Diverse and Highly Wide-Ranging Work @ Wasserman Projects

 

Installation Image, Wasserman Projects, 2019, Image courtesy of DAR

The Wasserman Projects gallery opened a multi-faceted set of exhibitions on January 25, 2019 that is eclectically diverse. The work is divided into a solo show by Esther Shalev-Gerz, an exhibition that premiered at the Swedish History Museum, a group show, Portray, that includes fourteen artists from a variety of geographical locations that draws on previous artists represented by the gallery and includes new artists from Detroit, New York City and beyond.  In addition, there is a retrospective by the American-Israeli artist Felice Pazner Malkin, introduced up front and continues in the rear gallery with representational works of art.  The exhibition also leverages the space at Wasserman which has more square footage than any major gallery in the Detroit Metro area, providing the viewer with a feeling that elevates the work to a near museum-like ambiance.

“Part of Wasserman Projects’ mission is to provide a platform for artists to show their work and to connect with the creative community in Detroit. For our upcoming season, we have the opportunity to present several artists with whom we’ve previously collaborated, like Esther Shalev-Gerz, Ken Aptekar, and Matthew Hansel, among others, creating a continuity of experience and support,” said Alison Wong, Director of Wasserman Projects. “And at the same time, we are excited to introduce new artists to our community to further enrich and explore timely and topical dialogues within contemporary practice”

Esther Shalev-Gerz, An Answer to Jorge Luis Borges’ Text – The Scandinavian Destingy, 40 Minute Video, 2016, Image Courtesy of DAR

The Esther Shalev-Gerz selections from The Gold Room, are unique in that the artist invited five  individuals who recently found refuge in Sweden to speak to the personal importance of an object they brought with them when they migrated. The exhibition requires the viewer to slow down and understand the process where a golden square floats over the center of the screen.  The work is a combination of photo portraits and a video installation, and which depict some of the featured participants and objects with their faces obscured by a golden panel.

Installation Image, Susan Silas, Felice Pazner Malkin, Esther Shalev-Gerz, Wasserman Projects, 2019, image courtesy of DAR

As you move into the large open space and start to take in the Portray exhibition, it is hard not to notice the marble sculpture Aging Venus, where  Susan Silas photographed herself over the course of a decade and created a 3D scan of her changing body, which served as the basis for the sculpture.  She says, “As a child, my bedroom was covered with reproductions of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, torn from an art book in my parents’ library. It seems to me that at an early age, two of the core values that would inform me throughout my life and career had already established themselves—a love of beauty and love for the female heroine at the center of meaning. Later there were ample quotations from writings and rock and roll lyrics added to the walls. For me, image-making and writing remain intertwined.”

I have not experienced such a pristine marble full-figured self-portrait juxtaposed to a large screen video where the artist sings 1960 TV theme songs into a mirror, creating a double image of herself.  These theme songs include “Happy Trails” from the Roy Rogers Show, and other themes from The Mickey Mouse Club, Star Trek, Superman, Yogi Bear, and Bat Masterson, to name a few.  It does occur to me how that might be perceived based on one’s childhood experience and how that carries an emotional nostalgia for those of a certain age. As in our experience with all art, we bring our own individual experience to the moment.

Susan Silas titles the sculpture A Study for Aging Venus, and in reading her history of this work, one finds out just how much technology was used in its creation and her plans for a larger sculpture.

She says, “The body scan for Aging Venus has generated a set of 2D photographic studies and a set of photographic portraits, created by shooting stills within the 3D space. The object file was used to create a 3D model that stands 11 inches tall which will become an edition. The large-scale sculpture will be cut by a high performance robotized 3D scanner that cuts stone with laser technology. The stone will be Carrara marble chosen from a quarry in Italy and the carving will be done in Italy as well. After the cutting is complete, a traditionally trained sculptor will help me finish and polish the marble. The sculpture will stand roughly seven feet tall from head to foot.”

Susan Silas is a Hungarian-American national living and working in Brooklyn, NY.  She earned her MFA at the California Institute of the Arts.

Continuing with the female figure is the work of Bruno Walpoth, where the artist carves life-sized human figures from blocks of wood and finishes the sculptures with acrylic paint. He repeatedly covers and sands down the surfaces to mask evidence of the wood grain and achieve a translucent, skin-like appearance. The Italian sculptor is the son and grandson of wood-carvers, who grew up in a town known for its centuries-old carving tradition. He traces his inspiration even further back, to the deeply human portraits of early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. Within the context of figurative sculpture, it’s interesting and refreshing to see an artist reach back and create something so totally new, a metaphor for all visual art being made today.

