Vagner Whitehead @ Cass Cafe

Where Allegory Meets Autobiography – Vagner M. Whitehead’s “Writings on the Wall” at Cass Café, Detroit, Michigan

Vagner Whitehead Installation shot

Vagner Whitehead Installation shot, Image Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

“Writings on the Wall,” Vagner Whitehead’s farewell solo exhibition currently on view at Cass Café (he’s sadly leaving us to take a job in Texas, he’ll be missed on the gallery circuit and at Infinite Mile Detroit, where Whitehead and I were colleagues) provides an interesting counterpoint to the ideas I’ve been juggling lately about identity-based work. Generally speaking, I find it problematic. My definition of the genre ropes in any work that takes as its subject an examination, unpacking, or sounding board of the earthly presence of the maker herself- her body, her biography, her socio-economic place, her sexual orientation, any and all factors that combine to make her who she is. Such work carries the risk of lapsing into self-examination that effectively shuts the door to any possibility for true communication or transcendence. The presence of casual self-portraits and other Snapchat-worthy visual flashes in Whitehead’s work quickly establishes as its subject an exploration of the artist’s identity. Whitehead avoids the drab self-examination so common to this type of work, however, through an intriguing mixture of cross-pollinating media, differing modes of visual communication, and a beautiful, over-arching theme of movement- manifested specifically in flight- that opens up what so often presents as a sealed conversation between the artist and her ego.

Image 1 Vagner Whitehead Computing Clouds 2015 Laser etching collage and acrylic on panel

Vagner Whitehead Computing Clouds 2015 Laser etching collage and acrylic on panel

Image 2 Vagner Whitehead Computing Clouds 2015 Detail

Vagner Whitehead Computing Clouds 2015 Detail

“Writings on the Wall” somehow places its maker both center and off-center through a multi-paneled, open-ended meditation on the rhymes that ring between migration, barriers in communication, and the bridging of these distances by any means necessary- via text (presented in collaged leaves from found books) transcriptions of sign language delivered in drawings of hand movements, gorgeous, juxtaposed studies of airplanes and birds, scaled-up prints of typeface lettering, and, amid the cacophony of rote communication, brief moments of non-verbal respite that read as breaks in a migratory journey- delicate graphite studies of intimate moments of iPhone-captured eye contact with the artist himself, or with lovers on languid, bed-bound mornings.

Image 3 Vagner Whitehead Besame Mucho Oz 2012 Acrylic and Inkjet transfer on canvas Detail

Vagner Whitehead Besame Mucho Oz 2012 Acrylic and Inkjet transfer on canvas Detail

Mylar overlays wreath milky glazes over rapid-fire selfies, combining with their carefully considered graphite rendering to elevate them into sacred territory. One gets the impression that the wonder with which Whitehead approaches these mundane likenesses is, somehow, not self-regarding, but universal- that it carries a subtle lesson in the true purpose such images carry in popular culture. Whitehead balances his busy, content-loaded transcriptions of movement with these contemplative, humble moments of stillness (so difficult to grasp these days) that carefully articulate, in dissonantly traditional media, the nearest we can possibly come to identity in a world with a constantly shifting, evolving ground that threatens to swallow us up if we don’t document every moment of quiet autonomy we can. Whitehead’s work in “Writings on the Wall” captures, via quaintly allegorical images and materials, the overwhelming speed with which we must move through an increasingly global, competitive art world, spanning distances similar to those a migratory bird must cover in order to survive. The same distances which technology- airplanes, printed text, smart phones- can cover instantly and effortlessly. The part of us that is still struggling to cross oceans, using only our bodies and what we can articulate with our hands and our brief, snatched experiences of true connection, is one key to the ideal execution of identity-based work. This work can tell us something about how, and why, we build visual narratives around ourselves as we navigate contemporary life.

