentalism that he attempted to terminate could mutate wildly in so many strains of visual culture, including advertising and photo-journalism, folk art, regionalist painting, and cartooning.
Minneapolis photographer Paul Shambroom spent the last four years citing a dozen biographies of noted 20th century Americans to explore the nature of a communal present. Peeking under the skirt of Donald Trump’s fiction about the lost inheritance of “America the exceptional,” he probes salient details about mythology and geography. The result is a yearbook-styled hard-cover volume “Past Time: Troubled Visions of the Good Old Days,” that features candid photo-documents of 18 national sites with varying degrees of patriotic profiles. These include the childhood homes of Mark Twain, Walt Disney, Norman Rockwell, Ronald Reagan, Fred Rogers, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Andy Griffith.
Shambroom’s finds these places exceptional in their banality. His method is reflective of peripatetic photographers like Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander, noted for presenting a relatively obscure social landscape with poetic starkness and visual intelligence. His discerning compositions acknowledge devices found at the core of street photography, including store window reflections, framed portraits, TV screens, and printed text. Various kinds of nostalgic images flank photographs of where the “good old days” icons were raised. They include jigsaw puzzles and fishing lure collections. Others are toys, stills from popular 50’s and 60’s television, coloring book diagrams, and magazine advertising. While these kitsch representations are innocuous, the contrast with the grittier edge-of-town atmosphere is a little unhinged.
It’s a travel log on our municipal margins – unkempt lawns, lethargic adolescents, drab community center events, deteriorating roads, and architecture scarred by generations of re-use. There’s no blatant examples of poverty or disturbing local portraiture – no amphetamine-addicted parents, no hustlers, no morbidly obese children. But many images telegraph the burden of rural and suburban neglect, regret, and routine. There’s also no sign of anything that might have produced a historic figure or consequential celebrity. An inventory of incremental cruelties, rather than a register of oppressive subjects, obscure any memory of greatness while they cloud the view of the current residents who are our largest public demographic.
“Past Time” is not about the people who elected and almost re-elected Donald Trump. Nearly half of the photographs have no subjects and many figures are turned away or unaware of the camera. This drives home our unfamiliarity with a class that mostly blend into the background – those we didn’t think voted, or were even political. Our attitude towards them is not unlike impressions of vacation souvenirs – frivolous, forgettable, and abundant, like kitsch. The predominantly white hamlets aren’t blighted, but their occupants are steeped in loss, detached from real patronage, throttled by ordinariness, and may indeed be wishing for a savior.
In a recent interview Paul Shambroom acknowledges that nostalgia and a notion of an idealized past, better known as the “good old days,” is generational and conditional. Clearly our youth, recent immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and others, may not share, recall, or agree on exemplars or sites that frame their cultural models. Nostalgia-gripped media constructions of mid-century came from a post-war economy and the development of middle-class whites. It was synched with tropes of the nuclear family, and a conservative, suburban Midwestern lifestyle. The nature of those constructions drew criticism by public intellectuals of that time. While their symbolic efficacy has withered, the tone of patriotism and morality remain a comforting model for a surprising percentage of the population.
A critical outcome of Shambroom’s process is bridging audiences who are versed in photo history and theory with those who are just plain literate. He doesn’t assume that he’s picturing for, or speaking to, a mono
culture. The images make a compelling argument about the power of place to engender restless cultural narratives and meanings, uncovering plausible links between populism, folklore, and esoterica. This was the case with his “Meetings” and “Face to Face with the Bomb” projects where he investigated the least visible, but crucial networks of American power and democracy. “Past Time” is a more personal assessment of where hubris is imagined, socially and geographically. Instead of a straight monograph he features an elliptically composed narrative with attending vernacular objects that, while fictive and dated, are persuasive in relation to his photographs. (Many of the sites are so candid and unpretentious that its arresting to see them in the company of such soft vanity). “Past Time” themes are subtly episodic, appearing and reappearing in a portrayal of class, nostalgia, stasis, trivia, obsession, in a preponderance of overcast skies.
Clement Greenberg had the avant-garde equation right but the late 20th century confirmed that his dichotomous logic was fractious and hollow. What isn’t hollow, however, are centerpieces of modernism that observe ordinary life at odds with official culture. Today, institutions that define culture couldn’t be more venal and amnesiac, while ordinary lives could scarcely appear more undernourished and detached. Shambroom finds peripheral narratives with a keen appreciation of the common space inhabited by a growing pool of fatigued underperformers.
Past Time’s mixed morphologies of the sacred and profane draw attention to the fairy tale of class mobility fanning American nostalgia. They also note the multiplicity of narratives in modernism as Shambroom balances modest origins versus radical illusions and repressed potential. Can we know if the original environments of these waning cultural figures were more or less healthier, or nurturing than today? Do we assume that Dixon, Illinois was a somehow instrumental community for Reagan in the 1920’s, Latrobe, Pennsylvania for Fred Rogers in the 1940’s, or Little Falls, Minnesota for Charles Lindbergh in 1910?
A history influenced by kitsch, which ours truly is, plays to a script and an image while its ethos straddles the sacred cows of “family,” “individualism,” and “austerity”. Readers not disposed to decode those narratives will miss the sly chaos of Shambroom’s ethnography that hovers between convention and unintended consequences.