Scott Hocking @ David Klein Gallery

Detail of Installation View of “Scott Hocking: Old” Photo courtesy of Robert Hensleigh

Some sixty years ago, in the spirit of the Avant-garde, earthworks artist Robert Smithson– among other American artists like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Sol Lewitt—attempted to escape the confined space of the traditional artist’s studio, and to undo the tyranny of studio practice by redefining its traditional image/object making , and by commencing what he called an “expeditionary art.” Taken to meandering the industrial landscape of Passaic New Jersey, Smithson took Instamatic photos of  commonplace  industrial infrastructural constructions (bridges, smokestacks, drainage pipes) and, like Duchamp did with commonplace artifacts he called “readymades,“ Smithson re-recognized industrial infrastructure as monuments to civilization. Eventually also touring Mayan Mexico, he inserted mirrors in odd locations of the landscape to multiply and redefine Mexico’s already surreal visual landscapes. Smithson finally explored the arid landscape of the American West where he created his Spiral Getty, the greatest of American earthworks, on the Great Salt Lake.

Scott Hocking, a kindred Detroit artist founded a similar practice two decades ago by meandering and drifting through the eroding landscape of Detroit. Out of found materials appropriated from abandoned factories and office building, he created ephemeral monuments of the derelict remains of the city; at once archeologist and alchemist, he photographed them as part of the project. Among his many captivating projects Hocking created a huge stone egg in Michigan Central Train Station. He constructed a ziggurat in the Fischer Body 21 factory. He built a pyramid of abandoned car tires on a suburban lawn. Hocking has continued that practice on an international level with 22 site-specific projects throughout the world to date including works in France, Germany, Australia, Iceland, China, as well as throughout Michigan, Florida, New York; he now returns to the confinement of the Gallery space with an understated, thematically charged exhibition.

Scott Hocking, “Old,” 2018, gypsum, patina, salt.

“Scott Hocking: Old” returns him to the traditional, white box space of an art gallery at the David Klein gallery, and is a challenging summation of Hocking’s artistic process.

The center piece of the exhibition is the Klein Gallery’s Greek column that sits in the main entrance of the gallery. Riffing on the catacombs of Paris (which he visited) where the skeletons of millions of Parisian inhabitants were removed from cemeteries and placed in the ancient stone mines under the city, Hocking saw Detroit, as literally built upon the bodies and excruciating labor of human beings (autoworkers?). Symbolically surrounding the Klein gallery column (Hocking sees it as a huge structural bone) are thousands of bones and skulls cast by Hocking of hydrocal, made from locally mined gypsum, directly echoing Hocking’s own experience in the Paris catacombs, creating a monument to the souls that created Detroit. Somewhat macabre but in the tradition of gothic cemetery imagery, Hocking’s column, painted with a copper patina, and surrounded by a ring of salt crystals (mined from the ancient sea bed beneath Detroit), reflects his own family history of Cornish copper miners who worked in copper mines, thousands of feet underground, in Northern Michigan.

Punctuating the front room of the gallery, are six inscrutably mysterious artifacts created by Hocking of copper and tin and that are symbolic of the ancient history of copper mining in the Great Lakes area and of the presence of copper everywhere, from decorative architectural elements to the copper wire in Detroit’s electrical infrastructure. Most notably, “Country Boy,” the labyrinthine block of tangled copper wire in the front window of the gallery, is a “portrait” of a copper scrapper (homeless people who surreptitiously remove copper from derelict buildings and sell it) from whom Hocking bought the coiled wire. Country Boy, one of the many scrappers who Hocking had befriended in his research, had been killed in a hit and run. Like many of Hocking’s pieces it is at once a singularly amazing object and, like much of Hocking’s art, a spot-on invention.

