Visual Merchandising

"The Ground" takes on origins, labor, commerce, and legacy at the Hutzler Brothers Palace

by Rebekah Kirkman

I.The river Amazon is a river.

It is an extremely long and voluminous river.

Passing through areas of bio-diversity, it is a good name for a company which sells books and diverse other products, this river.

–Leontia Flynn, 'Jeff Bezos names Amazon,' from the collection "Relentless: Poems by Jeff Bezos" by multiple poets

Backlit and glowing, Michael Jones McKean's "The Ground," presented by The Contemporary, sits in the middle of the otherwise vacant first floor space of the Hutzler Brothers Palace department store on Howard Street. Stark and small in comparison to our mental picture of a retail store, McKean's two-story structure resembles a series of storefronts, or a shopping mall in miniature, displaying ubiquitous goods we regularly consume as well as scenes and objects of wonder and awe.

A front view of “The Ground” at the Hutzler Brothers Palace building (Courtesy/The Contemporary/Nick Davis)

Underneath "The Ground," an eight-feet-in-diameter cable plugs into a tunnel wall, providing approximately 25 percent of the world's internet. Most of us don't normally think of the internet as a physical thing (it's an infinite resource that we always happen to have, we assume) but the cable connects to a vast underground internet server, operated by AiNET, an IT company which owns the Hutzler Brothers Palace building and the building right next door. Somewhere in there is the most poetic piece to chew on in McKean's project: his sculptural and somewhat minimalist installation in the empty Hutzler's department store—which has been recorded in various books and articles as a paragon of economic prosperity from yesteryear, now a shell of its former self in a depressed section of downtown Baltimore—above the booming, always-open marketplace of the internet.

Hutzler's was just one store among a bustling commercial zone that began budding up in the late 1800s. Founded in 1858 by Moses Hutzler and his son Abram as a dry goods store on Howard near Clay Street, the company eventually became a department store. The elaborate "palace" building was constructed in 1888 on Howard near Saratoga Street, and some say this cemented the company's reputation as a high-end shopping destination. As the years went on, Hutzler's expanded around Maryland, and closed its downtown location in 1989 (the Towson location was the last to close, in 1990). The area began its downturn as a shopping district before the widespread turn to online retail, which has accelerated at an alarming rate thanks to Amazon, in particular. But it's interesting to try to track how McKean might be navigating, through this work, a relationship between IRL and online commerce, the alienation of labor, and the way these things in turn alienate people and communities. This site-specific project doesn't offer much in the way of the actual place or its tangible history—the project statement even notes that Hutzler's "slips with each passing year into more hazily remembered regional folklore"—but it's worth digging into.

"Part of the Hutzler's allure is that the store's heydays in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s reflected a better time for Baltimore retailing," wrote Peter Jensen in the Baltimore Sun in 1995. "Howard Street was a bustling shopping district with neighboring Stewart's, Hochschild-Kohn and Brager-Gutman's thriving as well."

Or, if you prefer, a more flowery, firsthand recollection from the Sun's Jacques Kelly, in a short article from 1996: "It was the retail and entertainment center of Baltimore, the closest thing to the heart of the city. Is there a native Baltimorean over the age of 40 who can't remember the days of five competing, often distinctive department stores in the area? Or the tangle of taxi cabs and buses? Or the smell of hot dogs grilling at the lunch counters of what seemed like a dozen dime stores on Lexington Street, the busiest cross street to intersect the Big H [Howard Street]."

In the Afro-American newspaper's archives, a series of articles kept track of downtown department stores with discriminatory practices, including Hutzler's, from around the 1910s to the 1940s. Mostly, these policies included not allowing African-American people (women, in particular, it seemed) to try on clothing or return items. An article dated March 8, 1930 with the headline "Segregation is Hurting Baltimore Retail Store Business" showed research by Dr. Jacob H. Hollander of Johns Hopkins, who studied the volume of sales of department stores in Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Boston. Baltimore's stores earned less than $28 million that year, and the second-lowest earner was St. Louis, with $68.5 million. "[Stewart's] general manager told the Afro-American that white women had protested against meeting colored women at the counters," the article says. "The result of this has been that thousands of colored people have not set foot in any of the downtown department stores for over a year."

