The Hibbleton Exhibits Photographers With the Rot Stuff

I can haz mat?
"Aimless Exploration No 3" by Sean Stiegemeier, 2008

The Rot Stuff
The photographers at this Hibbleton Gallery show have learned to stop worrying and love rust.
And mold. And peeling paint

In its stellar new exhibition, “Charming Decay: Photographs of Postindustrial Life,” Hibbleton Gallery makes its Gothic intentions clear. At the entrance, a wall is emblazoned with a quote from poet Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal: “In the murky corner of old cities where everything—horror too—is magical, I study, servile to my moods, the odd and charming refuse of humanity.”

That odd and charming refuse is readily apparent in Tricia Lawless Murray’s austerely lovely outdoor photos. The Salton Sea shows a dilapidated Chevron station where “We take better care of your car” is emblazoned amid the exposed metal, graffiti, corporate logos and blue rust, as sharp lines of shade from the roof cut into the rotting tarmac, a yellow glob of mustard-bottle trash accenting the same color on the station’s wall. Off Interstate 5 isn’t a building, but rather a line of gaunt trees leading from one side of the frame to the other, growing out of a black row of old tires. Berlin is more graffiti and a blue tarp covering something amid piles of shattered lumber, rubble and overgrowth. Is it abandoned, a run-down tenement or a crime scene out of The Wire?

Speaking of Baltimore, Maryland is represented in Fred Scharmen’s images of landfill sites and other poisoned environments. Unfortunately, his pictures aren’t arresting enough to eclipse the posted notes, which tell us far more than the photographic images do.

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Amber Fox’s “Industrial Skeleton” series forms a resplendent Gray’s Anatomy of rusted locomotives in the Bolivian desert, brown metal splayed out in the dirt like corroded dinosaur skeletons, the majestic gray of the Andes surrounding them, The Little Engines That Couldn’t contrasting brilliantly with the pastel blues of the sky above.

Steve Elkins’ Deshnoke, India is a mini-masterpiece of composition and social commentary with a small child dressed in red, his tiny blue-socked feet peering out from under long pants. Standing against a white wall above a small staircase, he reaches out to a bevy of swarming rats below him. Any tourist could take sentimental pictures of destitute children, but the bright colors, lines and provocative imagery are a happy accident that only someone with real talent and a good eye could capture. I also liked Elkins’ Catalonia, Spain 1, in which nature has gone berserk as a multiheaded mutant bird, with its squawking beaks, rolls its panicked eyes. That image recurs in Catalonia, Spain 2, as Elkins steps back and shows us that the bird is just a small part of a larger, gorgeous painting on a wall, but the three smokestacks towering overhead made me think of the illustration as a not-so-happy face slapped on a concentration camp. In Catalonia, Spain 3, F.A.T. is spray-painted on the left side of a wall as a Banksy-like faceless girl handcuffed to a teddy bear stands on the right, facing the word as if it’s her future.

Porter McKnight’s two sepia-tinged New Orleans photos also have political subtext. Orleans is angled in a way to suggest that an aging building’s chipped exterior and French balconies may be about to fall over, as two alterna-type guys walk by, oblivious. We Still Rebuild—with its big black X and elaborate codes spray-painted on a flooded home—darkly suggests that rebuilding is not in its future.

While Sean Stiegemeier’s two “Aimless Exploration” pictures of a man in a Hazmat suit look like prog-rock album covers, his sumptuous Chernobyl images are the most striking of the showing, requiring an adequate amount of time to soak in the layers of detail. In Chernobyl No 74, dozens of rotting gas masks are scattered on the floor, their breathing tubes wrapped around one another sensuously, like bodies at an orgy hosted by H.R. Giger.

Eric Magnussen’s The Big Meltdown—paired images of toy soldiers before and after melting—isn’t as interesting as it could have been, even if you apply a political agenda to it, which I’m not certain he intends. Within the showing’s thematic concerns, I don’t get why the photographer’s posted work is worthy of space on two walls. Several of the photos are nicely shot, but only Bee, showing the black-and-orange insect perched on an ornate white-metal grating, drew me in.

Exothermic’s photos of the abandoned Tennessee State Prison are also hit-and-miss, but The Operating Room is a glorious vision of texture in which walls shed several skins at once, baby-shit brown and hospital green showing through as dark mold usurps the ceiling panels and blackens the checkerboard floor.

If our measure as thinking people is how we respond to Mother Nature’s eventual recycling of us all—do we block it out or confront it?—then Hibbleton Gallery’s resounding yes to her putrid embrace is a welcome, intelligent gesture.

“Charming Decay: Photographs of postindustrial life” at the Hibbleton Gallery, 112 W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton, (714) 441-2857; Open Thurs., 1-6 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 1-10 p.m.; Sun., 1-6 p.m.; and by appointment. Through Feb. 1.

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