Thursday, April 30, 2009

Down in the Basement

Fellowship Hall Stage, 2007
from Down in the Basement
copyright Sarah Madsen

I have an ongoing debate with one of my closest friends from Minnesota, Peter Haakon Thompson - who happens to be headed to the big city in a few weeks - about what epitomizes "The Real Midwest." Peter, who grew up in Minneapolis, claims that Minnesota is the real deal, and as far as I recall, the main and only point of his argument is that from a geographic perspective, Minnesota is centrally located between the East and the West.

While I, who grew up in Michigan in a town off Interstate-94 smack in between Chicago and Detroit, and then went to college in Ohio and graduate school in Chicago, claim roots in "The Real Midwest" for reasons that have more of a basis in cultural character. I'm from the Rust Belt - where the auto and steel industries collapsed and left cities full of holes, abandoned storefronts, crack houses, ever-rising unemployment rates - not to mention, the churches, thrift stores, sports teams, gray skies, dead malls, poor driving conditions due to rain from the Great Lakes, discount cigarette shops with names like The Butt Hutt, and some elite liberal arts colleges scattered throughout.

Most people out here in NYC probably don't really care and think it is all the same anyways - somewhere that exists between New York and Los Angeles, but I promise you, there are nuances. When I moved to Minnesota, I felt like I went on a long retreat in a Scandinavian enclave in what, to me, is a distinctly northern part of this country. It is bright and sunny up there. It's so clean, it is almost surreal. There are undoubtedly more blondes with cute, funny accents. And there is actually some money for the arts, even if it never came my way.

I didn't fully understand my own "Midwestern-ness" until I moved to New York City. Here, people frequently tell me that I seem very Midwestern. On one hand, I warily take that as a compliment to suggest that I might be nice, friendly, sincere, straight-forward, down-to-earth ... maybe even honest and reliable ... but invariably, it also means that I am not glamorous, savvy, sophisticated (damn). While in Midwest, I saw myself as a little edgier than the average Midwesterner, in New York, I feel almost folky.

One thing for sure is that Midwesterners have a keen sense of each other in New York City. We pick up on each others' biorhythms immediately and know that we will never fully be New Yorkers. It goes against the grain of our own sense of integrity, even if none of us actually want to live in Midwest. And Midwestern photographers in particular - can any of us shoot here? Is there ever enough space and time for the way we think and feel? Most of the Midwestern photographers I know return to places more akin to what we love and hate about where we are from.

When I met Sarah Madsen at Laumont, I knew she wasn't from these parts. She was way too sweet to be a real New Yorker. It made perfect sense that she is from Iowa - and even Iowa is more Midwestern in my book than Minnesota.

I asked Sarah and her friend and former co-worker, another midwestern photographer named Sara Code-Kroll, to give a talk about their work to a class I was teaching at the ICP in the fall of 2007 called Photographing the Everyday. Sarah showed images from her series, Down in the Basement, shot in the basement of a Presbyterian church in Iowa where her father was a minister. I know that the Midwest is not the only home to churches, and while perhaps the subject matter itself reaches beyond the Midwest, I still perceive a Midwestern sensibility in the way that Sarah makes photographs.

I don't know how anyone who has ever been to an AA, NA, SA, DA (etc.) meeting could not find something poignant about these humble rooms that Sarah has depicted so beautifully. And even for those who went to church upstairs, they must have gone down at some point for coffee and donuts, or to change into a choir robe, or just to use the bathroom.

Admittedly, I was never really a fan of church. My grandfather was a Methodist minister, and I was baptized in an Episcopalian church, belonged to a Presbyterian youth group that went on cool trips, and even went for a while to a futuristic Unitarian church with spectacularly cheesy light shows. There wasn't much about church services that kept me coming back. Sermons were inevitably boring, and the Bible had way too many characters and too thick of a plot. I have always preferred modernism and what followed in my reading material, and I've never had a taste for anything epic, except maybe One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Executioner's Song. Besides that, church was overwhelmingly heterocentric, like school dances and high school parties, and I hated to dress up.

But I always liked church basements, even as a kid. Beside the donuts, church basements meant art projects with markers and crayons and big rolls of paper. Church basements were an escape from all that stuffy formality upstairs. And in later years, church basements were a place that welcomed people to find their own sense of spirituality and community on much looser terms amongst friends and strangers who were struggling with the same demons.

Enough about me! Sarah Madsen's first solo show in New York City is opening tonight at Galeria Ramis Barquet. Whatever you might feel about church basements or Midwesterners, you might just appreciate Sarah's work as great photography that transforms something simple into something remarkable and full of emotional resonance. You might appreciate the subtle and well-rendered details of spaces worn by time and use. If I don't sublet my apartment soon, I might just ask Sarah to come over and photograph it for me - to show you all how lovable it really is - perhaps even, Midwestern.

Sarah Madsen
Down in the Basement

Galeria Ramis Barquet
532 W. 24th Street

April 30th - May 30th

1 comment:

Evilyn Garnett said...

The midwest you describe is the midwest I migrated to from NYC; the midwest you & Madsen see is in my eyes, heart and mind permanently. Even if I get back home to NY, 20 years in "church basements" have sweetened and saddened me in exactly the way those pictures look, and that's also permanent. Thank you Tema, thank you Madsen.