Eric Holubow at the Chicago Cultural Center | Art review

Photographs in “In Decay—Stitching America’s Ruins” call us to action.

Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Eric Holubow; Hollowed Ark, Agudas Achim Synagogue, Chicago; 2011.

The phrase ruin porn was coined to critique a genre of photography that sensationalizes the decayed remains of industrial and residential sites in Rust Belt cities. But Western art has a long tradition of depicting ruins as meditations on mortality: Think of Romantic painters like Caspar David Friedrich and Thomas Cole.

In the mid-20th century, Richard Nickel and other photographers captured the ruins of historic structures such as Louis Sullivan’s buildings, aiming to preserve them even as they were being demolished by the wrecking ball of urban renewal.

While Eric Holubow’s ultra-wide-angle photographs of sites in Detroit, Buffalo, Gary, Cleveland and Chicago grab viewers’ attention through spectacle—like ruin porn—they don’t feel exploitative. Holubow’s work also recalls Romantic ideals of nostalgia and the sublime. Its main thrust, however, is documentary. Statements next to the photos explain their subjects’ histories and struggles.

The artist’s camera records the personality of each interior, from the grand Great Hall (2009) of St. Stephen’s Church in Hyde Park to an intimate Nurses’ Kitchen (2008) at Michael Reese Hospital. The purposeful lack of contrast within each image—there are no dramatic lights and darks as seen in Romantic paintings—emphasizes its documentary intent.

Where Holubow does take artistic license is with color. He inexplicably manipulates it to the point of garishness, so that the almost neon hues of Hollowed Ark (2011) distract from an otherwise strong composition.

Chicagoans like to think they live in a global city, but Holubow’s photos remind us there are abandoned areas that conform to the Rust Belt stereotype. They provide us with a kind of call to action, to give these exquisite structures renewed life.

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