Frederic Edwin Church @ Detroit Institute of Arts

Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage

Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage, currently on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts, presents a dazzling selection of works made by one of America’s most well-known and successful Nineteenth Century painters. Frederic Edwin Church is best known for highly rendered visions of manifest destiny- expansive, breathtaking views of the American west and South America. Church traded mainly in paintings of virgin land- land untampered with by humans (the people who had made their homes in such landscapes for millennia are mostly absent from Church’s paintings, save as the odd bit of picturesque window dressing). Land that was considered the God-given right of Church’s audience, described by the DIA as “white, Protestant, American.” One thing that A Painter’s Pilgrimage makes clear- through an excellent guide of subtly pointed remarks provided by the DIA- is how much the romance of that Nineteenth Century American, white, Protestant narrative is still with us, buried deep in our cultural bedrock.

A Painter’s Pilgrimage showcases an unconventional body of work for Church- paintings made during a journey the artist took around the Middle East and the Mediterranean in the region then known as the Levant. Church rarely dealt with human history directly in his iconic American landscapes- in A Painter’s Pilgrimage, stately ruins and picturesque cityscapes layer over one another like condensed timelines of Western civilization’s cradles.

Frederic Church, Nature and Civilization, Sunrise in Syria, Oil on Canvas, 1874

Wandering the dimly lit galleries (necessary to protect the paintings) it’s difficult not to be swept away in the grandeur of Church’s vision- every single work is simply dazzling. Church was, first and foremost, a great painter. A devout Christian, he invested all his works with spiritually symbolic shifts in light, focus, and atmospheric cataclysm. His wildly billowing clouds, lurid red skies, and sublime scale speak to the greatness of his God’s creation. The visual rearrangement and condensing of human monuments that he engaged in while painting Middle Eastern landscapes speaks to the desires of the artist and his audience, who clearly felt a sense of ownership of this ancient landscape and how it ought to appear. The dreamy genre painting Al Ayn (The Fountain) combines various types of architecture from different places and eras to describe the arch of civilization’s rise and fall.

Frederic Church, The Fountain, Oil on Canvas, 1882

It also features human figures placed in the foreground, an unusual move for Church, but one that completes his romantic vision of the East. Al Ayn could be an illustration of the history of Orientalism- problematic as the image is, it’s so beautiful that one can’t help but be drawn in by it. This frisson persists throughout the show- how does one look at paintings that are so vested in the West’s destructive view of landscape and people, that are themselves posters for Colonialism, racism, manifest destiny, etc…. and yet are so intoxicatingly lovely?

Frederic Church, Erechtheum and The Parthenon Study, Oil on Paper, 1869-70

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives is the stunner in a galaxy of stunners. Just beginning to get over Church’s grand but achingly overdone visions of Classical architecture (his Parthenon is so painstakingly rendered and devoid of the freshness of his smaller, on-site studies, which are sprinkled throughout the galleries like shimmering dewdrops, that it quickly gets exhausting to look at) an encounter with Jerusalem renews the eyes and stops the breath. It’s clear that this was probably the most significant site in the Middle East for Church- the epicenter of the Holy Land.

Frederic Church, Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, Oil on Canvas, 1870

The painting is just what its title says- a view of the ancient walled city from atop the Mount of Olives, where twisted, gnarled trees reach toward the sky, symbolizing the suffering of Christ. The sublime distances roped into the view. The layers of light. The sunlit olive branches pulsating over the deep-shadowed valley. The pure, blinding light at the focal point- the Dome of the Rock at the city’s apex. Here, Church breaks atmospheric perspective- everything is far too sharply in focus for the distance, which increases the otherworldly feel of the view. The odd little comb of perfectly angled shadows of the row of columns to the right of the Dome. The dazzling tips of roiling storm clouds massing along the horizon- the vast, perfect lapis blue of the sky beyond. This is a genre painting that transcends genre- an enormous confection of kitsch that transcends its kitschiness. This is the paradox of Frederic Edwin Church- a painter with truly sublime vision and (for contemporary viewers) deeply problematic politics. That vision makes the seduction of those politics hard to resist. These paintings present a crystalline vision of my childhood daydreams of a vast, mythic, mysterious East. This strange familiarity suggests that Church’s vision- the vision of manifest destiny- is still with us. A Painter’s Pilgrimage is canny to that vision, and provides a great contextual, historical lesson in its making.

