At NCMA, art from a consumer society

Dec. 19, 2013 @ 10:07 AM

“Brian Ulrich:  Copia—Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores, 2001-2011,” N.C. Museum of Art,
2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh, through Jan. 5. Hours are Tuesday–Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.,
Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday–Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For holiday hours, visit or call 919-839-6262.

At the N.C. Museum of Art one arrow points to the Brian Ulrich show and the other to the Porsches. The comparison is stark; in one, we celebrate conspicuous consumption with no consequences and, in the other, we witness the gluttony in the marketplace and its inevitable collapse.  
Contemporary photographer Ulrich began documenting consumerism in the United States after 9/11 when politicians exhorted the public to shop because patriotism and shopping were one and the same. In his catalog statement Ulrich tells us how the series, “Copia” (Latin for plenty), began to take shape. 
From 2001-2006 he went to see how Americans shopped and focused on big-box stores and malls, looking for homogenized spaces around the country where the goods and the customers seemed identical. The question he kept asking himself was how this cheaper-by-the dozen mentality would end. 
During the years 2005-2008 the focus was on the secondary life of consumer goods. Thrift stores were the beneficiaries of this consumerism frenzy;  we used items once and then were ready for something newer, so we either gave stuff away or threw it away. The secondhand venues had more merchandise than they could possibly handle. From the viewpoint of the photographer the inevitable had to happen, and it did. In 2008 the United States faced its worst financial crisis since the Depression in the 1930s. This time Ulrich set out to investigate what had happened to those big-box stores and malls. The extent of closings he saw and photographed was mind-boggling.
The exhibition stands on its own with very little wall text; even the explanation of the three segments: “Retail,” “Thrift,” and “Dark Stores” are left just to the opening introductory panel. No matter where the visitor begins, the story is painfully familiar. These photographs are aesthetically composed, but their artistry pales beside the stories they tell. We are all consumers, but do we really need all the things we buy? The message is especially pointed today in the light of the bombardment of warnings, “Just five more shopping days until Christmas.”
Although the photographer took pictures on this subject from coast to coast, the exhibition hones in on the Midwest and such towns as Kenosha, Wis.; Cleveland, Ohio; and Skokie, Ill. There are also images from Chicago, Miami, New York City and Las Vegas and even one from Raleigh of the Rialto Theater.
He begins his photographic essay with “Retail” and the first image is a long line of Target check-out counters. This section continues through images of displays of merchandise to be bought in large quantities, presumably in order to never to run out; there are soft drinks, stuffed animals, specialty throw blankets, guns, televisions, even dozens of crucifixes in their own special boxes. The customers are also here: men rolling carts filled with goods, a woman shopper talking on the phone while she gazes at a display case stuffed with foods, an escalator moving people from one floor to another and a view of a sign over a warehouse door which reads “Is This Place Great or What!”
“Thrift” is the segment which gave me the biggest pause. Ulrich shows deep sympathy for the workers in thrift shops; some are elderly and some are young. All seem overwhelmed and exhausted from the vast quantities of stuff they have to deal with. And then there are his pictures of the stuff. They include a set of shelves bending under the weight of cast-off computers, CDs jammed in another wall space, women’s clothes hanging on racks below one fluorescent bulb, shoes piled into giant mounds and an entire room full of plastic hangers. In her excellent catalog essay, Juliet B. Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College, writes about our insatiable appetite for things which we give away or throw away at unprecedented rates.
“Dark” it turns out is one of the industry terms for closed retail spaces and Ulrich
examines several. There are upscale stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Marshall Fields and there are the others, Toys “R” Us, Circuit City, J.C. Penney, and dozens of malls.  Most of the photographs are of empty spaces; a few still glisten with their shiny aluminum, but some are completely trashed like a J.C. Penney in Dixie Square Mall, an enclosed shopping center in Harvey, Ill., which closed in 2009. Ulrich deliberately makes it hard for us to find out exactly where the closed malls or stores are, because he wants us to realize it happened in every community; Durham was no exception. South Square Mall opened in 1975 and closed in 2002 because of competition from Southpoint just eight miles to the east. 
On the face of it this exhibition is depressing; we spend too much and we have to pay the piper, but Schor’s article is much more upbeat. She points out the mall mentality is not sustainable and many Americans have already recognized this and are becoming more conscious of the wastefulness embedded in mall culture. Rather than continuing to buy she suggests we need to exchange, resell and trade the goods we have and points out the Internet is providing that space. As for the empty malls and big-box locations, she writes we must convert them to smaller retail spaces, schools, day-care centers, medical facilities and libraries. 
Schor and Ulrich are not the first ones to show their concern for our gluttonous consumerism; Ulrich makes his points through very specific pictures. Schor writes carefully about a way out. Although we linger over the magnificent cars in the next gallery; think of them as museum relics and let us move on to things that really matter.   

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.