Will Ryman @ Center Galleries, College for Creative Studies

Looming like a sci-fi phantom, a gossamer, spaceship-like car floats in the mercurial light of Center Galleries. It is an actual sized sculpture of the 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz– framed with resin and then shrouded in white, embossed Bounty paper towel–and is the fabrication of New York artist Will Ryman. The thing astonishes with its implausibility. We in Detroit wait every year for the latest and greatest version of automobiles but this particular moment, 1958, called for something different.

Will Ryman, 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, Wood, Resin, Paper towel, 2017

Post World War II life is often referred to as the moment when America was great, as in “Make America Great Again.” The United States had emerged from WW ll as a savior of the Western World and the soldiers returned to an explosive economy that inspired and encouraged a new and better life. The soldiers got the GI Bill which was money for fighting the war. The brilliant technologies developed to build planes, ships, tanks, and guns were ready to be employed to build a new American infrastructure. After a few post war years of stagnant auto sales, Harley Earl, head of General Motor’s “Styling Department,” employing a strategy called Planned Obsolescence, found a way of making a new car, an alluring “object of desire,” every year and one for every purse. It was a very big deal! From Chevy, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile to Cadillac every American wage earner could have a car that represented their class and level of economic status. The cars slowly evolved with modest cosmetic changes every year—a curve of a fender here, a piece of chrome there, a new palette of tantalizing colors, sumptuous upholstery or push button radios with front and rear speakers. Each new year model made last year’s version less attractive, less sexy. The American economy was the wonder of the world.

Will Ryman, Installation image, all images courtesy of Robert Hensleigh

The 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, a hybrid of the P-38 fighter plane, a horse drawn carriage of the Victorian aristocracy and avatar of female goddess, was at the top of the heap. Its name says it: three names all denoting power and wealth– Cadillac for the historical founder of Detroit; Eldorado, Spanish for gold and the lost city of gold in Spanish mythology; Biarritz the French resort on Basque coast made famous by actress Bridget Bardot and the hangout of the very rich.

Will Ryman (b.1969), playwright, sculptor, painter, and, conceptual artist, has most recently composed what seems like a trilogy of poignant installation/sculptures that turn on American politics and history, culture and identity. Each uses apt materials to perform dramatic vignettes focusing attention on the collision of American ideals. Ryman’s “America,” (2013) is an actual-sized model of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home and is now housed in the New Orleans Museum of Art’s permanent collection. The cabin is made of real logs but coated with a rich gold resin patina and has an interior brimming with tesserae of bits that compose the history of American labor and production. The interior walls are a mosaic of everything from cottons balls and slavery shackles to pills, bullets, iPhones and arrowheads.

Will Ryman, The Situation Room, 2012 – 2015

More contemporary and polemic is Ryman’s “The Situation Room,” (2012-14) a life-size sculpted tableau of the famous and bizarre photo of President Obama and his closest circle, including Hillary Clinton, watching a live-feed from Pakistan of the assassination of Osama bin Laden by Navy Seals. Appropriately composed of crushed coal, turning the tableau into a shadow in the American memory bank, it serves as frightening meditation on the all too intimate scale of war and global politics. Perhaps because he was a playwright, Ryman’s sense of history and drama are dead-on as he seems to choose subjects and materials that point poignantly at the vital issues of our culture. Few artists of our time have been able to deal so directly with our political landscape.

Will Ryman, Detail, 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, 2017

“Cadillac” (2014) is a haunting installation that, as you spend time with it, accumulates gravity and puts American history in strange relief. Beyond its initial novelty, a mashup of art history with its winged tailfins, sculpted with Art Nouveau’s whiplash fender lines and wraparound windshield, bounteous breast shaped bumper guards and covered in Bounty paper toweling, it possesses an uncanny, funereal presence. Like the painted white ghost bikes along the side of the road that memorialize children being killed by cars, “Cadillac” summons bigger thoughts about life and mortality and our collision with the industrial landscape. Bounty toweling, with its art deco (the symbol of cosmetic superficiality) embossed pattern and tag of “Bounty” on every sheet, creates an ironic commentary on the excesses of corporate America that was called attention to by President Eisenhower in his Farewell Address (1961). He warned of the threat of the Military Industrial complex that had taken over American culture and industry and that has become a part of everyday life.