Scott Hocking, “Country Boy,” 2003-2018, copper wire, 18”x16”x11”

Photographic documentation of Hockings projects fill out the exhibition, including photographs of a 2015 site-specific sculpture that he composed of, and on the site of, an eroding barn in the “thumb” area of Port Austin, Michigan. Commissioned by an area farmer (this is the second barn-art commission in the area), Hocking raised a collapsing 19thcentury barn and rebuilt it “upside down” to create an as big-as-a-barn, ark-like sculpture in the middle of a farm field. A recent excursion to see the project revealed a hallucinatory-like structure amidst an enormous farm field. Walking toward the ark from half-mile distance, across the field of ankle-busting clods of furrowed mud, with the drama of a huge sky of scudding clouds as a backdrop, combined to create a dizzying, biblical-like experience. The eerie, voice-filled, wind, epic sky, huge, distant trees waving in slow-motion, evoked an unforgettable cinematic presence.

“The Celestial Ship of the North”, Port Austin, MI. Photo by Robert Hensleigh

Collectively, there is an uncanny element in Hocking’s site-specific projects where one perceives multiple forces, both metaphorical and real, and an esoteric body of ideas such as astrology, alchemy, and astrotheology, at work. In Hocking ‘s description of the origins of the Barnboat (also called The Celestial Ship of the North and Emergency Ark), he refers to an Egyptian myth that depicts the crescent moon, waxing or waning, floating upon the horizon of the sea as an ancient version of Noah’s Ark. Like the ancients then, Hocking relies upon observation of the forces of nature, the planets and moons, and myths and cosmologies to situate his art. His “Celestial Ship of the North” refreshes our mythological eyes and prepares us to see, like Smithson’s Passaic Industrial landscape, the world in a different light. He sees the world, not in terms of art history and its successive permutations, but in terms of mythologies, ancient history and material culture. Most of Hocking’s many site-specific installations have been destroyed, removed, or lie remotely inaccessible, but the energy and visionary magic that created them resides in the documented photographs.

Scott Hocking, “Triumph of Death, Mounting a Dead Horse, 1/11,” 2010, Archival Inkjet Print, 33”X49 1/2”

 

In addition to photographs of the Barnboat there is documentation of four other site-specific projects in “Old” that captures the energy and immediacy of Hocking’s process. In a residency at famed Australian artist Arthur Boyd’s home, among the uncanny, serendipitous and inspired events in Aboriginal landscape, Hocking discovered a photograph of another Australian artist, Sidney Nolan, mounting a dead horse. In the Australian outback of Boyd’s property, Hocking discovered the bones of a cow that had been devoured by another creature; he reassembled them into the shape of Sidney Nolan’s dead horse, and then photographed himself attempting to mount it. Like a movie still that evokes the movie’s story, Hocking’s photo is a surreal instance of the strange domino effect of the forces (art engenders life) that create meaning in art or life.

All the processes that Hocking employ suggest an engagement with entropy, of exploring the fallen world, and of a Sisyphean rebuilding of it in various layers and forms—from egg to ziggurat—from rebirth, to going to the mountain to communicate with the gods—carefully manipulated in stacked arrangements, expected to crumble, but that at once coherent and transformative and even alchemical. As we spoke at his recent talk at the Klein gallery he bemoaned the fragile, degenerating quality of photographic documentation but optimistically, hoping for future technologies to preserve his work. Hocking commented, “These images will probably last only a hundred years.”

Scott Hocking, “Celestial Ship of the North (Emergency Ark) aka The Barnboat, 1/11,” 2016, Archival Inkjet Print, 33”x49 ½”

 

Scott Hocking, Old, at David Klein Gallery through June 23,2018

 

 

Biennial All Media Exhibition: Terrain @ Detroit Artist Market

 

Installation View of Detroit Artist Market’s “Terrain” exhibition, Photos courtesy of The Detroit Artists Market, Matt Fry, DAR

Steadfast in its mission as a non-profit gallery devoted to contemporary art and community, the Detroit Artists Market once again opened its doors to the whole art community in its Biennial All Media Exhibition juried by Detroit’s visionary landscape painter Jim Nawara. In his call for entries Nawara made it clear that the definition of landscape was pretty much wide open:

The works for this exhibition may present engaging, evocative images and ideas that employ illusion, allusion, and/or representation of observed, interpreted, or imaginary landscapes.

