Michael Luchs @ MOCAD

Michael Luchs: Fictitious Character

Installation view, Michael Luchs: Fictitious Character, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 2018 Foreground, Rabbit Sculptures, Wood, wire, steel, paint, c. 1980 Image Courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery.

Even veteran observers of the art of Michael Luchs might be knocked back by the opening salvo of the artist’s exhibition just unveiled at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). A line of three- dimensional assemblages of entrapped rabbits (c. 1980), six in all, forms a kind of phalanx to be threaded as one enters the first gallery. This introductory cluster of immobilized rabbits, recently unmoored from their long-term, outdoor habitat in the upstate woods of Lewiston, Michigan, and moved indoors, populated the grounds of the home and studio where the reclusive artist lives and works.

The circular spray of white on each, front and back, adds a spectral quality to their presence and long-term, al fresco durability. Larger than life and rail thin, the assembled effigies, surrounded by a wall mounted menagerie of yet more denizens of woods and ponds–rabbits, plus frogs (all c. 1988 – 2000), not only reinforce impact but testify to the indefatigable practice of Luchs, an artist seemingly devoid of fallow intervals of invention.

At long last, sighed one patron at the debut, a mini-retrospective of Luchs’s decades-long career and gloriously resilient vision. Curated by Elysia Borowy-Reeder, and assisted by Robin K. Williams, “Michael Luchs: Fictitious Character” will be on view for nearly three whole months.

Fresh insights abound in this deployment of two of Luchs’s animal surrogates: furry, silent, horizontally poised rabbits counterpointed by vertically splayed, speckled, croaking frogs. Rabbits, one might conjecture, are easy to like and therefore lend themselves to empathetic audience responses, whereas frogs, who live in watery muck and scum, less so. (Bears and squirrels also romp and gambol in Luchs’s portrayals of forest dwellers, but have gone missing here.)

Michael Luchs, Untitled Rabbit Painting, Mixed paints and metallic paints on paper, c. 2000

The aforementioned cluster of introductory rabbits seems particularly fraught, each pinioned between crisscrossed planks of weathered wood and concentric circles of barbed wire, well-nigh inescapable barriers for comparatively small, frisky, and wily animals who might usually wriggle free under less restrictive, over-the-top barriers. Alternatively, when free of restraints, and depicted in lush, pastel pinks or blues accented with gold and silver, as in Untitled Rabbit (c. 2000), one of four on view), they recline calmly and passively, yet embedded within each is a pistol implying a weapon of their own demise, or mayhap a defensive weapon tucked behind their deceptively placid demeanors.

Michael Luchs, Untitled Rabbit, Mixed metallic paints and paint on vinyl, 1988

Another rendering, of an Untitled Rabbit (1988) outlined against a night sky, appears, despite its relatively modest scale, beguilingly bejeweled and monumental, its contours firmly etched against an enveloping darkness. Peppered with a plethora of holes the size of a paper punch, it nevertheless evokes stability and self-possession, albeit rendered on a heat-wrinkled length of sheet vinyl.

Michael Luchs, Untitled Frog, Mixed paints and cloth on linen, 1994

Luchs’s versions of gigantic, totemic frogs are also standout images that hold their own in the capacious, high-ceilinged expanse of MOCAD’s repurposed commercial building. Untitled Frog, from 1994, its body splayed and upright (two akimbo legs and webbed feet squeezed in at top and bottom), and towering nearly eight feet, has been dotted with a pattern of random, irregular patches of red-orange fabric. The bird’s eye view suggests a sunning frog or perhaps a captured, spread-out amphibian whose rotund body outlined with broad swaths of black pigment evoke its skittering, leaping motions.

Michael Luchs, Trumpet Frog #2, Mixed paints and marker on canvas, 2018

In two of the most recent frogs in the show (2018), their bulbous bodies and spasmodic legs have been overlaid with a trumpet extending from mouthpiece to bell, as if to signal that the noisy, raucous vocalizing of the frog is akin to the martial timbre of a blaring trumpet. In Trumpet Frog #2, a red tongue-like shape emerges from the bell of the trumpet as if to humanize the sound a visitor might hear issuing from the instrument, undertones surely consonant with the sensibility of Luchs who, as  his statement emblazoned on the gallery wall affirms, has wrought an art of “resilience…searching…absurdity…humor…[and] seriousness.”

