Road Trip @ Detroit Institute of Arts

Road Trip! Detroit Institute of Arts presents “The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip.”

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The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) opened a photography exhibition on June 17, 2016; The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip, sponsored by Aperture Foundation, New York, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Road trips are a tradition in America and can clearly reveal what is unique about this country’s culture,” said Salvador Salort-Pons, DIA director. “Photographers traveling through the United States have defined, critiqued and celebrated America.”

Truer words were never spoken. In my sophomore year of college while studying art and playing trumpet, I read On The Road by Jack Kerouac. I knew that after reading the novel, I had to take a road trip. That next summer I took my VW Beetle across the country to California and ended up in San Francisco’s North Beach listening to Grace Slick and The Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore. Just by chance, I bought a copy of The Americans, the now famous book by Robert Frank, at the City Lights Book Store. Back then, the City of San Francisco offered free darkroom facilities to its city folk. I had brought my used 35 mm Nikkormat, with a 50mm lens and a carton of Tri-X film, so all I needed to do was buy a box of Agfa paper and start printing images from the trip. What a deal! Much of my experience that summer resonated as I browsed The Open Road.

R.Frank Gratiot Drive IN

Robert Frank, Drive-In Movie, Detroit, 1955 (Printed 1978) Gelatin Silver Print, Courtesy of the DIA

 

Robert Frank emigrated from Switzerland to New York City in 1947, and eventually got work as a photo assistant at the fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazaar. After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955, he embarked on a two-year trip across America and captured 28,000 images with his Leica 35mm rangefinder. Detroit was one of his longer stops, and here, Drive-In Movie, Detroit 1955, is one of sixty black & white images taken during his stay. This photograph, owned by the DIA, cements in time the moment, the light, the automobiles and the movie screen images that are so distinctly American. For this review, I pulled out my copy of The Americans, where Kerouac begins his introduction, “That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a near-by funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in his tremendous photographs…”

Winogand Photo

Gary Winogrand, Dealey Plaza, Dallas 1964

Gary Winogrand (1928-1984) was born in the Bronx, New York, and studied painting at City College of New York. Soon after, he studied photography with Alex Brodovich at the New School for Social Research and was commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar where he linked up with the American Society of Magazine Photographers. This photo, shot in Dallas, Texas, was part of a road trip that took him to fourteen states, where he shot 520 rolls of film. My favorite image is his untitled photo taken at a New York Thanksgiving Parade that captures a male figure high in the air in the middle of a flip off of a trampoline that was on top of a rolling float. Winogrand taught at Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts, both in New York City. His work is a rendering of a classic street photographer, out of the tradition of Robert Doisneau, Ruth Orkin, and others.

Shinya Fujiwara

Shinya Fujiwara,Untitled, from the series American Rouleete, 1988 Courtesy of the Artist

This photographer, Shinya Fujiwara, a native of Japan, traveled across the United States for seven months in a motor home, seeking images that were peculiar to his sensibility. A leading Japanese photographer born in the 1940s, he has spent most of his adult life exploring different continents. He brought his life in another country and cultural to his experience on the road. Fujiwara has gone on to influence travelogues and books, both non-fiction, and fiction.

Lee Friedlander

Lee Friedlander, Dealey Plaza, Gelatin Silver Print, 1964, Dallas, TX,

Lee Friedlander, born in 1934, began photographing the American social landscape in 1948. This photograph, New Orleans 1969, reminds me of his 2008 exhibition, America by Car, at the Fraenkel Gallery. It does so, because he used the rear view mirror on his car on many occasions, as a framing device, providing the viewer with a front and rear view of his subject. Friedlander was the recipient of the prestigious Hasselblad Award as well as the subject of a major traveling retrospective and catalog organized by the Museum of Modern Art. In 2010, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, exhibited the entirety of his body of work, America by Car.

