David McMillan’s Chernobyl @ OUAG

“McMillan’s Chernobyl: An Intimation of the Way the World Would End,” at the Oakland University Art Gallery

David McMillian, Pripyat Rooftop, Inkjet Print, 23 x 30″, 1994

If you are a Detroiter, it is impossible not to find an uncanny similarity between the (de)evolution of the Ukraine city of Chernobyl after the nuclear disaster there in 1986, as photographed by Scottish born, Canadian photographer David McMillan, and the photos of demolished-by-neglect Detroit over the roughly same years. Both cities became subjects for photographers, both became, are, victims of romanticizing modern urban ruins. One was an economic disaster and the other a technological accident. Both have tour agencies that offer tours of the spectacle of the, seeming oxymoronic, modern industrial city ruins. Both have artists whose photos and sculptural works have been celebrated as significant contributions to contemporary culture and art. But most significantly, both have had profoundly detrimental effects on the people who lived there, and somehow it seems like the least significant.

David McMillan, Pripyat Rooftop, Inkjet Print, 23 x 30″ 2017.”

“McMillan’s Chernobyl: An Intimation of the Way the World Would End,” currently at Oakland University Art Gallery, is the result of McMillan’s twenty-two sojourns to Chernobyl since 1994 to photograph the heart wrenching changes over two decades in the radioactive urban landscape. It amounts to lifetime commitment.  His photographs range from capturing the rapidity of nature’s (time is nature) eroding effects on the built landscape, the infrastructure that structures everyday life and the forgotten, forlorn artifacts of everyday life itself. From his first picture of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor from a rooftop in the nearby city of Prypiat one can sense absence and desolation. A complete city with proud looking apartment buildings and roads and landscaping but not a person or automobile evident, not a clothesline with a drying towel visible. A forced abandonment. Another photo taken from the same rooftop twenty-three years later palpably reveals the built world, having lain fallow for over thirty years, being swallowed and digested by nature.

David McMillan, Hotel Room, Inkjet Print, 23 x 30, 1996.

McMillan’s are not romantic landscapes photos that aestheticize the ruins but revelational: he photographs the same site periodically to show change.  At least eight sites in the exhibition were photographed periodically to show the invasive dynamics of nature. Aside from the photo of Chernobyl from the rooftop, dramatic changes can be seen in a number of intimate spaces. In 1996 he photographed a hotel room with an elm sapling growing in the middle of the room surrounded by small plants including a couple of ferns. Eight years later he photographed it again, revealing multiple saplings thriving in the small room. Photographed again nine year later, the sapling has become a full-fledged tree with large roots reaching out across the room. Meanwhile the atmosphere (fluctuating hot and freezing, humid and dry air) has stripped the walls of paint and plaster, leaving the room an inhospitable ruin.

David McMillan, Portrait of Lenin, Inkjet Print, 25 x32, 1997.

McMillan isn’t without appreciation for the beauty of the derelict ruin and the well composed image. “Portrait of Lenin” is a beautifully decomposing school room with gorgeous scabs of paint peeling off the wall, children’s chairs upended and strewn around the room, one chair supporting a broken, abandoned doll, all watched over by a portrait of Soviet Russia’s famed leader Vladimir Lenin that sits on the floor, leaning against the wall. A subtle slant of light illuminates the room and particularly Lenin’s eye and a dark doorway in the back corner of the room balances the image.

David McMillan, Photo Studio, Inkjet Print 30 x 38″, 2016.

There are a number of interior photographs, especially in the kindergarten rooms, that in their fragmented, disintegrating state, appear as constructed collages and, pardon the painting model, even abstract paintings. In a recent visit, he photographed a “Photo Studio, 2016” with a ream of moss covered photo paper, strewn and evolving toward becoming dirt. “Floor with Slippers, 2006,” while beautiful with its toxic looking pigments and randomly dispersed shoes, has the terrifying intimation of the wearers of those various shoes having been vaporized. While they might suggest a romantic indulgence with ruins, McMillan is much more interested in exploring the processes and results of decay, its inevitability everywhere.

David McMillian, Floor with Slipper, Inkjet Print, 38 x 48″ 2006.

