Sharon Que: Vaporous Quill @ Simone DeSousa Gallery

Sharon Que, “Vaporous Quill,” 2017, Steel, aluminum, paint   –  All photos by PD Rearick, Courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery

 

The title of Sharon Que’s current exhibition at the Simone DeSousa Gallery is  taken from one of her sculptures, “Vaporous Quill” which is also a phrase from a poem, “Not a Word in the Sky,” by British pop singer Shiela Chandra. Both Chandra’s poem and Que’s sculpture have an elemental simplicity that beguilingly explores the universe. The poem, in a voice of miraculous clarity, negotiates the sky, searching for some perhaps existential explanation, a language or word, in the vaporous horizon. The sculpture is composed of two amber-yellow, quadrilateral metal panels that, juxtaposed, mirror each other. One panel is subtly inscribed across the top with brass rivets from which fall, like rain, faint blue streaks. Attached to the adjacent panel is a thin strip of aluminum, finagled and caressed into the shape of a wisp of smoke. This is how it goes with Que: enigmatic objects elegantly finessed of hand wrought materials– wood, steel, bronze, glass—arranged in a conscious geometric scheme.

Another sculpture, “Listening Device” is composed of a 3-dimensional, geometrical shaped wire figure embraced by a small painted root and twig system which is “connected” to a small, golden funnel shape. Its title suggests that it is a technological instrument or machine. Both pieces take time to negotiate as does each of the seventeen, small sculptural works in the exhibition.

In the brief gallery guide for the exhibition Que has written: “There is a scaffolding system that exists for each of my sculpture exhibitions made of the interactions with people, nature, music and art that I have come across accidentally or made great efforts to experience.”

This is not, it seems, a simple prosaic statement but one of specific structural purpose. Each of these elements is part of her system of perception and selection of materials and each of them figures into the creation of the final object. There is a strange science at work here. In the same statement, she says “My imagery can take the form of data visualization algorithms.” This isn’t the usual account that an artist might make about how their art looks and works. This is language that comes out of the complex world of information engineering. Que is setting up a platform, the ontology, for her sculptural works.

Sharon Que “Listening Device,” 2017, Steel, wood, paint

With this in mind, “Listening Device” becomes a complex metaphor about the process of hearing and consciousness. The poet William Carlos Williams said “The poem is a small machine made of words.” Que’s sculpture is similarly a machine. From the complexity of roots and branches interconnecting to the complex crystal structure of nature (illustrated by the wire figure) to the funnel shape of satellites, “Listening Device” is a model or prototype of a hearing machine.

Que regularly references her family’s engineering background and she, herself, was a wood model maker in the auto industry before translating that profession into a violin restoration career. Thus, her art exhibits some considerable skill in handling a diversity of materials—including metal casting and fabrication, wood working, drafting skills, letter press printing–and the inventive forms that her sculptures take suggest a larger, macroscopic, engagement with the world.

Throughout “Vaporous Quill” there are images and illustrations of the elusive phenomena of magnetism. In each of the three “Quiet Revolution” sculptures, for example, there is a print of a woodcut that Que tooled, illustrating the polar forces in an electromagnetic field. “Quiet Revolution 2” appears to diagram the dynamics of a group of orbiting bodies, suggesting in their overlapping trajectories the possible intimacies of their interrelationships. Modestly constructed on a piece of varnished plywood it is beguiling and provocative. Que wrote in her introduction to the Vaporous Quill: “This exhibition is a three-dimensional journal.” The sculptures then function as journals do, notes and speculations on her perceptions of everyday life. It’s a lovely idea.

Sharon Que, “Quiet Revolution 2,” 2017, Wood, paint

With this science in mind then, “Capture,” a small, almost jewelry sized sculpture, composed of cast bronze balls and steel chain, seems to illustrate one of the prime phenomenon of particle physics, the incomprehensible “electron capture.” If “Capture” is considered metaphorically, in the realm of Que’s world, it may lead to speculation on everything from love to nuclear holocaust. I think there is a bit of the comic in Que.

