It is interesting the effect knowing someone has on viewing their art work. I often consider this while viewing the work of my critique group. Knowledge of their previous work and personal motivations influences my perception of their current projects. I feel I know where they are coming from and that is quite a different experience than the authoritative "cold read" we are taught to create for as artists. Knowing something of the artist or their previous work often enriches the experience of their art. Other times it can distract you from what you are really seeing. And sometimes, for instance the Winslow Homer show at The Art Institute of Chicago, it is just superfluous. What follows below are my thoughts on viewing a large exhibition of an artist I know very well.
Two weeks ago I went to Pennsylvania to see Jim Schafer's solo exhibition Icons and Incongruities: Photographs from America's Heartland at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Schafer has been a photographer most of his life and all of mine; he is my father. He works as a commercial architectural photographer in addition to being an artist. I have been looking at my father's photographs all of my life. I have often wondered at his influence on me after having seen so many of his images; surely some formal properties have been burned into my mind's eye.
In junior high I earned spending money by filing endless stacks of his slides. I was exasperated at what could be termed his absent-minded professor tendencies. Art photographs would be mixed in with commercial work. Often while on assignment photographing a mundane jail or office building he would focus his lens elsewhere. I would find photographs of sights he had seen along the road while driving to his assigned subject. I could just picture how these photos came about; it is a scene I am very familiar with.
It was a recurring scenario on family trips and even once on the way to the grocery store. All of a sudden we would hear my father exclaim, the car would veer off the highway stopping in some ditch along the road. He would be gone for a seemingly endless amount of time to a kid on vacation. As our car rocked from passing 18 wheelers my dad with his cargo shorts and tall socks would be out in someone's field or the middle of the road with his tripod. I don't know how my mother put up with this. She never seemed bothered by, it often sitting there with a smile on her face, only concerned when it seemed likely he would get hit by a passing truck.
For kids we had a lot of patience for this type of thing knowing that it had something to do with my dad following his dreams. That was what my mom would tell us as we hung out in the car and waited for my dad. "When you kids grow up I always want you to follow your dreams no matter what." she'd say. When we finally grew impatient sometimes we would be put to use watching for oncoming traffic. In this way we either helped him get the perfect shot or not get killed. I could never be sure.
While filing slides I would come across some of these photos. Whenever I found an image that clearly had nothing to do with a commercial assignment my dad would tell me to file it in "Rural Scenics" an ever widening folder of slides in his filing cabinet. "Rural Scenics" sounded impressive but it was really designed as a catch-all for his random photos.
After years of sneaking in photos while on his way somewhere else my dad started taking trips with the only destination being to find something to photograph. Without kids around to beep the horn and say get on with the trip his ideas have been allowed to germinate and develop. It is apparent to me that for years my father had an inkling of an idea, a recurring inspiration. Showing me a photograph of a building he had come across he would often remark "There's just something about it."
The work in Icons and Incongruities builds on Schafer's previous Heartlandscapes / Vigilante Architecture exhibition. Vigilante Architecture focused on re-purposed buildings and a sincere use of space. Humor, multitude of compositional details, and honesty all play a role in Schafer's work. In Icons Schafer explores an iconic mid western structure: the grain elevator. His photos treat these structures like temples rising above the surrounding towns. The idea of an ambiguous presence looms throughout the black and white photos. A native of the woods and hills of Pennsylvania Schafer is wowed by the endless expanse of sky in the mid west. He connects the sky to an idea of god and the weather's potential to impact crops. In High Noon Shadow Cross, Haven Kansas a grain elevator looking a lot like a tall country church complete with a cross, looms over Haven, Kansas. The cross is really a shadow. Schafer noticed it late morning and figured around noon the sun would cast the shadow into the shape of a perfect cross. He waited around for noon, probably by the side of the road somewhere.
To read reviews of the photographs in Icons and Incongruities click below.
Jim Schafer's photos Capture the Slowing Beat of the Heartland (recommended)
Exhibit Captures Sense of Abandonment in Old Midwest Towns