Here are 15 very large, glossy photographs of a quintessentially American subject, the monster billboard. The ones collected here are empty, non-functioning, either never having been used or, having once seen better days, now abandoned to take their chances with the elements. Apart from one wall with over-large captions and lettering loudly announcing the name of the show and listing the usual acknowledgments, there is nothing else in the room. Within minutes, after the buzz of the Atlanta urban outdoors begins to fade from the ears and the eyes, you find yourself in an environment that is the result of a perfectly executed conspiracy between the artist Gregor Turk, the sponsor, and the gallery director Deborah Wilbur. The prints are just about the right size, with just about the right amount of glossiness. The director's style at Chastain, working with the artist, is to adjust and to re-adjust the spaces between pictures as well as the lighting in the gallery -- not a simple exercise. On this occasion it works so well as to appear a simple matter of turning on a few switches.
The artist traveled all over the country following the path of an imaginary highway he called I-50, and photographed these billboards against a wide variety of landscapes. This is the true meaning of the project: There is an "Interstate 50" in the hearts and minds of Americans, which is made up as you go along, linking every change and variation of terrain into one personal highway. When you cross the Rio Grande to the South, or the 49th parallel to the North, regardless of the continuation of the same geographical features, your mind tells you that your I-50 has come to an end and that you are in another country.
Along Gregor Turk's highway, the landscape varies from high desert, to mid-America farmland, from small-town America to the decaying urban fringes of the big cities, from winter in cattle country to colorful fall sunsets on the prairie. The billboards he has found are either in a progressive state of disrepair or in the middle of being constructed, and collectively form an emotionally affecting metaphor of what America is, the America which has long since disappeared from the over-glossy pages of National Geographic, Life and People. They have an inner poignancy which defies description by easy clichés, because it is a spirit which does not make headlines and has to be personally experienced to be discussed.
There are two touches of genius which add immeasurably to the total, cumulative effect of the installation. There are no people anywhere to be seen, and the photographs are numbered, not named. This enhances the imprint of the American folk-spirit, and though it would be easy to decode the numbers, NV 02 or SD 05, that would interrupt the seamless continuity which transforms 15 photographs into one composite installation, the expression of a single composite vision.
Gregor Turk's photographs come out of a genre very different from the fancy camera angles and sensational color inventions which is National Geographic's substitute for the substance of human folk. Some years ago, by accident, I discovered the beauty of "snap-shot" photography, where in the hands of everyday folk, an innocence of eye and simplicity of photographic technique produced a unique beauty somehow inaccessible to the professional Westons, Adams, Avedons and others. Gregor Turk's camera is in love with these places it has just discovered. It says, "Isn't that wonderful?" One needs no simpler or more marvelous message.
"New Work by Gregor Turk (The Blank Billboard Series)," continues at City Gallery at Chastain through July 3. 135 W. Wieuca Road N.W. Call 404-257-1804.
Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published June 20, 1998
E-mail to Gregor Turk
Photograph © Gregor Turk, 1998