On a recent evening, bundled against the cold in his unheated northeast Minneapolis studio, photographer Keith Holmes cracks open a tall bottle of Croatian beer and pours two glasses. He beams, a wide grin that tugs at his beatnik goatee.
“Let’s check out the Curly photo,” he says.
As in, the Three Stooges.
With gloved hands, Holmes pulls a fresh print, snapped at the 2000 Minnesota State Fair, from a box of photographs. A dazed white couple, in T-shirts and frumpy jeans, strolls zombie-like toward the camera. Their faces are blanked out and numb, deadened by the excess of the fair. It could be a perfect portrait of banality. Except it isn’t.
Because blasting into the center of the composition, huge and ghoulish, his face contorted in a freaky spasm of slapstick, is the hovering, disembodied head of … Curly Howard. It’s a tacky screen-print, stretched from collar to waist on the man’s shirt. And though the guy looks like the type to get pissed at someone taking his picture, bewilderment flickers across his eyes. His macho strut visibly softens. The whole composition, distorted by a wide lens and a lurching horizon, feels drunk.
“Curly’s face is so animated, so much more than the faces around him,” Holmes says. “It really speaks to the boredom of being at the State Fair.” As for the guy in the shirt? Holmes says that he often aims for “the just-after or the just-before.”
This is Holmes’ specialty: the sweetly off-kilter. He’s good at catching America flinching. He finds the odd and awkward moments when our culture breaks pose, or holds its pose too long — anytime a fissure of strangeness burbles up to crack the otherwise carefully imagined idea of Americana. Sometimes, the moments are cute. Other times, they’re ghastly. But they’re always disorienting, distended — and stretched just past the point of comfort. In other words, Holmes has us all revealing our giant-floating-Curly-heads.
This Saturday, in an ambitious solo show at Vine Arts Center titled “Pursuit of Happiness,” Holmes is presenting his greatest hits: 50 photos, all in black-and-white, all blown up to window-sized proportion, all culled from three decades in a peripatetic life that has taken him from high school in Alexandria, Minn., to the former Yugoslavia; from courses in visual anthropology at San Francisco State University to an MFA in Boulder, Colo. We’ll see punk mosh pits in San Fran, cowboy festivals in Wyoming, zombie pub crawls at Cedar-Riverside. It’s “America writ large,” Holmes says.
Or, as he calls it in less grandiose moments, his “field work.”
Holmes considers himself equal parts sociologist and artist. He’s absorbed a lineage of folk/punk chroniclers who roved the country, hoping to delineate, with social-scientist scrutiny, the American zeitgeist. Walker Evans, with the dirt-poor dignity of the Great Depression. Robert Frank, with his beatnik critique of atomic-age optimism. Shoot, even Alexis de Toqueville, who marveled at 19th-century America’s “depraved taste for equality.”
Except, in Holmes’ case, the editorializing takes a back seat to the moment. We get a comment about America, but it’s a murky one — about the gawkiness of a country in its teenage years, perhaps, groping for a sense of self in a kaleidoscope of cultural pluralism.
“You know, the happiness requires pursuit,” Holmes says, referencing the title of his exhibit, “with all its attendant apprehensions and restless anxieties. But it’s the moments of pure joy that really make the show. Last night I made a great print, very simple, of a young girl with her lamb at the Denver Stock Show. Big smile on her face, in the sheep pen.”