Michael Luchs @ MOCAD through July 29, 2018

 

 

McArthur Binion Curates @ Hill Gallery

Installation image, McArthur Binion Cruates @Hill Gallery, 2018

Hill Gallery in Birmingham, Michigan, opened a group exhibition curated by McArthur Binion on May 4, 2018, representing five Detroit-based artists.

Although Binion and I were at Wayne State University in the early 70s, I was not very familiar with his work until I saw his exhibition last July representing the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale. It was a powerful exhibition, and like many successful artists that fit the modernist profile, Binion makes work that is a study in oppositions: line and shape, figure and ground, image and abstraction, copy and original, color and black & white. His modus operandi is to somehow magically blend an assault of binaries into a single, unified emblem of the unique and complicated self. Although the laconic grids resonate with this viewer, I walked out of the exhibit thinking about the influence of the cross-hatch marks by Jasper Johns.

After earning his BFA from Wayne State University, Binion went on to complete his MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art and became a professor of art at Columbia College since 1992. He describes his minimalistic abstract paintings as “Rural Modernist.”  Is he referring to being born on a cotton farm in Macon, Mississippi where he was exposed to the West African textile designs in his mother’s quilts? Possibly.

Allie McGhee, Step’n Off, Mixed Media, 36 x 24″, 1990

I have written before in the Detroit Art Review about the veteran Detroit artist, Allie McGhee, when he exhibited at Detroit’s  N’Namdi Contemporary Art in April of 2016, where he had a large solo exhibition, Now & Then, alongside work by Carol Harris, also in this Hill exhibition.  McGhee’s exhibition was majestic in the way he elevated shape, form and color with mixed media on paper and the works on canvas.  In my previous review,  I described McGhee as, “A Detroiter who attended Cass Technical High School and completed his undergraduate work at Eastern Michigan University in 1965, but he was born in Charleston, West Virginia.” McGhee describes his influences like so: “As an artist I have always been inspired by the diverse rhythms of our environment,” he says. “It has been a great reserve of energy for my work. In my recent works instead of seeing the natural world as a rational observer, I see if from within as if through a telescope or microscope.”

Throughout the evening, I kept returning to his mixed media work, Step’n Off  because it just kept growing on me.  The composition leads the way on this vertical abstract expressionistic painting with a strong unconventional structure created by the use of space, shape and color.  The under-painting, with accents of primary color, provides a kind of intuitive support for the overall painting. The only reference to something vaguely representational is a small ladder, an icon that suggests a climb and the thin solid rectangle that repeats itself. McGhee says he favors using sticks to apply paint rather than brushes. Rejecting the brush, he pulls and scrapes the paint across his material, whether it is canvas or paper. The action of the stick allows McGhee’s hands to interact with the paint and the surface in a visceral way, where the thin paint spatters as he arranges this lathe-like construction. Viewers might subconsciously ask themselves, Would I like to have this painting in my living space?  My answer is, overwhelmingly, absolutely

Carole Harris, Time and Again, Textiles, 37 x 43″, 2018

The first thing that jumps out from the work of Carole Harris is her choice of medium.   When I wrote about her work in April, 2016, I described it like this: “For visual artists who quilt, Harris’s work transcends the traditional expectations we think of when mentioning quilting. In a web-based reproduction, we see an abstract painting, dynamic in the use of color, line, shape and form. It’s only on closer observation that one realizes these are compositions executed using embroidery, stitchery and multiple patterns of cotton, silks and hand-dyed fabric.”  In this viewer’s experience, especially in the Detroit area, this artist leads the way in creating abstraction using a large variety of cloth materials and stitchery.

Harris says , “My work relies on improvisation. I am fascinated by the rhythms and energy created when I cut and piece multiple patterns. I let the fabric and color lead me on a rhythmic journey. My intention is to celebrate the beauty in the frayed, the decaying and the repaired. I want to capture the patina of color softened by time, as well as feature the nicks, scratches, scars and other marks left by nature or humans.”

Glen Mannisto wrote for the Detroit Art Review about Carole Harris’s solo exhibition at UofM NCRC Rotunda Gallery,  “As a child growing up in Detroit, Harris was taught embroidery and stitching by her mother, and, being “height challenged” and quite petite, she learned to make her own clothes so they would fit properly. In high school at Cass Tech she studied music and science before settling on art, and, after graduating from college in 1966, she began an interior design practice that she maintained until recently.”

