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

 

 

 

 

 

Bearing Witness: Carole Harris @ NCRC Rotunda Gallery

Carole Harris, University of Michigan, North Campus Research Center Rotunda Gallery, Installation Image

Talking in layers: walking into the enormous and alien territory of the University of Michigan’s North Campus Research Center to see the exhibition “Bearing Witness,” the quilt works of Detroit artist Carole Harris hanging in the building’s Rotunda Gallery. Dramatically lit, a series of Harris’ dazzlingly colored fiber works punctuate the security-conscious, antiseptic space. It is a research facility that was formerly Pfizer Pharmaceutical (think Revolutionary anti-cholesterol med Lipitor that paid for the amazing building complex) and that, after the economic “downturn” of the ’80s, was purchased by the University of Michigan to now serve primarily as a medical research complex.

Harris’ brilliant, lively and layered textiles offer a shocking, perhaps painful contrast to the generic, monochromatic, modernist architectural surroundings of the NCRC building.  As a child growing up in Detroit, Harris was taught embroidery and stitching by her mother, and, being “height challenged” and quite petite, she learned to make her own clothes so they would fit properly. In high school at Cass Tech she studied music and science before settling on art, and, after graduating from college in 1966, she began an interior design practice that she maintained until recently.

In an ironic twist, her magnificent, globally influenced art looks almost captive in this sequestered, post-industrial landscape. It’s a long distance from Harris’ vibrant life in Detroit to the strange, emptiness of the medical research center.

In a recent talk at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum, Harris talked about her evolution as an artist and about deciding in 1966 to make her first quilt for her upcoming marriage. For a start, she used the simple, standard “pin wheel” pattern, and for “stuffing” used an old blanket: humble materials for a special moment. It’s a tradition for quilters to commemorate a birth or marriage by making one, and it was an auspicious moment for Harris and her husband, the playwright Bill Harris, the beginning of a marriage that has endured for over fifty very creative years.   While maintaining an interior design practice, she kept up her chops as a quilter and, like the jazz musicians she regularly honors in her quilt designs and titles, she played her scales: scissoring, stitching, splicing, editing, and learned her art form to perfection.

Harris’ fiber pieces at the Rotunda Gallery are a retrospective of the last twenty-five years or so of her work and feature what seem to be breakthrough visions for her. After years of using traditional forms, she recently began experimenting with works inspired by such diverse sources as the African Yoruba tribe’s Egungun textiles, Japanese Boro or “patchwork” folk textiles, architectural spaces derived from such American Abstract Expressionists as painter Richard Diebenkorn (especially his “City Scapes” and “Ocean Park” series), her childhood memories, or the storied erosion of historical buildings of the city in which she grew up, all with the astonishingly inventive, constant background soundtrack of black American music. In the process, Harris has quietly become an American master in a medium nurtured and influenced by black rural culture.

Carole Harris, Textile, Straight No Chaser, 60 x 69” 2006

The early work at the Rotunda Gallery reveals her break from traditional quilt patterns and shapes and, like much of the painting of the ’80s and ’90s (by Elizabeth Murray, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, et al.), explores ways of sculpting and lifting three dimensions to the flat surface of an abstract painting. “Outside the Lines,” 1994, posits an irregular shape, with a broad swath of negative space, corded fabric and loosely hanging strips, to create a sense of movement suggesting Harris’ homage to a Yoruba Egungun ceremonial dance that celebrates departed elders. Despite the radical break, Harris still uses basic quilt-making components such as individually composed “squares” and elaborate stitching to give texture and amazing painterly pattern to the surface.

Carole Harris, Textile, Way Across Town, Textile, 59 x 70” 2008

There are two straight-up stunning works that employ hard-edged, geometric shapes of vibrant color balanced by coal-black negative space: “Way Across Town,” 2008, and “Straight No Chaser,” 2006, both in homage to Thelonious Monk, and that show Harris to be a daring colorist with both quilts centering a rectangle of electric purple supporting an array of oblique wedges and squares of oranges and reds. Not always a compliment, to be called a colorist sometimes implies that one is artistically not up to snuff, but this is hardly the case, as both of these works feature eye-popping geometric invention, and there’s real graphic genius operating here. With their daring, geometric slashes and exploration of architectural space, they might even reference the agitprop designs of the great Russian constructivists El Lissitsky and Rodchenko, from whom Diebenkorn, one of Harris’ honored influences, certainly learned. Throughout this visual musicality Harris keeps up an overall rhythm with a running stitch, sometimes with curving arabesques, sometimes with an angular geometric backbeat.