Image 4 Vagner Whitehead Blind Path 2014-15 Laser etching acrylic and oil on panel

Vagner Whitehead Blind Path 2014-15 Laser etching acrylic and oil on pan

 “Writings on the Wall” is on view at Cass Café in Detroit, MI July 9 through September 17, 2016.  Cass Cafe

 

Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia @ Cranbrook Art Museum

 

Two exhibitions offer a preponderance of material objects to make sense of the past

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Psychedelic posters and printed matter, installation view

These days, the San Francisco Bay Area is neatly divided into two camps: you either are a tech bro, or you hate them. Back in my day as an errant Bay Area youth, there was a different kind of division: you either were a hippie, or you hated them. I, my friends, was certainly no hippie. Of course, in my time they weren’t even real hippies—although there were still a healthy number of Summer-of-Love burnouts quietly resisting the rising tide of capitalism. They were proto-hippies, the spawn of Baby Boomers, appropriating the fashion or rediscovering the music as it made its 20-year orbit in retrograde. Whether the die-hard originals or the new school posers, hippies were not, by any metrics, modern.

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Isaac Abrams, Hello Dali (1965)

In fact, the seeming paradox between hippie and modern sensibilities provides the immediate tension of Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia—a sprawling exhibition initially organized by Andrew Blauvelt during his tenure at the Walker Art Center, which has subsequently followed him to be presented at the Cranbrook Art Museum, where he took up the mantle of Director last year. Hippies are commonly associated with back-to-the-land movements, eco-sustainability, and the timeless human yearning for peace and simplicity. Modernism is more concerned with technology, rapid progress and development, clean, modular design, and spare, white spaces.

 

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Ken Isaacs, The Knowledge Box (1962-2009)

But, as Hippie Modernism proves, these odd bedfellows forged a powerful connection indeed (who wouldn’t hippies jump into bed with, really?), fused in a social pressure-cooker of late-60s radicalism and wartime unrest. This extremely dense exhibition is not so much an art show as it is a walk through time with an art-historical lens—one which captures facets of hippie culture that have been elided by a typical focus on the flashier and more simplistic culture of drugs, fashion, rock-and-roll, and sex.

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Works by Haus-Rucker-Co, (installation view)

These facets are loosely divided into three galleries: Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out. Each of these examines a dominant theme of the time period, roughly the mid-1960s through the early 1970s—that of consciousness-raising on an individual level, social awareness on a geo-political level, and active rejection of certain cultural pressure of normativity and technological progress (to name a few). The objects and information on display demonstrate a deep interest in modern design not as an aesthetic exercise but a practical one, as applied to communal and off-the-grid living, mobile housing, and sustainable infrastructure; technology, not at as means of warfare but as a means for more direct powers of computing and personal representation; and tool use as a mechanism for exploring the inner workings of the mind. The exhibition, which occupies the entire main floor of Cranbrook is veritably papered in schematics of ergonomic living solutions, imagined vehicles, and visions of bio-domes (not to mention an actual geodesic dome that features an interactive and highly trance-inducing installation, The Ultimate Painting, by Clark Richert, Richard Kallweit, Gene Bernofsky, JoAnn Bernofsky, and Charles DiJulio.

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Superstudio, Prints from the Superstudio Series (1969-1973)

Many of the works bear collective credits, the products of communal discussion and creative efforts; many have the earmarks of what today would be considered “social practice art,” but at the time was considered radical politics—leaving the viewer to marvel at the subsequent commoditization of art in the 1970s and 1980s to defang its inherent power as a social catalyst! There are, as one might imagine, a room splashed with dozens of examples of psychedelic poster art—but the collection is not limited to the vivid band promo materials that probably still line the halls of the Fillmore (if they haven’t turned it into a vape bar or something). Rather, there is a kind of radical parallel to the Madison Avenue advertising culture that was taking hold of the market—a conscious and deliberate exploration of type, color, and imagery as a mechanism to promulgate messaging. There are, undeniably, quite a number of chill spaces distributed around the exhibition, and a good thing, too—with so much going on, the opportunities to stop, drop, and contemplate are welcome interruptions. These include a handful of audio/video screening rooms, a Relaxation Cube from Nomadic Furniture 1 (1973) with floor cushions and a soothing slide show, and a full-gallery installation of a work by Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida, CC5 Hendrixwar/Cosmococa Programa-in-Progress, complete with hammocks.

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John Glick: A Legacy in Clay, installation view

John Glick: A Legacy in Clay @ Cranbrook Art Museum

It bears mentioning that Hippie Modernism is not the only spectacular exhibition currently on display at Cranbrook Art Museum, though it certainly warrants a visit all on its own. A career survey of ceramic artist John Glick—John Glick: A Legacy in Clay—is a dazzling walk through the life work of a virtuosic artist who managed to find fresh takes on vessels and forms as old as human society. From the wall of teapots, to the hanging friezes, to the physical timeline of Glick’s singular and beautiful ceramic forms, laid out in an engaging and accessible 360-degree display that mimics the sort of tables where they might otherwise be found, the Glick retrospective offers eye candy at every turn.