Addie Langford, Mint/Red/Oso, Acrylic and Domestic Textile on Board, 2018

Langford’s large, abstract expressionistic painting, Mint / Red / Osois is acrylic paint over domestic textile on board. The stroke work reminds this viewer of a cross between Sean Scully and Franz Kline with textiles as a backdrop. The diptych is powerful in its structure, execution and attraction to the vertical flow of dripping paint.  Langford earned her BFA in architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design and her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. I became familiar with Langford’s work when she exhibited a solo show at the Simon DeSousa gallery with these semi-transparent white bars and controlled vertical drips of paint. One wonders what four years of architecture study does to an artist who wants to make things with her hands in a rigorous process of trial and error. On her web site she mentions McArthur Binion as an influence, and this writer notices some of her earlier work came from N’Namdi Contemporary Gallery in Miami.

James Franklin, Untitled, Acrylic, Epoxy, Aluminum, and Sealed Rigid Wrap on Foam, 23 x 25″, 2018

Part of the Binion show is another artist earning his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, James Benjamin Franklin.  Currently living and working in Detroit, Franklin was recently in a group show at the Galerie Camille in midtown Detroit, and a solo show at Reyes Projects in downtown Birmingham.  His small work, Untitled is acrylic, epoxy and aluminum, sealed in a rigid wrap on foam and typical of his recent work. These works feel like naïve abstraction relying heavily on primary color and simple shapes.  Occasionally he inserts a grid or web into his form. This younger artist’s work feels early in its development.

Tiff Massey, Spring Prototype I, Steel, 39h x 39w x 14″ 2017, Image courtesy Hill Gallery

Again, Binion turns to his alma mater Cranbrook Academy of Art with work by Tiff Massey, who earned her Bachelor of Science from Eastern Michigan University, and a Master of Fine Arts in Metalsmithing at Cranbrook Academy of Arts. This early educational path in the sciences differs from other artists but seems to have migrated to metals and on from that point to various art forms.

The floor sculpture, Spring Prototype 1 is coiled steel rod, maybe half inch in diameter and reminds this viewer of playing with a slinky as a child. Most importantly this work moves beyond plain and simple as its graceful and cultivated design leaves the viewer wanting to see more.

Massey says, “My experience with jewelry became my gateway to other media, to a larger perspective, and to making large-scale sculpture, always with a consistent emphasis on adornment. What happens when the viewer becomes adorned and how does the environment facilitate that transition from the unadorned to the adorned? How does the context and placement of an object influence an individual’s perception of self? The work first seduces the viewer, creating a desire to take, touch, and activate.  Once activated the pieces immediately create a sense of confidence in the wearer, producing an increased desire to show off and be seen.  Whether it is a sculpture on a wall, an object set in an outdoor landscape, or jewelry worn by the viewer, my work maintains an engagement of the body itself.”

The Hill Gallery opened its doors in Birmingham, Michigan in 1980 and has offered contemporary art representing sixty artists, both nationally and internationally recognized, along with an exceptional American Folk Art collection.

McArthur Binion Curates @  Hill Gallery runs through June 16, 2018

Biennial All Media Exhibition: Terrain @ Detroit Artist Market

 

Installation View of Detroit Artist Market’s “Terrain” exhibition, Photos courtesy of The Detroit Artists Market, Matt Fry, DAR

Steadfast in its mission as a non-profit gallery devoted to contemporary art and community, the Detroit Artists Market once again opened its doors to the whole art community in its Biennial All Media Exhibition juried by Detroit’s visionary landscape painter Jim Nawara. In his call for entries Nawara made it clear that the definition of landscape was pretty much wide open:

The works for this exhibition may present engaging, evocative images and ideas that employ illusion, allusion, and/or representation of observed, interpreted, or imaginary landscapes.

Beyond that, his nuanced description of the possible parameters of landscape is a tutorial itself:

Natural and unnatural phenomena in urban, suburban or rural landscape subjects, concepts about geology, memory and landscape, history embedded in landscape, archaeology, space archaeology, aerial views, maps and cartography, seascapes, layered space, camouflage in landscape, still life in landscape, figure in landscape, skyscapes, nocturnes, weather effects, atmospherics, optical phenomena in landscape (opposition effect, sun pillars, fogbows, glories, etc.), or microcosmic and macrocosmic landscapes may be of interest. 

Nawara’s description of what he calls “Terrain,” increases our post-digital visual vocabulary for all things called “landscape” and certainly our appreciation of what he has included in the exhibition.

