Exhibition Date: September 14 - October 4, 2009
Venue: Contemporary Art Forum of Kitchener and Area (CAFKA)
Location: Rotunda Gallery, Kitchener City Hall, Kitchener, Ontario
Vernacular Veracity: An Investigation of Dry Cleaner Architecture in South-Western Ontario
The industrialized age is one of grand changes to society and the world, with advances in industrial methods, scale, and commerce that have improved living conditions faster than any other era in history. The discovery and use of kerosene or other petroleum-based liquids to clean fabrics - called dry cleaning - heralded an advancement in the mechanization of previously laborious and less-effective cleaning. The term “dry cleaning” seems a misnomer - as the cleaning agent is a liquid, just not water. The early days of dry cleaning saw many of the businesses’ buildings go up in smoke as a result of the highly flammable (or “inflammable“) liquids used. In the early 20th century following World War One, the use of the more stable chlorinated solution perchloroethylene (commonly known as “perc” in the industry) allowed the dry cleaning industry to be more “solvent” and reputable with more buildings surviving for a longer time. There was a building boom of dry cleaners from the 1920’s to the 1950’s.
When you think of dry cleaners, what image comes to mind? A brick building with large glass windows at the front? Signs that indicate “Fine Fabrics Gently Cleaned”, “One Hour Rush Service”, or other advertising? The idea of a “type” of building, a vernacular architecture, comes into play. But what variation in the type of building makes it different from other businesses, or what common elements make the vernacular style?
As we move ahead in the 21st Century, the solvent-based dry cleaning business is in peril of disappearing due to several factors. Modern fabrics require less careful treatment - and can be washed at home; the ubiquitous suit in business is being replaced by khaki pants with a permanent crease and a blue shirt, no tie; the “perc” is a known carcinogen and may be replaced because it is a hazardous chemical and causes hazardous waste; the buildings of the 1920’s to 1950’s are reaching the end of their expected lifespan. The neighbourhood dry cleaner quietly closes and disappears as economics, environmental concerns, and changing demographics affect the industry. What will be the record of a century of activity in a particular sector for future generations to review?
Vernacular Veracity: An Investigation of Dry Cleaner Architecture in South-Western Ontario will be an exhibition of eighteen 8inch x 20inch black-and-white photographs of dry cleaner buildings from Waterloo Region and other communities in South-Western Ontario, framed in 16inch x 28inch frames, for exhibition in the Rotunda Gallery at Kitchener City Hall, or at an available storefront window display location in downtown Kitchener. The photographs will be made using an 8inch x 20inch format Korona “banquet” or view camera of 1927 vintage (though the lens is from the 1980‘s), a medium wherein the 8”x20” size of the negative and the modern lens allows for crisp detail across the wide horizontal picture plane, without enlargement - the negatives are contact-printed for 1:1 veracity of the image.
The detail in the images aids in the observation and taxonomy of the vernacular architecture pictured, and the smooth gradation of tones offers a sensuous visual experience in comparison to the granular pixellation of modern digital cameras. Local distinctions or similarities may become visible through architectural choices by localized business chains (eg. Newtex, or Burtol’s). The viewers of these images will be able to contrast their remembered experience of dry cleaners with concrete examples of dry cleaner buildings in full brick-by-brick detail and determine if their memories correspond to the built environment.
You can read a review of CAFKA by John Armstrong on the Canadian Art Magazine web site (opens in new window).
CAFKA TV has produced a video interview with me about Vernacular Veracity (run time=5:04 minutes; opens in new window).
Stefan Rose gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Ontario Arts Council's Exhibition Assistance Program for the presentation of this exhibition.