Tom Phardel @ Simone DeSousa Gallery


Tom Phardel, Install image, Photographs by Tim Thayer and Robert Hensleigh, courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery

Tom Phardel’s exhibition, Inner Core, opened at Simone DeSousa Gallery, October 15, 2016. The work continues in a direction that I first viewed when I wrote a review of Phardel’s exhibition at Popp’s Packing in May of 2015. Normally I would not write something this close to that period of work. However, this new work demands attention, exploration and, quite honestly, tribute.  The strengths in Phardel’s work are originality and a preponderance of skillful execution of materials that is not limited to clay, stone, glass or metal, but rather touches on all of these and more. He says in a statement, “It’s here, in the inner unseen spaces, that my interest lies, where the wisdom, power, and soul resides.”


Tom Phardel, Red-Bi-Lobe “Listening” 2016 Fabricated steel





















In R-Bi-Lobe “Listening”, which is similar to but refined from an earlier work, Phardel uses fabricated steel to create a perfect form, two ovals intersecting, and an interior oval with two valve-like openings. On a technical level, the work makes the viewer wonder how it was created or fabricated. Then there is a lustrous paint finish and a sanded edge that reveals the metal in a precise way. The object feels like a cross-section, but of what? These are all the qualities that make the sculpture so strong that it leaves the viewer with a longing for an explanation. This quality is what artists seek to find: The Mona Lisa smile quality that brings the viewer back for a closer look, seeking an explanation or understanding.


Tom Phardel, “Inner Mountain” 2016 Ceramic

Here, with Inner Mountain, we are presented with a clay object thrown on a wheel with a clay object inside. Within this interior mound, there is an indentation of two circles, what this viewer might consider an infinity symbol. This object presents questions: Is it stoneware with a crackle glaze or raku, as the darkened edge suggests, and how many artists are making sculpture that incorporates wheel-thrown forms? There are ceramic artists that have used wheel thrown forms, but Phardel goes beyond that. We know Mr. Phardel has been the Chairperson of Ceramics at the Center for Creative Studies since 1988 and oversees the philosophy of clay-made forms, and now we know why. He demonstrates that we are not limited by the material and its conventional use.


Tom Phardel, “Union of Two Points” 2016, Ceramic, granite, glass

In The Union of Two Points, Phardel gives us an object that feels spiritual, as it rests on these two pieces of steel (looks like wood) that act as a base. It seems to this viewer that he is using a router to indent the granite in a precise and uniform way. The clay object in a circular indentation creates the illusion that it is levitating. Again, a meditative and spiritual piece of three-dimensional artwork so new in its form, we are left to contemplate the careful selection of material and execution.


Tom Phardel, Tea Wisk & Bolder – “Whispers from the Rock” 2016 Steel, glass & gold leaf

Above is the large and overwhelming sculpture, Tea Wisk & Boulder – “Whispers from the Rock,” in which the combination of materials and how they are used is unbelievably inspiring. Mr. Phardel must have spent some time in Far East countries where a small Tea Wisk is commonplace, and he internalized the form and made it his own, not from bamboo, but many times larger and fabricated in stainless steel. What we experience is a face-off between the Tea Wisk and the large stone boulder, only to be moderated by a small vertical opening in the large inch-thick square of plate glass.

In this exhibition of three -dimensional art, Mr. Phardel distills form to its core essence and presents a hidden interior that gives way to the love of making original objects. All great literature, music, dance and visual art appeal to people when they bring their experience to the art form, and this is where Phardel succeeds. Phardel’s focus on meditative and contemplative form separates his work from many artists who work in three-dimension, not just in the Detroit metro area, but also in the world at large. If there is a time when an artist arrives at a place where his or her work demands greater attention, I would say that time has come for Tom Phardel.

If the Detroit Institute of Arts had a contemporary curator, they would, or should be all over this exhibition.