Carole Harris, Textile, From Before, 58 x 45 2013

Harris’ quilts from the last couple of years suggest the influence of the Japanese phenomenon of Boro patchwork clothing. Japanese peasants, especially in the 19th century, being economically challenged, would patch their clothing with remnants of old, worn-out garments, creating a remarkably beautiful folk style of dress. Using the running stitch, sashiko, to bind the patches to the old clothing, they would create a decorative pattern. There are six works in “Bearing Witness” that use the Boro technique. “From Before,” 2013, uses a layering of remnants or swatches — one is hand-stained with a radiating pattern– that overall suggests a geographical mapping. The irregularly shaped “Other People’s Memories,’ 2016, layers found remnants of clothing in various colors and patterns and combine machine and hand stitching to create what feels like a fragment of an ancient textile.

Carole Harris, Textile, Other People’s Memories 39 x57” 2016

Likewise, three small seasonal “sketches” — “Spring Ascending,” 2016, “Fall Etude,” 2015, and “Winter Etude” 2015 — combine stained remnants, machine and hand stitching, burnt holes, and hand-stitched florets, to image topographical maps that indeed, in their lyrical beauty, echo Chopin’s Etudes themselves.

The last piece to come out of Harris’ studio just for the exhibition was indeed the title work.

“Bearing Witness” is 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, Bearing Witness, Textiles, 42 x53” 2017

“Bearing Witness” continues at the Rotunda Gallery through August 23

U-M North Campus Research Complex, 2800 Plymouth Road, Building 18, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

McArthur Binion Curates @ Hill Gallery

Installation image, McArthur Binion Cruates @Hill Gallery, 2018

Hill Gallery in Birmingham, Michigan, opened a group exhibition curated by McArthur Binion on May 4, 2018, representing five Detroit-based artists.

Although Binion and I were at Wayne State University in the early 70s, I was not very familiar with his work until I saw his exhibition last July representing the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale. It was a powerful exhibition, and like many successful artists that fit the modernist profile, Binion makes work that is a study in oppositions: line and shape, figure and ground, image and abstraction, copy and original, color and black & white. His modus operandi is to somehow magically blend an assault of binaries into a single, unified emblem of the unique and complicated self. Although the laconic grids resonate with this viewer, I walked out of the exhibit thinking about the influence of the cross-hatch marks by Jasper Johns.

After earning his BFA from Wayne State University, Binion went on to complete his MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art and became a professor of art at Columbia College since 1992. He describes his minimalistic abstract paintings as “Rural Modernist.”  Is he referring to being born on a cotton farm in Macon, Mississippi where he was exposed to the West African textile designs in his mother’s quilts? Possibly.

Allie McGhee, Step’n Off, Mixed Media, 36 x 24″, 1990

I have written before in the Detroit Art Review about the veteran Detroit artist, Allie McGhee, when he exhibited at Detroit’s  N’Namdi Contemporary Art in April of 2016, where he had a large solo exhibition, Now & Then, alongside work by Carol Harris, also in this Hill exhibition.  McGhee’s exhibition was majestic in the way he elevated shape, form and color with mixed media on paper and the works on canvas.  In my previous review,  I described McGhee as, “A Detroiter who attended Cass Technical High School and completed his undergraduate work at Eastern Michigan University in 1965, but he was born in Charleston, West Virginia.” McGhee describes his influences like so: “As an artist I have always been inspired by the diverse rhythms of our environment,” he says. “It has been a great reserve of energy for my work. In my recent works instead of seeing the natural world as a rational observer, I see if from within as if through a telescope or microscope.”