Yet we must abide by McMillan’s visual essay here and realize that there is a persistent optimism throughout. Everywhere we look there is a process of rebirth. McMillan focuses his camera on the ironic dispersal of berries, all kinds of fruits of bushes, as a counterpoint to decay. Rose hips (the fruit of rose bushes), blackberries, rowanberries, Mountain Ash berries, Wolfeberries, all photographed as if in competition with the chaos and the democracy of entropy.

Ironies and wry surprises abound everywhere you go in in McMillan’s Chernobyl. Photographed in 2006, “Trees and Fence” sees a galvanized fence enmeshed in a thicket of tree branches and shrubs making the fence a visual redundancy.  “Blue Slide, 2009” reveals a children’s playground slide in the middle of an overgrown area, its graceful arc mimicking the desperate new growth of neighboring trees preventing any kind of play.

McMillan’s quiet, somber meditation on the phenomenon of nuclear disaster in Chernobyl is then always close to emotional grief as well as a bemused recognition of the dynamic resolution that is nature. It seems that in the course of twenty-two visits he himself evolved toward this passive acceptance and understanding of decay and rebirth. The baroque image “Geometry Classroom, 2015” with its wire models of geometric forms and it images of famed mathematicians, such as Sophie Germain and Johannes Kepler, framed by a lyrical geometric bookcase, is the arch commentary on human endeavor. Amidst the best laid plans of geometricians, the corrosive power of time has turned the geometry classroom into a geometric molecular nightmare.

David McMillan, Geometry Classroom, Inkjet Print, 28 x 42″ 2015.

Curated by Oakland University professor of art history, Claude Baillargeon, in conjunction with the publication of McMillan’s monographGrowth and Decay: Prypiat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Steidl, 2018).

“McMillan’s Chernobyl” will run through March 31, 2019 at Oakland University Art Gallery

Ruben and Isabel Toledo: “Labor of Love” @ the Detroit Institute of Arts

Ruben Toledo, “Broomstick Librarian Shirtwaist Dresses,” 2008, Designed by Isabel Toledo, Painted by Ruben Toledo, image by DIA – William Palmer.

We normally think of industry as the machinery of the production for making a particular thing, like the steel industry, or, especially in Detroit, the auto industry, but entering the current exhibition, “A Labor of Love,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, we are greeted by a magnificent image of twisted swirls of colors and pleats of seven dresses. This very energetic image was composed and painted by Ruben Toledo of his wife, Isabel Toledo’s dress designs for Anne Klein, one of the leaders in the Fashion Industry. It’s not a huge leap of the imagination to go from car design, with its annual turnover and retooling for the latest, sexiest, avatars of human desire, to the fashion industry and its latest adjustments of hem and neckline and introduction of the latest color to elaborate on the human body. That’s just what this famous New York husband and wife team of artist and designer did in “Labor of Love,” their investigative interventions in the encyclopedic collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Ruben and Isabel Toledo, “The Choreography of Labor,” 2018 Remaining images by DIA Eric Wheeler

Situated in the DIA’s Special Exhibitions galleries, the main thrust of their installation is an exploration of Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry Murals,” the heart and soul of the museum and, art lovers might say, Detroit itself. In her exploration of the collection, Isabel Toledo saw the connection in Rivera’s fresco murals between the fashion and auto industry immediately and brought them together in a large collage (Image #2) that depicts a flowing dance of her dress designs across silkscreened representation of Rivera’s painting of the factory with workers depicted engaged in car production. The darkened gallery, filled with sculpted manikins wearing formal gowns of various cultural origin, suggests a grand promenade celebrating immigration and integration of world cultures to Detroit.

Installation image of Special Exhibitions Gallery with Isabel Toledo’s first sewing machine in foreground.

There is a haunting tableau composed of Isabel Toledo’s first sewing machine wrapped in black taffeta, with ghostly gowns floating in the air above, with a quote on the wall from Isabel that offers the idea of the fashion industry and (by proximity) the auto industry, as a metaphor for the generational influence of migration and change, of death and rebirth: “The combination of ideas, time and imagination can all be triggered by fashion and how people dress, undress, expose, or cover their bodies, fashion offers the perpetual next—the never ending now, the reinvention of inventions.” It is a twist on Darwinian Evolution that goes back to LeCorbusier’s use of it to explain the evolution of design. (Incidentally Isabel’s sewing machine, in looking like a little animal, echoes Rivera’s drawing of an V-8 engine block that looks like a dog).

