Detroit Institute of Arts & Charles Wright Museum Collaborate on 1967 Rebellion Exhibitions

 

From Left to Right – Patrina Chatman, Curator of collections and exhibitions, Charles Wright Museum of African American History, Valerie J. Mercer, Curator of African American art and head of the General Motors Center for African American Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Kathy Locker, Program director/Detroit, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Juanita Moore, President and CEO, Charles Wright Museum of African American History and Salvador Salort-Pons, Director Detroit Institute of Arts.

Art of the Rebellion and Say It Loud are coordinating exhibitions to commemorate 50 years since July 23, 1967, when African Americans took to the streets of Detroit to express their anger and frustration with the injustice of law enforcement. To many people, and supported by the then media establishment, the events on 12 Street and Clairmount were conventionally referred to as the Detroit Riots, both in Detroit, Southeastern Michigan and around the country. Over the course of five days, more than 2000 buildings were destroyed, 7,200 people were arrested, 43 people killed and over 1,100 injured.

Jim Hubbard, Woman Sitting on Ledge, 13 x 19 B&W 35mm 1967

At the DIA, African American Art Curator Valerie Mercer explains that a number of the 34 works on display emerged from black art collectives that in some cases aimed to instruct a community whose self-identity was in rapid flux. “Harlem’s Weusi collective felt we African-Americans needed to learn more about African culture,” Mercer said, “which is hard for us, since it’s typically not taught in schools.”

Salvador Salort-Pons, DIA director said, “The commemoration of the 1967 Detroit rebellion provides an opportunity to call attention to the talented and often overlooked artists who were reacting to the struggle for social, political and racial justice during the 1960s and 70s. The DIA’s collaboration with the Wright Museum lays a foundation from which we are building a strategic and lasting working relationship that will help bring our community closer together.”

Wadsworth Jarrell, Three Queens, Acrylic on Canvas, 1971

At the Detroit Institute of Arts, Art of Rebellion features 34 paintings, sculptures and photographs mostly by African American artists working both collectively and independently in the 1960s and 70s. Artists in the collectives: Spiral, Kamoinge Workshop, Harlem’s Weusi, AfriCobra, and Black Arts Movement, created art for African American audiences that asserted black identity and racial justice with the Detroit rebellion of 1967 as background. The exhibition also includes works by artists who were not part of a collective and artists working in later decades who were inspired by art from the Civil Rights Movement.

Wadsworth Jarrell, Revolutionary, Acrylic on Canvas 1972

The work of Wadsworth Jarrell is prominent in the DIA exhibition in that it captures a color depiction of African American figures using a kind of alphabet soup to communicate a variety of literary messages. Wadsworth Jarrell is an African-American painter, sculptor, and printmaker who was born in Georgia then moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he attended the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a founding member of AfriCOBRA, a collective of African American artists formed in Chicago in 1968 as a response to the Civil Rights Movement. Its members inspired black pride by exploring and defining a black visual aesthetic that would reflect the style, colors, cool attitude and rhythm associated with their culture. AfriCOBRA artists focused on the social and political issues that affected their communities and were committed to making art that was understandable, relevant and accessible.

Allie McGee, Apartheid, Mixed Media on Masonite, 1984

Detroit artist Allie McGee, whose work is represented by the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, is featured with a large abstraction, Apartheid. The work highlights his use of angular shapes and splatters of paint to evoke tension. McGee often used sticks in place of brushes to obtain the effect he wanted. The title refers to the oppressive political system that existed in South Africa. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements inspired many African American artists to address the fight for civil rights faced right here in Detroit.

Norman Lewis, Untitled (Alabama), Oil on Canvas 1967

The outline of a hooded Klansman near the center of this painting converges with sharp angles suggests tension. The title Alabama was code for the complicity of that state’s government in the oppression of African Americans throughout the community. Strong composition and the black and white motif further supports the overall symbol in this oil-on-canvas work.

Elizabeth Catlett, Homage to Black Women Poets, Mahogany, 1984

Elizabeth Catlett’s wooden sculpture Homage to Black Woman Poets is carved from one piece of Mahogany and pays tribute to black women poets, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Jikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and Maya Angelou. Catlett is widely recognized as a contemporary sculptor known for her focus on women subjects.

Titus Kaphar, For Tryvon, Amadou, Sean, and Mike, Calk on Asphalt, 2014

The Chalk on Asphalt drawing by Titus Kaphar in 2014 brings the recent events across the country into the narrative that exists today. The images depict three black boys, perhaps those who were lost to injustice and informs the audience that the events surrounding a young black man like Trayvon Martin live on inside each and every one of our consciences.

