Decay and Resilience: Andrew Borowiec, “From the Heartland,” at the Iris Book Cafe and Gallery

July 1st, 2018  |  Published in *, June 2018

It’s an ordinary day in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, about a dozen miles from Pittsburgh. Some leaves are turning yellow; there is a touch of fall in the air. The garbage has been collected and the mail has not yet been delivered (the cans are upside down along the edge of the street and the flags on the rural post boxes are down). The road, which is in need of repaving, twists down the hill and out of sight, presumably on its way to Turtle Creek itself, which flows into the Monongahela. We can’t see the water, just the trees and scrub brush that obscure it from our view. Andrew Borowiec’s picture of Turtle Creek, like most of his images in his show of almost thirty photographs at the Iris BookCafe and Gallery, do not feature the natural environment but focus instead on how the built environment responds to nature, sometimes conquering it, sometimes being overcome by it, and sometimes negotiating a middle ground.

Andrew Borowiec, “Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania” (2012)

The chief way people responded to nature in Turtle Creek was to have built, in 1932, an elegant concrete arch bridge over it that was named after George Westinghouse, the industrial titan. It towers about 200 feet over the street, its Art Deco arches still crisp and clean, in clear contrast to the houses, which could all use a fresh coat of paint among other improvements. One would like to have been a housepainter or a roofer accompanying Borowiec on his pilgrimages throughout the industrial—and post-industrial—Midwest, though it’s never clear to whom the painter or roofer might speak. The streets, porches, yards, and even the parking lots in his photographs are almost invariably empty. Though the photographer in his introduction to one of his books describes his pleasure in meeting the people in these towns who would eventually learn to greet him, help to acculturate him, and guide him towards sites that might interest him, they are rarely, if ever, actually present in the finished print.  Close association with other people may have happened in the past in Borowiec’s Midwest, but it is not happening in the present. The geography in Borowiec’s world does not celebrate shared civic life or purpose.

This is not to say that people have left no trace—quite the opposite. In Turtle Creek, one house proudly displays the Pittsburgh Steelers logo; another has its tiny front porch set up for grilling and a porch sit.  We get to know the “characters” in Borowiec’s dramas from the outside in, rather like the practice of the great baroque painters. Just from what gets left outside of their houses, we can see that these are people with habits, tastes, and mysteries. In “Homestead, PA” (2009), the expressionless siding of one house faces the blank concrete side wall of its neighbor across a lawn that couldn’t be more than ten feet wide. The yard has exactly one mature, chest-high sunflower, and there is a coiled hose for watering it. There is a fantasia of plastic tulips lining the low fence. The house’s back, which faces two sets of railroad tracks, has a rack of clothes, possibly for sale, though it’s hard to imagine that it attracts much foot traffic back there. Nonetheless, the house is well connected to the outside world: there is a satellite dish on the roof, and there are a number of metering devices, reminding us that even the sturdiest wall is permeable. In other pictures, people leave toys outside, which might be part of the perma-mess of toddlers or might be things left behind that have been discarded by some new owner or tenant. And sometimes, the tales and traces left outside are simply mysterious. In one picture, we see a much-repaired intersection where decaying city houses sit across the street from a decaying barn. A red car is parked alongside the curb, partly reconfigured with inexpensive bodywork. And in the backyard of one of the houses sit not one but two very substantial speedboats.

Borowiec’s technique tends to link things that surprise us by their juxtaposition. Though in other hands this might lead to some cheap shots, his purpose tends not to be satiric. Mostly: there is “Sidney, Nebraska” (2014) which shows a whitewashed motor lodge whose grounds are all gravel, all the time, with plastic chairs in front of closed doors, some upright, some overturned, whose trade name is proudly announced in a sign over the office door: “Generic Motel.” But who’s to say whose sense of humor is being represented? In “East Liverpool, Ohio” (2015)—one of his few pictures with people plainly in sight—two figures on an overcast day are cutting through an overgrown brick alley behind light industry on one side and a shabby wooden fence on the other. Above them looms a taller wall with a larger-than-life painted ad suggestive of a tropical island on it: over a huge setting sun—or rising moon—is the text, “Oasis.” Lol. But perhaps this place, at this time, is something of an oasis. When it comes to people’s private spaces—the places and the choices individuals make about living—Borowiec tends to take people at their word. In their own post-apocalyptic way, these are pictures that show faith in democracy.

