“Prime Locations” is the newest series to emerge from the photographic collaboration of Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman, and their largest to date. Working together since 1978, they have pursued wry excursions into realms of modern America, seeking the sublime among the menial, the timeless in the present.
Standing on the sidewalk of the Shopping Mall, Orland Park, a woman and two children wait at the edge of a parking lot, their heads covered by paper grocery bags. Towering over them are three curves of a massive brick wall filling the frame like some Sumerian fortification.
The Little Giant Big Burger, Alsip floats serenely on an empty expanse of parking lot. Its hip roof is steeply pitched and sports a huge model of a cheeseburger that seems about to slide down onto two lines of pennants stretching out to the viewer like enticing tendrils of drool.
Purportedly the result of a 3,000-mile survey of Chicago’s suburbs, this series of about 40 photographs tackles a big challenge. Basically following a landscape format (sky, horizon, foreground), “Prime Locations” tries to distill from this vast man-made topography some understanding of its significant impact on American culture. Despite the mileage reference, it is not a trek story in the usual documentary sense, nor is there any easy narrative linking the imagery of each silver print. It’s a more cerebral incision into the possibility of an aesthetic arising from a paragon of the mundane — postwar prairie sprawl.
It’s easy to overlook this fine essay, flat on the wall of a main corridor of the Public Library Cultural Center that is often used at expressway volume and speed. The black-and-white prints are relatively small — 11 by 14 inches — and suffused with a uniform gray perfectly mimicking our region’s atmospheric light. In contrast to the blandishments of color and split-second imaging of video culture, the genius of this work requires a little painstaking.
Ciurej/Lochman revel in a positively oriental subtlety where perception and appreciation are concerned. Bowling Lanes, Oak Lawn looks like a relentlessly boring picture of a severely plain structure. It becomes delightful if you notice the lone evergreen allowed to grow untrimmed at a slant paralleling the establishment’s oval logo.
A taste for visual puns characterizes the duo’s work. But if their style is terse and frequently sardonic, Ciurej/Lochman generally refrain from taking cheap shots of their subject. Raised in this exurban milieu at the height of its allure, the artists returned to look seriously at what had for them embodied “the American dream: commerce, convenience, community — laid out curbside.” As the last phrase suggests, they also have no illusions about the suburbs: asphalt is ubiquitous in these pictures.
Given the volatility and immensity of their topic, the two wisely impose a conscious restraint upon their camera work. Seeking telling archetypes of the suburban experience they limit their views to ordinary and homogenous sites, usually of a civic nature: office and industrial park, auditorium, church, shopping center, restaurant, funeral parlor. There is only one house in the series and the only intrinsically sensational building is the Electrical Substation, Milwaukee.
Preferring the generic to the exceptional, Ciurej/Lochman nevertheless concentrate on conjuring potent visuals from this very dross. These pictures may look effortlessly factual but they are rigorously ordered, applying formal and reductive tactics associated with theories of modern art. Since both are graduates of ITT’s Institute of Design, it is no surprise to find their treatment of Warehouse, Alsip following Bauhaus photographic traditions. It’s a very apt method for an environment built on vernacular versions of Miesian architectural principles.
Ciurej/Lochman land us dead center at their site. Views are frontal and ground-level mostly, although angles do vary. We’ve stepped out of a car at this ordinary place which looks suddenly peculiar, thanks to their keen eye for the evocative gestures of suburban style. They favor single-story or low-rise buildings relieved by strong design components. In Porte-Cochere, Apartment Building, Lombard a standard four-plus-one rests on charming Flintstone boulder arches.
This snapshot perspective ideally conveys the harmonious order of a Professional Building, Barrington with its superbly upholstered wall and poodle-perfect topiary. At other times it becomes depressing or tiresome, as in Funeral Parlor, Palos Hills or Window, Apartment Building, Oak Lawn. When Ciurej/Lochman use this style for their detail compositions (they are fond of sets of three and planar geometry) it melds their own formality with that of their pedestrian subject.
These views are all stripped of two suburban constants. There are no cars visible and no people around. Alternating as their own models, Ciurej and Lochman do inject figures — all headless — into six pictures. This tactic seems forced most of the time and the figures play a pretty mute role, almost as if they were merely used to show the scale of a place. The burden of expression in this series is placed on the architectonics of a place when subjected to the photographers’ design sensibility.
Ciurej/Lochman allow the suburbs to speak for themselves, honestly recording their values of bland function and artificial order while sympathetically seeking their graphic potential. Even their pictures of signs and advertising or decorative devices emphasize the sanitizing decorum of the locale. They do not exploit cracks in this facade of the promised land, but they certainly note them. Auditorium, Oak Lawn presents another dramatic roof shape, this one framing a clumsy cement relief of a discus thrower. Underneath is the sandblasted ghost of graffiti reading “Greeks are assholes.”
Viewing a tough place and culture on its own terms, the photographers remain unsentimental and refreshingly objective. Matching the suburbs’ vernacular design with their own remarkable reductivism, Ciurej and Lochman elucidate grandeur, optimism, and variety in places regarded as the antithesis of those qualities.
Photographs of the suburbs by Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman will be on display at the Public Library Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington until May 30. Admission is free; call 346-3278 for more info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Chicago office of Fine Arts, Barbara Ciurej, and Lindsay Lochman.