Que is an artist of ideas, as well as beautiful objects that explode into a long trail of speculations and readings of what they are “about.” Her art is much less abstract than one might at first think. One imagines her advancing into the world, exploring for more and more connections, and bringing back from her sojourns pieces of the world to connect herself to the world and its infinite magnetic connection.

Sharon Que,  “Capture,” 2017, cast bronze, steel

 

 

Simone DeSousa Gallery       Sharon Que: Vaporous Quill  through October 8, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Sandwich Project @ Art Gallery of Windsor

Installation Image, Sandwich Project, image courtesy Cynthia Greig 2017

“The Sandwich Project” at the Art Gallery of Windsor centers around famed American artist Martha Rosler’s 1974 video, “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” a visionary send-up of the entrapment of women in the machinery of the kitchen. It features a very young Rosler parodying more famed cooking show host Julia Childs.

After more than forty years, and our global digital brain transplant, the six-minute B&W video remains mesmerizing both intellectually and as a performance. With deadpan facial and bodily gestures, Rosler punctuates an alphabet of the accouterments of cooking — Apron, Bowl, Chopper, Dish, Egg Beater — objects that traditionally have signified women’s domestic identity, but become as sinister as the crippling machinery of the factory.

As Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp had been pushed over-the-edge by the machine of the factory in his 1936 film Modern Times, thus defining the generation of pre-union, factory workers, Rosler’s Julia Childs dramatizes the enslavement of women in the signifying machinery of the kitchen.

Rosler’s video, however, is only a set-up for the rest of the engaging Sandwich Project, which was the brainchild of Windsor’s renowned Iain Baxter&, an early conceptual artist, painter and photographer, and was curated by Art Gallery of Windsor’s Jaclyn Meloche, also an artist, performance artist and writer. Baxter& conceived the Sandwich project as a play on “all things Sandwich,” to quote Katherine Mastin, AGW’s Director,

Sandwich, one of the earliest neighborhoods in Windsor, namesake of England’s once important port, was the origin of the name for the portable lunch, which (after the Fourth Earl of Sandwich) like this exhibition, composes layers of ingredients (often between two slices of bread). The word dredges up all kinds of history both in England and in Windsor, in the underbelly of which lies the War of 1812, a conflict that to some locals seems as though it was between Detroit and Windsor. In fact, Sandwich, Ontario was the site of important 1812 battles.

Iain Baxter&, “Iain Baxter as an open-faced sandwich” 1978

Iain Baxter&, born in England, his own art fraught with visual hi-jinks, was obviously quite cognizant of this back story in conceiving the project, which is ripe with delicious visual puns and ironies.

Likewise it’s the relationship of food to social and political history, popular culture and feminism, that Meloche ran with to create six independent exhibitions, each of which is self-contained, with moments of delightful humor and brilliant art, while at the same time executing an engaging critical perspective on food and culture. A video entitled “Food as Metaphor,” moderated by Meloche, which includes statements and discussion by the artists, punctuates the exhibitions.

Baxter&’s own contribution, entitled “Baxter&Food,” is a collection of more or less still-life photos of nourishment.  “Iain Baxter as an open face sandwich,” c.1978, is typical of his dadaistic play with art history in which he humorously features himself as both the maker and material of art. Equally the dada irony looms huge in “Still Life with Winter Vista,” 1996, which features a glass patio table laden with a cornucopia of tropical fruit and vegetables, with a classic Lake St. Clair winter landscape in the background. Baxter&’s energetic art prompts thinking about big issues like ecology, food and identity, rather than simply art stuff, yet at the same time his work has a subtle aesthetic valence that is hard to categorize. His “The Primaries,” composed of bottles of ketchup, mustard and blue Gatorade that he classifies as “found objects,” is not only a great commentary on our food culture and its ironic spectacality, but a rather wonderful conceptual sculpture.

Iain Baxter&, “The Primaries,” Found Objects, 2017

Of the six exhibits in The Sandwich Project, the one most provocative to the central issue of our food culture is “Food, Feminism and Kitchen Culture.” Introduced by Rosler’s video, the exhibition sets up a discourse on the landscape of the kitchen as an imprisoning construction of which women are the principle inhabitants.