The Charles Wright Museum partnered with the Detroit Institute of Arts to create parallel exhibitions — the DIA’s Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement opened on the same day as Say It Loud. Both are part of a community-wide reflection of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion. More than 100 local institutions will participate in this commemoration, led by the Detroit Historical Museum. The Charles Wright Museum began its remembrance of this complicated and painful historical experience with the unveiling of Detroit artist Charles McGee’s landmark outdoor sculpture United We Stand at the Museum in July 2016. The Detroit Art Review covered that event, and I spoke with McGee, a fellow artist with whomI exhibited more than once. He said, “It’s about togetherness…living together in peace.”

“Artists have a way of bringing moral clarity and promoting empathy,” said Juanita Moore, president and CEO of The Wright Museum. “They can often articulate the emotional truth of a situation in a way that breaks through our mental barriers and opens us to new perspectives in a way that other forms of communication cannot. This new exhibit will both show how some of the most significant African American visual artists have interpreted and resisted social inequities over time, and broaden the historical narrative and dialogue around the 1967 Rebellion.”

Gordon Parks, Police State, B&W, 35mm, 13 x 19″ 1997

Born in Fort Scott Kansas, at the age of 25, Gordon Parks was struck by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine. He bought his first camera for $7.50 at a Seattle pawnshop and taught himself how to take photos. He started in the fashion industry, but Parks went on to become the first African-American photographer for Life and Vogue magazines. Parks once said, “People in millenniums ahead will know what we were like in the 1930s and the important major things that shaped our history at that time. This is as important for historic reasons as any other.” In this photo Police State, the image is more about capturing a moment that delivers a blunt and literal statement to his audience.

Roko, The King of Montgomery, Oil on Canvas, 28 x 38″ 1988

This mixed media painting by the artist Roko comes from a mug shot of Martin Luther King, one of many, taken by police departments during the Civil Rights period. Known nationally for his dramatic portraits, Roko relies on deep colors and black line to capture the downtrodden state of his subjects. As part of this exhibition, it is well known that Dr. Martin Luther King led Marches in Detroit, such as the Walk to Freedom March down Woodward Ave, in 1963, the precursor to his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Washington Monument just two weeks later. It drew crowds of an estimated 125,000 or more making it “the largest civil rights demonstration in the nation’s history” at that time.

Senghor Reid, Broadcast News, Mixed Media 1971

Detroiter Senghor Reid develops paintings that explore the connections between culture, art and social sciences as in his work “Broadcast News,” with its black-stenciled letters on bright yellow background or “The ’67 Riot Did Not Take Place.” Since he was born in 1976, maybe for him, these events did not take place. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a Master in Art Education from Wayne State University. A recipient of the prestigious ArtServe Michigan Governor’s Award for an Emerging Artist in 2001, Reed was a Kresge Artist Fellow Recipient in 2009.

Postscript

On Monday morning, July 24, 1967, I remember being notified to leave work and go home until further notice. Some people had heard about an overnight disturbance in Detroit, but it wasn’t until I got home that I saw the news stories on our black and white TV. ABC news anchor Bill Bonds was reporting live on a civil disturbance near Clairmount and 12th Street that had broken out when police raided an unlicensed after-hours bar on the city’s west side. When I was allowed to return to work the following Friday I was surrounded by jokes from  fellow white suburbanites.  I remember being ashamed and disgusted by these pathetic displays. I had no true sense of what was going on then, but now I realized that although there was blatant racism on both sides of my extended families, my parents had met as professional dancers and worked with artists of all persuasions. These people were made up of all races and sexual orientation. Many lived in my home from time to time during my formative years of high school.

At the time, I didn’t understand the true depth of what happened that summer, but it came to form the foundation of my values as a grown man: All people were created equal, and to quote Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Art of Rebellion has been generously supported by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Whitney Fund.

Say It Loud is the recipient of a prestigious Knight Arts Challenge Detroit grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Detroit Institute of Arts

Charles Wright Museum    

The 57th International Venice Biennale through Detroit Eyes

Aerial Image of the Venice, courtesy of the Venice Biennale

I attended the Venice Biennale for the first time in 2015 and visited the Arsenale location, which was an all-day event, so this time I attended the Giardini location and other venues throughout the city.

