United we tensely stand

by John Sand

Since its creation, photography has innately implied a passive absorption of a distant set of visual details. As a viewer, one feels compelled to judge based upon beauty, composition characteristics, and the subject matter of the piece. “Present Tense: Photographs by JoAnn Verburg,” a recent exhibition in the Walker Art Center, is different.

“Present Tense: Photographs by JoAnn Verburg”

WHERE: The Friedman Gallery at the Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
WHEN: Through April 20

While her subject matter is no less inspired or beautiful, the role of the audience is much more different than that of traditional photography. Upon inspection, one is immediately stirred with a feeling of self-awareness.

Through ironic juxtaposition and shifting focus “Present Tense” enacts what Verburg calls “the act of the participant.” While interacting with many of her portraits and still lifes, onlookers become the subject of their own scrutiny.

One such piece is “Untitled (Sally + Ricardo).” Upon immediately viewing the work, one is confronted with an older woman floating calmly in an ethereal pool of water, looking directly at the camera, and a young man, seemingly unaware that we are examining him. The onlooker becomes the subject and the object of the photograph, complexly knotted into the interaction between Sally and Ricardo.

Verburg, now a resident of St. Paul, was a practiced photographer long before she moved to Minnesota. However, she owes many of her earliest works in the exhibit to the experience she gained through her work with dancers, performers and friends she met through the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center.

In a way, “it does feel like a full circle to be showing (at the Walker),” she said. Verburg feels more anchored to Minnesota as “the place she lives.”

Her most frequent model is her husband Jim Moore, a University alumnus and instructor. In many of her still life photographs, such as “Sansepolchro Diptych,” we examine Moore intimately through photographs of obvious tranquility. There is an innate contradiction in many of these photographs as well. As Moore dreams peacefully, a newspaper article between his legs boasts of a selfish millionaire.

“A lot of my work,” Verburg says, “combines lyrical beauty with news of events that involve selfishness, a lack of compassion Ö senseless war, and politicians interested in self-gain.”

Verburg refuses to disclose the exact purpose of this combination. Instead, she suggests that it ties well with the title of the exhibition. Tension in human lives arises because we are “capable of taking in things that don’t agree.” We can experience small pleasures in the midst of an international crisis.

Presenting photographs in diptychs and triptychs, series of twos and threes, Verburg seems to insist that the immediate characteristics of a single photograph are not enough to understand the scene.

“Exploding Triptych,” a scene of three photographs from her work with massive olive trees, shifts our plane of focus through each frame as though we are walking in Italy ourselves. The entire series of landscapes creates the same depth of interaction we feel in her portraits and still lifes.

As we move through the Friedman gallery, we place ourselves into the work. It is this projection of the audience that differentiates Verburg from more traditional photographers. Instead of simply viewing the work, we assist in creating it for ourselves.