Cynthia Greig, “Representation no. 29 (toaster), chromogenic print, 20 x 24”

If Rosler’s video sees the objects of the kitchen as an almost violent lexicon of possibilities for the construction of women’s identity —Apron/Women, Bowl/Women, Chopper/Women, Dish/Women — Cynthia Greig’s (Detroit’s best kept secret) manipulated photographs become escapes from the reality of the haptic world into a realm of diagrammatic ghosts, from realism to shadows of the real. In reducing photographs of common objects of the kitchen — toaster, milk cartons, coffee cups, French fry carton — to elemental outlines, they become ideas that hold us captive. These graceful, elegant shapes become enigmatic containers that define and thus limit ­— limitations to being, to exuberance, and diagrams that ultimately beckon language to elucidate and emancipate them.

Each of Greig’s diagrammatic images includes a referent to reality. A diagrammed toaster has images of freshly “toasted” bread popping out of it. The outlined milk carton has “spilled milk” next to it. A French fry carton has French “fried potatoes” sticking out of it. Each photograph posits the philosophical dilemma of what contains and what is contained. Pushed to their logical end, these images become a sort of dictatorial grammar of the kitchen.

Anna Frlan, “Kitchen as Factory [Mixing machine, blending machine,toasting machine]”, Steel, 2017

Complementing Greig’s skeletal works are Anna Frlan’s welded steel replicas of kitchen appliances. Actually, as if taking a hint from Greig’s diagrammatic images, Frlan’s are even more cage-like machines — a toaster oven, a blender, a mixer, a stove, a dishwasher. These drawings made of steel, at the same time as they resemble medieval torture devices, might suggest Piranesi’s images of Roman prisons. They are stunning, sinister signifiers of the role of kitchens in defining identity.

Each of the artists in this section of The Sandwich Project makes a stunning contribution to the discourse on Food, Feminism and Kitchen Culture. Marilyn Minter’s painting from her “Food Porn” series and Carly Erber’s crocheted “Salisbury Steak” make wonderfully opposite statements about women and representation of food. Christiane Pflug’s painting “Kitchen Door with Ursula,” 1966, and Annie Pootoogook’s “Tea Drinkers,” 2001, both reflect subtle personal takes on the complex psychology of kitchen life.

Sandy Skoglund, “Body Limits,” 1992

A related, borrowed exhibition, originating at the Akron Art Museum and curated by Theresa Bembnister, “Snack” is a tour de force of a generous selection of diverse representations of food, featuring Pop artists Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg and other contemporary artists’ takes on the western recreational activity of food and eating. Sandy Skoglund’s “Body Limits” documents a surreal tableau she created parodying a fashion shoot of two figures dressed in bacon.  French photographer Robert Doisneau’s “L’Innocent,” 1949, captures a typical Parisian gentleman’s existential encounter with his dinner in the window of a restaurant.

Robert Doisneau, “L’Innocent,” B& W Photograph, 1949

The Sandwich Project is no less than a blockbuster of an exhibition, a realization that surpasses expectation.  The fourth part, “Lunch,” collects a wonderful assortment of artifacts and images of the great pastime of noonday culture, including a wall full of school kids’ lunch boxes that in themselves are a history of midcentury pop culture, and a selection of early twentieth-century images from The Henry Ford Museum archives of Detroit cafeterias, diners, and hot dog stands.

Frederick Arthur Verner, “Untitled (River Scene, Sunset”), 1891, watercolour over graphite on paper

Two other exhibitions that bookend The Sandwich Project are AGW’s collection of nineteenth-century watercolors of the Sandwich area by artist Frederick Arthur Verner, and “Food and Film,” which features four short films on the production and distribution of food as a go-between in signifying Canadian identity. One of Verner’s watercolors features the Detroit River-front with typically English village-like architecture of early Windsor (Sandwich) in the foreground, replete with fishing boats, and a nascent Detroit industrial landscape on the far shore. During the nineteenth century, the Detroit River was famous for its astonishing fishing, supplying First Nation people and eventually Windsorites and Detroiters with bounteous whitefish and walleye. Verner’s watercolor thus becomes an ironic commentary on the devolution of food production in the area.