Sergio DeGiusti, “Time and the River,” (2014) Hydrostone, 21”X31”

Master Detroit sculptor Sergio DeGiusti’s hydrostone relief “Time and the River” is perhaps the exhibition’s quintessential representation of the earth’s terrain and sets the stage for much of the imagery of the exhibition. Sculpted and tinted in waves of iron oxide red, the hydrostone relief evokes the metaphor of primal forces shaping the earth’s molten magma interior into phantoms arising over millions of years, to structure the interior of the planet as we know it now. The blood red waves accumulate to congeal into enormous crystalline mountains of iron evolving into animated figures that shape the history of the planet. The figurative shapes that arise suggest the powerful, destructive forces of nature, even human nature, that are seen in early twentieth century neoclassical sculpture.

There are forty artists represented in “Terrain” fulfilling virtually every feature of Nawara’s description of landscape and every media but they all somehow suggest the classic dynamics of DiGiusti’s “Time and the River,” in which the powerful, yet graceful forces, of nature shape our planet. Ryan Herberholz’s “Reservoir,” is built around the image of a hallucinogenic derelict house, an all too familiar image to Detroiters, caving in upon itself and sliding into a sinkhole, which is kind of a metaphysical reservoir or sewer. Pastel colored oil floor boards and ceilings seem to melt and flow into the dark hole at the center of the image. Meanwhile out of the windows we can see utopian fields of green and a pastel landscape of tidy, cobbled together, rescued houses.

Ryan Herberholz, “Reservoir,” (2017), Oil on Panel, 48”X64”

Deborah Kingery’s large format, black and white photo, “Target,” captures the foreboding towers of the Enrico Fermi 2 nuclear power plant near Monroe, Michigan. Fermi 1, once a major threat to SE Michigan, due to a nuclear meltdown, has been decommissioned. Kingery’s infrared film print (film stock of the psychedelic 60’s because of its surrealistic effects on light and vegetation), beneath a huge ominous sky of vaporous clouds produced by the twin nuclear stacks, with the deer target in the foreground, pictures Fermi 2, the replacement for Fermi 1.

Deborah Kingery, “Target,” Infrared Silver Photograph, 33”X43”

One of the fine ironies of the exhibition is two works of art that document human interaction and collectively create a wonderful human landscape. Donita Simpson’s very humanizing photo of the artist Jo Powers pictures her in studio amidst art making materials, photos and sketches, including a study for a “steam shovel,” a tiny, toy model of one, and one of her enigmatic self-portraits and other accoutrements of an artist studio. Powers stares, meditatively, from the landscape of her studio, into the distance. The atmospheric, completed painting itself hangs above Simpson’s photo. It is of a fully-clothed woman in an excavated hole standing up to her knees in water, the steam shovel poised on an earth mound behind her. As always with Powers’ evocative images, interpretation is open but there is always both a solitary search and an enigmatic mission suggested. Powers’ modest, tonalist paintings, rich in painterly chops, always stay within themselves, and because of that are deeply satisfying.

Donita Simpson, “Portrait of Jo Powers,” (2016), 30”X30”

Jo Powers, “Site,” (2015), 12”X16”

There are not many group-exhibitions that, at least for this writer, gain much traction because of the, often-random application of art to a specific theme. Nawara however, has attracted, probably because of his own fine artistic history, a group of Detroit’s best artists who have addressed the mission with sincerity.

In other words, there’s many fine works in “Terrain” that make a dynamic contribution to developing the concept of terrain and only a few that seem a stretch. Jill Nienhuis insightful painting, “Boulevard Bob,” tracks the flora and fauna of typical alley terrain culture with the juxtaposition of a nomadic black dog, probably named Boulevard Bob, on the prowl for dinner and a stellar rendering of sunset lit mullein plant in the foreground. That there can be a beautiful sunset in an alley, with overgrown plants and trees and a derelict car, is fundamental to urban dwellers, especially Detroit, but that there is a specific alley culture that is recognized and celebrated, and punctuated by the noble mullein, is sensational!