Beyond that, his nuanced description of the possible parameters of landscape is a tutorial itself:

Natural and unnatural phenomena in urban, suburban or rural landscape subjects, concepts about geology, memory and landscape, history embedded in landscape, archaeology, space archaeology, aerial views, maps and cartography, seascapes, layered space, camouflage in landscape, still life in landscape, figure in landscape, skyscapes, nocturnes, weather effects, atmospherics, optical phenomena in landscape (opposition effect, sun pillars, fogbows, glories, etc.), or microcosmic and macrocosmic landscapes may be of interest. 

Nawara’s description of what he calls “Terrain,” increases our post-digital visual vocabulary for all things called “landscape” and certainly our appreciation of what he has included in the exhibition.

Sergio DeGiusti, “Time and the River,” (2014) Hydrostone, 21”X31”

Master Detroit sculptor Sergio DeGiusti’s hydrostone relief “Time and the River” is perhaps the exhibition’s quintessential representation of the earth’s terrain and sets the stage for much of the imagery of the exhibition. Sculpted and tinted in waves of iron oxide red, the hydrostone relief evokes the metaphor of primal forces shaping the earth’s molten magma interior into phantoms arising over millions of years, to structure the interior of the planet as we know it now. The blood red waves accumulate to congeal into enormous crystalline mountains of iron evolving into animated figures that shape the history of the planet. The figurative shapes that arise suggest the powerful, destructive forces of nature, even human nature, that are seen in early twentieth century neoclassical sculpture.

There are forty artists represented in “Terrain” fulfilling virtually every feature of Nawara’s description of landscape and every media but they all somehow suggest the classic dynamics of DiGiusti’s “Time and the River,” in which the powerful, yet graceful forces, of nature shape our planet. Ryan Herberholz’s “Reservoir,” is built around the image of a hallucinogenic derelict house, an all too familiar image to Detroiters, caving in upon itself and sliding into a sinkhole, which is kind of a metaphysical reservoir or sewer. Pastel colored oil floor boards and ceilings seem to melt and flow into the dark hole at the center of the image. Meanwhile out of the windows we can see utopian fields of green and a pastel landscape of tidy, cobbled together, rescued houses.

Ryan Herberholz, “Reservoir,” (2017), Oil on Panel, 48”X64”

Deborah Kingery’s large format, black and white photo, “Target,” captures the foreboding towers of the Enrico Fermi 2 nuclear power plant near Monroe, Michigan. Fermi 1, once a major threat to SE Michigan, due to a nuclear meltdown, has been decommissioned. Kingery’s infrared film print (film stock of the psychedelic 60’s because of its surrealistic effects on light and vegetation), beneath a huge ominous sky of vaporous clouds produced by the twin nuclear stacks, with the deer target in the foreground, pictures Fermi 2, the replacement for Fermi 1.

Deborah Kingery, “Target,” Infrared Silver Photograph, 33”X43”

One of the fine ironies of the exhibition is two works of art that document human interaction and collectively create a wonderful human landscape. Donita Simpson’s very humanizing photo of the artist Jo Powers pictures her in studio amidst art making materials, photos and sketches, including a study for a “steam shovel,” a tiny, toy model of one, and one of her enigmatic self-portraits and other accoutrements of an artist studio. Powers stares, meditatively, from the landscape of her studio, into the distance. The atmospheric, completed painting itself hangs above Simpson’s photo. It is of a fully-clothed woman in an excavated hole standing up to her knees in water, the steam shovel poised on an earth mound behind her. As always with Powers’ evocative images, interpretation is open but there is always both a solitary search and an enigmatic mission suggested. Powers’ modest, tonalist paintings, rich in painterly chops, always stay within themselves, and because of that are deeply satisfying.

Donita Simpson, “Portrait of Jo Powers,” (2016), 30”X30”

Jo Powers, “Site,” (2015), 12”X16”

There are not many group-exhibitions that, at least for this writer, gain much traction because of the, often-random application of art to a specific theme. Nawara however, has attracted, probably because of his own fine artistic history, a group of Detroit’s best artists who have addressed the mission with sincerity.