The 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz broke every rule and standard of “Good Design” (a phrase that also meant good economics) set by most thoughtful modernists. While car design became a form of pop culture and post war novelty and spectacle, American design had become ostentatious, superficial, a symbol of conspicuous consumption and in the long run bad economically. In 2017 it is a ghostly reminder and presence incarnating all of the worst impulses of American culture and economics and not simply a kitschy tableau. Ryman’s chimera of our past absorbs (“Bounty is the thicker, quicker picker-upper”) and exudes our strange history. Ryman recently said that, instead of editorializing on his art, he has learned to let his materials speak for themselves and his “Cadillac” Eldorado Biarritz is stunningly articulate.

As part of the current Center Galleries exhibition Alumni & Faculty Hall is exhibiting Jeff Cancelosi: Picturing Us, featuring engaging, large format color photos of some familiar faces of artists and prime suspects of the landscape of Detroit art.

Jeff Cancelosi, “Artist Bailey Scieszka” Photograph, 2016

CCS Center Galleries –     Will Ryman: Cadillac  –   January 28-March 4, 2017

Rick Vian @ Janice Charach Gallery

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Rick Vian, Installation image Courtesy of Glen Mannisto

“Keeping a Wet Edge: A Retrospective of the Abstract Work by Rick Vian”  &  “Detroit Abstraction: Featuring 41 of the Most Noted Abstract Artist with ties to Detroit”.

The experience of being alone in the bush, as we call it in the far north of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, deep in the thicket of the woods, is a tricky business. From immobilizing awe over its beauty to a vertigo over its map-less chaos, a walk in the bush can wreak psychic havoc. The current retrospective of Rick Vian’s painting at the Janice Charach Gallery offers a marvelous mirror of Vian’s engagement with the painting of trees in the bush over the past fifteen years. But first before finding himself in the bush of the Upper Peninsula, Vian was a worker, an industrial painter (it’s probably where his no-nonsense work ethic comes from) literally painting factories—the infrastructure of gas, water and electrical lines, the dangerous machinery of industrial production, — and living the inherent design and experiencing the drama of industry.

 

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Rick Vian, “If You Only New” Oil on Canvas, 40 X 68, 2004

There are a few paintings in the current exhibition that took inspiration from that time and they explore with dramatic shading and coloring, with scumbled surfaces and jagged lines, the interconnected and interlocked spaces of a unique and almost cartooned or animated geometric abstraction. They don’t much look like any geometric abstraction from art history though they might suggest kinship with the Russian Constructivists. “If You Only New,” 2004, a charcoal drawing, dramatized with smears and layered palimpsests and composed with the triangular stencils of drafting tools, looks gothic in its theatrical play of prime geometric shapes. “Nice Condition,” 1999, carves figurative contours out of classic blade shapes such as intersecting ellipses and truncated spheres, dramatizing the edginess of the industrial landscape.

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Rick Vian, “Nice Condition”, Oil on Canvas, 48 x 40″, 1999 All images Courtesy of Glen Mannisto, and the Artists.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These earlier geometric abstractions set us up for the big hit of the retrospective and his latest project which is the push/pull relationship between Vian’s figurative and abstract painting of nature. He seems to have turned away from his industrial abstraction and industrial life (he quit the commercial/industrial painting gig) to paint nature. Exploring the wilderness of Northern Michigan’s upper peninsula, where he built a rustic camp in the woods, Vian has engaged the forest and its parts, the tree. Translating his early explorations of the grid, that classic modernist notion, and the physics of sight, Vian has alternated between strictly realist renderings of the forest and a fervently energetic expression. His paintings have become a moment of conscious realization of both the forest and the painting as a signing of that relationship.

 

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Rick Vian, “Stormbreak”, Oil on Canvas, 59”x 84”, 2005

“Stormbreak,” 2005, a dramatic and acutely stark representation of the existential state of a skeleton of a tree is a haunting and certainly metaphoric description of the vulnerability of that tree. In a conversation, he said “I have painted it many times. Its right off Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Bay just past Baraga.” Lest we say Vian has painted it so often that he has almost become its biographer and in that there is the best characterization of a regional artist as a partner and caretaker of the local. One senses a devout relationship with that tree and in the radical shift back, again, to his abstracting of the bush, there seems to lead to a reading of the forest as an emancipating energy and scripted choreography of the forest.

