Susanne Stephenson @ Pewabic Pottery

Up, Down, and Around: The Impassioned Art of Susanne Stephenson

Susanne Stephenson, Transfigurement, Installation image by J. C. Perez.

Sweeping curves, twisting curlicues, and swirling whiplashes are the potent, rhythmic movements that generate the larger-than-life vision of the art of Susanne Stephenson. Simultaneously sculpture, vessel, and/or abstract form her terra cottas heave, spiral, and careen up, down, and around as a perceiver circles and dives into the come-hither interiors of her lusty landscapes and seascapes.

Susanne Stephenson, Bronze Luster Trojan Soup Tureen, 1976, porcelain, 8 x 10 x 10 in.

Handsomely installed in all three galleries of the Pewabic Pottery exhibition space, this expressive and timely retrospective numbers 34 signature works by the estimable Stephenson dating from 1976 through 2016. Ohio born, and a long-time Ann Arborite and professor of ceramics at Eastern Michigan University, she studied at Carnegie Mellon University and Cranbrook Academy of Art. The four decade evolution of her oeuvre now on view illustrates both the comparatively reserved, minding-their-own-business early vessels, such as the Bronze Luster Trojan Soup Tureen with horn-like handles from 1976 and the breakthrough Cut Edge Black Water Mountain of 1983. In the latter, the “mountain” peak has literally blown its top implied by a taut, upraised flap (sliced off and reattached in process), while the creamy, overflowing lava sets up a strong white/black contrast, both coloristic and tactile, between it—matt, chunky–and the dark, shiny circular mountain top.

Susanne Stephenson, Cut Edge Water Rush, 2000, terra cotta, 24 x 15 x 15 in.

Traditional vessel forms, such as vases, often serve as starting points for Stephenson’s windswept forms. In Cut Edge Water Rush (2000), for example, the rush of spiraling color and form circumnavigates the two feet tall shape at warp speed, its vibrant, multi-hued palette enhancing passage around the tapering form, as it whirls with the unflagging energy of a whirling dervish. Her universe seems alive with ceaseless motion, not unlike the insistent energy of a Jackson Pollock drip composition. (Stephenson, like many sculptors, was originally a painter.) Indeed, an expressionist aesthetic, whether German or Abstract or Californian (think Peter Voulkos), has surged into view multiple times in the course of the twentieth century.

Susanne Stephenson, Red Beach, 1993, terra cotta, 17 x 20 x 15 in.

Stephenson’s bowls, too, work similarly on a visitor, as in Red Beach (1993). One is swiftly swept round its form while the S-shaped, upraised flange, like an undertow, sucks an unwary swimmer-viewer into its depths. Spring Coast, also on display and sculpted the following year, offers another cathartic experience: glazed orange at the bottom segueing to green around the rim, it too seduces the viewer to lean and peer into its alluring recesses.

Susanne Stephenson, Blue Wave, 2007, terra cotta, 22 x 29 x 9 in.

The large scale of another cluster of works—thick, hefty, ovoid wall reliefs—may in fact be described as seascapes. Bearing such titles as Blue Wave, Orange Wave I, and Spring Wave II, and often two feet or more in width and projecting up to ten inches, they fully evoke the thrust and even brutality of waves crashing ashore. The weighty physicality of Stephenson’s roiling, tactile surf in these reliefs is heightened by vivid and furrowed swaths of color realized by mixing the slip with paper pulp. As such they resonate with the underlying, inescapable momentum of the universe, essentially Stephenson’s world view whether addressing the immensities of mountains and sea or transfiguring the domestic tropes of the land of clay (vases, bowls, platters).

Organized by a trio of curators, Darlene Carroll, Paul Kotula, and Tom Phardel, “Susanne Stephenson: Transfigurement” remains on view through May 13. Catch it while you can at Pewabic Pottery, 10125 E. Jefferson Avenue in Detroit.

