The Beauty of Decay
John Axelrad's stunning color photographs of discarded cars and vacant houses in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Utah at the University of California Berkeley Extension Galleria are evocative of our transience in the world. This is evidenced through the photographs' themes of nature outlasting mankind, abandoned objects in decay and the juxtaposition of emptiness, shapes and colors.
The photographs remind the viewer of Matthew Arnold's poem, "In Harmony with Nature" (1849), where nature continues past our lives: "Nature...fears no grave." In the photograph Gas Pump, Route 6, the pump is belittled in relationship to the tree whose arms reach out to embrace the sky. The tree is strong next to the weathered, faded pump. An abandoned building (Trust) is unimportant compared to the mountains in the distance. The photograph is rather a portrait of a tree nearby. Nature endures while man-made works die.
Axelrad finds beauty in decay. We observe the lovely, earthy orange next to the pale green peeling paint of a deserted building in #702 Facade, US 395. The photograph is reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai's film In the Mood for Love, where there are stills of walls that are like abstract paintings. The open doorway leads nowhere, to no one. The pile of large stones near the door was perhaps left by someone; we will never know. School buses are practically honored through the use of the diptych form, a form usually used for religious paintings, in Wrecking Yard, Chuckwalla Valley. This is where cars and buses go to die. The mountain, trees and scrub brush witness the disintegration and passage of time.
The photographer juxtaposes the theme of transience with artistry. Reflections contain solidity in Rain Pool, Morro Bay. Nature and mankind are again compared, with a seagull contrasted with the three smokestacks. The ethereal Tilt-Up with Crates is a mirror image of a disused warehouse room. The blurry blue and peeling pink paint on the wall softens the hard edges of the brown crates. The diagonal, rusted metal rods are inverted in the lower two thirds of the photograph; the diagonals reverberate, leading our eyes back and forth. The reflection is so three-dimensional, that it seems as if there were a glass floor through which the rods pass.
The most intriguing photograph in the show is Split Slab, of an abandoned house with the marbleized Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance. An empty window is a black solid, echoed by two solid vertical shadows to its right. These black solids repeat in the vertical rectangles of curtained windows on the far wall. Even the tree, in shadow on the wall, seems lifeless. However, from the previous pictures, we know that nature will persevere.
Axelrad finds art in emptiness and the combination of colors, reflections and shadows. We are reminded of our momentary presence on this earth, while nature endures. However, the beauty of Axelrad's photographs reminds us that art also endures.
July 1 - August 11, 2002