Diego Rivera drawing from DIA Collection

Throughout the exhibition the female body is explored as the medium of exchange for cultural expression and happily this exhibition gives us the opportunity of seeing four of Rivera’s breathtaking Detroit Industry preparatory cartoons, two of which are female figures representing the seed and fruit of the female body. Because of their fragile paper the cartoons are not displayed often.

Much of the “Labor of Love” exhibition becomes a treasure hunt. Spread throughout the museum are nine Isabel Toledo’s playful, sexy, even downright erotic designs for female adornment which are in response to particular themes and moments of the history of art arranged in the chronological galleries. It is intriguing to ferret out the connections to the specific art or gallery theme. A map is provided but, even for a seasoned museum visitor, it’s a joy to walk through the museum, with chance encounters of things that catch your eye, trying to find Isabel’s interventions. It is a clever way to break the museum’s “ideology” and cast a completely different agenda on its organization, and get the public into the galleries.

Isabel Toledo, “Synthetic Cloud,” 2018, Nylon

There are many intriguingly inventive responses and fashion interventions by the Toledos including Isabel Toledo’s design for Michele Obama’s inauguration outfit found in the American Colonial house and interesting twists on the shenanigans of the surrealists, and to Alison Saar’s “Blood/Sweat/Tears” sculpture, but the most engaging is “Synthetic Cloud.” Installed in the “minimalist” gallery and inspired, it appears mostly by Robert Irwin’s diaphanous acrylic disc, “Untitled, “ but as well by the hard-edged paintings and sculpture of Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, Eva Hesse and Ellsworth Kelly.  Above Irwin’s chimerical disc, the most mysterious piece of art in the museum, hang eleven multicolored, nylon, tulle tutus that float like a formation of clouds high above our heads. Layer upon layer of pastel underskirts support the dancing figures that also support the rigid wire bodices of the imaginary ballerinas. Somehow echoing Irwin’s ineffable image of light and shadow, Toledo’s fantastic ballerina clouds are worth the trek.

Panoramic installation view of gallery

Isabel and Ruben Toledo: Labor of Love, Detroit Institute of Arts    –  Through July 7, 2019

 

Ryan Standfest @ WSU Art Department Gallery

Ryan Standfest: THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE at the Wayne State University Art Department Gallery

Installation view with view of “Factory Heads” All Photo images by PD Rearick

Aside from the subversively compelling and diverse mix of genres and styles of his art making, the dominant feature of Ryan Standfest’s exhibition is his irreverent, comic graphic sensibility. Whether in dark comic video, social and political satire comic, joke books, painterly advertisements, agitprop theater, or comix strips, everything is subject to its scrutiny. In one of his remarkable “writings” found on his website he narrates the story of his boyhood adventure in a church parsonage storage shed, where he’d wandered, existential 9-year-old boy style, to experience an epiphany of the aesthetic value of comic books. There in the dark shed, in his prepubescent glory, sitting upon a stack of 15 years’ worth of discarded Detroit Free Press newspapers, dating back to 1968, he discovered and proceeded to search for, cut out and scrapbook, the “Dick Tracy” comic strips. The narrative itself is an arch-comic book style self-discovery! Most importantly it is where Standfest began to savor the essence of pulp paper culture and revel in its wanton working class virtues as well as create a method for art making. The rest is his story.

Ryan Standfest, “The Captain of Industry,” gesso, graphite, ink, enamel on cardboard, 34 ¾” x 42 ¼”,2018

The title of the Standfest’s exhibit at the Wayne State University Art Department Gallery “THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE,” is typical ominous and foreboding language that you might find in a comic strip. Both physical and psychic displacement are the basic tropes of comic strips. In the small, but explosive, little boxes filled with minimal little drawings of “the comic section,” all sorts of mishaps, mysteries, surprises and aporia occur and– whether its Dick Tracy, Beetle Bailey, or Pogo—the comic strip world turns on the displacement of logic and the predictable; expecting Utopia and disappointingly ending in Dystopic visual gag of some kind. Standfest is all about language and his title here has it all: past tense, present tense, future tense; ironic surprise. Part of the issue of looking at his work is precisely unraveling the ball of time and space it encompasses. The exhibition itself proceeds a bit like a comic strip, going from inscrutable painting to painting, with only the barest of word play, letting the audience figure it out for themselves.

