American Typologies 1987-2003
Jeff Brouws has spent over twenty years exploring and documenting the American landscape, often driving over 30,000 miles a year. He approaches photography like a visual anthropologist, analyzing our material culture with an outsider's clarity of vision. His elegiac images combine formal beauty with cultural commentary, eschewing romanticism and searching instead for a deeper meaning behind the cycle of construction and decay in American society.
American Typologies 1987-2003 provides a retrospective on one aspect of the artist's creative process—the assemblage of typologies — and illustrates new directions taken in his most recent work. While earlier works such as the highway and carnival series were composed of single-image narratives, this exhibition marks a stylistic departure for Jeff Brouws. Images are grouped into typologies—thematic series of photographs that evolve over many years—and hung on the wall in grids, allowing the viewer to experience the breadth of each chosen subject. Issues examined include language in the landscape, cultural individualization of homogeneous architecture, found art, architectural forms of consumerism and surveillance, obsolescence, abandonment and loss. In his newest work, Brouws extends his vision into the contemporary suburban landscape, with its ubiquitous surveillance cameras, strip malls, and storage units. Brouws cites Ed Ruscha books such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Some Los Angeles Apartments for inspiring his interest in typological methods of picture gathering. He also credits the New Topographics movement from the 1970's—the work of Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz in particular—for his enduring interest in the man-made landscape.
In the introduction to Jeff Brouws' new book, Readymades: American Roadside Artifacts, curator Diana Gaston writes, "throughout his various bodies of work Brouws has a fervent desire to consume and collect, to assemble a more complex view of American culture than any one of us might hope to know on our own. His images catalog a vast landscape of industry, abandonment, loss and fortitude, sifting through what we cast off as our most enduring and revealing history."
The artist's work is among the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle. Publications include Readymades: American Roadside Artifacts (Chronicle Books, 2003), Inside the Live Reptile Tent: The Twilight World of the Carnival Midway (Chronicle Books, 2001), Highway: America's Endless Dream (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1997), and Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (Gas-N-Go, 1992).
The New Yorker
October 6, 2003
Something like the German photographer August Sanders' 'Man of the Twentieth Century,' Brouws' American Typologies catalogues a national identity. Instead of using people, though, Brouws uses icons—the work is a series of visual alphabets. Here, signage, houses, strip malls, farmland, and gas stations, are all unpeopled, richly colored, and arranged in discrete grids. The effect is surprisingly heartening. The individual prints—of an aggressively lavender stucco house, an expectant parking lot, a neon sign reading 'Terrible' against a purplish, swirled-ink sky — are beautiful, but also one admires the ambition, sociological inquisitiveness, and organization of the project itself. One of the show's most memorable groupings is a grid of nine photos of street signs and billboards that collectively form a found poem about the commandments and bylaws of American life: 'We Have,' 'Try,' 'Money,' 'We Can Help You,' and 'Temperance.'
The New York Times
October 3, 2003
American vernacular, a catchall term under which might be lumped low-end architecture, kitschy roadside phenomena and artifacts of rural-urban nostalgia, has been a theme for several generations of photographers. And the work of Jeff Brouws is a fine addition to the canon. Over the years, Mr. Brouws has assembled series of photographs of repetitive mundanities that dot the American landscape, like abandoned gas stations, advertising signs, beat-up pickup trucks, surveillance devices, parking lots, barns and strung-out storage facilities for consumer excess.
His photographs, in color and black and white, are arranged in grid formats, giving his deadpan subjects a sort of narrative content. One lively series is "Freshly Painted Houses, Daly City, CA" (1991), a grid of 24 mid-1950s tract houses, once drably uniform but in these photographs perked up with brilliant color schemes by Asian immigrants who in the 70's began to supplant relocating Americans.
Mr. Brouws acknowledges a deep debt to Ed Ruscha, the California Pop and Conceptual artist who applied serial photography to American commonplaces in the 1960's, beginning with his enormously influential "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" (1962). Mr Brouws's own shots of 26 abandoned gas stations are an homage to Mr. Ruscha. He carries on the tradition with verve.