Throughout the evening, I kept returning to his mixed media work, Step’n Off  because it just kept growing on me.  The composition leads the way on this vertical abstract expressionistic painting with a strong unconventional structure created by the use of space, shape and color.  The under-painting, with accents of primary color, provides a kind of intuitive support for the overall painting. The only reference to something vaguely representational is a small ladder, an icon that suggests a climb and the thin solid rectangle that repeats itself. 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 this lathe-like construction. Viewers might subconsciously ask themselves, Would I like to have this painting in my living space?  My answer is, overwhelmingly, absolutely

Carole Harris, Time and Again, Textiles, 37 x 43″, 2018

The first thing that jumps out from the work of Carole Harris is her choice of medium.   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.”  In this viewer’s experience, especially in the Detroit area, this artist leads the way in creating abstraction using a large variety of cloth materials and stitchery.

Harris says , “My work relies on improvisation. I am fascinated by the rhythms and energy created when I cut and piece multiple patterns. I let the fabric and color lead me on a rhythmic journey. My intention is to celebrate the beauty in the frayed, the decaying and the repaired. I want to capture the patina of color softened by time, as well as feature the nicks, scratches, scars and other marks left by nature or humans.”

Glen Mannisto wrote for the Detroit Art Review about Carole Harris’s solo exhibition at UofM NCRC Rotunda Gallery,  “As a child growing up in Detroit, Harris was taught embroidery and stitching by her mother, and, being “height challenged” and quite petite, she learned to make her own clothes so they would fit properly. In high school at Cass Tech she studied music and science before settling on art, and, after graduating from college in 1966, she began an interior design practice that she maintained until recently.”

Addie Langford, Mint/Red/Oso, Acrylic and Domestic Textile on Board, 2018

Langford’s large, abstract expressionistic painting, Mint / Red / Osois is acrylic paint over domestic textile on board. The stroke work reminds this viewer of a cross between Sean Scully and Franz Kline with textiles as a backdrop. The diptych is powerful in its structure, execution and attraction to the vertical flow of dripping paint.  Langford earned her BFA in architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design and her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. I became familiar with Langford’s work when she exhibited a solo show at the Simon DeSousa gallery with these semi-transparent white bars and controlled vertical drips of paint. One wonders what four years of architecture study does to an artist who wants to make things with her hands in a rigorous process of trial and error. On her web site she mentions McArthur Binion as an influence, and this writer notices some of her earlier work came from N’Namdi Contemporary Gallery in Miami.

James Franklin, Untitled, Acrylic, Epoxy, Aluminum, and Sealed Rigid Wrap on Foam, 23 x 25″, 2018

Part of the Binion show is another artist earning his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, James Benjamin Franklin.  Currently living and working in Detroit, Franklin was recently in a group show at the Galerie Camille in midtown Detroit, and a solo show at Reyes Projects in downtown Birmingham.  His small work, Untitled is acrylic, epoxy and aluminum, sealed in a rigid wrap on foam and typical of his recent work. These works feel like naïve abstraction relying heavily on primary color and simple shapes.  Occasionally he inserts a grid or web into his form. This younger artist’s work feels early in its development.

Tiff Massey, Spring Prototype I, Steel, 39h x 39w x 14″ 2017, Image courtesy Hill Gallery

Again, Binion turns to his alma mater Cranbrook Academy of Art with work by Tiff Massey, who earned her Bachelor of Science from Eastern Michigan University, and a Master of Fine Arts in Metalsmithing at Cranbrook Academy of Arts. This early educational path in the sciences differs from other artists but seems to have migrated to metals and on from that point to various art forms.

The floor sculpture, Spring Prototype 1 is coiled steel rod, maybe half inch in diameter and reminds this viewer of playing with a slinky as a child. Most importantly this work moves beyond plain and simple as its graceful and cultivated design leaves the viewer wanting to see more.

Massey says, “My experience with jewelry became my gateway to other media, to a larger perspective, and to making large-scale sculpture, always with a consistent emphasis on adornment. What happens when the viewer becomes adorned and how does the environment facilitate that transition from the unadorned to the adorned? How does the context and placement of an object influence an individual’s perception of self? The work first seduces the viewer, creating a desire to take, touch, and activate.  Once activated the pieces immediately create a sense of confidence in the wearer, producing an increased desire to show off and be seen.  Whether it is a sculpture on a wall, an object set in an outdoor landscape, or jewelry worn by the viewer, my work maintains an engagement of the body itself.”