Standfest’s overall oeuvre is then one of bewildering sense of time and space, of nostalgia for promised future and the agony of a defeated utopia. His prime invention in this exhibition are the cardboard panels that seem to be 2-D “point-of-purchase” display cases of Standfest’s “Rotland MFG. Co., Detroit, Mi.,” and function almost as heraldic banners that parody the language of advertisements where things are either promised, promoting a bright future, or liquidated, suggesting collapse.  They suggest a time after World War l, when “Developers” were building Detroit and offering a utopian future for everyone.  Standfest’s “The Captains of Industry” painting is an ironic image composed of crisscrossed smoke stacks and canons (the mix of war and industrial culture can’t be missed) and filled with little token statuettes of, probably, Henry Ford, like the Catholic Dashboard statues of Jesus and Mary that people used to put on their car dashboards to protect them from evil. (There must have been a spiritual side to Ford.) There’s thirteen heraldic-like paintings and each, like heraldic coats of arm crests, celebrate moments (victories or defeats) of social and economic organization. “Unearthed Streetcar Rail” celebrates an ironic discovery of an already existing railroad system, made by workers when excavating Woodward Avenue for the new Q-Line and serves as reminder of the redundancy of Detroit’s city planning.  His painting “Vintage Union Handbooks,” ironically promotes the hand book as memorabilia of an institution (labor unions) that saved workers from abject abuse. Libraries, decommissioned schools and factories, dream houses, cheap land are all victims or promises of  utopia.

Ryan Standfest, “Welcome to Fordlandia,” Gesso, charcoal, enamel, and varnish on cardboard, 49 ½ x 31”, 2018

Complementing “The Captains of Industry” painting is Henry Ford’s experimental factory town in Brazil, Fordlandia, “celebrated” by a derelict looking banner painting suggesting the failure of Ford’s colonizing enterprise to build a Michigan style rubber factory in the Amazon jungle.

All of the banner paintings employ the graphic style of early 20thcentury Futurists and Russian constructivists, with their explosive, geometrical angularity, always suggesting machines and speed, such as the Italian and Russian designers Fortunato Depero and Gustav Klutsis; a mix of Industrial Capitalism and Bolshevik revolution, perhaps implying they were both failures. The image on the eroding Fordlandia banner seems to be a throne for Henry, the king of industry, himself.

There’s a host of Standfest’s heraldic-like paintings and images to unpack and sort through and they accumulate into a mapping of Detroit and Michigan’s industrial production and the havoc it rained on the city. There’s even a black painting of the outline of the mitten of the state of Michigan belching out a plume of oily smoke from Detroit, its catastrophic epicenter, and featuring locations of all of the products, from cars to copper, of the state.

Ryan Standfest, “A Child’s Picture Map,” gesso, acrylic, wood, oil, chalk, collage and mixed media on Arches, 47 ½ “x 47,” 2018

Standfest’s black humor, about which he writes on his website, is employed in a B&W digital video, “THE DIRT EATER,” which sees a broken Chaplinesqe character, Mister Ricky, played by himself, sitting down in a gloomy basement at a T.V. tray to eat a plate of dirt. Photos of Gramps, who was laid low by alcohol and tobacco, punctuate Mr. Ricky’s dinner of dirt, meanwhile Grammy sits by the old radio upstairs listening to Irving Berlin’s chestnut, “I Want to Go Back to Michigan,” a song about nostalgia for farm life in Michigan. The dirt that Mister Ricky eats is from Gramp’s garden behind the garage. While “The Dirt Eater” is a painfully humorous satire on the working-class nostalgia, it is a not a misrepresentation and is realistic in its portrayal of the dark, melancholia of the lives of the burned-out working family.

The diversity of Standfest’s art stretches to performance theater and is represented by an installation of three “masks,” called “Factory Heads,” that he employed in a performance at MOCAD with an accompanying musical composition of factory noise by created by Chris Butterfield and Mike Williams. In a sense Standfest’s “Factory Heads” sculptures and performance, covers of Bolshevik agitprop theater, are again in the Russian Constructivist spirit modeled after machine-like factory architecture with smokestacks and are accompanied by a Standfest poem that delineates the abject evolution of the working class.