This dramatic relationship infects and determines most of the remainder the current work typified by “The Gathering Pool,” 2010, which “gathers” the surrounding forest or audience of dark shapes, of abstracted squiggles, smears and vertical black shadow-like slashes (figures?) into a focus of brilliant light or frothy foam. In contrast to the surrounding darkness, this brilliant moment is a crescendo of light, perhaps a symbol of spiritual transcendence gleaned from the dark bush. Vian pays homage frequently to his interest in both Italian Renaissance painting, which employed color and brilliant light to dramatize Christian scripture, and to Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic disciplines which use the mandala to diagram the cosmos or in Jungian psychology the unity of the self or personal identity. At the same time, he has kept an eye out for a deep, perhaps objective structure, a former preoccupation of his painting, and found a three-dimensional grid suggested in the “The Gathering Pool” by a faint network intersecting lines.

 

As a disciplined and investigative sojourner, Vian’s bushwhacking has even led him to study the language of the native Ojibway people entitling some of the painting in the Ojibway language which one senses gives a sympathy to the surrounding landscape and to its original inhabitants and interpretors.

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Rick Vian, “Stormbreak,” Oil on Canvas, 59”x84”, 2005

 

DETROIT ABSTRACTION Group Exhibition

As an extraordinary compliment to his own paintings Vian curated “Detroit Abstraction: Featuring 41 of the Most Noted Abstract Artists with ties to Detroit,” a remarkable collection of painting, sculpture, ceramics, and fiber works revealing the profound depth and width of the Detroit’s artistic landscape and of course another testimony to the sincerity and fidelity of Vian’s overall artistic project.

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Holly Branster, “Bracket,” 72”x36”

There is too much to say about the phenomena of abstract art especially in this post-digital age, but quite simply one is overwhelmed with the diversity of ways of seeing and of the use of materials and processes that are represented in Detroit. The stereotyped mainstay of abstract art is painting and the standouts in Detroit Abstraction don’t surprise: Holly Branstner’s stunning “Bracket” is composed of an elongated rectangle with a monolithic, effortless stroke of brilliant yellow with strokes and drips of dark bloody reds. At the other end of psychic spectrum is Janet Hamrick’s smaller oil on canvas, “Undulating Drift,” a subtle reckoning of three panels of alternating stripes in a quiet pallet of taupe and mauve overlaying a series of diamond shaped rectangles. It is excruciatingly subtle and beautifully nuanced and impossible to describe. That’s why it’s a painting. It goes like that: from explosive abstract expressionism to minimalistic painting strategies, from biomorphic and surrealist automatism, to action painting, and the whole wonderful gamut of assemblage wall reliefs composed of cement, wood, metal, glass to cubist formalist sculptures, kinetic whirly gigs and textile hangings, ceramic vessels and Japanese inspired altar-like constructions.

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Janice Hamrick, Undulating Drift, 24 x 30

The explosion that was/is Detroit’s art scene is beautifully realized in Vian’ s deft selection of artists. The diversity of materials and processes speaks of the battle against encrusted formalism that has been a preoccupation of Detroit artists and is a fulsome reminder of the tremendous will and passion of this place-in-the-straits to give shape to the world.

Vian’s paintings occupy the first floor of the spectacular Janice Charach Gallery and the Detroit Abstraction exhibition occupies the second floor. Both are stunningly installed in this amazing space that is part of the Jewish Community Center campus. It is a revelation even to the most experienced art appreciator to see the quality, complexity and integrity of the Detroit’s scene.

