Summer in the country: Mike Majewski at FORUM artspace
You will not find Lundsville, Pennsylvania on a map. It is the invention of photographer and Cuyahoga Community College instructor Mike Majewski, and the setting of his exhibition at FORUM Artspace.
Though Lundsville does not exist, Majewski describes his show as a “documentary” of sorts. Like a social realist painter or author of historic novels, he uses fiction to recombine elements from real-world history to create a Gestalt of a time and place. Summer in Lundsville contains some 40 framed inkjet prints of digital photographs, all 5”x7” and shot in rural Northeast Ohio. However, Majewski—who grew up moving between Akron and various towns around Harrison County—says that Lundsville was meant to tell a story that could take place in any farm country in the Midwest.
Even if viewers cannot identify which particular towns have been cast to play Majewski’s fictional village, the sights of Lundsville will ring familiar to anyone who has lived on or driven through the Rust Belt’s backroads. Fields of soy sprawl for hundreds of acres. Three boney crosses stand by the roadside. An empty, fenced-off playground abuts a highway overpass; the bridge’s handrail is swarmed by untrimmed bushes.
The photos are given context by about half a dozen fragments of text posted throughout the gallery. Though the writing is prose, it is lined like poetry. The prose gives us peeks into the mind of Tommy, the protagonist of Majewski’s fiction. We see Lundsville through his eyes, almost literally. Majewski said his choices of which scenes to photograph were directed, in part, by imagining what a child riding his bicycle over country roads would see and attend to.
Like many outdoorsy boys, Tommy is drawn to forests and creeks. His perspective turns to impenetrably thick woods lining riverbanks; ponds scaled with lily pads; and an island within a lake, towered over by dead pine trunks. However, this is summer in Ohio—the rain and heat allows green to encroach everywhere. Vines climb up houses, tree branches heavy with foliage sag over swing sets, and grass climbs up to knees’ height.
It is unclear how old Tommy is. What is certain is that he is of an age when he is still noticing patterns in the world’s operations, and thinking hard about their meanings:
He noticed the water in the creek
flowed in the same direction every day.
and the church bells rang
at the same time every day
He knew that every summer
Loretta wore dresses
and pulled her hair back
Elsewhere, he observes:
His father left behind a trail of saw dust
as he navigated the house
The tangible remnants
of his hard work
A reminder of his place
in the world
Tommy admires his father, but is beginning to recognize his fallibility. He is aware, however dimly, of the two-faced attitude with which American society regards blue-collar workers. Tommy’s dad works hard, and this is admirable. But it seems he does not work for himself, and this is at least slightly embarrassing. As strong as he may be, Tommy’s father is regularly reminded “of his place in the world.” And of course, people at the top of hierarchies are rarely told to “Know your place!”
A photo nearby this block of text on Tommy’s father suggests more clues about the boy’s home life. A young, scraggly-bearded man’s face is seen from the nose down, chapped lips baring teeth and opening wide enough to let loose a shout.
Does Tommy spend so much time in the woods because he fears fatherly rage? We can only guess. Majewski’s Lundsville is detailed enough to have a distinct character, but much of it is left unseen. The dreamy, fragmentary nature of Lundsville makes us think we are seeing memories of a childhood, not the experience of one while it is happening.
Memories are not timestamped. A recollection of youth may remain vivid and distinct in our minds, even though we have no idea how old we were when it happened. Summer in Lundsville’s arrangement in FORUM puts us in mind of the non-linear nature of such imperfect memories. Majewski’s photos and text are arranged on the gallery’s walls such that viewers can walk around the exhibition clockwise or counter-clockwise. The episodes of Tommy’s life can be understood if viewed in either order, or even in a random order.
It is also left ambiguous whether Summer in Lundsville depicts scenes from a single summer, or several. And unless a viewer has encyclopedic knowledge of pickup truck and tractor unit models from the last several decades, she will be unable to say with certainty when the photos were taken. Majewski shot his images over the last year, but many of the depicted scenes look as if they could have happened anytime between the 1980s and today. The feeling of timelessness is heightened by Majewski’s decision to make all his images black and white.
For a child like Tommy, summer feels like it will go on forever. Majewski’s camera lingers over front porches, places where neighbors can make small talk while waiting out afternoons hot enough to melt away all urgency. This feeling of limitlessness is most potent in a shot of a shiny black road vanishing into the horizon.
But eventually, the feeling of the coming school year, or the start of a summer job, does set in. So too, does time intrude into Lundsville. In one photo, we see a smooth street with fresh-painted lines running horizontally. The road intersects with a disused stretch of railroad, terminating where the asphalt begins. Infrastructure from the 19th century collides with its 20th century successor. There might be something to be said here about rural manufacturing towns and their challenges in the face of globalization—but it would probably go over Tommy’s head.
In any case, the most rewarding reading of Majewski’s exhibition is not one which understands it as a meditation on the white working class. It is more impressionistic and personal than that. It is an attempt to evoke the sights and moods of rural childhood. The combination of written narrative and visual media is an intriguing experiment. Summer in Lundsville is Majewski’s first solo exhibition since his 2014 graduation from the Cleveland Institute of Art, and it makes us look forward to what he does next.
Summer in Lundsville can be viewed by appointment, or at its closing reception Friday June 15 from 6 to 9 p.m. FORUM Artspace is located in the 78th Street Studio complex at 1300 West 78th St. The entrance is located off the rear parking lot. For more information, go to Majewski’s website or forumartspace.com.