At Wynwood's Gallery I/D, Brenda Ann Kenneally's stark suite of photographs delivers a brutally honest postmortem of women and children living on the fringe in down-at-the-heels America. These are haunting images where the grinding poverty and desperation of her subjects is so palpable it fills the senses with sorrow.
The emotional debris of single teenage mothers with baby daddies in the slammer, welfare witches with unmanageable broods of kids, taxi-driving grannies, and barely educated tornado bait fading away slowly in squalor bring to mind the works of artists Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin or the films of Harmony Korine and Gus Van Sant.
Kenneally has been working since 2004 on "Upstate Girls," an open-ended documentary project about the women of Troy, New York, where the artist was raised as a child. They are the type of people one might find tucked under a freeway, toiling at a supermarket checkout, or wilting in jail or rehab. They are also the type we often avoid eye contact with or speed by in our cars when passing them on the street.
Brenda Ann Kenneally
"Upstate Girls": Through May 8. Gallery I/D, 2531 NW Second Ave., Miami; 305-753-2881; galleryid.com. Tuesday through Saturday noon to 6 p.m.
Experiencing this wormy slice of her hometown through the nearly 30 photos and multimedia installations on display is like watching life on a harsh alien planet, its festering gloom bubbling up through the surface.
The images brim with a soiled-mattress-and-curdled-milk veneer, offering an uncompromising look at the denizens of society's underclass with grim, realistic textures that echo Kenneally's roots.
The photographer, who says she sees herself in her subjects, had an abortion at age 14, a mom with multiple sclerosis, and an often absent father who was a disturbed alcoholic. She grew up in the kind of poverty captured in her corrosive pictures.
But despite their degraded living standards, the women in Kenneally's jarring photos emerge not as victims of their harrowing economic circumstances but as steely survivors of their abject misery.
In Dawn at 21, a young woman with a newborn suckling her breast stares dead-on at the viewer without a hint of vulnerability. Her oily, unwashed red hair is pasted to her cheeks, framing her flushed face and flinty eyes as she poses unselfconsciously for the snapshot while stoically cradling her baby.
In another arresting shot, Lorrie, a mother of four, sits in her cluttered living room while mindlessly holding her dazed, thumb-sucking daughter and peering sullenly through sunken, red-rimmed eyes. Next to the scrawny woman, who looks wan and haggard, another prepubescent offspring gazes into space as her brother perches on a ratty couch to watch television.
Kenneally's bracingly candid approach to photography freezes her subjects in moments of nihilistic silence. In this particular picture, Lorrie appears to embrace the brief intrusion into her bleak reality as a welcome respite from the grief of life's harsher vagaries, although her countenance remains petrified in a sphinx-like mask of ennui.
Latch-key kids left to fend for themselves are the subject of Dina and Destiny, where two ragamuffins help themselves to their mother's cigarettes in a filthy kitchen cluttered with food-caked pots and pans. The disheveled girls, who look like fugitives from kindergarten, lean over a milk-splattered table with an open mayonnaise squeeze jar on top. They look ready to extinguish their contraband smokes in a soup-filled saucepan if Mama catches them. One tousled tot wears a world-weary expression that is particularly heart-wrenching.
Equally touching is Funny Papers, a poignant snap of a toddler lying on the floor of a bedroom, its face obscured by the Sunday comics. Next to the baby, whose gender is veiled by a fouled diaper, lies a tin plate with half-eaten biscuits, a grubby doll's head, and an ashtray. In the picture, SpongeBob babbles mindlessly on a TV set precariously balanced on a rickety chair; an oddly incongruous industrial-strength vacuum cleaner stands nearby. The piece conveys the notion that society has abandoned the innocent victims of poverty.
As one navigates Kenneally's searing portraits chronicling the plight of Troy's economic decimation, the photographer's unflinching vision can provoke outrage.
Situated less than 150 miles from New York City, the town was once known as "the home of Uncle Sam" after a local butcher named Sam Wilson stamped a "U.S." label on meat barrels destined for American troops during the War of 1812. The soldiers joked that the initials stood for Uncle Sam, and the moniker became associated with the city.
Troy also became known as "Collar City" after the detachable collar was invented and manufactured there in the 1820s, marking an economic boom for the area and leading labor historians to argue that the municipality was an early prototype for the industrialization of America.
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Today the city is a rusting shell of its former splendor. The median income for a family of three was $16,796 in 2007, and nearly 20 percent of its households were headed by single mothers, many of them living on welfare. The city's crime rate has soared in recent years, many of Troy's men are imprisoned, and 16 percent of the population lives below the U.S. poverty line.
For Kenneally, who experienced many of the same deprivations as her subjects and once spent a year as a teenager living in a group home, this project is more than a homecoming.
It offers an up-close and personal journey into the lives of people surviving on minimum wage and struggling to keep their families together without hope of breaking the cycle of poverty.
Most admirably, Kenneally has documented their hardships and her hometown's sad descent with a gritty poetry and power that crystallizes the end of the American dream for many folks. Hers is a sobering, haunting vision and a forthright testimonial well worth catching.