The world is an unfinished and unsettled place in JoAnn Verburg's vertiginous photographs of an empty Italian plaza on a chilly November day, and in Thuy-Van Vu's stark paintings of dilapidated and half-built houses in Seattle, New Orleans, and Arkansas. (Verburg lives in Spoleto and Saint Paul, Minnesota, and has been making photographs for 30 years; the Museum of Modern Art gave her a solo in 2007. Thuy-Van is a younger generation; her mother was pregnant with her when the family fled Vietnam on a boat in 1975. She went to the Rhode Island School of Design.)
House A (New Orleans) portrays a rambler, isolated on its modest plot of land like dinner on a place mat, that has fallen in on itself. Thuy-Van paints the house precisely, but with the color drained out of it, in shades of black and white that contrast with the blooming green tree in the front yard. Whatever's gone on here is a human thing—the tree has been spared, the scene abandoned, the moment frozen and miniaturized as if we might now study it. But whether we're supposed to study it for meaning or just admire its appearance, like a taxidermied bird on a wall, is up in the air.
In Verburg's photographs of empty plazas on a chilly November day, by contrast, nothing is going wrong. That is, nothing is going wrong in the plazas. There's no action there at all, the world is at a lonely standstill, and there's only the action we bring by looking in. The way Verburg asks us to look brings a chill. Verburg uses a bellows on her camera. That means there's a dark space inside the pleated enclosure of the bellows, between the lens and the film plate, and she angles the film plate so you get the feeling of being inside the bellows, peering out—you're not quite in that cold plaza, but you're no longer in the room where you're standing, either.
In this topsy-turvy world, there are blurry trees blocking your view. Or, when you look down over a ledge in the extreme foreground, the view is so tilted that you feel like a spy who might fall and expose yourself. Super-narrow Italian alleyways snake off into the distance like they're trying to get away from you. Even the walls are animated. The camera is mimicking peripheral vision, embodied vision. It feels uncanny to see it splayed flat on the wall of a gallery. These pictures of architecture are punctuated by small, unassuming headshots of Verburg's friends and family (her husband is the one with his eyes closed).
Thuy-Van's portraits skirt the line between architectural and human, inert and animated. Whatever has taken place at the scenes has now halted—maybe temporarily, maybe for longer. House B (Seattle) is an ink and watercolor painting on paper, only 9 by 12 inches. The shrunken house it pictures is like a lone figure staring blankly: dark window holes for eyes, a tarp for hair, a leaning door for a buck tooth. Dead or just sleeping? In Scrap Bin at Timberland Opportunities (Cosmopolis), Thuy-Van paints a heap of suspiciously dirt-free brownish-red wood scraps busting out of a box, spilling forward an unwholesome cornucopia. Who knows what will be built and torn apart next?