Brittany Nelson & Susan Campbell @ David Klein Gallery

Alternative Process, work by Brittany Nelson, and Chasing Venus, work by Susan Goethel Campbell and window installation by Ellen Rutt.

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Brittany Nelson, Installation image, All images courtesy of the David Klein Gallery

The newest pairing of artists on view at David Klein Gallery’s Detroit space, photographers Brittany Nelson and Susan Goethel Campbell, engage history, science, and formal beauty in ways that reveal what ancient knowledge and antiquated technology can tell us about the visual stake we hold- and the tissue-thin mastery we take for granted- over the natural world.

Brittany Nelson’s collages of “science graphics” and 3D Photoshop forms onto tintype prints (one of the earliest photographic mediums) follow a simple, clever formula of overlaying heavy, historic substrates (thickly mounted tintype photographic plates that warp out of foursquare precision and are often hung at a slight angle to the wall, visually reinforcing their whiff of memento mori and the slow melt of age) with graceful, feather-light graphics culled from contemporary modes of visual shorthand- graphics, grids, algorithms, flowcharts.

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Brittany Nelson, Diagram I, 2016, tintype photograph on Poeder coated formed aluminum,10 x 8 x 15″

These two modes of information capture dance uneasily with one another on Nelson’s dark grounds- there’s a dissonance to seeing these fleeting, fast-moving graphics inlayed on such iron-clad media, designed to catch and house a physical shadow of a once real, living, or tactile thing. Nelson’s work resurrects something of the uncanny magic photographic technology once held for people in the Nineteenth Century- its strange promise of immortality, its mind-bending harnessing of modern science.

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Brittany Nelson, Mordancage 4, 2011, C-print,72 x 72, Edition of 3

The dark, atmospheric voids characteristic of tintype photography find a visual dialog with Susan Goethel Campbell’s Chasing Venus. This work documents, in film and photography, a patch of sky over the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada, during the Summer Solstice, when the moon appears to be following Venus across the sky.

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Susan Goethel Campbell, Chasing Venus, 1 of 5, 2016, 3 channel video installation plaster fragment, 1920 x 1080″

Campbell’s work documents, in solemn stills and dizzying, feather-light films, the turning of the planet from day to night, toward and away from an incredible full moon. The faceted surfaces of mountainous landscape, vast sky, and brilliant earth (her installation includes visuals that are nearly impossible to photograph, a video projection of time-lapse sky-scape dancing on a wall mounted with a chunk of granite, a pile of glittering mica poured onto a shallow shelf that casts uncanny tones of light onto every surrounding surface) utilizes straightforward modes of visual documentation to hint at the sublime- crystalizing, in moment-to-moment documentation, both our concept of linear time and the sublime impossibility of conceiving the clock of the universe.

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Susan Goethel Campell, Chasing Venus, Still I, 1 of 5, 2016, Digital print on polyester spray paint, 22 x 28″

The kernel that unites Nelson and Campbell’s work in these dark, visually haunting twin exhibitions might be an “exposure,” manifested in the beauty and opacity of both artists’ combinations of technique and content, of the failure of such analytical, documentary methods to capture eternity. Watching the sky and drawing it into visual rhymes with small, shiny objects, as the ancients did, distilling the visible into frozen shadows, as more recent generations did, or collapsing the world into descriptive algorithms, as we do now, may, or may not, bring us any closer to a true understanding of the reason we are here, or why we’ve been given these abilities. Alternative Process and Chasing Venus do not attempt to answer this question- they cross-pollinate materials to broaden, deepen, and beautify its scope.

Also on view is a colorful, lively installation by Detroit-based, multi-disciplinary artist Ellen Rutt. Rutt’s window installation provides a vibrant counter-balance to the darkly vibrating grounds and documentary atmospheres of Nelson and Goethel-Campbell’s work.

