Painting with the camera: JoAnn Verburg at MoMA

We are all angry at our mortality. We don’t like it that our life has a set length to it, AND we don’t like it that we can only be our own selves. One of our big challenges in life is to get away from seeing everything through, or with, our own eyes only. The mark of a great artist—of any medium—is the ability to give us a heretofore unknown experience. The work of art gives us the chance to truly escape the confines of our own defining egos, and helps us cross the border to where we’ve never been—almost as someone else. When I read “Les Miserables” it changed what I was aware of. I saw architecture, homes, public buildings, streets and parks completely differently. I saw the meaning of design and its relation to society. I went around for weeks describing everything I saw in Victor Hugo language, as though Victor Hugo was seeing it, not me.

There’s a photographer in St. Paul, JoAnn Verburg, who was chosen last fall to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She’s in New York working on it right now. It is scheduled for July 10 to Oct. 8 of 2007. Holy MoMA! She’s in good company: Henri Matisse, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock (as well as the sculptor Lee Bontecou, the painter Elizabeth Murray and the photographer Lee Friedlander, to name a few. ) Verburg’s work will be seen in the center of the art world! But that’s not why I like her. It’s because she lent me her eyes—like Victor Hugo did.

When I learned about the retrospective, I asked her if I could write about her for Pulse. She gave me a generously long interview and later, one afternoon, set up a mini show for me in her studio. After I left, I was in a state of heightened consciousness. I’ve always said that if the world was ending tomorrow I’d go outside and look at the light. Yet, much as I pay attention to light and its colors, I was seeing light as I hadn’t seen it before—technically, poetically, spiritually, sensorially. I kept seeing colors and textures and accents and hues everywhere I turned. I felt high and oddly happy.

Verburg told me that “in the beginning [in her work] everything was about the sun.” Now, her newest work is a series of portraits all in shadow, relying on the inner light of the subjects.

Verburg keeps on making pictures. Just because she’s having a show at the MoMA doesn’t mean she’s going to take a break and have parties. I mean, sure, she has parties but she doesn’t stop working. The day I went to look at her photos, she and her husband, the poet Jim Moore, were having a dinner for “vegetarian friends who don’t (but should) know each other,” and she was also hanging up a new photo fresh out of the dark room that was going to her April show in Seattle, Poet Under Water.

Jim insisted on sweeping instead of vacuuming because I was there to look at photos. He knew the photos would give me a different feeling if I saw them accompanied by the sound of a vacuum cleaner.

Verburg’s work is very technical and very spiritual. Those two abilities are not in conflict, it’s not a paradox. It’s a beautiful balance.

“Missing Children,” one of Verburg’s smaller works, is shiny and attractive. On a glassy table top there are grapefruits, an apple, a gleaming yellow ceramic plate, wilting red flowers in a plastic ribbed glass, flat white pottery cereal bowls, a thick, old-fashioned barrel-shaped glass, an orange coffee press, and a transparent container of orange juice. They surround a milk carton with pictures of MISSING CHILDREN. Milk and crumbs pool in the bottom of the bowls; dregs of orange juice nestle in the glass; and there’s a little coffee left over in the French press. I’m sitting at the table. Breakfast is over. The children are still missing.

Verburg calls the theme “the kitchen table, a metaphor for the most personal, intimate, relaxed and vulnerable place a person might find themselves. It’s a place of openness.” The photos from these simple day-to-day places are injected with some kind of printed news from the outside world—unpleasant, undesirable, terrifying. Unsettling words and images reach someone “in a dream state.” She says, “One’s politics are determined in moments of privacy, not when someone’s yelling polemics. What seems so disparate and separate are a lyrical, beautiful moment and a horrible decision you have to make that is political. They’re not such separate things—these pieces have to do with putting a lyrical, private moment together with difficulty—the political, public difficult side of life … both aren’t in different worlds, they are different aspects of the same world.”

I can feel the sublime repose of the couple “Martha and Doug,” from a series of black and white photographs made in the early ’80s. Half-submerged in a swimming pool, I can feel the weight of the water and the weight of their bodies. Martha rests her face on Doug’s strong back, her wet hair wet slicked back, a tiny smile pulling on the corner of her mouth. The water line and splashes of water on their bodies are sharply delineated. Water is the medium for their physical and psychological meeting. The water holds them up so they don’t have to hold each other up. Water is their bond and their balance.

In the hallway outside Verburg’s studio hangs a framed shot of a sand pyramid. It was the original pyramid that Verburg happened to see on a beach that led to her recent pyramid series. Since then, artist friends have made various pyramids for her, and she has photographed them in different lights and from varying angles. In one of them, called “Untitled (White Pyramid),” the scarcely perceptible changes of shades in the all-white image dazzle me. I love its sense of mystery. Visually, there’s nothing that tells you what the pyramid is made of, where it is, how big it is. It could be in Egypt or in your basement, it could be 2 inches or 200 inches high, it could be made of sand or sugar or clay. Underneath lies the question: “What does a photo really tell you?” Verburg says, “I like the ambiguity.” The possibility of religious significance is definitely there; the luminosity made me think of the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001.” It goes without saying that the pyramids are about something more than threedimensional triangles. “As an artist you don’t know what you’re doing—you find out later,” says Verburg.

