Arab & Cuban Artists @ N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

Exhibitions, Mitli Mitlak, & Open Scene, Installation, All images courtesy of N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, and DAR

The N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art has a history of bringing art from various parts of the world to expand the exposure of cultural arts to the audiences of Detroit. This extensive exhibition is no exception.  Present is an under riding theme that rings true for many people, which is that in times of extreme tribulation, visual artist, musicians, actors, writers, and dancers endure hardships to tell stories.  There are two distinct exhibitions: Mitli Mitlak (Like You, Like Me) curated by Biba Sheikh, reflects the work of thirteen artists, many of whom are current residents of occupied territories throughout the Middle East; and Open Scene, the figurative expressionism by Manuel Lopez Oliva, one of the most recognized Cuban artists whose theatrical masquerades form the heart of his expression.

Sinan Hussein, Iraq, “Just a Concert”, Acrylic on Canvas, 63 x 85″, 2018

Part of the Iraqi Fine Arts Society and a member of the Union of Iraqi Artists, Sinan Hussein graduated from the University of Fine Arts in Bagdad. These large acrylic figurative paintings deliver a type of surrealism that is filled with whimsical characters, both human and animal that intrigue the viewer and pull them into his world.  The work, Just a Concert, could just as easily be titled Just a Wedding, where the setting is aglow with a couple standing side by side holding animals, some realistic, some contrived, with an observer to the left that is part human, part animal. These works by Hussein speak to the confusion in his world, where the uncertainty of life and the political and historical apparatus that surrounds him and his family are in flux.

Sinan Hussein, Iraq, Untitled, Acrylic on Canvas, 63 x 85″, 2017

This Untitled work presents the first-person perspective of figures in a state of limbo, in the interior of what looks to be a bathroom amongst flying surreal animal-like shapes with faces and wings. There is a noted concern for composition and color surfaces with textures and colors that keep the viewer searching for meaning. Who is to say what a profound effect in the lives of humans under such dismantled circumstances of life and survival, will produce expressions of such disjointed life.

“I hope that through this exhibition and in the future of the company Mediterranean Fire, the meaning can be of westerners or non-refugees coming to the realization that these people are not much different than them,” says Biba Sheikh. “That we have much more in common and are part of the same.”

These two paintings by Sinan Hussein, are among fifteen other artist works that include: Hani Alqam (Jordan) Thameur Mejri (Tunisia) Taghlib Oweis (Jordan), Wael Darwish (Egypt), Ahmed Nagy (Egypt), Klaudja Sulaj (Albania) Luca Paleocreassas (Greece), Manal Kortam (Lebanon), Abbas Yousif (Bahrain), Basel Uraiqat (Jordan), Mohammed al-Hawajri (Palestine), Haitham Khatib (Syria) May Murad (Palestine), and Hassan Meer (Oman).  All of these works give voice to a variety of media and themes that are dominated by the refugee experience.

Manuel Lopez Oliva, Robert le Diable, Acrylic on Canvas, 2005

The other exhibition that compliments the extensive collection of work from the middle east, is the solo work of Manuel Lopez Oliva, a Cuban artist: Open Scene,whose acrylic work on canvas mesmerizes his viewer with an allegorical collection of figurative portraits that imbue the surface with small designs of shape, line and color.  The deep and usually dark earthy background color field most often sets the stage for a variety of female motifs.

Manuel Lopez Oliva, “Ornamental Discourse” Acrylic on Canvas, 2015

The artist was present for this exhibition and described the influence of growing up in Manzanillo, Cuba, where his father conducted workshops for people who participated in the decorations of making carnival masks. He relates to me the influence of the theater on him as a young boy, caught up in the “art of acting and stage design” where symbolism would abound and dominate the magical transformation of regular people into characters of color and light. I asked the artist about the snake-like motif that dominates much of the work, and he describes the shapes coming from the head as thoughts, and from the mouth, representing language, both in the abstract.

These masks, with a refined technique, reveal a sensual utopian aesthetic and provide a formal, chromatic, ideographic and textural intensity. Working out of his house-studio, he lives in Leonor Perez district among the streets of Havana, Cuba.