 

 

Gerhardt Knodel @ Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum

The Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum Hosts Gerhardt Knodel’s “Minglings: A Journey Across Time”

Gerhardt Knodel, Installation View of Gallery, All images provided by Robert Hensleigh

Imagine, while still in high school, walking into a Hollywood costume design studio with your art teacher when, maybe, you’re working on the school play and its set design. Imagine the industry there, the flurry of energetic creativity. You’re behind the scenes where all the magic happens: where the costumes are made, where the bolts and bolts of fabric are transformed into costumes and furnishings for the imaginary world of movies.(Think “Spartacus” or “Ben-Hur” or “Gone with the Wind”). That happened to textile artist Gerhardt Knodel when he was in high school and it seems it was a transformative experience that Knodel took to heart and inspired him to dream very big dreams. From set designs with painted curtain drops for a high school Christmas play to a seventy-foot-high, textile sculpture that adorned the atrium of John Portman’s Renaissance Center in Detroit, Knodel has been involved in creating and transforming space. “Free Fall” was a series of brilliant, looping, arabesques of color that enlivened Portman’s brutal geometric concrete space into veritable waterfall of color. For years it was on the must-see list for anyone visiting Detroit. He did the same for the new south entrance atrium to William Beaumont Hospital as well, with a multistoried, multilayered tribute to doctors and scientists famed for healing others.

Considering he was head of the fiber department and ultimately Director of Cranbrook Academy of Art for 35 years, it is astonishing how many large-scale public art commissions he completed, how much his personal work evolved, while at the same time, as current Cranbrook Fibers artist-in–residence Mark Newport recently said, how instrumental Knodel was in making the Fiber Arts “more challenging and more attuned to the fine arts dialog than it had been before.”

His recent project, “Minglings: A Journey Across Time,” beautifully installed in Saginaw’s Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, is no less ambitious or compelling. Rather than transforming a space or constructing an environment as he often has, Knodel turned to the other half of the classic philosophical Space/Time conundrum: Knodel explored time by composing a visual historical narrative.

Gerhardt Knodel,  Front and back of original silk tapestry (Kesi), China, Ming Dynasty, 17th Century

After finishing a large commission and while reorganizing and sorting through his extensive collection of historical textiles in search of a new project, Knodel rediscovered a Chinese silk tapestry. He mused over its beautiful but fragile, deteriorating state. Composed of stylized butterflies, insects, plant leaves and flowers, all floating in a pale blue sky-like background, Knodel realized its possibility. He rescued the deteriorating material by cutting small swatches out of the tapestry that still had physical integrity and contained the essence of its design. In short he played a version of the game of Exquisite Corpse with them, using the swatches as triggers or seeds, as in the game, to draw, as if growing, extensions of them evolving his own inventive forms.

Ultimately Knodel drew five different interconnected series that bloomed into a spectacular textile tour de force: along the way he discovered that what he thought were nineteenth century, were (valuable) seventeenth century Ming Dynasty tapestries created for the home of a probably very wealthy Portuguese family.  The mistake probably inspired Knodel to dedicate a great deal of creative energy and time in exploring their uncanny charms. Ultimately he composed this engaging, over-the-top, imaginary visual travel log of the tapestry’s voyage from Ming China, by Spanish trade vessels via Manila, to Acapulco, Mexico, then over land to another trade ship and off to Portugal. A gallery guide and superb video accompanies the exhibition to help us on the journey.

Gerhardt Knodel, detail of “Regeneration Series, #4,” mixed textiles

Translating the drawings into textile form involved inventing a medium that would hold up under the artist’s manipulation and give a degree of dimensionality as well as range of nuanced color to his drawings. Knodel laminated multiple colors of mixed textiles to foam backing and cut, by hand, tens of thousands, of what he refers to as tabs, which he then blended into a pointillist-like surface (to mix artistic metaphor) or as pixels, to color them. The result of his invention is a breathtaking range of color and exploration of possible forms.

There are 58 works in the exhibition that explore the theme of the delicate, weirdness of forms of nature (strange butterflies, insects, vegetation, flowers) suggested by the original tapestry. Knodel’s extension of their forms then are what his poetic vision gave birth to and they represent wonderful explosion of storytelling and delightful imagery.

In the initial series, entitled “It Had to Be You,” segmented tendrils with eyes at the end of each of them, explore the world around them. Some of the figures appear like hybrid of sea creatures and insects. The series, “Things That Get Caught in Trees After a Storm,” inspired by one of those uncanny plastic bags trapped in a tree’s limbs, reveal colorful, bulbous, ever-changing forms tangled in branches, blowing in the wind. They are at once exotic and even capture some of the comic extremes of nature.