The Hill Gallery opened its doors in Birmingham, Michigan in 1980 and has offered contemporary art representing sixty artists, both nationally and internationally recognized, along with an exceptional American Folk Art collection.

McArthur Binion Curates @  Hill Gallery runs through June 16, 2018

Detroit Group Exhibition @ Oakland University Art Gallery

The Oakland University Art Gallery (OUAG) has opened an exhibition, Who Were They Then, on October 20, 2018, that puts together visual artists with ties in and around Detroit. Five artists working in different media create a biographical sketch of their work spanning back to what they might consider as early beginnings.

Morgan Barrie, Pest 1, 40 x 50″ digital archival print, 2018

Morgan Barrie photo collages are landscapes that usually include an animal, as in the example Pest 1, a 40 x 50-inch digital archive print, in which the artist places an animal on a pedestal and surrounds the subject with flowering plants native to the Midwest.  The formal arrangement and centered fox, with a solid background and this array of plants carefully placed, would seem to be an application in composition, shape, and color. Needless to say, all of these elements are brought into a digital environment, carefully placed, where the light varies slightly.  There are five of these vertical compositions, each with an animal at the center: a dog, a fawn and a cat.    Her work in Re: Formation, at 600 Jefferson Avenue, Toledo, Ohio where she places a female figure in the landscape with floating Plasticene bags in Future Seasons, suggests an interest in environmental issues. In fact, she has created a body of work dominated by these bags set against clean water and open sky as subjects.

She says in her statement, “I view landscapes as teeming with millions of constantly changing factors…I like to have sections of the frame that are overwhelming to capture that idea.  All my work is a way to have a dialogue with my fear and confusion as I try to understand the way we as humans relate to the rest of the natural world, or rather don’t relate to it.”

Morgan Barrie earned her Bachelor of Arts in photography from Columbia College Chicago and her M.F.A in Photography from Eastern Michigan University.

Mel Rosas, Rooftop III, 6.5 x 9.75″, lithograph, 1981

 

Mel Rosas, Professor of Painting and Drawing at Wayne State University takes us way back to his lithograph Rooftop III, 1981 as a starting point for his magical realism in a landscape. There are few artists from Detroit who have had a long and successful career being represented in New York City by a major gallery.  For Mel Rosas, it was 1991 when he began his relationship with Davison Contemporary then located on 724 Fifth Avenue, and in 2014 moved to Chelsea on West 26th street.

These images over the years have shared common components.  The apparent elements are his use of a flat picture plane facing the viewer, and always an opening to space beyond, whether it’s the ocean, a sky, a room or just around a corner.  The settings are Latin American culture and ethnic identity, an influence that may come from his father’s homeland of Panama. The symbolism included on his street walls is often of graffiti, old movie posters, religious iconography, traffic signs and automobiles from the 1950s. Occasionally the figure of a man in a white suit appears in his work, as in Searching for the Romantic, where he places himself in the painting. In visual art, as in literature, it’s hard to get beyond oneself.

Mel Rosas, Gentrification, 36 x 36″ Oil on Panel, 2016

In Gentrification, Mel Rosas gives us the iconography of a Latin urban landscape with suggestions of construction and rebirth. Traditionally, he places his focus on composition, color and space with extraordinary detail to texture in this one-perspective rendition of a street scene.  Most who are friends of the artist know he has always added two numerals indicating his age at the time he executed the work.

He says in a statement, “I have developed an interest in Latin American Literature, both realism (Bolano) and magic realism (Borges, Marquez). I am fortunate to have traveled through several Latin American countries; my research is an ongoing investigation addressing questions of place, culture, and ethnic identity.”

Mel Rosas earned his Master of Fine Arts from Tyler School of Art, Temple University, and he has been a recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Grant, Charles H. Gershenson Distinguished Faculty Award, and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, New York, NY, 2009.

Bryant Hillman, Honda Accord, 16 x 20″, Acrylic on Canvas, 2014

Bryant Tillman is a Detroit artist who has been painting Detroit expressionistic landscapes for over thirty-five years.  In this exhibition, he presents ten works of art, fluid representational compositions of cars, people and buildings.  These high-contrast acrylic works are probably executed in a short time, from start to finish before the acrylic dries. In his painting, Honda Accord, he paints in his shadow as he takes his image during low light.  Back in the studio, the “moment in time” gets rendered with a loose, painterly brush stroke with surfaces that grab the viewer’s attention.