In other words, there’s many fine works in “Terrain” that make a dynamic contribution to developing the concept of terrain and only a few that seem a stretch. Jill Nienhuis insightful painting, “Boulevard Bob,” tracks the flora and fauna of typical alley terrain culture with the juxtaposition of a nomadic black dog, probably named Boulevard Bob, on the prowl for dinner and a stellar rendering of sunset lit mullein plant in the foreground. That there can be a beautiful sunset in an alley, with overgrown plants and trees and a derelict car, is fundamental to urban dwellers, especially Detroit, but that there is a specific alley culture that is recognized and celebrated, and punctuated by the noble mullein, is sensational!

This years’ Detroit Artist Market Biennial has many treasures and fulfills Nawara’s diversely imaginative definition of Terrain. Mel Rosas’ retablo influenced painting of an iconic street scene in Mexico is quietly suggestive of the elemental simplicity of that picturesque culture and climate. Sue Carmen-Vian’s articulate graphite drawing, “Pancake Race,” seems a comic commentary on the stereotypical role of women in the Human Race. Bill Schwab’s photograph “Roosevelt at Buchanan, Detroit/ Projection Djupavik, Iceland,” is layered projection of a dystopic factory with crumbling concrete walls, derelict clapboard house and building and haphazard electrical wiring punctuating the apocalyptic vision. One of the only ruin-porn-noir images that engages the surfaces of the derelict with technical invention and cinemagraphic sensibility. “Terrain” is rich in Detroit artists with many gems to be discovered.

Bill Schwab, “Roosevelt and Buchanan, Detroit/Projection Djupavik, Iceland” (2017), Photograph, 32”X42”

Biennial All Media Exhibition: Terrain, April 27-May 26, 2018,  Detroit Artist Market

Address   –  4719 Woodward Avenue,  Detroit, MI 48201

Contact  –  Web: info@detroitartistsmarket.org  – Phone: (313) 832-8540

Hours – Tuesday – Saturday,  11:00 A.M. – 6:00 P.M.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cynthia Greig @ Paul Kotula Projects

“Cynthia Greig: Sans Souci”

Installation view of “Cynthia Greig: San Souci,” Paul Kotula Project, all images courtesy of Cynthia Greig

We have been looking at Cynthia Greig’s elemental photographs for years now. We look at them for their elegant and deceptive simplicity and uncanny calm. She has choreographed complex, intriguing photographic projects that engage art history and manipulated narratives that parody the representation of gender construction and sexuality. Both her “Representation” and “Nature Morte” (Still Life) series, with their ghostly picturing of common objects (household fan, globe, coffee cups) and traditional still lifes (with fruit, wine glasses, books, flowers) befuddle our definition of painting and photography, while exuding a formal sensuality and intriguing beauty.

Cynthia Greig, “Gallery Horizons,” archival pigment prints, 14.5”X 22,” 2013

Her current project, “Cynthia Greig: Sans Souci,” at Paul Kotula Project, continues her interrogation of the institution of art, with images of the interiors of well-known art galleries. A series she refers to as “Gallery Horizons,” features five pictures of the intersecting seam of where the floor of the gallery meets the wall. One of the iconic features of contemporary galleries is their characteristic flat gray cement or shiny, polyurethane floors. The best background color for exhibiting art is commonly thought to be white, so art gallery’s walls are almost always white with gray or wooden floors. The museum or gallery is an idealized space for showing art that has evolved since the mid 19thcentury into the proverbial “white cube.” Since Alfred Barr curated the famous 1936 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Cubism and Abstract Art,” the white cube has been the model for the ritualized exhibition of art and the ritualized social space of art patrons. However, in Greig’s “Gallery Horizons,” photographed in many galleries the United States and Europe, the art has been erased. Invariably, the intersection of drywall or plaster and the cement floor is left unfinished, resulting in a jagged seam at the bottom of the wall. With only a portion of floor and wall shown the image becomes something else and, remarkably, the image appears to be like a horizon line of where the sky meets the earth or sea.

