Despite their long association with religion, icons are no longer instantly linked to gilded Orthodox Madonnas or forbearing saints. Instead, the contemporary mind conjures secular icons: pop-culture symbols, star-crossed celebrities, even thumbnail-sized Web avatars.
Pittsburgh-based architecture photographer Jim Schafer offers still another lexicon. In Icons and Incongruities, at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, his images serve as symbolic shorthand for at least part of American culture. His moldering buildings and tenacious facades mutely summon a common reservoir of experience -- a kind of cultural waterline we can't credit to any pouty-lipped digital Zwinky, or even a black-velvet Elvis.
In Schafer's professional assignments, he captures buildings like Las Vegas' Venetian Resort with a polished magnificence suitable to commercial myth-construction. These techniques translate to his recent personal projects: There is a fable-like majesty to his photographic exploration of the area he calls "the Heartland."
The 2005 monochrome photograph "High Noon Shadow Cross, Haven, Kansas," for instance, projects an overt, if fortuitous, religiosity: The roofline of an imposingly tall grain elevator points skyward, recalling a church steeple, and features a cross made by the shadow of a perpendicularly mounted hoist.
"Abandoned Homestead, Highway 36, Northern Kansas," a monochrome photo, depicts a house reminiscent of Hitchcock's Psycho alone atop a scrubby ridge. Its austere solitude and buckling roof project an overwhelming sense of discarded prospects and lost optimism, with a gothic edge. Schafer's black-and-white photos make the dilapidation seem romantic and illusory, like images sprung from the pages of a Faulkner novel.
Still, it isn't until the visitor enters the exhibit's second room -- the room featuring Schafer's color work -- that the sense of decline (and, sometimes, unyielding perseverance) becomes most obvious.
"Barber Shop Artifact, Wallace Nebraska," a chromogenic print from 2003, shows a vacant structure with a weather-beaten, two-paned front door. The only evidence of its previous life is the fading image of a red, white and blue barber's pole above the door. We are reminded that the barber shop -- an icon of small-town America, and a hub for male gossip -- is steadily giving way to the strip-mall salon.
Especially prevalent is the iconography of post-World War II America and its ensuing Bicentennial era. The 2005 chromogenic print "Eternal Salute, Ellsworth, Kansas" depicts the painted cutout of a saluting soldier at the entrance to a V.F.W. In the distance, a grain elevator bears a tribute to the local high school team, The Ellsworth Wildcats. The image is both proud and lugubrious: Here is another insular small town fought for but now fading. Even if the names have been changed, the imagery is just as familiar in Western Pennsylvania.
Even while imbuing his towns with personality and dignity, Schafer captures a nagging sense of their waning vitality. Through these dilapidated Mayberrys, he shows us endangered cultural traditions and dying elements of rural America that will, within a generation or two, fade from consciousness almost as completely as the icons of Byzantium have done.
Icons and Incongruities continues through April 13. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0873