He says in his statement, “Painting like a dead Frenchman, you tend to often think like one when selecting subject matter, locale, or method. Natural scenes and surroundings, like freshly manicured lawns and gardens or wildly verdant wooded areas, are not alien to Detroit.  Also, the impressionists often included subjects that are considered contemporary to that time…steamships and steam locomotives, for example. So I felt it only natural to include in my work an occasional late model car in my urban scenes.”

Selected as the Visual Arts Fellow in 2013 by Kresge Arts in Detroit, Tillman shows things as they are, and lets the viewer bring their experience to the work. With his use of long, low shadows of light and color, the viewer sees a more vibrant, fertile reality than what actually exists.  He puts a painterly face on the landscapes of Detroit.

Carole Harris, Time and Again, 43.5 x 37″, cotton, silk, linen, 2018

For this writer, what is interesting about the biographical sketch of Carole Harris is the earlier work, as in View from the Kitchen on Preston Street, from quilt/ fiber artist to abstractionist, as in Time and Again, 2018.  Having written about Harris’s work when exhibited at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art and recently in her exhibition, Repetition, Rhythm, and Vocab, with Allie McGee, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, you see a unique path to non-representational art. Here in the OUAG exhibition, you view the 1999 piece, cluttered with improvisational polygons, triangles, rectangles and squares to the 2018 work, Time and Again, that depends more on the subtlety of stitchery, layers upon layers of cloth and color, while establishing a more distinct composition working from a dark background to a light off-set foreground.  One can trace back to pre-Reconstruction in the South, where quilts were necessities, and female artists went unrecognized for their aesthetics, but Carole Harris had her beginnings in textile work in the mid-1960s and gradually evolved to a pure abstract narrative, with original gestures, layered textures and innovative compositional ideas.

She says in her statement, “As an art student in college, I remember seeing the work of Romare Bearden as one of the first artists I can remember who depicted African American imagery, which made an impact even though, and probably because, it was abstract.”

Carole Harris earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Wayne State University and was the recipient of the 2015 Kresge Visual Art Fellowship.

Clinton Snider, The Last Winter, 42 x 84″, Oil on Panel, 2013

A familiar artist in Detroit, Clinton Snider’se work in this OUAG exhibition stands by itself in a separate corner space. His expressive post-industrial landscapes vary in both size and shape, occasionally including a figure.  In this sizeable rectangular work, Last Winter, Snider creates an eerie light that sets a mood as a low sunset casting long shadows across the snow.  It almost feels apocalyptic.  Trimmed and truncated trees surrounded by old debris speaks to a time gone by in a once thriving era, perhaps Detroit, waiting to be repurposed. The architecture in Snider’s buildings are almost always pre-world war II, reflective of an older neighborhood, and sometimes nostalgic, as in Back Forty, where the extra wide angle image plays heavily into the composition with extended shadows from objects spread out across a lush lawn.

Not many visual artists collaborate, and one collaboration that includes Clinton Snider is with fellow artist Scott Hocking. Most notably, their installation, Relics, consists of some 400 identical square boxes of Detroit’s discarded found objects and rummage, that were connected and set up as a grid in the exhibition Artists Take on Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2001.

Snider says in a statement, “I think that simply growing up in and around a city with a post-industrial status like Detroit has had the greatest effect on my work over the years. It feels like walking through the texture and material substance of history. Still, within this crumbling of infrastructure and architecture, a spirit remained intact that manifests itself in creativity, innovation, and a tenacity of people, that changes one’s perspective on how society functions. “

Clinton Snider earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the College for Creative Studies and was represented by Susanne Hilberry gallery.

Who Were They Then was curated by Dick Goody, Professor of Art, Chair of Department of Art & Art History and Director of Oakland University Art Gallery. In recent years he has reached out to curate many new types of exhibitions that would include installations, conceptual work and leading types of experimentation by artists from all parts of the country and beyond. Here, Goody comes back to an exhibition of Detroit artists, largely made up of representational work (with the exception of Carole Harris) that survey the artists’ work over time, and in some way feels like he comes full circle.