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Group Abstract Exhibition, Installation image, Courtesy of Glen Mannisto

The artists included (and Vian bemoaned that there wasn’t room for others he had selected) in the Detroit Abstraction exhibition include: Diana Alva, Anita Bates, Robert Bielat, Holly Branstner, Coco Bruner, Jim Chatelain, Terry Lee Dill, Barbara Dorchen, John Egner, Gary Eleinko, Todd Erickson, Marcia Freedman, Brenda Goodman, Dennis Guastella, Carole Harris, Janet Hamrick, Al Hebert, Meighen Jackson, Lester Johnson, Dennis Jones, Ray Katz, Brian Lacey, Addie Langford, Charles McGee, Allie McGhee, Robert Mirek, Erin Parish, John Piet, Tom Phardel, Sharon Que, Curtis Rhodes, John Rowland, Douglas Semivan, Gilda Snowden, Robert Sestok, Dayton Spence, Ron Teachworth, Nancy Thayer, Russell Thayer, Lois Teicher, Albert Young.

Rick Vian will talk about his work and the Detroit Abstraction exhibition in the Janice Charach Gallery December 4th at 1:00PM. The two exhibitions close Thursday December 8th at 8:00PM.

 

Jim Crawford @ Trinosophes

 

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Jim Crawford, Pile Series, All images courtesy of Glen Mannisto, with assistance form Robert Hensleigh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The prevailing stereotype of Detroit’s ’60s and ’70s iconic Cass Corridor art scene is misleading. Images of beer-swigging, dope-smoking, post-adolescent boys, spitting on studio floors and recycling beer cans into expressionistic, assemblaged sculptures with which they hoped to violate the hallowed halls of the Detroit Institute of Arts come to mind. It was a myth created by romantic souls who tried to rescue bohemia from Detroit’s growing derelict landscape. Of course there was also a considerable population of heady, intellectual /artist types who cowed up around the Detroit Institute of Arts, read books, went to arty films, listened to music other than the MC5, even went to the opera and had jobs too. Artist Jim Crawford who has a mini-retrospective at Trinosophes, a performance space in downtown Detroit, seems like he could have been one of those.

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Jim Crawford, Tea Stain Series in Vitrine, 3 x 5 Cards

Crawford’s art is marked by a psychologically reflexive interiority—it occurs more in the mind as noumenon than as object or phenomenon—and makes what seems an ordinary material world into the extraordinary. Simple gestures or processes, replacing the traditional romance of creating a single object, are repeated and accumulated to explore a sense of time and evolved change, and to challenge our perception in an artistic process sometimes referred to as Conceptual Art. In 1970, in a beautifully measured and meditative ritual production, Crawford translated his daily cups of tea at his job at the Michigan Council for the Arts into a very deliberate series of over one hundred tea bag stains on 3”X5” cards. In the Trinosohes gallery, the tannic-colored blots have been arranged on a grid in two display vitrines to accomplish a stunning array of difference and signifying presence. Each stain records a moment with countless daily variables (temperature, emotional presence, gravity, haptics), or what acute perception can distinguish, becoming a sign of those variable influences as much as a thing to perceive in itself.

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Jim Crawford, Folded Paper Series, Graphite, staples, paper, 1971 (smallest: 8″ x 12”, largest: 22” x 26”)

Like many artists Crawford works serially, and the Trinosophe exhibition features six main series that he has explored from the late ’60s until now. The most conventional form in the exhibition (created in the early ’70s, and of which seven individual examples are exhibited) is composed of sheets of paper folded into flat, randomly occurring geometric shapes, punctuated with staples, and marked or patinaed with graphite or paint. Created to be two-sided, they are a unique composition like nothing else: resembling geometric clouds (each is magnificently unique, but best experienced together so go see the show), and apprehended or readable more as signs than as objects. As in the best of human productions, the materials have dictated the form. In a public interview at the gallery, Crawford quipped, “I had a long staple gun,” allowing staples to reach and punctuate everywhere on these manipulated forms, depositing dash-like marks, leaving shadows and an almost musical notational presence. The scribbled or shaded graphite illuminates and posits a “natural” surface (think birch bark); and the creases of the folds give the pieces a sense of volume and mass, but therein lies the challenge. They suggest dimensionality or objectivity, yet are ultimately inscrutable, seductively flat signs, abstracted and void of referent.

