Storm Seller

In Lori J. Nix's photos, farm towns are blown apart for laughs -- and not much else.

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Oscar Wilde once said that the only thing worse than being talked about was being ignored--a morsel of wit that hung around for roughly seven decades before Lee Harvey Oswald's mother took it to its bizarre extreme. On hearing about the death of her son, the Mother Oswald purportedly exclaimed, "They can't push us around anymore. We're in the history books now!"

That same desire for a piece of the historical pie, no matter the cost, informs the work of photographer Lori J. Nix. Born in a rural Kansas town that she claims was too small to have a name, Nix discovered that the accidents that befell her town gave it a face it otherwise lacked. Disasters put it on the map. In her Fruit Avenue Gallery photograph series Accidentally Kansas, Nix stakes a macabre claim for small-town identity. Rural Kansas is most like itself, she seems to say, when terrible things happen to it. The Sunflower State without its tornados and other prairie calamities would be like Mr. Spock without his logic.

Very un-Spockian for its delight in disorder is an image of a town square that has just been ravaged by a twister (the piece is untitled, like all of Nix's work in this exhibit). The Vulcan first officer would have balked at the eerie allure that Nix finds in this scene, one of thirteen that she has staged and then photographed. The tornado has just passed, leaving overturned cars and downed telephone poles in its wake. A cow in the center of the shot ambles along, freed from a nearby cattle truck by the disaster. The alternating black and white of the animal's coat leads the eye incongruously to the alternating red and white squares of the Ralston-Purina logo on a damaged building. This shot is a slow burn played for a demented chuckle; you laugh and then wonder why you're laughing.

At her best, Nix achieves the kind of compelling, off-key feel that heads straight for your viscera and challenges you to step back and examine your own reactions. In fact, subject matter aside, Nix's photography is full of Spock-like logic in its desire to carefully orchestrate chaos. She's set up toy props, chosen camera angles, and melodramatically lit everything in the cliched style one might find on the cover of a Mattel toy box. The color photographs are crisply focused for the most part, but Nix blurs focus occasionally to contrast spatial planes or, sometimes, to suggest a difference between blurry pre-disaster angst (the moments before everything goes berserk) and sharp post-disaster analysis (when people assess damage with scientific objectivity). This mixture of obsessive planning with a sense of decadent pandemonium is hard to take seriously, just as you never take the dead bodies too seriously in one of Hitchcock's suspenseful but emotionally distant thrillers. The point is that disasters have a way of being funny. And when all that chaos is too much, all that's left to do is to whistle past the graveyard.

Artificiality is of the essence in these photographs. An accident planned in an artist's studio, after all, ceases to be an accident, and there is really no such thing as controlled chaos. Although Nix's photographs are devoid of human life, they paradoxically remind us that the artist is the dominant personality here, not a capricious Mother Nature. Other photographers, like David Levinthal and Laurie Simmons, have used toys as stand-ins for the people and objects they represent. But unlike them, Nix is not particularly interested in suggesting a narrative in progress; she'd rather punctuate a self-sufficient moment with a rueful grimace or a hearty laugh. This she does by introducing deliberately incongruous touches, like the cow wandering along a tornado-ravaged Main Street. You imagine the mooing in conjunction with the sounds of wood splitting and car wheels spinning, and decide that this is not what people mean when they say that folks from town and folks on the farm ought to get together and try to understand each other better. What better way to discover common humanity, Nix seems to suggest, than with a good old-fashioned tornado that wipes out farm animal and town square alike?

Another satirical dig on social convention is suggested by a photograph of a toy airship about to collide with a web of telephone wires. Here, Nix seems to allude to the Hindenburg tragedy. Herb Morrison, the hapless journalist who was doing the play-by-play for the airship's arrival in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, entered the history books himself when the tribute to Nazi ingenuity proceeded to explode into flames, and no-name Morrison was there to react for a national radio audience. His purple rhetoric on seeing the hull shrivel up in flames ("Oh, the humanity!") is quaintly amusing now, divorced as it is from the impact of the event. Solemnity and absurdity can be closer together than one might think, and Nix's own image of impending doom makes one wonder what she will say when the disaster is in progress. Will her satirical armor evaporate, and, like Herb Morrison, will she display a heretofore unimagined gift for melodrama? We'll never know, because Nix's dirigible will remain frozen in time. But we can guess, based on her reaction to the lone cow after the deluge.

Nix's Kansas is not unlike those unassuming little southern towns in Flannery O'Connor's short stories, where grotesquely illogical things happen with alarming frequency--from a Bible salesman stealing a girl's artificial leg to a disillusioned religion-spouting misfit, presiding over the murder of an entire family while musing out loud about how Jesus threw the whole world off balance. Nix, though, doesn't share O'Connor's interest in religion or her quest for insight. Like the best gag writers, she just keeps the bitter laughs coming. As a result, there's no possibility of an epiphany (religious or artistic) that might place things in some sort of context. Strange stuff, she seems to say, happens in small towns, where the regularity of the seasons and the tilling of the soil is supposed to organize time. But why, one asks, does it have to happen all the time? Isn't there any time for a lemonade on the porch or maybe a nice community sing? When disaster hits under those circumstances, it packs an even greater wallop, and it also rings true. Nix has the comic wallop, along with a knack for prop management and darkroom sleight of hand, but truth is not her strong point.

Instead, she remains a fatalist with a broad grin, and herein lies the strength of her exhibit and its main weakness. Although the pictures are in color and the laughs are real, the emotional texture is monochromatic, and Accidentally Kansas doesn't hold up to sustained scrutiny. Nix's knack for biting satire emerges, but satire, at least in the classical Swiftian sense, is always about brutally pointing out foibles so that improvement can be affected in the end. This set of photographs is too anarchical to be concerned about improvements of any kind. You laugh at the disaster and chuckle at the way people and animals are equalized in times of crisis, and that's about it.

There was a larger work embedded in this minor opus, but Nix unfortunately didn't find it. That larger work has to do with the way that Americans strive against mediocrity and would often rather be trashy historical footnotes than successful nonentities. Celebrity is to be prized, but notoriety will do in a pinch. Bonnie and Clyde tried, Herb Morrison tried, the cow in the twister scene tried, and so does a small town in Kansas with no name. The verdict: fertile soil that has not been properly tilled.

Accidentally Kansas, through March 29 at Fruit Avenue Gallery, 919 Fruit Avenue, Tremont, 216-696-6805.

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