Exploring her Gallery Horizons, you look at a jagged fissure bordered by shades of gray and white, at figure-ground ambiguity. A photo is incomplete until the viewer engages and with Greig’s images the viewer is even more complicit because of the uncertainty of what is pictured. Ultimately a white wall meeting a floor is identified but each of the five photos suggest other readings specifically. They become enigmatic images of open spaces which evoke emotions contrary to the social construct of art galleries: rolling ocean wave beneath icy sky, jagged coastlines along the sea, barren farm fields with lonely village in the distance. The viewer has an option to either enter the fiction or resist.

There is in Greig’s photographic practice a subversive action to question the role of the gallery by looking elsewhere, at the other, instead of the subject, which in a gallery is art. Each of the Horizons is photographed in a specific gallery, with the name of the artists who are being exhibited identified, which creates a conceptual context. In this hyperbolic space where nuanced perception of images–artistic as well as the vanity of curating ourselves—are almost solely the issue, the absence is rupture. “The horizons” themselves are something else, not only do they become something other than floors with walls they are the thing that shouldn’t be looked at. The floor meets the wall beneath the subject that hangs on the wall. There is an aspect of surveillance and appropriation in her project. These are main stays of contemporary photographic practice and of course all of them challenge concepts of beauty but Greig accomplishes both a critique and sublime representations of the white cube simultaneously.

Cynthia Greig, “David Novros/Paula Cooper/ New York, 30.5”X44,” 2017

A related and more recent series is entitled “Threshold,” which are large scale prints of gallery interiors. An edition of five is included in the exhibition, and again, the “white cube” is depicted with people looking at blank, white walls. Greig has erased the art. Like the “Horizons,” the galleries in “Threshold” create an austere, existential landscape, with the inhabitants– real people looking at art– becoming like characters in a Samuel Becket, Theater of the Absurd play. They stand in quizzical postures, performing nonsensical actions and, one imagines, articulating one artistic “cliché” after another. The Paula Cooper print is particularly evocative of this existential script with a figure, wearing trousers that seem too short, standing in an epic sized space with images of art surrounding him in reflections on the floor. The idea that all photographs are unanswered questions is even more doubly true with Cynthia Greig’s “Gallery Horizons” and “Threshold,” because they pose the riddle of “what’s going on here?”

Cynthia Greig, “Replication (Galerie Thaddeus Ropac/Paris), 80.5”X32,” 2014/2018

To emphasize the discursive eye that Greig has on the art world she has included two actual sized replicas of a doorstop that she has appropriated from an art gallery. One is composed acrylic resin and the other of plaster, graphite and wax. She also had one fabricated out of crystal but it was not shiny enough so she went with plastic one instead. They sit on classic gallery pedestals and, like the “Gallery Horizons” and “Thresholds,” perform an enigmatic subversion of the ideals of most art galleries by celebrating a derelict object found behind a door of a gallery. And perhaps the most decorative intervention is “Replication (Galerie Thaddeus Ropac/Paris),” a manipulated image of a gallery staircase in Paris. Both the doorstop and the replication of the stunning backlit metal staircase function, as all of her incisive but brilliantly maneuvered work does, as startling and ironic components of the structure of the art world.

In addition to her photographic practice Greig has also experimented with videos. In “Sans Souci” she has included, “Museum Mandala/Detroit Institute of Arts 2017/2018,” a video that she made of visitor’s legs and feet ascending and descending a stairway at Detroit Institute of Arts. It is edited in a fast moving, almost musical, kaleidoscopic fashion and extends her intervention into the art world as material for her own art practice.

Cynthia Greig, “A.W.E./B.P. Los Angeles, 2015/2016, 1.25X6X1.25 inches

“Cynthia Greig: San Souci,” @ Paul Kotula Projects

April 14-June 2, 2018

 

 

Al Held @ David Klein Gallery

Installation image of Al Held at David Klein with “Orion V,”1991, Acrylic on canvas,198”X192” and “Duccio VIII,” 1991, Acrylic on canvas, 108”X108”   Photography provided by Robert Hensleigh

 