In 1989, the year Hutzler's closed, Lena H. Sun of the Washington Post reported on what the closure meant for Baltimore's "waning" downtown, as other department stores Stewart's and Hochschild-Kohn had already left. "Once one of Baltimore's most prestigious department stores, Hutzler's had been trying to make a downtown comeback for three years after steadily losing market share to aggressive competition from Hecht's and Macy's," Sun wrote. The nearby Harborplace development provided a new destination for upscale shopping, but one of the challenges that stores in this part of downtown faced was that the neighborhood had become less residential, and more of a place where people worked or went out. So, no one was really trying to buy a sofa or a new duvet. Bob Keller, an executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, was quoted in Sun's article saying: "Downtown is seen as a place for recreational shopping, lunch-hour shopping, a place that therefore lends itself more to a boutique kind of shopping."

Today, around that stretch of Howard, there are wig shops, shoe shops, candle shops, convenience stores, salons and barber shops, along with many vacant or closed down businesses—as well as a harder-to-quantify drug trade. This section of downtown is also now a part of the Bromo Arts District, and is frequently roped into talks about revitalization. Along with a number of apartment buildings, cafes, and restaurants that have sprung up into the area over the last couple of years, there's also the planned demolition and rebuilding of the Lexington Market.

But the shift between the department store of back-then to the today of the internet is not exactly linear, and in terms of McKean's installation, it is much more subtly referenced in the press release and in the actual scenes and objects in "The Ground." What we see in here is more of a puzzle of curious scale in the former emporium.

II."Although he started selling books, [Jeff Bezos] called the firm Amazon because a giant river reflected the scale of his ambitions."

–an unbylined piece in The Economist, 2014

When you walk into the Howard Street entrance, right outside of the Lexington Market light rail stop, the room is dark except for McKean's structure and its many rooms, soft but also harsh and radiating like screens, standing modest in size in relation to the vast space. The floors are gray-painted wood, the columns supporting the Hutzler building's structure and the walls are painted white, like any old art space just plopped down into it.

McKean's structure sits somewhat alien, in that way. It's easiest to see what the artist (who's based in New York and Richmond) has built as a two-story, dramatic mall diorama, the front featuring seven segmented storefronts or window displays. Some compartments have holes in the wall or passageways to peer into other sides of the space. Each of the rooms, doorways, and archways throughout the diorama are just a tad too short and narrow for average-size humans to easily walk through, but big enough to make that scale shift jarring. Walking around the structure, which kind of reads as a triptych, too, toward the back, there are another two floors of vignettes—one that looks like a bedroom or showroom—plus a behind-the-scenes-seeming nowhere zone in the middle, with a simple staircase and balcony walkway with utility lights. All the empty space around the structure could be, depending on your outlook, potential for something to happen or vacancy.

In the front—what you see when you walk in from Howard Street—on the lower level: an Italian Renaissance-esque relief carving depicting a water birth scene that looks like it's made of crumbling, caked dirt/clay. There are nine people crowding behind the mother who sits in a bathtub while she gives birth. Two angels, standing off to the right as if receiving or helping to deliver this new life, grasp onto an oblong, wobbly ring which juts out in front of the mother and child and encircles them. It appears vaguely umbilical, though it's not attached to the baby or the mother. A smaller display to the right houses a sculptural drawing of what could be an ancient version of an mp3 player (but a few feet tall, not handheld), with shapes that resemble both stylized faces and plants emerging out of the top, all lit by blue-red (magenta) stage lights.

Above the birth scene, towering above us, are seven brains of differing size and shape, belonging to different animals, lit by an institutional blue-white glow. Above the mp3 player structure, nested into a peach-colored space, a human baby skeleton is nestled into a pelvic bone, with one femur attached to the bone. These themes of reverence, nativity, origin, and birth recur throughout McKean's installation—around the corner is a small, dark chamber built into the wall with shelves that hold various minerals, fossils, artifacts, seeds, and more in tiny containers. A list names and categorizes each raw material item.

A wide, white atrium occupies the middle of the front side, with doorways and windows that open to the back part of the installation, and a thin but tall tree grows up out of the floor tiles. Some of the tree branches have leaves, other branches become hoop shapes, similar in touch (read: organic, hand-formed, somewhat wobbly) to the neighboring mp3 player structure and the umbilical shape that the angels hold. All of the different objects and aspects of this space are made to look like they're of the same material, all bleached into an anonymous white.

And then, next door, another two-story compartment, the ground floor featuring a wig shop-like display, with 12 distinctive mannequin heads hung up onto a gridded structure, each of the faces bearing seemingly random paint markings. They may be what's referred to in the project's description as a "pan-cultural cult"; they represent different races, and ultimately all McKean gives us to go off is that, plus whatever adornments they wear around their necks or on their heads, as they're disembodied. But here they're specimens on display, isolated in their superficial differences and their even spacing from each other on the grid.

