This show of American landscapes by photographer Jeff Brouws held one’s attention because of the range of moods it seemed to reflect, from amusement to anguish. The first work you saw, in the entry space, was a portfolio titled “Signs Without Signification” (2003-07), its prints ganged on the wall, comprised of images of blank or empty metal frames that had once held illuminated roadside signs advertising local businesses. The repeated vacuity was what made it a sight gag, and in the next room the motif continued in a photograph that pitched a glowing red Target-store logo on one side against the soft pink gleam of snow-covered Colorado mountains on the other side, as if the light given off by American consumerism is what really colors this wild, primitive landscape.
When you moved into the second room, however, the mood became mixed. Here were North Dakota panoramas, each work composed of two prints in a single frame (a kind of photographic double-wide) and a single print in a separate frame. The panoramas depict elements of the local economy-a convenience store, grain elevators, a meadow dotted with commercial beehives-while the single prints show Minuteman missile silos; wall labels note how many miles the two subjects are from each other. The lightness of being is gone in these pictures. An unmistakable chill has set in. But what does the shift in mood mean? Is the point that these North Dakotans still have to live with the Cold War’s reign of nuclear terror? Or is it that these silos are just another local enterprise that has gone out of business?
The final room tipped the scales toward the dark side, for the subject here was failed and abandoned factories from the northeast to the Midwest. “Discarded Landscapes,” Brouws calls the series. Three of the four studies, including the most recent, from 2007, are black and white, an effect that, in the age of digital photography, suggests we’re looking at an irretrievable past. Informed, articulate wall text written by Brouws summarized the conditions we’re all aware of now-first suburbanization, then regionalization and now globalization-that have led to this seemingly irreversible decline of American prosperity. Having begun by being amused, we have ended feeling hopeless. The range of the work leaves no question about Brouws’s acute intelligence and considerable talent as a photographer. Still, to have gone from amusement to despair in a few small rooms can leave you feeling sucker-punched.
Photo: Jeff Brouws: Proximity VI (Minuteman missile silo L-10, 2.7 miles from Lignite, N.D.), 2009, pigment prints, diptych: 20 by 40 inches, single image: 20 inches square; at Craig Krull.