In a certain way, the photos of trees, some of which are enormous, are as abstract as the pyramids. Verburg and her husband have been going to Italy for 22 years and have a deep connection to an area outside of Rome, where the trees were photographed. When Verburg showed her sacred oak and olive tree series at the MIA a few years ago, her “catalogue” was a poster of one of the works with commentary on the back, in both English and Italian. While an important aspect of the photos is the fact that they represent a Mediterranean landscape, and some of them the ancient olive industry itself, my strongest response was purely aesthetic. They are so sensual, so composed, so created. Some of them look like they contain hidden pictures, some look like they’re in 3-D. It gives me immense joy to involve my sense of sight in this way.

The presence of the artist’s hand is so strong. There are sharply silhouetted unripe olives, branches forming shapes like letters of a language, sunlight reflecting bright orange off a gnarled branch, hidden ruts of a path among the trees, wishbone trunks growing in clay, textured areas that resemble paintings by Cezanne or Monet. Verburg goes after a contrast between sharp and soft. She uses drawings to plan the compositions, spends hours with a tripod finding the right distance. She has equipment that allows her to texture certain areas of the photo, stretch things to fit. It is apparent that not only is the produced result sensual, but the process of making it is sensual as well.

Besides Verburg’s framed photos, she has created trademark installations in which she developed film directly to glass. These large, unique works are all in the Twin Cities—one at the Mill City Museum, two at the U of M and five at LRT stations, from Lake Street to 28th Avenue. “I created it [the technique] for my purposes. If someone in another part of the world also created it, that’s their business. I had a need and created a solution. I work intuitively, and in the case of public art works, I had an idea, a vision, of what I wanted that was forming as I talked with the commissioning people, the people in the neighborhood, other committees, and looked at the site …” One of the sites at the U of M is Appleby Hall. It’s a glass ceiling with its own obvious metaphor. Verburg says, “It’s a good physical way to enter the educational experience, stretched, open and looking up. In the general college … there are all kinds of people—you could be almost in any part of the world. There are nine panels, representing all continents.” She made collages of her photos of skies and tree branches from China, Tibet, Europe.

Her photos of trees on glass can be seen at the LRT stations, part of the effort the city has made “to create an environment we want to be in, that we like.” She makes a strong case for beautifying our civic ambient. “If public art is done in a spirit of trying to be sensitive to where it is, it can be an inspiring addition to the lives of thousands of people who experience it every day … Strangers come in and get an impact, positive or negative of Minnesota, of Minneapolis, and want to come back—or tell other people to come. So, those things aren’t measurable in some really simple way that ends up two plus two equals four. “

All the artists (and scholars) I know want only one thing: the means to continue doing what they’re doing. They only want fame and riches to the extent that those things enable them to keep engaging with the materials. What happens when you’re given a retrospective show at the MoMA? Does it make you rich and famous overnight, so you can keep making art for the rest of your life? Verburg is about to find out. When I ask her why she got this show she says she doesn’t know. “MoMA does exhibitions. The roulette wheel was spun … There are a lot of very capable artists out there who qualified. I don’t think I got picked because I’m the only one who’s the right person to show. The curator likes my work. The department chair likes my work. I’m not trying to be overly modest. There are numerous talented people. I feel very lucky and grateful that my work will have an audience at that place in that way.”

She doesn’t have a bibliography, a biography or a resume, so I can’t look up where all her work is. She doesn’t know either. The Minneapolis Art Institute, the MoMA and many private collectors have bought her work.

The curator of the retrospective, Susan Kismaric, began selecting fromVerburg’s enormous body of work at the beginning of this year. Verburg comments that the show will be “heavily edited … it will give my work a cohesion that I would not.”

This week Verburg is helping Kismaric make the final selections, whittling the initial group of 150 works to 75. They are going through the creative process of deciding where photos will be placed, how they will be grouped, where the walls will be. Kismaric will put together notes about the artist and the significance of her serene, sensual and cerebral work to the larger sweep of art history.

On the phone from New York I ask Verburg about the definition of “retrospective,” and she says she doesn’t really know. The definition doesn’t interest her too much. “It suggests you have to be dead,” she thinks. Or maybe other artists perceive it as “not a fresh young voice.” In any case, she says it seems Kismaric isn’t exactly thinking of the show as a retrospective now. Verburg has no idea what the title of the show will be. She doesn’t care. Of course she’d rather have a “snappy” title (than not).

I ask Verburg, why photography? It has to do with her idea of time. “I love the way photography ARTICULATES time.” When she makes an image of a tree or a face or a pyramid, she is not “capturing” a moment. She’s not “stopping time.” For her, photography is about MULTIPLYING time, bringing the present time of the viewer together with the present time of the photographed image—the present time of the photographed image, of course, being in your imagination. “I don’t want you not to feel like you’re in your own body in a gallery or in a room. I want that fictional experience of the olive orchard to be there in addition. I guess that’s what I mean when I say you’re doubling time.” She concludes, “You’re in your own time but you’re also in your imagination in a way that it doesn’t feel like two different things. My current fascination—has been for quite awhile now—is the viewer’s time in combination with the implied time of the photo—how the two things come together.

