Threesome @ Simone DeSousa Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simone DeSousa Gallery   March 11-April 8, 2017

Cody VanderKaay @ Oakland University Art Gallery

Cody VanderKaay, Installation image

Cody VanderKaay’s solo exhibition, Terrestrial Celestial, opened March 3, 2017, at the Oakland University Art Gallery, where Dick Goody, Art Chair, and curator at OUAG, turns inward to one of his associate professors to exhibit new work that takes the viewer in a variety of visual art directions. On the ground or in the sky, VanderKaay presents three-dimensional work that has delicacy as in the Orange Shed, versus blunt boldness, as in Six Views.

So where is this artist in his creative trajectory? I would say he is exploring an inner sensibility he has developed since his youthful years of art experience combined with his MFA at the University of Georgia, where he gives us his take on three-dimensional form.

Cody VanderKaay, Orange Shed, Latex on Basswood, 2016

The delicate relief, Orange Shed, using basswood and latex, reminds me of relief work from the 1950’s in the United States that was mostly decorative, with the exception of an artist such as David Smith. Smith combined found objects, worked in metal based on his experience working in a car body shop. The shared element with VanderKaay’s work is largely based on Constructivism, a modern art movement that flourished in Russia, then moved to Europe during the early parts of the 20th century. The central concept is placing the priority on the material employed, versus the subject matter or motif. The materials to express an idea dictate the form. The fundamental analysis of the material leads to the function. This idea shapes VanderKaay’s other work as well.

Cody VanderKaay, Six Views, Concrete 2017

Borrowing on ideas presented by Minimalist artists, be it Donald Judd or Robert Morris, the early 1980s brought a shift from Abstract Expressionism to a pared-down, three-dimensional object with little reference to real objects. The new vocabulary was simplified geometric forms created from humble industrial material. VanderKaay provides a repetition of nine “house-shaped” concrete objects in Six Views with an angled bottom that provides the observer with a parallel view.  It would seem variations on this theme could produce a body of work on its own, as the aesthetics are pleasing, even comforting to the eye, whether it appears in relief or as a taped drawing on the wall.

Cody VanderKaay, Bündner Schist, Crepe Tape on gallery wall, 2017

The large black-taped drawing on the gallery wall, Bündner Schist, reinforces elements in the overall exhibition, like a roadmap to his thinking.  He builds an amalgamation of trapezoids and variations that make his statement clear and concise, one that offsets the more three-dimensional work that dominates the overall exhibition. As part of the exhibition, we are confronted with the large assemblage of mixed media, Ball Drop, where the artist has presumably collected and large variety of materials and objects that met his fancy, not so different from when an artist collects things they like, placing them on a table (or wall) in the studio.  Not quite understanding how this fits into the overall exhibition, I asked VanderKaay to explain this in the last question presented in a short interview.

Cory VanderKaay, Ball Drop, 2017

Ron Scott: How and where did you first get interested in visual art?

Cody VanderKaay: I lived in both rural and suburban environments of the Midwestern, Southern, and Western United States. Periodic relocation and travel allowed me to experience a variety of living situations, routines, pastime activities and occupations that inevitably shaped my curiosity. As the son of a residential contractor, I was frequently exposed to architecture, trades labor, carpentry and the graphic art of drafting. As a young man, I trained myself in a number of related skills and techniques, when, eventually my proclivity for making art objects became my principal interest.

I studied sculpture at Northern Michigan University’s School of Art & Design and the University of Georgia Lamar Dodd School of Art, where I received my MFA. After graduating, I relocated to New Orleans to teach visual arts at Loyola University. Today, I am an Associate Professor of Art at Oakland University teaching sculpture, drawing, and fundamental art courses full-time.

RS: How has your worked evolved since college?

CV: The biggest and best change is an ability to identify when my intellect, technical ability and resources are in concert with one another, and encountering that moment again, in the finished artwork.

RS: How is it that you work in such a variety of material?

CV: I’m attracted to the range of qualities and technical constraints that raw materials and objects have; the combinations seem impossible to exhaust.

RS: What artists have most attracted your interest?

CV: Dil Hildebrand, Anne Truitt, Herman de Vries, Ilya Bolotowsky, Norman Dilworth, Tony Feher, and Richard Wentworth

RS: Your work seems to stand alone as single individual pieces. How does the large assemblage on plywood relate to the other work?

CV:The large plywood piece titled Ball Drop wasn’t conceived as an artwork per se, but rather as scaffolding or drawing of sorts. It’s evidence of the forms and subjects I was thinking through in the studio while making the other artworks in the exhibition. The title is a reference to the phrase ‘the penny has dropped’ and points to a realization or discovery that follows a long period of exploration and questioning. Many of the elements comprising the wall are residual, while a few are deeply personal. For example, the small oil painting of the Alps originally belonged to my Grandmother. The painting was given to her by her father when she left the Netherlands for the United States in the 1930’s. I coveted the painting as a child and acquired it after she passed. The wall doesn’t summarize the exhibition, but examining it closely will reveal more about the relationship between the other artworks on display.