Bruno Walpoth, Sara, Wood, Paint, 26 x 21 x 11″, 2015 (foreground) Adnan Charara, Masquerade, Acrylic and Oil paint, 60 x 60″ (background) Image Courtesy of DAR

In the background and nearby is the work of Adnan Charara, a Lebanese-American artist from Dearborn, Michigan who has lived and worked in the U.S. since 1982. His collage-like oil painting, Masquerade , assembles classical imagery that strikes a compositional balance using shape, line and color that draws the viewer into his imaginary figure. Adnan bought the historic Astro building in midtown in 2011 and developed it into a multifunctional space, including the Gallerie Camille, gift shop, two store-fronts and his sprawling subdivided studio.In his statement he says, “In general, my art should be viewed as a visual representation of the human condition. The realization of my thoughts and emotions through the creation of my art is a way for me to express my inner self. In turn, I understand that my inner self is merely a particular manifestation of the human condition that connects everybody, and so it may be said that by expressing my inner self and revealing personal truths, I am attempting to reveal truths about us all.”

Donald Dietz, Untitled, From a series Everything Changes, Digital Pigment print, 28.5 x 38″, 2018 Image Courtesy of Wasserman Projects

I was drawn to the photographic image by local photographer Donald Dietz, because it seems to transcend the bulk of conventional photographic work in a multitude of ways.  The translucent field of color seems to seep through the backdrop of this kneeling figure and the painting. The composition is based on this large space with objects that feel like drawings as bookends at the very bottom of the frame. It’s as if Dietz is holding up two images like a sandwich and creating a third image.  He says in his statement, “I love finding something that I think would make an interesting photograph and then doing what needs to be done to translate what I saw into the image I imagined it could be. I hope my work leads people to look at things they see every day, and take for granted, in new ways.”

Ryan Standfest, Factory Head No. 1, Archival Inkjet on paper, 30 x 30″ 2018 Image Courtesy of Wasserman Projects

Other than some prints at the Simone DeSousa gallery, a recent exhibition at Wayne State University ( THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE) was my introduction to the artist Ryan Standfest with a graphic arts approach to an Americanized Constructivist sensibility that seemed dominated by his Rotland MFG. Company motifs post World War I. These formal industrial constructions of paint, ink, and enamel on cardboard reminded me of the Russian Constructivism that rejected the idea of autonomous art. This photograph, Factory Head 1, came from that exhibition and is better explained in that review. For the Detroit Art Review, Glen Mannisto writes, “The diversity of Standfest’s art stretches to performance theater and is represented by an installation of three “masks,” called “Factory Heads,” that he employed in a performance at MOCAD with an accompanying musical composition of factory noise created by Chris Butterfield and Mike Williams. In a sense Standfest’s “Factory Heads” sculptures and performance, covers of Bolshevik agitprop theater, are again in the Russian Constructivist spirit modeled after machine-like factory architecture with smokestacks and are accompanied by a Standfest poem that delineates the abject evolution of the working class.”  He says in his statement, “My enthusiasm for obsolete print ephemera such as comic strips, tabloid newspapers, postcards, catalogs, manuals and advertisements, is intended to highlight the fugitive value of authoritative cultural currency as it advertises our vision of the ideal.”

Portray includes paintings, photography, sculpture, works on paper, and mixed-media installations by Ken Aptekar (New York/Paris), Adnan Charara (Detroit), Donald Dietz (Detroit), Matthew Hansel (New York), Robert Raphael (New York), Michael Scoggins (New York), Esterio Segura (Cuba), Susan Silas (New York), William Irving Singer (Detroit), Ryan Standfest (Detroit), Koen Vanmechelen (Belgium), Jamie Vasta (Oakland, CA), Bruno Walpoth (Italy), and Hirosuke Yabe (Japan).

Wasserman Projects was conceived by Michigan-native Gary Wasserman and opened its doors in a former firehouse in Detroit’s historic Eastern Market, one of the oldest and largest year-round markets in the U.S., in fall 2015. Wasserman Projects is guided by a spirit of collaboration, recognizing that artist projects are best realized and most meaningful when they engage a broad range of cultural organizers, community leaders, and the dynamic and diverse populations of Detroit. The organization works with artists from across disciplines and around the world, presenting exhibitions and performances that will spark a discourse on art, but also cultural, social, or political issues, which are particularly active and timely in Detroit.