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Ellen Rutt, David Klein, Window Installation, 2016

Alternative Process, work by Brittany Nelson, Chasing Venus, work by Susan Goethel Campbell, and Ellen Rutt’s window installation is on view at David Klein Gallery Detroit through December 17, 2016.

 

 

Caledonia Curry @ Library Street Collective

A Light at the End of the Tunnel- Caledonia Curry (Swoon) at Library Street Collective

“…You can start to create little cracks in the façade of possibility and inevitability that overlays all of our lives.”-Caledonia Curry at her TED Talk, 2010 

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Swoon, Installation Image, All Images Courtesy of Clara DeGalan and Sal Rodriguez

Caledonia Curry (tag name Swoon) seems intimately aware of the ephemeral, fragile nature of both the human body and human endeavor. This sensibility weaves through all of her bodies of work, which make up for the degradability of their materials with iron-clad social consciousness and fierce political engagement. Curry first gained attention on the global art scene for her large scaled, lyrical street art prints, which, like her work at Library St Collective, engage with the figure overlaid with gorgeous lacework of iconic decorative flourishes and symbols. Curry would scout out locations for her prints, then install them, on walls, lamp posts, and other architectural surfaces, using wheat paste. These delicate cut-paper and print collages are not meant to last forever- they fade away, gently and gradually, like distant memories. To Curry, physical immortality of work is beside the point- this seems unusual, given the highly formal, decorative nature of her constructions. What such highly developed technical skill and labor intensive process is meant to foster is less reverence for the made object itself than a holding of space for a new perspective, a chance to recontextualize one’s relationship with place, with symbolism, with one’s own identity.

The same curious mixture of preciousness and ephemerality finds its way from Swoon’s street art practice into Curry’s site specific installation at Library St Collective. As lovingly wrought and beautifully realized as Curry’s life-sized figurative prints and elaborate cut paper confections are, they are installed with no greater measure of preciousness or economic value than her wheat pasted public works. Curry’s figurative cut out prints hang suspended from strands of fishing line, freed from the relative safety, and canonical indexing, of traditional wall installation. They move in the breeze- they’re equally visible from front and back. Curry’s incredible paper cut-outs, executed in black and white and resembling every beautiful, lace-like form a viewer can call up, from snowflakes to double helixes to Celtic knot work, drape freely from the gallery’s ceiling and dangle, like the figure cutouts, from strands of fishing line, inviting touch, uncannily mimicking the slight movements of sentient life.

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Swoon cut paper intallation-detail

The heaviness of Curry’s concept for her site specific install at Library St is what grounds these floating works. Taking the narrow, tunnel-like structure of the front part of the gallery as inspiration, Curry is attempting, with The Light After, to recreate for the viewer her own narrative of a phenomenon known as “the empathetic death experience.” Curry encountered this phenomenon in a dream of a space filled with falling snow and “blossoms of light,” during which she felt that her mother had died. Upon awakening, she discovered that her mother had, indeed, passed away.

The snow-blossom motif of Curry’s installation occupies Library St.’s space as a tunnel of atmospheric light similar to those described by people who have had near-death experiences. Dispersed around this bright, ungrounding fairyland are Curry’s life-sized figurative prints which, despite their ephemeral construction, nail the viewer with quietly appraising or imploring gazes, each taking the form of a step on the initiation path toward death. Curry’s figures are iconic- an old, bearded hermit leaning on a walking stick, his lower body morphing into ramshackle architecture which crumbles, at his feet, into a profusion of skulls. A heartbreaking double image of a woman filled with youth and vitality, holding a baby, while her forward-projected shadow looms behind her, emaciated, rigged up with oxygen tubes, her eyes engaging the viewer’s in abject, human terror of proceeding down the very tunnel that surrounds her.

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Swoon, Memento Mori, 2016, block print on hand cut mylar,edition3 of 12, 84-x-67″

Curry takes the viewer through this legendary tunnel, which leads into a stark hallway painted in black and white geometric and organic forms- a nice visual metaphor for the space between the end of the tunnel and what comes after- into the gallery’s larger, airier back room or, as Curry titles it, “The Meadow.” The figurative prints in The Meadow aren’t allegories of death, but of rebirth- the color scheme of The Meadow is warmer, more organic, the 3D elements more tactile and sensual- piles of green velvet take the place of the ethereal cut-paper hangings within the tunnel. Mother-child pairings and figures surrounded by simple, ancient symbols of life and birth- paisleys, triple knots, spirals- gaze invitingly out or, more often, appear turned inward, eyes closed, in a private ecstasy of union with the life-power of the universe.

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Swoon, Milton II, Diogenesis, 2016 block print on hand cut mylar edition, 3 of 6 89×66″

There’s an uncanniness, a formal directness, and a powerful combination of personal and political narrative to Curry’s work that makes it difficult to contextualize in contemporary studio practice. The bald allegory and mirror-image rendering of her figure-prints awakens the viewer to the power of such imagery as expressed in every layer of our society, from religious painting to Chuck E. Cheese animatronics- all of them evoke the same frisson. Curry’s work reveals why this is so. Confronted with our own image reworked into symbolism, we begin to examine the foundations of universal truths- birth, death, spirit, the afterlife, the sentience of so-called inanimate objects- with the understanding that these truths emanate from our own bodies. Our bodies are ephemeral. What we can do with them, change with them, what we can leave to succeeding generations, is eternal. It is this truth that forms the kernel of Curry’s work in every medium and context that she engages.

“Swoon- The Light After” is on display at Library Street Collective through November 26, 2016.

 

 

Senghor Reid @ NCA Gallery

A Diabolical Element – Senghor Reid’s exhibition at the National Conference of Artist Gallery

In the hallway outside of NCA Gallery, housed in a vibrant Community Center in Northwest Detroit, you encounter the first wave of Senghor Reid’s solo exhibition Diabolique. The imposing group of large-scale acrylic paintings depict shifting, shimmering surfaces of water in different weather conditions and light. Reid’s dynamic, disquieting treatment of the ever-moving element of water recalls David Hockney’s pool paintings. Both artists weave water as a substance in movements and marks that eerily echo the nature of the element itself- slashes, splotches, dense, doily-like layers of marks that begin to suggest forms even as those forms collapse and drain away before your eyes. Reid’s work evokes Hockney’s, also, in the strange, visually transmitted metaphor presented by both artist’s treatments of this element- that of the complete unknown, the otherworld that mirrors and impacts our own, that lies just beneath the surface.

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Senghor Reid, The Ice Storm 2, 48 X 60, Acrylic on Canvas, 2016

The title of Reid’s exhibition, Diabolique, references the 1955 French film Les Diaboliques, the plot of which revolves around the concealment of a corpse in a body of water. The water swallows the corpse and refuses to yield it up- it appears later, brought uncannily back to life, rising from the waters of a bathtub. The mysterious, treacherous capability of water to give both life and death, to absorb evil only to reveal it later in the most intimate settings, is examined with a plethora of materials and media, through scientific and aesthetic lenses, in Diabolique. True to the origin of its title, the exhibition features a series of self-portraits of the artist washed up on a vaguely tropical shore, an uncanny, amphibious humanoid, his face concealed behind swimming goggles and a gas mask that suggests both survival in a toxic environment and gills. The figure of the artist appears both resurrected and consigned to dwell forever in conditions his body was not designed for.