The Venice Biennale was created by a resolution of the City Council in April 1893, which proposed the founding of a “biennial national artistic exhibition” to take place in the following year to celebrate the silver anniversary of King Umberto and Margherita of Savoy. The event, in fact, took place two years later, opening on April 30, 1895, and is known most commonly within the art world as the oldest large-scale international contemporary art exhibition.

Although there are two major sites for viewing art, there are many satellite venues throughout the city. This year’s curator, Christine Macel, has called it an exhibition inspired by humanism. She says, “This type of humanism is neither focused on an artistic ideal to follow nor is it characterized by the celebration of mankind as beings who can dominate their surroundings. If anything, this humanism, through art, celebrates mankind’s ability to avoid being dominated by the powers governing world affairs.”

The Viva Arte Viva 57th Venice Biennale offers a route that unfolds over the course of nine chapters of artists, beginning with two introductory realms in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, followed by seven more realms to be found in the Arsenale and the Giardino delle Vergini. There are 120 invited artists from 51 countries around the world; 103 of these are participating for the first time.

Lorenzo Quinn, City Sculpture, Courtesy of the Detroit Art Review, 2017

 

Early in May 2017, contemporary artist, Lorenzo Quinn, unveiled his new monumental sculpture at the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel, Venice. The installation, part of the Biennale, showcases Quinn’s artistic progression and his experimentation with new mediums and subject matter to transmit his passion for eternal values and authentic emotions. This sculpture was located right next to my Vaporetto stop at Ca D’ Oro.

Quinn addresses the human ability to change and re-balance the world around us – environmentally, economically, and socially. The sculpture has both a noble air as well as an alarming one – the gesture being both gallant in appearing to hold up the building while also creating a sense of fear in highlighting the fragility of the building surrounded by water. “I wanted to sculpt what is considered the hardest and most technically challenging part of the human body. The hand holds so much power – the power to love, to hate, to create, to destroy.” says Lorenzo Quinn.

Sam Gilliam, Drapes, Courtesy of the Venice Biennale 2017

With so much work at the Venice Biennale, it’s probably easier to focus on American artists, a Russian artist and one artist in particular from Detroit.

Sam Gilliam, whose work has been exhibited at the N’Namdi Contemporary Center in Detroit, was born in 1933 and has been known for his color field painting, especially during the 1960s when Abstract Expressionism came of age. As an artist who has experimented with draped-painted canvas, he has also worked with iridescent acrylic, handmade paper, steel and plastic material. His large draped work, Yves Klein Blue, 2016, is the introductory work at the entrance of the Central Pavilion on the Giardini campus.

 

Sam Gilliam, Screen Models lll, 60 x 110, Mixed Material on Canvas, 2014

An example of a hardedge canvas, Screen for Models III, he uses striped off tape, letting color bleed through various levels of under-painting. He has said he is inspired by everything; his own history, the books he reads, the lifetime of traveling and the examples set by artists who came before. In a recent interview, he talks of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Monet’s Water Lilies and Countee Cullen, whose poem Yet Do I Marvel provided the title of the new piece for the National African American museum. Sticking to one style, Gilliam says, never struck him as a good idea. “There are theories in art, just like in music,” he explains. “You switch from Little Jimmy Dickens to Bob Dylan and Miles Davis to Art Blakey.” Gilliam received his B.A. in fine art and his M.A. in painting from the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He has taught at the Corcoran School of Art, the Maryland Institute College of Art and Carnegie Mellon University.

 

On the Giardini campus, and exclusively representing the United States is Mark Bradford, at the U.S. Pavilion. While many pavilions have multiple artists’ work, Bradford is the artist selected to represent the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The multi-room installation is a narrative that reflects on the artist’s trajectory, using everyday materials that embody social meaning. Tomorrow Is Another Day, reveals how individual lives are also history in the best sense of the word. Upon entrance, we are confronted with the first space being occupied by a bulbous mass that hangs from the ceiling with a red and black surface made of layering commercially printed-paper and blasting it with a pressure hose. Spoiled Foot pushes the viewer to the periphery of the room, leaving the viewer literally on the margins, inviting human touch.