Wasserman Projects three Concurrent Exhibitions run through March 23, 2019

 

David Opdyke @ The University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities

Paved With Good Intentions

For Queens-based artist David Opdyke, the manipulation of scale as a means to transform great existential threats posed by the ceaseless appetites of late capitalism conjoined with the convulsions of American politics, into something more relatable–models that collapse overwhelming chaos into tragicomic vignettes–is an essential tool to remind his audience of its place in a complex narrative of global survival. In sculpture, installation, animation and drawing, Opdyke relies upon our innate sense of childlike wonder at a miniaturized world as it transforms the relationship we have with our own full scale world, teetering on the edge of collapse and brimming with grown-up trauma. With a vision that is both epic and intimate, balancing the sublime with the grotesque, he threads the marvelousness of the microcosmic with macrocosmic socio-political concerns. Having previously worked as a scenic painter and architectural model-maker for 20 years, tweaking perception to clarify the structure of the world seems a natural fit.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), 528 vintage postcards modified with gouache and ink, full installation view

“David Opdyke: Paved With Good Intentions,” on view at The University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities in Ann Arbor, where Opdyke is the 2019 Efroymson Emerging Artist in Residence, presents a selection of eight works, including a collection of animated shorts, a two-channel video, and most notably an ambitious site-specific installation comprised of 528 postcards, titled “This Land” which gathers many of the artist’s preoccupations into a single monumental statement.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of vintage postcard modified with gouache and ink

To start with one of the 528 postcards, at the top of which is a caption: “676: –FORD ROTUNDA AND ADMINISTRATION BUILDING AND FACTORY, DETROIT, MICH.” The card, from the mid-20thcentury was printed on a stock using a process that replicated the texture of linen. Its horizontal image appears at once photographic, but also painted, since it has been hand-tinted. Upon closer inspection, the character of its printednessemerges: the image breaks down into a fuzzy pattern, accentuated by transparent colors that bleed and overlap– a patch of grass seems to become a building and vice versa.

The subject of the card is a landscape containing the Ford Rotunda, a Streamline Moderne structure originally built for the 1934 “A Century of Progress International Exposition” World’s Fair in Chicago, to serve as a pavilion for the Ford Motor Company. It was later moved to Dearborn, Michigan on the outskirts of Detroit where it housed elaborate displays celebrating industrial progress, until it was destroyed in a fire in 1962.  Additionally, the original Ford Administration Building (destroyed in 1997) is shown, the River Rouge and in the distance Ford’s massive Rouge factory. All of this is seen from a bird’s eye view as a celebration of the way in which Ford transformed the landscape of Dearborn into an Industrial metropolis that promised a better future.

However, there is a hand-painted intervention within the image that is not quite right. There are large grey pipes horizontally slicing through the view; massive pipelines dwarfing the scale of the architecture in the postcard. A pipe slams into the Administration Building causing cracks in its limestone. A pipe penetrates the roof of the rotunda. There also appears to be a flood whose crashing waves are encroaching upon the Rotunda. Where are the pipes coming from? Where are they going? From where are the flood waters emerging?

The answers appear when perception is adjusted and one steps back and finds that this is a single postcard situated within a grid of 528 postcards, assembled as “This Land.” But as the sources of the pipelines and the flooding are revealed, many more questions emerge. Stepping even further back, the individual postcards coalesce into a view of the sublime. Remarkably, although each postcard is of a unique landscape in disparate US locations, Opdyke achieves the sort of geographic sleight-of-hand normally reserved for Hollywood cinema, in which far-flung locations are collapsed into a single unified setting. This single setting resembles a Hudson River School landscape, complete with mountains and valleys, snow-covered peaks, bodies of water, a blue sky. But before Woody Guthrie can be conjured, and his refrain of this land being made for you and me, the entire picture falls apart.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of installation

 

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of installation

The grid of cards collapses as the panorama is fractured. Cards slide down the surface of the wall, with some having dropped to the floor. You can read the reverse of some of these, with the handwritten sentiments of marveling travelers frozen in time. With the breaking apart of the whole comes the need to reexamine each card closer. What was once sublime is now complicated as the mural begins to resemble Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire” (1833-1836),  a cycle of five paintings that charts the rise and fall of human civilization: “The Savage State”, “The Arcadian or Pastoral Phase”, “The Consummation of Empire”, “Destruction” and finally “Desolation.”

