Kathleen Gerber and Lori Nix are in the business of photographic illusions.
While their cityscapes and interiors appear realistic, if improbable, they're the result of careful miniature model-making, elaborate staging, and painstaking photography, techniques the two life partners have been perfecting over the past 16 years. The pair's latest undertaking, "Empire," depicts ruined urban landscapes: overgrown overpasses, decrepit newspaper boxes spewing their contents over a deserted city, abandoned hot dog carts in a park slowly reverting to jungle. Indeed, the apocalypse is an undercurrent through nearly all of Nix and Gerber's personal work.
"I'm just kind of obsessed with the end of the world. It's sad, right?" said Nix, who traces this preoccupation to growing up in the tornado-prone Midwest. "I'm such an optimist, but say you're in Chicago and you know that North Korea has fired a missile that's heading right to Chicago. Are you going to go hide in the basement and then suffer for the next couple of months as your flesh falls off your body, or are you just going to run out in the middle of the street and be evaporated immediately?"
Beyond their actual content, the images in "Empire" have an ominous quality meant to mirror that of one of Gerber and Nix's touchstones, the Sublime painters.
"It's just overwhelming and it's beautiful and it's frightening and it's hard to take it all in," Gerber said in describing the Sublime aesthetic. "I think some of the grandeur that we've tried to get, and some of the colors, the really active skies, are definitely in that vein."
After settling on an idea, Gerber and Nix create Pinterest boards full of potential images for research and re-creation, but also draw from their immediate surroundings.
"And then we also have to distill it into our style, like what are we capable of making that looks realistic, and that kind of determines everything," Nix explained. "In this particular series, there's an image called "Arch," and it's based on an arch that's just right at the top of our neighborhood called Grand Army Plaza. It's not an exact replica, but it's a good starting point for what a triumphal arch looks like."
"It's not such a singular piece of architecture," added Gerber. "There are triumphal arches all over the world and throughout time. There's ruins of them, there's modern versions of them. So it's also kind of universalish thing, as well as our actual neighborhood."
"I'm a pretty serious homebody," Nix admitted. "I'm not the biggest traveler in the world. Instead of going out in search of images, I would rather stay home and create my own, which is how we started building models anyway. Lack of funds, and lack of desire to leave my close surroundings, and just build whatever I need to build."
And of course, being able to stages the scenes is about the only way these dramatic photographs might exist. As Gerber put it, "You're not going to find a blimp crashing into power lines. Making it up is kind of the best way to get what you want."
The couple readily admitted that while it may take them a year to shoot two images, nothing is be perfect. "With this particular series, Empire, we also call it, in the back of our minds, failure," said Nix. "Because we have restaged these pieces two and three times until we get the perfect image. Sometimes I'll set up the image in the way it will be and then I photograph it, and then Kathleen will come in and say, 'YeahI think it could be better, and then she'll restage the scene,' and we just kind of work symbiotically until we both agree on what we like."
That uncertainty extends to the details of construction. "As far as that Monument Valley images goes, we've never visited there," said Nix. "That's strictly internet research. Kathleen is responsible for carving those rock formations, so if it's wrong, it's her fault."
While both Gerber and Nix make the models, Nix photographs them, calling Gerber more of the sculptor.
"I think we both sort of gravitate to different aspects," Gerber said about model-making. "Lori's definitely better with real construction of buildings, like hard-corner shapes, and I'm more of the organic shapes. Not necessarily landscape, because she really does have a good feel for that too, but cutting and measuring and all that is really not my strong suit. I'll make tiny bushes and things, and then she'll design the arch."
"It's not like I have a God complex, because it's not like I know exactly what I want as we're building these things," said Nix. "We really enjoy working with our hands, which is also why I'm slow to embrace digital and Photoshop. Punching a keyboard isn't as fun as sitting at a table with an X-acto knife and a ruler and materials."
"Empire" is the first series of images Nix shot digitally, an adjustment that allows for more experimentation since it both cuts out the need for expensive film and provides instant feedback to the artists.
"When it was analog, your camera lens can only do so much," Nix said. "But digitally, you can stack things, you can add pieces later, and now that we're shooting digitally, I'm actually more specific about the final image. Which is like, totally [backward]. Most people would just say, "Oh, I'll fix it in photoshop." I don't want to fix it in photoshop, I want perfection.
"With the large format camera, we really just set the camera up in one viewpoint, and that was going to be the scene," Gerber explained. "There really wasn't any extra money or time to move the camera, try it higher, try it more from the side, because you might be investing in another couple hundred dollars to see if you even liked it, whereas this, it doesn't take much to raise the camera, change the angle. So in a way, it's made us a little more open to seeing other views of the model."
Although they have differing artistic gifts, Nix describes Gerber and herself as "practically the same people."
"I trust Kathleen, I trust her sense of style, and I trust her vision, and when I ask her to redo something, the temperature rises a bit, but I can usually placate her with a bourbon or promise her a dinner or something," Nix laughed.
"I have bad instincts, so I have to get that initial bristling out of the way," added Gerber. "And then I'll regretfully have to say, yeah, it's probably a better thing. We get alone well, we're very fortunate in that, and I think it's nice having a common goal. We don't have kids or anything like that, but this is a joint venture that we both care about."
Aside from their fine art work, the duo is well-known for their commercial work, which has appeared in numerous ad campaigns and on the cover of Time magazine.
"We definitely put our egos away when it comes to the commercial work," said Nix. "I think that the artwork is more important to me and the commercial work is more important to Kathleen, which is also probably a nice way of balancing out this relationship. I feel like whenever there's a commercial job, I'm her underling and she's the boss. Whenever it's artwork, because I'm the one with the digital skills, I feel like I'm the boss, and she's the assistant."
"To have shorter deadlines, smaller projects that are of a different style, that's nice, it sort of keeps things a little bit more loose," said Gerber. "That's also when we learn new techniques...we have to learn how to make something faster, or deliver a look or an object that we've just never had to do before."
But with fine art like "Empire," the couple is free to confront viewers with the glory of their apocalyptic vision.
"[We] try to suck them in through beauty, and then slowly disseminate our message of oh, things aren't really right," Nix said. "Things are really wrong in these worlds."
"Empire" opens at Catherine Edelman Gallery, 300 W. Superior St. on Friday, March 2, and runs through Saturday, April 28. The March 2 opening reception is 5-7 p.m. More information can be found at EdelmanGallery.com .