The new shows at Jackson Fine Art prove to be simultaneously quirky, humorous, and disturbing. Vee Speers‘ “The Birthday Party” is the gallery’s main exhibit, with an additional room devoted to “The Fall River Boys,” a series of photographs by Richard Renaldi that chronicles the buildings and the people he met in a small, deteriorating New England town. Both series capture the loss of innocence which typifies that awkward adolescent stage all of us relate to, and most wish to forget.
The inspiration for Vee Speers’ “The Birthday Party” came from watching her daughter’s eighth birthday party. Here she observed the interactions among children and their creative imaginations. All the children were between ages 5 and 9 when photographed, and Speers gave little direction to the children other than not to smile. As we grow up, we inadvertently lose the heightened sense of playfulness and imagination we once possessed as a child. In Speers’ work, anticipation of this loss lends dark undertones to these images: a feeling that the children, made-up in their costumes, have lost that innocent playfulness before their time. In Untitled #13, the young girl’s sailor costume, reminiscent of the 1940s pin-up era, feels as if she should be performing at a USO show for the troops. Her gaze at the camera, however, says she would rather being doing anything but having her picture taken.
Some of Vee Speers’ best images feature armed and masked children,
a potent reminder of America’s multi-front wars, and their effects on our future generations. Take, for example, Untitled #4 and #14. In #4, the subject is unsure of how to hold or what to do with the weapons imposed upon him. There is a similar sense of unease in #14, where Speers suggests a simple SAT-style analogy: tutu is to boy as rifle is to boy.
Richard Renaldi’s photographic series “Fall River Boys” deals with the loss of innocence similar to Speers’ “The Birthday Party.” Renaldi’s subjects are older than Speers; most are in their adolescence trying to find their way into adulthood. Fall River, Massachusetts was prosperous for many years as a manufacturing center for cotton textiles. However, this began to change in the 1920s and the town has declined rapidly ever since. Shooting at Fall River in 2001, Renaldi used a large format 8 x10 camera that requires much preparation and technique. This makes the series more impressive to my eyes.
What intrigued me the most were the lanky, awkward boys seen in pieces like Bradley and Artie. Here, Renaldi has posed his subjects on the sidewalk in their suits. It’s obvious the boy on the right is still growing into this piece of clothing. The placement of his hands tugging on his jacket tells the viewers he is uncomfortable with his body, as so many adolescents are. As you walk through the room, you feel a certain sympathy with the boys of Fall River.
This is also true of the photographs where the subject connects more directly with the camera. Craig shows a shirtless boy with his many tattoos. As he looks into Renaldi’s camera, the toughness of life is easily read on his face. Those eyes are full of distrust and skepticism directed toward the artist, and consequently, the viewer who is looking into his life. It becomes apparent that life in Fall River is hard and that these hardships are visible on the faces of its inhabitants.
Both Speers and Renaldi have a gift for capturing conceptually difficult ideas, such as the loss of innocence, in aesthetically pleasing ways. But the beauty of the photographs does not mask either artists’ deeper intentions.
Both Vee Speers’ “The Birthday Party” and Richard Renaldi’s “Fall River Boys” are on display until March 28 at Jackson Fine Art.