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of installation

 

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of installation

As with the ironic intervention seen in the depiction of the Ford Rotunda, ruin and destruction has been embellished upon most of the other postcards depicting an idealized American landscape. Aside from occasional moments of calm, on an almost biblical scale there is famine, flood, fire and pestilence. Dark grey maelstroms and tornado funnels abound, frogs rain down, locusts swarm, forests burn, crops freeze, and lightning bolts emerge from black clouds that conjure visions of the English Romantic painter John Martin (1789-1854). But this is no mere visitation by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as Opdyke reminds us that humanity is perfectly capable of delivering its own end times, daily.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of vintage postcard modified with gouache and ink

There is fracking and oil pumping and water diversion… endless pipes serve to carve up and bleed the dying landscape before us. What was once idealized in these postcards: industry, agriculture, transportation, glorious infrastructure projects advertised as the youthful ambitions of a country building itself by way of engineering the land, has soured. A dream of opportunity for constructing a utopia has morphed into the ruinous late capitalist agenda of monstrous development at any cost. Excessive waterfront high rises have been erected, massive walls are built, as human behavior results not in an organized response to tackle its own mistakes head-on, but instead leads to ineffectual political infighting and ever more chaos in the form of panic, cults, and tribal division.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of vintage postcard modified with gouache and ink

And then there are the B-Movie monsters populating this postcard landscape: giant insects, sea creatures and omnivorous plant life. Mutant spawns that could be the result of unchecked capitalism reengineering nature. B-movie horror and disaster scenarios have always been a stand-in for human irresponsibility and the monstrosities on display here are no exception. There a moments that seem to nod toward “It Came from Beneath the Sea” (1955) with a set of Ray Harryhausen tentacles overtaking a riverboat on the Mississippi. There are crumbling edifices and cataclysmic cracks  that could have been manufactured on a studio backlot for a film such as “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956). Roadways and bridges clogged with motorists attempting to escape certain doom recall the mass hysteria of Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” (2005).

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of vintage postcard modified with gouache and ink

Opdyke is establishing an allegorical narrative of ironic critique by repurposing and rupturing romantic, idealized panoramas of the past. There is a kinship with contemporaries such as Walton Ford and Alexis Rockman, who both conflate scientific illustration and heroic history painting into large scale Quasi-Romantic works ironically embedded with destabilizing minutiae. Along with Ford and Rockman, these are images that compress past, present and future into a single tragicomic narrative. That Opdyke sets all of these hand-embellished catastrophes against the miniature hand-tinted backdrop of the vintage postcard as a contemporary gesture, makes perfect sense. These are souvenirs of place, and by extension of historical memory and the subsequent abandonment of the past. They represent an ideal once embraced and long-since discarded. The postcard was once a way to communicate “I’ve seen this. I was here.” It was a forerunner to Instagram as a means to place ourselves into the world and report back home as a way of confirming our feats of travel and locating ourselves within a larger narrative of collective experience.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), installation view

Most of those who attended the opening of “Paved With Good Intentions,” crowded before “This Land” while taking iPhone photos of select views. Were they seeking out places they had been? Places where they were from? Documenting specific horrors that amused? Rarely did I see any of the viewers backing up to read the entire piece in its state of faux sublimity. All were pushed in, investigating at the closest possible viewing distance. Locating themselves in the details. Opdyke’s use of the postcard acts as a time machine for what has, is and will be seen. It is a way to implicate the viewer within the continuum of this catastrophic narrative in the Instagram era by way of asking us “You see this, don’t you?” Yes, we do.

David Opdyke @ The University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities  Through February 27, 2019

 

 

David McMillan’s Chernobyl @ OUAG

“McMillan’s Chernobyl: An Intimation of the Way the World Would End,” at the Oakland University Art Gallery

David McMillian, Pripyat Rooftop, Inkjet Print, 23 x 30″, 1994

If you are a Detroiter, it is impossible not to find an uncanny similarity between the (de)evolution of the Ukraine city of Chernobyl after the nuclear disaster there in 1986, as photographed by Scottish born, Canadian photographer David McMillan, and the photos of demolished-by-neglect Detroit over the roughly same years. Both cities became subjects for photographers, both became, are, victims of romanticizing modern urban ruins. One was an economic disaster and the other a technological accident. Both have tour agencies that offer tours of the spectacle of the, seeming oxymoronic, modern industrial city ruins. Both have artists whose photos and sculptural works have been celebrated as significant contributions to contemporary culture and art. But most significantly, both have had profoundly detrimental effects on the people who lived there, and somehow it seems like the least significant.