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Senghor Reid, Freshwater Assassins, 12 X 18″, Digital Print, 2016

This could be seen as the fate of humanity at the dawn of the Twenty-first Century- our surroundings are now rife with invisible, and not so invisible, contaminants that have resulted from our misuse of the natural world. Reid uses the element of water as the aesthetic touchstone of his exploration of those harmful elements, and their insidious presence in our daily lives. The most sinister elements on the periodic table- mercury, cobalt, lead- are carried into our communities and bodies through the vehicle of water. These same elements, like water, are aesthetically beautiful- possessed of a seductive, ever-shifting sheen. That paradox of beauty, vitality, nature and toxicity is presented in every one of Reid’s works, the large-scale water paintings, the smaller water studies executed in oil pastel and paint marker, the sensuous prints on gold and copper paper, the installation of crystalline vintage bottles labeled with the acids and heavy metals they once held.

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Senhor Reid, The Element of Crime Shelves & Apothecary Bottles, 24 X 30, 2016

The shimmer, and Reid’s capture of it in almost every medium imaginable, wreathes an elegant, fragile dialog between art, science and nature in Diabolique. It is the surface of water, which has become so loaded (the Flint water crisis and Detroit’s ongoing scandal of water shut-offs are only two examples of the element’s presence in crises of health, politics, race, and class) with essential and unanswered cultural urgencies. It is the glint of heavy metals, and the faceted surface of glass, containers and transmitters for elements that delight our eyes and leave putrid, invisible traces. It is deep, lurid, sensuous hues that sing of our love of nature as they paradoxically poison our environment. The shimmer conceals the corpse that will, inevitably, rise up from the murky inheritance of our chemical-spewing forbears. The rest of us may not be so lucky- yet, Diabolique seems to suggest, where there’s beauty, there’s hope.

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Senghor Reid, Breaking Waves 4, Paint Marker, 11 X 14″ 2016

 Diabolique,  by Senghor Reid,  at NCA Gallery through October 21, 2016.

 

Energy/Mass @ Wasserman Projects

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Koen Vanmechelen, Installation, Five Exterior Works, 2016

“While the native breeds that descended from the  original chicken (the Red Junglefowl) are evolutionary  dead-ends (being shaped to reflect the typical cultural  characteristics of its community), Vanmechelen’s  cross-breeds are solutions. Many years of  crossbreeding have proven that each successive generation of hybrids is ‘better’. It is more resilient,  it lives longer, is less susceptible to diseases, and it exhibits less aggressive behavior. Genetic diversity is essential, proves the Cosmopolitan Chicken Research  Project(CC®P), which studies the various CCP Hybrids.”-From Koen Vanmechelen’s artist statement/bio, on “The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” and “Energy/Mass”

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Koen Vanmechelen, Installation image, Energy/Mass, – All Images Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

I walked into “Energy/Mass,” the current exhibition at Wasserman Projects, wondering about the distinction between art and science. Having only heard and seen a few snippets of information about the artist, Koen Vanmechelen, and his work, the main question I took in with me was, “how is this art?” This question, in light of many of the openings/panel discussions/bar conversations I’ve found myself in lately, has been puzzling me more and more. There’s much talk, these days, of visual art claiming its rightful place in the hierarchy of sciences, and the importance of visual art (and the humanities at large) in unpacking, interpreting, and finding unique insights into such disciplines as history, mathematics, social justice, and hard science. I fully support this idea- at the same time, it opens a new strain of questioning about what, precisely, can be classified as art practice within the practices of science, academic research, and political activism. Where does studio practice end, and interdisciplinary research begin? How does the one inform the other? An intriguing example of the fertile union between science and art, and how studio practice can maintain its autonomy while exploring in other disciplines, can be found in “Energy/Mass.”

As Wasserman gallerist Megan Keeley reminded me while walking me through “Energy/Mass,” the scientific aspect of the show is hardly trafficking in cutting-edge research. The science of “Energy/Mass” is pretty bare-bones, accepted knowledge of biology and genetics- the processes by which organisms (in this case, chickens) reproduce, and the results of introducing new material into an isolated genetic pool. What “Energy/Mass” explores is a lyrical, artistic interpretation of that long-studied process. The work in “Energy/Mass” presents an aesthetic exploration, backed up by intensive research and field practice, of the processes of reproduction, the surprisingly graceful allegory these processes present for social, historical, and artistic practices, and the vital role visual art can assume in the binding and bridging of disciplines- biological, historical, social, political, and aesthetic.