Ryan Standfest, “Factory Head No.1,” archival inkjet on Epson, 32 ½ x 32 ½,” 2018

The quandary that we are left with in sorting out Standfest’s vision is the ultimate one that we are always left with: what to do with Modernism. Standfest’s comic satire of the machine age that left a wake of psychologically and physically maimed humans and a derelict social order was, at the same time, an emancipation from the tyranny of an old aristocratic ownership production and design. Standfest engages the Beckettian dilemma with a robustness which propels his excavations along with digging for and exposing another ironic gag.

Standfest is ruthlessly hilarious in his Dick Tracy-like comic strip satire of Adolf Loos’ famous critique “Ornament and Crime,” that helped define modernism, of how ornamentation in design is a crime against humanity. Standfest turns the scales, puts his detective Wolfe (Standfest’s version of Dick Tracy) on the case to expose the “villainous operation known as “International Style,” a crime wave of bare, spare, impersonal, and highly abstract architecture forced upon the innocent dwellers of the city by a group of European thugs.”  Humorously dark critiques of the festishization of modernist design and designers, including of LeCorbusier and Mies van der Rohe abound, as well the opposite, fetishization of worker’s clothing and lifestyle that fill out and balance Standfest’s salient humor.

Ryan Standfest, “Unearthed Streetcar Rail,” gesso, graphite, ink, enamel on cardboard, 36” x 20,” 2018

Ryan Standfest: THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE –  at the Wayne State University Art Department Gallery  – through December 7, 2018. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zacarias and Meyohas @ Wasserman Projects

Marela Zacarias: Coatlicue’s Return and Sarah Meyohas: Speculations

Installation view of Zacarias/Meyohas exhibition at Wasserman Projects.   All photo images: PD Rearick courtesy Wasserman Projects

In her recent talk at the College for Creative Studies, Mexican artist Marela Zacarias explained her shift from figurative mural painting to abstract sculpture.  While painting a scarf on a female figure in a commissioned mural, she realized she was much more interested in the abstracted folds and arabesque shapes of the scarf, and its relationship to the history of textiles and women, than in the figure she was painting. Up until then, Zacarias had been painting mostly murals. She explained that the social and political climate when she went to college, particularly at Kenyon College where she was in art school, led her to the political activism of painting murals. Ultimately she combined the sculptural abstract form inspired by textiles, as well as architecture, to create what are essentially abstract sculptural wall reliefs or murals, and unlike a mural, enwrap an object rather than use it as a support.

Marela Zacarias, “Coatlicue’s Return,” 2018, Acrylic on plaster and wire mesh, wood, and milk cartons, 74”x 74”x 74”

In keeping with her site-specific practice and her interest in Diego Rivera’s Industrial murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, in creating “Coatlicue’s Return,” the title of her suite of sculpture/murals at Wasserman Projects, Zacarias researched Detroit’s material culture through its architecture, landscape and museum collections. She imbued her sculptures with objects and abstract painting that reference a few of Detroit’s monumental icons. Having grown up with and studied the Mexican Mural movement in Mexico she of course engaged with the Rivera’s Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The center-piece then of “Coatlicue’s Return” is a large, free-standing undulating sculpture (enwrapping plastic milk crates, artefactual debris from Detroit life, and suggesting Coatlicue’s nurturing identity.) Composed of nine separate interlocking parts, symbolizing the myth of Coatlicue’s ultimate murder and dismemberment perhaps, they nest together like a puzzle. Referencing both the Aztec myth of the Coatlicue, the Earth/Mother goddess of both Creation and Destruction of Aztec culture, and Rivera’s painting of Coatlicue as an enormous anthropomorphized machine, that both creates (cars) and destroys (the worker). The abstract painting on the sculpture suggest Rivera’s decorative Aztec trim in his Detroit mural.

