I am almost totally put off by the fact that Paul Shambroom prints many of his color photographs on canvas. Not because he’s treading on ground occupied by painting, a non-issue if ever there was one. I am turned off because the canvas undercuts the directness, seriousness, and clarity of his investigative vision. Seeing Shambroom’s pictures on canvas makes his work ingratiating, garish, and hokey, and diminishes the probing uncertainty of this artist’s vision.
Five of the smaller pictures in Shambroom’s impressive show are printed on photographic paper. Too bad he didn’t do this with the larger pictures, which form the centerpiece of this exhibition. In his latest series, titled “Security,” this 45-year-old from Minneapolis, whose pictures of underground nuclear facilities stood out in the lackluster 2000 Whitney Biennial, presents a series of John Singer Sargent–meets–John Ashcroft portraits of emergency workers, SWAT teams, bomb squad members, search-and-rescue professionals, and hazardous-material-response teams. Each figure is outfitted in full, often brand-new regalia. The uniforms and the equipment create fetishized worlds unto themselves: Geiger counters, bomb detonators, infrared-vision cameras, fire suits. All display prominent brand names and logos. These soldiers of disaster are also walking billboards.
Shambroom’s pictures depict the convergence of capitalism, citizenship, and paranoia. They seem to say, “Welcome to Donald Rumsfeld’s war machine.” He has the eagle eye and levelheaded skill to bring this message to the forefront, even if he’s still misguidedly printing these otherwise gripping pictures on canvas.