Objects and Place @ The Scarab Club

A Spring Offensive

Be sure, on your next visit to the Scarab Club, to ascend the staircase to the lounge and “history” rooms above the first floor exhibition space. Upon arrival, make your way past the newly installed wood and yarn screens that momentarily obscure and mystify the familiar doorway into the capacious members lounge. There, awaiting your arrival, you’ll discover “Objects and Place,” a smart, telling transformation, by a collaborative trio of artists, of the dusky, fireplace dominated space.  Marie Herwald Hermann, Laith Karmo, and curator Addie Langford, have reconfigured and refreshed the familiar, cluttered space. Fusty vintage furniture (sofas, tables, and chairs) has been shifted to the margins of the room, drawing attention to the two patterned carpets that sprawl across the floor. Nor are any paintings visible on the dark, wood- paneled walls.

Installation view “Objects and Place”, 2018 – Photographic images by Jenna Belevender

After a brief scan, a few, widely spaced objects stand out: beefy white ashtrays dot sturdy oak tables (Karmo), disembodied vacuums pop up underfoot here and there (Langford), and hundreds of tiny multicolored pins, like an insouciant riff on mille-fleurs, adorn two walls (Hermann). Karmo’s stolid ashtrays, titled Meditating on Misogyny, elicit images of a brace of cigar-smoking men of an afternoon or evening opining on art, pulchritude, and the state of the world in an odiferous, nicotine-stained, smoke-filled man cave. Quills of aromatic incense stud the ashtrays, at the ready to exorcise the stale, tobacco-heavy ozone in favor of fresh air—and, presumably, fresh, alternate topics of discourse. One might also note that Karmo, no fan of prescribed, columnar pedestals, has found especially apt and congenial perches for his chunky stoneware receptacles on the Club’s vintage tables.

Laith Karmo, Meditating on Misogyny #1, Stoneware and incense, 2018

For her part, Langford’s wrecked, dismembered vacuums, shorn of handles and refuse bags, focus on the flat, distorted contours of the housing for motor, wheels, and brushes of a standard upright vacuum. Adding overlapping strips of tape in their wake, she suggests the back and forth, overlapping movements of her Sweepscompulsively scarfing up the accumulated dust and dirt—until they crash. While bearing a resemblance to roombas (said another viewer), Langford’s porcelain wrecks seem much more akin to powerful electric machines at the end of a fruitless, abandoned mission to tidy and neaten up the parameters of art and life. Perhaps too, at this point, a visitor, like this writer, belatedly realizes that the pale, lumpy object laid out on a bench on the landing of the Club’s staircase is in fact a porcelain rendering of a hollow vacuum cleaner bag.

Addie Langford, Scarab Club Lounge, Sweep/Head/Pink, Porcelain and mixed media, 2018

Hermann’s contribution to the “less is more” facelift of this dowdy room, except for her psyche altering screens at the entrance, might be overlooked at first. Absent the bevy of members’ paintings usually enlivening the walls, Hermann and Langford have inserted an array of colorful pins into the holes made by nails that secured thousands of pictures gracing the walls of the lounge since the completion of the club’s building in 1928. Now two multihued waves fifteen feet wide drift and flow freely and joyfully across the gravy-toned walls. Like a wide screen view of masses of swallows wheeling across the sky they evoke something of the tenor, breadth, and sheer number of artists and artifacts embraced by the Club over its long and memorable history.

Marie Hermann & Addie Langford, 28 – 62 #2, (detail) Pins, 2018

Admittedly, this décor altering re-do by team Hermann, Karmo, & Langford tweaks and pokes at the vintage ambience of the grand old Scarab Club housed in its venerable Arts & Crafts building, and its storied practices and programs. More significantly, what “Objects and Place”—and its renovating trio of makers–also sensitively and knowingly acknowledge, in concert with the interventions of generations of exhibitors, is the Club’s long-lived, broadly supportive aesthetic legacy. This eye-opening, conceptually savvy installation, albeit short-lived, now becomes part of its institutional history: perhaps in years to come as the spicy, spirited spring cleaning of 2018?

Scarab Club “Objects and Places” continues at the top of the stairs through May 19, 2018.

 

 

Jim Cogswell @ University of Michigan Museum of Art

Digital study for Cosmogonic Tattoos Installation at UMMA and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Jim Cogswell, Digital study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, 2016. Courtesy of the artist

The images that comprise Jim Cogswell’s frieze-like mural Cosmogonic Tattoos are lyrical, fanciful, and, at times, utterly bewildering. Anthropomorphic Greek amphoras sprout legs and scurry about. A hybrid harp/boat ferries its unusual passengers – expressive, personified hands— across surging waves. And ancient-looking architectural structures rise and collapse in post-apocalyptic ruins.

Occasioned by the University of Michigan’s bicentennial, the university commissioned artist Jim Cogswell to create a set of murals celebrating the holdings of the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Cogswell’s mural speaks to material exchange across cultures and the necessarily distorted histories and narratives that shape when artifacts are taken out of context and placed behind glass in museum environments. It’s an ambitious and highly conceptual cycle that manages to be both playful and cerebral.

 

“Cosmogonies,” Cogswell explains, “are our explanations for how our world came to be.”[i] His idea of a cosmogonic tattoo is sourced in the character Queequeg in Moby Dick, who bore a tattoo on his back depicting “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.”[ii]   For this site-specific installation, Cogswell created hundreds of vinyl images based on his paintings of 250 objects from the holdings of the Kelsey and UMMA. Affixing them to the expansive horizontally-oriented first-floor windows of each museum, he created a frieze of images which tell an ambitiously sweeping narrative addressing the migrations of ideas, artifacts, and people.

The narrative begins on the windows of the Frankel Family Wing at the UMMA. A ship full of anthropomorphic hands (derived from paintings within the UMMA), sail across a sea in a boat toward a promontory, only to endure a series of apocalyptic natural disasters. Taking what few cultural artifacts they can carry, these travelers embark on foot to find a new home. By design, the narrative breaks, and viewers must cross State Street and traverse a block north to view the rest of the mural at the Kelsey.

Jim Cogswell, Boats and Hands, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist

Here, we see more figures on migratory journeys. Architectural structures on promontories are erected, only to be destroyed by natural forces and invasion. The figures, always on the move, carry more cultural artifacts with them, and they themselves even metamorphose into complex mash-ups of disparate elements borrowed from multiple cultures: a Roman female torso sports the head of a goose derived from a Greek wine jug, for example. The narrative is like a obius strip, and ends with migrants on the move. Cogswell didn’t conceive of the Kelsey as a destination, but rather a “roundabout,” ultimately channeling the narrative—and the viewer—back toward the UMMA.

Every character, prop, and setting in this unfolding drama comes directly from Cogswell’s digital renderings of his paintings of artifacts at the Kelsey and the UMMA. But, like Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, Cogswell’s images synthesize disparate elements from vastly different sources. A Greek kylix becomes the satellite dish on a radio tower, for example, and the radiating concentric rings of an Egyptian necklace becomes its transmission signals. Greek amphoras sprout wings derived from decorative Roman architectural elements. The seemingly random combination of elements calculatedly speaks to the mutability of cultural artifacts and their subjective meanings.

Jim Cosgwell, Study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, Working on site, Image courtesy of the Levi Stroud

While this sprawling horizontal collage of images seem utterly haptic, every element of the mural was impressively thought-out. For example, a rendering of Greek portrait bust from Cyprus is wittily placed on a window pane right behind the actual portrait bust itself. Like Cogswell’s own mash-ups, the bust reflects visual elements from multiple cultures (Greek and Egyptian), and even obliquely addresses migration: while the Mycenean culture declined, refugees from the mainland settled in Cyprus.

Jim Cogswell,  Study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, Working on site, Image courtesy of the Levi Stroud

Cosmogonic Tattoos worthily aims to make us consider the histories of objects across space and time, and their ever-changing meanings. The British Museum’s Elgin Marbles, as a case in point, would certainly carry different associations for visitors from London than visitors from Athens. And these contemporary associations would contrast vastly from the pride and patriotism that an ancient Athenian would have felt, gazing on the same marbles in situ, wrapping, as they once did, around the Parthenon. Furthermore, America’s current changing views toward monuments to the Confederacy suggests that such change can occur even within a culture, and rapidly at that.

Admittedly, Cogswell’s mural cycle, while certainly visually engaging, might be prohibitively cryptic to anyone unfamiliar with the artist’s statement of intent and the helpful explanatory essays in the exhibition catalog (itself nicely produced and beautifully illustrated). But perhaps there’s a certain poetry to that, as it rather nicely underscores Cogswell’s metanarrative concerning the mutability of images and their meanings.

Jim Cogswell, Woman Duck,  Study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, 2016, shellac ink and graphite on mylar. Image courtesy of the artist

[i] Cogswell, Jim, et al. Jim Cogswell : Cosmogonic Tattoos. University of Michigan, 2017.

 

University of Michigan Art Museum

 

Susan Goethel Campbell @ David Klein Gallery

Susan Goethel Campbell: Faulty Vision, David Klein Gallery

Installation image of front gallery.   All images courtesy of David Klein Gallery 2017

Susan Goethel Campbell’s installation “Faulty Vision” currently showing at the David Klein Gallery has all of the ingredients of the mise-en-scene of a surreal film. Like a Japanese garden it is challengingly eye-opening while meditative. In keeping with Campbell’s engagement with both architectural and “natural” space, “Faulty Vision” is designed as a response to the Beaux-Arts architecture of the Klein Gallery itself. The Grand Entrance, to use Beaux-Arts terminology, of the gallery, entering off of Washington Boulevard, Detroit’s premier Beaux-Art avenue, is activated by Campbell’s large, atmospheric black and white dune-scape photos seamlessly embedded into the walls; her uncanny, actual sized, cast earth and grass column echoes the classical Doric column next to it; magically engineered grassy, target-like images float in the middle of the gallery space; and black and white photos of planet-like orbs float around the space, all suggesting a strange landscape indeed. Each of the objects and images has evolved from the trajectory of recent related, but separate, projects that collectively comprise Campbell’s hybrid artistic practice. It is an elegant albeit enigmatic installation to contemplate.

Susan G. Campbell, “Dune No. 2,” 2017, Black and white digital print, 40” x 60”

Trained as a printmaker, it has become a method and process of her practice to see and think in multiple images and variations of those accumulations, as well to consider the processes of the “natural” world (germinating seeds and growth) and of the engineering processes of industrial manufacturing itself that compete with nature. For years now Campbell herself has become a kind of research and development factory, experimenting with organic materials such as seeds, plants, leaves, and even more ephemeral conditions like light, night sky and air itself. The overarching gesture then of “Faulty Vision” is to, it seems, if not challenge, then assay and respond to the symbolic permanence of that Beaux-Arts designed gallery space. Early in the twentieth century, Detroit and most American cities adopted a pared down version of Classical Greek and Roman architectural models, that have historically symbolized the enduring strength and permanence of European culture.

Susan G. Campbell, 4“ Ground no.6 (floor installation), 2017, 51”x51”

When closely examined the stunning earth work sculptures that are installed in the main gallery are all ironically modeled on what were once called “disposable” objects. Campbell’s column is made of hundreds of cast-earth and grass water bottles, grown in molds of the plastic bottles, to form a simulated, fluted Doric column. It is an over-the-top critique of the bombast of classicism and at the same-time beguilingly baroque.  Situated in the gallery’s windows facing Washington Blvd., as if window-displays of consumer goods, are stacks of cast-earth and grass cell phones modeled on the evolving i-Phone, 4, 5, and 6 series. (As in nature phones evolve too). And echoing larger engineered earthworks (such as center pivot watering circles in contemporary agribusiness) as in “Ground No.6 (floor installation),” suggesting also ancient Native American Mound-Builder’s “ruins,” as well as many ancient, rammed earth and mud constructions. All of the materials of Campbell’s sculptures are made of natural, decomposable materials and are serious parodies of the plastic and aluminum models.

At one point in a recent talk at the gallery, Campbell alluded to the earth work of artist James Turrell and fantasized an installation of an enormous field of her own cast-earth concentric rings. “I love multiple images of the same thing…like seeing a shelf of the same product in a grocery store.” Repeating any image, such as the cell phone shape or her concentric rings, is one of the basic tropes of modern art (Warhol) and architecture (Mies van der Rohe) and belongs in any discussion of printmaking as well as mechanical reproduction. Repetition seems to insure coherence and a sense of consistency and security, versus the chaos and uncertainty of the of fickleness of nature. Repetition also is the beginning of making a pattern that creates structure and strength.

Susan G. Campbell, “Dune No.1,” 2017, Black and white digital print, 40”x62”

In the smaller rear gallery, there is a large B&W photo of a sand dune with two human figures seeming to lean into a struggled walk across the horizon. In the grand scheme of things, of the world around them, with enormous emotional sky overhead and menacing mounds of sand dune and dune grass underfoot, they seem remarkably inconsequential and existentially without destination. In a sense this image is a key to the whole exhibition in projecting a heroic, man against nature, Romantically Sublime, vision, in contrast to the constructed space of the gallery. While this photographed landscape captures the same organic materials as her engineered works—earth and grass, such as in Ground No.6– it is chaotic and foreboding, the exact opposite of Campbell’s built organic world. Three other dune photos, with haunting fog and solitary figures, also suggest a counter to the controlled order of Campbell’s engineered pieces and create a narrative tension to the whole exhibition: nature versus the built world.

Susan G. Campbell, “Water Planet No. 5,” 2017, Digital print on polyester, spray paint 22 3/4 x 30 5/8″

A third group of images triangulate Campbell’s vision and offer a surreal contrast to the architectural and natural conditions of landscape or environment that determine the rest of Campbell’s projects. The “Water Planets” are a series of images of planet-like orbs pictured as composed of water, floating in a hauntingly empty space. “Water Planet No.5” has two truncated orbs, one eclipsed in shadow and one of water, situated in a matte gray ethereal space. Each “planet” exists in ultimate isolation and, one imagines, can virtually never touch another or conjoin with the other. The “Water Planets” are an uncanny and stunning invention and throw all of “Faulty Vision” into another realm of thought and are superior evidence of Campbell’s considered world.

In “Faulty Vision,” Campbell is responding to an architectural space with its own specific, highly evolved Classical ideology. The David Klein Gallery is not simply white walls upon which to hang her work. The Beaux-Arts history, of which the Klein gallery is a part, is virtually the result of the fantasy of authority and permanence that is western culture. It is the result of a weird evolution and Campbell’s fragile, water bottle, grass and dirt column, circles and i-Phones are a remarkable response to that history. There is an umbrella of ambiguity that protects the complicated equation of “Faulty Vision,” that allows for many readings and wonderings, and Campbell plays on that.

Susan Goethel Campbell: Faulty Vision, David Klein Gallery  Through December 16, 2017

To the End of the Earth @ Detroit Artists Market

“To the End of the Earth,” the new group exhibition at Detroit Artists Market, is grandly ambitious in its mission. As DAM’s press release states, it seeks to “… Bring together artists who seek to improve our bleak ecological reality through artwork that opposes political policy, presents objective data analysis, and conveys compelling emotional narratives.” This is an important show- it marks the importance of the humanities in general, and visual art in particular, in unpacking the increasingly urgent ecological crisis that is looming more heavily, day by day, on our planet and our lives.

Installation Image, Courtesy of Detroit Artist Market 2017 All images Courtesy of Detroit Artist Market

Curator Adrian Hatfield (himself no slouch as a painter of spiritual/earthly slippage- do check out his work) has assembled a group of artists who work predominantly in loving craft and visual narrative- there’s a refreshing lack of conceptual chillness to this show. The work largely avoids didactic environmentalist rhetoric, instead presenting us with feverish beauty and unsettling juxtapositions that ground examination of terrifying imbalance in the bones.