Joel Sterneld

Joel Sternfeld, McLean, Virginia, December 1978

The America photographer, Joel Sternfeld, was born in 1944, received his BA from Dartmouth College and taught photography at Sarah Lawrence College. Known for his large format color photography, Sternfeld was influenced by color theory by Josef Albers. Here in Mclean, Virginia, December 1978, one of his most famous images, he depicts a fireman shopping for a pumpkin as a house burns in the background. The pumpkins’ vibrant oranges match the autumnal colors of the countryside, and ironically, the fire’s flames. The image is peculiar because the fireman appears to be casually browsing as the flames roar.

U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973

Stephen Shore“U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973,” Courtesy of the artist and 303 Gallery, New York

The billboard along a highway with its copy blocked out might just be the surface in transition, waiting for its next advertisement. For Steven Shore, it’s a landscape set against a landscape where he finds art along the road. Stephen Shore’s photographs are attentive to ordinary scenes of daily experience, yet through color and composition Shore transforms the mundane into subjects of thoughtful meditative. He was the first living photographer to have a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York since Alfred Stieglitz, forty years earlier.

image-436Claire, 8th Ward, Justine Kurland, 2012

Justine Kurland – Claire, 8th Ward, 2012

One of the younger photographers in this Open Road exhibition, Justine Kurland, was born in Warsaw, New York in 1969 and studied photography at Yale University, graduating with her MFA in 1998. She was the only photographer who attended the opening at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where she appeared on a panel after the opening. There she described her years on the road, photographing images in all part of the United States, often with her husband and young child. Her photography is comprised of large-scale C-prints, mostly of rural landscapes made up of utopias or pre-industrial worlds. Many of her images capture cars, or parts of them, with anonymous auto-mechanics. She described in her talk the trials and tribulations of raising a family while traveling with the sole purpose of capturing this kind of post-apocalyptic imagery. She gained popularity with her work in the group show, Another Girl, Another Planet, at the Lawrence Rubin-Greenberg Van Doren, in Manhattan 1999, which was reviewed in the New York Times by Ken Johnson.

On The Road: Photography and the American Road Trip is a great survey of American photographers who traveled the country in search of moments in time, capturing oddities in the American culture with an eye on composition, color and light. It is good to know and remember that a revolution has taken place in photography, largely due to the technology that has given every smart-phone user a camera. The impact that the digital revolution has had on producing images is immeasurable. Many professional photographers have lost their employment to mammoth stock photo collections, like Getty Images, and with the development of the Internet, the delivery of imagery has made certain aspects of the profession, obsolete. People will say, “Today, everyone is a photographer.” An art director sends the intern out to get a shot with their cell phone.

But the truth is that once this settles down, photography by professionals will rise again, and although everyone will still be able to take a snapshot, true artistic composition will be an important commodity. Large format cameras and a variety of lenses with specific focal lengths will become unique and powerful. Let’s not forget that photography is an art, and this exhibition, On the Road, serves as an example of how artists use their cameras to capture and create amazing images.

Museum Hours and Admission

9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Tuesday–Thursday,

9 a.m. – 10 p.m. Friday,

10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

General admission (excludes ticketed exhibitions) is free for Wayne, Oakland and Macomb county residents and DIA members.

For all others, $12.50 for adults, $8 for seniors ages 62+, $6 for ages 6–17.

For membership information, call 313‐833‐7971.

 

 

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

BBAC Install

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

Dance! @ The Detroit Institute of the Arts

 DIA Presents a Multimedia Exhibition of Ninety works of American Art 1830-1960

How long have people been dancing? Probably longer than they were playing with fire. Nureyev captured the hearts of millions of ordinary people, while Baryshnikov stunned the critics and Martha Graham created the full-codified modern dance with her deviation from classical ballet.

