Carole Harris & Allie McGhee @ Detroit Institute of Arts

Installation Image, Courtesy of the Detroit Art Review

As part of the kick-off for the Detroit Art Week events, the Detroit Institute of Arts mounted an exhibition coordinated by Laurie Ann Farrell, department head of contemporary art at the museum and curated by Amani Olu, Repetition, Rhythm, and Vocab, features the visual art of Carole Harris and Allie McGhee. Both artists have been prominent in the Detroit art community for over forty years, each delivering their own individual language of abstraction. The celebration commenced with a talk, and this writer was pleasantly surprised to see a full house of guests in the DIA auditorium where the artists gave a part biographical, part philosophical, talk just before the opening of their two-person exhibition in the second floor Robinson Gallery.

Allie McGhee & Carole Harris portrait Image Courtesy of Kate Gowan

Introduced by DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons, with remarks by Farrell, the talk was moderated by Amani Olu, the producer/organizer of the new Detroit Art Week.  Originally from Philadelphia, later working in New York City, Olu moved to Detroit in 2016 and founded a business to provide marketing and business consulting services to individuals, companies and organizations in the arts.  He said, “The overall vision is that we want to do our part to establish Detroit as a global destination for contemporary art just like every other major city.”

As the talk got underway, both artists shared many common themes, as they both were educated at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School and attended state colleges, Harris at Wayne State University, and McGhee at Eastern Michigan University.  They both mentioned the importance of early family support in their pursuit of art, as each told stories about their mother’s influence, and both did not see their work as part of any political movement, or part of Detroit’s revitalization, but more about a constant internal energy to create and evolve as an artist, regardless of politics or race. Harris mentioned her work was continually evolving, and McGhee suggested the influence of science, and both gave credit to the impact of the Kresge Foundation for the Arts.

I have written about both artists multiple times for exhibitions at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art and most recently at the Hill Gallery where both artists’ work were present. Allie McGhee has a long exhibition record starting back in in the mid-1970’s.  McGhee says he favors using sticks to apply paint rather than brushes. Rejecting the brush, he pulls and scrapes the paint across his material, whether it is canvas or paper. The action of the stick allows McGhee’s hands to interact with the paint and the surface in a visceral way, where the thin paint spatters as he arranges his lathe-like constructions. He has often folded thick painted paper into shapes that display themselves as objects on the wall.

Allie McGhee, Strata Data, Acrylic and Enamel on canvas, 2008

Music is an apt metaphor for McGhee’s methodology. Miles Davis, one of the artist’s favorite musicians, was an explorer of musical forms who gave up traditional jazz in favor of improvisation. Likewise, McGhee has talked about the art of experimentation, and working every day to explore a variety of paint mediums on a vast range of materials, from canvas to paper, window shades, fiberglass, wallpaper and cardboard.

As I wrote about his exhibition Now & Then at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, “ [McGhee’s] emphasis on discovered and spontaneous correlations that are twisted, crushed and crumpled, remind this writer of John Chamberlain, who worked in a similar fashion but mostly with metal and automobile parts. Given the time period of Allie McGhee’s formative years, the obvious influence here is Abstract Expressionism with shades of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline that, despite a seemingly spontaneous appearance, maintains a balance of chaos and control.”  The steady march of fluid and spontaneous abstract expressionism has elevated the work of Allie McGhee to a significant force in Detroit alongside artists like Al Loving, Sam Gilliam and Charles McGee.

Allie McGhee, Birthday Eclipse, 48 36″ Acrylic & Oil on canvas

Carole Harris has been called a needle artist, a quilt artist and a fiber artist, but her work and life seem to have always been in transition.  Now her works of art are titled mixed media textile, and she seems most comfortable being described as a visual artist. It has been a journey for Harris whose mother introduced her to needle arts at an early age while teaching her embroidery and crocheting.  She has had a career as an interior designer working with architectural firms, but the road has led her to express herself with stand-alone mixed media constructions that hang on the wall.  “My work relies on improvisation. I am fascinated with hue and pattern, often drawing inspiration from the color, energy, and movement. It’s like the rhythms of ethnographic rituals as well as jazz, blues, and gospel music that I have learned growing up in Detroit.”

