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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diego Rivera drawing from DIA Collection

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

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

Isabel Toledo, “Synthetic Cloud,” 2018, Nylon

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

Panoramic installation view of gallery

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

 

Punk Rock Graphics 1976 – 1986 @ Cranbrook  Art Museum

Installation Image, Cranbrook Art Museum, Punk Rock Graphics 1976 – 1986, 2018

Punk Rock is a music genre that developed in the mid-1970s in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. Rooted in 1960s garage rock, punk rock bands rejected perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock by typically producing short or fast-paced songs, with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics. Punk Rock embraces a “do it yourself” ethic; many bands self-produce recordings and distributes them through independent record labels and other informal channels.  Accompanying the music is byproduct: a distinct style of graphic art.

Installation Image, Cranbrook Art Museum, Punk Rock Graphics 1976 – 1986, 2018

Although I was there during this time, and in the early throws of raising a family, I was not drawn to the anti-establishment, but rather seduce by the  music of Motown, Detroit Jazz, and the 60’s music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Sting and Bob Dylan. Punk Rock was a distraction for this writer and as an observer, I missed the graphic art side of the cultural phenomenon. If that resonates, no matter what your age, this exhibition opens up a trove of information and design that can take you on a journey and easily introduce you to a culture defined, in part, by its graphic design.

The Cranbrook Art Museum opened a large and sprawling exhibition of Punk Rock Art Graphics (600 pieces), Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976 -1986, 0n June 15, 2018.

The exhibition features several hundred posters, flyers, fanzines, handbills, record sleeves, badges, clothing and other graphic materials from the New York collector Andrew Krivine.  In addition Robert St. Mary, a local author and music historian, helped to curate the Detroit portions of the exhibition at the request of Cranbrook Art Museum. St. Mary was asked to contribute his knowledge of the Detroit punk scene as an extension of a project he is working on as a recipient of the 2017 Knight Foundation Arts Award. In his 2015 book, “The Orbit Anthology,” St. Mary focused mainly on the punk scene at Bookies, known as the original punk nightclub in Detroit. Most people know about the famous London, New York City and Los Angeles bands, but St. Mary points out that the origins of punk are really right here in Detroit.

He says, “When we talk about punk, the primordial ooze of it is here,  with The Stooges and the MC-5”

Jamie Reid, Sex Pistols, God Save the Queen, Poster, Collection of Andrew Krivine, 1977

“That’s the arc of the show — from a black-and-white gritty feel to this explosion of color and pattern,” says Cranbrook Art Museum director Andrew Blauvelt. “The graphic language of punk was much broader and really paralleled what was happening — and was even ahead of — contemporary art in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Blauvelt says patrons will be quick to recognize the work of a featured artist who, in many ways, defined the visual representation of the punk rock movement. “What most people think of when they think of punk is the work of Jamie Reid,” says Blauvelt. “They may not know him by name but they would certainly know him by his work with the Sex Pistols.”

Installation, Punk Rock Memoirs 2018

 

While Too Fast to Live isn’t an exhibit based on musical history, it does present a chronological timeline tracing the evolution of the punk and new wave music genres overseas and in the U.S. via New York City. During this era, New York served as ground zero for a critical mass of counterculture musicians and artists who were forging an aesthetic that continues to be an influential force in contemporary design.

Robert L. Heimall -Design, Robert Mapplethorpe – Photographer, Patti Smith, Horses, Poster, 1975

 

In her debut album, Horses, 1975, Patti Smith became a fixture in the New York punk rock scene.  Critics have viewed the work as one of the most influential albums in the history of the punk rock movement.  Her three-cord rock was a simplistic cord structure, with rudimentary guitar work, and lyrics channeled by influences from William Blake to Arthur Rimbaud. Her performances often provided room for musical improvisation, and drew at times on Reggae, and jazz riffs. Horses mixed philosophical elements with traditional rock elements. Her early biography bleeds over into the life of Robert Mapplethorpe, who took the black and white image for the cover, as the two live together for a short time in lower Manhattan.

Smith says, “Horses was a conscious attempt to make a record that would make a certain type of person not feel alone. People who were like me, different … I wasn’t targeting the whole world. I wasn’t trying to make a hit record.”

The B-52’s, American rock group, 1979

Go-Go”s, American all women rock group, Poster, 1981

The design of punk graphics ran concurrent to postmodern art practices of the times by raiding popular culture, scavenging history, subverting messages, and transgressing aesthetic rules. Punk fed the alternative music scene that would emerge in the late 1990’s as well as today’s do-it-yourself cultures that blur and erase the lines between professionals and amateurs.  Punk’s trangressive spirit emboldened people from all walks of life to reimage themselves as creative agents and active participants in a culture driven by music, art, and design.

The legacy of punk has permeated modern culture and society, and its visual vocabulary infuses much contemporary art, while the punk spirit resonates in particular with the anti-elitist, DIY ethos of today’s young, blogging artists and musicians.  Too Fast to Live…, recalls the anarchic spirit of authenticity and amateurism, the volatile and ambiguous celebration of negativity, and the creativity that was punk.

Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976-1986” and the related Shepard Fairey. Salad Days,1989-1999 run June 16-October 7, 2018.

Cranbrook Art Museum