Frederic Edwin Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage is on View at the Detroit Institute of Arts from October 22, 2017 through January 15, 2018

 

Susan Aaron-Taylor @ NCRC Gallery, Ann Arbor

Strata is Susan Aaron-Taylor’s work at the University of Michigan NCRC Connection Gallery

Susan Aaron-Taylor’s dynamic, charged sculptures, on view currently at NCRC Connection Gallery at the University of Michigan, confront the viewer like visitors from another world. Beginning with an image drawn from a dream or an astral journey (Aaron-Taylor is a student of Jungian psychology and shamanic practice) she curates a collection of challenging, specific materials into forms that utterly transcend craft. Aaron-Taylor’s sculptures are charged with an eerie liveliness- sharp, appraising eyes, extended claws, bared teeth, sensuous, bejeweled fur- and seem to exist in their own open-ended narratives, in which time assumes a dream-like quality, collapsed and overlapping. Susan Aaron-Taylor: Strata is a retrospective, encompassing different bodies of work that explore, from different perspectives, a channeling of massive power.

The studio where Aaron-Taylor nurses her visions into corporeal forms is a bright, warm space, part alchemical laboratory, part cabinet of natural curiosities. Leading me around her studio, Aaron-Taylor opens drawers, draws back curtains, pulls out boxes, revealing piles of glittering stones, cords of elegantly twisted wood, curls of birchbark, mounds of multicolored felt. Beginning with an armature of found wood, each form is carefully and lovingly built, of bones, shells, quills, beads, crystals, cacti, and a hand-stitched felt “pelt” into an incredibly powerful assemblage that seamlessly evokes a recognizable animal- cats, polar bears, water rats. These creatures feel both archetypal and individual. Each projects a state of emotional extremity that could vary from viewer to viewer- the half-reclined posture and exposed bones of “Guide,” for example, presents a puzzling paradox between title and content- power invested with touching vulnerability.

Susan Aaron-Taylor, Guide, Cholla Cactus, Shells, Handmade felt, Petrified Wood, Animal Skull, Banded Iron, 12 x 29 x 14″ All Images courtesy of Tim Thayer

Each clearly has a story to tell. Though they come from a very personal place, Aaron-Taylor is reluctant to reveal her own associations with her sculptures- she finds it more interesting to learn what they evoke for viewers. It is a tenet of Jungian psychoanalysis that each symbol that appears in a dream has a meaning unique to the dreamer.

The vivid blue dressing that surrounds “Water Rat” could be a ruffled skirt or a watery environment. The rat is depicted with her forelegs raised toward the sky in a gesture that could be read as despair or exaltation. The rat is clearly a mother- her body is studded with erect nipples tipped with shimmering beads. It’s an unusual combination of signs- lowly rodent and fertility goddess.

Susan Aaron-Taylor, Water Rat, 16 x 11 x 18″, Handmade Felt, Stones, and Stitching

The ladder that “Polar Bear” climbs straddles multiple worlds- it could represent a conduit to the shamanic upper world, or index a cage through which the defiant, porcupine quilled face of the creature snarls, depending upon the angle by which one views it. Either way, the being’s survival is uncertain. It’s elongated legs balance precariously on diminutive masses of ice that threaten to float apart in warming seas.

Susan Aaron-Taylor, Polar Bear, 19 x 17 x 13″, Wood, Handmade Felt, Geodes, Porcupine Quills, Cabochons, and Beads

“Tiger Teapot” adds yet another intriguing layer of imagery, being both a functioning teapot (it technically contains an inner chamber, lid and spout, though Aaron-Taylor points out that her teapots “can only really be used for a return to those childhood tea parties where what was being served was imagination and wonder.”) and a sly, enigmatically smiling creature mid-prowl.

Susan Aaron-Taylor, Tiger Teapot, 12 x 19 x 10″, Handmade Felt, Wood, Geodes, Cabochons, and Porcupine Quills

The tea service format ropes the ritual act, the gathering around vessels invested with fragrant brew, into the dream-symbol narrative Aaron-Taylor presents in tantalizingly vague, multifaceted flashes of insight. Expertly weaving the half-remembered visuals of dreams with iconic objects that resonate with ritual, Aaron-Taylor sets the stage for viewers to have their own experience of journey and revelation. With her incredible command of materials and craft and the profound, yet somehow light-hearted feel of her sculptures, she makes for a good guide.

