For 25 years, the photographic team of John Shimon and Julie Lindemann has been documenting and celebrating a particular locale, central Wisconsin. A selection of their work is on display at the Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan through February 23. The Kohler is dedicated to the preservation of vernacular art, and for this show, Shimon and Lindemann straddle a line between photography and outsider art. The core of their work is portraiture, and the couple has created a gallery of the people they know– ordinary, visionary, and just plain eccentric. For this show, however, they supplemented full-length color portraits with a variety of installed works to create a sort of environmental experience of Wisconsin. In the center of the main exhibition space, for example, stands a salvaged 1949 Nash Ambassador, made in Kenosha, now loaded with cement corncobs. A collection of vintage Wisconsin postcards covers part of one wall, supplemented by additional postcard backs where visitors can write their own impressions and memories of the places. These are complemented by the artists’ own “postcards,” half done in platinum and half in cyanotype, showing Wisconsin houses and the changing Lake Michigan sky.
It is possible to see the entire installation as a response to an historian who has dealt famously with the nearby Midwest, Michael Lesy, whose book Wisconsin Death Trip (1973), assembled largely from a Wisconsin newspaper archive, forever labeled the state as a place of morbidity and madness. Shimon and Lindemann’s work makes the point that residency and duration are essential to engaging with the lives lived in a place, the stories told, and more importantly, the imaginative landscape. Their work is probably closer in spirit to Nancy Rexroth’s Iowa of the 1970s, and as entertaining as installed work can be, the one regret of the Kohler show is that there was not a full presentation of the couple’s photographic work. Only when that happens – and it travels beyond local boundaries – can the rest of the country appreciate their distinctive contribution to American photography.