David McMillan, Pripyat Rooftop, Inkjet Print, 23 x 30″ 2017.”

“McMillan’s Chernobyl: An Intimation of the Way the World Would End,” currently at Oakland University Art Gallery, is the result of McMillan’s twenty-two sojourns to Chernobyl since 1994 to photograph the heart wrenching changes over two decades in the radioactive urban landscape. It amounts to lifetime commitment.  His photographs range from capturing the rapidity of nature’s (time is nature) eroding effects on the built landscape, the infrastructure that structures everyday life and the forgotten, forlorn artifacts of everyday life itself. From his first picture of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor from a rooftop in the nearby city of Prypiat one can sense absence and desolation. A complete city with proud looking apartment buildings and roads and landscaping but not a person or automobile evident, not a clothesline with a drying towel visible. A forced abandonment. Another photo taken from the same rooftop twenty-three years later palpably reveals the built world, having lain fallow for over thirty years, being swallowed and digested by nature.

David McMillan, Hotel Room, Inkjet Print, 23 x 30, 1996.

McMillan’s are not romantic landscapes photos that aestheticize the ruins but revelational: he photographs the same site periodically to show change.  At least eight sites in the exhibition were photographed periodically to show the invasive dynamics of nature. Aside from the photo of Chernobyl from the rooftop, dramatic changes can be seen in a number of intimate spaces. In 1996 he photographed a hotel room with an elm sapling growing in the middle of the room surrounded by small plants including a couple of ferns. Eight years later he photographed it again, revealing multiple saplings thriving in the small room. Photographed again nine year later, the sapling has become a full-fledged tree with large roots reaching out across the room. Meanwhile the atmosphere (fluctuating hot and freezing, humid and dry air) has stripped the walls of paint and plaster, leaving the room an inhospitable ruin.

David McMillan, Portrait of Lenin, Inkjet Print, 25 x32, 1997.

McMillan isn’t without appreciation for the beauty of the derelict ruin and the well composed image. “Portrait of Lenin” is a beautifully decomposing school room with gorgeous scabs of paint peeling off the wall, children’s chairs upended and strewn around the room, one chair supporting a broken, abandoned doll, all watched over by a portrait of Soviet Russia’s famed leader Vladimir Lenin that sits on the floor, leaning against the wall. A subtle slant of light illuminates the room and particularly Lenin’s eye and a dark doorway in the back corner of the room balances the image.

David McMillan, Photo Studio, Inkjet Print 30 x 38″, 2016.

There are a number of interior photographs, especially in the kindergarten rooms, that in their fragmented, disintegrating state, appear as constructed collages and, pardon the painting model, even abstract paintings. In a recent visit, he photographed a “Photo Studio, 2016” with a ream of moss covered photo paper, strewn and evolving toward becoming dirt. “Floor with Slippers, 2006,” while beautiful with its toxic looking pigments and randomly dispersed shoes, has the terrifying intimation of the wearers of those various shoes having been vaporized. While they might suggest a romantic indulgence with ruins, McMillan is much more interested in exploring the processes and results of decay, its inevitability everywhere.

David McMillian, Floor with Slipper, Inkjet Print, 38 x 48″ 2006.

Yet we must abide by McMillan’s visual essay here and realize that there is a persistent optimism throughout. Everywhere we look there is a process of rebirth. McMillan focuses his camera on the ironic dispersal of berries, all kinds of fruits of bushes, as a counterpoint to decay. Rose hips (the fruit of rose bushes), blackberries, rowanberries, Mountain Ash berries, Wolfeberries, all photographed as if in competition with the chaos and the democracy of entropy.

Ironies and wry surprises abound everywhere you go in in McMillan’s Chernobyl. Photographed in 2006, “Trees and Fence” sees a galvanized fence enmeshed in a thicket of tree branches and shrubs making the fence a visual redundancy.  “Blue Slide, 2009” reveals a children’s playground slide in the middle of an overgrown area, its graceful arc mimicking the desperate new growth of neighboring trees preventing any kind of play.