Manuel Lopez Oliva, “Seduction has a Mask”, Acrylic on Canvas, 2009

Manuel Lopez Oliva is a consulting professor at the Superior Art University and Art History Faculty of Havana University.  The exhibitions Open Scene and Mitli Mitlakare now on display at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art and run through January 5, 2019.

Zacarias and Meyohas @ Wasserman Projects

Marela Zacarias: Coatlicue’s Return and Sarah Meyohas: Speculations

Installation view of Zacarias/Meyohas exhibition at Wasserman Projects.   All photo images: PD Rearick courtesy Wasserman Projects

In her recent talk at the College for Creative Studies, Mexican artist Marela Zacarias explained her shift from figurative mural painting to abstract sculpture.  While painting a scarf on a female figure in a commissioned mural, she realized she was much more interested in the abstracted folds and arabesque shapes of the scarf, and its relationship to the history of textiles and women, than in the figure she was painting. Up until then, Zacarias had been painting mostly murals. She explained that the social and political climate when she went to college, particularly at Kenyon College where she was in art school, led her to the political activism of painting murals. Ultimately she combined the sculptural abstract form inspired by textiles, as well as architecture, to create what are essentially abstract sculptural wall reliefs or murals, and unlike a mural, enwrap an object rather than use it as a support.

Marela Zacarias, “Coatlicue’s Return,” 2018, Acrylic on plaster and wire mesh, wood, and milk cartons, 74”x 74”x 74”

In keeping with her site-specific practice and her interest in Diego Rivera’s Industrial murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, in creating “Coatlicue’s Return,” the title of her suite of sculpture/murals at Wasserman Projects, Zacarias researched Detroit’s material culture through its architecture, landscape and museum collections. She imbued her sculptures with objects and abstract painting that reference a few of Detroit’s monumental icons. Having grown up with and studied the Mexican Mural movement in Mexico she of course engaged with the Rivera’s Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The center-piece then of “Coatlicue’s Return” is a large, free-standing undulating sculpture (enwrapping plastic milk crates, artefactual debris from Detroit life, and suggesting Coatlicue’s nurturing identity.) Composed of nine separate interlocking parts, symbolizing the myth of Coatlicue’s ultimate murder and dismemberment perhaps, they nest together like a puzzle. Referencing both the Aztec myth of the Coatlicue, the Earth/Mother goddess of both Creation and Destruction of Aztec culture, and Rivera’s painting of Coatlicue as an enormous anthropomorphized machine, that both creates (cars) and destroys (the worker). The abstract painting on the sculpture suggest Rivera’s decorative Aztec trim in his Detroit mural.

Marela Zacarias, “South Wall,” 2018, Acrylic on plaster and wire mesh, Detroit mirrorized window, 49” x 46” X 33”, “North Wall,” 2018, Acrylic on plaster, wire mesh, Detroit mirrorized window, 69” x 62” x 19”

Composed of wood and screen armatures, manually coated with plaster, Zacarias’ sensuous forms take shape through an arduous sculpting and sanding process. Before being painted, they already have a lively, biomorphic presence reminiscent of French surrealist sculptor Jean Arp. Stretching the definition of mural painting, Zacarias, drapes her sensuous forms over architectural details such as locally found window frames and objects like hanging tire swings, recovered from Detroit neighborhoods. Like Mexican women’s use of rebozos, which are lengthy, multipurpose fringed, shawls, employed during child birth and for nurturing and carrying their babies, the draping sculptures suggest the long association of women and draping textiles and by association, the creation of the world. In a sense, all of Zacarias’ sculptures are images of giving birth or of creating the world.

Two sculptures inspired by Rivera’s murals, “South Wall” and “North Wall,” have a very immediate sense of playfulness and giving birth. Both windows, recovered from Detroit’s landscape, have mirrors wrapped in Coatlicue’s birthing textiles, that reflect the beholder, implying that, even now, Coatlicue is at work creating us, the viewers. Both are painted in the respective palette of Rivera’s walls. On her explorations of Detroit, Zacarias visited the Guardian building, the Art Deco office building totally based on Mayan design elements. Painted with the graphic design and colors of the Guardian Building, the wall relief “The Guardian,” suggests the notion of a textile metamorphosing into that space.