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Jim Crawford, Pile Series, 1972, 20 Untitled photographs (1967, 1972 and 1972) color, black & white photos, paint – 8” x 10”

There is also a suite of photographs that document what Crawford has called the “Pile Series; discovered throughout the city, they record the presence of piles of various industrial or commercial materials that seem, through Crawford’s discerning eye, to achieve the status of sculpture. No doubt he has positioned these twenty images to both serve as ironic description of the identity of the artist (suggesting perhaps that art challenges perception, enabling it to discern “found objects” or objets trouvés as art, thus emphasizing the prominent part that ideas and concepts play in perception), as well as to call attention to the compelling nature of our landscape, and to create a dialogue that compares art to the supposed randomness of everyday material reality. Included in the series are photos of stacks of snow fence, old tires, boxes of fruit, and lumber at a construction site. Each of the photos reveals the particular effect that weather, light, and context play in conditioning both the appearance of the particular stack and our perception of it. The raw quality of the 40-year-old 8”X10” black and white photos and derelict framing of them adds a certain historical charm to the project.

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Jim Crawford, Eggshell Series (2015-2016) Mixed media (paint, glitter, walnut dye)

Two recently created series echo Crawford’s earlier strategies for dealing with recycled materials with an emphasis on personal biographical influences. Inspired by his grandmother’s practice of reading tea leaves at the kitchen table, Crawford, while cooking, has recycled cracked egg shells back into their cartons to produce stark abstracted images of the roundness of eggs. Like his grandmother’s tea leaves, the organic byproducts of his everyday life have become signs: a circle in a square, an egg in a carton, dyed with walnut stain from his walnut tree — painted and decaying they are ever changing and evolving. The delicate egg shells may at first appear as mere garbage or waste, but emerge with a powerful, though fragile, talismanic presence.

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Jim Crawford, Cat Can Series, 10.5” x 14” x 9.5”, Mixed media, 2015-2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In another series, Crawford has engaged Midnight, a stray black cat that wandered into his garden, to create the Cat Can Series. “An unlimited supply” of cat food cans from feeding Midnight becomes the material for a somewhat awkwardly stated, perhaps eccentric arrangement of aluminum cat food cans in various conditions: some painted or stained green (Midnight’s eye color), some crushed, some with labels intact (9 Lives and Friskies being the preferred brands), and all enclosed in boxed frames. Employing the same stacking gesture as the early 1970 series, Crawford resuscitates the theme of exploring the visual landscape for architectonic structure.

In wandering through Xavier’s modernist furniture store on Michigan Avenue in Detroit, Trinosophe’s co-director Rebecca Mazzei, along with Joel Peterson, ironically found a stack photos that intrigued her. Pursuing the maker of the photos, she rediscovered the seemingly forgotten artist and art of Crawford. In researching, organizing and designing the exhibition “Jim Crawford,” she has energetically brought to our attention one of the most intriguing figures of the Cass Corridor, one whose work challenges perception and through its changes translates time into evidence for the consideration of big ideas. The exhibition includes various support materials from Crawford’s own archives, such as a post card series and ring binders and files containing Crawford’s copious notations on his projects.

Jim Crawford at Trinosophes – Through December 23, 2016

 

Ray Johnson @ CCS’s Valade Family Gallery

The Bob Boxes at the College for Creative Studies and the Valade Family Gallery

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Ray Johnson, Installation – All images courtesy of Robert Hensleigh

There is a remarkable exhibition at the College for Creative Studies’ Valade Gallery and the subject, Ray Johnson, has haunted me for years. I thought this obsession was because he was a Finnish kinsman with similar, exotic ethnic roots in the Copper Country of Northern Michigan, or maybe because a seminal figure of Detroit art and culture, Gilbert Silverman, famed for his iconic collection of Fluxus art, was his close friend and became his lifelong patron. Of course the great documentary film about Johnson’s life and death, “How to Draw a Bunny” (a must see for anyone interested in Johnson’s artistic strategies), was also instrumental in creating his haunting identity. I thought maybe my fascination with Johnson was that he was a Detroiter who went to Cass Technical High School and then attended the unique and ultimate, progressive Black Mountain College, where the American avant-garde art was born, and where my own poet-model, Charles Olson, taught. While there in the vital Post WWll years Johnson engaged with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Josef and Anni Albers, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Buckminster Fuller, Franz Kline, Jacob Lawrence, Cy Twombly, Fracine du Plessix Gray, and many other art world lights.