Food for thought, vessels for food, and much to take in at Cranbrook Art Museum!

Michigan Fine Arts Competition @ BBAC

Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center Hosts the 35th MFCA

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BBAC / MFAC Installation Image – Courtesy of DAR

The Michigan Fine Arts Competition (MFAC) exhibition opened June 24, 2016, and is one of the best they have had in their long existence, beginning in 1982. Not many know that the competition was previously held by the Detroit Institute of Arts, but with their demise of leadership in contemporary art, they were pleased to find a home at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center (BBAC). The key to this year’s success is Terence Hammonds; the juror selected to make this year picks. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, he attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for his BFA, and Tufts University for his MA. One of the factors that make this exhibition so exceptional is that it draws on a mid-west region, where more than 500 artists compete from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

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Gerald Moore, Late September Field, Oil on Canvas

Gerald Moore is an expressive landscape painter who holds an MA in painting from Central Michigan University. He says “I work opposite the Oriental painting philosophy that ‘less is more.’ ‘More’ is the engine of my work; ‘more’ is more.” His large landscape painting seems to draw on the landscape as a subject, but flirts with abstract field painting and gives us a little of both. Color field painting, championed by Clement Greenburg in the 1950’s characterized this expression as solid color creating an unbroken surface and flat picture plane. One might view the Wheat Fields of Van Gogh to see early examples.

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Mary Brodbeck, Blanket, Woodblock Print

Maybe it’s because we don’t see a lot of artists working with wood-cut printmaking, that this landscape with rings and melting snow is so attractive. She says in her statement “ Affected by my travel and study in Japan, notably by visiting traditional Japanese gardens, my landscape prints are carefully designed in abstract and stylized ways that are intended for viewers to have a contemplative experience. “ These Zen-like impressions made by the woodblock can transport the viewer to a place that blends design, craft and a spiritual aesthetic. Ms. Brodbeck holds a BFA from Michigan State University, and an MFA from Western Michigan University.

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Mario Inchaustegui, Into the Unknown, Digital Print

Mario Inchaustegui’s digital print “Into the Unknown” draws purely on composition for its power and interest. The geometry along with perspective leads us to four figures on the edge of some type of a concrete pier. This middle school teacher at West Bloomfield Schools has been part of photo exhibitions in Metro Detroit, most recently at the Scarab Club.

Clay Hydrant

Susan O’Connor, Can I Get Some Water, Clay

Susan O’Connor, who teaches hand-built ceramics at the BBAC, grabs the audience with a pop art object, that also carries a current social message. So, she got me with this Fire Hydrant from Flint, Michigan where the water has been contaminated by a decision leading to elements of lead in the water supply.

This exhibition has many generous prizes totaling $5800 and goes a long way to showcase artists in the Midwest. I will mention here that I usually stay away from covering these large competitive exhibitions, largely because they jury the work from jpegs, which makes the process more of a challenge. In this particular case, I give Mr. Hammonds a lot of credit for getting most of his decisions right. I have heard it many times, that it is the only practical way to conduct such a large undertaking, however when only viewing an image of an artwork, mistakes are made.

The 35th Annual Michigan Fine Arts Competition – June 24 – August 26

Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

15 Steps: Perspectives in Drawing @ Red Bull House of ART

Capturing the process and dispersive outcomes of one of humanity’s oldest expressive forms

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Class Portrait by Tyanna Buie – Installation view, All images courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

Red Bull House of Art has made its name in Detroit by showing some of the most cutting-edge young artists in town. Now, as the residency/gallery space transitions to get an international influx of artist in the mix, a palette-cleansing show, 15 Steps: Perspectives in Drawing, curated by local artist and organizing powerhouse Tylonn J. Sawyer brings the focus back to the basics of drawing.