Marela Zacarias, “The Guardian,” 2018, Acrylic on plaster and wire mesh, 47” x 40.5” x 15”

Bookending “Coatlicue’s Return” in the Wasserman Project galleries is New York artist Sarah Meyohas’ project, “Speculations,” which is, judging by her past artistic endeavors, driven by her engagement with the workings of the economy and the organization of the world’s trading and financial market. Once a student at the prestigious Wharton School of Business, her multimedia visual experiments are often beautiful, always slick, and uncertainly, critiques of the vagaries of time and money. “Speculations,” includes four tantalizing photographic images of mirror images reflecting mirror images of mirrors, and so on, into the darkness of infinity. Each photograph of the “Speculations” series is differentiated by an enticing decorative tableau, which is multiplied, and its attractiveness enhanced, by the mirrors. “Pink and Yellow Speculation,” 2015, reflects a coral colored wall into the darkness of infinity, the coral slowly darkening into black, into the unknown metaphorical future. Foregrounding the image is a branch of brilliant yellow flowers that tints the overall image and is magnified, and made even more enticing, by the repetition of the mirrors. Metaphorically, it could be a commentary on the aleatoric nature of financial speculation or specifically on the speculative and illusory nature of beauty and the art market. “Flaunt Speculation, 2018, is the same arrangement of mirrors but surrounded by, presumably, Meyohas own nude body enhanced, comically, by sprays of purple flowers. Most interesting is that in each of the “Speculation” series there is a slight offset to the mirrors, like a winding snake, which in the calculus of the interpolation, in following the arc of mirrors, would come back and bite the ass of the beholder.

Sarah Meyohas, “Pink and Yellow Speculation,” 2015, Framed Chromogenic Print, 91.75 x 61.75” x 2”

The piece de resistance of the whole exhibition is “Generated Petals Interpolation,” Meyohas’ video installation that employs an engaging room of mirrors and a mesmerizing, computer generated program of an evolving, ever changing grid of rose petals. Meyohas hired a pool of temp workers to pick through thousands of roses, picking the most “beautiful” from each bouquet and photographing a single petal from it. Those photographs were digitally entered into a computer and an algorithm created to select and create an infinite number and variety of petals that are projected onto the wall. The mirrored environment, like the fitting room at Nordstrom’s, reflects a room full of infinity and titillating, pulsating images of rose petals. Like the infinity of repeating images in the “Speculations” series, it suggests and tests the technological generation and replication of beauty and its economy of labor and production.

Sarah Meyohas, “Generated Petals Interpolation,” 2018, Video Production, mirrors.

While both Zacarias and Meyohas engage in a spectacular use of materials and technology there is an equal engagement with ideas formed with a kind of visual literacy (both live in and develop visual ideas) that suggests many compelling contemporary issues. Especially interesting is the engagement that each artist has with time. Meyohas’ images confront the nature of beauty through manipulated technology. In “Speculations” and “Generated Petals Interpolation,” the repetition of the imagery, creates its own seductive beauty in a warp of a circuitous infinity. Time becomes a dizzying and perplexing existential quandary. Zacharias employs a convincing and at once beautiful and frightening Aztec myth to explain the cosmic and local creation of everything.

Wasserman Projects: MARELA ZACARIAS: COATLICUE’S RETURN and SARAH MEYOHAS: SPECULATIONS, through December 15, 2018

 

 

Abstraction & Politics @ UMMA

Sam Gilliam, Situation VI—Pisces 4, ca. 1972, polypropylene painted multiform. Williams College Museum of Art Museum purchase, Otis Family Acquisition Trust and Kathryn Hurd Fund. Courtesy of Joseph Goddu Fine Arts, Inc., New York. © Sam Gilliam

Visitors stepping out of the University of Michigan’s Taubman Gallery (currently paying host to a punchy and politically-charged exhibition of art of the African diaspora) who then wander in to the adjacent show, Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the Early 1970s,will perhaps find themselves in a gallery space austere by comparison, containing four allusive abstract paintings and sculptures.  It’s a highly conceptual micro-exhibition comprising works by Helen Frankenthaler, Al Loving, Sam Gilliam, and Louise Nevelson.  In spite of the show’s title, as political statements, their significance isn’t self-evident (something perhaps tacitly acknowledged by the interrogative opening line of the show introductory text: Can abstract art be about politics and identity?), but what the artists in this tactfully assembled ensemble have in common is their defiant refusal to conform to the art-world’s expectations of what their art should be.

