Andrew Moore’s Beautiful Ruins

11/22/2009 6:00 PM |

Chelsea's Yancey Richardson Gallery is the perfect space to hold Andrew Moore's latest exhibition. Detroit (through January 9), his fifth solo show at the gallery, is a photo-documentary of some of the city's most opulent interiors, now crumbling and forgotten. Yancey Richardson's low ceilings and boxy interior allow his images to dominate the space, making ever more immediate the plight of a city in crisis; not even placards with the names of the photographs compete for wall space. His digital prints are crystal clear and seem to vibrate with life against the bright white of the walls, a strange and gorgeous counterpoint to his uninhabited landscapes. And while Moore's images may appeal to the most basic senses with their candy store colors, it isn't an easy viewing experience by any means. There is something about marveling at the unexpected beauty of a city in collapse that doesn't sit well, and it very well shouldn't. However, Moore pushes the exhibition beyond mere documentary, deftly extricating a cohesive message out of his urban muse. If Detroit were a narrative, it would be a cautionary tale, issuing fair warning that if things remain as they are, this same, backwards beauty could be coming to a city near you.

Moore's most arresting photographs are his most visceral. The huge, crumbling interiors that he captures, despite their dilapidation, still somehow glitter like jewels behind his lens. "Palace Theater, Gary Indiana" (2008, pictured) shows what used to be a plush theater complete with box seats and intricate moldings in complete disrepair. Red velvet cushions litter the ground, sunlight pours in through a hole in the ceiling, and tiny icicles glitter from the second floor. A row of eight tiny chairs is all that remains as it once was, expectantly positioned in the front row, gazing up at a weatherworn backdrop of some faux Mediterranean paradise. "Organ Screen, UA Theater, Detroit Michigan," (2009) so ravaged by time and the elements, looks completely abstracted at first glance. Heavy, ornate architecture looms in every corner of the image, interrupted by occasional splashes of purple, the result of peeling paint. The most poignant of these images, though, is "Dry Dock, Detroit, Michigan" (2009). The only image with any fleeting sign of human life, it depicts the interior of an abandoned industrial building that has found a new, sad life as a squat. A precarious-looking lean-to balances next to shopping carts filled with orange juice cartons, bran flakes, and a pink box of fruit snacks. Socks hang on the sides of the lean-to, drying in the heat of a tiny fire, painful evidence of some sort of domesticity. A make-shift chimney of a plastic sheet draped from the ceiling funnels the smoke out of the building. The sheet is illuminated by the sunlight from above, diaphanous, like some ghostly waterfall; the viewer almost expects a foaming rush of water at the bottom, but it's replaced by a hill of dirty soda bottles instead.

While Moore's architectural photographs are the most striking visually, it is his smaller, arguably more mundane subjects that really communicate. Whether by sheer luck or tireless searching, Moore managed to capture objects that, within their quickly disintegrating environment, have taken on the look of unearthed artifacts from a better time. It is these images that take on an allegorical meaning, taking the exhibition from documentary to commentary. "FBI Range, Detroit, Michigan" (2009) is a photograph of a target left up in an abandoned shooting range. Printed with an image of a man pointing a pistol straight at the viewer, the target is riddled with bullet holes that let the bright red wall behind it shine through the paper, brilliant as blood. Explicit and uncompromising, "FBI Range" is pure menace and difficult to look at. It's here that the viewer finds that Detroit isn't all ruinous beauty, but confrontational as well. "National Time" (2009) though, is the most memorable photograph of the exhibition. Found in a burned-out school building, it is a photograph of a melted clock still hanging on a wall, blooming from petal-like layers of peeling paint. While its bizarre similarity to Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory," is enough to make it worth seeing, what's inscribed on the clock face makes it truly meaningful. The inscription reads "National Time," an incidental and brilliantly concise comment on our current state of affairs.

Moore has captured images that are worth so much more than their undeniable and unexplainable aesthetic appeal. In less skilled hands, an exhibition like this could have amounted to nothing more than an exercise in insensitivity or even Schadenfreude. Detroit, though, is a brilliantly edited exhibition that is equal parts beauty and responsibility. Moore conveys that a depressed economy and the ravages of time have reduced what were once Detroit̢۪s symbols of prosperity into an ominous prophecy for the country's future. He does not simply record, but cautions, and we would be wise to heed that message.