Charles White @ MoMA, NYC

Charles White: A Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY

Charles White (American, 1918–1979). General Moses (Harriet Tubman). 1965. Ink on paper, 47 × 68″ (119.4 × 172.7 cm). Private collection. © The Charles White Archives. Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

If there’s a fearsome female gaze that can make Manet’s icy Olympia seem coy and puerile by comparison, it’s that of the determined Harriet Tubman, rendered in ink by Charles White during the height of the Civil Rights movement.  Famous for liberating hundreds of slaves during the Civil War, here she becomes a contemporary symbol for racial equality, and could, with little imagination, plausibly be seen among those marching on the front lines across Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  She’s emblematic of White’s work, which unfailingly depicted black America with strength, regality, and dignity.

Born in 1918 on Chicago’s South Side, African-American artist Charles White began his career inauspiciously as a sign painter; he would later become one of the most accomplished draftsmen of his generation.  His style had extraordinary reach, ranging from the gently abstracted figures that peopled his WPA mural paintings of the late 1930s to his tight and refined graphite and ink drawings of the 1960s.  Charles White: A Retrospectiveis a muscular show that snugly fills half of the MoMA’s third floor with over 100 drawings, paintings, and other ephemera.  White’s first major show in 30 years, this traveling exhibition champions the enduring appeal of figurative drawing, and his socially-conscious subject matter keeps his work uncannily relevant.

Arranged chronologically, the retrospective begins with his early paintings, produced when White was a freshly minted graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938. His early mural Five Great American Negros is an early tour de forcethat established several of the tropes that defined much of White’s subsequent career. Painted when he was just 21 for a fundraiser for Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center, the painting celebrates Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Sojourner Truth.   The mural’s heaving landscape and figural distortions rhyme with the regionalist paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, but, as ever, White’s work also spoke to contemporary social injustices.  He painted the mural in 1939, the same year that gospel singer Marian Anderson was refused permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution to perform at Constitution Hall because of her race, and her inclusion in the work freights the painting with timely relevance and political weight.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Five Great American Negroes. 1939. Oil on canvas, 60 x 155″ (152.4 x 393.7 cm). From the Collection of the Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.© The Charles White Archives/ Photo: Gregory R. Staley

Charles White believed that artists had a moral obligation to contribute to social discourse, and to this end his work aggressively addressed racial injustice and economic disparity in America.  In the 1940s and 50s White produced soulful and moving works like There were no Crops This Year, a Steinbeckian depiction of a visibly distraught husband and wife; an empty sack which the woman holds is the only prop in the drawing, but it’s enough to tell their story.  And his poignant and incriminating proto-cubist Headlinesdepicts a visibly distraught woman flanked by a veritable blizzard of news headlines that reveal instances of racial inequality in America.  His use of collage and text mirrors the synthetic cubist experiments of Picasso and Braque, but here White masterfully harnesses the vocabulary of cubism and channels it toward social protest.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Headlines. 1944. Ink, gouache, and newspaper on board, 20 x 16″ (50.8 x 40.6 cm). Collection of William M. and Elisabeth M. Landes. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo: Gregory R. Staley

But while his works frequently addressed racial and economic inequality, White managed to avoid producing an oeuvre drearily burdened by politics.  His brightly painted Gospel Singers radiates joy, and the strong, pitchfork-wielding woman in Our Land (White’s witty response to Grant Wood’s American Gothic) radiates confidence, determination, and, above all, dignity.  

Music also played a significant role in his output, and he produced affectionate drawings of gospel singers Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robertson, and Bessie Smith.  White created cover designs for a series of jazz albums by Vanguard Records, and in 1965 his illustration for Gould: Spirituals for Orchestra received a Grammy nomination for best album cover.  But the musical collaboration this show especially highlights is that of Charles White and Harry Bellefonte, whose recorded voice croons uninterruptedly throughout the exhibition space.  Bellefonte commissioned works by White, often including them on his television show, and White responded with several portraits of the singer, head thrown back, utterly abandoned in music.  Fittingly, because of the close relationship White had with so many musicians, the MoMA has thoughtfully assembled a Spotify playlist of music inspired by the show—there’s everything from old spirituals to gospel music and James Brown.

In the 60s and 70s, White’s work continued to address social justice and civil rights, but his style became increasingly crisp, a marked departure from his previous abstracted depictions of the figure.  It’s a stylistic shift made apparent in his 12-part series J’Accuse (“I accuse”), a series of confrontationally large ink drawings collectively named after Emile Zola’s open letter to the French government in which Zola famously defended Richard Dreyfus, a Jew wrongfully convicted of murder.  The series’ title equated American racial inequality with European Antisemitism, but the drawings themselves refrain from directly referencing any instances of injustice.  Rather, White gives viewers affectionate and sensitively rendered portraits of black Americans, often set against a stark white background, and allows for their innate dignity to speak for itself.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). J’Accuse #7. 1966. Charcoal on paper, 39 1/4 × 51 1/2″ (99.7 × 130.8 cm). Private collection. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

The final room in the retrospective includes several works from his acclaimed Wanted Posterseries, a cycle of 21 monochromatic oil-wash and lithograph works which emerged from White’s frustration at the slow pace of the implementation of civil rights in America.  Appropriating the imagery of old wanted posters for runaway slaves, all the works in this series mimic the texture of crumpled newsprint in arresting tompe l’oeil.  Barely-discernable stenciled-in words help the viewer navigate the meaning behind these ambiguous works; in one especially poignant image, a mother stands behind her son, both their faces registering utter sorrow; above her head hovers the form of an eagle and the word “sold.”

One of the final images viewers encounter is White’s iconic Black Pope. Closely resembling the Wanted Posterseries in its color and texture, the painting depicts a man wearing clothing reminiscent of priestly vestments, flashing what could be interpreted both as the peace symbol, or the sign Christ makes in icons while bestowing a blessing.  Barely discernable, “Chicago” is stenciled atop the image, and the figure wears a sandwich board which proclaims with calculated ambiguity: “NOW”– an all-encompassing call to action.

Installation view of the exhibition Charles White: A Retrospective.October 7, 2018–January 13, 2019. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Digital Image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Robert Gerhardt.

Charles White: A Retrospective is a massive show made even more impressive when we consider that the overwhelming majority of these works are fastidiously rendered figurative drawings—there are no easy shortcuts to quickly fill wall space.  Furthermore, while his drawings are impressively large, they always reward close inspection with their varied stippled and hatched-in textures.  Today, his work hangs in many of America’s great museums—the Metropolitan, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Smithsonian, to name a few. But his legacy isn’t just the art he created, but the many students who emerged under his shadow, such as Kerry James Martial, who stated that Charles White believed that one’s work “should be in the service of helping dignify people.”  His work did exactly that, and this retrospective triumphantly speaks to White’s unflagging and determined mission to portray black America with the dignity it deserved.

Charles White: A Retrospective, through January 13, 2019 at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, NY.

Ryan Standfest @ WSU Art Department Gallery

Ryan Standfest: THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE at the Wayne State University Art Department Gallery

Installation view with view of “Factory Heads” All Photo images by PD Rearick

Aside from the subversively compelling and diverse mix of genres and styles of his art making, the dominant feature of Ryan Standfest’s exhibition is his irreverent, comic graphic sensibility. Whether in dark comic video, social and political satire comic, joke books, painterly advertisements, agitprop theater, or comix strips, everything is subject to its scrutiny. In one of his remarkable “writings” found on his website he narrates the story of his boyhood adventure in a church parsonage storage shed, where he’d wandered, existential 9-year-old boy style, to experience an epiphany of the aesthetic value of comic books. There in the dark shed, in his prepubescent glory, sitting upon a stack of 15 years’ worth of discarded Detroit Free Press newspapers, dating back to 1968, he discovered and proceeded to search for, cut out and scrapbook, the “Dick Tracy” comic strips. The narrative itself is an arch-comic book style self-discovery! Most importantly it is where Standfest began to savor the essence of pulp paper culture and revel in its wanton working class virtues as well as create a method for art making. The rest is his story.

