In an image-saturated world where gaudy pictures blast from computers, phones and television, the photos of St. Paul artist JoAnn Verburg are strikingly still, serene and spare: Italian olive groves shrouded in mist, her husband reading or napping, friends floating aimlessly in crystalline water. Such familiar and ephemeral subjects have captured Verburg's attention throughout her 30-year career, and they hang at the heart of her new show, "Present Tense," opening Saturday at Walker Art Center.
The exhibit is Verburg's first at the Walker, a Minneapolis institution to which many of her early images are deeply indebted. It was organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where the show made its debut in July.
In the early 1980s, shortly after she moved from Cambridge, Mass., to Minnesota, Verburg began photographing artists, especially dancers, who were in town to perform at the Walker. With their finely tuned awareness of movement and space, the dancers awakened in her a new understanding of the human body, its scale and how it inhabits the world. That's when she fixated on what became a signature element in her images; they always contain something life-sized, be it a glass of water, a tree branch, a daily newspaper or a body adrift in shimmering light.
Verburg, 57, recently recalled the excitement she felt in 1979 when she took the first of her life-sized photos. It was a portrait of a friend, Joel Janowitz, made with an experimental Polaroid camera to which she had access because she was managing an artists' program for the camera company. The camera took huge 20- by 24-inch images that were amazingly detailed and strangely focused, especially when compared with the little square Polaroids that were then common.
"I took the photo home, put it up on the wall and kept looking at it; I couldn't do anything else," Verburg said. "If my friend Joel had been in the room, I would have had no trouble making dinner, but with the photo, I just couldn't stop looking."
Two years later she arrived in Minnesota to be an artist-in-residence at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she continued to pursue portraiture, photographing performers Meredith Monk, Trisha Brown, Ping Chong, Robert Wilson and other avant-garde luminaries.
A selection of those early black-and-white images will open the Walker show along with several of what she calls her "water pictures" -- images of friends swimming or floating in a skylit pool. The latter are gravity-defying pictures in which beautiful figures seem adrift in a topsy-turvy world without a clear sense of up or down. Floating past each other, they sometimes touch without appearing to acknowledge each other or to connect.
In "Present Tense," the show's elegant catalog (MOMA, $50), curator Susan Kismaric describes the swimming images as being about people "at sea in the waves of emotions and instability created by relationships." She analyzes the swimmers' vulnerability and isolation as a metaphor for "the anxiety and doubt of modern experience."
Traditional gear, modern themes
Water is a quicksilver medium whose flickering animates the images and suggests spontaneity, but Verburg's pictures are never a snap. She works with large-format, old-fashioned cameras that are mounted on tripods and activated from under hoods. Many exposures take up to 45 minutes to set up and require infinite patience on the part of her subjects.
Not surprisingly, her most frequent human subject is her husband, poet Jim Moore, whose ruminative behavior -- he apparently reads, writes and naps a lot -- lends itself naturally to slow-motion photography. In photo after photo, Moore is found gazing at the New York Times or Star Tribune, drowsing with a folded paper on his lap or semi-concealed behind an alarming headline.
Beyond revealing the little pleasures of daily life -- or its tedium, depending on your point of view -- these images bring viewers into extraordinarily intimate contact with an otherwise private person, a comparative stranger whose balding pate, bare feet and damp tummy are now tenderly exposed to the public gaze. Moore's very ordinariness makes this all the more unusual. Middle-aged and casually shaven, he has the soft body and unexpressive features of any generic man on the street, yet Verburg has lavished on her love the kind of attention usually reserved for the George Clooneys of the world.
There is something sweetly tender about such pictures, but they are also, in a sense, not about Moore at all. A stand-in figure, he remains as elusive and unknowable as if he were invisible, existing somewhere outside the picture frame.
Describing "3 x Jim," a 1989 triptych of Moore, curator Kismaric notes the photos' extraordinary intimacy and how unusual it is in art. In the sequence, she writes, "the spiritual experience of an encounter with another person has been made visible and tangible."
Framing the world
It's a safe guess that no artist has made more extensive use of newspapers as a still-life element than Verburg -- not even Picasso, who famously collaged bits of newsprint into his paintings. For Verburg, the daily papers -- and she makes a fetish of using only current publications -- allude to all the unstated and unshown elements of contemporary life, the things that she does not capture with her lens.
"The newspapers represent big stories or small stories that are outside the frame of our intimate daily life, but we as humans have a responsibility to integrate all that," Verburg said. "When I photographed Jim falling asleep while reading about (Romanian dictator Nicolae) Ceausescu being executed, he was not blowing it off or being irresponsible or dismissive. There's a necessity for personal peace that exists simultaneously with the necessity of being a citizen of the world."
As for the olive trees whose portraits end the show, Verburg photographs them in the hills near Spoleto, Italy, where she and Moore spend part of each year. Many are in an ancient grove that has been a religious pilgrimage site for more than 2,000 years. The last gallery also includes some of her photos of water and little pyramids of white sand that seem at once eternally monumental and utterly fragile and transient.
Verburg carefully avoids overtly religious language, but acknowledges a spiritual moment in the show's conclusion. "At the end, it is beautiful and empty, a place where presence and absence are referenced in water and sand," she said.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431Photo of Verburg by KRISTINE WALSH
Born: 1950, Summit, N.J.
Family: Husband Jim Moore.
Home: St. Paul and Spoleto, Italy.
Education: Ohio Wesleyan University, B.A., 1972; Rochester Institute of Photography, M.A., 1976.
Employment: Philadelphia Museum of Art (1972-1974); Polaroid Corp., Boston (1978-1980), Minneapolis College of Art and Design visiting artist (1981).
Past exhibitions: 20 solo shows 1978-2007, including Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Kansas City Art Institute, Museum of Modern Art, New York. More than 75 group shows at museums and galleries in Chicago, New York, Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia and elsewhere.