Rhea McLean likes to sneak through abandoned buildings after dark, preferably industrial ruins in rough Chicago neighborhoods. She brings with her a camera, a tripod, a bag of supplies, and a sturdy human companion. Once inside, she moves by flashlight across dusty floors streaked with the thick shadows thrown by outside streetlights, carefully considering the instability that time and rot may have brought to stairways and surfaces.
She finds an area that captures her imagination: perhaps a dark entranceway, or a room with a great hole punched through one wall or a missing chunk of ceiling or floor or wood planks shifted into dislocation. She sets her camera on the tripod, opens the shutter, and goes to work.
Holding the shutter open for 10 to 15 minutes, using slow-speed film, McLean moves about in the camera’s view and paints the picture with light. She employs the glow of color-filtered flashlights and flashbulbs, Coleman lanterns, matches, sparklers, Roman candles, smoke bombs, and flammable pastes. While she twirls and draws the light is captured on the film, but her dark moving body escapes the camera’s gaze.
The results are eerily stunning photographs. Dark, spooky spaces bleed colorful streaks and pools of light, often splashed broadly on walls and ceilings or drawn as outlines around puddles of water, doorways, odd industrial objects. Liquid fire drips down raw brick walls.
The lavalike light has a life of its own that invades the buildings like a ghost. It suggests spirits of a building’s bygone occupants, or the soul of the building itself. It brings color and beauty to drab, brutal spaces, life to tombs.
“I like to think about what could have been happening in the building,” McLean says. “I imagine what it was like inside during its prime, and what’s been going on in there since it was abandoned. There’s an odd energy in the buildings that I try to capture.” She says she notices changes in certain buildings from visit to visit: maybe a wall has collapsed, or wind has rearranged debris.
McLean, 28, first pursued this photographic form as a student at Southern Illinois University, where she was working toward her master’s in painting. A ruined brewery near the campus became her first shooting ground.
Blown-up prints from the brewery and more recent shots from an empty factory in Chicago are the meat of McLean’s new show at the Schatz Building on East Ontario. Also displayed are a number of her paintings–big, harsh, abstract works that reflect her obsession with industrial ruin. She paints with oil and acrylic on canvas or wood, sometimes sticking actual industrial detritus to the painting’s surface.
McLean was raised in the small town of Gallatin, Tennessee. As a girl she became interested in the abandoned barns and houses in the countryside near her home. In college she discovered industrial imagery, fascinated by its coarse oppressiveness and the history forged in its decay. “I’ve been attracted to ruins for as far back as I can remember,” she says. “I’m intrigued by the changes that the passage of time can bring.”
She moved to Chicago about a year ago seeking artistic community. Today she lives alone in a postindustrial loft west of the Loop. For a while she lived in Pilsen, where she frequently drove past an abandoned factory on Cermak near the river. She grew more and more curious about the building until one day she summoned the nerve to take a closer look. The factory was empty and free of plywood barriers, so with a friend she ventured inside, where over time she produced many of the pictures in her current show.
She investigates buildings by day and then returns in the dark, when she can manipulate the light and so create the haunting atmosphere that pervades her photographs.
“I’m sometimes afraid of unsafe characters,” she says; she describes one visit to the factory in Pilsen when she was spooked by voices that echoed eerily through an open elevator shaft. “I got out of there right away,” she says. But the only person she’s ever run into was “an old guy who lives in the building on Cermak. He turned out to be a sweet man, and he appears in one of my photos.”
McLean admits that human forms, while uncommon in her photographs, can be somewhat incongruous with the phantasmagoric realm she invokes. But in her art the anthropomorphic is also supernatural. She appears herself in one photograph: an electric apparition in the distance against one wall, detail washed by multiple flashes of yellow light.
Ghostly figures and dead factories are one artist’s interpretation of America’s changing landscape, and a fitting image of our economic times. Photographs and paintings by Rhea McLean will be on display through December 7 at the Schatz Building, 299 E. Ontario. It’s open 7 to 10 Monday through Saturday, 8 to 4 Sunday. Call 787-8242 for details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.