Ryan Standfest, “The Captain of Industry,” gesso, graphite, ink, enamel on cardboard, 34 ¾” x 42 ¼”,2018

The title of the Standfest’s exhibit at the Wayne State University Art Department Gallery “THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE,” is typical ominous and foreboding language that you might find in a comic strip. Both physical and psychic displacement are the basic tropes of comic strips. In the small, but explosive, little boxes filled with minimal little drawings of “the comic section,” all sorts of mishaps, mysteries, surprises and aporia occur and– whether its Dick Tracy, Beetle Bailey, or Pogo—the comic strip world turns on the displacement of logic and the predictable; expecting Utopia and disappointingly ending in Dystopic visual gag of some kind. Standfest is all about language and his title here has it all: past tense, present tense, future tense; ironic surprise. Part of the issue of looking at his work is precisely unraveling the ball of time and space it encompasses. The exhibition itself proceeds a bit like a comic strip, going from inscrutable painting to painting, with only the barest of word play, letting the audience figure it out for themselves.

Standfest’s overall oeuvre is then one of bewildering sense of time and space, of nostalgia for promised future and the agony of a defeated utopia. His prime invention in this exhibition are the cardboard panels that seem to be 2-D “point-of-purchase” display cases of Standfest’s “Rotland MFG. Co., Detroit, Mi.,” and function almost as heraldic banners that parody the language of advertisements where things are either promised, promoting a bright future, or liquidated, suggesting collapse.  They suggest a time after World War l, when “Developers” were building Detroit and offering a utopian future for everyone.  Standfest’s “The Captains of Industry” painting is an ironic image composed of crisscrossed smoke stacks and canons (the mix of war and industrial culture can’t be missed) and filled with little token statuettes of, probably, Henry Ford, like the Catholic Dashboard statues of Jesus and Mary that people used to put on their car dashboards to protect them from evil. (There must have been a spiritual side to Ford.) There’s thirteen heraldic-like paintings and each, like heraldic coats of arm crests, celebrate moments (victories or defeats) of social and economic organization. “Unearthed Streetcar Rail” celebrates an ironic discovery of an already existing railroad system, made by workers when excavating Woodward Avenue for the new Q-Line and serves as reminder of the redundancy of Detroit’s city planning.  His painting “Vintage Union Handbooks,” ironically promotes the hand book as memorabilia of an institution (labor unions) that saved workers from abject abuse. Libraries, decommissioned schools and factories, dream houses, cheap land are all victims or promises of  utopia.

Ryan Standfest, “Welcome to Fordlandia,” Gesso, charcoal, enamel, and varnish on cardboard, 49 ½ x 31”, 2018

Complementing “The Captains of Industry” painting is Henry Ford’s experimental factory town in Brazil, Fordlandia, “celebrated” by a derelict looking banner painting suggesting the failure of Ford’s colonizing enterprise to build a Michigan style rubber factory in the Amazon jungle.

All of the banner paintings employ the graphic style of early 20thcentury Futurists and Russian constructivists, with their explosive, geometrical angularity, always suggesting machines and speed, such as the Italian and Russian designers Fortunato Depero and Gustav Klutsis; a mix of Industrial Capitalism and Bolshevik revolution, perhaps implying they were both failures. The image on the eroding Fordlandia banner seems to be a throne for Henry, the king of industry, himself.

There’s a host of Standfest’s heraldic-like paintings and images to unpack and sort through and they accumulate into a mapping of Detroit and Michigan’s industrial production and the havoc it rained on the city. There’s even a black painting of the outline of the mitten of the state of Michigan belching out a plume of oily smoke from Detroit, its catastrophic epicenter, and featuring locations of all of the products, from cars to copper, of the state.