Susan Aaron-Taylor: Strata is on view at Connections Gallery, North Campus, University of Michigan, from September 5 through December 12, 2017

 

To the End of the Earth @ Detroit Artists Market

“To the End of the Earth,” the new group exhibition at Detroit Artists Market, is grandly ambitious in its mission. As DAM’s press release states, it seeks to “… Bring together artists who seek to improve our bleak ecological reality through artwork that opposes political policy, presents objective data analysis, and conveys compelling emotional narratives.” This is an important show- it marks the importance of the humanities in general, and visual art in particular, in unpacking the increasingly urgent ecological crisis that is looming more heavily, day by day, on our planet and our lives.

Installation Image, Courtesy of Detroit Artist Market 2017 All images Courtesy of Detroit Artist Market

Curator Adrian Hatfield (himself no slouch as a painter of spiritual/earthly slippage- do check out his work) has assembled a group of artists who work predominantly in loving craft and visual narrative- there’s a refreshing lack of conceptual chillness to this show. The work largely avoids didactic environmentalist rhetoric, instead presenting us with feverish beauty and unsettling juxtapositions that ground examination of terrifying imbalance in the bones.

Dominique de Gery, Zug Winter, Oil on Canvas, 2017

Two standouts are Dominique deGery’s Zug Winter and Millie Tibbs’ Mountains + Valleys- Yosemite 4. deGery’s painting gifts uncommonly grand scale and highly developed technique to a familiar Detroit River view- her bisected horizon/underwater landscapes always make me think of Rothkos. She somehow manages to balance closely observed realism with visionary abstraction- a Hudson River School student granted multi-planar sight. deGery’s landscapes convey more about our delicate, wayward relationship with the land and water we live amongst than most artist statements or grim statistics could.

Millee Tibbs, Three Mountains & Valleys, Yosemite 4, Archival Print, 2013

It’s difficult to do interesting things with landscape photography these days. Millee Tibbs’ work is a notable exception. Her practice quietly probes unprecedented pockets in photographic imagery, spanning the figure, national monuments and many subtleties in between, unearthing the unsettlingly familiar and ungroundingly uncanny in every subject she engages. Mountains + Valleys- Yosemite 4 presents an iconic view of Half Dome, a famous, imposing feature of the Yosemite National Park skyline. This monument is one of the gods of nature photography, steadily indexed since the dawn of the medium. Tibbs’ layered meditation on the sublime, yet somewhat clichéd monument stakes its territory by manipulating the print itself, folding it into steep 45 degree angles reminiscent of paper airplanes. The delicate stratification of crease marks that remain once the print is again pressed flat enclose the phallic Half Dome in a yonic, halo-like embrace. On closer examination the jagged creases, like the mountain itself, turn out to be an illusion of captured light- Tibbs’ final image is a print of the folded print. This uncanny doubling casts everything about the image into doubt, except it’s frankly sexual examination of our relationship with iconic landscapes.

Clinton Snider, Senic Overlook, Mixed Media, 2016

More slow-burning revelation arrives through Clinton Snyder’s dirty/dainty mixed media sculptures, depicting meticulous miniature landscapes built atop found detritus of urban living. Scenic Overlook evokes the deceptive green crust floating uneasily atop a landfill, which is perfectly iconized by a worn-out old shoe.

While the truth of climate change and environmental degradation seems indisputable, one truth of our current relationship with these phenomena is that the message is not getting through. Statistics, studies, and choirs of frantic talking heads make facts readily available, along with steps that can be taken to slow the trajectory of climate change. The presence of all these facts in popular culture seems, on the ground, to change very little about the way we conduct our lives- at least in the Western First World. There is a need for new dialogs to open, in languages parallel to the logistical and statistic. Artists are uniquely suited to engage with this oncoming massive shift in our ability to bind and distill different forms of knowledge. For a scorchingly beautiful argument on this subject, see The Dark Mountain Project Manifesto.   “To the Ends of the Earth” presents some of the best artists working in visual narrative in Detroit right now, and lives up to its vision in providing a (much needed) new conversation on climate change.

“To the End of the Earth” is on display at Detroit Artists Market from September 8 through October 14.