In 2018, it has to cross one’s mind that these pictures are postcards from Trump’s America. (Of the 27 images in the show, only one comes from a state that went for Clinton.) But whatever we think are the pictures’ implicit political implications, there are very few that are explicitly political, and the politics that are in evidence are hard to decipher. “Clairton, Pennsylvania” (2012)—another of Pittsburgh’s near-neighbors—is a photograph of another house we are invited to get to know from its exterior, which is chiefly in evidence from things piled up outside the front door, as if trash. There are buckets and trash bins and flower pots and milk crates and beer cans. Are we supposed to pay more attention to the Beware of the Dog sign above the mailbox or the hummingbird feeder that hangs below it? There are heaps of children’s toys and a stroller—and there are at least four yard signs for Obama for President. It is hard to know what conclusions to draw. New tenants, new values? Time to move on from old dreams?

Andrew Borowiec, “Firestone Tire Plant, Akron, Ohio” (2015)

But if the pictures tend to be opaque about politics, they are filled with explicit economic evidence and argument. Borowiec’s photographs tend to go out of their way to give room to the strange and undecipherable nature of individual’s choices, but they also suggest a realm of things about which individuals—anyway, the individuals in which he tends to be interested—do not have choice, the larger forces that shape single lives, neighborhoods, states, and regions of the country. The house in Clairton is situated on a hill overlooking one of the city’s steel and coke plants which, like so many of these things, is a ghost of its former self. Borowiec has a strong sense about the economic organization of the neighborhoods in which people live. In “Firestone Tire Plant, Akron, Ohio” (2015), the factory may be relegated to the background, but it has clearly determined the shape of the urban world around it. We see the factory from the backyard of a shuttered building; it might be a business or a home, a bar or a boardinghouse. Some parts of the picture suggest self-evident truths about places like Akron: as the automobile industry has come to be fragmented, the neighborhood will be filled with fragmented trash connected to the car economy—there are seven tires and a muffler discarded behind the building in question. Borowiec has written that “Since the rear of a house usually reveals more about its inhabitants than the more public front yard, I preferred to walk along back alleys than in the street.” (He is the true harbinger of Whitmanesque democracy, the trespasser.) The back of this house reveals the only emotionally rich aspect of what the photographer can see in this part of Akron: an abandoned sidewalk, pointed directly towards the factory. Did houses line it at one time? Was it once a sanctioned shortcut to work for the whole neighborhood? Now it is overgrown with brush and cluttered with leaves that no one rakes, but who knows how vibrant it might have once been, crowded with loud workers with their lunchboxes.

It is certainly possible for anyone—the artist or the audience (or a politician)—to sentimentalize decay, but Borowiec’s true subject tends to be the restlessness of human organization, the ways humans living together tend to self-revise the terms of their proximity to each other. In “Youngstown, Ohio” (2012), there was once a lovely corner business, a fine specimen of vernacular Art Deco architecture with elaborate ornamentation and an exaggerated turret, that was made of white tiles with blue tile lettering that spell out “Hi-Speed.” Was it a gas station? An auto repair shop? A Tastee-Freeze? In any case, now it is nothing. It is boarded up and officially disconnected from the world, the wiring by which it was attached to the power grid neatly coiled along the wall. If Deco is the aesthetic of modernism, “Youngstown” is another way to remind us that modernism is gone, its cheerful and outlandish geometries no longer vital.

Andrew Borowiec, “Goodyear Air Dock, Akron, Ohio” (2015)

But success relocates. Though Borowiec has plenty of images of urban decay, I think that more often, the story he wants to tell is one of retrenchment and resilience. Perhaps it is the dream of good urban planning that once a factory—or a factory town—has been idled, it can be repurposed and turned into condos, or perhaps it will be taken down, the land cleaned up, and a new social organism put in its place. In Borowiec’s photographs, economic change tends to be a layered picture, of many things all at once, not one of a neat succession. The new takes its life in the shadow of the old. In his picture of “Cereal Food Processors, Cleveland, Ohio” (2016), the factory seems idle and there aren’t many cars in its parking lot. But a new generation of people are kayaking in the river below it. In “Goodyear Air Dock, Akron, Ohio” (2015), the giant blimp hanger in the background seems to be what is left of an older, maybe a much older, economy. In the foreground is a sketchier world, but it has the potential for vibrancy and life. A series of paved lanes with hills and dips marks out a go-cart track or a skate park. There are tiny loudspeakers and lights mounted on poles and even some modest bleachers. This is where life is to be found.

In his picture “Wooster Avenue, Strasburg, Ohio” (2006), we see something remarkable for a Borowiec image: a new business. It is a free-standing, red-roofed coffee place, about the size of a walk-in closet in one of the McMansions he documents elsewhere, that features “Quick-Fix Coffee” for walk-up and drive-through customers. There is something almost hallucinatory about it. It certainly represents someone’s fantasy. There is much more paving around it than there is square footage in the store; it makes only a tiny indentation in the enormous cornfields that surround it. A place for agri-biz workers on their break? It’s clear that it’s not for the drivers of the long-haul vehicles carrying produce to markets; there is a posting that warns against “No Big Trucks.” And over the front door is a sign for their specialty: “Espresso.” There is a dream behind this business, one that seems in distinction to the world in which it has been plunked down. Borowiec has a genuine interest in the dreams that made these towns grow before they decayed. In “Duquesne, Pennsylvania,” for example, the Dolly Allen Beauty Shoppe is now boarded up. But what made the citizens of Duquesne want a “shoppe” (that brassy marketing imitation of high snoot) of any sort—except that it’s part of what makes urban life bearable, or even pleasurable?