The Sandwich Project is a perfect summertime day trip or even two-day trip, and yields an abundance of food-for-thought about the business, culture, and representation of our relationship with food.  For lunch, Sir Cedric’s Fish and Chips is right around the corner from the Art Gallery of Windsor, reminding us of the Canadian predilection for things British. If, however your tastes are more inclined to American fare, there’s Lafayette Coney Island just across the border.

The Sandwich Project Continues through October 1, 2017

 Art Gallery of Windsor,  401 Riverside Drive West, Windsor, Ontario N9A7J1     519-977-0013

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

Faina Lerman @ Cave, Russell Industrial Center

Family Album: Faina Markovna Lerman at Cave

Faina Markovna Lerman worked with photographs to make the twelve paintings that comprise “Family Album” currently exhibited at Cave in the Russell Industrial Center. The photographs are mostly stored in the family album from which she took the name and from which she worked. In her artist’s statement for the exhibit she says:

“These paintings are inspired by the desire to honor my family history and experiences  that are fading, gone, or were well before my time. They reference photos from the  1950’s (post WWll Latvia)-1980 (when my family immigrated to the United States)”.

To make paintings in honor of the family is to celebrate and remember its existence but Lerman uses photos which, typically, already serve as memories. Family photos are the evidence, the signs, that the family was, and provide a sense of continuity and context, even likeness for heirs to compare themselves, to find lineage. As artifacts, they carry with them their own cultural information: the serrated edges of the square format photos, the fading chemicals used to make them, and the eroding paper on which the images are printed, these things locate them in time. What Lerman is after is more complex than either the fact and corroboration of their existence.

Faina Markovna Lerman, “Baba, Dzeda and Mom before Josef arrived (Riga 1955)”  Water-based oil on wood, 2017 All images courtesy of Corine Vermeulen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first image that we encounter, and there is a definitive evolution of the twelve paintings, is “Baba, Dzeda and Mom before Joseph arrived (Riga 1955).” It is a black and white painting with pink tinges shadowing the figures. (I learned that Lerman painted over a painting of her grandfather with which she was completely dissatisfied: “There was red in it.”) We get a sense of her pursuit by the title. Baba and Dzeda are Russian names commonly used for Grandmother and Grandfather, and it is clear in this painting that Lerman was after likeness to the photo and mirroring the initial effect of the image at which she is gazing. She is interrogating the photo searching for connection. Whether intended or factual or not each figure has the same brush- stroked nose to accomplish the notion of family. Wonderfully the act painting contains a genetic component. Most interestingly Dzeda’s half of the portrait is shaded darker than Baba’s and her mother (Lerman’s mother), the baby between them, is half shaded and half in the light, representing a genetic sharing of her parents. Is this a conscious mirroring of the photograph or is it a factor of Lerman’s desire to find likeness in her family? While classically sober, in keeping with traditional family portraits, it is an energetically expressionistic rendering of her mother and grandparents. Each brush stroke is deft and fraught with meaning. The figures express an innocently touching but uncertain humanity.

Photographs might be considered a pure, distilled concentrate, a moment composed of many recognizable signifying features, a face, a nose, a certain dress, of a life. In her paintings Lerman is working at reconstituting a family “fading, gone, or were well before my time.” The painting becomes the echo within her of first family, of ontologically, her beginning. The painting is a reification of that history. It is not a slavish copying, but a deep mining of herself to affirm their lives.

Latvia, along with Lithuania and Estonia, borders the Eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Riga, the capital of Latvia, where the photo was taken, was torn, like all Baltic Soviets, between Germany and Russia, between persecution of the Jews by both the invading Nazis and by Latvian nationalists themselves, and by the Russians. That said, Latvia was where Lerman was born and the site of her early childhood. “That culture, that landscape, the food, the smells, the music, that world is disappearing, that moment of the world is maybe gone and I want to preserve it somehow. I want my children to know it. When we would have dinner before they were gone I would sit there eating and cry, cry while I was eating, knowing how fragile the moment was and that it was disappearing.”

