Lauren Semivan @ David Klein Gallery

Lauren Semivan’s Photography : Door into the Dark at David Klein Gallery, Detroit, MI

Lauren Semivan, Installation image, all images courtesy of David Klein Gallery 2018

Lauren Semivan is known in Detroit, New York, Paris and beyond for her atmospheric, lyrical, semi-abstract photographs that comprise hand-drawn backgrounds, iconic objects, and, occasionally, her own body. In my past writing about her work, I’ve landed repeatedly on poetic metaphors for context. Semivan’s works have always felt, to me, like poems- narrative, balanced from top to bottom, musical in rhythm, expanding quietly into the psyche. Her new work, currently on view at David Klein Gallery in Detroit, feels similar, and deeply different. What was once an open-ended narrative has become a closed loop, meter circling in on itself, flowering in dark and solitude, like prima materia in an alchemist’s vitrine.

It makes sense that the title of her show at David Klein is “Door into the Dark.” The title is meant to define photography, as Semivan explores it. She describes the medium as “…both a tool for escape, and an instrument for self-knowledge.” The vanishing of grounding, recognizable objects and spaces in her work bears out this description.

Lauren Semivan, Velvet, Edition 2 of 5, Archival Inkjet print, 2015

Semivan’s photographs are delicate webs of diamond-hard form. The curves, swoops and taut wedges of space that her carefully constructed environments conjure have always gestured at a vision beyond language. There has previously been a roster of familiar objects placed within her compositions, however, that give things a narrative, documentary feel- feathers, tables, a metronome anxiously dangling from a string. While some objects inhabit Semivan’s new work, more and more of her compositions are given over to amorphous, mute twists of fabric and slashes of paint. It’s as if she’s making the passage from logos to eros- from evoking words and stories to bringing images to light that one can’t navigate with language, that come from a place of pure feeling. This is a brave transition- it’s up in the air whether her pictures can hold the eye unmoored of the evocative objects she’s relied on, hitherto, to ground us in her rippling, canny vision.

Lauren Semivan, Glacier 2, Archival Inkjet print, 2017

Semivan’s own body flickers in and out of the works in “Door into the Dark,” as it has periodically for the last several years. Her face is never fully seen beyond a glimpse of profile. Her costumes, like her environments, are amorphous and billowy, and offer no grounding in specific time or place- the woman who wanders through Semivan’s photographs could be living next door, or long dead. Her wind-swept clothes and hair rhyme visually with their backgrounds, making the figure both an unsettling presence and just another formal element. Her presence is disconcerting in the same way figures in the images of the Twentieth Century photographer Frederick Sommer are- seeming to merge with their environments, more like ghosts or sentient features of their landscapes than individuals. Like Semivan, as well, Sommer experimented with indistinct, unsettling vignettes of beautifully placed, disparate objects and tense, shallow spaces that are grasped with emotional instinct, rather than verbal.

Lauren Semivan, Flur, Chalk, Feathers, Edition of 5, Archival Inkjet print, 2017

“Door into the Dark” is a truly stunning show that draws the viewer deeper into a quiet, interior place where words and story slowly drift away. The technical mastery of Semivan’s photographs, with their deep, velvety blacks, uncannily focused surface details, and atmospheric directional forces, is well worth lingering over.

“Lauren Semivan: Door into the Dark” is on view at David Klein Gallery in Detroit from February third through March tenth, 2018.

Desire as Politics @ Valade Family Gallery

Eight Video Installations at Valade Family Gallery at the College for Creative Studies

Installation image of Desire as Politics, Valade Family Gallery CCS 2018

The staging of the current exhibition at the Valade Family Gallery creates an enigmatic equation. Eight separate, strategically arranged, large-screen video installations by eight renowned video artists occupy the darkened gallery. Like the theory of “intersectionality” itself, which holds that all issues of gender, race, and class are interconnected, each video performs a drama of identity construction issues that might face the LGBTQ community; and each has extraordinary dramatic value with captivating characters and stories. Thanks to Exhibitions Manager and co-curator Jonathan Rejewski, the Valade space is perfectly articulated to allow for quiet, meditative viewing, but at the same time demonstrates, like a Venn diagram, the overlapping issues from piece to piece, from artist to artist, of sexual, racial discrimination, homophobia, and class elitism. The layout is a compelling stage for one of the most compelling issues of our time. By the same token, “Desire as Politics” performs a galvanizing a vision of the crippling emotional effect of our dire human landscape.