Who Were They Then at Oakland University Art Gallery runs through November 18, 2018.

 

 

Rick Vian @ Janice Charach Gallery

rick-vian-installation-image-2016

Rick Vian, Installation image Courtesy of Glen Mannisto

“Keeping a Wet Edge: A Retrospective of the Abstract Work by Rick Vian”  &  “Detroit Abstraction: Featuring 41 of the Most Noted Abstract Artist with ties to Detroit”.

The experience of being alone in the bush, as we call it in the far north of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, deep in the thicket of the woods, is a tricky business. From immobilizing awe over its beauty to a vertigo over its map-less chaos, a walk in the bush can wreak psychic havoc. The current retrospective of Rick Vian’s painting at the Janice Charach Gallery offers a marvelous mirror of Vian’s engagement with the painting of trees in the bush over the past fifteen years. But first before finding himself in the bush of the Upper Peninsula, Vian was a worker, an industrial painter (it’s probably where his no-nonsense work ethic comes from) literally painting factories—the infrastructure of gas, water and electrical lines, the dangerous machinery of industrial production, — and living the inherent design and experiencing the drama of industry.

 

rick-vian-if-you-only-new-2-40-x-68-2004

Rick Vian, “If You Only New” Oil on Canvas, 40 X 68, 2004

There are a few paintings in the current exhibition that took inspiration from that time and they explore with dramatic shading and coloring, with scumbled surfaces and jagged lines, the interconnected and interlocked spaces of a unique and almost cartooned or animated geometric abstraction. They don’t much look like any geometric abstraction from art history though they might suggest kinship with the Russian Constructivists. “If You Only New,” 2004, a charcoal drawing, dramatized with smears and layered palimpsests and composed with the triangular stencils of drafting tools, looks gothic in its theatrical play of prime geometric shapes. “Nice Condition,” 1999, carves figurative contours out of classic blade shapes such as intersecting ellipses and truncated spheres, dramatizing the edginess of the industrial landscape.

rick-vian-nice-condition-48-x-40-1999

Rick Vian, “Nice Condition”, Oil on Canvas, 48 x 40″, 1999 All images Courtesy of Glen Mannisto, and the Artists.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These earlier geometric abstractions set us up for the big hit of the retrospective and his latest project which is the push/pull relationship between Vian’s figurative and abstract painting of nature. He seems to have turned away from his industrial abstraction and industrial life (he quit the commercial/industrial painting gig) to paint nature. Exploring the wilderness of Northern Michigan’s upper peninsula, where he built a rustic camp in the woods, Vian has engaged the forest and its parts, the tree. Translating his early explorations of the grid, that classic modernist notion, and the physics of sight, Vian has alternated between strictly realist renderings of the forest and a fervently energetic expression. His paintings have become a moment of conscious realization of both the forest and the painting as a signing of that relationship.

 

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Rick Vian, “Stormbreak”, Oil on Canvas, 59”x 84”, 2005

“Stormbreak,” 2005, a dramatic and acutely stark representation of the existential state of a skeleton of a tree is a haunting and certainly metaphoric description of the vulnerability of that tree. In a conversation, he said “I have painted it many times. Its right off Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Bay just past Baraga.” Lest we say Vian has painted it so often that he has almost become its biographer and in that there is the best characterization of a regional artist as a partner and caretaker of the local. One senses a devout relationship with that tree and in the radical shift back, again, to his abstracting of the bush, there seems to lead to a reading of the forest as an emancipating energy and scripted choreography of the forest.

This dramatic relationship infects and determines most of the remainder the current work typified by “The Gathering Pool,” 2010, which “gathers” the surrounding forest or audience of dark shapes, of abstracted squiggles, smears and vertical black shadow-like slashes (figures?) into a focus of brilliant light or frothy foam. In contrast to the surrounding darkness, this brilliant moment is a crescendo of light, perhaps a symbol of spiritual transcendence gleaned from the dark bush. Vian pays homage frequently to his interest in both Italian Renaissance painting, which employed color and brilliant light to dramatize Christian scripture, and to Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic disciplines which use the mandala to diagram the cosmos or in Jungian psychology the unity of the self or personal identity. At the same time, he has kept an eye out for a deep, perhaps objective structure, a former preoccupation of his painting, and found a three-dimensional grid suggested in the “The Gathering Pool” by a faint network intersecting lines.

