Brian Ulrich’s latest exhibition runs Pop backward through its sausage machine. The ten photographs on view dismantle chunks of advertising—from the fluorescent words that announce discounts to the typologies of chain retailers’ buildings—and reinsert them back into their (often bleak) physical geographies. This juxtaposition highlights the hard times for which there is no suitable expression in ad jargon, wrestling the graphics away from the imperative of sales and back into the entropy of all matter.
The photographs’ irony is perhaps oversold by the show’s title, “Is This Place Great or What: Artifacts and Photographs,” but mostly it arises from, rather than foregrounding, the places in the pictures. In Powerhouse Gym, 2008, for instance, a window is painted with a huge underlined YES. But behind its hot tangerine affirmation and immediacy, one glimpses only an empty room. Ulrich also presents several works from his “Dark Stores” series, 2008–11: here, branches of Circuit City that have been replaced by scrappier businesses or abandoned altogether. (One new occupant, “Big Thrift,” looks like a hermit crab only recently installed in his found shell.)
Circuit City’s electrical plug–shaped facade is a version of what Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown labeled “duck” architecture—the American compression of advertising and roadside structure of which a duck-shaped stand hawking duck eggs is the classic example. Thanks to the uniform design of national franchises, this model of building became deaf to its own physicality. The peculiar fragility of the depopulated concrete mammoths in Ulrich’s photographs suggests that symbols or appliqués are not (despite how inured we may have become to them) as disposable as their abstract marketing campaigns. They do not always lapse with the trademarks they promote. The “merely” decorative quality of commercial surfaces cannot be completely separated from its material embodiment. No matter how hermetically sealed the sign, given time, birds will nest.