If you think that an exhibition contemplating the demolition of dozens of familiar buildings and the construction of the architectural behemoths that replaced them would consist of large photographic images or three-dimensional models, think again.
The elements comprising "Caryl Burtner: Missing Richmond" may be the most diminutive you'll see in a gallery this season. These elements include two types of containers. First, there are small, clear plastic boxes about the size of a pack of cards: These contain vintage and contemporary photos of buildings. Second, there are tiny plastic baggies akin to what you'd find hanging in a hardware store holding a few screws or hooks: These protect tiny fragments — a chip of concrete or a colored tile — from lost buildings.
And if the boxes appear to be little more than dollhouse-size showcases for journalistic photographs of long-lost structures (juxtaposed with pictures of the buildings that replaced them) there's much more going on. Contained within these carefully organized packages are feelings. If Burtner is a keen observer of city life, a savvy documenter, and an avid collector of ephemera, she is also a romantic poet. But instead of words, she uses photographic images and particles of construction debris to express her deep sense of loss from experiencing her adopted city undergoing constant redevelopment and change.
Burtner, a Virginia native who was reared in Bellevue, Wash. and who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, has a day job on the curatorial staff at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. But it's clear from her intriguing exhibition (now at the Wilton Cos. Galleries at the University of Richmond downtown at 626 E. Broad St.), that her after hours and have been devoted to recording a community in physical flux and the resulting demise of dozens of some of Richmond's most popular — and often beloved— places.
For those who have lived here for awhile, the visual litany of once-familiar commercial places that no longer line the streets and sidewalks will be jarring. Burtner includes photos of the downtown Thalhimers department store, Ridge Cinema, Grace Place restaurant, Trailways bus station, Greentrees haberdashery, Cloverleaf Mall, Bill's Barbecue, the first Krispy Kreme on West Broad, and Lums restaurant (Remember Lums? It was on West Grace Street at Laurel when that part of town was on the edge of the VCU campus, not smack in the middle of it. A large dormitory now occupies the site).
For folks newer to town, many images in "Missing Richmond" will have them wondering, "What were they thinking?" The stately tudor revival Temple building on the VCU campus at Park and Harrison could have been retrofitted. A midcentury modern treasure was lost when Woolworths, at Broad and Fifth, was destroyed. The same is true of the former Executive Motor Hotel on West Broad and Byrd near Willow Lawn which was designed by the commercial modernist master Norman Giller. And the sleekly moderne Atlantic Life Building on East Grace was programmatically perfect — retail at ground level, parking above that, and offices on top. A surface parking lot now occupies the site.
The small photo boxes are intelligently displayed on long, shallow shelves with mirrored backs to allow for two-way viewing. The presentation is simple and elegant.
But the brilliance of Burtner's organizational and installation aesthetic is the gentleness of her overall approach. Subversive, probably, but gentle nonetheless. It would have been overwhelming if she had presented these lost places with large format photographs. It might have been too depressing. She whispers, rather than screams. Her little plastic boxes containing photos and the clear plastic baggies holding not much more than colored dust are like things I'd find secretly rummaging through drawers of my grandfather's roll-top desk. There were yellowed letters with always purple stamps, an occasional Indian arrowhead, strange-looking currency, fishing hooks, fading photos of folks and places long forgotten. These things could only be appreciated by being held and contemplated.
Similiarly, the objects in "Missing Richmond" must be seen up-close and considered in a highly personal way. The containers may be plastic, but they are oddly much like daguerreotypes, the 19th century's fragile, chemically-layered photographic method. The elaborate framing of daguerreotypes was as important as the images they contained: one smudge, one fingerprint and the portrait was ruined.
By framing — protecting her small photographs and salvaged relics of "Missing Richmond" — like antebellum daguerreotypes, she is sharing something intimate. She is whispering to us that while architectural change is inevitable, buildings are more than bricks and mortar. They contain experiences and memories and are therefore living organisms. S
"Caryl Burtner: Missing Richmond," Wilton Cos. Gallery, University of Richmond downtown, 626 E. Grace St. through Dec. 23. missingrichmond.com.