Viewers first encounter a geometric abstraction by Al Loving (one of Detroit’s own, though he later lived and worked out of New York City). Influenced in the 1970s by the hard-edge color squares of Josef Albers, Loving’s Bowery Morning is a simple yet disorienting network of shapes which could be read variously as an ensemble of polygons or cubes.  Loving created the work in 1971, the same year he participated in the Whitney Museum’s highly controversial Contemporary Black Artists in America, a show which acquired notoriety when fifteen artists withdrew to protest the decisions made by the show’s mostly white curatorial staff.  But conspicuous by its absence in Loving’s work was any commentary on the social or political issues of his day.

Al Loving, Bowery Morning, 1971, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the Estate of Al Loving and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

The same could be said of the work of Sam Gilliam, who in the 1970s began experimenting with abstract fabric constructions (as Al Loving himself increasingly began to do). Inspired by seeing laundry hung out to dry, Gilliam liberated his canvasses from their wooden frames, transforming his paintings into fully sculptural objects which hung elegantly from the wall like giant curtains, sails, and banners, a contribution to Abstract Expressionism that occurred long before Frank Stella began producing his own sculptural paintings which burst from the wall and crashed into the viewer’s space.  Here, Gilliam’s attention-grabbing Situation VI-Pisces 4,an abstract painting displayed like a massive banner incised with with deep drapes and folds,nearly fills an entire gallery wall with a blaze of crimsons and yellows, and it’s hard not to consider this as the show’s visual centerpiece.

Sam Gilliam, Situation VI—Pisces 4 (detail), ca. 1972, polypropylene painted multiform. Williams College Museum of Art Museum purchase, Otis Family Acquisition Trust and Kathryn Hurd Fund. Courtesy of Joseph Goddu Fine Arts, Inc., New York. © Sam Gilliam

Directly across from Situation VI, Louise Nevelson’s stately and characteristically enigmatic Dark Presence seems subdued and restrained in comparison.  Dark Presence is exactly that, a mostly rectilinear scaffolding of individual wooden forms which, all painted black, coalesce into a unified whole.  A work by the second-generation Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler completes this ensemble.  Her Sunset Corner is a representative color-field painting applying her “soak-stain” method, for which she covered the canvass in nearly translucent washes of water-thin paint.

Abstraction and Politics is a challenging exhibition that certainly doesn’t patronize its patrons, and the political applications of these four works is admittedly difficult to find without the helpful explanatory text which introduces the show.  But what these diverse artists have in common is their shared refusal to adhere to expectations regarding what African-American art or Feminist-art (choose your hyphenation) ought to look like.  Nevelson’s works in particular– in part because of their imposing scale and subdued color– gleefully bucked pervading stereotypes of sculpture by women, even eliciting sexist reviews by stunned critics, incredulous that such work could be executed by a female.  The show’s theme certainly works if we view self-determination as a political act, and if we approach these artists’ defiant refusal to conform to expected narratives as a reaction against the cultural climate in which they lived, then it’s possible to view these works as an understated form of protest.  To borrow a phrase from Sylvia Plath: through their art these artists simply asserted their right to live and work on their own human terms.

University of Michigan Museum of Art   Abstraction and Politics –  Through September 29, 2019

Michael E. Smith @ What Pipeline

What Pipeline, Exterior image, Southwest Detroit

I had heard and read about What Pipeline gallery tucked back off of Vernor Highway in Southwest Detroit, and I finally got to attend the opening of Michael E. Smith’s work there recently, September 28, 2018.  Smith, a native Detroit artist who was the recipient in the very first round of Kresge Artist Awards, earned a B.F.A from the College for Creative Studies and a M.F.A. from Yale University of Art.

What Pipeline owners Alivia Zivich and Daniel Sperry have leased the small building and renovated the space into four white walls, concrete floors and a small backroom where they have mounted more than 16 exhibits since May of 2013.

