Brian Ulrich’s photographs portraying contemporary consumer culture are held by major museums and private collections such as The Art Institute of Chicago; Baltimore Museum of Art; The Cleveland Museum of Art; Eastman Museum; The J. Paul Getty Museum; Milwaukee Art Museum; Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Museum of Contemporary Photography; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the North Carolina Museum of Art; the Margulies Collection; the Bidwell Collection; and the Pilara Foundation Collection. Ulrich has had solo exhibitions at the Eastman Museum; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the North Carolina Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; the Haggerty Museum of Art; the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art; the North Carolina Museum of Art; the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago; the Julie Saul Gallery; Galerie f5,6; and the Robert Koch Gallery.
His work has also been included in numerous group exhibitions at venues such as the Museum of Modern Art; Pier 24 San Francisco; Art Institute of Chicago; the Walker Art Center; the Museum of Contemporary Photography; the San Diego Museum of Art; the Haifa Museum of Art; the Krannert Art Museum; the New York Public Library; the Carnegie Museum; and the Aperture Foundation, among others.
In 2009, Ulrich was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. His first major monograph, Is This Place Great or What (2011), and was included in The Photobook: A History Volume 3 (2014). The Anderson Gallery published the catalog Closeout: Retail, Relics and Ephemera (2013). Aperture also published his work as part of the “MP3: Midwest Photographers Project” in 2006.
He is currently an Associate Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design
Brian Ulrich’s studio is large and cluttered. Big photographs are tacked to the walls, but to look at them you must pick your way between mounds of waterlogged ledger books, mimeographed employee manuals, carbon copies of receipts, letters from architects to developers and developers back to architects. And then there are the fragments of signs, scavenged from abandoned malls and retail sites all over the United States—last week, Ulrich was showing an iPhone shot of the orphaned letters, probably four feet high, the fluorescent tubes still intact, from a Circuit City sign he and a small band of volunteer historians of shopping malls had found at an unstated locale. Over the past few months, Ulrich has been attempting with marginal success to rewire and reactivate some of these signs.
It is not entirely clear just where Ulrich’s practice lies. At times he is a librarian and archivist, at times a sculptor, at times a historian and even a political economist. What is clear is the subject of that practice: what the post-structuralists used to delight in calling “late capitalism.” Theirs was a glee based in a denuded bourgeois late-Marxism; they proposed the full range of connotations to that phrase. Capitalism was late to the party; it was in its last stages; it was already deceased. Since the time of the late-capitalists, capitalism has boomed, collapsed and, in its very collapse, boomed, as socialist and social-welfare governments from China to Germany have propped it back up, the way the designated driver props up the celebrant while trying to open the back door of the Honda Civic Hybrid or the Toyota Prius. As it turns out, late capitalism is pretty fashionably late; the drunkard is still having a better time than the chaperone.
Ulrich is a bracing alternative to the leaden thinking of the theorists. For one thing, he is there on the ground, right where things are happening. His tattered collections—well, they are mounds, really—and his sad sign fragments attest to his sense that he is onto something that needs to be stabilized and preserved or, more poetically, embalmed. He participates, as an anthropologist might, in a wider nostalgia for exurban sprawl, and the brightly colored consumer items of less-than-certain utility and more-than-certain obsolescence that filled its shopping centers and then its garages and now its landfills and hazardous waste sites. When he arrives at those corpses of consumption, the only other people he meets besides the stray security guard is a roving cadre of dead-mall rats, ranging through the dark mini-plazas and long-dry fountains, picking through the detritus of their own childhoods. In some cases, these night-trespassers are already past that mall-rat generation; too young to have lived it, they are here to see history—and they treat these ruins with the wonder and reverence you would find in Civil War reenactors at, say, Gettysburg or Antietam.
The mall most legendary for all these memorialists is Dixie Square, in the Illinois town of Harvey, south of Chicago. For the most part, its celebrity is the result of a happenstance. Looking for a mall to trash in a big way on a small budget, scouters for The Blues Brothers in 1979 leased, rebuilt, and then destroyed Dixie Square in a spectacular chase scene. To go there today is to see the unreclaimed remains of that pop culture event.
But the draw is also a matter of timing and locale—Dixie Square is significant. It opened in 1966, at the tail end of the megamall boom, when the market was already saturated. Worse yet, it was built in a suburban climate fueled by responses to school desegregation; its economic health was predicated on the waves of middle-class whites abandoning Chicago for “safer” (read, whiter, more reassuringly middle-class) locales—but the white-flight boom was largely over, and in its place the demographic of out-migration was increasingly black and poor. To visit Dixie Square tonight is to pass through a dangerous wasteland, a socioeconomic Chernobyl, decimated by the foreclosure crisis, shrunken by close to sixteen percent in the past decade. For dead-mall rats, maneuvering your way into and out of Dixie Square is a rite of passage.
For Brian Ulrich, though, Dixie Square is an episode in a career-long investigation of the materiality and the metaphysics of capitalism, a process he has handled with a certain rigor more rooted in his Midwestern skepticism than in his dutiful reading of the pontifications of theorists. The materials he has gleaned are artifacts of a great historical and cultural moment, imbedded in the implications of the mundane, the everyday and the assumed. And so are the pictures. Ulrich’s work blurs the line between art and artifact; the photographs are evocations of sites and signs, but they are also sights and signs themselves. Like the buzzing, undulating fluorescent tubes he has hooked to scavenged transformers in the studio, the photographs are fragmentary. They stand as self-contained statements, but they are full of stutters and interruptions. That’s what recommends them.
Peter Bacon Hales
Brian Ulrich was a Light Work Artist-in-Residence in May 2010. For more information about Ulrich and his work, visit www.notifbutwhen.com.
Peter Bacon Hales is a writer and professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago.