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

Matthew Hawtin @ David Klein Gallery

Matthew Hawtin, Installation image at the David Klein Gallery, image courtesy of DAR

In his Solo Exhibition, Matthew Hawtin Presents Minimal Abstraction

It seems fitting to mention that abstraction has been with us since the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky migrated his landscape to a purely abstract form on canvas sometime in late 1910. I always make the comparison to music, since instrumental music is abstract by nature—it does not try to represent the exterior world, but expresses in an immediate way the artist’s inner feelings, from Mozart to John Cage.

The David Klein Gallery opened the Matthew Hawtin exhibit September 9, 2017, with pure minimalist abstract objects executing perfected forms and pristine surface qualities. These shaped canvases rendered in primary/secondary colors, could not be executed more flawlessly. Some are on “torqued canvas,” others on fiberglass panels, all accompanied by a variety of exquisite surfaces. The copiousness of Hawtin’s invention, and his conception seem to allow him to explore each and every multiplicity of these ideas uniquely.

Matthew Hawtin, Stargazer, 45 x 45 x 19, Acrylic on Fiberglass paner 2017

Hawtin says, “Although each series has its own technical demands, they all live in aesthetic parallel that blurs the line between artistic disciplines. There is a determination to continually push the work forward through aesthetic variations, technical refinements and experimenting with new materials. Within this forward trajectory, there is an overall vision to create art that is ‘other-worldly’ and in a sense, futuristic.”

Matthew Hawtin, Cardinal, 42 x 44 X 12, Acrylic on Fiberglass Panel, 2017

The basic context for Hawtin is the color minimalist from the 1970s, including Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Kenneth Nolan, and Anne Truitt. The secondary would be the shaped canvas artist, revisited recently in an exhibition by Luxembourg & Dayan in New York, with artists like Lynda Benglis, Elizatheth Murray, and Charles Hinman. Hawtin’s work is a hybrid of these two concepts that fights hard against representational artwork and abstract expressionistic painting, with a large degree of success. The new works that fit into corners are particularly interesting and unique. These works, composed of parallelograms, diamonds, trapezoids, rhomboids, and circles, are reductively streamlined, solid in their color and simplified in their forms that, forty years later, remain robust and encompassing in an array of approaches, especially with respect to the surface material.

Matthew Hawtin, Working in the studio, 2017, Courtesy of Artnet

Born in England, and then moved to Windsor, Canada in 1979, Matthew Hawtin earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from York University in Toronto and an master’s in architecture from the University of East London, in London.

 

Bryan Graf’s Photographic images: DEBRIS OF THE DAYS

Bryan Graf, Interstates, Shortcuts, A Factory an Open Field and a Few Homes, 2016 c-Prints mounted with cleats, 40 Unique, 8 x 10″

In the second gallery at the David Klein Gallery, the artist Bryan Graf focuses on Photograms, one of the earliest forms of photography, to create abstract tension between text and image, in a variety of scale.

Photograms are images made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material, such as photographic paper, and then exposing it to light. Like drawing or painting, the process is like creating a collage without the need for scissors or glue. Rather, Graf has become highly skilled at controlling the process in the darkroom using color, shape and composition.

Bryan Graf, Chromatic Aqueduct, 40 x 74″ 2016, Unique Photogram and C-Print

Director of the David Klein Gallery, Christine Schefman says, “The photographs in Debris of the Days originate in a garden. It is a cultivation of ongoing works not limited to themselves, but rather a procession of generative images. Graf integrates his own gestural activity into the work by utilizing materials gathered on site as well the use of manipulations in the darkroom. His inquiry into the positive tension between text and image, as well as literary and musical influences, are evident in the arrangement of works for this show. His practice continues to reveal his interest in the history of photography and its relationship to design, painting and narrative fiction.”

Bryan Graf earned a bachelor of fine arts from the Art Institute of Boston and a master of fine arts from Yale University in 2008.

