Copia: Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores, 2001–2011
Brian Ulrich
N.C. Museum of Art
Through Jan. 5

In a way, you’ve already seen Brian Ulrich’s Copia: Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores, 2001–2011.

You’ve shopped at the new mall in town until, supplanted by a newer mall, it faltered. You’ve rummaged the secondhand stores and marginalized businesses that squatted there for a rent cycle after the first-generation retail names came down. And when those scavenger stores finally went, you watched weeds grow in the cracks in the parking lot.

In frank, tight-lipped photographs now at the North Carolina Museum of Art, Ulrich bears witness to the economic downturn of the 2000s in three series of images: “Retail,” then “Thrift” and most recently “Dark Stores, Ghostboxes and Dark Malls.” Recovering these grim retail spaces from our civic blind spot, and critiquing the socioeconomic violence of their cyclical downfall, Ulrich’s work serves as a necessary foil to the lavish Porsche car show in the adjacent galleries.

Ulrich works in several distinct modes that roughly correspond to the three series. He photographs empty retail exteriors: shops and storefronts at off-hours, after failed ventures have closed and left, and in spectacular ruin. He also focuses on the architecture of malls, particularly around their entrances. People only appear in his surprisingly intimate portraits of thrift store workers and shoppers among the dreck and merchandise.

Ulrich’s simplest images are straightforwardly ironic. “Powerhouse Gym” (2008), the first image you see as you walk into the exhibition, presents the cursive exclamation “yes” painted on the plate glass window of a cleaned-out gym’s frontage. The word is reflected and broken up across the mirrors on the back wall, an aspiration exhausted. Likewise, “Kentucky Fried Chicken” (2009) presents the fast-food restaurant’s huge bucket-shaped sign fallen from its signpost, on its side in an empty lot. Beneath its rusty top, the colonel perpetually smiles as his corporate message becomes debris. Ulrich covers every region of the continental United States in this show, including a late-night image of Raleigh’s Rialto theater with “Capitalism” on the lit-up marquee.

Even if you couldn’t pick a particular style out of an architectural lineup, you likely recognize the empty grandeur of mall entrances. What architect Robert Venturi termed “decorated sheds,” malls are typically box buildings with functional, high-efficiency interiors and exterior ornamentation around their entrances. Ulrich’s flat photography reveals how bankrupt these facades are, implicating them as cynical and manipulative signs.

A grand row of narrow, stylized neoclassical arches reveals a tacky, printed mosaic mural on the front of “Six Flags Mall” (2009). Dusted with snow, the colorful candy stripes of a “Toys ‘R’ Us” (2009) go dull beneath its recognizable brown mansard roof. Ulrich shows how ornamental branding, aimed at consumerist urges, can pigeonhole a store, resigning it to rapid obsolescence. The visual novelty of new stores so quickly appears old to shoppers.

One way to tell the story of the economic downturn is through boom-and-bust cycles such as the Internet bubble and the subprime mortgage crisis. But Ulrich works at the neighborhood and change-purse level to show the more insidious trends tied to employment rates and consumer behavior and confidence: an individual’s economic participation.

This point could have been brought out more if Copia had included more portraits of thrift workers and shoppers. There’s even some hope, or at least an exhausted resourcefulness, in the futile tableaux of these thrift images. People are trying to make do through a shaky, secondary economic system below the one that the headlines cover.

The most remarkable portrait is of a voluptuous woman in a T-shirt and denim skirt posed between mounds of clothes higher than her head, forming colorful cotton-poly blend folds that echo Renaissance curtains. The skull tattoo on her arm nods to vanitas paintings, and her posture recalls Botticelli’s Venus emerging, beautiful yet ambivalent, from the shell. Ulrich’s composition isn’t ironic, however; instead the woman’s humanity is enhanced through the references.

In “Elkhart, IN” (2003) an inhumanly pale elderly couple shops a pharmacy aisle between the condoms and the antacids. She sits in the store’s electric wheelchair, thumbing through coupons or prescriptions in her lap, while he stands over her in frozen contemplation. They look like wax museum sculptures, as still as the government’s health care website.

Other more bizarre thrift shots capture the subcultural skew between the tectonic plates of economic transition and everyday necessity. An untitled 2006 image of a solid wall of VHS cassettes displays their random order, so Chesty Anderson U.S. Navy is on top of The 39 Steps and Troll rubs against The Power of Faith. The second time around, all stories are equivalent.

Ulrich’s project across these three series is tricky. The more ironic images risk easily being discarded like a punch line, while his flattest affect can be so bland that there’s nothing to emotionally connect with. His talent on display in Copia is in making an image that falls between these poles to deliver a feeling of anxiety about one’s security in uncertain times. But Ulrich also suggests here and there that cycles can come back around to prosperity again.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Closing up shop.”