Simone DeSousa Gallery


Energy/Mass @ Wasserman Projects


Koen Vanmechelen, Installation, Five Exterior Works, 2016

“While the native breeds that descended from the  original chicken (the Red Junglefowl) are evolutionary  dead-ends (being shaped to reflect the typical cultural  characteristics of its community), Vanmechelen’s  cross-breeds are solutions. Many years of  crossbreeding have proven that each successive generation of hybrids is ‘better’. It is more resilient,  it lives longer, is less susceptible to diseases, and it exhibits less aggressive behavior. Genetic diversity is essential, proves the Cosmopolitan Chicken Research  Project(CC®P), which studies the various CCP Hybrids.”-From Koen Vanmechelen’s artist statement/bio, on “The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” and “Energy/Mass”


Koen Vanmechelen, Installation image, Energy/Mass, – All Images Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

I walked into “Energy/Mass,” the current exhibition at Wasserman Projects, wondering about the distinction between art and science. Having only heard and seen a few snippets of information about the artist, Koen Vanmechelen, and his work, the main question I took in with me was, “how is this art?” This question, in light of many of the openings/panel discussions/bar conversations I’ve found myself in lately, has been puzzling me more and more. There’s much talk, these days, of visual art claiming its rightful place in the hierarchy of sciences, and the importance of visual art (and the humanities at large) in unpacking, interpreting, and finding unique insights into such disciplines as history, mathematics, social justice, and hard science. I fully support this idea- at the same time, it opens a new strain of questioning about what, precisely, can be classified as art practice within the practices of science, academic research, and political activism. Where does studio practice end, and interdisciplinary research begin? How does the one inform the other? An intriguing example of the fertile union between science and art, and how studio practice can maintain its autonomy while exploring in other disciplines, can be found in “Energy/Mass.”

As Wasserman gallerist Megan Keeley reminded me while walking me through “Energy/Mass,” the scientific aspect of the show is hardly trafficking in cutting-edge research. The science of “Energy/Mass” is pretty bare-bones, accepted knowledge of biology and genetics- the processes by which organisms (in this case, chickens) reproduce, and the results of introducing new material into an isolated genetic pool. What “Energy/Mass” explores is a lyrical, artistic interpretation of that long-studied process. The work in “Energy/Mass” presents an aesthetic exploration, backed up by intensive research and field practice, of the processes of reproduction, the surprisingly graceful allegory these processes present for social, historical, and artistic practices, and the vital role visual art can assume in the binding and bridging of disciplines- biological, historical, social, political, and aesthetic.

“The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” centers on the breeding of chickens. A large coop inhabited by live chickens dominates the exhibition, and exposes its beating heart. Being serenaded by roosters while wandering through a gallery is an unusual experience that made me wish I could incorporate audio into this review.


Koen Vanmechelen, Planetary Community Chicken Coop, 2016

Vanmechelen chooses his breeding combinations based upon human-made geographical boundaries. This illuminates the impact of historical nationalism/xenophobia/political activity of humans upon the processes of natural selection and genetic descent. Apparently, we require the flora and fauna within our geographic boundaries to reflect those boundaries as much as our history and politics do. What results, manifested in regional livestock, is, in the context of this body of work, almost numberless distinct breeds of chicken, each iconic of its geographic region.


Koen Vanmechelen, Unpredictable, CCP, Steel / Bronze, 145 X 75 X 34

Vanmechelen’s “Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” is now in its twenty year generation. It has leapt, genetically, from country to country in a migratory pattern that echoes the migrations of humans from one culture to the next on our journey to globalization. The documentation of this fertile chain- from Europe through Asia, Africa, Australia and into the Americas- is displayed in “Energy/Mass” in works encompassing painting, sculpture, and mixed media incorporating taxidermy (all of the physical specimens that find their way into Vanmechelen’s body of work lived long, healthy lives on his incredible farm in Belgium, and died natural deaths prior to their incorporation).


Koen Vanmechelen, Coming World Taxidermy Chick, Steel, 67 X 39 X 39

These lyrical, aesthetic explorations of the sublime subject of birth and reproduction are backed up with huge, red leather-bound volumes filled with indecipherable genetic codes that strike the layman as obscure, and essentially aesthetic, as the more specifically visual works.


Koen Vanmechelen, 4 Icon, CCP, UV Print on Gold Leaf, Wood, Steel, 14 X 10 X 1, 2016

This work distills geographic migration- a process which bonds and strengthens- a powerful reminder for us in these strangely xenophobic times. When so much of our political discourse revolves around fear of the other, penetrating our shores, muddying our genetic pool, this work presents a simple, undeniably scientific truth- that cross-breeding, introducing new elements into a long-established system, can only empower.

“Energy/Mass,” A solo exhibition of work by Koen Vanmechelen, is on display at Wasserman Projects through December 17, 2016.

35 Years @ N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art


George N’Namdi stands next to work by Detroit artist, Charles McGee, Noah’s Ark # 8, 60 X 45 1984

George N’Namdi opened the current exhibition, 35 Years in celebration of all the N’Namdi galleries since 1981, when he opened his first gallery, Jazzonia, on Harmonie Park in downtown Detroit. I remember that location because the Detroit Artist Market was on Randolph street and myself, and many friends were part of those DAM exhibitions. This exhibition features works collected by George N’Namdi before and after 1981, which includes over 40 artists spanning many genres and mediums.