Gerhardt Knodel, “Homecoming: Series #1-6, with “Minglings” #13. Shui, #2.Hui, #5.Mu, mixed textiles.

Knodel was revved up, it seems, when he began to realize that his creatures were beginning to have life of their own. Among the “Minglings” are a group of twenty-two, insect-like/sea-like/flowerlike and cartoon-like, creatures that were inspired by the Ming tapestries (so Minglings are spawn of Ming tapestries) and, speculating, of Knodel’s Hollywood upbringing in the cartoon land of Disney. Ranging in size from 24”x24” to 48”x48,” each has its own personality, they all have Chinese names and, in Knodel’s description of his fairy-like tale, make the journey from China, to Portugal to the New World. There are two works that establish a feeling of triumph. “Flower Powered” is a nine paneled work that celebrates the passage across the multiple seas that the tapestry would have seen. It’s really the abstract center piece of the exhibition and suggests the spectacular landscape of the earth while connecting to the original colors and design motifs of the tapestry. To provide a context, Knodel created a landing site for their arrival in Portugal, entitled “Homecoming,” (pictured with Minglings attached) and to complete their journey until someone else is inspired by his Minglings to continue it and connect with history and extend them even further into the future.

There is magic in Gerhardt Knodel’s Minglings project: in his extension and poetic elaboration of the original, in the execution of drawings and the invention of a medium give life to them and fantasizing their journey for his cut up Ming tapestries into a visionary spectacle. He captured something envisioned during one of greatest civilizations ever, the 17th century Ming Dynasty and continued the vision in his studio in Pontiac, Michigan, providing elegant evidence of the timelessness and value of human imagination and labor. It is ultimately a collective victory accumulated over time.

Gerhardt Knodel, “Minglings: Night Flyers (Wei),” 40”x38,” mixed textiles.

Gerhardt Knodel’s “Minglings: A Journey Across Time,” continues at the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, Saginaw Valley State University, through May 19, 2018

Also at the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum see: “Chinese Folk Pottery: The Art of the Everyday” curated by Marie Woo.

Jim Cogswell @ University of Michigan Museum of Art

Digital study for Cosmogonic Tattoos Installation at UMMA and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Jim Cogswell, Digital study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, 2016. Courtesy of the artist

The images that comprise Jim Cogswell’s frieze-like mural Cosmogonic Tattoos are lyrical, fanciful, and, at times, utterly bewildering. Anthropomorphic Greek amphoras sprout legs and scurry about. A hybrid harp/boat ferries its unusual passengers – expressive, personified hands— across surging waves. And ancient-looking architectural structures rise and collapse in post-apocalyptic ruins.

Occasioned by the University of Michigan’s bicentennial, the university commissioned artist Jim Cogswell to create a set of murals celebrating the holdings of the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Cogswell’s mural speaks to material exchange across cultures and the necessarily distorted histories and narratives that shape when artifacts are taken out of context and placed behind glass in museum environments. It’s an ambitious and highly conceptual cycle that manages to be both playful and cerebral.

 

“Cosmogonies,” Cogswell explains, “are our explanations for how our world came to be.”[i] His idea of a cosmogonic tattoo is sourced in the character Queequeg in Moby Dick, who bore a tattoo on his back depicting “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.”[ii]   For this site-specific installation, Cogswell created hundreds of vinyl images based on his paintings of 250 objects from the holdings of the Kelsey and UMMA. Affixing them to the expansive horizontally-oriented first-floor windows of each museum, he created a frieze of images which tell an ambitiously sweeping narrative addressing the migrations of ideas, artifacts, and people.

The narrative begins on the windows of the Frankel Family Wing at the UMMA. A ship full of anthropomorphic hands (derived from paintings within the UMMA), sail across a sea in a boat toward a promontory, only to endure a series of apocalyptic natural disasters. Taking what few cultural artifacts they can carry, these travelers embark on foot to find a new home. By design, the narrative breaks, and viewers must cross State Street and traverse a block north to view the rest of the mural at the Kelsey.

