Growing up in New York City, malls were a rare, guilty pleasure. On childhood vacations, I’d run wild through through their gleaming hallways of fake marble, cheating on local pretzel vendors with the buttery charms of Auntie Anne’s and buying jewelry that would eventually disintegrate on my neck. The fun wore off when NYC was colonized by the same chain stores that once seemed exotic. Eventually, the death of retail stores reached the malls.
Phillip Buehler’s Mallrat to Snapchat: The End of the Third Place, on exhibit at the Front Room Gallery through January 12, is a photographic tour of one mall’s decline, featuring the abandoned storefronts of the Wayne Hills Mall in Wayne, New Jersey.
The tour begins at the gallery’s entrance, where a garbage can taken from the mall is situated. It continues with Buehler’s photographs of the mall’s exterior and parking lot. Within the mall are the rusted remains of national chains. In the photo “Sam Goody” (2019), dangling metal, twisted like tendrils of curly hair, hangs from the ceiling, the store’s stripped beams and wires exposed like skeletons. The faded sign in “‘Waldenbooks” (2019) is barely discernible, while the path to the entrance is strewn with plaster, metal, and dust from the other demolished stores.
“Photo Center 2000” (2019) is particularly haunting. There are no piles of fallen windows, no molding bits of plaster scattered like dirty snow, no kicked in doors, just the barely perceptible shapes of boxes and detritus cloaked in shadows.
Buehler finds unexpected angles on the carnage, as in “Atrium” (2019), a view of the ceiling shot from the floor. Paneled windows that frame a hexagonal pattern in the mostly dismantled ceiling render a kaleidoscope of glass, metal, and thin winter light. The white, curled edges of the pink wallpaper in “Courtyard” (2019) look uncomfortably like a peeling sunburn, but the cool light and dangling ceiling tiles create dark shadows that add contrast and bleak beauty.
I imagined the hallway in “Art World” (2019) — in which the red block letters of the former store compete for visibility with plaster and water damage — haunted by packs of zombie teenagers from the mid-1990s. They’d be hungry not for brains, but for Bonne Bell Lipsmackers, baby tees, and other long-forgotten mall treasures.
Buehler’s photographs are neither a nostalgia fest nor disaster porn, but an unsparing documentation of the decay that marks time and cultural change.
Mallrat to Snapchat: The End of the Third Place continues at Front Room Gallery (48 Hester Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 12.