Exhibition Essay: Present/On the Road to Bazzano

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Cynde Randall, “Present/On the Road to Bazzano: New Photographs from Italy by JoAnn Verburg.”

This is it
This is really it
This is all there is
And it’s perfect as it is.
— James Broughton

This passage from a poem by James Broughton often flows through JoAnn Verburg’s mind as she works amidst the trees near Spoleto, Italy, her beloved second home. For nearly two decades Verburg, an acclaimed American artist, has sought to photograph in the moment at this place of sacred trees and olive groves—a place to which she has returned again and again since 1984, when she and her husband, the poet Jim Moore, first visited.

The exhibition “Present/On the Road to Bazzano” is the culmination of six years of work on two related groups of powerful and beautiful pictures. Verburg’s architectural installation at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts features sequences of large—scale color photographs (up to 5 x 16 feet) of the olive trees of Spoleto and the sacred trees of Monteluco.

Verburg fuses the internal with the external in a presentation of the landscape that seems almost holographic. Just as each fragment of a hologram contains the entire image, in Present/On the Road to Bazzano” one image folds into another and another, wrapping the viewer in a virtual landscape of light and color. Verburg shows us that what is pheripheral is potent and poetic, giving us a chance to study what is most fleeting—that sideways flash, that discrete view from the corner of your eye. In some of her life —sized photographs, the peripheral blur creates a sense of movement that pulls the viewer into the virtual space of the photograph.

That these pictures seem so “real,” so spiritual, is stunning. But many in the art world would argue that pictorial realism is culturally bound and only reflects the psychological, political, or cultural experience of the artist. This postmoderm view recognizes no single truth but rather a multiplicity of truths. And Vergburg concurs.

But Verburg’s work really does transport us: it seems to take us there, to surround us with sacred space. How in the world can this be? As I set out to unravel this question, it became apparent that artistic convention, contemporary aesthetics, and theoretical fashion would not serve me. And yet, a pragmatic review did seem to be in order.

First, a bit of Verburg’s own history. JoAnn Verburg has worked with a large—format camera since the mid—1970’s. She has also instigated, curated, or co—created a variety of ambitious projects that have set her course as an artist. In 1978, she was invited to head up artists’ project for Polaroid, which had recently invented the 20 x 24—inch Land color camera. This invention, along with Polaroid’s room—sized camera, installed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, radically changed the scale of photography’s role in contemporary culture.

As the exhibition curator and artist liaison for the Polaroid project, Verburg brought in a notable array of artists to experiment with Polaroid’s new technology. She met and worked closely with William Wegman, Chuck Close, Jim Dine, Andy Warhol, and Jan Groover, among many others. Verburg herself created a series of life—sized portraits, which set the trajectory for much of her later work. The project culminated in “20 x 24/LIGHT,” an exhibition of work by eighteen of the participants, curated by Peter MacGill (later of Pace MacGill Gallery).

Verburg’s first focused involvement with the landscape came with the Rephotographic Survey Project. Conceived by photography historian Ellen Manchester, the RSP played out as a long—term collaboration in which Verburg, Manchester, and geologist—photographer Mark Klett took on the arduous task of ‘replicating” a series of photographs of Colorado landmarks shot by W.H. Jackson in 1873. The team located the exact station points used by Jackson a hundred years earlier and, using equivalent equipment, documented the same landmarks. Their rephotographed views were later published side by side with Jackson’s originals.

The RSP team confirmed, early on, just how subjective the “documentary” process is. The project led Verburg to consider a variety of questions: What is truth in a photograph? What does it mean to frame something? What can be claimed as evidence? What is signature in art? What is art in photography? How does time affect perception? Verburg extended this line of inquiry in the years that followed. Her use of the multiple—frame format is directly linked to the presentation of the RSP’s work. Her routine practice of juxtaposing the single image with a second, third, or fourth image confounds any hope of capturing a static documentary moment and instead opens up endless and mysterious possibilities for meaning her work.