The exhibits have consisted of mostly contemporary art that is sometimes representational, like Mary Ann Aitken’s work, as well as abstract, performance, installation and conceptual work, using their four white walls and floor space with florescent ceiling bulbs. In addition, they have curated exhibitions in spaces outside their gallery, that include:  Henning Bohl at Balice Hertling, Paris, Dylan Spaysky and Mary Ann Aitken at Andrew Kreps, NYC and Bailey Scieszka at Paul Soto/Park View, LA.  When you visit their website, they have shown artists from all over, but also some Detroit artists like Bailey Scieszka, who earned her B.F.A. from Cooper Union in 2011, and got reviewed by Clayton Press of Forbes, where he says, “…where she continues to develop a truly original, almost meat-grinder blend of object and performance art that resists categorization.” They are currently in the throws of publishing a book about her work.

When I walked into What Pipeline’s single large space, all I saw was a large commercial video camera on the floor.  Behind the lens was an embedded potato. There must be more? I thought.  Turns out, that was it and a white chair with a turtle skull in the back room. (additionally, two objects that were not officially in the exhibition)

Michael E. Smith, Untitled Image courtesy of What Pipeline

Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2018 Image courtesy of What Pipeline

I experienced the space with only the video camera off set from the middle of the room, took an image or two, and started to ponder.  The only context I could muster was Dada, sometimes referred to as Dadasim.  The movement started with European artists who found materials and abstract forms to distance themselves from the establishment and remove themselves from everyday life. The setting for Dada came into being in Zurich around 1916, and was clearly a reaction to the chaos of World War I, where the discourse in art was dominated by a rationalist philosophy from expressionistic representation, impressionism, and cubism.  It was the famous work by Marcel Duchamp, The Fountain,signed R. Mutt in 1917 that became the icon of Dada. It was the salon writer, Hugo Ball, at the Cabaret Voltaire, who began to rebel against the rationalist philosophy and encourage artists to experiment with nontraditional materials.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, Image Alfred Stieglitz, 1917

Could the artist be reacting to the societal scene in today’s world, with politics, violence, climate change, and sexual assaults all on the rise?  Could this be “nothing” as a grand idea where art is in rebellion?  The other option is the Conceptual art movement in which the concept or idea takes precedence over the traditional aesthetic of many forms of representational material. Not far from that would be Installation as a genre of three-dimensional works that often are site specific and defined by the space they occupy. It could be that Smith is working against traditional contemporary forces and uses bland objects as a point of departure: a way to protest.

The artist Michael E. Smith is represented by Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York City. Their description of his work goes like this:

“Michael E. Smith’s sculptures strip everyday objects down to their most minimal state. In his constructions, Smith employs materials both natural and manmade, highlighting a tension between a culture of abundance and the rapid loss of reserves. Organizing the installation of his sculptures and videos around existing architectural features, Smith builds an emotional tenor throughout the spaces of his exhibitions. Tied to their sources, the works reveal the social and economic factors involved in their making. Originating from the discarded elements of our society, they bear with them the accumulated traces of human experience, evoking simultaneously their future and their loss.”

Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2018 Image courtesy of DAR

As in this exhibition, Smith has used chairs in several pieces, like his exhibition at Susanne Hilberry Gallery in 2014 where he attached a pipe to the side of a similar white chair and made an ear-like object from an old-fashioned leather football. The artist seems to strip everyday objects, both natural and manmade to a minimal state and proceed to build a tenor throughout the gallery space.

Michael E. Smith, Untitled

Michael E. Smith, Untitled Image courtesy of What Pipeline

In the smaller space at the back of the gallery there are some objects that are not officially part of this exhibition but interesting to this writer because they provide more information about the artist and his sensibility.  This work is sometimes simultaneously dark and comic, not to mention unclear, leaving the viewer with a lot to contemplate. And perhaps that is the point.

I think it is fair to say that Smith works with discarded and mundane objects hoping something will resonate with a certain population in search of art that is “everyday ambiguous” and challenging to the intellectual process of discernment. When spending time at an exhibition of visual art, I ask myself would I want this on the wall in my living room? The answer, with respect to the work of Michael E. Smith, is sometimes yes, and sometimes no.

