Friday, April 6, 2012

Brian Ulrich, Is This Place Great or What: Artifacts and Photographs @Saul

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 color photographs and 17 retail artifacts, framed in white with no mats, and hung in the entry and main gallery space. All of the photographs are pigmented ink prints, taken between 2005 and 2011. Physical dimensions include 24x20 or reverse (in editions of 15), 26x20 (in editions of 6), and 40x50/40x52 (in editions of 7). The artifacts include a large neon sign, a set of 10 door pulls, and a set of 6 pages of price labels (individually framed). A monograph of this body of work was published by Aperture in 2011 (here). (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Brian Ulrich's decade long look at the rise and fall of American consumerism has deservedly received widespread praise and exposure. His photographs of flashy retail outlets, depressing thrift stores and disposal units, and most recently, the empty hulks of abandoned malls have together told a complex and sometimes harrowing story about the "buy now" world we have created for ourselves. Seen together in book form, in well-edited, deep groups of pictures from each sub-series, the overarching project is a powerful, sometimes tough document of an entire, arguably discredited, 21st century lifestyle. 
Ulrich's current show isn't really a broad sample of this massive project or a greatest hits parade. Instead, it is more like a complement to what we have seen before, combining a handful of familiar pictures with a few new/unseen ones and a selection of sculptural retail objects salvaged by Ulrich along the way. To my eye, it is a particularly polarized selection, bringing together the opposite extremes of hollow optimism and exhausted pessimism: the huge YES, the exuberant rainbow food court, and the back hallway sign Is This Place Great or What? are matched by the series of failed incarnations of a Circuit City, and images of tired storefronts (one is a camera store). The photograph of a vast expanse of steel mill flanked by a vast expanse of Wal Mart and Home Depot is particularly telling: we've traded one massively scaled failing industry for another.
While there are far less photographs on display than I might have hoped, the scaveneged objects do fit quite well into the overall narrative. The huge neon FAST FOOD sign (with its speedy font) reminds us of the days when fast food was cool, when we were proud of being able to crank out a cheap burger and toss it in your car window in seconds flat. The broken, buzzing sign is a fabulous sculptural Pop Art remnant. The door handles from Montogomery Ward are equally emblematic: finely milled steel pulls, with a mirror image M and W logo on each. The production values of the entire shopping experience were clearly very carefully managed, even if the store went out of business.
Having spent quite a bit of time with the book, I'm a fan of this multi-layered work, and would like to see it shown in New York in a more comprehensive way. But in such a small one room space, it's hard to do justice to such a far reaching project, and as a result, this show seems more like a coda or a refrain: it gives us a few notes of the melody we've heard before, but adds some new twists to keep us thinking.
Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The smaller 24x20/26x20 prints are $2800 each. the larger 40x50/40x52 prints are $6300 each. The pages of labels are $5000 each, the set of door pulls is $14000, and the neon sign is $25000. Ulrich's work has not yet entered the secondary markets in any meaningful way, so gallery retail remains the best option for interested collectors.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Exhibit: Cleveland Museum of Art, 2011 (here)
  • Features/Reviews/Interviews: The Great Leap Sideways (here), American Photo (here), Time LightBox (here)
Through May 5th

535 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011


Julie Saul said...

This show is the third of a series based on the consumer or Copia theme. The sense of looking back or a refrain is a deliberate attempt to finalize the cycle and put it in a more historical context. There is a traveling show of the work which was organized and mounted at the Cleveland Museum of Art that will be shown at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and other venues.

K. P. said...

This is a very weak show. Full stop. I don't understand why Julie Saul would get so defensive about a review. SMH.