RS: Anything else you would like to say?

CV: I find the challenges of working with self-imposed restrictions to be intellectually stimulating and personally significant. A large majority of my artwork is composed of irreducible elements and simplified forms, with surface qualities that raise questions about the substance and physicality of their forms. I often move between disciplines, on two or three projects at a time, and display finished work as a sequence or series of related artworks to bring formal and contextual concerns in closer harmony with one another. I use fabrication, mold making, casting, drawing and collage to produce my sculpture and two-dimensional artwork.

There are artists who focus on a subject for forty years, providing variations in size, color palette, composition and material. Cody VanderKaay is an artist who does not limit his expression to a genre. He is eclectic in his approach to creating his art and, most important, he is curious. Cody VanderKaay is giving an artist’s talk in the OUAG gallery on Thursday, April 6, at NOON.

Cody VanderKaay, Terrestrial Celestial, Open at OUAG – April 9, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Love Songs: Sam Friedman @ Library Street Collective

 

Sam Friedman, Installation image, All images courtesy of Library Street Collective

Sam Friedman’s artist statement for Love Songs, a solo exhibition of paintings and works on paper that opened at Library Street Collective on February 11, mentions the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of Wabi Sabi as an influence in his work. This world view exults the “transience of imperfection; a beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.” It’s hard to discern much imperfection or incompletion in Friedman’s imposing acrylic paintings, with their crisp, technically rigorous paint handling. Every mark bears an identical edge that somehow holds its own amid countless other razor sharp edges. Despite this uniformity, areas of Friedman’s paintings break down into surprising illusions of space, dazzlingly beautiful gradations, and vibrating forms that actually seem to move before the eye, and stay burned upon it. You see Friedman’s snaking forms gestures across white walls for several moments after you’ve turned your gaze away from the work.

Sam Friedman, Untitled, 2016 (48 x 48 inches; Acrylic on canvas, white floater frame)

Friedman wrings a surprising range of surface effects from a severe economy of techniques. Every one of his identically edged marks is, apparently, applied the same way- in one single, virtuosic stroke that embodies hand skill and discipline. While each painting contains a huge number of nearly identical marks, no mark is valued over any other. This doesn’t flatten the composition, or render it uninteresting. Friedman’s democratic approach to mark-making lets your eye take in both the whole of the work, and miraculous openings into smaller, more intimate moments. It’s an unusual painter who creates such an impression of deep space, foreground and background, with such a uniform, crystallographic approach to the picture plane.

Sam Friedment, Untitled, 2016 (30 x 90 inches; Acrylic on canvas, white floater frame)

Passing from the gauntlet shaped front space of Library Street Collective, where Friedman’s large paintings are displayed, into the more spacious back room of the gallery which houses a collection of smaller works on paper feels like leaving a dazzling, noisy city for a vast, light filled meadow. These works feel both more personal and riskier. This might be due to Friedman’s use of a larger range of media (acrylic, spray paint, silkscreen ink). His subject is a factor, as well- the sun setting over a body of water, revisited again and again, the horizon line splitting each piece into perfect halves that meet precisely at eye level. These works present an eternal template on which Friedman proceeds to meditate on the spatial layers he applied with such closed-loop certainty in his large acrylic paintings. The more organic forms- tall grass, flower petals, atmospheric effects- combined with the unavoidably vernacular icon of sunset over water presented on poster-scaled formats, while not mind-blowing in quite the same way as the paintings, feel vastly more personal. Friedman’s mastery of abstraction comes full circle in these works. The same blunt formal power and ease with materials shows up in them, with an added dose of freedom. The smaller formats and organic, representational subject matter seem to allow Friedman to play a bit more with imagery and surface effects- there’s a feeling that the stakes are lower here, or the imagery more deeply felt.

Sam Friedman, Untitled, Untitled, 2016, 54.5 x 37.75 inches; Acrylic and vinyl paints, silkscreen ink, and acrylic spray paint on primed Stonehenge paper

One wonderful thing Friedman’s paintings and works on paper have in common is the above-mentioned whiff of the vernacular. The large, abstract paintings have the dizzy free-fall atmospherics and sophisticated, ambiguous movements of album covers and Trapper-Keeper designs from the Seventies and Eighties, revisited with the same depth and grandeur one felt, mesmerized by them, as a young kid. Friedman’s works make it as if these foundational images grew up with us. The works on paper similarly shadow mass-produced movie or art posters. They communicate in the same language, with the same saturated, iconic forms that, in Friedman’s hands, take on a breath-taking, mature refinement.