Carole Harris, Mixed Media Textile, 42 x 53″, 2017

The first thing that jumps out from the work Bearing Witnessis not her choice of material, but her use of color, form and composition.  The strength she demonstrates draws on her informal use of space, the counter-play of color, and the texture given to torn shapes and line work.

When I wrote about her work in April 2016, I described it like this: “For visual artists who quilt, Harris’s work transcends the traditional expectations we think of when mentioning quilting. In a web-based reproduction, we see an abstract painting, dynamic in the use of color, line, shape and form. It’s only on closer observation that one realizes these are compositions executed using embroidery, stitchery and multiple patterns of cotton, silks and hand-dyed fabric.”

Glen Mannisto wrote for the Detroit Art Review about Carole Harris’s solo exhibition at University of Michigan NCRC Rotunda Gallery. “Bearing Witnessis a tour de force of contemporary image making. It amalgamates not only Harris’s quilt-making magic with the disparate influences of her far-reaching eye, but is a profoundly rich metaphor for the deep struggle of living, of the balancing of life’s experiences, of listening and watching and caring for the world. This sublimely visual layering of color, shape and line is not only an act of art but — what resonates through in this process of layering the fabric of life by hand— is an act of deep caring. The title “Bearing Witness” is thus not misplaced on Carole Harris’ practice as a whole.”

Carole Harris, Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, Mixed Media Textile, 41 x 53, 2018

Carole Harris and Allie McGhee’s distinct abstract language has evolved for more than forty years. McGhee is a painter whose abstraction rises to the top based on day-in and day-out hard work where he pours his pigment and allows himself to release an intuition to create variations in composition, color and shape.  Carole Harris rises beyond the confines of fiber or quilted art, revising her decisions that are usually set in place by a medium that progresses linearly. Both of these artists have endured using a distinct abstract aesthetic that has created an homage to the harmony of an improvisational language of abstract expressionism.

In mid-July, during the dog days of summer when the art scene usually lays back and starts to plan and prepare for the fall season, the concept of Detroit Art Week provides some attention to Detroit artists and hopefully creates a tradition for years to come.

Museums, galleries, and sites participating in Detroit Art Week include Detroit Institute of Arts, David Klein Gallery, Playground Detroit, Heidelberg Project, Red Bull Arts Detroit, K. OSS Contemporary Art, Wasserman Projects, Public Pool, N’Namdi Contemporary Art Center, Library Street Collective, Holding House, What Pipeline, Charles H. Wright Museum, Simone DeSousa Gallery, Dell Pryor Gallery, Popps Emporium, and Reyes Projects.

Detroit Institute of Arts, Repetition, Rhythm, and Vocabruns through November 4, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Kasle Collection & See Through @ UMMA

Exercising the Eye

Robert Rausehnberg, Intermission(Ground Rules) Intaglio, 1996

In 1965, Gertrude Kasle established a gallery in Detroit’s Fischer Building with the intent of introducing the New York School of abstract expressionism to the Midwest.  The gallery lasted for 11 years, during which she acquired and exhibited works by luminaries such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, and Grace Hartigan.  An alumnus of the University of Michigan, Kastle subsequently donated her muscular collection of American postwar art to the university’s art museum, and through July 22, Exercising the Eye celebrates Kasle’s visionary, connoisseurial eye.

