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MOWA puts photographer duo in the viewfinder

There is a familiar, strange and dark beauty in the lives drawn out by photographer duo J. Shimon & J. Lindemann. You know these people, you know these places. They are particular and peculiar, brought together at the Museum of Wisconsin Art for the pair’s largest museum show yet: a retrospective of their 30-year career. It is an eloquently important exhibition.

What is perhaps most fascinating about John Shimon and Julie Lindemann’s work is their ability to reveal parts of the individual self that are always there but often unseen. Artifice and stereotypes vanish. Their subjects candidly say what they want to say, offering authentic statements about who they are, recorded by the photographers’ lens.

Much is made, and rightly so, of Shimon and Lindemann’s identity as Wisconsin artists. They have long been based in the Manitowoc area, away from the clamoring crush and fashion parade of a glossy contemporary art world where much can be made of trends.

Shimon and Lindemann’s depth is sourced from their astute aesthetic, technical rigor and profound connection to a culture. It could not be replicated by an outsider and, in the transient nature of contemporary life, this gleams like a rare jewel. In this place, they have found freedom in the absence of the external.

The exhibition opens with the monumental photograph, “Angela with Kit (Blue Velvet Prom Dress), Reedsville, WI” (1997). Angela’s biography is deeply rooted in rural concerns as a student of dairy science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, participation in groups such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America and the award of the titles such as County Farm Bureau Queen. The juxtaposition of her formal attire and bovine companion may sound improbable or even ironic, but it speaks deeply to the complex aspects of life that exist simultaneously. Shimon and Lindemann compress these into a single moment. In the clarity of the image and its impressive scale, the detail of the hair raised on Angela’s arm is not lost. It is as though there is a chill in the air but she is resolute and unconcerned. There is a toughness and acceptance of conditions, whatever they may be.

“Debra at Home Revealing Tiger Tattoo, Sturgeon Bay, WI” (1999) is another dismantling of what may seem ordinary. In a field, with a farm silo in the distance, the subject opens her shirt dress to show a naked thigh with an inked cat crawling up her hip. In ways overt and discreet, Shimon and Lindemann reveal that there is much in the world either assumed or hidden. The photographers document from within, capturing a realness and beauty as though digging through topsoil to reveal rich earth beneath. 

The exhibition covers a variety of subjects, also illustrated in the exhibition catalog which is available in print and as a free download from the Museum of Wisconsin Art’s website. Categories include Rebellion, Machines, Farms, Landscape, and Sages, and the catalog (and exhibition) closes with the exquisite series "Decay Utopia Decay."

In this last series, the camera is turned, transforming the creators into protagonists. Lindemann is an extraordinary subject as well as artist, pictured in the kitchen chopping vegetables or drying dishes. She is poised, cool and statuesque and turns the tables on domestic cliches. She is outfitted in black vinyl shorts and a lacy bustier with a demure apron printed with flowers. Sweeping the floor, Lindemann is nonchalant in a sheer negligée and heels. The camera angle is low, and she is in control.

A most stirring image comes in the form of “Self-Portrait in the Garden at Dusk, Whitelaw, WI” (1998). The title aptly uses the singular form for the collaborative pair. 

Shimon holds a heavy box camera while Lindemann stands stoically and sculpturally in a gauzy black dress. The location appears wild, barely tamed as the tall grasses and prairie flowers flourish under an overcast sky. The scene is activated by the artists’ presence and their practice. Photography gear has been hauled out, and the cords of an illuminated lamp trail off to some source of electricity. 

This is the place. Connected to the rest of the world like that black cord bringing light to this patch of the country, they inhabit it freely and easily, documenting and illuminating it and themselves, framed proudly against the horizon. 

"There’s a Place: Photographs by J. Shimon & J. Lindemann" continues through June 7 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Avenue, West Bend. Visit wisconsinart.org for more details.

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