But yesterday, curious about his local roots, I went to his childhood home on Quincy Street in Detroit and astonishingly discovered I was born directly behind his house on Holmur Street, the year he left for Black Mountain College. We discovered that my sister went to school with him.

None of this means a thing of course unless you’re Ray Johnson. And then it means everything, because if anything Johnson is about relationships: between people, objects, words, colliding and collaging (his basic gesture as an artist) or putting things together.

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Johnson, often referred to as “the most famous unknown artist in America,” in addition to running with the New York School of famous painters, poets, and composers, spent years developing a network of relationships in the art world via that most democratic of institutions, the United States Postal Service. He basically created the New York Correspondance School (a play on the New York School of Abstract Expressionists and pun on creative movement of his art) and the phenomenon of “mail art” as a way of circumventing the capitalist art market of collectors, galleries, curators, and museums, creating a direct and intimate communication between artists. Using his own very finely crafted collage techniques and a complex personal iconography (rabbits, strange silhouetted portraiture of famous movie stars and artists, homoerotica, spinning on complex language games and puns), he created a network that sent out small-scale art works composed of drawings, photos, and cut-out texts from magazines of movie stars, product packaging, found objects, and ultimately whatever was part of the visual surface of post war popular culture that he swam in.

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In the most significant aspect of Johnson’s mail art project, he asked for additions and collaborations on his work, as well as others he had “sent out,” to redirect and create an alternative visual dialogue among chosen artists. Johnson’s interest in both Zen practices and chance operations (through his close friendship with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham) played a central part of his artistic practice and even more significantly in his enigmatic philosophical vision and life practice. Ultimately the New York Correspondence School attracted thousands of participants becoming a global network that eventually lost its human connectedness, which perhaps prompted Johnson in 1973 to proclaim the New York Correspondence School dead.

The exhibition at the Valade Gallery, The Bob Boxes, is the result of one particular mail art relationship that Johnson had with artist/collagist, Robert Warner. From 1988 until Johnson’s death in 1995, they maintained a correspondence exchanging mail and phone calls. At one point Johnson delivered thirteen boxes of various “mail art” he had created and collected, including found objects from everyday life and popular culture. (It is probable that the famous boxes of “assemblage” artist Joseph Cornell, whom Johnson had admired and befriended, inspired the “boxes” he created for Bob Warner, “The Bob Boxes.”)

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Like Cage and, indeed the ultimate assemblage artist, Marcel Duchamp, Johnson was primarily interested in how chance encounters, between people, objects, or words, created new sets of possibilities or connections, or extended the possibilities for making meaning out of the world. He wasn’t interested in a singular system, visual, linguistic or cinematic, but any kind of “relationship” between things that prompted a vital often satirical critique. He referred to his small collages as “moticos” (an anagram for osmotic), created to stimulate or inspire connective tissue in everyday life. In a very real sense then there was no separation between Johnson’s art and life, and his seamless playful landscape provoked many to call him a Neo-Dada artist, a surrealist, which of course he rejected as just one more effort to classify him.

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The Valade Gallery’s exhibition is then really a performance of Bob Warner’s “unpacking” of the 13 boxes that Johnson gave him. Placed on tables, the contents of the boxes — Warner’s humorous title for the exhibition is “Tables of Content” — have been distributed, and the results on each table are a tsunami of the flotsam and jetsam of the American visual landscape that Johnson assembled for Warner and us, providing a ready-made mail art kit for our visual challenge.

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In addition to the “Tables of Content,” there are three vitrines containing early photographs from Johnson’s life in Detroit, including some wonderful drawings that he made while at Cass Technical High School. There are also seven hours of video — ”The Ray Johnson Videos” made by Nicholas Maravel — of Johnson talking about his work and generally performing himself for the camera.

Amazingly “The Bob Boxes” is the first exhibition of Ray Johnson in his hometown of Detroit for over forty years, and the Valade Gallery’s curator, Jonathan Rajewski, has provided a fine context and perspective on the work of one of the most enigmatic artists of the 20th century.

College for Creative Studies

A.Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education

The Valade Family Gallery       460 W.Baltimore   Detroit, MI 48202

Gallery Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 12 to 5 p.m.

