Aesthetics is a complicated topic by almost any measure, but the aesthetics of distressed architecture — ratty old buildings — is a profoundly nuanced specialty. Most Americans don't get it. To them, blight is blight and nothing more. To more fully appreciate surfaces that threaten to collapse under the weight of a prolonged gaze it helps to be, if not a native, then at least a long-term resident of Orleans Parish, and preferably a practicing artist or would-be artist — someone who understands that certain kinds of decay are actually signs of character. Local photorealist Shirley Rabe Masinter has been an accomplished connoisseur and painterly interpreter of urban blight for decades, and her current series of seedy commercial structures in various stages of decay reflects a profound understanding of the rich inner life of grotty old buildings. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said "every wall is a door," but for Masinter every wall is a palimpsest, a homely Rosetta Stone where the elemental histories of structures and their inhabitants are deeply etched into blistered and distressed surfaces.
Walter Patrolia's Beer Parlor (pictured) is emblematic, a rotting two-story Faubourg Marigny wreck on which a recently exposed sign, revealed under layers of old siding, advertising both the bar and Jax Beer appears like an elegant East Asian tattoo on a gnarly old seafarer. The six-digit telephone number indicates it dates from at least the 1950s if not before, and we are left contemplating a scabrous heap of history that doubles as a time machine, a portal to another age. Masinter's densely textured St. Roch Market, while gloriously ruinous, is less hopeful, a Hurricane Katrina casualty that has yet to be reborn. Others like the painting of the Shamrock Tavern, another excavation with a faded "Dixie 45" beer sign, or the dilapidated deco husk of the Standard Life building, are memento mori within the architectural still life that is New Orleans, reminders that darkness and death are what give meaning to light and life. — D. Eric Bookhardt