By Coco Mault
Americans are hell-bent on finding adventure. Though nowadays the word adventure tends to evoke tepid images — like those thrown at us in commercials for waterparks — rather than those we’ve read about in our history books. And we pride ourselves on those especially exciting bits of history that involve exploring and conquering the unknown. So we conquered the wilderness. Then what? Suddenly that adventure isn’t so thrilling anymore and on we are to the next one. And here an interesting pattern emerges; one that photographers Lex Thompson and Eric Ruby address in their joint show “A View of the Vernacular.”
Thompson’s photo series, entitled All Our Pleasant Places, feature what are essentially the ruins of American adventures. Being a pioneer and building a house from scratch is an impressive feat. But what do we do in the woods today? Build a go-cart track! But that excitement wears off too. However, the relics remain and Thompson has a knack for finding these lonely moments in American culture.
A few of these photos are particularly surreal. Forest Dinosaurs Diptych shows a large image of a forest in the daytime. It is a heavily shaded, mature forest however, so the photo is only spotted with very bright sunny spots. In the foreground there is a fallen tree stump and there, a little further back behind more trees, are two dinosaurs mid-fight. Painted on blood spills from one dinosaur as the other forever bites into it. This photo’s pair shows another heavily wooded area, but this time a single dinosaur is better hidden, and looks to be walking away in solitude.
This diluted sense of adventure, and the lack of knowing how to find it, is more prevalent in his other photos. Baltimore, Maryland shows what looks to be the remnants of a rooftop party. Chairs and tables are strewn about and a single pumpkin sits in a smashed, wet mess. Polar Bear, Chained is a photo of a fiberglass polar bear, standing upright on its hind legs and it is, indeed, chained to a tree in front of a gift shop. Perhaps this is for realism, hearkening back to the days when roadside stops might feature a live bear in a cage. Or perhaps it is for safety reasons as the result of the mischievous kind of adventure kids think up today, in which they abscond with a piece of lawn ornamentation and place it in someone else’s yard.
Eric Ruby has recently embarked on his own adventure by moving to the Midwest, and his photo series captures the simplicity that this region often evokes for outsiders, as well as the strange imagery that often rears up in unexpected places. Take, for instance, Ruby’s photo entitled Albany, Minnesota. The photo is of a mini-golf course that is surrounded by a Holiday gas station and a hotel, but what makes this photo especially entertaining is the solitary statue of a horse standing on its hind-legs on the green AstroTurf in the mini-golf course.
His photos hone in even further on the Midwest experience — or rather the experience that would stand out to a recent transplant — with photos of food. There is a simple photo of raw steaks on a quaint floral plate, for instance. Or sliced apples next to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Wildlife can be a big part of the Midwest experience, too, or rather, mangled wildlife. Ruby has obviously experienced a little bit of what it is like to spot an animal that is only a portion of its former self. He laid out what had been a blue jay on a floral-patterned rug and photographed it.
“A View of the Vernacular: Photography by Eric Ruby and Lex Thompson” is on view through July 30, 2011 at IFP.
IFP MN Center for Media Arts
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