Hidden in plain sight

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2012 - 2:27 PM

Minneapolis photographer Paul Shambroom meditates on American power in a mini-retrospective.

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From Paul Shambroom's "Power and Place" exhibition.

Even eagle-eyed travelers would be unlikely to spot the nuclear arsenal buried in the verdant meadows and graveled hills of the Great Plains.

The protruding towers, thin poles and low concrete platforms that dot the sites could just as well mark natural gas wells or oil terminals. Only government officials, neighboring farmers and Minneapolis photographer Paul Shambroom are likely to realize that the odd extrusions mark silos housing the nation's 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), whose nuclear warheads are trained on sites around the world. Many of the silos are unmanned, their 1.6-acre plots surrounded by chain-link fences and barbed wire. The curious can approach as near as 15 feet, but an armed response team is deployed if an intruder jumps the fence. Promise.

For three decades Shambroom, 55, has focused on issues of "Power and Place," as his current show is titled at the University of Minnesota's Katherine E. Nash Gallery. On view through Feb. 4, it samples three photo series by Shambroom, who recently joined the U's Art Department as an assistant professor. His nine "Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles" pictures depict innocuous landscapes that conceal deadly weapons.

Four "U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve" photos document bucolic Gulf Coast landscapes under which the country is storing 727 million barrels of crude oil, enough to keep the American way of life humming for 59 days in a worst-case emergency. A dozen pictures titled "Shrines" record outmoded weapons that have been redeployed nationwide as playground equipment, memorials, tourist attractions and even religious signposts.

Despite their militaristic subjects and potentially patriotic themes, these are strangely undemonstrative images, most notable for their understated normalcy and beautiful light, be it a luminous cloud floating over a mirror-still canal above a petroleum cache in Bryan Mound, Texas, or a rainbow arching over a missile field somewhere in the Midwest. There's no suggestion of political tension or latent danger, no hint that the water might ever ooze oil or that the prairie could suddenly erupt with a lethal barrage sufficient to incinerate much of the planet.

In fact, Shambroom admits that the placid beauty of the oil storage sites momentarily stumped him. With no signs of what they cover, how could he suggest their national significance? Then he recalled 17th-century Dutch landscapes whose shimmering skies also symbolized peaceful prosperity, and proceeded to make his photos echo the luminosity of their Dutch antecedents.

With his cool eye and deadpan demeanor, Shambroom never sensationalizes, exploits, hypes, criticizes, editorializes or takes a political position on his potentially controversial subjects. He has spent his career trying to picture aspects of American life that are elusive and sometimes virtually invisible, places and things that embody our fears and define our hopes.

Only in the "Shrine" photos is there, perhaps, a more overt hint of irony, as when he presents the white shaft of a nuclear missile rising near a picture-perfect church steeple in Warren, N.H., or a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter, mounted on an American Legion pedestal, that appears to be descending upon a line of neatly landscaped suburban houses in Alpharetta, Ga.

Even then his irony is mixed with tenderness, as when he finds a boy of about 12 gently running his fingers along a torpedo in St. Paul's Como Park, or a wedding party clambering over a demobilized tank in a Wheaton, Ill., park, the happy bride and groom entwined on the gun barrel.

In this mini-retrospective, Shambroom's America appears impossibly big and heavily armed, but still beautiful and innocently hopeful.

More views of 'Place'

An accompanying show, "Regarding Place," features photos, videos and an installation by eight University of Minnesota faculty members and recent alumni, all loosely themed to a sense of place.

Areca Roe's zoo images are particularly effective, among them camel humps that suggest furry mountains and a sad monkey in a barren cage spray-painted with faux foliage. Stefanie Motta also made an arresting triptych of two girls whose long hair is plaited into a single braid as if they were conjoined twins. Depicted in the same pose three times in a span of perhaps five years, they mature with a haunting grace. Andy Mattern created clever symbolic portraits centered on bathroom sinks and their messy accoutrements -- towels, tubes, brushes, gels and hair clippings.

Other participants are: Justin Newhall, with an odd portfolio of faded porn pictures that he found and inexplicably re-photographed in a decaying Manitoba village; Erin Hernsberger, who turned out 5-foot-high closeups of moss, spiderwebs, dust, lichen and other decaying matter; Sam Hoolihan, who documented a year in the life of an elaborate box garden; James Henkel, who photographed Gettysburg inscriptions and other documents, and Jan Estep, who muses about philosophical conundrums in a video installation.

  • POWER AND PLACE

    What: Photos by Minneapolis artist Paul Shambroom of innocuous American landscapes that mask nuclear arsenals, strategic resources and decommissioned weapons. Plus place-related images by eight U of M faculty members and alumni.

    When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat. through Feb. 4.

    Where: Katherine E. Nash Gallery, Regis Center for Art, University of Minnesota, 405 21st Av. S., Mpls.

    Admission: Free. Info at 612-624-7530 or nash.umn.edu.

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