Verburg moved to Minneapolis in 1981, when she was invited to be a visiting artist at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. During he 1980s she embarked on a variety of projects. She made a series of large—scale portraits with modulating frames, the figure shifting from one frame to the next. In collaboration with Jim Dine, illustrating the ambiguity of representation, he drew her and she photographed him drawing her; the resulting images, meant to be hung side by side, are now in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. In a series of life—sized photographs of swimmers, she experimented with narrative that extends beyond the picture frame. And she produced a series of collaborative installations with performance artists including Ping Chong (life—sized angel collages related to The Angels of Swedenborg), Robert Wilson (Knee Playsat the Walker Art Center), and the Illusion Theater (Becoming Memories).

Verburg’s life and work changed dramatically in 1984 when she married Jim Moore. Attending to every moment equally, she began making photographs of daily life, and she made countless portraits of Moore, in which he became her “beloved Everyman.” As she sought to capture the parenthetical moments of daily vision, her photographs took on a peace and calm, a centeredness, that in life did not come easily to her.

In 1984 Verburg saw, for the first time, the olive trees of Spoleto and the sacred trees of Monteluco. The sacred trees, considered holy for over two thousand years, are the very woods where Saint Francis of Assisi came to pray in solitude. At Assisi, Verburg was profoundly moved by Giotto’s frescoes of Saint Francis, by how Giotto brought the physical world into the spiritual life.

Since the mid—1990’s Verburg has applied the skill and sensitivity acquired through years of shooting portraits to photographing the trees of her beloved Italy in the evening light of late summer. Through her masterly use of the view camera, she achieves endless spatial distortions. Tilting and swinging the lens and torquing the parallax, she creates a cubist sense of space. Her photographs reveal slivers of detail and broad planes of focus, unfolding multiple levels of the landscape simultaneously. These huge images, installed in sequence, span nearly twenty feet. By walking alongside them, we experience them physically, as we do Giotto’s frescoes or the landscape itself.

And still I wonder, what accounts for the sensibility of this work? A quick answer is to say that Verburg is shooting portraits. A true portrait requires that the artist acknowledge the subject as a unique entity, personality, or soul. A true portrait reveals the essence of the one portrayed. (For those who do not recognize a tree as a unique spirit or soul, the landscape is about other things, and the effectiveness of its representation can be explained through formal, technical, or theoretical considerations.)

To resonate with this work, I think we must reach a higher level of awareness. For years Verburg has studied, revered, and photographed these old souls. Her reverence is manifest in these pictures, together with a reciprocal energy (remember that your breath relies on the trees’ exhalations). She reminds us of the pleasure of looking at a leaf growing on a living being centuries old. She reminds us of our own physicality. We remember what it’s like to breathe in dust and pollen, to hear the birds and the insects, and to feel sweat collecting on our skin—to sense this splendor of being incarnate, however briefly, of being in this body, now.

JoAnn Verburg captures the light that comes with contemplating sacred beings. It is pure and simple (even in its complexity), like the birdsong—enduring and beautiful and capable always of stirring the soul. Stay in the light and you will bring a very different future into your present. Plant a tree and keep it safe and you will change the world forever. JoAnn Verburg makes a gift of her powerful and beautiful work. Her trees wrap us in their light. This is it. This is all there is.

Cynde Randall is an artist and senior program associate for the MAEP.

This exhibition runs from March 9 through May 6, 2001, with a free opening reception on Thursday, March 8, from 7 to 9 P.M. There will be an artist’s talk and a reading of poetry and prose on Thursday, March 22 at 7 P.M., when Verburg invites gallery visitors to bring and share short readings in celebration of the first day of spring. The poet Jim Moore will read from his new manuscript, “Stillness,” on Thursday, April 26, at 7 P.M.

Present/On the Road to Bazzano is presented by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, which is made possible by generous support from the Jerome Foundation. JoAnn Verburg’s work is made possible, in part, by a Career Opportunity Grant and an Artist Fellowship from the Minnesota State Arts Board, through appropriations by the Minnesota State Legislature and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. All prints in the exhibition were made possible by generous support from Pictura.