In Approaching Nowhere, Jeff Brouws surveys the evolving cultural landscapes of rural, urban and suburban America, from secondary highways to strip malls to decimated industrial sites and inner city housing. Combining bleak beauty with anthropological inquiry, he seeks the significance behind the cycle of construction, decline and renewal. Brouws' photographs go beyond mere description and gather layered meaning, often functioning as antipodal metaphors or asking sociological questions. When captured by his lens, deserted streets and freeways evoke the restlessness of an uncertain nation, and communicate a low-lying foreboding. On another level, these same images remind us that roads are part of a vital infrastructure, central to a consumer society's dependency on the conveyance of goods and services, as well as being essential components of economic development and national security.
Ever fearful of a homogenized America, Brouws bears witness to new superstore construction that eradicates valuable farmland in the Midwest. Other photographs examine once vibrant, but now abandoned central business districts or working-class neighborhoods in the rust-belt inner cities of Buffalo, New York or Gary, Indiana. As commercial or residential ruins victimized by suburbanization, racism, white flight, and chronic poverty, these places represent a nowhere—a discarded zone—in the consciousness of most Americans. On Chicago's south side, high-rise towers of segregation based on Le Corbusier's Radiant City concepts stand in silent testimony to the failure of public housing erected during the Great Society era of the 1960s. Manufacturing plants shuttered by decades of outsourcing and deindustrialization lie fallow in Ohio. In upstate New York, a franchised landscape of corporate logos has replaced a view formerly revered by the Hudson River School painters. Once unique in its qualities, this place—like so many others across America that Jeff Brouws has documented—are being steadily replaced by a ubiquitous sense of conformity.
The photographs in Approaching Nowhere quietly ask us to re-examine the links between economics, consumerism, corporate responsibility, place, race, class, housing, social policy and urban planning. By subtle implication they suggest underlying disparities throughout a country that purports economic equality and social justice for all.
The New Yorker
October 16, 2006
Brouws calls his new show of American landscapes (and the book they're taken from) "Approaching Nowhere," but his view of our national landscape isn't uniformly bleak. That's probably because he delivers the bad news—abandoned factories, shuttered businesses, empty highways, lifeless inner cities—with pained regret and concern. And because Brouws works in color even the dreariest images have a subdued sensuousness: muddy puddles at a superstore construction site, the greenish glow of a highway sign in the fog, the dull gleam of orphaned "Inc" letters on a brick wall. No matter how despairing, the work stops short of the dead end.