Nancy Mitchnick: “Uncalibrated” @ MOCAD

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Nancy Mitchnick, Installation at MOCAD, 2016 – Courtesy of MOCAD

Nancy Mitchnick has had a spate of exhibitions this past year. She had a great show at Hamtramck’s Public Pool, showed a few earlier works in a cool three-man exhibit at the iconic Detroit gallery, Alley Culture, and really opened some eyes with new paintings at Wasserman Project. The exhibitions signify a return to and embrace of her hometown after she escaped from the Cass Corridor art community in 1973, and lived and worked as a painting professor and artist for years in New York (Bard College), California (CalArts), and Massachusetts (Harvard). She was also honored as a Kresge Fellow in 2015, and most recently was selected by the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters as a recipient of the organization’s 2016 art awards. Quite a homecoming!

The most recent iteration of her work is in the big room of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). The huge gallery of MOCAD seems like it was made for Mitchnick and she comfortably fills the space with what at first seems a most curious selection of paintings—ranging from two portraits of a friend and three portraits from her “Wonder Women” series, to a work in progress recovered from what she herself calls a “bad” painting (about which she recently lectured at MOCAD), a couple of expressionistic still lifes, two landscapes and nine houses from her old neighborhood, and two new “narrative paintings.” In a sense the show constitutes a mini-retrospective of the range of Mitchnick’s work over the past thirty years—portraiture, still life, landscape—and two new, auspicious paintings that signify a leap into her future. But much more poignantly, “Uncalibrated” (the title of the exhibition) seems to explore Mitchnick’s quest over the years to mine the vast rhizoid root system of painting, to find out what being an artist is and what it can do, and what it will come to be. (In mock despair she exclaimed, “Sometime my studio looks like a group show.”) “Uncalibrated” is fundamentally a self-portrait, or perhaps a memoir, of Mitchnick as painter.

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Nancy Mitchnick, Oil Painting 48 x 48, “Virginia Woolf”, 1990-91        All following Images Courtesy of Glen Mannisto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the entrance of MOCAD are three early portraits, from the Wonder Women series, of Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and Frida Kahlo. Painted in grisaille-like, gray shades that produce a classical sculptural effect, the heads of these three great, prototypical, feminist artists have a heroic scale and echo both Renaissance sculpture and certainly Enlightenment ideals. That they are outside of the main gallery, at the entrance, provides a hint of what part these heroic women might play in Mitchnick’s life as a painter. All three were experimental, independent, rational and investigative, secular beings and certainly, like Mitchnick, lived large lives. They also suggest a classical meta-literacy—to challenge the status quo, to invent, hybridize, psychoanalyze, to utilize—that is certainly part of Mitchnick’s own strategy as an artist. In her conversation with Jens Hoffmann,
 MOCAD’S Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at Large, she admits to being a voracious reader, which somehow parallels and infiltrates her work as an artist.

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Nancy Mitchnick, Eye Detail, Oil Painting, 1992 -” Davy Butler First Hit”

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Nancy Mitchnick, Detail of Eye Painting, 36 x 36 “Davy Butler  Finished” – 1992

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her two portraits of a friend and patron, “Davy Butler: First Hit,” and “Davy Butler: Finished,” are elegant illustrations of Mitchnick’s carpentry skills in building these paintings, readily apparent throughout all of her work since. (“My father was a cabinet maker, but sometimes had to frame houses to make money.”) In “First Hit,” eyebrows and eyes are a dozen or so quick brush strokes—they are elegant and deft, making a sketchy, speculative architecture. “First Hit” is more mysteriously suggestive than descriptive, framing the first marks of the physiognomy of identity. Then in “Davy Butler: Finished,” the painting confidently assembles itself around the subject’s eyes. The head is smaller, more contained, and from each part of the facial landscape—the nose, the lips and mouth, and the eyebrows are precise—a commanding, almost Roman presence emerges. While making portraits to earn money, Mitchnick disavows a preoccupation with likeness, with making a painting that looks like the subject: “”Making likeness is not good painting, I’m making great paintings.” Her process, she says, is “all trial and error,” sometimes “losing whole beautiful passages to erasure, to get it right, to make a good painting.” In an offhanded aside she adds, “you writers just keep a record in your computers of every version of what you do. I lost a beautiful turtle here,” she muses pointing to a spot on the recent painting “Night Heron.” However not surprisingly, “Davy Butler: Finished” (the portrait of the friend who attended her recent MOCAD conversation with Hoffman), is not only an extraordinarily articulate painting, but an ennobling likeness as well.