Faina Markovna Lerman “The Baby with a fever (Riga 1976)”, 1Water-based oil on canvas, 2017

There are two other paintings from Riga. One is “The Baby with Fever (Riga 1976)” based upon a photo of Lerman as an infant, straddled and supported by her parents. Her mother told her that because she was sick with fever she had bundled-her- up against the cold. Lerman painted-out, or intentionally left her parents out, and added color to the black and white image as if to create a reality for herself as a child that has faded or that she never had. It is a loose, gestural painting, with the sense of the infant almost rescued out of the painted-out background. There is also a look of decisive and emerging identity in the painting of the infant that Lerman has asserted.

Faina Markovna Lerman, “Rainis Park (Last family photo taken before coming toAmerica,1980),”  Water-based oil on canvas, 2017

The other painting, “Rainis Park (Last family photo taken before coming to America,1980),” is a diptych. One panel is an almost transparent, study-like sketch of Lerman’s immediate family, her mother, father, sister and her. Riga’s Rainis Park is infamous in history as a site where in June 1941 the Nazis gathered and shot 300 Latvian Jews, and thousands of other Russian patriots and Jews were murdered in and around Riga. The transparent quality of the study, juxtaposed to the second painting that reveals a stylish and life-affirming family, throws a painful question into Lerman’s narrative tableau of what could have been.

Faina Markovna Lerman, “Baba Sonya and Josef with horses (date and place unknown),”  Water-based oil on canvas, 2017

There is a strong sense of evolution in “Family Album.” The paintings become looser and gestural, almost abstract. She is comfortable with her gestures and the marks she makes on the canvas are convincing and beautifully lyrical. In discussing Lerman’s “Family Album” exhibition and particularly the wonderful little painting, “Baba Sonya and Josef with horses (date and place unknown), “ 2017, a prominent Detroit artist said “This is a very brave exhibition and she learned to paint marvelous paintings doing it.”

Faina Markovna Lerman is a multi-talented artist and cultural activist and “Family Album” isn’t simply an exhibition of her artistic talent as a painter but illustrates her broad view of personal identity and our collective history.

The exhibition is punctuated by a few simple family possessions– original stools, linens, baby blanket and Russian Nesting dolls (Matryoshka)– that were brought from Russia when her family migrated to Detroit in 1980. The Latvian symbol for growth, fertility and prosperity, which is on the cover of her family album is reproduced on the wall of the Cave Gallery.

 

 

Cave through 5/12 17

Russell Industrial Center 1600 Clay St.

Building Four-Third Floor

Detroit, Mi 48211

 

Threesome @ Simone DeSousa Gallery

Delights of the Garden: Ben Hall, Andrew Mehall, Jason Murphy

Ben Hall, Andrew Mehall, Jason Murphy. Collaboration 2017 Image Courtesy of Detroit Art Review

The actions and words of our latest president, the bizarre but predictable choices for his cabinet and advisors, yesterday’s horrifying news of 200 civilians dying in the new president’s escalated bombing of Mosel, Iraq, so reminiscent of the televised Vietnam War — all of this makes us think of the moment of Richard Nixon and of events leading to and following that debacle. Simone DeSousa Gallery presents a collaborative exhibit that beat MSNBC and the other news networks to the punch in this realization. The show, “Delights of the Garden,” is a collaborative meditation/installation on the Vietnam War by Ben Hall, Andrew Mehall, and Jason Murphy, three Detroit artists who are too young to have been there, but who are very conscious of Trump and company’s echo of historical circumstances.

Ben Hall, Andrew Mehall, Jason Murphy. Collaboration 2017 Image Courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery.

Entitled after the 1977 album “Delights of the Garden,” by the Black Nationalist, proto-hip-hop group “The Last Poets,” the installation is composed of objects, graphics, and videos, an array of materials implying comparisons between the nightmarish circus of the Vietnam era and our contemporary landscape of White House clowns. The album itself listened to by the artists in their youth, is a taut, poetic narrative of the everyday life of the Vietnam era in the face of horrors of nuclear annihilation. It doesn’t narrativize the installation; in fact, as a credit to the artists, it is not even used as a soundtrack for the exhibition but provides a psychological landscape and an amazing evocation of black consciousness at the time. It’s a reference, rather than a part of the installation itself, and well worth (re)listening to, perhaps before visiting the gallery. As such it evokes the condition of young black men forced to go to war while living in a world of excruciating racial prejudice, and thus forced into becoming cannon fodder for an imperialist aggression. (Also check out Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s “Project 100,000,” a plan that allowed the drafting of mentally or medically unfit soldiers into the Vietnam War).