Mark Bradford, Spoiled Foot, Mixed Materials 2016

Mark Bradford, Go Tell It to the Mountain, Mixed Material, 2016

The African American artist, best known for his large-scale abstract paintings that examine the class, race, and gender-based economies that structure urban society in the United States, Bradford’s richly layered and collaged canvases represent a connection to the social world through materials. Bradford uses fragments of found posters, billboards, newsprint, and custom-printed paper to simultaneously engage with and advance the formal traditions of abstract painting. Mark Bradford was born in 1961 in Los Angeles, where he lives and works. He received a BFA (1995) and MFA (1997) from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

McArthur Binion, Installation image, courtesy of the Detroit Art Review

I was surprised to learn the McArthur Binion attended Wayne State University for his BFA in 1971 just as I completed my graduate work there. He moved on to complete his MFA at Cranbrook Academy, the first African American to do so and had a solo exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In 1973 Binion moved to New York and was soon curated into a group exhibition by Carl Andre at the Irving Sandler Gallery. In the early 90’s, he moved to Chicago to teach at Columbia College, and in isolation from the public, developed his emotionally based abstract paintings. Since 2003, Binion has been producing his DNA series, using a kind of geometric grid rigor with a minimal approach to abstraction. His childhood began in Macon, Mississippi, where he began picking cotton at the age of three and was one of eleven children. It was moving to Detroit to help his family survive that made his abstractions personal. He says in his statement, “I’m making abstraction personal. It’s taken me fifteen years to learn how to do it. Painting and sculpture are an old man’s game. To call yourself an artist, you have to earn it.”

McArthur Binion, DNA Black Series, 2015

Like many successful artists that fit the modernist profile, Binion makes work that is a study in oppositions: line and shape, figure and ground, image and abstraction, copy and original, color and black & white. His modus operandi is to somehow magically blend an assault of binaries into a single, unified emblem of the unique and complicated self.

Taus Makhacheva, Tightrope, Video Projection, 58m, 2-15

Taus Makhacheva, Tightrope, CU Angle, 58m, 2015

Among the sea of work at the Biennale, there were many video projected images and cinematic creations. I have selected one here by the artist Taus Makhacheva, born in Moscow, Russia who has a background in film-making. In her video, Tightrope, 2015, she records an activity from several angles, enough to convince you this is not a green screen performance against a live action background. The professional tightrope walker Rasul Abakarov carries 61 paintings, one at a time, from one side of a ravine to another, over an expanse of about a hundred feet and elevated many times more. Makhacheva is a Russian artist trained in London and mostly living in Dagestan where she explores the tension between tradition and modernity. Most of her work is performance-based, as she analyzes the body as a supporting structure, often challenged in off-limits situations. Makhacheva was born in Moscow in 1983. She studied at London College of Communication and the University of the Arts London. In 2007, she completed a BA program in Contemporary Art at Goldsmiths, University of London. In 2006, she graduated in World Economics from the Russian State University for the Humanities.

Tom Parish, In My Solitude, Oil on Canvas, 2015 Image Courtesy of the Artist

There are fifteen satellite shows to see during a visit to the 2017 Venice Biennale. One is the solo exhibition at the Madonna dell’Orto, Il Polso dell’Acqua, by Detroit artist Tom Parish. Nestled away in the neighborhood of Cannaregio, is the fifth exhibition for the Detroit artist, whose work continues to capture the urban water-laden landscape of Venice. The longtime Professor Emeritus of painting at Wayne State University in Detroit, journeyed to Venice some thirty years ago to discover subject matter that filled his curious and esthetically provocative imagination. For years his painting developed as architectural abstraction, with a formality that includes the ancient buildings juxtaposed to water and light. Parish’s recent work, on display in Venice, In My Solitude, combines his strengths: a composition that stretches out spatially and draws on elements of abstraction, and his command of painting the reflection-struck water swirling in the turbulent canals.  There have been four major exhibitions of Tom Parish’s Venice work, one in Chicago in 2010 at the Gruen Gallery, and three in Venice, Italy. This new work – Il Polso dell’Acqua – is the fifth exhibition and the second at the historic Cloister of the Church of the Madonna del Orto in Cannaregio, Venice.

The Viva Arte Viva, 2017 Venice Biennale, in a world full of conflicts, where art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human. It is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression and freedom. The fine art presented is the favorite realm of dreams and utopias, a catalyst for human connections that roots us in both nature and the cosmos. Many see art as the last garden to cultivate above and beyond trends and personal interests. It stands as an unequivocal alternative to indifference. The role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist are more crucial than ever before within the framework of contemporary debates. It is in and through these individual initiatives, like the 2017 Venice Biennale, that we find the hopes and dreams of tomorrow.

2017 Venice Biennale

 

Group Exhibition @ N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

Jennifer Junkermeier Curates and Michaela Mosher Designs an Exhibition: Round in Circles.

