Continuing through July 14, 2012
Jeff Brouws’s work is testimony to how tendencies in art that at their inception seem to both their proponents and their detractors to threaten the extinction of aesthetic pleasure prove in their maturity to have been avenues to a different set of thrills.
The tendency of which Brouws is a second-generation representative is the New Topographics. In the mid-to-late ‘70’s the practice of landscape photography was desublimated and decentered. Key artists such at Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams refocused on the serial accumulation of images that dispassionately inventoried not nature’s surreptitiously mediated grandeur but its relentless commodification via its parceling and processing into industrial parks, strip malls, and suburban lots.
Rather than emulate the example of modernist predecessors like Ansel Adams or Minor White, exponents of the New Topographics found inspiration in Ed Ruscha’s deadpan catalogues of urban non-places such as generic gas stations and parking lots, and in Bernd and Hilla Becher’s “typologies” of obsolete industrial structures. Superficially, the results seemed to dispense altogether with any concern for composition or the modernists’ much sought-after sensation of elemental presence. Instead they catalogued in excruciating detail the banal, the generic, and the void in a manmade landscape whose sacrifice to convenience (the promise of all land development) has rendered it inhospitable.
In this show, titled “Fields of Information,” Brouws presents excerpts from three ongoing series. The images from the "Proximity" series document U.S. ballistic nuclear missile installations and the nondescript Midwest towns adjacent to them. As their title suggests, those from the "Franchised" series depict vast swatches of the Western states occupied by big box stores, fast food chains, and gas stations aglow with corporate signage. Complementing these, the "Discarded Landscapes" reveal, alongside a seemingly inexhaustible parade of industrial ruins, forests of empty light-box signs left over from now defunct businesses. In these works, Brouws’ cool detachment and uncannily honed eye for color and framing allow him to extract intensity from images of beguilingly familiar sights of urban blight without disturbing their banality. Despite the suggestion implicit in the title of the show that Brouws’ function as a photographer is that of mere data collector, his images repeatedly testify to what must be the obsessive care he puts into always finding the perfect distance and angle from his subject.
What becomes evident in Brouws’ technically exacting photographs is the extent to which the Ballardian vision of the New Topographics has engendered something like an inverted sublime that thrives on the spectacle of irremediable cultural devastation. In a conversation with Jörg Colberg, who runs the excellent photography blog Conscientious, Brouws reveals that he is well aware of the potential of his photographs to transform the bleakest of realities into seductive images. He invokes Walter Benjamin to argue that aestheticization is inherent in the photographic act of isolating and arresting a moment and a view, with the compensation being the attention thereby drawn to painful realities. I think he gets Benjamin wrong, which he would discover if he read the harsh putdown of Albert Renger-Patsch in “The Author As Producer.” But I also think this is now largely beside the point. Any moral or political expectation from photography rests on the assumption that there remains, within contemporary culture, an agency capable of undoing the despoliation to which photography bears witness and which can be activated by photographic evidence. Yet it is precisely the absence of such that the documents produced by the New Topographics attest to.
Brouws’ contribution to a photographic aesthetic that has been with us for the better part of half a century is to participate in its inevitable mannerization. That in the process he reveals that even in the most unpromising cultural barrens moments of pure aesthetic pleasure remain possible is hardly to be held against him.