Salvador at Podium Dance 3.2016

Director Salvador Salut-Pons at Podium introducing the Dance! 1830 – 1960 exhibition

 Coming off a very successful 30 Americans exhibition, Salvador Salort-Pons took the podium to introduce the new exhibition Dance! American Art 1830-1960, at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Opening March 29, 2016 the multimedia exhibition surveys the history of Dance in America as seen through the eyes of American Artists.

“This is the first major exhibition to explore visual art related to American dance. Dance has such a rich history and has touched all segments of American society,” said Salvador Salort-Pons, DIA director. “This exhibition is not only about the representation of the art of dance, it explores how artists were inspired by how Americans move, how they interacted with each other and experienced the rhythm of music.”

It was clear from her remarks at the media preview that curator Jane Dini had been working on this exhibition since her time spent working at the DIA, and that this exhibition had been in development over the past five years. In Dance!, Ms. Dini has been able to create her life’s dream.

“In addition to the outstanding works of art, it was important for me to have the voice and expertise of dancers within the exhibition itself,” said Jane Dini, now associate curator of American Painting and Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and curator of the exhibition. “They help illustrate how dance as an artistic form had an enormous impact on the fine arts, especially painting and sculpture.”

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Video of Dancers – One of several through out the exhibition

 I never danced, but my parents were both professional dancers, which gave me some built-in personal interest. My parents were both recruited by a New York dance company in the mid-1930’s. In addition, in the 1980’s, I facilitated an artist-in-residency program in the Utica Schools, where we brought the Detroit City Dance Company, under the direction of Carole Morrisseau, into our forty schools over the period of a school year. Getting to know the day-to-day lives of dancers is something that stayed with me. I learned they lived in a physical world and often from moment to moment. The dancers had a unique devotion to their bodies, especially their ankles and feet.

Ms. Morrisseau is now a visual artist practicing in Detroit, and I caught up with her at the Scarab Club, “The concept of the current exhibit at the DIA is a credible one and exceptional in its undertaking. I believe there is a very strong relationship between the visual and performing arts. Hopefully this exhibit will expand the public’s view of the art of dance and visual art.” Carole Morrissieau will exhibit her visual artwork opening this month at the Scarab Club.

Arthur B. Davies

Arthur Bowen Davies, 1862 – 1928, Dances, 1915

Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), often called an Ashcan painter, was an avant-garde American artist who spanned the boundaries between the 19th-century romantic tradition and early twentieth-century modernism in the United States. He was born in Utica, New York and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1878 and at the Art Students League in New York in 1887. His idyllic figurative pastorals are often said to harken back to Botticelli. Davies supported the new abstract movement and participated in the early formation of MoMA in New York City. His work was collected ahead of its time by the Phillips Collection. In Dances, 1915, Davies used faceted planes of color to define the moving figures, resulting in a pattern of color evoking a dance celebration.

Eastman Johnson Negro Life at the South

Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South 1859, Oil on Canvas

Genre painter Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) had a turning point in 1859 with the exhibition in New York of his Negro Life in the South. His ambiguous picture of the leisure activities of a group of slaves was a sensation at a time when the topic of slavery was being universally debated. In the painting, a mother encourages her son to dance to the music of a banjo player. Born in Maine, Eastman Johnson was educated in Europe, where he was inspired by the work of Dutch Masters. He is best known for his realistic portraiture and as a co-founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Henry Joseph Sharp, The Harvest Dance 1894

Henry Joseph Sharp, The Harvest Dance 1894, Oil on Canvas

Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953) was an American painter best known for his work painting Native Americans. Sharp was born in Bridgeport, Ohio to Irish immigrant parents and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts at Antwerp. Sharp’s first trip to the West was in 1883 at age 24. He visited pueblos in New Mexico, Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Tucson. In his work, Harvest Dance, Sharp illustrates a strong skill set for painting the figure and depicting the sunlight on his subjects. Sharp went on to become one of the six founding members of the Taos Society of Artists.

Sargent Johnson Dance Hall Study

Sargent Claude Johnson, Dance Hall Study, 1935, Tempera, Watercolor, and Graphic on Illustration Board.