Dominique de Gery, Zug Winter, Oil on Canvas, 2017

Two standouts are Dominique deGery’s Zug Winter and Millie Tibbs’ Mountains + Valleys- Yosemite 4. deGery’s painting gifts uncommonly grand scale and highly developed technique to a familiar Detroit River view- her bisected horizon/underwater landscapes always make me think of Rothkos. She somehow manages to balance closely observed realism with visionary abstraction- a Hudson River School student granted multi-planar sight. deGery’s landscapes convey more about our delicate, wayward relationship with the land and water we live amongst than most artist statements or grim statistics could.

Millee Tibbs, Three Mountains & Valleys, Yosemite 4, Archival Print, 2013

It’s difficult to do interesting things with landscape photography these days. Millee Tibbs’ work is a notable exception. Her practice quietly probes unprecedented pockets in photographic imagery, spanning the figure, national monuments and many subtleties in between, unearthing the unsettlingly familiar and ungroundingly uncanny in every subject she engages. Mountains + Valleys- Yosemite 4 presents an iconic view of Half Dome, a famous, imposing feature of the Yosemite National Park skyline. This monument is one of the gods of nature photography, steadily indexed since the dawn of the medium. Tibbs’ layered meditation on the sublime, yet somewhat clichéd monument stakes its territory by manipulating the print itself, folding it into steep 45 degree angles reminiscent of paper airplanes. The delicate stratification of crease marks that remain once the print is again pressed flat enclose the phallic Half Dome in a yonic, halo-like embrace. On closer examination the jagged creases, like the mountain itself, turn out to be an illusion of captured light- Tibbs’ final image is a print of the folded print. This uncanny doubling casts everything about the image into doubt, except it’s frankly sexual examination of our relationship with iconic landscapes.

Clinton Snider, Senic Overlook, Mixed Media, 2016

More slow-burning revelation arrives through Clinton Snyder’s dirty/dainty mixed media sculptures, depicting meticulous miniature landscapes built atop found detritus of urban living. Scenic Overlook evokes the deceptive green crust floating uneasily atop a landfill, which is perfectly iconized by a worn-out old shoe.

While the truth of climate change and environmental degradation seems indisputable, one truth of our current relationship with these phenomena is that the message is not getting through. Statistics, studies, and choirs of frantic talking heads make facts readily available, along with steps that can be taken to slow the trajectory of climate change. The presence of all these facts in popular culture seems, on the ground, to change very little about the way we conduct our lives- at least in the Western First World. There is a need for new dialogs to open, in languages parallel to the logistical and statistic. Artists are uniquely suited to engage with this oncoming massive shift in our ability to bind and distill different forms of knowledge. For a scorchingly beautiful argument on this subject, see The Dark Mountain Project Manifesto.   “To the Ends of the Earth” presents some of the best artists working in visual narrative in Detroit right now, and lives up to its vision in providing a (much needed) new conversation on climate change.

“To the End of the Earth” is on display at Detroit Artists Market from September 8 through October 14.

 

Butter Projects @ Wasserman Projects

Have+Hold, a collaboration of Wasserman Projects and Butter Projects

Showing me around the exhibition Have+Hold, a collaboration between Wasserman Projects at Eastern Market and Butter Projects, formerly based in Royal Oak, curator Alison Wong mused about the concept she and her partner, John Charnota, envisioned when they founded Butter Projects, a multi-purpose gallery space, studio, and community hub for artists that’s been fighting the good fight since 2009. Like the ubiquitous dairy product of its naming, the space was conceived, Wong told me, to encapsulate that essential quality, oft overlooked, that makes everything it touches better. For artists those essentials include space to work and a community engaged in opening dialogs and forging new friendships. Wong and Charnota now command well-earned respect in Detroit and beyond for their brilliant aesthetic and their knack for assembling beautifully serendipitous group shows.