Andrew Borowiec, “Ledgestone Court, Copley, Ohio” (2015)

Borowiec documents spanking-new suburbs of grueling ugliness, but he does so without undue satire. “Ledgestone Court, Copley, Ohio” (2015) features the front of a freshly-built suburban house. It is already occupied; there are flowers in the planters and smaller blossoms in a tiny clay pot on the tiny front porch. But there are no steps to get up from ground level to the front porch. There is a modest pile of gravel between the front yard and the porch. On it, there are four toy trucks  (and one auto-control); though to a grownup eye, it looks like the documentation of where people ran out of money, children seem to be instinctive naturalizers. One would love to know what sort of economic system supports this suburban development, but the photograph—perhaps like Ledgestone Court itself—does not have a context.

Andrew Borowiec, “Campbell, Ohio” (2010)

Whether it’s a picture of a fresh, raw suburb or one of any of the city centers that no longer have any viable enterprise going on them, Borowiec has looked hard at the Rust Belt and sees the wounds that economic collapse have done to people’s dreams of what humans get from each other’s company. Part of what made industrial vibrancy attractive is that it invited people to associate. Borowiec is drawn, for example, to the signs of clubs that do not seem to be open any longer. In Wheeling, there’s the Sportsman Club Inc.; in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, there’s the Safari Club. The very titles suggest the nature of the fantasies to which the clubs appealed. In Campbell, Ohio, there is the most interesting of these boarded-up establishments, the Ultimate Club. On the building’s side, on a decaying brick wall, is a large, mostly faded, painting of a man and a woman engaged in ballroom dancing. Next to it, a more cartoonish painting shows a man sitting by himself on a sofa near an empty chair. This figure might be the representative of the Midwest Borowiec has found. It is a population no longer to be found out of doors or even sharing their spaces inside (it’s interesting that Borowiec never looks in a diner window or at the crowds of parents at a high school basketball game), but they seem content and capable of living inner lives, even if they are cut off from the inner lives of others. The painting on the wall has a label—perhaps the original name of the institution before it became the Ultimate?—which identifies it as a place to dance or perhaps to get lessons in an appropriate social accomplishment. And there is a good deal more writing on the wall as well, but very little of it is readable because, like an ancient manuscript, it is now a palimpsest—a layering of texts right on top of each other, each one visible but none fully intelligible. The messages compete with each other, and obscure each other.

The same is true of Borowiec’s Midwestern cityscapes. The places for populations are always changing; as Borowiec has written, its landscapes are continually being “reconstructed to suit human purposes.” The economic situations that support one sort of population might well, in a few short decades, no longer support it. Large public spaces are made into smaller ones by bricking up some windows and doors; sometimes the whole side of a street is boarded up. Even the rawest of new spaces is built over the foundations of older ones. (There is a photo of “Chuckery Lane, Bath, Ohio” that shows a new McMansion with an acre of dry dirt where a lawn should be, but in the foreground are rolls and rolls of seeded sod, waiting to complete the picture. A review in Politico notes that “This mini-mansion is on land that used to be the country estate where the founding family of Firestone Tire and Rubber bred race horses and went fox hunting.”) I think this is one distinctive difference between Borowiec’s work and, for example, the documentary impulse of the WPA photographers, who were also drawn or directed towards the mundane and the unglamorous. Borowiec wants to capture the change, the ongoing layering, the palimpsestic nature of culture. As no less an observer of life in conflict than Ian Malcolm, in Jurassic Park, observes, “Life finds a way.”

Andrew Borowiec, “McKees Rock, Pennsylvania” (2012)

And this helps create the layering, the depth, in Borowiec’s vision of Midwestern lives. In “McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania” (2012), we are situated on a rise above the site where a factory or warehouse used to sit. Those are the high-rises of Pittsburgh in the distance. From where we stand, we see paved surfaces, piles of broken concrete, long empty parking lots, and power lines that bring in electricity to a facility no longer there. But everywhere we look, we see new growth. Shrubs, weeds, and small trees—sumac, perhaps?—are pushing up through the shattered grey concrete, and are turning bright red in the fall. It is not a picture about the factory that is no longer there, or the wilderness that is moving in to reclaim the land, but of both, beautifully layered together.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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