Sam Friedman: Love Songs is on view at Library Street Collective  through April 8, 2017.

George Rahme @ Simone DeSousa Gallery

“A Soldier of Stars”  George Rahme at Simone DeSousa Gallery

George Rahme, Installation image, 2016

Lately I’ve been experiencing something of a crisis in my art writing. In light of the extremely dire roll-out of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the immediate and terrible effects of his first wave of legislation, writing about exhibitions at galleries feels, at best, a little disconnected, and, at worst, completely pointless. I can, however, work to draw connections between works of visual art and larger issues, political and personal, in the society that nurtures their creation. It seems important, at this moment, to focus on the dialogues art is quietly raising and pushing forward, beneath a climate of increasing fear, chaos and darkness. I’m lucky I have “A Soldier of Stars,” an exhibition of new works by Hamtramck-based artist George Rahme at Simone DeSousa Gallery, to write about.

George Rahme, Installation image, Simone DeSousa Gallery

The centerpiece of “A Soldier of Stars” is the show’s array of dignified, gracefully assembled collages, comprised of painstaking cutouts of photographic stills laminated onto weighty bolts of fabric. From a distance, the images might be embroidered with gold thread, or depict flower forms and undersea creatures. Up close, however, one instantly recognizes the lightening-speed shower of sparks emitted by the joining of metal part to metal part, through the medium of intense heat, at an assembly plant.

George Rahme, Clash Between Minds, 55 x 37″, Cut Photo on denim / canvas, 2014

Rahme’s work creates a new icon of industry, one that revels in the alchemical magic of fabrication while capturing, in formats that read somewhat like flags (proud, kinetic sculptures that proclaim identity and affiliation) and somewhat like reliquaries (the long swath of translucent fabric draped over one of the only small pieces, At Half Past Three in the Afternoon.

George Rahme, At Half Past Three in the Afternoon, Cut Paper on yardstick and fabric, 2017

These works feel especially relevant given the current discourse about America’s industrial decline, a dense, snarled narrative that is being spun by President Trump’s administration into the stuff of Shakespearian tragedy. Apparently, few figures have been more sorely betrayed, disregarded and ground under than the blue-collar American worker- the hands that once produced the sparks which Rahme preserves in his collages like butterflies in amber. The absence of visual context around these collages speaks to a dual reality- the true greatness of industry and the societies it once gathered around it (case in point, Detroit) and the fact of its diminishment, both from American shores (a process marbled with greed, racism, and shady exchanges of power that was well underway by the 1950’s) and from the hands of humans, as more and more industrial fabrication becomes automated. The pledge to return industry, and the jobs that once came with it, to economically depleted American cities is an impossible one- many of those jobs no longer exist.

The skill, craft and attention to detail that those jobs required are paid tribute in Rahme’s beautiful works. Ironically, at first glance it’s almost impossible to believe these collages were made by hand- the hundreds of tiny cuts and thread-thin lines required to collage such ephemeral, dynamic bursts of light boggle one’s mind with the thought of all that manual labor. Not so long ago, such labor wouldn’t have seemed so inconceivable.

George Rahme, Stay Gold, Cut Photo on fabric, 2015

Hand-skill, even in assembling huge machines, has a grace to it. It harkens back to some idea of a time of greater innocence. “A Soldier of Stars” includes a small stereo in a corner of the gallery, rigged up with headphones, on which one can listen to a vinyl recording of the famous text “The Little Prince,” richly intoned by Richard Burton. This story of a lost soul who encounters his own long-gone innocence in the form of a magical child from another planet amplifies a theme of loss, and beauty and optimism in the face of loss, that runs through “A Soldier of Stars.” In one part of the story, the Little Prince is looking after a rare, beautiful flower that makes increasingly sinister demands of him. She is absurdly proud of her thorns, declaring to the Prince, “Let the tigers come with their claws.” When the Little Prince realizes that thorns don’t really do much to protect the flowers that bear them, he experiences a spasm of despair that has more to do with the flower’s naiveté than the reality of its precarious state. Despite the flower’s egomania, obnoxiousness and ultimate unsustainability, he cannot bear to let so beautiful a thing die, because it represents the death of himself at one intense point of development. Rahme’s collages expand into a similar narrative- our belief in industry, and in the dream of prosperity it is so naively and intrinsically roped to, has a beauty worth preserving, even if the industry itself can never come back.

George Rahme, Flowers and Feathers, 8 x 8′, Cut Paper on fabric / canvas, 2014

“A Soldier of Stars” is on display at Simone DeSousa Gallery from January 14 through February 26, 2017.