This years’ Detroit Artist Market Biennial has many treasures and fulfills Nawara’s diversely imaginative definition of Terrain. Mel Rosas’ retablo influenced painting of an iconic street scene in Mexico is quietly suggestive of the elemental simplicity of that picturesque culture and climate. Sue Carmen-Vian’s articulate graphite drawing, “Pancake Race,” seems a comic commentary on the stereotypical role of women in the Human Race. Bill Schwab’s photograph “Roosevelt at Buchanan, Detroit/ Projection Djupavik, Iceland,” is layered projection of a dystopic factory with crumbling concrete walls, derelict clapboard house and building and haphazard electrical wiring punctuating the apocalyptic vision. One of the only ruin-porn-noir images that engages the surfaces of the derelict with technical invention and cinemagraphic sensibility. “Terrain” is rich in Detroit artists with many gems to be discovered.

Bill Schwab, “Roosevelt and Buchanan, Detroit/Projection Djupavik, Iceland” (2017), Photograph, 32”X42”

Biennial All Media Exhibition: Terrain, April 27-May 26, 2018,  Detroit Artist Market

Address   –  4719 Woodward Avenue,  Detroit, MI 48201

Contact  –  Web: info@detroitartistsmarket.org  – Phone: (313) 832-8540

Hours – Tuesday – Saturday,  11:00 A.M. – 6:00 P.M.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gerhardt Knodel @ Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum

The Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum Hosts Gerhardt Knodel’s “Minglings: A Journey Across Time”

Gerhardt Knodel, Installation View of Gallery, All images provided by Robert Hensleigh

Imagine, while still in high school, walking into a Hollywood costume design studio with your art teacher when, maybe, you’re working on the school play and its set design. Imagine the industry there, the flurry of energetic creativity. You’re behind the scenes where all the magic happens: where the costumes are made, where the bolts and bolts of fabric are transformed into costumes and furnishings for the imaginary world of movies.(Think “Spartacus” or “Ben-Hur” or “Gone with the Wind”). That happened to textile artist Gerhardt Knodel when he was in high school and it seems it was a transformative experience that Knodel took to heart and inspired him to dream very big dreams. From set designs with painted curtain drops for a high school Christmas play to a seventy-foot-high, textile sculpture that adorned the atrium of John Portman’s Renaissance Center in Detroit, Knodel has been involved in creating and transforming space. “Free Fall” was a series of brilliant, looping, arabesques of color that enlivened Portman’s brutal geometric concrete space into veritable waterfall of color. For years it was on the must-see list for anyone visiting Detroit. He did the same for the new south entrance atrium to William Beaumont Hospital as well, with a multistoried, multilayered tribute to doctors and scientists famed for healing others.

Considering he was head of the fiber department and ultimately Director of Cranbrook Academy of Art for 35 years, it is astonishing how many large-scale public art commissions he completed, how much his personal work evolved, while at the same time, as current Cranbrook Fibers artist-in–residence Mark Newport recently said, how instrumental Knodel was in making the Fiber Arts “more challenging and more attuned to the fine arts dialog than it had been before.”

His recent project, “Minglings: A Journey Across Time,” beautifully installed in Saginaw’s Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, is no less ambitious or compelling. Rather than transforming a space or constructing an environment as he often has, Knodel turned to the other half of the classic philosophical Space/Time conundrum: Knodel explored time by composing a visual historical narrative.

Gerhardt Knodel,  Front and back of original silk tapestry (Kesi), China, Ming Dynasty, 17th Century

After finishing a large commission and while reorganizing and sorting through his extensive collection of historical textiles in search of a new project, Knodel rediscovered a Chinese silk tapestry. He mused over its beautiful but fragile, deteriorating state. Composed of stylized butterflies, insects, plant leaves and flowers, all floating in a pale blue sky-like background, Knodel realized its possibility. He rescued the deteriorating material by cutting small swatches out of the tapestry that still had physical integrity and contained the essence of its design. In short he played a version of the game of Exquisite Corpse with them, using the swatches as triggers or seeds, as in the game, to draw, as if growing, extensions of them evolving his own inventive forms.

Ultimately Knodel drew five different interconnected series that bloomed into a spectacular textile tour de force: along the way he discovered that what he thought were nineteenth century, were (valuable) seventeenth century Ming Dynasty tapestries created for the home of a probably very wealthy Portuguese family.  The mistake probably inspired Knodel to dedicate a great deal of creative energy and time in exploring their uncanny charms. Ultimately he composed this engaging, over-the-top, imaginary visual travel log of the tapestry’s voyage from Ming China, by Spanish trade vessels via Manila, to Acapulco, Mexico, then over land to another trade ship and off to Portugal. A gallery guide and superb video accompanies the exhibition to help us on the journey.

