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'Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power" was the first exhibition to bring together selections from all five of the American photographer's most important–and highly acclaimed–series to date: Factories (1986-1988), Offices (1989-1990), Nuclear Weapons (1992-2001), Meetings (1999-2003), and Security (2004-current).
It aimed to demonstrate the indelible mark made by Shambroom's work on the landscapes of photography and political discourse. His series-based colour photographs reveal both local and global manifestations of power, depicting scenes in industrial, business, community, and military environments. The exhibition, which travelled to four venues throughout the US, presented the artist's examination of active, critical and questioning citizenship.
In the exhibition, works from the late 1980s depicted manufacturing sites and office spaces throughout the US where many people spend the majority of their day, from gritty industrial factories, to immaculate biotech labs and empty office cubicles. For his next series, Shambroom gained access to long-restricted nuclear sites, where he produced eerie images of slumbering bombs and immaculate, empty war rooms. For Meetings, Shambroom traveled to municipal meetings in small communities as far flung as Bernice, Louisiana and Baltic, South Dakota, to document public officials in a formal portrait style. His most recent work in the exhibition documents security training at facilities across the country. In this series, past and future, reality and fiction, blur as each figure creates a picture of threat and resistance in our post-9/11 age. While diverse in subject matter, Shambroom’s series all record and demystify secret and little-seen loci of power. His images are remarkable both for their stark portrayal of such places, and as evidence of his access to the sites. Negotiating this access in an open and democratic manner is a hallmark of Shambroom’s practice.
'Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power' was organized by curator Diane Mullin of the Weisman Art Museum (Minneapolis, MN), and co-curators Christopher Scoates (Director, University Art Museum, CSU, Long Beach) and Helena Reckitt (The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto). A fully illustrated catalogue featuring essays by the exhibition curators and scholar Dick Hebdige, and an interview with the artist by Stuart Horodner accompanied this exhibition.
Selected extracts from reviews of the exhibition:
Shambroom’s frank documentary depictions of places glimpsed by most of us only in nightmares—high-security military sites, including missile command centers, Trident submarines, and weapons storage facilities—made for riveting viewing, even as cold-war fears of certain doom seemed to be loosening their grip. Now, in a vastly changed cultural context, the Minneapolis-based artist’s first comprehensive midcareer survey, which originated at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, brings together his nuclear series and four other major bodies of work: “Factories,” 1986–88, “Offices,” 1989–90, “Meetings,” 1999–2003, and “Security,” 2004–2007. As these photographs indicate, Shambroom is drawn to what he calls “spaces of power,” but his definition of power is far from formulaic… Viewed retrospectively, and despite the series’ varying strengths, Shambroom’s work urges us to rethink ever-shifting regimes of power and the ongoing governmental fixation on national security threats. This exhibition also prompts a reconsideration of the function of documentary photography today, given constantly changing conditions of secrecy, access, and transparency. Can carefully staged photographs maintain their relevance amid the increasing flood of information available instantaneously through all media? Most of Shambroom’s images do—perhaps because they insistently present themselves not as information but as rigorous pictures, depictions of specific things at specific moments, all the more resistant to abstraction because of their mundanely convincing particularity. As with his photograph of the unassuming man sweeping the floor in front of one-megaton bombs, Shambroom is at his best when his exposés achieve a level of unexpected intimacy.
ArtForum, "Reviews: Paul Shambroom, University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach", Summer 2009, Bryan-Wilson, Julia.
There's something unexpectedly poignant about Paul Shambroom's color photographs of factories, offices and nuclear weapons. Seen through the lens of economic free fall and the constant, ill-defined threat of terrorism, his meticulously composed images of production floors, cubicles and missile silos -- dating from the mid-1980s through the 1990s -- seem like documents of a bygone world, one that was industrious (if bland) and globally dominant (if plodding). It certainly wasn't the good old days, and Shambroom's project has never been nostalgic. But his body of work, which in recent years has expanded to include city council meetings and post- 9/11 security training camps, forms a kind of material history of American economic, military and political might. It also reveals a surprising vulnerability. …. Shambroom's exquisite eye for composition is also evident in his images of nuclear sites. The layout of a 1992 photo, "Minuteman II Missile in Transporter Erector Vehicle, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota," is as systematic as a Sol LeWitt drawing: A large circle (presumably the base of the missile) contains four smaller circles evenly spaced around a red square. It would be a perfect abstract composition save for the pair of camouflage-clad legs that snake disturbingly out from the circle's lower edge.
Los Angeles Times, "Revealing the banality of worldwide domination", March 6, 2009, Mizota, Sharon.
Shambroom's images seek to make the abstract notion of power tangible, without losing sight of the humorously literal. …More than power, Shambroom's focus is America and its innumerable contradictions. His project is a fascinating study of the intertwinement of America's identity with industry, and its adaptability to the times. …. Because Shambroom delves so deeply into the communities and institutions he photographs, he shares some of the hyper-investment and accommodation that often comes with documentary film portraits of esoteric communities. What might have become an ironic or unnecessarily goading project becomes a shaded, human-scale endeavor.
Art Papers, "Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power". Jan.-Feb. 2009, Feaster, Felicia.
With the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq now a historical marker, and more than 4,000 United States Servicemen and -women dead, Paul Shambroom’s exhibition, Picturing Power, presents an even more sobering look at power, its sources and its repercussions. Picturing Power is an evocative show that features nearly fifty color photographs culled from five of Shambroom’s series: Factories, Offices, Nuclear Weapons, Meetings, and Security. ....Shambroom crafts exquisitely conceived images whose subject matter intellectually shape-shifts from the authoritarian stance of power in the abstract and warheads at rest, to the absurdity of the real world manifestations of power: a figure covered head-to-toe in an insulated puffy green suit and headgear, leaning on a stainless steel robot in the birch woods of northern Minnesota. The beauty or absurdity of the images undercuts the veracity of its subject matter and risks enervating the image of any tangible seriousness. It is with this dichotomy in Shambroom’s images that the viewer must come to terms. The ambiguities and contradictions are inescapable. In the end, Shambroom's manifold portrayals of power allow us to project beyond the roles of these specific sites and figures, to the presumed activity of power and, more critically, to the psychology behind its wielding.
Mnartists.org, "This Modern World: Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power". April 1, 2008, Riddle, Mason.
"Picturing Power" brings together selections from five of Paul Sambroom's most significant photo series, which examine the many forms of power in American culture. The large-scale images, known for their eerily vibrant colors and stark lighting contrasts, examine various aspects of authority, from small manifestations of dominance in "Offices" to the great social control of the government in his newest suite "Homeland Security."
Art in America, "Museum Preview 2007-2008. Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power", August, 2007