Ryan Standfest, “A Child’s Picture Map,” gesso, acrylic, wood, oil, chalk, collage and mixed media on Arches, 47 ½ “x 47,” 2018

Standfest’s black humor, about which he writes on his website, is employed in a B&W digital video, “THE DIRT EATER,” which sees a broken Chaplinesqe character, Mister Ricky, played by himself, sitting down in a gloomy basement at a T.V. tray to eat a plate of dirt. Photos of Gramps, who was laid low by alcohol and tobacco, punctuate Mr. Ricky’s dinner of dirt, meanwhile Grammy sits by the old radio upstairs listening to Irving Berlin’s chestnut, “I Want to Go Back to Michigan,” a song about nostalgia for farm life in Michigan. The dirt that Mister Ricky eats is from Gramp’s garden behind the garage. While “The Dirt Eater” is a painfully humorous satire on the working-class nostalgia, it is a not a misrepresentation and is realistic in its portrayal of the dark, melancholia of the lives of the burned-out working family.

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 by 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.

Ryan Standfest, “Factory Head No.1,” archival inkjet on Epson, 32 ½ x 32 ½,” 2018

The quandary that we are left with in sorting out Standfest’s vision is the ultimate one that we are always left with: what to do with Modernism. Standfest’s comic satire of the machine age that left a wake of psychologically and physically maimed humans and a derelict social order was, at the same time, an emancipation from the tyranny of an old aristocratic ownership production and design. Standfest engages the Beckettian dilemma with a robustness which propels his excavations along with digging for and exposing another ironic gag.

Standfest is ruthlessly hilarious in his Dick Tracy-like comic strip satire of Adolf Loos’ famous critique “Ornament and Crime,” that helped define modernism, of how ornamentation in design is a crime against humanity. Standfest turns the scales, puts his detective Wolfe (Standfest’s version of Dick Tracy) on the case to expose the “villainous operation known as “International Style,” a crime wave of bare, spare, impersonal, and highly abstract architecture forced upon the innocent dwellers of the city by a group of European thugs.”  Humorously dark critiques of the festishization of modernist design and designers, including of LeCorbusier and Mies van der Rohe abound, as well the opposite, fetishization of worker’s clothing and lifestyle that fill out and balance Standfest’s salient humor.

Ryan Standfest, “Unearthed Streetcar Rail,” gesso, graphite, ink, enamel on cardboard, 36” x 20,” 2018

Ryan Standfest: THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE –  at the Wayne State University Art Department Gallery  – through December 7, 2018. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Punk Rock Graphics 1976 – 1986 @ Cranbrook  Art Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Installation, Punk Rock Memoirs 2018

 

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

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

 

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

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

The B-52’s, American rock group, 1979

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

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

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

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

Cranbrook Art Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Jim Nawara @ WSU Art Department Gallery

PHENOMENA IN LANDSCAPE: Paintings, Prints, Drawings, & Photographs 1969-2017

James Nawara, Professor Emeritus of Painting and Drawing at Wayne State University, PHENOMENA IN LANDSCAPE, Retrospective Exhibition, 2017 Image Courtesy of Lucille Nawara

The exhibition by Jim Nawara, now Professor Emeritus of Painting and Drawing at Wayne State University, spans forty-eight years and includes more than one hundred paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs. The exhibition begins with Nawara’s imaginary landscapes seen from an aerial viewpoint that were made in the seventies and eighties. Next, an engaging series of thirty-two black and white photographs (1969-1989) presents sometimes quirky subjects selected mostly from Detroit area urban landscapes. Some these compositions were influential sources for subsequent oil paintings and large watercolor paintings that Nawara has produced from 1990 up to the present. No longer seen from an aerial viewpoint, these representational landscapes are based upon observation and interpretation of actual sites that are carefully selected.

Nawara has stated that he often prefers depopulated, nondescript, or non-picturesque sources, “The subject does not need to be obviously beautiful, grand, or pristine. I once found the foundation of an abandoned house more intriguing than an idyllic nearby waterfall. A large globe light set in a library lawn below a harvest moon, the geometric pattern of a partially demolished Detroit factory, and the stark, nighttime shadows on snow covering a backyard garden all became painting subjects.”