“I used to go to a museum in Boston. There was a Vermeer painting there—which was later stolen. I was doing photos at the time using a similar quality of time as the painting “The Music Lesson.” You see the back of a person at the keyboard. As the viewer, you are sitting in the back of the room, listening, but also waiting. The quality of looking at the painting felt very parallel to what it would be like to sit in a room waiting and listening. That quality of the viewer’s time being related to the kind of time you could spend looking at photographs was hugely influential.”

When Verburg talks, she paws her words, turns them over and bats them around, conscientiously rather than playfully, as though owing the thought her deepest effort.

Verburg’s father had a job in industrial photography and there was always camera equipment in the house. Once at a baseball game, her father offered to introduce her to a famous photographer and she decided to ask him what she needed to do to become a photographer. He told her three things, but she remembers only one: “Always draw.” That was easy; she always had a pencil, pen or crayon in her hand.

“Do you draw?” she asks me suddenly. I say that I used to quite a bit. “Then you know that when you draw something you see it differently.” Yes, that is true.

Her first photo influences were Life magazine and family slide shows. As a child she half paid attention to Life “bringing in the world.” Her photos are somewhere between what Life [magazine] was doing and art, she says. Photojournalism isn’t “true” in the sense most people would call it true, she comments. It’s “true in a subjective sense.”

In college she discovered the work of Robert Frank, the Swiss-born Jewish photographer who collaborated with Jack Kerouac, and made a book called “The Americans,” in which he looked at America from the outside, with detachment and irony. “When I saw his work I thought photography could be art. It was a different way of looking at the medium,” Verburg remarks. When I picture Verburg’s photos in my mind, and talk about them to myself, I unintentionally call them paintings. That’s how they seem, although they are obviously photos.

Comparing painting and photography she says the first corresponds to fiction, the latter to nonfiction. “In painting, drawing and sculpture, there’s no implication of truth as there is in photography.”

Verburg, who is pretty without makeup, small and trim, grew up in New Jersey, and came to Minneapolis to teach at MCAD in 1981. Before that, the launching pad for her career was a job she had with Polaroid, in the days when computers were really huge and so were instant-photo cameras. The machine was a “behemoth, on wheelchair wheels, weighed 300 pounds, could only make vertical pictures, and anything made outside turned out to be too contrasting.” The pictures were 20 by 24 inches, or more. Verburg’s assignment was to put together a visiting artist program for the Polaroid corporation—“to figure out who was working in the art world whose work was appropriate to work with that new medium … painters as well as photographers.”

After three years, Verburg was exhausted, working all the time, and didn’t have a life. A visiting artist position opened up at MCAD and she got it. Suddenly, only teaching three and one-half days a week, she felt like she was retired and finally had time to do her own work, pursue her passion.

Two years later she got a Bush Fellowship. She met her husband at a meeting for outgoing Bush fellows, of whom he was one, and for incoming fellows. “He said some wise things, which I heard with great interest,” she recalls. “He also made very good coffee.”

From the beginning of her career Verburg has done enough serious work to be taken seriously. As an articulate visual artist, she gives gallery talks and lectures. She honors her own work and her words. I can see how much when I ask, “How strongly do you feel about people getting it?” and she responds, emotionally, “Well, they’re not going to get what I got, ever. But I’d like for people to get something … I don’t know. How would I even measure that? How would I even want that? I don’t even know quite what the language is … I don’t mean literally but I mean how I would approach that question because I don’t know what another person’s life is like and what another person would get out of a work …” In other words, she has no interest in telling you what to feel or think; she’s not making propaganda and she’s not manipulating you.

Verburg’s father was a scientist-turned-businessman. He was “inquisitive, curious, fun and loving.” Her mother was very “intense, socially active and concerned about poor and disadvantaged people. It was great how different they were—two extremes.” Her parents’ interests and character come together in Verburg’s work. She was the girl scientist/techie and at the same time very interested in people. Her college degree was in sociology.

Verburg considers herself lucky to have had the parents she did, a demonstratively loving grandmother, a safe neighborhood, material well-being and great friends. She grew up with a lot of support, which gave her the privilege of being able to take risks. “Not being afraid is such a privilege,” she exclaims.

The intense discipline apparent in Verburg’s work is also part of her life philosophy. “All of us constantly face the abyss, but I don’t feel that rules out joy … Even in the worst of times I believe in joy—it’s almost like a philosophy, and that to, ah, yeah, here’s something I wrote down maybe 20 years ago. Isaac Dinesen talked about ‘the courage to be happy.’ I thought that was just the right word. It’s a choice. There’s a lot of suffering in the world … I do believe it’s important to stay in touch with happiness, being balanced personally. My pictures are trying to find balance in a world out of balance.”

Verburg’s Minneapolis show opens Thursday, May 25, 6 – 10 p.m., at the Gallery Co in the Wyman Building, 400 1st Ave. N., Suite 710, Downtown. It will run through July 22. 612-332-5252.

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