McMillan’s quiet, somber meditation on the phenomenon of nuclear disaster in Chernobyl is then always close to emotional grief as well as a bemused recognition of the dynamic resolution that is nature. It seems that in the course of twenty-two visits he himself evolved toward this passive acceptance and understanding of decay and rebirth. The baroque image “Geometry Classroom, 2015” with its wire models of geometric forms and it images of famed mathematicians, such as Sophie Germain and Johannes Kepler, framed by a lyrical geometric bookcase, is the arch commentary on human endeavor. Amidst the best laid plans of geometricians, the corrosive power of time has turned the geometry classroom into a geometric molecular nightmare.

David McMillan, Geometry Classroom, Inkjet Print, 28 x 42″ 2015.

Curated by Oakland University professor of art history, Claude Baillargeon, in conjunction with the publication of McMillan’s monographGrowth and Decay: Prypiat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Steidl, 2018).

“McMillan’s Chernobyl” will run through March 31, 2019 at Oakland University Art Gallery

Art in the Age of the Internet @ UMMA

University of Michigan Museum of Art brings the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art exhibition to its audience.

Penelope Umbrico, 33,930,694 Suns from Flickr (Partial) 9/05/17, 2006-ongoing, chromogenic machine prints. Courtesy of the artist. ©Penelope Umbrico.

In 1969, the United States Department of Defense harnessed groundbreaking technology to relay a message from a computer at UCLA to a computer at Stanford University; it simply read “Login,” but even that was enough to overload and crash the system.  For twenty more years, rudimentary Internet technology remained exclusively in the hands of scientists and government agencies until the creation of the World Wide Web in 1989, which radically democratized the Internet, making it accessible, comprehensible, and useable to anyone. It also irrevocably changed the way we experience the world.  Responding to the thirtieth anniversary of the World Wide Web, the University of Michigan is hosting “Art in the Age of the Internet,” a massive multimedia show which, like the Internet itself, is visually eclectic, immersive, and loud.

Three years in the making, this show first launched in 2018 at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, garnering substantial critical acclaim.  As one would expect given the subject, the show liberally makes use of video-art displayed on screens and monitors, but it also includes media ranging from painting, drawing, and photography to emerging technologies such as 3D printing.  The forty works that comprise the show are categorized in five sections: Networks of Circulation, Hybrid Bodies, Virtual Worlds, States of Surveillance, and Performing the Self.  Together they form an impressive ensemble of work by both emerging and established artists, including a few surprise-appearances by artists one might not immediately associate with the Internet, such as Cindy Sherman, but whose inclusion in the show makes perfect sense.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #463, 2007—08. Cindy Sherman, Chromogenic color print. Collection of John and Amy Phelan, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. © Cindy Sherman

Many works explore the increasingly reality-altering nature of the Web.  A large photograph of the perennially shape-shifting Cindy Sherman seems an apt metaphor for the way many of us might use social media to fabricate idealized narratives about our better selves via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat (pick your platform) at the expense of authenticity.  Commenting on this photograph of women at a social gathering of some kind, Sherman states that the image “was inspired by the idea of party photos seen so often where people, desperate to show off their status and connections, excitedly pose have their picture taken with larger-than-life-sized smiles and personalities.”  The photograph was taken in 2007, the infant years of social-media, but Sherman’s collective body of work, decades in the making,  prophetically anticipates the way many of us (including presidents and world leaders) painstakingly curate our own images, ideas, and personalities on social media as we present our digital personas to the digital world.

An entirely different commentary on the blurring of digital and actual realities comes from Harun Farocki’s two-channel video Serious Games IV: A Sun with No Shadow, which explores how the US military uses virtual reality technology to prepare soldiers for combat and to treat soldiers who experience post-traumatic stress disorder.  One screen shows soldiers interacting with the technology as another screen relays to us the same simulated combat scenarios the soldiers see.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Surface Tension”, 2007. ”Trackers”, La Gaïté Lyrique, Paris, 2011. Photo by: Maxime Dufour

The most compelling works in the exhibition are those that address government surveillance technologies; the disclosures in 2013 by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden lend these works considerable weight.  Rafael Lozanno-Hemmer’s Surface Tension is a deceptively playful interactive screen with an eyeball that follows viewers who come within a certain distance; one can’t resist the game of pacing back and forth in front of it, testing its speed and unerring accuracy.  But to work, this installation applies the same military camera used by American smart bombs to pinpoint targets during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The original iteration of this work was created in 1992, well before the creation of the NSA and the “surveillance state” as it exists today.