Installation Image, Round in Circles, N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, All Image Courtesy of the Detroit Art Review

For a gallery owner to ask someone to curate an exhibition is both exciting and a little risky.  But George N’Namdi has been in this business for more than thirty-five years, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. By inviting a guest curator Jennifer Junkermeier, he is injecting new energy into his space, one that capitalizes on Detroit-based artists (33) and may very well bring new audiences into the gallery. Simone DeSousa has done something similar in her gallery, recruiting Nancy Mitchnik to curate some 70’s aging Cass Corridor artists (she is one herself) into her gallery, and both go outside the regular season because summer is the right time to do it.  This is N’Namdi’s third annual summer show of Detroit artists with an invited curator. In 2016 it was Essay’d VI by Steve Panton, and 2015 was Mundo ‘Mericas curated by Vito Valdez.

Opening June 16, 2017, Round in Circles, is a collection of Detroit-based visual artists that provide nearly every medium, including painting, drawing, sculpture, video, projection, and literary work on the wall. If you need to tie that together with an idea, why not use the circle as a place to start, if not literally in the work, then probably in the mind of the artist, or a metaphor that applies to almost anything, dating back about 3000 years. She says in her statement, “Yes, going round in circles is dizzying, at once nauseating and exciting, impoverished and plentiful, the form that implies nothing also embraces the possibilities of being everything.”

It’s a pleasure for a writer to pick out some favorites, and say a little something because it is almost impossible to write a review when there is such a variety of work as there is in this exhibition.

Graem White, You Are Here: Center of the Universe, Mixed Media, 11.5 x 14″

Graem Whyte is an artist that works with a wide variety of three-dimensional material, sometimes on the floor, sometimes on the wall.  Born and raised in metro Detroit, Whyte is based in Hamtramck, MI where he and his wife Faina Lerman oversee the community-based activity at Popps Packing. Whyte’s work always feels very unconventional, driven more by the idea than the material, illustrated in his one-person exhibition at Oakland University in 2012. In his work, You Are Here, it seems to play on the border, a manipulated LP record, a gold plate, and a burst of Mixed Media, suggesting that music can be concrete. Graem Whyte is an adjunct art instructor at the Center for Creative Studies.

Shanna Merola, Untitled 2, from series “We All Live Downwind”, Archival inkjet pigment print, 14 x 20″

The photograph by Shanna Merola, from the series, We All Live Downwind, seems driven by her interest in documentary photography, and a deep concern for social justice. This writer is not trying to figure out the context of these orange gloves holding a ceramic dish, rather – enjoying the surrounding and colorful pieces of torn paper. Merloa was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1980, earned her BFA at Virginia Commonwealth University, and an MFA Cranbrook Academy of Art.  She lives and works in Hamtramck, Michigan.

Todd Stovall, Untitled, Acrylic, Wood, 2 x 2′ 2017

Detroit artist Todd Stovall keeps the minimalist shaped canvas work alive in his work, Untitled, although this piece is entirely made of wood.  The context for this kind of approach might be artists like Charles Hinman, Ellsworth Kelly, and Frank Stella.  Stovall is not trying to do much with color, rather the simple power of shape, although the red wall is there to support his effort. 

Clara DeGalan, A Veiled Asking, Oil on canvas, 2016

This oil painting, A Veiled Asking, by Clara DeGalan reflects a deep and progressive direction from her earlier work in graduate school, an MFA from Wayne State University in 2015, and a two-person exhibition in 2016 at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center. It’s this idea of transparency and the illusion of dimension that creates a mystery that leaves us wanting, combined with an offset but a sturdy sense of composition. All of this held together by a circle and a piece of blue tape. Lovely. 

Round in Circles is a group exhibition that explores formal and metaphorical implications of the circular.” Says Junkermeier.  The exhibition could send a signal to other galleries, to experiment (certainly some do) during your summer months, and realizing there is limited space for thirty-three artists, at least I can mention their names as part of this exhibition.

Contributing Artistis: ‘jide Aje, Danielle Aubert, Corrie Baldauf, Davin Brainard, Tyanna J. Buie, Alexander Buzzalini, Shane Darwent, Clara DeGalan, Simone DeSousa, Erin Imena Falker, Jessica Frelinghuysen, Ani Garabedian, Richard Haley, Asia Hamilton, Megan Heeres, Eli Kabir, Osman Khan, Austin Kinstler, Nicola Kuperus, Timothy van Laar, Anthony Marcellini, Adam Lee Miller, Shanna Merola, Eleanor Oakes, Ato Ribeiro, Robert Platt, Marianetta Porter, Dylan Spaysky, Todd Stovall, Gregory Tom, Graem Whyte, Elizabeth Youngblood, and Alivia Zivich

N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

Round in Circles through August 26, 2017

Whitney Biennial 2017: an Observation from Detroit

Whitney Museum of Art, Exterior, 2017 Courtesy of WMA by Ed Leaderman

The Whitney Biennial draws to a close, but not without a review from Detroit that showcases artists with roots in Metro Detroit.

