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Demolition Artist's 'Undone-Redone City' on Exhibit in Buffalo and New York City

Sculptures crafted from debris tell a story about the Rust Belt's shrinking cities

Release Date: October 6, 2010

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"Animate Lost/Found Matter (001-)," an installation by Dennis Maher at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Photograph courtesy of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

"End Wall," an installation by Dennis Maher at the Black & White Gallery / Project Space in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photograph courtesy of the Black & White Gallery / Project Space.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Soon after architect Dennis Maher arrived in Buffalo in 2002, he took jobs tearing down abandoned homes and other vacant structures to supplement his income as a University at Buffalo adjunct instructor. His experience on demolition crews ended up fueling his art practice: Fascinated by the politics of demolition and shocked by the quantity of waste that resulted from deconstruction, Maher began harvesting scraps from decaying homes and fusing the debris into large-scale sculptures.

Years later, one outcome of Maher's labors is a pair of noteworthy exhibitions: An installation at Buffalo's Burchfield Penney Art Center, and a solo show at the Black & White Gallery / Project Space in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Maher was an artist-in-residence this summer.

Both displays include a major sculpture constructed from discarded materials, along with photographic collages that depict amalgamations of refuse in forms suggestive of new landscapes. Each exhibition is part of Maher's "Undone-Redone City," an ongoing project that explores demolition, renovation and restoration through assembling the remains of obliterated places.

His creations have an explosive quality, with wood paneling, broken doors and linoleum tiles bursting forth, in chaotic layers, from some undefined epicenter. In his Burchfield presentation, part of the multi-venue Beyond/In Western New York 2010 exhibition, the central sculpture hangs from the ceiling, an industrial-hued Goliath strung up with steel chains. A partly constructed room lies at the piece's core.

Maher, now a clinical assistant professor of architecture at UB, says he hopes his work inspires people to think about how demolition affects an urban landscape.

While Western New York has made strides in recent years toward developing a successful, university-driven biotechnology sector, Buffalo is still struggling with the fallout of industrial decline. Chief among problems: As manufacturing jobs evaporated, the local population fell, leaving the city with thousands of vacant properties. Other Rust Belt cities have experienced similar problems, and Maher says the issues his work addresses apply not only to Buffalo, but to the entire Rust Belt region.

"The City of Buffalo clearly is a part of my work in a very direct way. At the same time, what I've created is relevant to many cities. It could be Syracuse, Youngstown or Detroit," Maher says. "I'm formulating a practice that combines art, architecture and civic activism. Demolition is a form of cultural erasure. I'm interested in what that does to the urban fabric and to communities."

While Maher no longer works on demolition crews, he continues to secure materials through contacts he made as a deconstruction worker. He raids the dumpsters of building sites and keeps in touch with salvage yards.

His studios over the years have included an abandoned industrial building on Buffalo's Main Street; an empty mansion in the city; and a storage space on the city's East Side. Recently, Maher has acquired two houses previously slated for demolition in the city, and has begun to transform them using found objects and discarded materials. In a short article titled "The Demolition Artist," Hadas Steiner, a UB architectural historian and associate professor of architecture, remarks that Maher's working quarters are "compatible with the desolation he theoretically investigates."

Maher's sculptures comment on loss, waste and ruin, raising questions about the way a city erases visible manifestations of poverty. But he says his creations also speak of potential. Through his art, debris destined for the landfill takes on a new life. Urban transformations are cyclical, and the chance to regenerate is an opportunity that shrinking environments present.

"I'm interested in places, spaces, environments that are always on the verge of becoming," he says. "A place is never finished. I want to close the gap between the undone and the remade."

The New York State Council on the Arts is supporting Maher's "Undone-Redone City" with an independent projects grant. For information on Maher's current exhibitions, including exhibition dates, visit the Burchfield Penney online at http://www.burchfieldpenney.org, and the Black & White Gallery / Project Space online at http://www.blackandwhiteartgallery.com/exhibitions.html. For more information about Maher and his work, visit his website at http://www.assembledcityfragments.com.

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