Born in Boston on October 7, 1887, Sargent Johnson was the third of six children of Anderson and Lizzie Jackson Johnson. Anderson Johnson was of Swedish ancestry, and his wife was Cherokee and African American. As a member of the bohemian San Francisco Bay community and influenced by the New Negro Movement, Sargent Johnson’s early work focused on racial identity. Johnson’s art ranged from African American masks to producing paintings of local folks and creating small, figurative sculptures. Dance Hall, a study in watercolor and graphite, was a study for the San Francisco Housing Authority mural.

Robert Henri Salome Dancer

Robert Henri, Salome Dancer, 1909, Oil on Canvas

Robert Henri (1865 – 1925) was a leading figure in the Ashcan School of American realism who helped organize a group known as “The Eight.” Henri studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and under Thomas Anshutz, a protégé of Thomas Eakins. Art critic Robert Hughes declared that, “Henri wanted art to be akin to journalism. He wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter, as real a human product as sweat, carrying the unsuppressed smell of human life.” When Henri painted the dancer in the role of Salome, a seductress from the New Testament, in 1909, it was rejected by the National Academy because the exposed leg was considered too controversial by the fine arts world. Robert Henri was a popular and influential teacher at the Art Students League of New York.

Paul ManshipDancer & Gaselle

Paul Manship, Dancer & Gasell, Bronze, 1916

Paul Manship (1885 – 1966) was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and began his art studies at the St. Paul School of Art in Minnesota. From there he moved to Philadelphia and continued his education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. At one time the country’s most famous exponent of Art Deco, he embraced archaic vocabularies of Greek, Roman and Indian art to create decorative, stylized, Neoclassical works. The statue in the fountain in New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza, Prometheus (1933), is one of his most famous works. The bronze Dancer and Gazelles, was completed in 1916 and won the National Academy prize in 1917. The tension in the small areas between the figures emphasizes the dancers’ gestures, which command the gazelles’ movements.

Dance Diagram A Wharhol

Andy Wharhol, Dance Diagram, 1962, Casein and Graphite on Linen

Andy Warhol (1927 -1987) a leading American Artist who ushered in the Pop Art movement, began to make paintings of iconic American objects such as dollar bills, mushroom clouds, electric chairs, and the most famous Campbell’s Soup can. The New York opening at the Stable Gallery on November 6, 1962, was Warhol’s first one-man show and also where he first debuted Dance Diagram. It was presented in a series featuring six additional Dance Diagrams with the source material taken from the Dance Guild’s 1956 book Fox Trot Made Easy. It shows Warhol’s interest in selecting objects from American culture as subjects for his artwork.

Biba Bell, a Detroiter who recently completed her PhD in performance studies at N.Y.U., says, “The ways that dance is taken up symbolically within visual art is so interesting! I’m imagining that each piece produces these figures and forms in diverse and unique ways, but there is something about the dancer, the body that is dancing, filled with movement and the moment and a kind of excess of life/ liveliness that is astounding and so important when depicting any culture.”

If you’re not a dance aficionado, Dance! American Art 1830 -1960 at the DIA might spark your interest, and while you’re in New York City, get tickets to see An American in Paris, by the Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon who has created a critical and commercial success breaking new ground by bringing ballet to Broadway set to the music of the Gershwins.

I recall, my father watching black & white films of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers for hours, and he tap-danced into his eighties. When I was very young, attending a family wedding, my parents did something rare; They danced. Everyone gathered around to watch them exhibit their talents publicly for maybe the last time. I was so very proud.

The Detroit Institute of Arts deserves credit for this curatorial creation of its own that will travel to the Denver Art Museum, July 10 – October 2, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, October 22, 2016 – January 16, 2017.

