Nancy Mitchnick: “Uncalibrated” @ MOCAD

Install NM MOCAD 2016

Nancy Mitchnick, Installation at MOCAD, 2016 – Courtesy of MOCAD

Nancy Mitchnick has had a spate of exhibitions this past year. She had a great show at Hamtramck’s Public Pool, showed a few earlier works in a cool three-man exhibit at the iconic Detroit gallery, Alley Culture, and really opened some eyes with new paintings at Wasserman Project. The exhibitions signify a return to and embrace of her hometown after she escaped from the Cass Corridor art community in 1973, and lived and worked as a painting professor and artist for years in New York (Bard College), California (CalArts), and Massachusetts (Harvard). She was also honored as a Kresge Fellow in 2015, and most recently was selected by the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters as a recipient of the organization’s 2016 art awards. Quite a homecoming!

The most recent iteration of her work is in the big room of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). The huge gallery of MOCAD seems like it was made for Mitchnick and she comfortably fills the space with what at first seems a most curious selection of paintings—ranging from two portraits of a friend and three portraits from her “Wonder Women” series, to a work in progress recovered from what she herself calls a “bad” painting (about which she recently lectured at MOCAD), a couple of expressionistic still lifes, two landscapes and nine houses from her old neighborhood, and two new “narrative paintings.” In a sense the show constitutes a mini-retrospective of the range of Mitchnick’s work over the past thirty years—portraiture, still life, landscape—and two new, auspicious paintings that signify a leap into her future. But much more poignantly, “Uncalibrated” (the title of the exhibition) seems to explore Mitchnick’s quest over the years to mine the vast rhizoid root system of painting, to find out what being an artist is and what it can do, and what it will come to be. (In mock despair she exclaimed, “Sometime my studio looks like a group show.”) “Uncalibrated” is fundamentally a self-portrait, or perhaps a memoir, of Mitchnick as painter.

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Nancy Mitchnick, Oil Painting 48 x 48, “Virginia Woolf”, 1990-91        All following Images Courtesy of Glen Mannisto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the entrance of MOCAD are three early portraits, from the Wonder Women series, of Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and Frida Kahlo. Painted in grisaille-like, gray shades that produce a classical sculptural effect, the heads of these three great, prototypical, feminist artists have a heroic scale and echo both Renaissance sculpture and certainly Enlightenment ideals. That they are outside of the main gallery, at the entrance, provides a hint of what part these heroic women might play in Mitchnick’s life as a painter. All three were experimental, independent, rational and investigative, secular beings and certainly, like Mitchnick, lived large lives. They also suggest a classical meta-literacy—to challenge the status quo, to invent, hybridize, psychoanalyze, to utilize—that is certainly part of Mitchnick’s own strategy as an artist. In her conversation with Jens Hoffmann,
 MOCAD’S Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at Large, she admits to being a voracious reader, which somehow parallels and infiltrates her work as an artist.

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Nancy Mitchnick, Eye Detail, Oil Painting, 1992 -” Davy Butler First Hit”

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Nancy Mitchnick, Detail of Eye Painting, 36 x 36 “Davy Butler  Finished” – 1992

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her two portraits of a friend and patron, “Davy Butler: First Hit,” and “Davy Butler: Finished,” are elegant illustrations of Mitchnick’s carpentry skills in building these paintings, readily apparent throughout all of her work since. (“My father was a cabinet maker, but sometimes had to frame houses to make money.”) In “First Hit,” eyebrows and eyes are a dozen or so quick brush strokes—they are elegant and deft, making a sketchy, speculative architecture. “First Hit” is more mysteriously suggestive than descriptive, framing the first marks of the physiognomy of identity. Then in “Davy Butler: Finished,” the painting confidently assembles itself around the subject’s eyes. The head is smaller, more contained, and from each part of the facial landscape—the nose, the lips and mouth, and the eyebrows are precise—a commanding, almost Roman presence emerges. While making portraits to earn money, Mitchnick disavows a preoccupation with likeness, with making a painting that looks like the subject: “”Making likeness is not good painting, I’m making great paintings.” Her process, she says, is “all trial and error,” sometimes “losing whole beautiful passages to erasure, to get it right, to make a good painting.” In an offhanded aside she adds, “you writers just keep a record in your computers of every version of what you do. I lost a beautiful turtle here,” she muses pointing to a spot on the recent painting “Night Heron.” However not surprisingly, “Davy Butler: Finished” (the portrait of the friend who attended her recent MOCAD conversation with Hoffman), is not only an extraordinarily articulate painting, but an ennobling likeness as well.