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Tyson J. Sawyer, Cabal: Class of 2016

“When I lived in New York, I attended drawing shows all the time, yet I can’t think of any in the surrounding area, other than the DIA Drawing and Prints gallery,” said Sawyer, regarding his motivations for the show’s theme. “Drawing is very instinctual practice. As children, we are compelled to pick up crayons and scribble. Early on in mankind people felt the need to record their daily lives on caves as in parietal art.  I think there is an honesty in drawing and in the process of drawing.  To do it well takes repetition, practice and caring.  For many of the artists (in this show), drawing is not their primary art form, but it remains somewhere in their creative process.”

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Leto Rankine, Figure in Pink and Gold

Despite its thematic foundations in drawing, the show has some unexpected outcomes as the result of these various creative processes, including an augmented piece of found object art by one of Sawyer’s fellow MOCAD employees, Leto Rankine, and a breathtaking large-scale print work by Detroit newcomer and CCS Professor of Fine Arts and Printmaking, Tyanna Buie. Buie’s piece, Class Portrait, works from imagery lifted from one of her own childhood class pictures, universalized by the obscuring of the facial features of the children pictured, yet still somehow achingly personal.

“What prompted me to make this particular piece was my response to what is happening within the public school system in our country, but specifically in Detroit,” said Buie. “My memory of my time in a public elementary school in Chicago, IL, was not made clear until I received documentation of my achievements and class photographs from that school. I thought the schools that I went to was not special and didn’t teach me anything of importance. However, once I looked at the class photo, I began to analyze it…I realized how much the principal took pride in the school and how the teachers worked hard to make sure we also had a since of pride in ourselves. The school I once went to from 1990-1993 is still standing, but is now a charter school. I wanted to make a piece that would give a subtle nod to public schools for making a difference in our communities through the children despite the many challenges faced.”

By what Sawyer characterizes as the “happiest accident ever,” Buie’s work is directly in conversation with a large-scale piece by Sawyer himself, which applies a similar technique and aesthetic to a large-scale class portrait of another kind. “In Cabal: Class of 2016, I am presenting the institution of law enforcement standing tall and proud as one collective or brotherhood, ready to do their sworn duty to enforce the law of the land,” said Sawyer in an artist statement about the piece. “Yet we live in a time where literally hundreds of videos and news reports highlight police officers behaving less than professionally, and the majority facing no consequences. I imagine the institution of law enforcement struggling to maintain integrity in the public eye, and this struggle visually manifesting itself in the form of officers physically falling apart or melting away. I purposely removed all the faces because when I think of police officers, I don’t think of them as individuals, but rather parts of a whole.”

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Christopher Batten – Chronicles of Kobi (A Japanese Chin) – installation/detail view

Other contributions to the show are more lighthearted and more strictly limited to drawing as a final process, rather than a foundational one. A collection of 16 drawings by Christopher Batten take, as their subject, a Japanese Chin named Kobi. In an era where the internet threatens to collapse beneath the ponderous bulk of adorable pet pictures, there is something endearing about the process of capturing a (presumably) beloved pet in this more analogue form. Batten’s work is face-to-face with a colorful wall of visual and performance artist http://baileyscieszka.com/—a kind of insane clown posse unto herself—who also has a few pastels on display in a show of local talent at What Pipeline, Ever get the feeling we’re not alone in this world?

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Jennifer Wroblewski , Clones v.1,

Truly, there is no lack of innovative approaches and gratifying results, an outcome that Sawyer consciously cultivated with the group of 15 artists on display. “I don’t know if I would characterize this collection of artists, especially in any monolithic terms,” he said. “That’s kind of the opposite of what I was going for. Diverse is the first thing that comes to mind. Some of the artists are documenting life as they see it, some are trying to negotiate traumatic experiences, and others humorously reflect on some of the worst aspects of our current society. I asked each artist to contribute more than one piece, so that viewers can see that the work presented in the House of Art show is not a lark, but rather a small glimpse into the creative practice of each individual.”

15S9 DeMags Install

Collection of works by DeMags, Circles of Routine – Installation/detail view

The appreciation that Sawyer, and House of Art curators Matt Eaton and Robert-David Jones have for the arts, artists, and viewers is evident in the open process that permeates both the HOA residencies and the construction of 15 Steps. It’s a brilliant showcase of a wildly diverse range of talent and approaches, one that’s definitely worth taking a few steps out of your way to go experience!

15 Steps: Perspectives in Drawing will be on display Saturdays from 10-3 (or by appointment) at the Red Bull House of Art through July 9. For an appointment, you can make contact at redbullhouseofart@us.redbull.com.