 

As a disciplined and investigative sojourner, Vian’s bushwhacking has even led him to study the language of the native Ojibway people entitling some of the painting in the Ojibway language which one senses gives a sympathy to the surrounding landscape and to its original inhabitants and interpretors.

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Rick Vian, “Stormbreak,” Oil on Canvas, 59”x84”, 2005

 

DETROIT ABSTRACTION Group Exhibition

As an extraordinary compliment to his own paintings Vian curated “Detroit Abstraction: Featuring 41 of the Most Noted Abstract Artists with ties to Detroit,” a remarkable collection of painting, sculpture, ceramics, and fiber works revealing the profound depth and width of the Detroit’s artistic landscape and of course another testimony to the sincerity and fidelity of Vian’s overall artistic project.

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Holly Branster, “Bracket,” 72”x36”

There is too much to say about the phenomena of abstract art especially in this post-digital age, but quite simply one is overwhelmed with the diversity of ways of seeing and of the use of materials and processes that are represented in Detroit. The stereotyped mainstay of abstract art is painting and the standouts in Detroit Abstraction don’t surprise: Holly Branstner’s stunning “Bracket” is composed of an elongated rectangle with a monolithic, effortless stroke of brilliant yellow with strokes and drips of dark bloody reds. At the other end of psychic spectrum is Janet Hamrick’s smaller oil on canvas, “Undulating Drift,” a subtle reckoning of three panels of alternating stripes in a quiet pallet of taupe and mauve overlaying a series of diamond shaped rectangles. It is excruciatingly subtle and beautifully nuanced and impossible to describe. That’s why it’s a painting. It goes like that: from explosive abstract expressionism to minimalistic painting strategies, from biomorphic and surrealist automatism, to action painting, and the whole wonderful gamut of assemblage wall reliefs composed of cement, wood, metal, glass to cubist formalist sculptures, kinetic whirly gigs and textile hangings, ceramic vessels and Japanese inspired altar-like constructions.

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Janice Hamrick, Undulating Drift, 24 x 30

The explosion that was/is Detroit’s art scene is beautifully realized in Vian’ s deft selection of artists. The diversity of materials and processes speaks of the battle against encrusted formalism that has been a preoccupation of Detroit artists and is a fulsome reminder of the tremendous will and passion of this place-in-the-straits to give shape to the world.

Vian’s paintings occupy the first floor of the spectacular Janice Charach Gallery and the Detroit Abstraction exhibition occupies the second floor. Both are stunningly installed in this amazing space that is part of the Jewish Community Center campus. It is a revelation even to the most experienced art appreciator to see the quality, complexity and integrity of the Detroit’s scene.

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Group Abstract Exhibition, Installation image, Courtesy of Glen Mannisto

The artists included (and Vian bemoaned that there wasn’t room for others he had selected) in the Detroit Abstraction exhibition include: Diana Alva, Anita Bates, Robert Bielat, Holly Branstner, Coco Bruner, Jim Chatelain, Terry Lee Dill, Barbara Dorchen, John Egner, Gary Eleinko, Todd Erickson, Marcia Freedman, Brenda Goodman, Dennis Guastella, Carole Harris, Janet Hamrick, Al Hebert, Meighen Jackson, Lester Johnson, Dennis Jones, Ray Katz, Brian Lacey, Addie Langford, Charles McGee, Allie McGhee, Robert Mirek, Erin Parish, John Piet, Tom Phardel, Sharon Que, Curtis Rhodes, John Rowland, Douglas Semivan, Gilda Snowden, Robert Sestok, Dayton Spence, Ron Teachworth, Nancy Thayer, Russell Thayer, Lois Teicher, Albert Young.

Rick Vian will talk about his work and the Detroit Abstraction exhibition in the Janice Charach Gallery December 4th at 1:00PM. The two exhibitions close Thursday December 8th at 8:00PM.