To get a stark and troubling picture of Buffalo's ongoing struggle against blight, all it takes is a short walk along a single block on the city's northeastern edge.
On Brewster Street, between Halbert and Fillmore Avenue, in the shadow of the Tri-Main Center, overgrown weeds spill out of vacant lots and encroach on ramshackle houses dotted with broken windows or sheathed in plywood. A few scattered cars line the road, but for the most part, it seems like nobody's been around for years.
This image, repeated on vast tracts of land on Buffalo's East and West Sides, has been a source of frustration for residents, politicians and neighborhood activists for decades. But it's also been long on the minds of local artists, who have lately taken to addressing the issue in growing numbers.
In an ambitious exhibition that opened in the first floor of the Artspace lofts on Main Street on Friday, three local artists are exploring the state of Buffalo's contracting and crumbling urban landscape.
"Ecologies of Decay," as the show is called, features three projects by Julian Montague, J-M Reed and Dennis Maher, which deal with the all-too-familiar ravages of infestation, conflagration, demolition and blight.
It's a unique project that sprang up only a few months ago, when all three artists came to the realization that their work shared a common theme.
Reed, a photographer and real estate agent, is known for taking pictures of the fires that often destroy blighted properties around the city. Maher is a demolition worker and graduate of the University at Buffalo's architecture program who creates sculptures out of the collected bits of demolished houses. And Montague, an artist known for his book "The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America," recently mounted a project that categorizes and represents the spiders that live in and around buildings.
"It seems that each of us is drawing extraordinary attention to ordinary, everyday phenomena here," Maher said. "The phenomena of empty houses, burning houses and of demolition sites are all unfortunately regarded here as common occurrences that are devoid of any kind of enlightening attributes. But I think that each of us, through investigating these things, is finding some kind of added extraordinary dimension, which suggests that there's maybe more than meets the eye."
Maher's own experience working on demolition crews throughout the city familiarized him with the tons of commercially worthless but artistically loaded detritus that usually gets shipped off to landfills.
"It wasn't long before I became attracted to the media, the materials that I spent so much time clearing out and began thinking about ways of giving another life to those things that were being rejected and discarded," Maher said.
To construct one of the pieces in the show, called "Profanation," Maher persuaded a demolition crew taking down a house on Elmwood Avenue to transport the demolished pieces of the house to Artspace instead of the landfill. When the crew dropped it off, Maher got to work fashioning a gargantuan sculpture out of discarded materials like lathe, pieces of furniture, bed springs and old window frames.
For his segment of the show, local artist and designer Julian Montague, who is represented by Black and White Gallery in New York City, produced a visually arresting installation that contemplates nature's gradual reclamation of spaces that once belonged to humans.
Montague's piece is a highly stylized cataloging system, for which he collected and analyzed the types of insects and other pests that move into abandoned properties and represented them with graphic icons suspended by a network of long white strings attached to an informational kiosk.
"It's this kind of undoing, this dismantling of interior space," Montague said of the inspiration for the installation. "What we conceptually think of as being inside comes outside. It's all undone."
Reed's piece, "Night Fires," along with a series of postcards of fires he has photographed and which visitors are encouraged to take, deals directly with the issue of house fires across the city's neighborhoods. Motivated at first by what he called a "boyhood fascination" with fire, Reed's longtime hobby of photographing local house fires recently turned into a bona fide artistic endeavor. "Night Fires," a series of photographs of a single fire arranged in an oval shape, is viewable from all angles, much like the fire it documents.
"One of the things I have been interested in is the idea of the spectacle," Reed said. "And so I decided to stick with these night fires, which I think are the ultimate in this kind of photography. They become these kind of surreal events."
Reed, Maher and Montague have gone out of their way to insist that the work in the show is meant neither to offer a point of view about the pressing issues upon which it is based nor to suggest or imply a solution. They see their projects as three separate investigations into the state of the city at a critical juncture in its history.
"All of this work relates to a kind of unique moment in Buffalo's history and in any industrial city's history," Reed said. "These are things that you can't really get away from in Buffalo, and maybe just this will at least help get some other people thinking about this process in kind of an excited way, as opposed to, do we need to demolish more houses and mow more vacant lawns?"