Educator and art dealer, George R. N’Namdi was born September 12, 1946, in Columbus, Ohio. He attended Columbus East High School in 1965 and went on to graduated from Ohio State University in 1970, before obtaining his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Michigan in 1974. This exhibition brings together a small selection of work that has been represented in the gallery for a span of near forty years.


Chakiaia Booker, Industrialization, 50 X 59 X 15, 1980

Known for her sculpture made from rubber, and her wearable sculptures, Chakaia Booker was one of the artists supported and exhibited by George N’Namdi in the early eighties. Her work “Echoes in Black, ” was accepted into the Whitney Biennial in 2000.  The successful artist exhibits her work at the June Kelly Gallery in New York City and has work in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Gerald Jackson, Island People, Mixed Media, 84 X 108, 1985

Born in Chicago, Gerald Jackson gained notice when his work was included in two influential 1970s exhibitions–the 1970 Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Boston, and the 1971 Black Artists: Two Generations at the Newark Museum.  Jackson’s Island People is a figurative expressionist work from 1985 where the work outline of figures overlaps within a flatten picture plane.


Sam Gilliam, 71X 98 X10, Trade Mark, Mixed Media on Canvas-Aluminum, 1994

Sam Gilliam, the African American artists, who was born in the south, eventually spent his life in Washington DC, where he taught painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and at Carnegie Mellon University. Known for his color fieldwork, and a lyrical kind of abstraction, he often worked with shaped canvas and was early to move away from using stretcher bars for his canvases.  In the1980s Gilliam’s style changed dramatically to quilted paintings reminiscent of African patchwork quilts from his childhood. In his statement he says, “Only when making the work can I determine the many languages that form the planes on which it is to exist. Like abstract phrases the many intentions of the work (before an audience) passes through an intuitive sieve… The work was not planned, there are ploys, to the way it was laid out and then put together.”


Alvin Loving, Dreams of Amorous, 61 X 51, 1998

Al Loving (1935–2005) was an Abstract Expressionist painter, and one of the few African American artists recognized for his contributions to the movement.  Born and raised in Detroit, he was known for his geometric work using bright color and hard-edge line in his arrangement of cubes and rectangles. Loving receive his BFA from the University of Illinois in 1963, and then his MFA from the University of Michigan in 1965, and soon after moved to New York City.  In 1968, he had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum.

The N’Namdi Collection is one of the finest private collections of African-American art in the United States and combines works covering more than a century of art in many genres.  As demonstrated in this exhibition, there as been a commitment by George N’Namdi to the contributions of African art and the discourse surrounding contemporary art in the United States.  Looking ahead, N’Namdi said “We are putting together an investment team for restaurants and galleries to create a gallery district on Grand River around Rosa Parks.  All this development that is taking place downtown will ultimately begin to spread into our neighborhoods.”

The N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

Ray Johnson @ CCS’s Valade Family Gallery

The Bob Boxes at the College for Creative Studies and the Valade Family Gallery


Ray Johnson, Installation – All images courtesy of Robert Hensleigh

There is a remarkable exhibition at the College for Creative Studies’ Valade Gallery and the subject, Ray Johnson, has haunted me for years. I thought this obsession was because he was a Finnish kinsman with similar, exotic ethnic roots in the Copper Country of Northern Michigan, or maybe because a seminal figure of Detroit art and culture, Gilbert Silverman, famed for his iconic collection of Fluxus art, was his close friend and became his lifelong patron. Of course the great documentary film about Johnson’s life and death, “How to Draw a Bunny” (a must see for anyone interested in Johnson’s artistic strategies), was also instrumental in creating his haunting identity. I thought maybe my fascination with Johnson was that he was a Detroiter who went to Cass Technical High School and then attended the unique and ultimate, progressive Black Mountain College, where the American avant-garde art was born, and where my own poet-model, Charles Olson, taught. While there in the vital Post WWll years Johnson engaged with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Josef and Anni Albers, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Buckminster Fuller, Franz Kline, Jacob Lawrence, Cy Twombly, Fracine du Plessix Gray, and many other art world lights.

But yesterday, curious about his local roots, I went to his childhood home on Quincy Street in Detroit and astonishingly discovered I was born directly behind his house on Holmur Street, the year he left for Black Mountain College. We discovered that my sister went to school with him.

