Dark Stores: Brian Ulrich for Add-Art

I curated the new edition of Add-Art, a free Firefox extension created by artist Steve Lambert that replaces online ads with art. With Black Friday a few days away, I selected work from Chicago photographer Brian Ulrich's "Dark Stores" series. Featured works include: Worcester Mall, Shapes, JC Penney, Dixie Square Mall, Metro North Mall, Circuit City, HH Gregg, and the iPhone shot, Saturn (below). Following is my essay to accompany the project. See more in situ shots here.

There’s a distinct trajectory to Chicago-based photographer Brian Ulrich’s work over the first decade of the new millennium. His focus six or seven years ago -- documentation of overabundant mall environs and big-box stores packed to the rafters with affordably priced synthetic goods – eventually started shifting to the next stage in the lifespan of consumer objects. From the sales floors where “brand-new” promises were proferred, they made their inevitable way to secondary markets like thrift stores where, dirty and tattered, they’re left for those further down the socioeconomic ladder. Today, Ulrich’s lens is trained increasingly on the long tail of this arc: the empty shells of malls shops, car dealerships and megastores that have been abandoned in the wake of economic downturn.

Ulrich’s work is a natural fit for Add-Art: It’s e-commerce, after all, that’s contributing to the demise of bricks-and-mortar stores. And while the ebullient optimism of in-store promos or zany used-car commercials may be fading in suburban Chicago or downtown Detroit, these online ads – banners flashing to attract the eye to home refinancing deals, popping up (or under) to remind us of weight-loss schemes – maintain their focus-group-tested opulence. Temporarily, that realm will be taken over by Ulrich’s images of a teenybopper mall boutique stripped of everything but the neon “Ear Piercing” sign; the branded architecture of a Circuit City store reduced to a still-branded ruin; a blaze-orange “0%” banner, once touting low-low prices at a car dealership, now advertising the showroom’s abandonment.

It’s a bit of visual jujitsu: using the seductive power, placement and vocabulary of online advertising against itself -- to deliver an image that serves as a kind of warning against putting too much faith in the promises of consumerism. In an interview last spring with Chicagoist, Ulrich said, “I think about what the Internet has done for photography that's really wonderful: it has amplified photographys' ability to be propaganda… I'm really trying to promote an ideology and a certain level of thinking and responsibility about consumerism to as many people as possible.”

In that regard, putting his images not only on the internet, but in the places where ads are supposed to be doing their seduction seems like perfect propaganda.

Brian Ulrich earned his MFA at Columbia College Chicago, where he now teaches. Awarded a 2009 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, his work has been exhibited at a variety of museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the Walker Art Center, and has appeared in publications including Adbusters, Mother Jones and the New York Times Magazine. His monograph, Copia, was published by Aperture as part of the MP3: Midwest Photographers Project in 2006.

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