Marela Zacarias, “South Wall,” 2018, Acrylic on plaster and wire mesh, Detroit mirrorized window, 49” x 46” X 33”, “North Wall,” 2018, Acrylic on plaster, wire mesh, Detroit mirrorized window, 69” x 62” x 19”

Composed of wood and screen armatures, manually coated with plaster, Zacarias’ sensuous forms take shape through an arduous sculpting and sanding process. Before being painted, they already have a lively, biomorphic presence reminiscent of French surrealist sculptor Jean Arp. Stretching the definition of mural painting, Zacarias, drapes her sensuous forms over architectural details such as locally found window frames and objects like hanging tire swings, recovered from Detroit neighborhoods. Like Mexican women’s use of rebozos, which are lengthy, multipurpose fringed, shawls, employed during child birth and for nurturing and carrying their babies, the draping sculptures suggest the long association of women and draping textiles and by association, the creation of the world. In a sense, all of Zacarias’ sculptures are images of giving birth or of creating the world.

Two sculptures inspired by Rivera’s murals, “South Wall” and “North Wall,” have a very immediate sense of playfulness and giving birth. Both windows, recovered from Detroit’s landscape, have mirrors wrapped in Coatlicue’s birthing textiles, that reflect the beholder, implying that, even now, Coatlicue is at work creating us, the viewers. Both are painted in the respective palette of Rivera’s walls. On her explorations of Detroit, Zacarias visited the Guardian building, the Art Deco office building totally based on Mayan design elements. Painted with the graphic design and colors of the Guardian Building, the wall relief “The Guardian,” suggests the notion of a textile metamorphosing into that space.

Marela Zacarias, “The Guardian,” 2018, Acrylic on plaster and wire mesh, 47” x 40.5” x 15”

Bookending “Coatlicue’s Return” in the Wasserman Project galleries is New York artist Sarah Meyohas’ project, “Speculations,” which is, judging by her past artistic endeavors, driven by her engagement with the workings of the economy and the organization of the world’s trading and financial market. Once a student at the prestigious Wharton School of Business, her multimedia visual experiments are often beautiful, always slick, and uncertainly, critiques of the vagaries of time and money. “Speculations,” includes four tantalizing photographic images of mirror images reflecting mirror images of mirrors, and so on, into the darkness of infinity. Each photograph of the “Speculations” series is differentiated by an enticing decorative tableau, which is multiplied, and its attractiveness enhanced, by the mirrors. “Pink and Yellow Speculation,” 2015, reflects a coral colored wall into the darkness of infinity, the coral slowly darkening into black, into the unknown metaphorical future. Foregrounding the image is a branch of brilliant yellow flowers that tints the overall image and is magnified, and made even more enticing, by the repetition of the mirrors. Metaphorically, it could be a commentary on the aleatoric nature of financial speculation or specifically on the speculative and illusory nature of beauty and the art market. “Flaunt Speculation, 2018, is the same arrangement of mirrors but surrounded by, presumably, Meyohas own nude body enhanced, comically, by sprays of purple flowers. Most interesting is that in each of the “Speculation” series there is a slight offset to the mirrors, like a winding snake, which in the calculus of the interpolation, in following the arc of mirrors, would come back and bite the ass of the beholder.

Sarah Meyohas, “Pink and Yellow Speculation,” 2015, Framed Chromogenic Print, 91.75 x 61.75” x 2”

The piece de resistance of the whole exhibition is “Generated Petals Interpolation,” Meyohas’ video installation that employs an engaging room of mirrors and a mesmerizing, computer generated program of an evolving, ever changing grid of rose petals. Meyohas hired a pool of temp workers to pick through thousands of roses, picking the most “beautiful” from each bouquet and photographing a single petal from it. Those photographs were digitally entered into a computer and an algorithm created to select and create an infinite number and variety of petals that are projected onto the wall. The mirrored environment, like the fitting room at Nordstrom’s, reflects a room full of infinity and titillating, pulsating images of rose petals. Like the infinity of repeating images in the “Speculations” series, it suggests and tests the technological generation and replication of beauty and its economy of labor and production.

Sarah Meyohas, “Generated Petals Interpolation,” 2018, Video Production, mirrors.