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Nancy Mitchnick, Two Portraits, “Davy Butler First Hit” , “Davy Butler Finished “, 1992, both 36 x 36

 

The heroic scale that she is given to (“I didn’t realize at first that I was a heroic scale painter”), necessitates a physicality and energy apparent in most of these recent works (as well as in her person). Fortunately disregarding all of the foreboding claptrap about “Ruin Porn,” Mitchnick took scores of photos of her old neighborhood near and around Hamtramck and began working from them during her first return to Detroit after losing her Harvard position to a “Conceptual artist.” (“I wanted to do something with Detroit.”)

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Nancy Mitchnick, “First House”, 34 x 45 Oil Painting, 2006

The centerpieces then of “Uncalibrated” are the nine flat, elevation portraits of Detroit houses in various states of devolution. Depicting mostly the homes of working class people and perhaps middle-class families who ran small businesses or auto industry management, these are not memorials nor documentation of the state of derelict Detroit, but exquisite paintings that celebrate a presence of people who built and inhabited this place. Even the smallest painting, “First House,” exudes a very particular ethos and an aesthetic filled with a humanizing spirit.

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Nancy Mitchnick, “Torn Orange”, Oil Painting, 59 x 99, 2009

In reminiscing about her Cass Corridor days, Mitchnick talked about wanting to be an abstract painter but was never able to escape narratives but perhaps, ironically, that has finally (almost) been achieved in two of the most monumental paintings in the exhibit. “Torn Orange” is the painting of a surgically exposed side of a store. Composed of modulated tones of orange colliding with a diagonal green and yellow slash, it features the typical markings of a classic abstract expressionist work, but Mitchnick keeps the context of the building by depicting the surrounding light and air of the city. “Big Burn” is a triumphant exploration of the remains of a home that, in its abandoned state, is slowly rotting and returning to the earth. Exposed rafters, plaster lath and crumbling foundation are astonishingly caressed into a derelict geometry that made Mitchnick blurt, “I felt like I was composing a symphony!” It is triumphant painting that in itself is a marvelous history lesson.

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Nancy Mitchnick,” Big Burn”, Oil Painting, 129 x 59, 2006-20016

Each of the house paintings has a complexly charged presence. “Buffalo Street” is of the house in which Mitchnick grew up, and while it was in its last stages of devolution, Mitchnick’s painting still captures what seems a classical bearing, with its gabled roof and three-windowed dormer still erect and proud, and still evincing the colors that it once wore. It is difficult to imagine Mitchnick’s mindset when revisiting and painting this moment of her life and prompts the question of whether this is an elegy for the Buffalo Street house or an objective portrait.

 

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Nancy Mitchnick, “Buffalo Street”, Oil Painting, 99 x 88, 2008-09

One of the most interesting aspects of Mitchnick’s work is the lesson that she teaches with each composition, which is that it takes a long look to realize a painting. Her latest pieces, “Night Heron” and “White Front,” seem almost recklessly whimsical compared to the disciplined, graphic painting of the abandoned houses. Populated with strange bits of ocean coral, odd mythic creatures (snakes, birds, turtles), and a Persian Princess, they are a gargantuan leap into another mind space. However, after one spends time with them, they gain traction, and their amazing palette of colors (throughout “Uncalibrated” her palette is symphonic) begins to tantalize, and an almost fairytale narrative gathers. It might be the story of a new Hamtramck or not, but it certainly signifies another trajectory for Nancy Mitchnick’s painting to mine.