Exhibition tickets are $14 for adults, $10 for Wayne, Oakland and Macomb county residents, $7 for ages 6–17, $5 for Wayne, Oakland and Macomb county residents ages 6–17, and free for DIA members. Admission is free every Friday. School groups need to register in advance. Tickets at dia.org or 313-833-4005

 

“Doubly So” @ CCS Center Galleries

Duplicity from Without and Within: Molly Soda, Sheida Soleimani, Sofia Szamosi, and Dessislava Terzieva

Image 1 Installation Shot Doubly So

Installation Image – “Doubly So” All Images Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

“Doubly So,” an exhibition conceived and curated by Samantha ‘Banks’ Schefman of Playground Detroit, that opened last Friday at Center Galleries at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, features four up and coming artists exploring identity within social media from a (surprisingly illusive) outside perspective. The four engage with what builds an identity in the age of social media which, essentially, comprises being constantly seen, and our conflicted desires both for privacy (another increasingly illusive phenomenon) and for maximum exposure. That frisson between a desire for and retreat from exposure is grappled with most tellingly in the work of two of the artists, Molly Soda, and Sofia Szamosi. Both primarily feature their own faces and bodies in their work in “Doubly So,” and the impression is that they are objectifying themselves in an aim to draw discourse of the exhibitionism of the female body in popular culture back into the hands of women.

Image 2 Molly Soda Mary Kate 2015 Printed Fleece Blanket 60 in x 50 in

Molly Soda – Mary Kate 2015 – Printed Fleece Blanket 60 in x 50″

This practice has been pretty widespread in women’s art since the 1970’s (Szamosi’s archive of selfies strongly reference Hannah Wilke’s photographic self-portraits in content and form, and her film “Tarred and Feathered” channels the visceral imagery of the Abjectionist movement.)

Image 3 Sofia Szamosi Tarred and Feathered 2015 Digital Print with frame 31 in x 22 in

Sofia Szamosi – Tarred and Feathered – 2015 Digital Print with frame 31 in x 22″

In “Doubly So,” Szamosi’s identity unpacking feels a bit outdated at first look- the knee-jerk response is that this argument has already been made, again and again, and is past its vital currency. However, it still possesses the power to unsettle. Moving along Szamosi’s selfie chronology, taken in photo booths between 2005 and 2015, I couldn’t tell whether I was tired of seeing her body or jealous of its beauty. This uncertain response that wells up in me pretty much every time I am confronted with such work is a clue that our relationship with depictions of the female body, even by other females, is far from liberated or resolved.

Image 4 Sofia Szamosi 10 Years of Photobooth Self Portraits detail 2005 to 2015 194 original photo booth strips 8 in x 23 ft

Sofia Szamosi – 10 Years of Photobooth Self Portraits detail 2005 to 2015 194 original photo booth strips 8 in x 23 ft

Molly Soda has gained critical acclaim for her work in and about social media, and she plays with its tropes really cleverly. Her website (mollysoda.biz) is hilarious- for a moment you truly fear you’ve stumbled onto a bit of porn-saturated malware that is going to eat your computer alive, tiny gyrating women and pixilated graphics abounding. Her work in “Doubly So” follows Szamosi’s in winking exhibitionism that seeks to subvert assumptions about the exposure of women in social media. Soda poses as various celebrities caught in paparazzi shots as they fill parking meters, climb out of cars, pause for an ill-fated moment of unselfconsciousness while wading in the ocean.

Image 5 Molly Soda Selena 2016 Printed Fleece Blanket 60 in x 50 in

Molly Soda – Selena 2016 – Printed Fleece Blanket 60 in x 50″

There is an interesting commentary here on the scorn heaped upon these women for daring to appear in public in an un-camera-ready state. The large-scale portraits are printed on fleece blankets in a nod to commemorative kitsch- and perhaps a suggestion that we draw comfort from the exposed humanity of these pop culture goddesses. But should we? Are these images not as objectifying and offensive as the idealized, photo shopped guises we are used to seeing celebrities in? Soda’s work in “Doubly So” left me with a grim suspicion that autonomy of image in social media still alludes women, and it’s a problem we are going to have to spend a few more decades thinking our way around.