In 1979 Detroit’s Cass Corridor art scene was thriving and, while he didn’t represent what was to become the iconic Cass Corridor aesthetic, Wayne State University painting professor John Egner was making interesting art. It was that year that he painted “Burnt Umber,” which eventually was purchased by then Director of the Detroit Institute of Art, Fred Cummings, and hung in the administrative offices of the Detroit Institute of Arts for a while before eventually hanging in the Modern Galleries. “Burnt Umber” is a monumental sized, stunning oil painting of almost spiritual implications, that bridges hard edge geometric abstraction and abstract expressionism with an interesting optical element as well. Incredibly energetic and busy, it was a unique painting for the Detroit art scene and was the centerpiece of Egner’s solo exhibition at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery. It was a very visible painting to all who lived in the Cass Corridor. It was in fact a painting that inspired poets to write poems and this poet to begin writing about painting.

Al Held, “Geocentric IV,” 1990, 96”X144” and “Scand III,” Acrylic on canvas, 72”96”

Walking into the Al Held exhibition at the David Klein gallery this week, it was overwhelming to experience the imposing presence of his geometric abstract painting, “Orion V,” 1991. Immediately reminiscent of Egner’s big painting of nearly 40 years ago in its monumentality (actually the same size) it is what a Renaissance painting is supposed to be and do. Like Egner’s it is awe inspiring.  Like the constellation Orion’s prominence in the night sky itself, the painting demands immediate attention and defies immediate description.  Of course, like the constellation the painting looks nothing like Orion the hunter, after whom it was named, but you make it fit because that is what Held called it. It is ripe with all manner of geometric shapes and perspectives—instead of angels, cherubs and saints, hollow cylinders looming out of a distant sky, a quixotic, puzzle-shaped plane of vibrant orange, concentric rings floating in imagined ether, a pure purple triangular wedge—in fact other than a distant blue sky-like back drop, the colors seem purposely mystifying and the composition is anything but modern. The acrylic paint is seamlessly laid on like powder-coating on a custom car.  Because of the strange, bottomless, topless, perspective the viewer is somehow disembodied amidst the gyre of movement in the painting. Held was inspired by the abstract formulations of Mondrian but because Mondrian was firmly planted on earth, with a stubborn horizon that wouldn’t let him escape, he eventually painted with horizontal and vertical lines. Inspired by Renaissance conceptions of the universe, Held was out in the universe where there is no up and down or in and out, and “Orion V” describes that.

Al Held, “Umbria XXIV,” 1992, watercolor on paper, 49”X 56 ½” and ”Primo V”, 1990, watercolor on paper, 49 3/16” X 57 ½”

Because of its title “Orion V” might be read metaphorically. It could be a celebratory image related to space travel, certainly prominent at the time, but, more likely it could simply be a secular version of the Renaissance vision. Defying famed art critic Clement Greenberg’s prescriptive ideas of flatness, “Orion V” thrives on and exhilarates in the illusion of deep space. It combines the minimalist elements of simple geometry with a hallucinatory landscape.

Another big canvas, “Geocentric IV,” 1990 is more readily grounded in nature, with an emerald green backdrop composed of hollow cylinders, cubes and triangles of heated up primary colors. With a title that sees the earth as the center of the universe, “Geocentric,” a confection of kitschy colors explodes this onslaught of primary forms, reductively standing in for the fundamental forms of nature. A tsunami of these primary forms seems to hurl toward us from a single point in the upper right hand corner. A collection of pinkish-brown cubes in the distant background serves as a substratum (earth?) for the foreground’s explosion of the primary forms. Held spent 1981-2 in Italy at the American Academy studying Renaissance painting and it could be that “Geocentric IV” is as close to a religious painting as he ever painted. Or perhaps more akin to a “Big Bang” Creation myth image, cascading, fluorescing red cubes join with brilliant blue cylinders surrounding a brilliant yellow triangle, cone and cube floating off into space. The classical compositions are unmistakable.

The remaining two paintings are also composed of a multicolored, seamlessly painted, arrangements of triangles, cubes and cylinders, and while they abound in hard-edged geometric shapes, there is a sense of an expressionistic energy behind their composition. There is a playfulness, then, in Held’s painting and brings with it a challenge to sort out perspective and the arrangement of shapes as if in a wilderness composed of a forest of forms.