The eight artists were selected by College for Creative Studies assistant professor Scott Northrup of the Entertainment Arts faculty. As an artist and experimental filmmaker himself, whose own work is concerned with identity construction, Northrup’s selection covers a period in which the language and politics of sexual identity have undergone radical changes. From the catch-all term “queer,” to “gay or lesbian,” to LGBTQ, from basically 1985 to present, the shift from a binary language (queer or straight) to a nuanced dialectic has broken down the binary into open forms, and has become part of mainstream culture.

Cecilia Dougherty speaking in “Gay Tape: Butch and Femme,” 1985

 

The earliest video, Cecilia Dougherty’s 1985 “Gay Tape: Butch and Femme,” is a strikingly complex and even, in retrospect, humorous documentary, for its diverse representation of lesbian identity. Shot in Ollie’s Bar, “a lesbian dive on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland (CA),“ it features five women’s impromptu statements about their sexual identities. At one point Dougherty herself bemoans the need to “validate our homosexuality” while heterosexuals don’t have that pressure. What is borne out in the work is the complex semiotics of the old terms of “femme” and “butch.” At one point a black woman who self-identifies as butch does a veritable standup comic routine on the semiotics of butch and femme clothing, behavior, and mores. It is brilliantly detailed and really funny how much, like a semiotician, she has paid attention to the difference between herself and “femmes.”

Like any social critique, each of the videos is complex and supports multiple readings. Filmmaker Matt Lambert’s “His Sweat,” 2016, is a four-minute, erotic exploration of sweating male nudes, and while homoerotic in style, could be seen as simply an exploration of the sculptural beauty of the male form. It’s in that difference that “Desire as Politics” is a polemic as much as a collective documentary on sexual identity.

Ira Sachs, “Lady,” 1994, 28-Min. and Matt Lambert, “His Sweat,” 2016, 4-min

 

Even more complicated is Ira Sachs’ “Lady” (1994), an engaging, 28-minute narrative portrait of a female “actress” who rambles from one identity to another, from lesbian portraying a gay man, to playing a gay man portraying straight women. We really are never sure of the psychic make up of the speaking subject. Emotionally “Lady” is suffused with a strange, unresolved longing for something, for a satisfaction that is stalemated by indescribable forces. The piece prefigures Sachs’ later film, Leave the Lights On (2012), that develops this frustration into a critically acclaimed feature, where uncertainty of sexual identity between two male characters is the prevalent dynamic.

While seemingly humorous, “Women’s Size Eight” (2017), a four-minute video by College for Creative Studies’ student Zachary Marsack, portrays the torturous effort to “shoe-horn” a battered “male foot” into a dainty, spike-heeled shoe. The physical torture notwithstanding, the metaphor of fitting a masculine-assigned figure into a feminine form is perfectly and simply stated. Marsack’s video is the only one projected on a TV, which appropriately sits on the floor where feet belong.

“Desire as Politics” executes an amazingly astute, while very human, analysis of our hybridized sexual landscape and, by so doing, suggests the deep critical readings of the so-called heterosexual landscape as well. Because of the dazzling collection of images and voices, the most eye-opening video is Rashaad Newsome’s “Stop Playing in My Face,” 2016. The title was taken from a performance by transgendered Samantha James Revlon and, through a video collage of baroque jewelry and architectural elements, Newsome designed a head-shaped sculpture and video that speaks of the patriarchy of straight life and the desire and need to break it down. In this he has employed the voices of various feminists, such as bell hooks and trans activist Janet Mock, to speak their critiques from collaged mouths in the sculpture. The selection and arrangement of videos in and of itself creates a stunning deconstruction of our gendered landscape.

Group installation view, Valade Family Gallery, 2018

“Desire as Politics” at College for Creative Studies’ Valade Family Gallery – through March 10, 2018.