“The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” centers on the breeding of chickens. A large coop inhabited by live chickens dominates the exhibition, and exposes its beating heart. Being serenaded by roosters while wandering through a gallery is an unusual experience that made me wish I could incorporate audio into this review.

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Koen Vanmechelen, Planetary Community Chicken Coop, 2016

Vanmechelen chooses his breeding combinations based upon human-made geographical boundaries. This illuminates the impact of historical nationalism/xenophobia/political activity of humans upon the processes of natural selection and genetic descent. Apparently, we require the flora and fauna within our geographic boundaries to reflect those boundaries as much as our history and politics do. What results, manifested in regional livestock, is, in the context of this body of work, almost numberless distinct breeds of chicken, each iconic of its geographic region.

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Koen Vanmechelen, Unpredictable, CCP, Steel / Bronze, 145 X 75 X 34

Vanmechelen’s “Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” is now in its twenty year generation. It has leapt, genetically, from country to country in a migratory pattern that echoes the migrations of humans from one culture to the next on our journey to globalization. The documentation of this fertile chain- from Europe through Asia, Africa, Australia and into the Americas- is displayed in “Energy/Mass” in works encompassing painting, sculpture, and mixed media incorporating taxidermy (all of the physical specimens that find their way into Vanmechelen’s body of work lived long, healthy lives on his incredible farm in Belgium, and died natural deaths prior to their incorporation).

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Koen Vanmechelen, Coming World Taxidermy Chick, Steel, 67 X 39 X 39

These lyrical, aesthetic explorations of the sublime subject of birth and reproduction are backed up with huge, red leather-bound volumes filled with indecipherable genetic codes that strike the layman as obscure, and essentially aesthetic, as the more specifically visual works.

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Koen Vanmechelen, 4 Icon, CCP, UV Print on Gold Leaf, Wood, Steel, 14 X 10 X 1, 2016

This work distills geographic migration- a process which bonds and strengthens- a powerful reminder for us in these strangely xenophobic times. When so much of our political discourse revolves around fear of the other, penetrating our shores, muddying our genetic pool, this work presents a simple, undeniably scientific truth- that cross-breeding, introducing new elements into a long-established system, can only empower.

“Energy/Mass,” A solo exhibition of work by Koen Vanmechelen, is on display at Wasserman Projects through December 17, 2016.

Elizabeth Youngblood @ 9338 Campau

 ” Righted” – A Trajectory of Work by Elizabeth Youngblood – A retrospective work in progres

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Elizabeth Youngblood, Installation

ElizabethYoungblood defines herself first as a craftsman. A quote that describes her trajectory well is a simple one- “I respect making.” The broad range of media she employs- textiles, drawing, basket-weaving, ceramics, wire sculpture- attest to her democratic fealty to a very personal, singular hunt. With Righted- A Trajectory of Work by Elizabeth Youngblood, Youngblood has transformed 9338 Campau’s sprawling Hamtramck gallery space into a hive of activity, presenting her work in an unprecedented format- a retrospective that includes works in progress that Youngblood is developing within the gallery itself. She is taking advantage of the vast amount of space there to both gather her work into one place large enough to give it breathing room, and realize large works on paper that she has long desired to explore but hasn’t had the space, until now, to properly develop. Youngblood’s residency at 9338 Campau feels revolutionary, both for an artist in full command of her powers with a distinguished career in the bag already, and for an explorer who makes the most of every space she is given for her work to take center stage.