Jim Cogswell, Boats and Hands, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist

Here, we see more figures on migratory journeys. Architectural structures on promontories are erected, only to be destroyed by natural forces and invasion. The figures, always on the move, carry more cultural artifacts with them, and they themselves even metamorphose into complex mash-ups of disparate elements borrowed from multiple cultures: a Roman female torso sports the head of a goose derived from a Greek wine jug, for example. The narrative is like a obius strip, and ends with migrants on the move. Cogswell didn’t conceive of the Kelsey as a destination, but rather a “roundabout,” ultimately channeling the narrative—and the viewer—back toward the UMMA.

Every character, prop, and setting in this unfolding drama comes directly from Cogswell’s digital renderings of his paintings of artifacts at the Kelsey and the UMMA. But, like Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, Cogswell’s images synthesize disparate elements from vastly different sources. A Greek kylix becomes the satellite dish on a radio tower, for example, and the radiating concentric rings of an Egyptian necklace becomes its transmission signals. Greek amphoras sprout wings derived from decorative Roman architectural elements. The seemingly random combination of elements calculatedly speaks to the mutability of cultural artifacts and their subjective meanings.

Jim Cosgwell, Study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, Working on site, Image courtesy of the Levi Stroud

While this sprawling horizontal collage of images seem utterly haptic, every element of the mural was impressively thought-out. For example, a rendering of Greek portrait bust from Cyprus is wittily placed on a window pane right behind the actual portrait bust itself. Like Cogswell’s own mash-ups, the bust reflects visual elements from multiple cultures (Greek and Egyptian), and even obliquely addresses migration: while the Mycenean culture declined, refugees from the mainland settled in Cyprus.

Jim Cogswell,  Study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, Working on site, Image courtesy of the Levi Stroud

Cosmogonic Tattoos worthily aims to make us consider the histories of objects across space and time, and their ever-changing meanings. The British Museum’s Elgin Marbles, as a case in point, would certainly carry different associations for visitors from London than visitors from Athens. And these contemporary associations would contrast vastly from the pride and patriotism that an ancient Athenian would have felt, gazing on the same marbles in situ, wrapping, as they once did, around the Parthenon. Furthermore, America’s current changing views toward monuments to the Confederacy suggests that such change can occur even within a culture, and rapidly at that.

Admittedly, Cogswell’s mural cycle, while certainly visually engaging, might be prohibitively cryptic to anyone unfamiliar with the artist’s statement of intent and the helpful explanatory essays in the exhibition catalog (itself nicely produced and beautifully illustrated). But perhaps there’s a certain poetry to that, as it rather nicely underscores Cogswell’s metanarrative concerning the mutability of images and their meanings.

Jim Cogswell, Woman Duck,  Study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, 2016, shellac ink and graphite on mylar. Image courtesy of the artist

[i] Cogswell, Jim, et al. Jim Cogswell : Cosmogonic Tattoos. University of Michigan, 2017.

 

University of Michigan Art Museum

 

Michele Oka Doner @ Wasserman Projects

Michele Oka Doner,  Hominin Relic, The Release, Fertilized Capsule

Wasserman Projects opened an exhibition February 16, 2018 with the work of Michele Oka Doner, the prolific and inventive maker of sculpture, installations, jewelry, furniture, functional objects and handmade books.

Michele Oka Doner, Life Forms, 2005, Project for the Life Sciences Building at Rutgers University, Piscataway NJ. Wide view of atrium floor. Bronze embedded in terrazzo. Image from The Watch All publication

Her work celebrates organic forms, particularly seashore life, but also seeds, trees, the human body and other forms of natural growth. Michele Oka Doner is probably best known for her creation, A Walk on the Beach, an installation on the floors of Miami International Airport. It is one of the largest public artworks in the world, featuring 9,000 unique bronze sculptures inlaid with mother-of-pearl in over a mile-and-a-quarter long concourse of terrazzo.

I recall meeting her and seeing her work at the Gertrude Kasle Gallery in the early 1970s, and then again in 1977 with her one-person exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Works in Progress, much of what was titled Burial Pieces, was previously laid out on the floor of Gallery 7. She has come full circle since that time in this exhibition at Wasserman Projects.