None of this means a thing of course unless you’re Ray Johnson. And then it means everything, because if anything Johnson is about relationships: between people, objects, words, colliding and collaging (his basic gesture as an artist) or putting things together.


Johnson, often referred to as “the most famous unknown artist in America,” in addition to running with the New York School of famous painters, poets, and composers, spent years developing a network of relationships in the art world via that most democratic of institutions, the United States Postal Service. He basically created the New York Correspondance School (a play on the New York School of Abstract Expressionists and pun on creative movement of his art) and the phenomenon of “mail art” as a way of circumventing the capitalist art market of collectors, galleries, curators, and museums, creating a direct and intimate communication between artists. Using his own very finely crafted collage techniques and a complex personal iconography (rabbits, strange silhouetted portraiture of famous movie stars and artists, homoerotica, spinning on complex language games and puns), he created a network that sent out small-scale art works composed of drawings, photos, and cut-out texts from magazines of movie stars, product packaging, found objects, and ultimately whatever was part of the visual surface of post war popular culture that he swam in.


In the most significant aspect of Johnson’s mail art project, he asked for additions and collaborations on his work, as well as others he had “sent out,” to redirect and create an alternative visual dialogue among chosen artists. Johnson’s interest in both Zen practices and chance operations (through his close friendship with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham) played a central part of his artistic practice and even more significantly in his enigmatic philosophical vision and life practice. Ultimately the New York Correspondence School attracted thousands of participants becoming a global network that eventually lost its human connectedness, which perhaps prompted Johnson in 1973 to proclaim the New York Correspondence School dead.

The exhibition at the Valade Gallery, The Bob Boxes, is the result of one particular mail art relationship that Johnson had with artist/collagist, Robert Warner. From 1988 until Johnson’s death in 1995, they maintained a correspondence exchanging mail and phone calls. At one point Johnson delivered thirteen boxes of various “mail art” he had created and collected, including found objects from everyday life and popular culture. (It is probable that the famous boxes of “assemblage” artist Joseph Cornell, whom Johnson had admired and befriended, inspired the “boxes” he created for Bob Warner, “The Bob Boxes.”)


Like Cage and, indeed the ultimate assemblage artist, Marcel Duchamp, Johnson was primarily interested in how chance encounters, between people, objects, or words, created new sets of possibilities or connections, or extended the possibilities for making meaning out of the world. He wasn’t interested in a singular system, visual, linguistic or cinematic, but any kind of “relationship” between things that prompted a vital often satirical critique. He referred to his small collages as “moticos” (an anagram for osmotic), created to stimulate or inspire connective tissue in everyday life. In a very real sense then there was no separation between Johnson’s art and life, and his seamless playful landscape provoked many to call him a Neo-Dada artist, a surrealist, which of course he rejected as just one more effort to classify him.



The Valade Gallery’s exhibition is then really a performance of Bob Warner’s “unpacking” of the 13 boxes that Johnson gave him. Placed on tables, the contents of the boxes — Warner’s humorous title for the exhibition is “Tables of Content” — have been distributed, and the results on each table are a tsunami of the flotsam and jetsam of the American visual landscape that Johnson assembled for Warner and us, providing a ready-made mail art kit for our visual challenge.


In addition to the “Tables of Content,” there are three vitrines containing early photographs from Johnson’s life in Detroit, including some wonderful drawings that he made while at Cass Technical High School. There are also seven hours of video — ”The Ray Johnson Videos” made by Nicholas Maravel — of Johnson talking about his work and generally performing himself for the camera.

Amazingly “The Bob Boxes” is the first exhibition of Ray Johnson in his hometown of Detroit for over forty years, and the Valade Gallery’s curator, Jonathan Rajewski, has provided a fine context and perspective on the work of one of the most enigmatic artists of the 20th century.

College for Creative Studies

A.Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education

The Valade Family Gallery       460 W.Baltimore   Detroit, MI 48202

Gallery Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 12 to 5 p.m.

Domestic Transcendence @ David Klein Gallery

With it’s commercial focus, David Klein Gallery present work that, at times, places a higher value on aesthetics than challenging the dominant paradigm—but a trio of solo exhibits, which opened on Saturday, September 17, 2016 collectively present a playful push and pull around the subject of gender roles and interpersonal relationships.


