Walking through Chicago Cultural Center – past the Doric columns of the Grand Entrance, beneath the 38-foot wide Tiffany Dome, and beside the ornate marble of Preston Bradley Hall – to the gallery featuring Eric Holubow’s photographs is like a visual confrontation of the before and after effects of society’s collapse. Displayed within the vast Neo-Classical halls of the Cultural Center, Holubow’s highly aestheticized images of crumbling opulence are a weary reminder that America’s hard times are far from over.
The show, titled “In Decay – Stitching America’s Ruins,” contains images of grand architectural interiors; cavernous theaters, expansive churches and synagogues, and cathedral-like auto factories scattered throughout the mid-west and rust belt, all captured in late moments of decrepitude. Holubow’s images are strikingly beautiful; full of luminous colors, dynamic compositions, and extraordinary details that highlight the breadth and magnificence of these ambitiously crafted spaces as well as the monumentality of their decline. Wide-angle shots and large-scale prints encapsulate the magnitude of his subjects; structures that once served the cultural and spiritual wishes or economic needs of the communities for which they were built. Ultimately, these buildings are corpses and the photographer’s work is a record of their deaths.
St. Stephen’s Great Hall (2008) shows a hollowed shell of a cathedral. The stone grey interior is gutted of its pews, leaving behind an empty portico. The expansive drum, dome, and oculus over the nave harken back to the Pantheon, though the century old Chicago church looks far more decrepit than the Roman temple built two thousand year ago. Modeled after the idealized architecture of an ancient empire, St. Stephen’s represents the defunct historical aspirations of American society at the turn of the 20th Century.
Wall texts displayed beside each picture relay the histories of the structures depicted, from glorious, innovative, or utopic origins to disrepair and abandonment, revealing the migration of communities and economies that happened along the way. Chicago’s Agudas Achim Synagogue, photographed in Hallowed Arc (2011), for instance, was once a lavish place of worship for the Jewish residents of Uptown, a neighborhood in the northern part of the city. As those families moved to suburban villages like Skokie and Rogers Park, the synagogue’s rainbow colored Byzantine arc, stained glass windows, and gold mosaics fell into decay. The image itself is of a lofty vertical interior that was clearly gorgeous in its heyday, though now the space is a ruinous mess littered with debris.
With an emphasis on crumbling buildings that were designed in the styles of various imperial aesthetics like the Byzantine and the Roman, the exhibition reflects the hubristic self-image of the “American Century.” Clearly these buildings were created to reflect principles of prosperity and stability by mimicking the grand styles of past empires. This impulse becomes uniquely American when high concept design trickled down to Roaring 20’s movie theaters, such as the palatial Uptown Theater shown in Downstaging Uptown (2009). Like a Parisian opera house from the days of Marie Antoinette, the Baroque-inspired theater is dripping with lavish ornamentation. Shot from the vantage point of the stage, the slight lens distortion depicts a panorama of vacant seats bulging at the center.
Images such as Room with a View (2008) and Engine Room of Bethlehem Steel (2009) – respectively showing the decomposing, overgrown, and exposed factory floor of a Detroit Packard Auto Plant, and the silent rusted engine room of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation – are reminders of the now defunct industrial giants that powered the post-WWII and Gilded Age boom eras. Hartsville Nuclear Power Plant (2010), a picture of a half-finished cylinder made of concrete and rebar sitting in a pool of filmy water, is like an oversize postcard from an industrial future that was gone before it happened. Holubow’s photographs are documents of these places and serve as reminders that powerful institutions rise and fall, even when they are housed in buildings designed to stand the test of time.
“In Decay – Stitching America’s Ruins” will be on view at Chicago Cultural Center in Chicago, IL through July 8, 2012.