While both Zacarias and Meyohas engage in a spectacular use of materials and technology there is an equal engagement with ideas formed with a kind of visual literacy (both live in and develop visual ideas) that suggests many compelling contemporary issues. Especially interesting is the engagement that each artist has with time. Meyohas’ images confront the nature of beauty through manipulated technology. In “Speculations” and “Generated Petals Interpolation,” the repetition of the imagery, creates its own seductive beauty in a warp of a circuitous infinity. Time becomes a dizzying and perplexing existential quandary. Zacharias employs a convincing and at once beautiful and frightening Aztec myth to explain the cosmic and local creation of everything.

Wasserman Projects: MARELA ZACARIAS: COATLICUE’S RETURN and SARAH MEYOHAS: SPECULATIONS, through December 15, 2018

 

 

Cass Corridor @ Simone DeSousa Gallery

Cass Corridor, Connecting Times: Brenda Goodman, Kathryn Bracket Luchs, Ann Mikolowski, Nancy Mitchnick, Ellen Phelan, and Nancy Pletos

Cass Corridor, Connecting Times: Brenda Goodman, Kathryn Bracket Luchs, Ann Mikolowski, Nancy Mitchnick, Ellen Phelan, and Nancy Pletos. Image DAR

Until very recently driving into Detroit from the nearby suburbs on Friday night was hassle-free and at most a 15-minute drive. For the opening of Simone DeSousa Gallery’s current exhibition, “Cass Corridor: Connecting times,” the last in the series to explore art of the 60s and 70s in Detroit’s infamous bohemian community, the drive was a delightful pain in the ass. The freeway was clogged with impatient drivers going to the Red Wing Hockey game, or the Tiger game or the half dozen art openings in the cultural center or music concerts or to hang at all manner of clubs and bars or to dine at the literally dozens of new restaurants in the new Foodie capital of the United States. We always knew the city would come back and we knew that we would regret it and also rejoice.

Nancy Mitchnick, “Dog Party,” 2017, oil on canvas. All images Courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery.

Forty or so years ago when the six women artists in this exhibition came down to Wayne State University or the Detroit Society of Arts and Craft to begin their art education, from each of their nearby homes in the broad reaches of Detroit’s working class neighborhoods, they were adventurers in a pretty much strange land. The exodus from racially torn Detroit had begun and the seamy, derelict parts were rising; the city seemed abandoned. Rents were cheap and studio space abundant.

These young women had the freedom to grow and become what they would without the usual college routines. Each did grow and develop as artists in their own unique way, for a while each living in the intellectually and artistically energetic Cass Corridor, staying the course to become fully, accomplished artists.

Brenda Goodman, “Balance,” 2017, Oil on Canvas

For years, the Brenda Goodman that Detroit knew had been the stalwart painter of a personal, iconography that was always executed with a masterful surface and line but left us waiting for a little more expansive, less inward preoccupation. Her drawing always had an underlying tenderness that contrasted with its moody, psychological content.

It appears that Brenda has broken out of her reflexive imagery, to do what John Yau has said about another fine artist, making “improvisation and surprise central” to her practice. In the two paintings at DeSousa, fresh new shapes and forms are the message and they are both wrought with Goodman’s characteristically sure hand and architecturally acute eye. “Tomorrow’s Promise” is a wonderful folding of trapezoids, ribbons and biomorphic shapes into an enigmatic etched space of brilliant thin orange and lime green wash activated by black and gray outlining. An inscrutable, colorful triangle sits in the center challenging the whole.

“Balance,” a black and white phallic yoga posture abstraction, has a sculptural presence and carries a memory of Goodman’s earlier cartoony symbolism.

Nancy Pletos,”Topsy Turvy,” 2001, Cardboad, paint, glue, found objects

 

Nancy Pletos, the spiritual linchpin of the Corridor art scene, and always one of its most formally inventive artists, transformed bits and pieces of wood molding and found objects into imaginary gardenscapes and architectural dreamscapes. At once zany as well as magical, she also recomposed sheets of Masonite back into 2-dimensional log forms. There are a number of her childlike gardenscapes (“Standing Gardens”) and wood sculptures in the exhibition, but the centerpiece of her work there is “Topsy Turvy,” 2001, the last wall reliefs she did before turning to smaller works. A multimedia piece of cardboard, paint, glue and found objects, “Topsy Turvy” is a hybrid wall relief, at once flora and fauna, creature and plant, serpent and garden, lacking a fixed identity and a wonderful synthesis of Pletos’ realizations of the natural world.

