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Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008

Uneasy Rider, Uncommon Images

Art Review

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   At the start of the period in which the work in "Biographical Landscape: The Photography of Stephen Shore, 1969-1979" was shot, America remained entrenched in the Vietnam War; the tumult of 1968, its assassinations and aftershocks preoccupied the country's consciousness. None of this political upheaval, however, is apparent on the main streets of small towns across the United States that populate the core of the exhibition at the Haggerty Museum of Art, on display through Sept. 28. Shore'sUncommon Places is a series of vernacular images geographically distinguishable only by the titles describing their coordinates in an intersection of time and place.

  Before Uncommon Places, Shore's early conceptual work used serial still images to imply motion, and the inclusion of earlier photographs sets the stage for things to come. In KT Ranch (1969), Shore's stationary camera passively tracks clouds that move into and out of the frame, while a seated cast of characters appear and disappear from the chair in the center. Like Georges Mlis' early experiments with cinema, Shore uses the space between frames to manipulate time and motion.

  In Avenue of the Americas (1970), Shore snapped a photograph at the end of each block as he moved northeast toward New York's Central Park, creating an intermittent "tracking shot" along the route. This concept is echoed later with a pair of photographs from Uncommon Places in Philadelphia, from 1974, at 21st and Spruce streets, and one block east at South 20th and Spruce.

  Mostly, Shore took a different road with UncommonPlaces. Four years after Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda crossed the country in Easy Rider to comment on hippie counterculture, Shore set out in the opposite direction. Heading southwest to Amarillo, Texas, from his native Manhattan, he documented his travels with a 35 millimeter Rollei. Vignetted like family snapshots that might hang in a suburban hallway is a collection of 72 color snapshots, many of which are so tightly framed that Shore's subjects, a parade of friends, passersby, dingy bathrooms and diner food, are rendered anonymous by lack of context.

  With Uncommon Places Shore stumbled upon Edward Hopper's America: its nondescript greasy spoons, cheap motels and gas stations. In J.J. Summers Agency, First Street, Duluth, Minnesota, July 11, 1973, a dark office evokes the subdued nocturnal palette of Hopper's Drug Store, from 1927.

  Shore's fascination with the vernacular landscape paralleled that of early-'70s American filmmakers, notably Peter Bogdanovich and Monte Hellman, whose 1971 films The Last Picture Show and Two-Lane Blacktop used the stark banality of small towns and highways as backdrops. Over a period of six years, however, Shore allowed his banal backdrops to resonate with bits of autobiography. In Room 125, Westbank Motel from Idaho Falls (1973), Shore's leg stretched out in front of him on the bed signals a traveler's exhaustion, while the reflection on the television screen above hints at the landscape outside the window.

  In the last set of images from Uncommon Places, photographs from a 1977 trip to Florida include his wife, Ginger, and two images of baseball's New York Yankees-Shore's home team-during spring training in 1978. In these last shots, Shore further inscribes the landscape with elements of intimacy, superimposing bits of home, hinting at the comfort of an artist who has found home on the road, in the seamlessness and sameness of motels, fast food and filling stations.

  Correction: Shimon & Lindemann previously exhibited at Sarah Bowen Gallery in Brooklyn, N.Y., not Chicago, as indicated in last week's review of their exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

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