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March 30, 2016

Chris Verene's intimate, lifelong study of family

Chris Verene's intimate, lifelong study of family

Photographer's Americana photos part of new Reinberger show

By Karen Sandstrom

Chris Verene might force you to think about class.

His color photographs showcase his extended family in Galesburg, Ill., and document a piece of white America that struggles to stay employed, stay married, stay healthy. His lens finds their old vehicles and notices the ramshackle interiors, the children seated atop a car hood or lying on a bare mattress.

But Verene, an assistant professor of photography at the College of Staten Island, brings no judgment to these subjects. They are his people, and Galesburg has always been home, even when he has lived elsewhere – which is most of his life.

“I want people to think about class, and people can’t ignore that,” says Verene. “It’s not something to pretend doesn’t exist. America is a very young country, and we need to take care of each other, no matter [what] class we’re in.”

A suite of Verene photographs, as well as one of his films, is on view April 1 through May 8 in the Reingberger Gallery at the Cleveland Institute of Art. It’s part of American Real, a three-artist show curated by gallery director Bruce Checefsky. Verene joins sculptor Monica Cook and conceptualist Ryder Ripps during the reception from 6:30 to 9 p.m. April 1 in the gallery.

Verene’s family photography — as well as pieces from two other bodies of work — has been published in numerous exhibits and books. In 2000, Twin Palms Press published Chris Verene. A decade later came Family, a follow-up book and traveling exhibition. His performance art/photo series The Self-Esteem Salon was showed at the 2000 Whitney Biennial.

Verene’s parents were from Galesburg. The family lived there before moving to Georgia, then Pennsylvania, when Chris was still a child. They returned often for visits, and Chris spent summers there with his cousins. He began to make pictures of them as a teenager newly enamored with photography. He continued to photograph them with a medium-format camera, conscious of maintaining an aesthetic consistency as his subjects lives changed for better or worse.

“I always had this outsider-insider perspective to the city,” he says. “I was the only one of my cousins that moved away. There’s three generations of us still there.”

He began to make books of pictures every time he visited, he says. “It became something that was my main occupation, unless you count school or work.”

Galesburg was devastated when Maytag pulled up stakes and took its manufacturing plant to Mexico in 2004. Then-Sen. Barack Obama called out the crisis during his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, noting that Galesburg parents were now competing with their kids for $7-an-hour service jobs. Verene’s cousins were among those hard hit by the loss.

So while Verene’s family pictures may have started out as specific images, as family pictures do, they have become symbolic, too. Verene’s work, Checefsky says, “really chronicles the shift in the middle class, the disappearance of the middle class, really. It’s a tragic story, but it’s also a very common story.”

And like other viewers, Checefsky has gotten to know the story’s characters and come to like them. “They’re alive, they’re performing, they look joyful despite the circumstances.”

That reaction is not uncommon, according to Verene.

“I think that part of why the work kind of really blossomed was that people who saw it really felt a deep connection with the characters in the pictures,” Verene says. “There’s a tendency to wonder, well, this is not the most flattering picture here. Have [the subjects] seen it? Do they know? That’s the kind of process that anyone who sees my work has to go through. How do I feel about it? They have to go through a reckoning.”

But of course his family has seen the pictures. Throughout the decades of visiting, he has shot thousands of photos of them, and the subjects have seen many more of them than has the public. They like what he does, and they trust him. “I believe I have a sixth sense for ‘don’t let anybody see that,’ and nobody sees those,” he says.

More importantly, he says, they’re glad that Verene has found success in his career.
“They’re glad that I turned out good and found a gig,” he says. “They’re glad I have a photography job and that I took the pictures. That’s so much more important.”

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