Have+Hold, Installation image, Wasserman Projects, all images by PD Rearick

The dearth of prominent female curators has been a topic of conversation around Detroit this summer. Wong, who curates for Wasserman Projects as well as Butter Projects, is on the vanguard of bucking that trend. She has easily transitioned from the intimate scale of Butter Projects to the off-puttingly huge Wasserman space with a cluster of exciting exhibitions. Have+Hold, however, breaks the Wasserman mold somewhat. There’s a warmth to Have+Hold that I haven’t seen in previous Wasserman shows. There’s a healthy emphasis on craft and the (often literal) presence of the hand- the human figure and how it meets and draws nourishment from its environment is the subject of many works. The works don’t feel enshrined in the sprawling space. Each is as inviting and approachable as it would be in the artist’s studio, with the space around them allowing for a more lingering, meaningful exchange. Even still, the works flow and accentuate one another- this is genius curating.

The show begins with a haunting wall of water media paintings by Loren Erdrich, comprising snapshot-like portraits and intimate, raw studies of limbs.

Loren Erdrich, Firecracker, Raw organic pigments on paper

Erdrich’s paintings encompass the most traditional approach to the figure in the exhibition, despite their striking palette and unusual perspectives. From here, things get more wayward. Like stumbling across a sprawled couple in a dark house at night, it’s a bit of a shock to come from the paintings to Kasper Ray O’Brien’s sculpture “Take Me Home.” Made especially for Have+Hold, the piece places two pairs of legs extending across the floor in suggestive semi-undress. The couple’s feet cross just slightly in a gesture that could imply either platonic or sexual intimacy. The dismembered state of the legs ought to feel macabre but doesn’t at all- they evoke a physical turning of joints toward the warmth of another body that you remember in your own flesh while interacting with the piece.

Kasper Ray O’Brien, Take Me Home, Mixed Media

Juxtaposed with O’Brien’s work are two films by Margaret Hull. “Lightly Touched By” is a beautiful meditation on the surfaces of the body, with the artist drawing a latticework of lines onto her hands and feet with a makeup crayon. This ritual body mapping reinforces the visceral response that “Take Me Home” begins to evoke. The nature of tactile memory is further explored in installations by Shane Darwent and Sophie Eisner. Eisner’s assemblage of objects made from cast silicone, titled “Soft and Heavy,” suggests a utilitarian space of platforms and mundane vessels, soap cups, washtubs. Her creamy pastel palette and soft, drippy material render these objects not only seductively tactile but almost edible. Darwent is rapidly establishing himself as a young artist to watch. His structures, which use architectural materials and razor-sharp, life-sized digital prints blur the lines between actual objects and renderings of them, trafficking in a new spin on trompe l’oeil. Heaviness, the inevitability of collapse, the awkwardness of exurban sprawl, and the arbitrariness that defines what is “well-built” all find their way into his work, with unsettlingly cinematic lighting straight from David Lynch.

Ellie Krakow’s mixed media sculptures that combine finely wrought casts, hand built ceramic of torqueing elbows and shoulders with photographs of arms and hands mimicking the cast positions meditate in a cooler, more conceptual way on the nature of embodied movement, while Margo Wolowiec’s woven pieces are a delightful surprise, roping yet another handcraft into Have+Hold and resembling the layered, slightly offset strata of thought processes and memory.

Sophie Eisner, Soft and Heavy, Mixed Media

Shane Darwent, Joseph’s Garden, Mixed Media

Don’t visit Have+Hold if you’re in a hurry- it’s worth it to take in the broad sweep of the show then slow down and spend a little time with each work. The warmth of the show I referenced above opens most fully with a little lingering and savoring- a harkening back to when life was made up of such moments. Movement, touch, intimacy, homing, and connection well up in a visceral, embodied experience of work well conceived and wrought with love. Have+Hold reminded me that a good show should grab hold of all your senses and leave them stirred and warmed.

Have+Hold, a collaboration of Wasserman Projects and Butter Projects by Alison Wong and John Charnota, is on view at Wasserman Projects in Detroit through August 26, 2017.

http://wassermanprojects.com/have-hold/