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Nancy Mitchnick, Two Portraits, “Davy Butler First Hit” , “Davy Butler Finished “, 1992, both 36 x 36

 

The heroic scale that she is given to (“I didn’t realize at first that I was a heroic scale painter”), necessitates a physicality and energy apparent in most of these recent works (as well as in her person). Fortunately disregarding all of the foreboding claptrap about “Ruin Porn,” Mitchnick took scores of photos of her old neighborhood near and around Hamtramck and began working from them during her first return to Detroit after losing her Harvard position to a “Conceptual artist.” (“I wanted to do something with Detroit.”)

First House

Nancy Mitchnick, “First House”, 34 x 45 Oil Painting, 2006

The centerpieces then of “Uncalibrated” are the nine flat, elevation portraits of Detroit houses in various states of devolution. Depicting mostly the homes of working class people and perhaps middle-class families who ran small businesses or auto industry management, these are not memorials nor documentation of the state of derelict Detroit, but exquisite paintings that celebrate a presence of people who built and inhabited this place. Even the smallest painting, “First House,” exudes a very particular ethos and an aesthetic filled with a humanizing spirit.

Torn Orange 59 X 99

Nancy Mitchnick, “Torn Orange”, Oil Painting, 59 x 99, 2009

In reminiscing about her Cass Corridor days, Mitchnick talked about wanting to be an abstract painter but was never able to escape narratives but perhaps, ironically, that has finally (almost) been achieved in two of the most monumental paintings in the exhibit. “Torn Orange” is the painting of a surgically exposed side of a store. Composed of modulated tones of orange colliding with a diagonal green and yellow slash, it features the typical markings of a classic abstract expressionist work, but Mitchnick keeps the context of the building by depicting the surrounding light and air of the city. “Big Burn” is a triumphant exploration of the remains of a home that, in its abandoned state, is slowly rotting and returning to the earth. Exposed rafters, plaster lath and crumbling foundation are astonishingly caressed into a derelict geometry that made Mitchnick blurt, “I felt like I was composing a symphony!” It is triumphant painting that in itself is a marvelous history lesson.

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Nancy Mitchnick,” Big Burn”, Oil Painting, 129 x 59, 2006-20016

Each of the house paintings has a complexly charged presence. “Buffalo Street” is of the house in which Mitchnick grew up, and while it was in its last stages of devolution, Mitchnick’s painting still captures what seems a classical bearing, with its gabled roof and three-windowed dormer still erect and proud, and still evincing the colors that it once wore. It is difficult to imagine Mitchnick’s mindset when revisiting and painting this moment of her life and prompts the question of whether this is an elegy for the Buffalo Street house or an objective portrait.

 

Buffalo Street 99 X 88

Nancy Mitchnick, “Buffalo Street”, Oil Painting, 99 x 88, 2008-09

One of the most interesting aspects of Mitchnick’s work is the lesson that she teaches with each composition, which is that it takes a long look to realize a painting. Her latest pieces, “Night Heron” and “White Front,” seem almost recklessly whimsical compared to the disciplined, graphic painting of the abandoned houses. Populated with strange bits of ocean coral, odd mythic creatures (snakes, birds, turtles), and a Persian Princess, they are a gargantuan leap into another mind space. However, after one spends time with them, they gain traction, and their amazing palette of colors (throughout “Uncalibrated” her palette is symphonic) begins to tantalize, and an almost fairytale narrative gathers. It might be the story of a new Hamtramck or not, but it certainly signifies another trajectory for Nancy Mitchnick’s painting to mine.

Night Heron 77 X 111

Nancy Mitchnick,”Night Heron”, Oil Painting 77 x 111 – 2016

 

“Uncalibrated” will be at MOCAD until Sunday, July 31, 2016.