James Nawara, Installation image, Early work, Image Courtesy of DAR 2017

In the earlier imaginary landscape subjects, the terrain was seen from a low-altitude aerial viewpoint. Although invented, these compositions evolved from actual landscapes viewed from commercial flights, light aircraft, a helicopter and once a hot air balloon flight, as well as the artist’s interests in geology, optical phenomena, and prehistory. At a distance, the work might suggest abstract color field painting, exemplified by abstract color field painters like Jules Olitski in the 1980’s. Upon closer observation, the details reveal a plausible landscape that provides illusions of crop growth, archeological sites, subtle patterns, rock formations, long cast shadows, with both actual and illusionistic textures. These works have a feel for abstraction, something that would be carried through in Jim Nawara’s later work.

James Nawara, Trace, acrylic on linen, 1973

As an undergraduate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Nawara studied under the mentor and famous photographer, Kenneth Josephson and also worked as a commercial photographer in Chicago. He went on to graduate school in painting at the University of Illinois, and studied photography there under another well-known photographer, Art Sinsabaugh.

James Nawara, Thirty- Two early Black & White 8 x 10″ Photographic Images

After completing his graduate degree in Illinois, Jim Nawara moved to Detroit to take a position as a drawing instructor at Wayne State University. His thirty-two photographs in this exhibition, most of which were taken in Detroit, have seldom been exhibited. He chose the rigor of always composing and printing the images full frame, un-cropped. The dates of these images overlap Nawara’s shift from aerial view subjects to landscapes based on ground-level views of actual sites. He was intrigued by the idea that an artist might be able to make art out of a “mundane” subject.

James Nawara, RESTEEL, oil on Linen, 1991

In the large industrial urban landscape, RESTEEL multiple layers of broken walls and windows of an abandoned factory draw the viewer into the painting. The foreground, mid-ground, and background all have their characteristics concerning light, shape, and color. It is an example of magical realism that presents an abstraction that is grounded in realism. In the foreground, the lower right brick structure plays off the left sheets of corrugated red metal, while the interior plays with a sliver of light. The imagery is divided into thirds both vertically and horizontally. It is a grid that provides us with a solitude that brings us back to multiple viewing. Each section of this oil painting is meticulously rendered, another reason viewers are compelled to take a long, hard look and become enveloped by this vestige of Detroit’s industry.

James Nawara, Blue Fence, oil on linen, 1999

In the small oil painting, Blue Fence, from 1999 is another example of Nawara’s strong composition, illusionistic space, and placement of color. He painted the blue fence, as well as a wedge of a red, white and blue sign on the far right in crisp detail. The fence, sign, shed walls, roof, and tree are carefully layered, like flats on a stage. It is evident that placement of these compositional elements is like an abstract collage.

James Nawara, Night Garden, Watercolor, 2007

Nawara’s Night Garden demonstrates a high level of technical facility with the watercolor medium. He poetically creates the stillness of fallen snow in his wife’s vegetable garden, illuminated by a strong floodlight on the back of their studio.

Working from a photograph, Nawara translated the textured snow with granulated watercolor washes, particularly as seen in the snowdrifts and snow-covered birdbath. This was an ephemeral subject, as all the snow melted by dawn. The entire painting was done with just three granulating watercolors, Holbein Ultramarine Blue Deep, Daniel Smith Lunar Black, and Holbein Prussian Green.

James Nawara, RHOMBUS, 40 x 50, oil on linen, 2008

Nawara’s 2008 40” x 50” oil painting RHOMBUS was used on the announcement for this exhibition. A rhombus is a geometric term for a parallelogram, like the shape of a diamond on playing cards. The rhombus in this painting is formed by a broken branch and its reflection in a flooded young woodland. Nawara was intrigued by the shimmering soft focus of the water surface, and the reflections of trees appear softly blurred by breezes, while the actual branches were rendered in sharp focus. Magic realism is in full play with this abstract composition, far from anything a traditional landscape painter would contemplate. Jim Nawara was pleased when a former student described his exhibition as “dreamlike”.

I had an opportunity to ask the artist a few questions:

Ron Scott: The title of your exhibition is PHENOMENA IN LANDSCAPE. What are some examples and what do you mean by Phenomenon?