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Nancy Mitchnick,”Night Heron”, Oil Painting 77 x 111 – 2016

 

“Uncalibrated” will be at MOCAD until Sunday, July 31, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simone DeSousa @ Holding House

Architecture of the Soul in a Serendipitous Space

Holding House, an art/work space two years in the making that began engaging with art and community in Southwest Detroit in 2013, has been fashioned, roots up, from a gutted storefront (shuttered in 1978 and not re-inhabited until co-directors Andrea Eckert and Adrienne Dunkerley took it on) into a magnificent, light-filled space that still retains choice features of its former identity. Its roomy, raw-edged gallery is the absolute perfect setting for Simone DeSousa’s new solo exhibition, “Calculating with Absence.”

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Simone DeSousa, Installation image, “Calculating with Absence (The Jewel in the Lake)” Wall Acrylic on Panel, 2016 Images – Courtesy of Clara DeGalan, Simone DeSousa, and Eric Wheeler

 “Calculating with Absence” is installed, and should be viewed, from the roots up. The denser, slightly older works installed in Holding House’s lower level comprise a sort of prima materia which bursts, on the gallery’s main floor, into a constellation of airier, more succinct works that take the viewer on a meditative journey through space, silence, and the evocative, multivalent power of the gesture which stands alone.

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Simone DeSousa, “Calculating with Absence (The Temple of Bliss and Emptiness 1 and 2)”, Acrylic on Panel, 2016

DeSousa’s early career in architecture is evident in her work- abstract and sharply minimal as it can be, it speaks in the silent, echoing language of space. The more built-up works read like cityscapes, layers of geometric forms and linear gestures crowding the picture plane, built up with industrial surface texture- swirls of resin and caulk. Some of those same textures appear in the quieter works, where they are accompanied by the barest of architectural scribbles, or simply given an unconventional format for a setting- DeSousa’s panels bend, nick off at corners, elongate, and spread along the gallery walls more like evolving visual conversations than self-enclosed paintings.

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Simone DeSousa,“Calculating with Absence (The Secret Path)” Wall , Acrylic on Panel, 2016

“Calculating with Absence (The Secret Path)” Wall

The power of the gesture is uniquely engaged in this format. As immediate as the forms in these paintings feel, their surroundings are carefully considered and have great bearing on how each gesture reads, and moves out into its surrounding space. The cohabitation of DeSousa’s textural swaths with delicate architectural elements suggest both massive scale and confusing layers of space.

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Simone DeSousa, “Calculating with Absence (Base, Path, and Fruit)”, Acrylic on Panel, 2016

Seen as forms within pictures, the gestures rupture the quiet recession of space suggested by the drawing, like a sudden realization can rupture a settled sense of reality- conversely, seen in the context of the gallery space, the gestures project from their oddly shaped receptacles to create visual rhymes and dialogs with the surrounding architecture itself. Here is the serendipity of the show’s setting- the exposed beams and raw, plastered edges of Holding House’s interior draws DeSousa’s one-shot gestures out of their pictorial settings, and sets in motion a parallel, but separate dialog with actual space, fostered by the ever-finessing nontraditional formats on which she works. In “Calculating with Absence,” DeSousa has accomplished something very special and rare- two dimensional works that simultaneously dialog with, about, and into three dimensional space while maintaining their own autonomy as beautiful, sharply composed paintings. As a long-time fan of her curatorial prowess at Simone DeSousa Gallery (formerly Re:View Contemporary) in Midtown, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that DeSousa brings as much clarity and power of vision to her studio practice. I sincerely hope we get to see more of this side of DeSousa’s practice in the future.

“Calculating with Absence” is on display at Holding House through June 10, 2016.