Asked to qualify her vast body of work into a single context, she explains how one branch of her exploration leads, maintaining conceptual consistency, from one medium to the next. Youngblood’s devotion to mastering the strengths of every material that passes through her hands, and the joy she takes in immersing herself in the process of finessing each one, gently, into her lexicon, is doubly striking in the context of Righted, where one can view long-culminated works alongside raw, vulnerable works in progress. The very presence of the works in progress casts Youngblood’s retrospective work in an unusual light- as open-ended, questioning works in progress themselves. This impression suits Youngblood’s whole-hearted focus on process as a studio practice- allowing the current of her concept to carry her from medium to medium, presenting each work as a direct flowering from the clues unlocked, and the questions raised, in the last.

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Elizabeth Youngblood, Woven Black Piece, 1992-93 All Images Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

Talking with Youngblood about her work reveals the ultimate unimportance of form in her studio practice. This came as a surprise in light of the striking formal continuity I made out in her work- indeed, it was the first thing that enabled me to pass cohesively from one piece to the next, given what different media she ropes in. This formal consistency, it turns out, is Youngblood’s soul pattern, a template on which she explores such concepts as the dogged devotion of craftsmanship, the solitary joy of wreathing visions out of tactility, and the construction of planes out of lines.

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Elizabeth Youngblood,Untitled, 1995

Youngblood’s artistic chronology mirrors her bodies of work. Trained as a graphic designer, she has worked in that profession, on and off, since her tenure as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. She is quick to point out, rightly, the subtle craft demanded by graphic design. Between her design work, her teaching career, her years spent in New York, and interludes in craft-oriented industries such as bar-tending, she has snatched pockets of time to hone her planar exploration in various media at artist residencies such as Haystack and Penland School of Crafts. Her travels have pulled a variety of media into her exploration- her vision remains remarkably consistent as she applies it to different traditions of making. She emphasizes the importance of material and craft as a conduit toward greater understanding of place, such as North Carolina and its history as a hub of furniture craft (the baskets on display in Righted were created at Penland, inspired by the materials and methods of furniture-making.)

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Elizabeth Youngblood, Twin Baskets, 1999

This breath of Place, in turn, enriches Youngblood’s exploration of process as a path toward distillation of an artifact of conceptual, rather than utilitarian or formal value. Youngblood speaks with quiet admiration of the traditions of crafting she has been privileged to explore, and how they have added their own regional, historical voices to her practice.

As she continues to explore, chasing her vision of planes built of carful, joyous repetition, Youngblood pulls traditional craft forms, seemingly effortlessly, into a body of work that maintains an astonishing formal trajectory, presenting razor-sharp meditations on process in various media encased, almost like home-jarred preserves, within an all-encompassing, monolithic form. The form, seductive and enigmatic as it is, is no more than a ground for her process. Asked her opinions on the tension between fine art and craft, high and low art, she expresses less interest in that argument than in the status of media as “women’s work” versus “men’s work.” The large-scaled drawings Youngblood is developing during her tenure at 9338 Campau are an exploration into a quicker, more decisive way of making that has historically been associated with the bodies and thought processes of men.

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Elizabeth Youngblood, Large Drawing 1, 2016

“Men’s work” as Youngblood describes it, seems less a political appropriation on her part than a desire to master yet another craft- one she, for the moment, has the physical space to pursue. Spending time with Youngblood in her studio is a lesson in veneration for processes that unite, rather than polarize, the complex history of making as it indexes various times, places, social demographics, races, and genders. To sum up, Youngblood respects making, and, though she is acutely aware of the cultural associations that come with each material she ropes into her vision, her devotion to process and skill-building manage, miraculously, to shed the oppressive political discourse that has hung around craft for decades and present it, unilaterally, as a vast conduit for exploration of an artist’s conceptual vision. Youngblood’s is a true Twenty First Century studio practice- and she’s earned it.

Righted- A Trajectory of Work by Elizabeth Youngblood has percolated at 9338 Campau Gallery in Hamtramck, MI throughout the last breaths of summer. A public reception of her work will be held on Saturday, 9/24/2016 from 7-10 pm.

9338 Campau