What Pipeline has been involved in publishing books: Mary Ann Aitken, Black Abstract 1983-2011, Isaac Pool’s work in Light Stain, Diary of Steit, work by Veit Lauren Kurz & Stefan Tcherepnin, Pope.L Flint Water Edition, and most recently, More Heart Than Brains: The Collected Plays of Bailey Scieszka, where this publication will premiere at the Detroit Art Book Fair at Trinosophes, October 13, 12-6pm, and October 14, 12-4pm.

What Pipeline,  Michael E. Smith through November 10, 2018

 

Coping Mechanisms @ Library Street Collective

Install Image, Paul Kremer, Sam Durant, and Tony Matelli, DAR 2018

Right in the heart of Downtown Detroit, the Library Street Collective, a NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance) member, has sustained a commanding presence for six years, specializing in cutting-edge contemporary art. The current large group exhibition is no exception, with Coping Mechanisms, that features several Detroit artists and an array of artists from different parts of the country. My first review at LSC came when I reviewed work by Artist-in-Residence and head of Painting at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Beverly Fishman, part of Pain Management in 2016.  I said then, “Fishman’s new work engages the viewer with these painted wood objects using a process commonly associated with industrial fabrication. The work is more like a Gran Turismo Maserati than a KIA sedan. She uses coated aluminum, wood, polished stainless steel, cast resin, phosphorescent pigment, and urethane paint, to punch through and establish an abstract idea.”

Beverly Fishman, Black and White Obama, Puffy Bart, Smiley, 2013

In this current exhibition, we see some earlier work, a trilogy of objects on the wall that include Smiley, Puffy Bart, and Black and White Obama, all Urethane on Wood from 2013. The satirical theme demonstrates her approach to stereotyped images in the public eye, and delivers the consistent elements of craft, scale and technology. Other work in the exhibition that shares this sensibility is the new work by Greg Bogin, Smile, and Warped, both Urethane on canvas.

Greg Bogin, Warped, Acrylic and urethane on canvas, 2018

Another Detroit artist represented in this exhibition is Greg Fadell, whose work first appeared to this writer at the Simone DeSousa Gallery in 2012 in her exhibition called Nothingness. His abstract expressionistic work here, Nothing, was part of a group of work and provides the viewer with a sweeping brush stroke with dripping white paint void of color.  The scale and grid offers a powerful composition for the action of the paint and feels like a logical continuation of action painting of the abstract expressionistic period in New York City.

Greg Fadell, Nothing, Formulated Acrylic on cotton, 2012

The work by artist Mark Flood, The Interview, 2018 is a screen image on canvas with graffiti messaging that speaks to the Me Too movement where Harvey Weinstein is positioned next to a female celebrity and plays off current events of our time. The interdisciplinary artist is best known for his Lace Paintings Series made up of delicate compositions applied in overlapping layers of lace and paint.

Mark Flood, Where Does the Sun Go at Night?, Acrylic on printed canvas, 2018

The exhibition, curated by Sara Nickleson, provides a hand-out that walks the reader through a list of forty coping mechanisms, inferring that art can provide a method of coping during times of stress and disengagement. The massive group show  features the artists: Greg Bogin, Cali Thornhill-Dewitt, Sam Durant, Greg Fadell, Beverly Fishman, Mark Flood, Thrush Holmes, Paul Kremer, Micah Lexier, Tony Matelli, Cassi Namoda, Kilee Price, Scott Reeder, Sheida Soleimani, Adam Parker Smith, Willie Wayne Smith and Devin Troy Strother.

It is work mentioning that the gallery has been involved in significant projects; one with Dan Gilbert on “Z Lot” where artists have created 130-foot-wide murals inside the garage has turned the Z – along with the adjacent BELT Alley, and the “Public Art projects”, like the How and Nosm and Shepard Fairey mural and the 118 x 50 foot mural Still Searching mural by Charles McGee on the north elevation of 28 Grand in Downtown, Detroit.

Charles McGhee, Mural Project, 2015

Library Street Collective, Coping Mechanism, runs through October 13th, 2018