The backrooms of the gallery include eight watercolors and a black and white painting. It is difficult to compare them to the acrylic painting but they are, it seems, from where the title of the exhibition, “Luminous Constructs,” is derived. Quite simply they exude light as if lit from within. “Umbria XXIV,” 1992, which probably takes its title from Held’s travels to Umbria, the magnificent Italian region of natural beauty and culture, is composed of a brilliant tangerine-orange, cruciform shape, constructed of various sized rectangular forms. The floor, the only reference to a built space in the exhibition, is emerald green and yellow checkered and the cruciform, has red, halo-like rings floating above and around it. The transparent glow of the watercolors give them an immediate, sketch-like or cartoon but sure-handed quality. Of course, the imagery of the forms are Held’s play on Christian iconography.

When John Egner was an entering art student at Yale University,  he was placed at Al Held’s interview table.  Egner told Held that he was there specifically to study with famed Abstract Expressionist Jack Tworkov.  Held called over to Tworkov’s desk and said “Hey Jack this one is for you.” Egner got up and went over to Tworkov for the interview.  Years later Egner told me, “I guess for many years at least if I was asked who was my favorite painter I would have replied “Al Held.” A little Detroit art history to go with a vibrant and rare view of an American master.

Al Held, “Victoria VIII,” 1991, watercolor on paper, 43 5/8” X 49 ¼” and “Plaza IV, 1993, watercolor on paper, 49 ¼”X63”

Al Held one-person exhibition at the David Klein Gallery through April 28, 2018

Gerhardt Knodel @ Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum

The Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum Hosts Gerhardt Knodel’s “Minglings: A Journey Across Time”

Gerhardt Knodel, Installation View of Gallery, All images provided by Robert Hensleigh

Imagine, while still in high school, walking into a Hollywood costume design studio with your art teacher when, maybe, you’re working on the school play and its set design. Imagine the industry there, the flurry of energetic creativity. You’re behind the scenes where all the magic happens: where the costumes are made, where the bolts and bolts of fabric are transformed into costumes and furnishings for the imaginary world of movies.(Think “Spartacus” or “Ben-Hur” or “Gone with the Wind”). That happened to textile artist Gerhardt Knodel when he was in high school and it seems it was a transformative experience that Knodel took to heart and inspired him to dream very big dreams. From set designs with painted curtain drops for a high school Christmas play to a seventy-foot-high, textile sculpture that adorned the atrium of John Portman’s Renaissance Center in Detroit, Knodel has been involved in creating and transforming space. “Free Fall” was a series of brilliant, looping, arabesques of color that enlivened Portman’s brutal geometric concrete space into veritable waterfall of color. For years it was on the must-see list for anyone visiting Detroit. He did the same for the new south entrance atrium to William Beaumont Hospital as well, with a multistoried, multilayered tribute to doctors and scientists famed for healing others.

Considering he was head of the fiber department and ultimately Director of Cranbrook Academy of Art for 35 years, it is astonishing how many large-scale public art commissions he completed, how much his personal work evolved, while at the same time, as current Cranbrook Fibers artist-in–residence Mark Newport recently said, how instrumental Knodel was in making the Fiber Arts “more challenging and more attuned to the fine arts dialog than it had been before.”

His recent project, “Minglings: A Journey Across Time,” beautifully installed in Saginaw’s Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, is no less ambitious or compelling. Rather than transforming a space or constructing an environment as he often has, Knodel turned to the other half of the classic philosophical Space/Time conundrum: Knodel explored time by composing a visual historical narrative.

Gerhardt Knodel,  Front and back of original silk tapestry (Kesi), China, Ming Dynasty, 17th Century

After finishing a large commission and while reorganizing and sorting through his extensive collection of historical textiles in search of a new project, Knodel rediscovered a Chinese silk tapestry. He mused over its beautiful but fragile, deteriorating state. Composed of stylized butterflies, insects, plant leaves and flowers, all floating in a pale blue sky-like background, Knodel realized its possibility. He rescued the deteriorating material by cutting small swatches out of the tapestry that still had physical integrity and contained the essence of its design. In short he played a version of the game of Exquisite Corpse with them, using the swatches as triggers or seeds, as in the game, to draw, as if growing, extensions of them evolving his own inventive forms.