Jim Nawara: Anything that may be of visual interest that is happening or that has happened in the landscape; also the evidence, or traces of natural and human activity in the landscape.

RS:  When did the move from aerial imagery to horizon-based landscape take place and why?

JN: Actually, I made my first real drawings when I was about six years old and these were graphite pencil aerial view landscapes! This was after my first airline flight from Chicago to Minneapolis. My dad worked for Northwest Airlines, and he took my brother and me on a round trip to give my mom a one-day break. I was blown away by the views out the window and made drawings of what I saw as soon as I got home. Many years later I started drawing and painting aerial views again as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. Then after about twenty years, I moved away from aerial view landscapes in the late eighties. I felt that I had plowed the aerial view field thoroughly, and I wanted to move to other aspects of landscape.

RS: How much of the work is plein-air and how important is that process to the work?

JN: I have started a few paintings outdoors; but being a slow painter, I have never completed one outside. I found it stimulating, and I just kept seeing more and more information that I wanted to put into the painting! I use quick graphite sketches and photographs to define the compositions. I worked outside for two consecutive days on RESTEEL, the six-foot painting in this exhibition. Each day within two hours of my arrival the wind increased moderately, and the six-foot canvas turned into an uncontrollable sail pulling itself and me down the street!

RS: What role has photography played in your artwork? How is it used?

JN: My photography experience in and out of school has given me a good understanding of the differences between human vision and the way a camera records an image. This is crucial in understanding how to use a source photograph effectively for another medium.

RS: How would you describe the difference in oil on canvas work, and the works on paper? Is it more than scale? Is there something inherent in the media?

JN: Yes, oil and watercolor are just inherently different mediums with their characteristics and qualities. I enjoy both and often alternate between the two. The major difference is the fact that transparent watercolor dries rapidly and allows you to move forward quickly in a painting. However, you are very limited in removing color that has dried into the paper. Therefore, I have to plan out each watercolor several steps ahead. Oil paint allows you to move forward and back more easily, but each has its particular, wonderful charms.

RS: Which (living or dead) artist’s work are you most attracted to, and why?

JN: There are many wonderful artists who made excellent work. The first three that I immediately think of are Edwin Dickinson, Georgio Morandi, and (always) Johannes Vermeer. Check them out in books or online, but better yet, try to see some actual work in museums.

RS: What attracted you to these abandoned Midwest locations?

JN: I never select a site to paint because it is abandoned, though some are.   I primarily consider my paintings abstract organizations of shape, color, light, and space. The paintings are always interpretations filtered through time, memory and imagination, as well as the physical process of painting. I often choose urban landscapes, but when I select a natural subject, I am interested in the effects of human activity great and small on the landscape. These events may be grand, unimportant, profound, or peculiar. I want to engage the viewer and to express something that is ineffable. My watercolor painting Lock shows a mosquito-ridden abandoned canal lock in Ohio that provided enough visual interest for me to make a painting.

The work in this exhibition spans Jim Nawara’s forty-six-year career as a professor of drawing and painting at Wayne State University. Artists and colleagues that know Jim kid him about his “brief” resume, a reflection of his record as an active exhibitor participating in solo and small group shows as well as more than 250 international, national and regional group exhibitions, not to mention the public and private collections that house his work. In 2007 Nawara had an exhibition at the Muskegon Museum of art, Overviews & Afterlands, that exhibited 22 works of art where the curator remarks say, “His landscapes are without figures, yet notated with marks of human activity and man-made forms. They are based on observation but driven by invention. They reflect the passage of time: changing light and shadow, remnants of man-made forms, the layering of a medium during the creative process.”

Jim Nawara earned a B.F.A from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an M.F.A from the University of Illinois, Champaign

The exhibition continues through Friday, December 8th, 2017

Wayne State University Art Department Gallery

Hours: Tuesday – Thursday 10 AM – 6 PM, Friday 10AM- 7PM

Art Department Gallery, 150 Art Building,  5400 Reuther Mall,  Detroit, Michigan 48202