 

Butter Projects @ Wasserman Projects

Have+Hold, a collaboration of Wasserman Projects and Butter Projects

Showing me around the exhibition Have+Hold, a collaboration between Wasserman Projects at Eastern Market and Butter Projects, formerly based in Royal Oak, curator Alison Wong mused about the concept she and her partner, John Charnota, envisioned when they founded Butter Projects, a multi-purpose gallery space, studio, and community hub for artists that’s been fighting the good fight since 2009. Like the ubiquitous dairy product of its naming, the space was conceived, Wong told me, to encapsulate that essential quality, oft overlooked, that makes everything it touches better. For artists those essentials include space to work and a community engaged in opening dialogs and forging new friendships. Wong and Charnota now command well-earned respect in Detroit and beyond for their brilliant aesthetic and their knack for assembling beautifully serendipitous group shows.

Have+Hold, Installation image, Wasserman Projects, all images by PD Rearick

The dearth of prominent female curators has been a topic of conversation around Detroit this summer. Wong, who curates for Wasserman Projects as well as Butter Projects, is on the vanguard of bucking that trend. She has easily transitioned from the intimate scale of Butter Projects to the off-puttingly huge Wasserman space with a cluster of exciting exhibitions. Have+Hold, however, breaks the Wasserman mold somewhat. There’s a warmth to Have+Hold that I haven’t seen in previous Wasserman shows. There’s a healthy emphasis on craft and the (often literal) presence of the hand- the human figure and how it meets and draws nourishment from its environment is the subject of many works. The works don’t feel enshrined in the sprawling space. Each is as inviting and approachable as it would be in the artist’s studio, with the space around them allowing for a more lingering, meaningful exchange. Even still, the works flow and accentuate one another- this is genius curating.

The show begins with a haunting wall of water media paintings by Loren Erdrich, comprising snapshot-like portraits and intimate, raw studies of limbs.

Loren Erdrich, Firecracker, Raw organic pigments on paper

Erdrich’s paintings encompass the most traditional approach to the figure in the exhibition, despite their striking palette and unusual perspectives. From here, things get more wayward. Like stumbling across a sprawled couple in a dark house at night, it’s a bit of a shock to come from the paintings to Kasper Ray O’Brien’s sculpture “Take Me Home.” Made especially for Have+Hold, the piece places two pairs of legs extending across the floor in suggestive semi-undress. The couple’s feet cross just slightly in a gesture that could imply either platonic or sexual intimacy. The dismembered state of the legs ought to feel macabre but doesn’t at all- they evoke a physical turning of joints toward the warmth of another body that you remember in your own flesh while interacting with the piece.

Kasper Ray O’Brien, Take Me Home, Mixed Media

Juxtaposed with O’Brien’s work are two films by Margaret Hull. “Lightly Touched By” is a beautiful meditation on the surfaces of the body, with the artist drawing a latticework of lines onto her hands and feet with a makeup crayon. This ritual body mapping reinforces the visceral response that “Take Me Home” begins to evoke. The nature of tactile memory is further explored in installations by Shane Darwent and Sophie Eisner. Eisner’s assemblage of objects made from cast silicone, titled “Soft and Heavy,” suggests a utilitarian space of platforms and mundane vessels, soap cups, washtubs. Her creamy pastel palette and soft, drippy material render these objects not only seductively tactile but almost edible. Darwent is rapidly establishing himself as a young artist to watch. His structures, which use architectural materials and razor-sharp, life-sized digital prints blur the lines between actual objects and renderings of them, trafficking in a new spin on trompe l’oeil. Heaviness, the inevitability of collapse, the awkwardness of exurban sprawl, and the arbitrariness that defines what is “well-built” all find their way into his work, with unsettlingly cinematic lighting straight from David Lynch.

Ellie Krakow’s mixed media sculptures that combine finely wrought casts, hand built ceramic of torqueing elbows and shoulders with photographs of arms and hands mimicking the cast positions meditate in a cooler, more conceptual way on the nature of embodied movement, while Margo Wolowiec’s woven pieces are a delightful surprise, roping yet another handcraft into Have+Hold and resembling the layered, slightly offset strata of thought processes and memory.