Michele Oka Doner, Book of Psalm, All Images courtesy P.D.Rearick, Wasserman Projects

Always inspired by nature, Michele Oka Doner composes a collection of flattened plant fronds on a grid with variety in the mono-colored objects, giving it the title Book of Psalm. Traditionally, this is a biblical reference in both Christian and Jewish worship as in the Book of Psalm, comprised of religious verse, many ascribed to King David. With a title like that, the subject matter reaches out to many people and relies on their experience for its explanation.

In this exhibition at Wasserman Projects, forty years later, it’s as if this artist has a genre all her own, work fueled by a lifelong study of the natural world. Mathematicians have long established a code for human forms, from plants to rock formations. Best described by Carl G. Jung and explained by Joseph Campbell, Michele Oka Doner exploits the collective unconscious of these forms, shapes and material in her art work.

Alison Wong, Director of Exhibitions at Wasserman Projects says in a statement, “Michele Oka Doner’s illustrious multi-decade practice has been guided by a passion for the natural world, and a fascination with the history held within the remnants of living things, such as twigs, leaves, seeds, shells, pods and stones. In her diverse installations, public works, sculptures, photographs, and drawings, these organic fragments are integrated, replicated and reimagined in new contexts that speak to the ephemeral yet enduring nature of life.”

Michele Oka Doner, Inlay Study in plaster.

These shell images and assorted shapes set in a plaster inlay are especially interesting in that the object is modest in size and an abstract composition of spiral shapes. The spiral meaning or symbolism can represent the consciousness of nature beginning from its center and expanding outward. So in keeping with the broad theme of the natural world, Michele Oka Doner works with some of the oldest geometric shapes dating back to the Neolithic period, the product of people over thousands of years, as illustrated in the famous ancient spirals at Newgrange in Ireland. Often the spiral is a feminine symbol, representing not only women, but lifecycles, fertility and childbirth. She  places the viewer above and looking down at these various shapes that are cloaked in a gold patina that elevates the meaning.

Michele Oka Doner, Installation of table, objects, and materials.

As part of the exhibition, there is a long table that extends out into the gallery space, which contains a collection of objects, books, various material and sculptures. As the table meets the wall there are two human figures, a child made of porcelain and a standing figure made of terra cotta clay without a head and a spiral-textured surface. These are typical of Michele Oka Doner’s work with the human figure, and in this setting provide a contrast to her dried plant-based work.

Michele Oka Doner, Glyphs

It has been a mark of her work throughout the years to place these glyph objects on the floor where their light color and textures contrast with the dark concrete floor. Her art becomes the process of making, finding and arranging, these small objects to create questions in the mind of the viewer. It feels like a universal language capable of reaching all people. They are hieroglyphic in nature and vary in size, material and spacing, as if you are looking back in time to a Mayan writing system.

Michele Oka Doner, Whip

Michele Oka Doner was born and raised in Miami Beach, but for thirty years she has lived and worked out of her studio in Soho, New York. She says in an interview with CBS News, in Miami, “I really could speak about what I knew and saw which was an accelerated notion of things growing, sprouting, ripening, decaying, the tides coming, bringing me things when I walked the beach in the morning, taking them away. It was full of wonders and richness. By really learning my own trade, it really was coming out of dipping back into myself instead of reaching out in the world and grasping that I learned daily, a step at a time, to manifest an idea, and that’s as much as we can hope to do in this world.”

Michele Oka Doner received a Bachelor of Science and Design from the University of Michigan (1966), a M.F.A. (1968), was Alumna-in-Residence (1990), received the Distinguished Alumna Award from the School of Art (1994) and was a Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker (2008). She was awarded the honorary degree, Doctor of Arts (2016).

Her work is in collections worldwide, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Cooper-Hewitt, New York; La Musée Des Artes Décoratifs, The Louvre, Paris; The Wolfsoniana, Musei de Genova; The Art Institute of Chicago; The Virginia Museum; The St. Louis Museum; The Dallas Museum of Art; The University of Michigan Museum of Art; The Yale Art Gallery; Princeton University Art Museum; and the Perez Art Museum Miami.

Also on display in the rear gallery is the  new work by Detroit based artist/designer Jack Craig.

For the past decade, Oka Doner has been represented by Marlborough Gallery, New York City.

Wasserman Projects, Michele Oka Doner is on exhibit through May 5, 2018.