The exhibitions by Matthew Hawtin and Bryan Graf run through October 21, 2017

David Klein Gallery

Unpacking Frank Lloyd Wright @ MoMA

Installation view of Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 12–October 01, 2017. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

The holdings of the Frank Lloyd Wright archive, jointly acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the Avery Architectural & Fine Art Library at Columbia University in 2012, are vast—no surprise, since Wright’s career spanned a seventy-year trajectory. The archive’s holdings comprise 55,000 drawings, 125,000 photographs, and well over a quarter-million sheets of correspondence, not to mention models, architectural fragments, films, and other multimedia. If the celebrated 20th century architect were alive today, he’d be 150, and to commemorate his sesquicentennial the MoMA’s exhibition Unpacking the Archives presents over 400 works from the archives, offering an illuminating thematic and chronological survey of Wright’s career.

Installation view of Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 12–October 01, 2017. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

The show’s title wittily puns on both the content of the exhibition, all gleaned from the newly-acquired archive, and on the show’s organization, for which twenty MoMA curators take an object of their choosing and explain (“unpack”) its relevance within the context of Wright’s career. This curatorial decision offers a refreshingly new approach to a survey of Wright, since some of his most iconic works (the Robie House, for example) are conspicuously absent, and viewers are introduced to some of Wright’s lesser known projects, such as his unrealized plans for Rosenwald School and his utopian Davidson Little Farms Unit.

Each of the exhibition’s fourteen galleries focuses either on a specific theme (ornament, ecology, circular geometries, and urbanism, to name a few) or an architectural structure (starting with the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and culminating with the Guggenheim). Some gallery spaces reinforce some of Wright’s most characteristic attributes, such as his compulsive obsession with total design. Not content to merely design a structure, Wright famously maintained absolute control over all the interior furniture and furnishings, going so far as to show up uninvited on the doorsteps of prior clients to ensure sure that the totality of his interior design scheme remained unaltered.

Other galleries playfully stray from the conventional narrative arc of Wright’s career. One room, devoted to studio drawings, displays drawings by Wright’s own hand juxtaposed with drawings from studio assistants, making the point that the studio’s more refined and aesthetic “perspective drawings” were generally rendered by specialists, such as the manifestly talented Marion Mahony. Perhaps the most surprising and satisfying original drawings on view, simply because they burst with spontaneity, were the sketches Wright made on a napkin as he was working out some design problems posed by his mile-high skyscraper.

Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959). Fallingwater (Kaufmann House), Mill Run, Pennsylvania. 1934–37. Perspective from the south. Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 15 3/8 × 25 1/4″ (39.1 × 64.1 cm). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved

The exhibition is heavy on two-dimensional architectural layouts, floorplans, and perspective drawings, but there are also some examples of the furnishings Wright’s studio created, ranging from art-glass windows, furniture, tableware, rugs and drapery. Also on view are the elaborate sculptural models Wright produced to help pitch ideas to his clients. These include a model of his iconic Guggenheim, flanked by an early perspective-rendering of the building, reminding us that the structure was once to have been an alarmingly garish pink.

Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. 1943–59. Model. Painted wood, plastic, glass beads, ink, and watercolor on paper, 28 x 62 x 44″ (71.1 x 157.5 x 111.8 cm). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.

Wright at 150 directly acknowledges Wright’s Michigan connection in its display of an elaborate layout Wright drafted for Kalamazoo’s Galesburg Community, known as “The Acres,” originally to contain a network of homes on twenty-one circular-shaped lots, though in the end only four were built. The exhibition also devotes significant space to his Usonian homes, the comparatively inexpensive do-it-yourself (in theory, anyway) home-kits Wright’s studio produced, intending to make quality architecture available to the middle class; the Detroit area boasts of three such homes: the Turkel House (Palmer Woods), the Smith House (Bloomfield township), and the Affleck House (Bloomfield Hills). And some of Wright’s textile patterns on view (such as his March Baloons, depicting an elaborate network of intersecting circles) have been adopted by Ann Arbor’s Motawi Tileworks, which produces a handsome line of Wright-inspired ceramic decorative tile.

Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959). March Balloons. 1955. Drawing based on a c. 1926 design for Liberty magazine. Colored pencil on paper, 28 1/4 x 24 1/2 in. (71.8 x 62.2 cm). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.

Spread across a generous suite of galleries on the MoMA’s third floor, this exhibition at first glance seems perhaps austere (just one floor up, after all, are the reliably crowd-pleasing combines of Rauschenberg displayed alongside some of the zany 1970s kinetic works produced by the organization Experiments in Art and Technology). By contrast, Wright’s stately and geometric architectural plans on view in Unpacking the Archive seem emphatically cerebral, in some cases even displayed on mock-draft tables. But his ideas were revolutionary for his time, whether it be the need for sustainable architecture or for quality housing for all social classes, rather than just the proverbial 1%. And this cross-section of the Frank Lloyd Wright archive offers revealing and unprecedented access into the agile mind of an architect whose ideas remain uncannily relevant today.