African Bead Work @ Flint Institute of Art

Ubhule Women: Bead Work and the Art of Independence at the Flint Institute of Art

Zondile Zondo. I am ill, I still see Color and Beauty: Jamludi The Red Cow, 2012. Glass beads sewn onto fabric. 49 × 64 1/4 × 2 in. (124.5 × 163.2 × 5.1 cm). Private Collection.

In 1999, two South African women, Ntombephi Ntobela and Bev Gibson, established an artist’s community on a former sugar plantation in the rural outskirts north of Durban. The goal of the Ubuhle (Ub-buk-lay, Zulu for “beauty”) community was to use traditional bead-art as a way for women to develop a skilled trade and become financially independent. Since then, the work created by this small, tightly-knit group has experienced meteoric success and has been shown internationally, including an exhibition at the Smithsonian in 2013. Through the end of March, Ubhule Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence ambitiously fills the spacious Hodge Galleries at the Flint Institute of Art, and is well worth the visit.

Zondile Zondo. Flowers for the Gods, 2012. Glass beads sewn onto fabric. 51 × 21 3/8 × 2 in. (129.5 × 54.3 × 5.1 cm). The Ubuhle Private Collection.

This is an exhibition that can only be experienced firsthand; the arresting luminosity of these textile and bead-works, much like the ethereal shimmer of light on a Byzantine mosaic, is entirely lost when reproduced in photographs. The Ubuhle women created a modern innovation on traditional South-African bead-art; they stretch textile (ndwango) across a canvass, into which they meticulously hand-sew tens of thousands of infinitesimal Czech glass beads. The completed result recalls Seurat’s pointillism, but enhanced with striking luster as the images reflect actual light. These ndwangos range from figurative to abstract, and the vibrant plains of color deny any sense of illusory depth. Visitors who lean in close will notice the artists frequently applied the beads in a complex array of circular patterns and spirals, another special-effect that doesn’t translate well in photographs.

Ubuhle Women comprises 30 works by five artists, and the subject matter is intensely personal, often making use of abstract symbols to reference autobiographical events. Some works pay tribute to those of the Ubuhle community who have died since its founding from HIV (about half its number); red ribbons are a recurrent motif. The time-consuming process of bead-sewing itself functions as a form of therapy and coping—just one panel can take nearly a year to complete. For the Ubuhle women, beading is both catharsis and a visceral way to make tangible the memories of those lost.

Nontanga Manguthsane. African Crucifixion, n.d. Glass beads sewn onto fabric. 177 1/2 × 275 3/4 × 16 inches (450.9 × 700.4 × 40.6 cm). The Ubuhle Private Collection & Private Collection

The culmination of the exhibition is the ambitiously-large African Crucifixion, a sprawling work comprising seven panels created by seven Ubhule women. Originally conceived as a visual focal-point for the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermartzburg, South Africa, the work is a complex tableau that addresses specific local issues like apartheid and the HIV crisis, as well as broader, universal themes of life, death, and redemption. A suspended golden crucifix dominates the composition, flanked by a menacing Tree of Defeat (replete with vultures, representing politicians who feed off people) and the Tree of Life, comfortably situated in an idyllic, fertile landscape. In the panel depicting Mary and John at the foot of the cross, a white house in the background personalizes the image, uncannily reminiscent of Thando Ntobela’s reductive portrayal of the Ubuhle community in her 2011 work Goodbye Little Farm. The African Crucifixion is a triumphant and virtuosic demonstration of the potential of beadwork, every bit as grand and pathos-driven as an early Renaissance fresco.

Looking at these works, my initial response was to mentally liken them to comparable works of art with which I was already familiar; the bright, smack-you-with-color fauvist paintings of Matisse, for example (and there really is a resemblance).   But these ndwangos, as luminous as they are allusive, pugnaciously defy any easy comparison with any equivalent in Western art. Furthermore, they represent the power of art to—in a small way—affect real social change, as demonstrated by the determined effort of the Ubuhle women who, through their craft, achieved financial independence one glass bead at a time.

Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence was developed by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Washington, DC in cooperation with Curators Bev Gibson, Ubuhle Beads, and James Green, and is organized for tour by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC.

Flint Institute of Art  – through March 2018

 

Romare Bearden @ N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

Installation image, N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, All images courtesy of the Detroit Art Review

Black History Month during February is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of blacks in U.S. history, a story that begins in 1915, half a century after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. It was in September, the Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by black Americans and other peoples of African descent.