Moving downtown into the Renzo -Piano- designed building on New York City’s Gansevoort Street delayed the 2017 Whitney Biennial a year, but it was worth the wait, as the spacious and beautiful new museum sits high just off the Hudson River overlooking the Highline Park and Chelsea art community. Organized by Christopher Y. Lew, the Whitney’s associate curator, and Mia Locks, an independent curator, the exhibition highlights work by sixty-three individuals and collective’s artist works from all parts of the United States. The diversity of artists and media is staggering when considering the large demographic of contemporary art that is represented.

I was mostly surprised by how much space was committed to each artist, where entire rooms with 5 to -7 pieces of work were on display by each artist. It speaks to the size and space the new museum provides, luring an art-world audience, as the selections confront edgy social issues in the American culture.

Maya Stovall, Liquor Store Theatre, Video Performance, 2016

As promised, let’s start with Detroit. The videos of post-minimalist ballerina Maya Stovall are front and center as she offers her art from the sidewalks of Detroit illustrating modern dance working with collaborators Biba Bell, Mohamed Soumah, and Todd Stovall, she presents the motivations, genealogies, and sources of her Liquor Store Theater.

She says in her statement, “I am an artist interested in monumental questions of human existence. I am interested in place and space, cities, power, and the affect and desire of the day-to-day in people’s lives. I approach monumental questions of human existence with up close rigor. My work is steeped in philosophy, theory, and resonates with my way of being in the world.” The video screens and audio-fed headphones document a series of dance performances from the streets of Detroit. Stovall pays respectful homage to the cultural traditions in the Detroit black community as commercial developers swirl rapidly to gentrify the city.

Dana Schutz, Elevator, 2017. Oil on canvas, 144 x 180″

The artist Dana Schultz grew up in Livonia, attended High School at the Adlai Stevenson High School, and went on to obtain her BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art, and an MFA from Columbia University. As the elevator opens on the fifth floor of the Biennial, the viewer is immediately confronted with a large figurative oil painting, Elevator, which displays a kind of chaos occurring in the transitional space between two elevator doors, perhaps either opening or closing. There is an abstract, even cubist feeling to this colorful figure painting, depicting struggle and larger-than-life insects, adding to the feeling of anxiety, even fear. It took me a moment to understand why there were these two side panels attached to the work, until I read the title.

Dana Schutz, Open Casket, 2016. Oil on canvas, 40 x 56″

Schutz’s work seems to draw on social environments, best illustrated in her 2016 painting, Open Casket, that depicts her version of the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a seminal event in the American civil rights movement. Controversy swirled around the work as exploitation, best described in The New Yorker by Calvin Tomkins:

In the current climate of political and racial unrest, Emmett Till seemed like a risky subject for a white artist to engage with. “I’ve wanted to do a painting for a while now, but I haven’t figured out how,” [Schultz] said. “It’s a real event, and it’s violence. But it has to be tender, and also about how it’s been for his mother. I don’t know, I’m trying. I’m talking too much about it.” In a later conversation, [Schultz] said, “How do you make a painting about this and not have it just be about the grotesque? I was interested because it’s something that keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it’s an American image.”

Dana Shultz resides in New York City, works out of her studio in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, and is represented by the Pretzel Gallery in New York City.

Carrie Moyer, Glimmer Glass, 2016. Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 96 x 78 in”

Another Detroit artist in the Biennial, now living in Brooklyn, NYC, is Carrie Moyer, who received a BFA from Pratt Institute in 1985, and an MFA from the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College in 2001. In an interview with Jennifer Samet for Hyperallergic, she says, “I was born in Detroit, where my family has longstanding roots. My grandfather was a policeman during the Detroit riots in the 1960s. But I had countercultural parents who put us in a van when I was nine and drove us out to California with all of our belongings. My family lived all over the Northwest for the next ten years — California, Oregon, and Washington.”

In her large acrylic painting, Glimmer Glass, it is the overlay and transparency that compliments her distinctive use of form. The vibrant painting embraces visual pleasure with watery veils of florescent hues, often mixed with glitter. The artist explains, “I’m interested in abstract painting that is experienced both visually and physically. The forms are constantly shifting from the familiar to the strange in a way that seems to escape words.”