Trevor Paglen, “Autonomy Cube”, 2015. Plexiglas box with computer components. (MP# TP—95). Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. @ Trevor Paglen

With just under a billion users, more people access the Internet in China than in any other country, but users in China can’t access sites like Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, the New York Times, or thousands of other websites.  Addressing the Great Firewall of China, the country’s censorious implementation of Internet restrictions, artist and activist Xu Wenkai’s Gfwlist is a black, rectilinear monolith which, for the duration of the exhibition, will print out, in encrypted form, a lengthy sheet of  Web addresses blocked by the Chinese government.  In addition to raising awareness of the problem, the artist’s use of encryption suggests a potential way for activists to hack their way towards a solution.  On a similar note, American artist Trevor Paglen’s Autonomity Cube, straddling the boundary between sculpture, technology, and activism, is a functional Wi-fi hub that anonymizes user Internet activity and hides it from surveillance systems.  Though perhaps this work bends more toward pure technology than traditional art, it admittedly recalls some of the work of Bauhaus superstar Maholy Nagy.

Art in the Age of the Internet certainly doesn’t dispiritingly present the Internet as a negative phenomenon, inevitably ushering in a Big Brother State.  Today, anyone with an I-Phone is a potential news-reporter, and social media has been the impetus that has propelled movements ranging from the Arab Spring to #blm.  Driving the point home, a wall of monitors reminiscent of the electronic sculptures of Nam Jun Paik relays algorithmically-sourced footage from the Internet showing police brutality against people of color.  On the one hand, it champions the Internet as a medium that exposes and heightens awareness of the problem, though it also painfully suggests that things haven’t changed much during the interval between the pre-social-media days of Rodney King in 1991 and Tamir Rice in 2014.

A show like this could easily veer toward envisioning a bleakly Orwellian vision of the future. But Art in the Age of the Internet wisely refrains from suggesting that the Internet has been bad for humanity– to do so would be equivalent to railing against the printing press on the grounds that there’s been much bad literature.  After all, while the term “fake news” has only recently gained currency in modern political discourse, propelled largely by the ease with which (dis)information transmits over the Internet, readers can easily find rollickingly laughable gaffs without much difficulty in the Historiesof Herodotus and Pliny the Elder.   Rather, this exhibition dispassionately presents the Internet as an irrevocable facet of modern life, and, for better or for worse, the medium though which we increasingly look, learn, love, and live.

 

Art in the Age of the Internet is currently on exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through April 17, 2019

Bill Schwab @ Halsted Gallery

Detroit Photographer has a Survey Exhibition of Work at the Halsted Gallery

Installation, Bill Schwab talking at open, 2018

Photography celebrates its 180th anniversary in 2019. This art form has fascinated us from its early beginnings with its ability to record time and aide our memories of people, places and objects. Photographs are magical things, credited with the power to steal a person’s shadow and provide a mysterious interaction of silver and salt akin to alchemy. That was pre-digital era, of course.

If you are anywhere near my age (and studied art in the 1960s) you may have taken a class in photography in your college years. You may have purchased a Pentax, Cannon, or Nikon 35-millimeter single lens reflex (SLR) camera and exposed a series of rectangles that captured an image of your family, friends and possibly your pet. After loading the camera and recording images, you rolled your black-and-white Tri-X film back into its cannister, removed it in a darkroom under a mysterious red light, and developed the celluloid impressions, each producing a negative image. The negative was then placed into a photo enlarger which projected a lit image onto photo sensitive paper, usually Kodak or Afga, creating a sensation that when wiggled around in a developing solution, magically forms an image right before your eyes. Life’s moment became concentrated, condensed and captured in a split second of time.

Bill Schwab, Metropolitan, Gum over Platinum Print, Detroit 2012

The Halsted Gallery was the only photo gallery in the Detroit metro area back in the early 1970s and, as part of the gallery archive, there are letters from photographers whom Tom Halsted represented, including: Henri Cartier Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, and Imogen Cunningham to name only a few. In the year 2000, the Halsted Gallery had an opening for Bill Schwab, who was then a young and emerging photographer. The exhibit included small prints made from long exposures in the early morning fog of Belle Isle, Detroit. I bought his small, beautiful 36-page book and a limited-edition signed print.