George N’Namdi’s Center for Contemporary Art opens this new exhibition in celebration of the work of Romare Bearden, an African-American artist renowned for his collages and photomontages, a technique he began to experiment with in the 1950s, establishing his reputation as a leading contemporary artist.

Romare Bearden, Cora’s Morning, Collage and Watercolor, 11 x 14, 1986

Although influenced by modernists such as Henri Matisse, Bearden’s collages also derived from African-American slave crafts such as patchwork quilts and the necessity of making artwork from whatever materials were available. In this exhibition, he uses images from mainstream pictorial magazines such as Look and Life, and black magazines such as Ebony and Jet. Bearden inserted the African-American experience, its rich visual and musical production, and its contemporary racial strife and triumphs, into his painted collages, thus expressing his belief in the connections between art and social reality. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso introduced collage into the modernist vocabulary. As a result, Bearden located a methodology that allowed him to incorporate much of his life experience as an African American, from the rural South to the urban North and on to Paris, France.

Romare Bearden, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, 35 x 29″, 1974

From a series of prints called the Prevalence of Ritual, Bearden reconfigured age-old stories as allegories of modern life. In John the Baptist he drew on the biblical story of Salome, who had performed a dance for King Herod that so pleased him he offered to grant anything she might ask. At her mother’s urging the young girl requested the head of John the Baptist, who had spoken out against her mother’s marriage to the king. The masklike heads of the figures in John the Baptist blend West African and Egyptian visual traditions with a narrative about vengeance and naïveté.

Romare Beraten, Mecklenburg Memories, Collage and Watercolor, 14 x 17″

Drawing upon the recollections of his Southern roots for inspiration, Bearden conjured up both his childhood memories and the shared memories of his ancestors. Bearden absorbed the traditional rituals of the church, the hymns and gospels, sermons and testimonies; as well as the traditional rituals of the family, the music of the kitchen, the outdoor wash place and fire circle, which permeated his upbringing. The work in many of these watercolor/collage pieces is the flatness of the composition combined with the strength of strong primary colors.

Bearden’s career as a painter was launched in 1940 with his first solo exhibition in Harlem and then another, four years later, at the G Place Gallery in Washington, DC, while he was serving in the Army. In 1945, shortly after his discharge, he joined the Kootz Gallery on 57th Street and exhibited there for the next three years. He then traveled to Paris on the G.I. Bill in 1950 where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. In 1964, he was appointed the first art director of the Harlem Cultural Council, a prominent African-American advocacy group. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1972. He died in New York City in 1988.

Romare Beraten, Autumn of the Rooster, Lithograph, 18 x 24″, 1983

Romare Bearden’s museum retrospectives include those organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, NY (1971); Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, NC (1980); Detroit Institute of the Arts in Detroit, Michigan (1986); Studio Museum in Harlem in New York, NY (1991); and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (2003). His work is represented in public collections across the country including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Studio Museum in Harlem, NY.

Romare Bearden – through March 31, 2018

N’Namdi Contemporary Art

 

 

 

Mark Newport: Stitches @ Simone DeSousa Gallery

Mark Newport Installation View Photos courtesy of Tim Thayer and Robert Hensleigh

The large black and white, houndstooth checkered cotton swatch hanging on the back wall of the Simone DeSousa Gallery has a diagonal slash across the middle with surgical suture-like stitching holding it together. The sutures cause the fabric to pucker and wrinkle causing a misalignment. Also, punctuating the iconic patterned piece of cloth are mended holes and peculiar embroidered, abstracted shapes. At first sight Mark Newport’s “Amends,” a fragment of cloth that could as well been a fragment of a dated men’s sport coat, appears benign and almost barren. Slowly, however, the ten pieces in the exhibition “Mark Newport: Stitches” gain traction, and a vocabulary of his work develops.

Mark Newport, Artist-in-Residence and Cranbrook Art Academy’s Fibers chair, is best known for his hand-knit, acrylic yarn Superhero costumes. The full-body, knitted costumes of established pop culture’s superheroes–like Batman, the Rawhide Kid, and Spiderman– and others from Newport’s own imagination–Sweaterman, Argyleman, Bobbleman– are life-sized costumes that satirize and perform a feminist critique of male dominated cartoon adventure as well as of the “women’s work” that the craft of knitting symbolizes. Like the empty skin of an animal each of the knitted Superheroes ironically execute a strange and disturbing lifeless dance awaiting the human imagination, searching for emancipation, to animate them.