Gerhardt Knodel, detail of “Regeneration Series, #4,” mixed textiles

Translating the drawings into textile form involved inventing a medium that would hold up under the artist’s manipulation and give a degree of dimensionality as well as range of nuanced color to his drawings. Knodel laminated multiple colors of mixed textiles to foam backing and cut, by hand, tens of thousands, of what he refers to as tabs, which he then blended into a pointillist-like surface (to mix artistic metaphor) or as pixels, to color them. The result of his invention is a breathtaking range of color and exploration of possible forms.

There are 58 works in the exhibition that explore the theme of the delicate, weirdness of forms of nature (strange butterflies, insects, vegetation, flowers) suggested by the original tapestry. Knodel’s extension of their forms then are what his poetic vision gave birth to and they represent wonderful explosion of storytelling and delightful imagery.

In the initial series, entitled “It Had to Be You,” segmented tendrils with eyes at the end of each of them, explore the world around them. Some of the figures appear like hybrid of sea creatures and insects. The series, “Things That Get Caught in Trees After a Storm,” inspired by one of those uncanny plastic bags trapped in a tree’s limbs, reveal colorful, bulbous, ever-changing forms tangled in branches, blowing in the wind. They are at once exotic and even capture some of the comic extremes of nature.

Gerhardt Knodel, “Homecoming: Series #1-6, with “Minglings” #13. Shui, #2.Hui, #5.Mu, mixed textiles.

Knodel was revved up, it seems, when he began to realize that his creatures were beginning to have life of their own. Among the “Minglings” are a group of twenty-two, insect-like/sea-like/flowerlike and cartoon-like, creatures that were inspired by the Ming tapestries (so Minglings are spawn of Ming tapestries) and, speculating, of Knodel’s Hollywood upbringing in the cartoon land of Disney. Ranging in size from 24”x24” to 48”x48,” each has its own personality, they all have Chinese names and, in Knodel’s description of his fairy-like tale, make the journey from China, to Portugal to the New World. There are two works that establish a feeling of triumph. “Flower Powered” is a nine paneled work that celebrates the passage across the multiple seas that the tapestry would have seen. It’s really the abstract center piece of the exhibition and suggests the spectacular landscape of the earth while connecting to the original colors and design motifs of the tapestry. To provide a context, Knodel created a landing site for their arrival in Portugal, entitled “Homecoming,” (pictured with Minglings attached) and to complete their journey until someone else is inspired by his Minglings to continue it and connect with history and extend them even further into the future.

There is magic in Gerhardt Knodel’s Minglings project: in his extension and poetic elaboration of the original, in the execution of drawings and the invention of a medium give life to them and fantasizing their journey for his cut up Ming tapestries into a visionary spectacle. He captured something envisioned during one of greatest civilizations ever, the 17th century Ming Dynasty and continued the vision in his studio in Pontiac, Michigan, providing elegant evidence of the timelessness and value of human imagination and labor. It is ultimately a collective victory accumulated over time.

Gerhardt Knodel, “Minglings: Night Flyers (Wei),” 40”x38,” mixed textiles.

Gerhardt Knodel’s “Minglings: A Journey Across Time,” continues at the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, Saginaw Valley State University, through May 19, 2018

Also at the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum see: “Chinese Folk Pottery: The Art of the Everyday” curated by Marie Woo.

Michele Oka Doner @ Wasserman Projects

Michele Oka Doner,  Hominin Relic, The Release, Fertilized Capsule

Wasserman Projects opened an exhibition February 16, 2018 with the work of Michele Oka Doner, the prolific and inventive maker of sculpture, installations, jewelry, furniture, functional objects and handmade books.

Michele Oka Doner, Life Forms, 2005, Project for the Life Sciences Building at Rutgers University, Piscataway NJ. Wide view of atrium floor. Bronze embedded in terrazzo. Image from The Watch All publication

Her work celebrates organic forms, particularly seashore life, but also seeds, trees, the human body and other forms of natural growth. Michele Oka Doner is probably best known for her creation, A Walk on the Beach, an installation on the floors of Miami International Airport. It is one of the largest public artworks in the world, featuring 9,000 unique bronze sculptures inlaid with mother-of-pearl in over a mile-and-a-quarter long concourse of terrazzo.

I recall meeting her and seeing her work at the Gertrude Kasle Gallery in the early 1970s, and then again in 1977 with her one-person exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Works in Progress, much of what was titled Burial Pieces, was previously laid out on the floor of Gallery 7. She has come full circle since that time in this exhibition at Wasserman Projects.