Bill Schwab, House on Dearborn Street, 30 x 40″ Pigment Ink print, 2016

Fast forward to December 1, 2018, where the Halsted Gallery, now under the ownership of Wendy Halsted Beard, has reopened in a new location and mounted an exhibition, Relative Importance, of Bill Schwab’s photography that covers his work for the past two decades, including  his more recent digital, aerial and wet plate collodion photographs. As professional and artistic photography still exists in this world of “everyone is a photographer,” Bill Schwab has endured with a prodigious reputation that many admire and he rightly deserves. Just because we all have smart phone cameras doesn’t mean we can compose, acutely observe and most importantly understand light. Circumstantial light considers not only all the properties and behaviors of natural light, but also how that light interacts with the objects around (you), transforming those objects into light-shaping tools.

Bill Schwab, Van Road Stars, 30 x 40″, Pigment Ink print, 2017

The first digital camera was created by Steven Sasson of Eastman Kodak in 1975, but the first consumer products didn’t arrive until the late 1980s and early 1990s. It wasn’t until 2010 that digital cameras were integrated into smart phones and by 2003, digital cameras out-sold film cameras. According to Info Trends, 1.2 trillion photos were taken in 2017. The technological change has had a tremendous effect on photography and photographers, but that is not to say it hasn’t been a natural advancement of capturing an image. Schwab is a good example of how photographers have embraced the new technology and used its tools as leverage to produce new kinds work. The digital image Van Road Stars, is a good example of how the manipulation of light and exposure can produce a rather engaging image, in part due to scale and incredible detail.

Bill Schawb, Mack at Lennox, Pigmented Ink Print, Detroit, 2016

What makes this Mack at Lennox image interesting has nothing to do with the recording device, but rather the sensibility to light, color and thought. You end up asking yourself how odd is that? Was it an ice cream stand or a dairy shop?  But the cow has horns making it either a he, or a she. Formal in its composition, he makes the print large, 30 x 40 inches, which adds to its strength as a photograph. And then there is the light. Where is the light source coming from?  Did he set a light up high against the darkened sky? These considerations are what set an artist apart from your average snapshot taker..

Bill Schwab, Five Trees in a Field, Pigment Ink Print, Detroit, 2016

Bill Schwab was early to take an interest in drone technology, something that most professional photographers now consider a necessary tool.  He has a series called the Human Stain, largely made up of a decade of images taken of crumbling farm houses in rural areas, but this aerial image is of five trees with low light shadows and tractor trails that become the marks of visual artists with respect to placement and composition.  It provides the viewer with a different point of view of the landscape, something that painters have been doing for hundreds of years.

Bill Schwab, Tidal Flooding – Hofn, Silver Gelatin Print, Iceland, 2015

Photography captures reality in distinct ways that were rarely available to painters.  There once was debate over whether or not photography is fine art?  I am not sure when that got answered, but the answer is clear: yes and no. If you’re photographing a still life for a garden magazine or a car for a showroom brochure, it is commercial photography.  But when you are making abstractions, as Andre Kertesz or Ernst Haas did, or capturing precious moments in time based on light and composition as Henri Bresson did, it is fine art.  The difference might be analogous to the difference between illustration and painting, although in the case of Norman Rockwell, the debate drags on, at least in some critics’ minds.

Bill Schwab, Rouge Steel, Silver Gelatin Print, 1994

Beginning at an early age, Bill Schwab developed an interest in photography with his Kodak Brownie camera and a home darkroom kit he got from his father as a gift.  Like they say, give a person a fish and it’s a meal for that day, teach him how to fish, and it’s a lifetime of meals. Photography is Bill Schwab’s life, and great photography is about the depth of feeling, not the depth of field.

Bill Schwab earned his B.F.A in photography from Central Michigan University and worked for a short while in NYC assisting commercial photographer Alen MacWeeney before traveling the world as a commercial photographer.  He has taken students of photography on workshops to Iceland, founded the Northern Light Press and coordinates the Photostock Festival yearly each June, changing and influencing photographers in his path. He has published four books on his photography, and his work is part of many museum, corporate and personal collections.

Bill Schwab, Relative Importance, at the Halsted Gallery runs through   January 30, 2019