Chris Verene in the Atlanta Journal Constitution 2012

Wendell Brock, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, August 11, 2012

Chris Verene a highlight of Atlanta Celebrates Photography

Back in 1994, a gawky Atlanta artist Velcro-ed a bunch of incandescent, hyper-realistic family portraits to the wall of an old Cabbagetown laundromat. They were pictures he’d been taking of the folks back home in Galesburg, Ill. —  a place of twinkling Christmas lights, U.S. flags, party canapés, cherished pets and village oddballs — since he was 17.

 
 

Son of an Emory University philosophy professor and a product of the bohemian Little Five Points scene of the late-’80s, Verene and his documentary photographs of economically depressed Galesburg were featured in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. In 2002, he won a coveted Pollack-Krasner Foundation Grant. His pictures, which serve as sad, kitschy reminders of the dreams and disappointments of middle America at the end of the 20th century, have been collected in two handsome oversize monographs from Twin Palms Press: “Chris Verene” (2000) and the just-released “Family.”

 

On Oct. 9, the soon-to-be 41-year-old Verene, who now lives in Brooklyn, will return to his adopted hometown for the opening of “Family” at Marcia Wood Gallery. The show promises to be one of the glitzier offerings of Atlanta Celebrates Photography, a citywide festival of more than 150 events and exhibits running through October.

“I think of Atlanta as home because so much of my life happened there,” the photographer said by phone from his home, as he watched his 4-year-old son, Nico, eat a mango on a Sunday afternoon. Verene’s parents still live in Atlanta, and his wife, Ani Cordero (lead singer of the band Cordero, for which he plays drums), grew up in Atlanta.

 

Photography is not Verene’s only passion. As a socially awkward teen, Verene and his friend, Grace Braun, started the band DQE (Dairy Queen Empire), began to do concerts and have their music played on the radio. “I think that was a great, big self-esteem boost for a kid like me who was not understood and did not have many friends.” He hung out with Atlanta singer-songwriter Kelly Hogan and remembers cross-dressing performance artist Benjamin Smoke (a.k.a. Opal Foxx) practicing in his parents’ basement.

 

He started taking classes at Emory as a Druid Hills High School sophomore and began studying photography at 18 with mentor Nancy Marshall. He remembers lugging a medium-format camera back and forth to Galesburg every Christmas. He would put up hardware-store clamp lights and get his cousins to sit on the couch and take pictures.

 

Thus was born the photograph of his pig-farming cousin Libby pulling a bloody new-born piglet out of a sow and his cousin Candi’s now-famous wedding portrait, with its tacky flower arrangements, balloons and "her two favorite customers from the Sirloin Stockade." That picture graces the cover of Verene’s first book, while the cover of “Family” shows the home of Candi on the day she signed her divorce papers and a tornado hit. Presented in chapter-like narratives, the pictures are labeled with Verene’s pithy handwritten remarks: “Dorothy says that when she was a little girl, a star fell on her.” “Mercedes will soon have a half sister named Lexus.”

 

Verene, who remembers noticing the works of Diane Arbus as a kid and buying a Nan Goldin book at the old Oxford Books in Peachtree Battle, says he’s surprised by how little the fame of his pictures has changed his subjects.

 

"In Galesburg, they say that life is the same, and people go to work and babies are born, and things happen. As my grandmother called it, it's a plain town. It's not trying to be special or fancy or unique. She always told me she felt like my pictures were plain. She'd always say, 'You told it plain.' "

 

“Chris Verene: Family”

Opening reception, book signing 1-5 p.m., artist lecture 3-4 p.m., Oct. 9.

Through Nov. 13. Marcia Wood Gallery, 263 Walker St., S.W., Atlanta. 404-827-0030, marciawoodgallery.com

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