Derick Melander, Night Sky, 2016, Folded clothing, wood and steel, 48 x 48 x 6 inches All images Courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

Welcoming viewers is a front window display by Derick Melander, working in the typically female-dominated realm of folded laundry. Melander’s meticulous towers and tableaus, rendered in compressed and expertly folded garments, are not only visually pleasing, but carry an intense allure for anyone with OCD aesthetics. Night Sky (2016), on the lefthand side of the gallery’s entryway, goes so far as to depict a Van Gogh-like scene, with the fold lines, punctuated by tight rolls of concentric garments, echoing the swirling brushstrokes of one of the late painter’s most popular works, The Starry Night (1889). Other works present more abstract chroma-towers, that create ombre fades through hundreds of stacked garments, resembling soft core samples or geologic strata.


Kelly Reemtsen, Presentation, 2016, Oil on panel, 44 x 44 inches

With the gentleman handling the laundry, the gallery’s main room makes way for the ladies of Kelly Reemtsen’s “Over It.” The series is thematically tight, featuring three to five foot oil paintings of women in party dresses, standing on ladders or chairs, and wielding tools. Her subjects are largely generic, depicted from the shoulders, waist, or knees down, wearing lavish skirts and dresses and high heels that evoke a sense of 1950s housewife pageantry. They clutch their tools—sledgehammers, axes, shears, and chainsaws—with calm determination, or trail them coquettishly behind their backs. Already balanced in their frivolous footwear, they seem stable atop footstools and chairs, even kicking back one flirtatious foot off an A-frame ladder in Social Climber (2016). These are not women dressed for the occasion of home demolition or tree removal, and therefore the implication is a little more sinister—as the title would suggest, Reemtsen’s subjects are fed up, and preparing to take some kind of action. This clash of girly accessorizing and a hint of violence is echoed in Reemtsen’s Fuck the System sculptures (Siren Red, Frosted Pink, and Hot Pink, respectively), which feature Oldenburg-scale tubes of lipstick in stainless steel with a dazzling chrome effect, their contents stubbed out onto their pedestals like discarded cigarettes.


Kelly Reemtsen, installation view

Even the finish of Reemtsen’s paintings warp the edges of gendered labor; the artist manages to administer a thick veneer of stucco to the background of the paintings that would impress the most seasoned contractor. When one considers the language of labor, it is striking to realize that there are gender-coded words for what amounts to the same action—ask a man what “detailing” a car actually means, and he will be forced to admit that it is “cleaning.” The control and appeal that Reemtsen achieves in her identity-neutral portraits mirrors the restraint and artifice that is the daily work of presenting a polished, female-coded facade to the world, and it is heartening to see that women are generally expressing the sentiment that they have had enough of it.


Kelly Reemtsen, Slammed, 2016, Oil on panel, 60 x 36 inches


All this gender-bending veers into the abstract world of feelings as we progress to the heart of the gallery, where Emmy Bright’s “Why Don’t You Want This?” rounds out the show. Bright presents a collection of silkscreen prints on paper and newsprint, that playfully juxtapose words, sketched out images, and fields of color. These works successfully leverage simple wordplay and open-ended diagrams to create a surprising depth of meaning; Bright is acutely sensitive to the workings of the heart, and manages to spin out a collection that reflects a kind of emotional complexity belied by their visual simplicity.


Emmy Bright, Tragedies of Desire (Black & White), 2016, Silkscreen on paper (edition of 5 + 2 AP), 25 x 29 inches

Having created this visual lexicon of emotional placeholders, Bright goes a few steps further with the creation of More Stupids: A Tarot. This small edition tarot deck, featuring Bright’s prints as 44 oversized tarot cards with an accompanying book of interpretations, aims to shuffle and deal these fundamental feelings into readable form. Never one to leave her viewer hanging, Bright spent a week following the opening performing scheduled art card tarot readings, where visitors were treated to an emotional forecasting by Bright, or her alter-ego, Dr. Ladybear. The tarot deck collects highlights from Brights “Three Stupids Practice,” a daily process wherein she goes to the studio and makes “three things that are stupid and wrong in some significant way.” As her gallery guide states: “If they are good, they are also right in another significant way.”


An assistant lays out selections from More Stupids: A Tarot during opening night

In fact, Emmy Bright has it very right, and her sometimes-poignant, sometimes-funny, and exceedingly gentle explorations of emotion provided a beautiful counterpoint to the spirit-draining world outside the gallery walls. If these three artists can take joy in the mundane, draw the line at oppressive categorization, and open their hearts to the possibility of connection, perhaps they can inspire us all to do the same.

David Klein Gallery