Michele Oka Doner, Book of Psalm, All Images courtesy P.D.Rearick, Wasserman Projects

Always inspired by nature, Michele Oka Doner composes a collection of flattened plant fronds on a grid with variety in the mono-colored objects, giving it the title Book of Psalm. Traditionally, this is a biblical reference in both Christian and Jewish worship as in the Book of Psalm, comprised of religious verse, many ascribed to King David. With a title like that, the subject matter reaches out to many people and relies on their experience for its explanation.

In this exhibition at Wasserman Projects, forty years later, it’s as if this artist has a genre all her own, work fueled by a lifelong study of the natural world. Mathematicians have long established a code for human forms, from plants to rock formations. Best described by Carl G. Jung and explained by Joseph Campbell, Michele Oka Doner exploits the collective unconscious of these forms, shapes and material in her art work.

Alison Wong, Director of Exhibitions at Wasserman Projects says in a statement, “Michele Oka Doner’s illustrious multi-decade practice has been guided by a passion for the natural world, and a fascination with the history held within the remnants of living things, such as twigs, leaves, seeds, shells, pods and stones. In her diverse installations, public works, sculptures, photographs, and drawings, these organic fragments are integrated, replicated and reimagined in new contexts that speak to the ephemeral yet enduring nature of life.”

Michele Oka Doner, Inlay Study in plaster.

These shell images and assorted shapes set in a plaster inlay are especially interesting in that the object is modest in size and an abstract composition of spiral shapes. The spiral meaning or symbolism can represent the consciousness of nature beginning from its center and expanding outward. So in keeping with the broad theme of the natural world, Michele Oka Doner works with some of the oldest geometric shapes dating back to the Neolithic period, the product of people over thousands of years, as illustrated in the famous ancient spirals at Newgrange in Ireland. Often the spiral is a feminine symbol, representing not only women, but lifecycles, fertility and childbirth. She  places the viewer above and looking down at these various shapes that are cloaked in a gold patina that elevates the meaning.

Michele Oka Doner, Installation of table, objects, and materials.

As part of the exhibition, there is a long table that extends out into the gallery space, which contains a collection of objects, books, various material and sculptures. As the table meets the wall there are two human figures, a child made of porcelain and a standing figure made of terra cotta clay without a head and a spiral-textured surface. These are typical of Michele Oka Doner’s work with the human figure, and in this setting provide a contrast to her dried plant-based work.

Michele Oka Doner, Glyphs

It has been a mark of her work throughout the years to place these glyph objects on the floor where their light color and textures contrast with the dark concrete floor. Her art becomes the process of making, finding and arranging, these small objects to create questions in the mind of the viewer. It feels like a universal language capable of reaching all people. They are hieroglyphic in nature and vary in size, material and spacing, as if you are looking back in time to a Mayan writing system.

Michele Oka Doner, Whip

Michele Oka Doner was born and raised in Miami Beach, but for thirty years she has lived and worked out of her studio in Soho, New York. She says in an interview with CBS News, in Miami, “I really could speak about what I knew and saw which was an accelerated notion of things growing, sprouting, ripening, decaying, the tides coming, bringing me things when I walked the beach in the morning, taking them away. It was full of wonders and richness. By really learning my own trade, it really was coming out of dipping back into myself instead of reaching out in the world and grasping that I learned daily, a step at a time, to manifest an idea, and that’s as much as we can hope to do in this world.”

Michele Oka Doner received a Bachelor of Science and Design from the University of Michigan (1966), a M.F.A. (1968), was Alumna-in-Residence (1990), received the Distinguished Alumna Award from the School of Art (1994) and was a Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker (2008). She was awarded the honorary degree, Doctor of Arts (2016).

Her work is in collections worldwide, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Cooper-Hewitt, New York; La Musée Des Artes Décoratifs, The Louvre, Paris; The Wolfsoniana, Musei de Genova; The Art Institute of Chicago; The Virginia Museum; The St. Louis Museum; The Dallas Museum of Art; The University of Michigan Museum of Art; The Yale Art Gallery; Princeton University Art Museum; and the Perez Art Museum Miami.

Also on display in the rear gallery is the  new work by Detroit based artist/designer Jack Craig.

For the past decade, Oka Doner has been represented by Marlborough Gallery, New York City.

Wasserman Projects, Michele Oka Doner is on exhibit through May 5, 2018.