Sophie Eisner, Soft and Heavy, Mixed Media

Shane Darwent, Joseph’s Garden, Mixed Media

Don’t visit Have+Hold if you’re in a hurry- it’s worth it to take in the broad sweep of the show then slow down and spend a little time with each work. The warmth of the show I referenced above opens most fully with a little lingering and savoring- a harkening back to when life was made up of such moments. Movement, touch, intimacy, homing, and connection well up in a visceral, embodied experience of work well conceived and wrought with love. Have+Hold reminded me that a good show should grab hold of all your senses and leave them stirred and warmed.

Have+Hold, a collaboration of Wasserman Projects and Butter Projects by Alison Wong and John Charnota, is on view at Wasserman Projects in Detroit through August 26, 2017.

http://wassermanprojects.com/have-hold/

 

 

Jim Chatelain and John Egner @ Simone DeSousa Gallery

Cass Corridor, Connecting Times: Jim Chatelain and John Egner at Simone DeSousa Gallery

In Specters of Cass Corridor, a review of a 2012 retrospective of Cass Corridor artists at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art titled Menage a Detroit: Three Generations of Detroit Expressionistic Art, 1970-2012, the formidable Detroit art historian Vince Carducci wrote of the documentary, prophetic quality of the first generation of that movement’s work- of its deconstruction of the city’s transition from Fordism to Post-Fordism- from a stationary, vertically integrated manufacturing economy to a dispersed, continent-hopping manufacturing model and an economy in virtual free-fall (and this, in a metropolis built on rock-solid temples of industry.) The uncanny layering of chaos over order and of order over nature that provides a visual companion to Detroit’s narrative of cycling decline and renewal is explored from two sides of an ancient coin in Cass Corridor, Connecting Times: Jim Chatelain and John Egner, the newest in a string of Cass Corridor-centered shows curated by Nancy Mitchnick at Simone DeSousa Gallery.

Installation, Cass Corridor, Connecting Times: Jim Chatelain and John Egner, Images Courtesy of the Simone DeSousa Gallery

In Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia defines the Apollonian and the Dionysian as two sides of the coin of Western culture, held aloft with immense, opposed pressure. Apollo, god of light, solidity, and self-restraint, represents the empirical, continuous progress of the Enlightenment, of the Industrial Revolution, of the monolithic individual exemplified by such giants of Modernism as Pollack and Picasso. Dionysus, defined by Robert Pogue Harrison in Forests, The Shadow of Civilization as “…the mystery god of excess, orgiastic rapture, and visionary delirium- the god of the forests, as we have seen.” Connecting Times explores this opposition beyond language, juxtaposing the iron-clad elegance of John Egner’s forms with the visceral snarls of Jim Chatelain’s romantic visions.

Jim Chatelain, After the Garden is Gone, Oil on Canvas

Jim Chatelain and John Egner share a penchant for picture planes dominated by layered grids and powerful lines that radiate to the edges of their oblong panels. The grid can encompass both order and chaos. Egner’s web like Deep Storage evokes the logic of machine innards and the dense, precise organization of Diego Rivera’s Ford factory frescos, which every Detroit museum goer knows in her bones. Conversely, Chatelain’s After the Garden is Gone festoons a similar flat grid with stylized rose and leaf forms that compress into a shape reminiscent of a human skull- the modest slab of wood and rough, sticky surface of its make reinforces its status as an autonomous object. Even within the basic visual coda of Modernism, Chatelain’s images ring with a syntax drawn from Wordsworth- the same beautifully imperfect, melancholy ecology.

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran

And much it grieved my heart to think

What man has made of man.

-William Wordsworth, Lines Written In Early Spring

The assemblages of both artists travel along the same lines. While Egner’s Red Grid breaks familiar openings and angles into a minimal, abstract structure, Chatelain’s Candle Lamp brusquely reproduces two light-deliverers, a wax candle and a frumpy electric lamp, spliced together the way a violent god might splice two centuries. As in After the Garden is Gone, a rich, elemental symbolism connects Chatelain’s work to earth and embodied language.

John Egner,1972-6-Revised 73, Enamel on Masonite, 1973

What Chatelain and Egner’s work have in common, beyond the grid, is an important vein of Detroit history, opened and drawn into a narrative of Industry’s lights and shadows that applies to all cities of the Enlightenment. Their arch, and their decline, are calmly sifted into symbolic materials, surfaces and gestures by the ground-level view of these two artists.

Cass Corridor, Connecting Times: Jim Chatelain and John Egner Is on view at Simone DeSousa Gallery through July 8.

Simone DeSousa Gallery