 

 

 

“Transitions” @ the Galerie Camille

The Art of Shifting Stillness: Brian Day and William Harris

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“Transitions” at Galerie Camille, Installation View, Courtesy of Galerie Camille All other images Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

Galerie Camille’s current show features the work of two artists at two very different points in their careers- Brian Day, an established Detroit area photographer, and William Harris, a painter and former student at College for Creative Studies. At first glance, the two couldn’t be more different, stylistically, technically, or conceptually. That is part of the point, says Melannie Chard, director of Galerie Camille, a recent addition to Midtown’s mushrooming gallery district. “It is actually my intention to continue to exhibit established artists with newer artists, and you will see this theme in upcoming shows as well… I like that it provides an opportunity to introduce collectors to new work, and the artists seem to enjoy the collaboration which ultimately strengthens the artistic community.” Chard’s conviction that there is room for everybody in Detroit’s exhibition roster, and her commitment to showcasing new and potentially risky work, is welcome news that immediately sets Galerie Camille apart in a scene that can feel insular and difficult to gain exposure in.

The work of Day and Harris shown side by side is proof that Chard’s formula is potent. In nearly every respect, Harris is the Appletini to Day’s Grey Goose, neat- both get you there, via different styles, materials, and combinations. Both, however, derive from the same culture, and are hunting down the same distillation- the human figure as it inhabits, symbolizes, and claims its stake in iconic architectural structure.

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William Harris, Onementum – Oil on Linen 40 x 30

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Brian Day, In The Air Tonight, Photograph on Paper, 11.5 X 17.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harris is a hitherto self-taught painter whose style is in a state of fraught transition, as it becomes overlaid with academic techniques and compositional tropes. His work, at this point, maintains an ardent, romantic floridity and an endearing improvisational use of materials that speaks both to his naiveté and his sincerity. His subject matter involves various experiments in dissolving figural repetitions into cavernous architectural spaces, drawing imagery from Surrealism, documentary images of derelict architectural spaces, and what I can only define as a romantic music video aesthetic.

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William Harris, Empirical Light – Oil on Linen 48 x 36

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His technique and subject matter are still finding their way- his rendering of hands is particularly problematic, especially juxtaposed with his incredible facility with faces, and eyes in particular- his figures manage to be both iconic of the structures they are overlaid onto, and autonomous characters in their own right, who engage the viewer, from one piece to the next, with an unsettlingly steady, appraising return gaze. Harris’ technical foibles would be less distracting if they were more intentional and canny- which might, ironically, throw off the crystalline sincerity of his work.

Day, by stark contrast, is a mature artist in full command of his powers. His photographs are fluent masterworks, each finding a balance between content and form that evokes the early Constructivist photography of Alexander Rodchenko.

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Brian Day, Feel No Pain – Photograph on Paper 7.5 x 11.5

Like Rodchenko, Day grounds his work in a deceptively straightforward, documentary style that speaks simultaneously in a more subversive formal language, conjuring gorgeous abstractions in light and shadow even while capturing candid moments of human passage through urban space. Day’s documents of action, while political in their content (his body of work “Planet Detroit” depicts the ravages of house fires in run-down neighborhoods, seen up close as fire fighters battle with them, or at a distance, as grim vertical plumes of smoke rise against a scene of daily urban transit) dwell in the formal beauty of these arrangements of light and shadow as well, with a lightness of touch that offsets the potential for objectification that lurks in his subject matter- Day is able to see both horror and beauty from ground level.

The two artists share an interest in the vital role human action plays in the life of architecture, and, in turn, how the narrative of that architecture informs the culture that inhabits it- the embattled maintenance and slow decay of the structures that define our landscape becomes part of our viscera, as well as the scenery of our daily movements. It will be interesting to see where Harris takes his exploration of the figure’s physical and metaphorical weaving into structures. The formal lushness of Day’s work supplements, rather than distracts from, the problematic grittiness of his subject matter. Finding visual rhymes and formal touchstones between the two artist’s pieces is one of the great pleasures of “Transitions.” Both are asserting themselves as vital voices in this epochal moment that work made in and about Detroit is experiencing.