Ultimately Knodel drew five different interconnected series that bloomed into a spectacular textile tour de force: along the way he discovered that what he thought were nineteenth century, were (valuable) seventeenth century Ming Dynasty tapestries created for the home of a probably very wealthy Portuguese family.  The mistake probably inspired Knodel to dedicate a great deal of creative energy and time in exploring their uncanny charms. Ultimately he composed this engaging, over-the-top, imaginary visual travel log of the tapestry’s voyage from Ming China, by Spanish trade vessels via Manila, to Acapulco, Mexico, then over land to another trade ship and off to Portugal. A gallery guide and superb video accompanies the exhibition to help us on the journey.

Gerhardt Knodel, detail of “Regeneration Series, #4,” mixed textiles

Translating the drawings into textile form involved inventing a medium that would hold up under the artist’s manipulation and give a degree of dimensionality as well as range of nuanced color to his drawings. Knodel laminated multiple colors of mixed textiles to foam backing and cut, by hand, tens of thousands, of what he refers to as tabs, which he then blended into a pointillist-like surface (to mix artistic metaphor) or as pixels, to color them. The result of his invention is a breathtaking range of color and exploration of possible forms.

There are 58 works in the exhibition that explore the theme of the delicate, weirdness of forms of nature (strange butterflies, insects, vegetation, flowers) suggested by the original tapestry. Knodel’s extension of their forms then are what his poetic vision gave birth to and they represent wonderful explosion of storytelling and delightful imagery.

In the initial series, entitled “It Had to Be You,” segmented tendrils with eyes at the end of each of them, explore the world around them. Some of the figures appear like hybrid of sea creatures and insects. The series, “Things That Get Caught in Trees After a Storm,” inspired by one of those uncanny plastic bags trapped in a tree’s limbs, reveal colorful, bulbous, ever-changing forms tangled in branches, blowing in the wind. They are at once exotic and even capture some of the comic extremes of nature.

Gerhardt Knodel, “Homecoming: Series #1-6, with “Minglings” #13. Shui, #2.Hui, #5.Mu, mixed textiles.

Knodel was revved up, it seems, when he began to realize that his creatures were beginning to have life of their own. Among the “Minglings” are a group of twenty-two, insect-like/sea-like/flowerlike and cartoon-like, creatures that were inspired by the Ming tapestries (so Minglings are spawn of Ming tapestries) and, speculating, of Knodel’s Hollywood upbringing in the cartoon land of Disney. Ranging in size from 24”x24” to 48”x48,” each has its own personality, they all have Chinese names and, in Knodel’s description of his fairy-like tale, make the journey from China, to Portugal to the New World. There are two works that establish a feeling of triumph. “Flower Powered” is a nine paneled work that celebrates the passage across the multiple seas that the tapestry would have seen. It’s really the abstract center piece of the exhibition and suggests the spectacular landscape of the earth while connecting to the original colors and design motifs of the tapestry. To provide a context, Knodel created a landing site for their arrival in Portugal, entitled “Homecoming,” (pictured with Minglings attached) and to complete their journey until someone else is inspired by his Minglings to continue it and connect with history and extend them even further into the future.

There is magic in Gerhardt Knodel’s Minglings project: in his extension and poetic elaboration of the original, in the execution of drawings and the invention of a medium give life to them and fantasizing their journey for his cut up Ming tapestries into a visionary spectacle. He captured something envisioned during one of greatest civilizations ever, the 17th century Ming Dynasty and continued the vision in his studio in Pontiac, Michigan, providing elegant evidence of the timelessness and value of human imagination and labor. It is ultimately a collective victory accumulated over time.

Gerhardt Knodel, “Minglings: Night Flyers (Wei),” 40”x38,” mixed textiles.

Gerhardt Knodel’s “Minglings: A Journey Across Time,” continues at the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, Saginaw Valley State University, through May 19, 2018

Also at the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum see: “Chinese Folk Pottery: The Art of the Everyday” curated by Marie Woo.