Above the cult sit 10 portrait busts like you might find in an art museum or history museum, possible gods or queens or kings or prophets or ordinary citizens, each of them white, on display with no clear or explanatory context. There is what looks like some kind of African society mask, a Buddha bust, a Modigliani-esque head, some Classical/Greek or Roman busts, among others that I can only guess at. Some of the busts are based on those you can see at the Walters Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the James E. Lewis Museum, and others. Running through my mind's memory bank I try to recall where I might've seen some of these before or who or what they remind me of, and why. This section, more than the others, compels the viewer to become an ethnographer, an unwieldy position to be put in—it feels like McKean is recreating the conditions of how, say, anthropology can be seen as inherently violent, how it takes and exhibits chosen aspects of people's (often, non-Western) cultures. Our criteria for knowing who these particular people are or what they represent and what, exactly, creates differences or fosters community between them remains a question.

A rear view of “The Ground” (Courtesy/The Contemporary/Nick Davis)

III."If Amazon's drone program succeeds (and Amazon says it is well on track), it could fundamentally alter the company's cost structure. A decade from now, drones would reduce the unit cost of each Amazon delivery by about half, analysts at Deutsche Bank projected in a recent research report. If that happens, the economic threat to competitors would be punishing — 'retail stores would cease to exist,' Deutsche's analysts suggested, and we would live in a world more like that of 'The Jetsons' than our own."

–Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times, 2016

The back of McKean's installation feels less like a struggle against a god complex than the rest of it, but it does feature one cell on the ground level containing a scene of some transcendent, artificial, rocky, grassy cavern, as if the artist were acting god, taking a chunk of nature out of nature and putting it in a museum display. But it's all artificial. A light pours through in the "distance" here, creating some kind of deep atmosphere along with some fog, making the scene read like a screen or hologram. On the right side, tucked into a small enclave, sits a somber vase of fake flowers lit by a dim bulb.

Above this, ordinary things on display, everyday objects that we may buy and consume, elevated on poles: a rolling suitcase, an umbrella, a whole pizza, a chain saw, two avocado halves, an SLR camera with a big lens, an iMac with a keyboard and mouse, a horseshoe crab, a simple chair you might find at IKEA. They are also whited-out, presented similarly to the portrait busts and the brains on the front side. These objects, of course, have some kind of origin, too, like those seeds in the chamber, or that baby, the tree, the cult—but maybe our minds take shortcuts with these particular objects; maybe we don't sit as long to wonder about which human or what machine stitched the lining into our suitcase or harvested our avocado, or milled the grain for that pizza dough.

On the right side's lower level, a small flag-like structure (similar, again, in texture to that hoop part of the tree, the birth scene cord, the mp3 player, in the front—but also reminiscent of the grids and the tiles) hangs down from the ceiling of a light brown painted room, holding various types of bandages. The flag casts a light, feathery, diffused shadow in the empty room. In the space above, that flag is mirrored so that it's right-side-up, the negative space of the bandages forming the material of the flag. This room—like a department store showroom set up in case you, dear shopper, forgot what a bedroom could look like—holds a bed, and little else. The walls are gridded in a mod but undecorative way; it looks like each rectangle might be a compartment that opens out. There are a couple of nooks that hold a small plant, some books, a vase—objects that are all, again, white-washed. Two small chambers to the left of both the upper and lower floors offer passageways from room to room, from this side to the other and between the two levels.

It begins to feel as though the front of the diorama was meant to charge us up and prime us for more inquiry, to get us to read more into the rest of everything. It also feels sometimes like McKean isn't even the agent orchestrating all of this; it doesn't feel personal, but feels like a strange, helicoptered-in abstraction of the experience or the actual, material conditions for how things are made, and then consumed. Almost like a visual merchandiser, working within a set of rules for a chain clothing store, McKean chooses items and places them just so to entice us over, to get us to consider a set of possible choices.

But questions are left unanswered. Which person, in what vehicle (and all of its components that are required for it to work) drove my new computer to my door? Whose labor was exploited to deliver that to me? Who harvested the burdock, who mined the tourmaline, who recorded the date and location of the meteorite fragments that are holed up in this seed bank chamber—and where are they going after this is over?

The middle section here—the part that recalls an "employees only" area of this "mall"—offers space for the mind to rest for a moment. Maybe you take a sip of your water, take a breath, look behind you at the five or six tall columns around you. When I went back to see the show again on a weekday afternoon, I was alone in this part of the space (the Contemporary's staff sat working in the same room, but out of view) for a few minutes. Couldn't even see the light rail stop, or the people walking by.


"The Ground" is on view at the Hutzler Brothers Palace building through May 19. For more info, visit contemporary.org.