Ben Hall, Andrew Mehall, Jason Murphy. Collaboration 2017 Image Courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery.

The gallery installation is centered around three dioramas that suggest or frame implications about the culture of the Vietnam era. They are, like many modernist abstractions, inscrutable and need unpackaging. One of the dioramas, containing images of abstract DeStijl artist’s posters, appears as an active studio, a glass floor and modernist office chair, suggests a walk-in painting by Mondrian himself and implicates Dow Chemical in supporting modernism. Dow Chemical, a Midland Michigan based company, was the manufacturer of Agent Orange, among other defoliants listed with banal, cartoony names, in the exhibition, responsible for cancers and the birth of deformed children, that resulted from its use. Anchoring the exhibition on the back wall of the gallery is a remarkable group of fifteen paintings, by the artist-curators, of mission patches that were created by soldiers and worn on their uniforms. These were not official military patches but were designed as unofficial commentary by soldiers, and judging by the content of cartoons such as “Snoopy” and “Felix the Cat,” many of them were quite young. Perhaps most disturbing patch is the “peace sign” inscribed with the words “Footprint of the American Chicken,” ironically of course, since the Peace Movement was an effort to save these same young men’s lives.

Ben Hall, Andrew Mehall, Jason Murphy. Collaboration 2017 Image Courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery.

A prominent design feature of the exhibit is a group of long, tubular columns, crisscrossing the gallery and papered in Harlequin-patterned copies of the Pentagon Papers. Uncertainly the Harlequin pattern, a common evocation of Commedia del’ Arte theater, may signify the circus atmosphere of the Vietnam era and the hysterical, comic atmosphere of the Pentagon Papers themselves, and especially the interchangeability of comic figures participating in both Vietnam history and contemporary White House charades. Nevertheless, the Pentagon Papers and the subsequent melodrama of the Watergate break-in, including all of the players in the Watergate cover-up, are featured in the exhibition’s graphics. John Ehrlichman, G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, John N. Mitchell, especially Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger: these are names all too familiar to anyone who grew up during the Vietnam era, and prefigure current White House players. There is little narrative description of the roles of these actors or of any of the events that took place, but rather the exhibition serves as a prompt for remembering and revisiting the moment while providing a continuing context for thinking about contemporary events. “Garden of Delights” is then a kind of modernist historical sculpture. A text by renowned artist/critic Donald Judd is supplied with the exhibition to warn of the dangers of nationalism and its effect on artistic practice and is a reminder that nationalism, the trademark of our new Presidents regime, affects not only political thinking but our overall ideology.

Ben Hall, Andrew Mehall, Jason Murphy. Collaboration 2017 Image Courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery.

One particularly poignant poster in the exhibition, a copy of which hangs in the Old Miami Bar in Midtown Detroit where Vietnam veterans congregate, is a rendering of iconic Huey helicopters hovering over Hart Plaza on Detroit’s riverfront. It’s a chilling sort of cartooned fabrication that reminds us of our Detroit soldiers who lived and died in that hell. In a separate video on one of the dioramas the famed helicopter is also featured as a toy being pushed into a stainless-steel sink, simulating the dumping of Hueys off aircraft carriers in the evacuation of Saigon in 1975.

We rarely see politics and war as the focus of contemporary art and with a semiological strategy of signing not explaining, “Delights of the Garden” is remarkable installation. It’s a painful reminder for those who grew up amidst the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the inevitable and necessary birth and growth of Black Nationalism, of the racial revolutions in Detroit and Newark and the rest of the country, of the Watergate cover-up, with resounding echoes in the current White House as well as the rest of America.

Join artists Ben Hall, Andrew Mehall, and Jason Murphy for an informal closing reception for “Delights of the Garden” on Saturday, April 8, 5-6 pm.

Simone DeSousa Gallery   March 11-April 8, 2017