“Transitions” is on view at Galerie Camille from March 11 through April 1, 2016.       http://www.galeriecamille.com/

Economy of Form @ David Klein Gallery

Taking a hard look at the “hard edge”

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M. Kim, M. Sengbush, Installation Image Courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Viewing just the south-facing wall of the main gallery at David Klein Gallery’s new downtown Detroit location, you might never imagine that there are three different artists included in the current show, Economy of Form: Matthew Hawtin, Mary Kim, and Mark Sengbusch, which held its opening reception on November 14th, and will run through December 24th. Closest to the door is Pitch, a six-sided monochrome piece in matte black by Hawtin—a dimensional canvas that resembles an iconic jewel shape tipped on its side. This flows in seamless conversation with Kim’s Two circles, which conveys two roughly circular forms made out of rigid lengths of wood, likewise bending outside the 2D plane, and swathed in bright acrylic shades of chartreuse and red. The wall terminates in Sengbusch’s Gibson 6, which distills his signature set of symbols, laboriously scrimshawed into acrylic-painted wood, into six scaled-up details in shades of matte black and grey.

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Matthew Hawtin, Pitch (2015), Acrylic on canvas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spare arrangements, vibrant monotones, and careful use of geometry is present in all three bodies of work, and the exhibition title refers to a characteristic of the term “hard edge,” first applied to Four Abstract Classicists, which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1959. The artists featured in the 1959 show were John McLaughlin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and Karl Benjamin, and give clues to some of the formal inspiration for the artists on display at David Klein—as indeed they have spawned entire generations of work springing from these starting points, including that of Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Paul Feely, and numerous others. Perhaps rising less automatically to mind and representing a more unique expression of these artists individual visions are some wellsprings of inspiration that fall outside the contemporary arts canon; Kim’s second Master’s degree in architecture transformed her previously more traditionally 2D approach to painting into the 3-dimensional constructions that just from the walls at hard angles; Hawtin’s almost two-decade long experiments with the “torqued canvas” that removes the physical structures of the painting stretcher and frame; Sengbusch’s obsession with seminal science fiction writer and visionary futurist William Gibson.

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Mark Sengbusch, Gibson 6 (2015), Scrimshawed acrylic on panel

In some ways, the three artists in this group show work together so perfectly because they have each chosen to zoom into the fine details of one traditional element of painting—Kim’s works are entirely stretcher and or/frame, Hawtin’s are obsessed with the canvas surface (sometimes actually fiberglass, affording a preternaturally smooth finish), and Sengbusch has generated an elaborate vocabulary of original signifiers. This last elevates Sengbusch’s work to a unique level, translating his source material into a visible and new language that goes beyond art history, and breaks into future territory. But while writers like Gibson are necessarily preoccupied with the meaning of words, Sengbusch is concerned with the form, the literal design of language—a rich subject for investigation. To create language without meaning is a truly difficult task, when you consider the awesome power of the human mind to translate symbols as diverse as a musical note, hànzì or kan’ji (Chinese and Japanese characters, respectively), or the letters you are currently reading into meaningful sounds, and Sengbusch’s finished canvases of course lend themselves to interpretation, when viewed by anyone trained to seek meaning from signifiers.

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Mary Kim – Four Squares (DK Red, Green, Yellow, Blue, Red) (2015), Painted wood

Altogether, a very strong show at David Klein Gallery, with allusions to the rich lineage of minimalist and hard edge traditions, and a few new twists thrown in to keep the conversation moving!