Ann Mikolowski, always a magical presence herself in the Cass Corridor, is represented by six of her famed miniature portraits of the movers and shakers of the art world. She of course did large paintings that always surprised with their unique subject matter and perspective. She did wonderful paintings of Lake Huron in various states of being and an enormous black and white cow, but her miniatures are her iconic works. Among the six portraits exhibited her portrait of “Mike Knight,” 1991, 3”x 5,” playing guitar, with the Ghost Band at the Third Street Bar, is a small miracle in capturing Knight’s singular presence, with red bandana and Harley-Davison T-shirt, on the stage. The detail of the stage setting is comical with a blue plastic milk crate supporting guitar player Ron Kopac’s Fender amp behind his cowboy boots, and two beer bottles hiding under the drum kit.

Ann Mikolowski, “Mike Knight,” 1991, Oil on canvas

Both Nancy Mitchnick and Ellen Phelan were powerful artistic, intellectual, and social forces in the Cass Corridor, before moving to New York City in 1973, to establish extraordinary careers. Composed of narrative comedy, painterly gymnastics and intuitive invention Mitchnick’s “Dog Party,” 2017, is just that, a delightful playdate for six dogs of diverse shape, color, and breed. Situated in a Southwestern-like landscape, with pink sky caressing distant mountains and arid green foreground with three horizontal canals articulating the space, the dogs, are dispersed like notes on a music scale. It’s a marvelous painting and arch illustration of Mitchnick’s enchanting inventions.

Ellen Phelan’s most notable works are her atmospheric and luminescent landscapes and her soft-focus doll paintings, but there is clearly a relationship between the early wood and paint sculpture in the exhibition and those later works. “Untitled,” 1976-77, is composed of three vertical wood boards painted gray, green and one unpainted, creating a column which is mounted to the wall. It has a black horizontal panel bifurcating it. Like her landscapes and soft focus dolls, “Untitled,” has an atmospheric presence. Its ambiguity is its definition. The black horizontal panel makes it a cruciform but only adds to it’s minimalist autonomy. Like Mitchnick, Phelan, in exploring multiple artistic tropes throughout her career, imposed an artistic and intellectual rigor to the Cass Corridor art scene.

Last, but spectacularly not least, is the Kathryn Brackett Luchs’ “Open,” 2018, a carved, 4’X8,’ birch plywood wood block and print diptych. Intensely gouged and carved with naturalistic patterns, and skimmed with green patina, resembling a landscape topography, it is imposing as a gorgeous monumental wall relief. Paper thin glassine was pressed into the block to create a gossamer, textured, echo-like print that was treated with sumi, a kind of printer’s ink, to insinuate a haunting aura.  Luchs’ wood block and print is reminiscent of the early Cass Corridor artist’s experiments with gouging and violently attacking plywood panels with a circular saw. Overall there is a beautiful coppery patina that fills the room with a beautiful glow.

With its focus on women, this last installment of “Cass Corridor: Connecting Times” couldn’t be more timely. The Cass Corridor moment is past, and this exhibition is palpable proof of the power of social and political forces in compelling and honing an engaged, creative community and, in this revolutionary moment, it is fitting that its revisiting ends with powerful women artists.  Simone DeSousa Gallery’s ambitious undertaking to revisit this artistic reaction to a dystopic Detroit is a resounding success. More important than anything else is that the Cass Corridor cultural scene was a collective community response, not to just a local crisis, but a worldwide psychic calamity. The art was one was one element of an incredibly complex time.  Celebrated here are six women artists whose work emerged from that moment and of course many equally fine artists, political activists, and intellectuals, who ultimately created and defined it, have not. It was the actual experience of that community, that was life/mind changing. It will be interesting to see what forms of a community and art loom out of the new Detroit.

Kathryn Bracket Luchs,  “Open,” 2018, Wood block—carved birch plywood with ink. Print—layered glassine with sumi on canvas, varnished.

 

Cass Corridor, Connecting Times: Brenda Goodman, Kathryn Bracket Luchs, Ann Mikolowski, Nancy Mitchnick, Ellen Phelan, and Nancy Pletos at Simone DeSousa Gallery through Oct 14, 2018