Carrie Moyer, Candy Cap , 2016. Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 72 x 96″

With her beginning in graphic design, Carrie Moyer has been a force in abstract painting since 2000 with a strong familiarity with the language of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism; she draws on influences like Georgia O’Keeffe and Elizabeth Murray. I was struck by the work, Candy Cap, where she depends heavily on a feminine composition of flower and organic shapes to form this work using acrylic transparency, glitter, and Flashe on canvas. Moyer is a Professor in the Art and Art History Department at Hunter College, where she is the Director of the Graduate Program. Moyer is represented by DC Moore Gallery.

Samara Golden, The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes, 2017. (Installation, 5th floor West Gallery). Insulation foamboard, extruded polystryrene, epoxy resin, carpet, vinyl, fabric, acrylic paint, spray paint, nail polish, plastic, altered found objects and mirror.

The artist Samara Golden was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1973, and received her BFA from Minneapolis College of Art & Design, and an MFA from Columbia University in 2009. She is an installation artist based in Los Angles, CA where her work often includes a combination of sculpture, video, and sound. Her first solo exhibition was The Flat Side of the Knife and was organized by Mia Locks at the Museum of Modern Art PS1. Golden’s work in the Biennial, The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes, feels like a dystopian environment overlooking the Hudson River that contrasts office and domestic spaces. Admittedly, this writer has limited skill in describing the aesthetic aspects of this work of mirrors, living rooms, and wheelchairs.

Henry Taylor, “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH! (2017), acrylic on canvas, 72 x 96″

 

There are sixty-three artists represented in the Whitney Biennial, and this review has had Metro Detroit artists as its focus, but I would like to mention another artist, Henry Taylor, living and working out of Los Angeles, CA. With a BFA from California Institute for the Arts and a variety of life experience, Taylor has created a body of work that has a critical social sensibility that confronts the racial tension between law enforcement and the community they serve. In his work, The Times They Ain’t A Changing, Fast Enough! drawn from video, captures the moments after Philando Castile had been fatally shot by a police officer. Aside from the social message, I am drawn to the composition and naïve style in which Taylor executes his unaffected imagery. His empathetic style may draw on his ten years of working at the Camarillo State Mental Hospital near Santa Barbara, CA. Taylor’s work is represented by Blum & Poe in Los Angles, CA.

Aliza Nisenbaum (b. 1977), La Talaverita, Sunday Morning NY Times, 2016. Oil on linen, 68 x 88″

It could be that because this writer is also a painter, the work in the Biennial by Aliza Nisenbaum is immensely attractive. Known for depicting undocumented immigrants, there is something in the work La Talaverita, Sunday Morning NY Times, that combines working from live models, an elevated camera angle, and the casually colorful subject that connects with so many people. Born in Mexico City, Nisenbaum earned a BFA and MFA from the Chicago Art Institute. She says in her statement, “My work has repeatedly reflected on ideas of empathy or pathways for exchange between different people. My status as a legal American citizen makes me one of the few and privileged immigrants from my home country. Whether working with abstraction or, more recently, with still life and portraiture, I have tried to make paintings that support the experience of looking closer and with greater intention. My current body of work makes this connection explicit in its focus on the human face, which the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggests is inherently an ethical call to greater human justice.”

For me, her work personalizes the immigrant experience and could easily reflect the life in South West Detroit.

The new Whitney Museum of Art in its new location demonstrates in the curation of it’s 2017 Biennial a refreshing supply of under-recognized artists with diverse perspectives from all parts of the United States, and places itself at the center of American contemporary art.

Whitney Museum of Art

Carlos Diaz @ David Klein Gallery

CARLOS DIAZ, ROUGE SERIES: CLAM SHELL BUCKET – 2012-14 C PRINT 21 X 30″

The David Klein Gallery in Detroit opened a retrospective exhibition of work by the photographer Carlos Diaz, May 13, 2017.   Spaces & Spectacle covers four themes of work dating back to the early 1980’s. Diaz, a Professor of Photography at Center for Creative Studies, has taught and influenced several generations of students in the art of photography over the course of 35 years.