 

Museum of Modern Art    Exhibition runs through October 1, 2017

 

Kara Walker @ Toledo Museum of Art

Kara Elizabeth Walker is an African American painter, silhouettist, and print-maker, who  explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity in her work. This exhibition is Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War.

Kara Walker, Installation image, courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art

In 1866, the magazine Harpers Weekly published its Pictorial History of the Civil War, a hulking two-volume set which anthologized its prior five years of war reportage, replete with over a thousand illustrative woodcuts. American artist Kara Walker, known for her unsettling and often violent depictions of the antebellum South, “annotates” fifteen illustrations from the series by superimposing silkscreened silhouettes atop the unfolding dramas depicted in the original woodcuts, interrupting the narrative and re-contextualizing the images.

On view at the Toledo Museum of Art until October 22, this small but worthwhile exhibition features all fifteen silkscreens from Walker’s Annotated Pictorial History of the Civil War (2005), newly acquired by the TMA. There’s a helpful curatorial statement on the wall introducing the series, but from that point onward, viewers are just given the title of each work, so each image must be confronted on its own terms. Furthermore, they’re intentionally displayed without any obvious beginning or ending point, subverting any chronological narrative structure.

Tara Walker, Installation image, courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art

Walker’s calculated use of the silhouette harkens back to the antebellum-era popularity of the silhouette portrait in genteel society. But the silhouette is also loaded with associations of physiognomy; Walker’s silhouettes typically confront 19th century racial stereotypes though heightened exaggeration, caricaturing the caricature. Her silhouetted forms and figures also conscientiously reference Rorschach tests, the interpretations of which are fluid and in which there’s continual interplay between positive and negative space. In these lithographs, this interplay is dramatically heightened since the negative space consists of dramatically enlarged images from Harper’s Pictorial History.

Here, Kara Walker combines her art with characteristic wit and verbal irony; her “annotations” in this case are the silhouetted figures which place in the foreground that which was marginalized in Harpers–of the Pictorial History’s 1,000+ illustrations, just over a dozen contained any African-Americans, and only three images referenced slavery (possibly more, depending on what constitutes as a reference). Yet Walker’s annotations do the exact opposite of what we would expect of a marginal note, confounding, rather than enhancing, the narrative of the original woodcuts. Her figures sometimes mask out the entirety of the original subject. Other times, they re-shape the original narrative. Some even interact with, react to, or participate in the events portrayed.

Her annotations are allusive; neither side in the conflict is framed as having the moral high ground. In one instance, a silhouette seems brutally torn apart by the cannon-fire from the Union artillery in the original woodcut. In another, Union troops triumphantly march in parade-formation into Alexandria, Virginia, greeted by cheering figures, but Walker inserts figures of her own in the foreground; one shakes its fist at the sky in what might be exasperation or rage. Another seems to try to scurry away and hide.

Kara Walker, Cotton Hoards in Southern Swamp, courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art

These images aren’t flippantly dismissive of the many lives that were indeed lost during the Civil War, rather, they challenge the visual narrative of the conflict as presented by Harpers. Some of its depictions of African-Americans (such as Cotton Hordes in a Southern Swamp) stoop to cruel and abusively dehumanizing caricature.   This is especially disconcerting when weighed against the book’s claim in its preface (which appeared in both volumes) of authenticity and impartiality. For reference, incidentally, featured in this exhibit are an original copy of the 1866 Harpers text and a screen which allows us to compare Walker’s annotations with the original illustrations from which they derive.

One should enter this show ready to be unsettled and at times disoriented. Yet we can always confidently approach Kara Walker’s work assured that she’ll have synthesized both fine craftsmanship with a well-thought out concept, reminding us along the way of the sad ironies so tragically present in America’s history. And her work has continued relevance– competing political narratives vocalize ever more shrilly in print and electronic media, but Walker’s Annotated History suggests we not accept any unscrutinized narrative, de facto, as truth’s final word.

Toledo Museum of Art    Through October 22, 2017