Soleimani and Terzieva, by contrast, do not place their likenesses into their work in “Doubly So,” which creates a wholly different dialog with identity’s plight in social media. So much of our engagement with the online world revolves around the persona we create for ourselves there, it’s easy to forget what that world is doing outside of our identity-building enterprise, and how the signals we receive (and do not receive) from it are informing or misleading us. Terzieva’s sprawling installation of twining USB cords, false flowers, and technological baubles in various states of decay comments on the mounds of obsolescence we leave in our wake in our hunger for ever swifter, sexier, newer conduits. Her sculptures of moss-coated smartphones embedded in piles of organic material are beautiful, and could have stood on their own without the prefabricated environment installed around them, which becomes a bit distracting. Terzieva’s best sculptures have old-school magnifying glasses affixed to them, through which one sees these objects blown up into delicate terrarium-like landscapes, in which the cell phone becomes strangely monolithic, or dissolves altogether into glittering shells and pebbles.

Image 6 Dessi Terzieva Nostalgia Feels Like Deja Vu 2016 Acrylic Concrete Seaweed Wax Cell Phone Battery iPhone 8 x 7 x 3 in

Dessi Terzieva – Nostalgia Feels Like Deja Vu – 2016 Acrylic Concrete Seaweed Wax Cell Phone Battery iPhone 8 x 7 x 3″

Soleimani’s work, bright and bubbly though its surfaces are, instantly grounds this digital universe in the grimmest of real calamities. Her series of archival pigment prints, and their accompanying soft sculptures, present portraits of Iranian women who have been publicly executed for what the governing regime in Iran defines as crimes, such as defending themselves from rape. Voices of dissent under a totalitarian government are rapidly squelched- the freedom with which we share our political beliefs on Facebook, and other social media is as much taken for granted in the United States as is the objectification of women’s bodies for worship, derision, or personal affirmation. Soleimani’s work achieves ever refining tension between sensual beauty and hard-hitting political content- her elaborate collages juxtapose brilliant colors and moist glittering surfaces with dismembered body parts and visual fever dream montages of oppression, control, rebellion, and terror. Her work in “Doubly So” tones things down a bit formally, maintaining the bright palette but letting the subjects of her portraits engage the viewer more quietly and directly, with stunned but defiant gazes and wringing, desperate hands.

Image 7 Sheida Soleimani Delara 2015 Soft Sculpture

Sheida Soleimani – Delara 2015 Soft Sculpture

 

Image 8 Sheida Soleimani Sakineh 2015 Archival pigment print with frame 41 in x 28 in

Sheida Soleimani Sakineh 2015 Archival pigment print with frame 41 in x 28 in

Soleimani’s soft sculpture portraits of these doomed women call to mind a passage from Lewis H. Lapham’s preamble essay to the Spring 2016 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, the theme of which is “Disaster.” “…( a joint venture of money and machine), the danse macabre surrounding us onscreen reduces human beings to things- broken toys, smashed dollhouse furniture… Too far removed or arriving too late on the scene, the camera doesn’t grasp the human response in the eye of the storm.” The doll-like construction of Soleimani’s sculptures evokes the loss in translation of the real horror of these women’s lives and deaths, glimpsed briefly via digital stream. As the press release for “Doubly So” is careful to note, “Though it has been an ongoing political struggle for American women to fight for gender justice and equality, it pales in comparison to the totalitarian government of Iran that will sentence one to death for speaking up against them on such social media streams as Facebook.” “Doubly So” attempts to find common ground between the struggle for autonomous identity faced by American women and the daily life-and-death struggle Iranian women must undergo, yet, as the press release cannot help but state, the former struggle simply pales when juxtaposed with the latter.

“Doubly So” is on display at Center Galleries at The College for Creative Studies March 19 through April 23, 2016