It has been at least a couple of generations since photographers were loading 35mm film into their single lens reflex cameras on a daily basis, providing themselves with the means to record images. The commercial photographers were using mid-range Hasselblad, Cannon, and Nikon that recorded on 2.25 x 2.25 rolls of film, a format that provided the resolution for high-quality print work. All of this changed in the mid-1990’s when digital photography came of age, founded in part by the NASA space program. Diaz had been using film to capture his fine art images, sometimes referred to today as analog versus the digital world of solid-state CCD image sensor chips. In this exhibition, we see a variety of formats Diaz has used to capture and print his fine art photography.

Christine Schefman, Gallery Director says, “The photographs and collages reflect Diaz’s continued interest in the American Industrial Revolution, which gave birth to the working class, and the American amusement industry which was born out of the Revolution.”

CARLOS DIAZ, INVENTED LANDSCAPES OF CONEY ISLAND – 2006 COLLAGE: GELATIN SILVER PRINT & VINTAGE STEEL PLATE WITH WOOD BLOCK ENGRAVINGS 11 X 14″

The collage series Invented Landscapes of Diaz’s work perhaps draws on experience doing mechanical drawing before he started his formal art studies. He went on to complete his BFA from Center for Creative Studies in Detroit and an MFA from the University of Michigan School of Art. The photographic collages are images of the industrial based Coney Island amusement park that became a backdrop for hand-cut images from old patent manuals, allowing Diaz to create what he has described in his statement, “The Invented Landscapes images and the Coney Island environment provides a space to merge both metaphorically and literally, the machines of the industrial revolution and the amusement park landscape. They are the fusion of the functional forms of labor and the fun of the fantasy of the carnival.” The change in tonality allows the viewer to see the added elements.

CARLOS DIAZ, WADE CARNIVAL SHOWS: OCTOPUS RIDE ATTENDANT – 1980-83 ARCHIVAL INKJET PRINT 36 X 36″

In these early 2 x 2 mid-range photographs, created in 1980 while Diaz was still in Ann Arbor, he selects and poses carnival ride attendants for a straight-forward full-bodied portrait. It is back then that it becomes evident that Carlos Diaz has a psychological preference for formal balance in many of his compositions. In the work, Octopus Ride Attendant, Diaz spends the time to center the figure and create an equal amount of space in all directions, either in the compositional set-up or in the printing (described as an archival inkjet print, meaning the negative was scanned and printed using an inkjet printer.) This element does not appear in the Invented Landscape work but dominates most of his other work. To illustrate, when you visit his web site, his image and the text are all centered on the page. I recommend visiting the web site where you can view his entire body of work. He says, “In one form or fashion, photography for me has always provided an opportunity to attempt to understand other people and their circumstances.”

Mary’s Garden, Beyond Borders, 2010, C print. 23 x 30 inches

There is one photograph in the exhibition, Mary’s Garden that comes from his Beyond Borders series where he documents the front yards of many homes in Southwest Detroit. This photograph is another good example of creating this approach to a formal sense of balance and sensibility. The balance comes from this vertical chimney centered in the composition and an even amount of design weight to the large home on the right and the Madonna flower arrangement on the left, not to mention the nice halo of foliage around the parked truck, where a formality of color balance comes into play as well.

CARLOS DIAZ ROUGE SERIES: TORPEDO CAR – 2012-14 C PRINT 21 X 30″

These photographs from the Rouge Series look like full-frame color prints from 35mm film and printed as a C-Print. The term C-print stands for Chromogenic color prints. These are full-color photographic prints made using traditional chemicals and processes. It seems natural that Carlos Diaz would be interested in the Ford Rouge Complex, in that he grew up in Pontiac, Michigan and had a close relationship with the auto industry. Many of his family members work for the auto companies, and Diaz recalls his experience when he first saw the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. He says, “When I saw the Diego Rivera Murals, my view of the automotive worker’s role and the understanding of the realities of automotive production shifted as I began to see modernists painters like Charles Sheeler, who depicted the Rouge and industry as a means that would save mankind.” Here, in the work Torpedo Car, Diaz centers his image, providing more evidence of this preference to address the concept of formality in composition.

CARLOS DIAZ, CARNIVAL MIDWAY: HORSE RACE MURAL – 2008 ARCHIVAL INKJET PRINT 24 X 30″

Carlos Diaz remains interested in the life surrounding carnivals, not just the people, but also the structures, the culture and perhaps the nostalgia. In the 2008 print Horse Race Mural, part of the American Carnival Midway series, the work is formally composed and celebrates the photographic image center stage. We see how the umbrellas enter into the composition, almost identical on each side; More like Ansel Adams, than Henri Cartier-Bresson.

David Klein Gallery until June 10, 2017