Jasper Johns, Savarin, Color Lithograph on Paper, 1977

Exercising the Eye comfortably fills the UMMA’s large Taubman Gallery with a veritable Who’s Who of American Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art of the 60s and 70s, alongside a generous selection of works by artists perhaps underrepresented in the typical art-history survey.  An impressive spread of Rauschenberg’s works fills an entire wall, including diminutive aquatints and lithographs, a reminder that Rauschenberg produced far more than the “combines” for which he became famous. Nearly running the length of another wall is a suite of immersive,  large paintings by Grace Hartigan, a staple among America’s abstract expressionists and friend of Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, and the de Koonings.  Hartigan worked both in abstract and figurative imagery, challenging Clement Greenberg’s vocal and uncompromising championing of pure abstraction, and here her immersive Tarzana applies frothy scribbles and uninhibited swaths of smack-you-in-the-face color to deliver the fleshy exuberance of a Renaissance Bacchanal translated into the vocabulary of postwar expressionism.

Other artists represented include Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Jasper Johns, and Philip Guston (the later represented with an original pen drawing advertising a show if his own paintings at the Gertrude Kasle Gallery).  Exercising the Eye perhaps suffers mildly  from a lack of thematic continuity beyond its works having been collected and exhibited by Gertrude Kasle, shrewdly perceptive as she may have been.  But its strength rests on the admirable willingness of Kasle to acquire and exhibit works by worthy artists that had yet to attain household-name status, and this exhibition is a markedly inclusive reflection of the climate of postwar American art, which often seems mischaracterized almost as a sort of boys-only club.

The Treachery of Images

Elliott Erwitt, Cracked Glass with Boy – Colorado, Gelatin Silver Print, 1955

Concurrent with Exercising the Eye, the UMMA is also presenting a show of pictures in its photography gallery which collectively aim to “expose the contingent nature of reality” through a series of visually beguiling photographs, each guaranteed to procure a double-take from the viewer.  The exhibition, See Through: Windows and Mirrors in Twentieth-Century Photography, brings together an eclectic selection of images that visually pun on the nature of the image and in which nothing is quite as it seems.  It’s as if the visual devilry of Rene Magritte has been transposed into photography, and, impressively, all of it prior to the advent of photoshop.

Walker Evans, Penny Picture Display, Savannah, Gelatin Silver Print, 1936

Walker Evans, generally known for his soul-wrenching portraits of down-and-out Depression-era families of the American South, is here represented with an uncharacteristically lighthearted set of illusory images that seem to portray special depth where there is none.  A wry photograph of a mirror in a hotel lobby, for example, seems to open up a portal in the picture plain that leads to another room; of course, there’s nothing in front of the camera but wall and glass.

Several images make playful use of distortion caused broken glass.  Carl Chiarenza’s  Bat Windowpresents a smashed window, its break forming an ominous angular black hole resembling the shape an abstract bat; the encroaching field of black recalls the schematic of a Robert Motherwell painting.  And Algimantas Kezys’ fragmentated reflection of two silhouetted male forms staring into a shattered mirror seems cubist, like a much paired down version of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Such a theme as this naturally opens the door to moments of subtle humor.  Robert Doisneau’s wonderfully mischievous  La Dame Indignée (“the indignant woman”) captures the moment a Parisian woman passes by a storefront window displaying a lascivious and revealing picture of a nude woman and gives the work a fiercely disapproving scowl.  The picture was part of a series for which Doisneau stealthily photographed the varying reactions of passers-by, with this indignant woman on one end of the spectrum, and a visibly enamored man craning in for a closer look, on the other.

See Through is a small exhibition, fitting in its entirety on two perpendicular walls on the UMMA’s third-floor atrium.  Nevertheless, While the primary draw of the show is visual, there’s a cultural resonance to these photographs which whimsically distort reality.  After all, the alarming spread of pseudo-news on social media has demonstrated that a provocative image divorced from context can easily pass itself off as truth, and this exhibition serves as a gentle reminder not to instinctively take images at face value.

University of Michigan Art Museum

Exercising the Eye:The Gertrude Tase Collection, through July 22, 2018

See Through: Windows and Mirrors in Twentieth-Century Photography, through September 23, 2018