Mark Newport, “Amends,” Embroidery and Mending on cotton, 81 x 33 x 1.5″, 2017

The evolution from his figured, wearable superhero costumes to the current, abstracted, more or less two dimensional images, establishes a symbiotic relationship between the body and its clothing. Superheroes are the opposite of the vulnerable individual body, they are the outward sign of invincibility, and represent in pop culture, that something to believe in. The violent appearing slash across the houndstooth swatch in “Amends,” on the other hand, is a horrifying assault on the conservative, safe, sartorial sign that the houndstooth pattern represents. Like the chain-male of medieval armor, its meshed pattern is an image of self-defense. Its sutured repair is grotesque because it reveals bodily vulnerability. The puckering and wrinkling cloth is the scarred-for-life result. The hanging cloth then is not only the individual body but the image of the collective history of our body.

“Amends” has three holes that have been mended with patches and weavings of other material. In each of Newport’s ten pieces, holes in the cloth suggest both violations and injury to the body’s skin, and their repair a kind of healing. As in healing, mending and repairing is often stronger than the original cloth and becomes something else, a scar, a hybrid perception, and the material is no longer fabric but has become flesh.

Newport has recycled three shirts, five repurposed swatches and two muslin, canvas-like pieces, to execute his mending and, most spectacularly, his embroidery. Two of the shirts, “Redress 3” and “Redress 4,” hang upside down on the gallery wall as armatures for his needlework. Like the tattooed skin of Japanese Yakusa gangsters which are harvested after their death, the shirts hang mercilessly and seem to tell a story. “Redress 4” is an archetypal blue, corduroy shirt with, like a target, a lime green cross-hair stitched across the back. A hole (bullet?) is patched with hand woven houndstooth pattern out of which an embroidered fiery flame explodes. “Redress 3,” a white, almost shroud-like “dress shirt,” a “business man” shirt with four wound-like holes, expresses the same complexity, signifying moments of history, social status and injury.

Mark Newport, “Redress 4,” Embroidery and mending on cotton, 42 x 26 x 5″, 2017

One of the simplest pieces in the exhibition but which may need the most attention is “Repair 4.” A swatch of classic, blue and white, cotton seersucker shirt has a repaired hole. The hole has been repaired with black and white houndstooth wool. The overlapping, transitionary stitching is made with black and white thread creating a muted, almost soft focus image. It is difficult to say that this is a beautiful image, but in its complexity, it is! To unpack appropriately one might need to know that each pattern of cloth has a specific role and identity in sartorial history. Seersucker is a light weight summer fabric famed for its wear by, especially southern, the more genteel classes. Its cultural history is legendary and fraught with issues of class snobbery and elitism. Hounds tooth on the other hand was historically worn by sheepherders in nineteenth century Scotland to keep their nasty weather at bay. It is bound to heraldry and class and clan rivalry of Scotland. To cut to the quick, this clashing cultural history and Newport’s nimble stitching has created a hybrid image/object that befuddles perception and that signifies the complex role of our relationship with textiles.

Mark Newport, “Repair 4,” Embroidery on Seersucker, 20 x 16 in, 2017

Every work in “Mark Newport: Stitches” has provocative personal, social and cultural history that bears scrutiny. One of the persistent thoughts when exploring the heavily embroidered areas of Newport’s work is the interconnected nature of stitches and images. One of the works on muslin, “Mend 12,” has a sampler-like array of stitches, colors and patterns. Reminiscent of dynamics of Rhizome stem patterns that grow horizontally (think mushrooms) underground, Newport’s stitches create networks that reach out and bloom out with a galaxy of colors and then traditional patterns that speak of our own complex sartorial history.

Mark Newport, “Mend 12,” Embroidery on Muslin, 20 x 16″, 2017

Simone DeSousa Gallery

“Mark Newport: Stitches” continues Jan 13th – Feb 24th, Detroit, 444 W. Willis Street Units 111 and 112