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M. Sengbush, M. Hawtin Installation Image Courtesy of David Klein Gallery

 

 

Economy of Form: Matthew Hawtin, Mary Kim, and Mark Sengbusch remains on display from November 14 – December 24, 2015 at David Klein Gallery1520 Washington Boulevard, Detroit

www.dkgallery.com

Shannon Goff @ Susanne Hilberry

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Shannon Goff – Installation of hand-built Ceramic, 2015 All Images Courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

At first glance, there is little common ground between the two sides of Susanne Hilberry Gallery; unusual, because both sides are part of a solo show, Miles to Empty, by Detroit native Shannon Goff. Goff has two distinct bodies of work in the show: a playful collection of pastel-shaded ceramic pieces, and an exacting full-scale replica of Lincoln Continental rendered in crisp while cardboard.

“I first started working with cardboard in grad school, as an intermediary material when my ceramic work grew more ambitious in scale,” Goff says, “I needed a material to help me figure out how to scale up while defying gravity.” Indeed, the sheer scale of the cardboard construction (also called “Miles to Empty”) draws the viewer in immediately, but the attention paid to detail really underscores the meticulousness of the hand-building work involved in Goff’s process. This, of course, mirrors the labor-intensive process of assembling actual automobiles—a process that is collectively well understood in the birthplace of the automobile assembly line, but largely invisible to most end users of cars, on the whole.

 

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Shannon Goff – Miles to Empty, Cardboard, 2015

Once an understanding has been achieved of the importance of hand-building within Goff’s practice, a connection to the ceramic and unfired clay works that populate the other side of the gallery becomes obvious. Long white tables house collections of sculptures that can be seen as three-dimensional iterations of drawings. In fact, with its bright colors, blobs of metallic glaze embellishments, and loosely figurative subjects, the whole of this gallery could be taken as a kind of fine art fridge, covered in a child’s drawings.

This is not to say that Goff’s sculptural work lacks sophistication. What seems gestural and spontaneous is, of course, a deeply challenging question of physics, when it comes from ushering clay in its unfired state through a molding and firing process that leaves it standing strong. “My three-dimensional ceramic drawings saddle somewhere between engineering and experiment. I’ll pose a question to myself, for example, what if I change the line weight? Or what if I play with the density? How many times can I fire a piece before a potential collapse or catastrophe occurs.? If and when such an event occurs, can I salvage it or part of it? One of ceramics main opponents is gravity…I suppose it’s a main opponent of humans as well”

Some of Goff’s works betray the fight against gravity, like “Ka Lae” (2014), in which a top-heavy section of jagged blue peaks has sent the orange superstructure beneath canting off at a now-frozen angle. This reflects Goff’s ambition, with this piece, to see how little material could support a “forest of density.” For the most part, they support surprisingly complex and dense configurations with seeming effortlessness. Although Goff says, of her work in cardboard, “It [is] far easier to engage a large amount of space without all of the problems and limitations of ceramic,” scale with ceramics seems to be a constraint that she has overcome. The crowning achievement of the clay-based works, standing in a gallery on its own, is “Doyenne”—an unfired clay piece that stands 82” high, and was constructed on-site, due to its size and complexity. This piece, which initially began as an attempt to channel and create the aura of Goff’s grandfather, took on a different life and identity as it progressed. “I wanted this piece to be rooted in place, so I decided to abstractly start from a map of downtown Detroit and see what happened,” says Goff. “I even aligned it directionally the best I could. On the third day it grew tall enough to reveal a skirted figure. I knew then that this piece was not my grandfather but the true doyenne of the Detroit art scene. On the 4th day, it looked back and I listened.”

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Shannon Goff, Doyenne — Hand-Built Ceramic, 2015

 

 

Goff refers, of course, to Susanne Hilberry—the gallery’s founder, and a tireless champion of the Detroit art scene, who sadly passed away amidst preparations to mount Goff’s show, after a long illness. Her passing leaves a hole that cannot be filled, but Goff’s timely monument to her influence seems a fitting send off. From the ghosts of cars past, to the doyenne whose memory lives on in the place she built, Miles to Empty captures a vital mixture of remembrance and hopeful energy. “I guess in many ways it’s about birth and life and death,” Goff says. “And memory. And loss.”