Oh, how we love to tart up death! Out with the blood, in with the embalming fluid, pancake the face, rouge the cheeks, and suddenly Grandma looks 10 years younger than when she died! The perversity of America's relationship with death underlies Chicago photographer John Faier's formally immaculate, thematically challenging exhibition, Queen of Heaven. In the midst of Portland's April celebration of all things photographic, Faier reminds us of this medium's unique capacity to marry realism with symbolism.
Over the course of four years, Faier took ravishing pictures of funeral homes and mausoleums throughout the Windy City and its suburbs. There are no people in these photographs, no family members or officious undertakers filing through sad hallways en route to wakes or casket showrooms, yet in every shot you see and sense the presence of the bereaved and the professionals who turn their profits off of others' losses. You see their footprints trailing down sage-green carpeting and sense the stale, bourgeois aspiration of the dead in the chintzy decor: wood-paneled hallways, démodé sofas in avocado greens and dusty-rose pastels, and chandeliers—chandeliers everywhere—looking for all the world like they were lifted from Zsa-Zsa Gabor's powder room. The dearly departed may have lived and died in the middle class, this decor telegraphs, but inside these halls an upgrade is possible.
Faier's unpeopled vignettes are genuinely spooky, not because they demand we confront our mortality, but because the euphemisms we build around mortality are so frightfully tacky. Death need not be feared by the intrepid, but bad taste is another matter. With the addition of a few slot machines, the funeral parlors Faier visited could pass for casinos in downtown Vegas. Maybe the Grim Reaper doesn't look like Bengt Ekerot in The Seventh Seal; maybe he looks like Steve Wynn or Donald Trump. Still, Faier manages to ferret out passages of beauty among all the cheapness and cheese. In one mortuary chapel, stained-glass windows cast their glow across faux-marble floors, the scene suddenly transmuted into an abstract expressionist painting of fuzzy, overlapping light chunks. If death and regrettable decor are equally inevitable, the photographer suggests, at least there are pretty colors to ogle on the way into that long white tunnel.
SEE IT: Queen of Heaven is at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Ave., 225-0210. Through April 29.