BY PAM ACORD
The tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity; inevitable and steady deterioration of a system or society.
“It’s extremely frustrating not to be able to do what you know you should be doing,” says photographer Chris Goodenbury of his life before teaching himself photography. Humans create to fulfill a needed function, whether to house a family, produce consumer goods, aid the ailing, or grace life with aesthetic beauty. To move forward with purpose is a most satisfying achievement, but to lose purpose is the beginning of destruction. “Abandoned buildings,” Goodenbury says, “are a little like homeless people—displaced in the cities they live in. We don’t want to acknowledge them, or perhaps it’s that we choose not to acknowledge them.”
What exuberance the 19th century industrialists must have felt forging metal landscapes into America’s teaming cities, hewing earth’s stones into ecclesiastical architectures and castles reminiscent of our European ancestors. America was rising. Our romance with nature’s divinity was contradicted by the obsessive need to control it. We built monuments reaching to the sky, bridges held up with ropes of twisted metals, and coiffured landscapes fit for the kings we thought we were. And on the seventh day, we rested. We looked upon our creation and said, “This is good.” We thought our monuments would last forever, but nature is an untenable lover. Time, the one luxury deprived us, matters not to her. She patiently unrolls her inscrutable authority, squeezing out the hubris in humanity’s creations, slowly dismantling its labors. And this is precisely the notion Goodenbury aims to impart to his viewers: to demystify the natural turning of an ever-changing world, the beauty of descent, an appreciation for the return.
Goodenbury’s interest in architecture began decades earlier when as a child he watched the caped crusader scale the granite walls of Gotham City’s skyscrapers in the animated series of Batman. He did some architectural drawing and later enrolled in a course at Rochester Institute of Technology where he learned to paint 3D animations. “I wasn’t particularly good at either of them,” he says. Then in 2009 someone gifted him with a point- and-shoot camera. He’s been shooting pictures every since.
The thing about Goodenbury’s photos is they’re not like anyone else’s. Goodenbury’s inanimate objects live and breathe as fully rounded characters. The wide-angle perspective invites the viewer to see the space as he does. Viewing his work is like stepping into the round of a cinematic theatre. But most intriguing about his images are the opposing forces that lure our unsuspecting eye into the world he creates: “An Infinite Moment,” “Daydreams of Exile,” “To Defy Entropy,” “The Endless Procession.” They herald all the hallmarks of a gothic novel: bleak, foreboding atmospheres, imposing structures, isolation, gradual decay, forces outside of our control. We might assume that the gothic is meant to provoke fear, horror, or dread in the viewer but rather than invoking fright, Goodenbury’s art flirts with our desire for the sublime. It opens the hidden door behind the bookcase, allows us to satiate and thereby liberate our discomfort with the concepts of abandonment, isolation, and uselessness. The reason it is so powerful is that we all experience these emotions on some level.
Imagine if you will:
A 1940s dilapidated Chrysler is braided inside the gnarled filament of a leafless bush, the passenger door hanging from the bottom hinge like an amputated arm. The title: “I Knew Love Once.”
The ribbed vaulting of a forgotten church bears the yoke of neglect. Its ceiling, as thin as rime, falls through arched veins. The choir’s organ in the throes of decay—sheet music still propped at its helm—no longer heralds its god. Yet a melody is almost palpable.
Abandoned castles, stairways once graced by the hands of lovely ladies listen for footfalls of never again; asylum windows crackled like blood-shot eyes, vacant and mute, splinter under the weight of the cruelty they’ve witnessed.
At some point, I’m aware that I can feel the images before my eyes can see them. It occurs to me that these buildings have lost their usefulness, left to succumb to a premature death. Amidst the utter disintegration, however, is an unexpected tenderness. A brilliant conceit of psychological realism. Goodenbury’s photos mirror the inevitable: the lurid twin of one’s self. Crumbling monuments serve the most important purpose of reminding us of what we so resist in ourselves: that we are indeed alone to the end, that our purpose is ever-changing, that we too can stand with grace as time tick-tocks down our days.