Ruben and Isabel Toledo: “Labor of Love” @ the Detroit Institute of Arts

Ruben Toledo, “Broomstick Librarian Shirtwaist Dresses,” 2008, Designed by Isabel Toledo, Painted by Ruben Toledo, image by DIA – William Palmer.

We normally think of industry as the machinery of the production for making a particular thing, like the steel industry, or, especially in Detroit, the auto industry, but entering the current exhibition, “A Labor of Love,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, we are greeted by a magnificent image of twisted swirls of colors and pleats of seven dresses. This very energetic image was composed and painted by Ruben Toledo of his wife, Isabel Toledo’s dress designs for Anne Klein, one of the leaders in the Fashion Industry. It’s not a huge leap of the imagination to go from car design, with its annual turnover and retooling for the latest, sexiest, avatars of human desire, to the fashion industry and its latest adjustments of hem and neckline and introduction of the latest color to elaborate on the human body. That’s just what this famous New York husband and wife team of artist and designer did in “Labor of Love,” their investigative interventions in the encyclopedic collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Ruben and Isabel Toledo, “The Choreography of Labor,” 2018 Remaining images by DIA Eric Wheeler

Situated in the DIA’s Special Exhibitions galleries, the main thrust of their installation is an exploration of Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry Murals,” the heart and soul of the museum and, art lovers might say, Detroit itself. In her exploration of the collection, Isabel Toledo saw the connection in Rivera’s fresco murals between the fashion and auto industry immediately and brought them together in a large collage (Image #2) that depicts a flowing dance of her dress designs across silkscreened representation of Rivera’s painting of the factory with workers depicted engaged in car production. The darkened gallery, filled with sculpted manikins wearing formal gowns of various cultural origin, suggests a grand promenade celebrating immigration and integration of world cultures to Detroit.

Installation image of Special Exhibitions Gallery with Isabel Toledo’s first sewing machine in foreground.

There is a haunting tableau composed of Isabel Toledo’s first sewing machine wrapped in black taffeta, with ghostly gowns floating in the air above, with a quote on the wall from Isabel that offers the idea of the fashion industry and (by proximity) the auto industry, as a metaphor for the generational influence of migration and change, of death and rebirth: “The combination of ideas, time and imagination can all be triggered by fashion and how people dress, undress, expose, or cover their bodies, fashion offers the perpetual next—the never ending now, the reinvention of inventions.” It is a twist on Darwinian Evolution that goes back to LeCorbusier’s use of it to explain the evolution of design. (Incidentally Isabel’s sewing machine, in looking like a little animal, echoes Rivera’s drawing of an V-8 engine block that looks like a dog).

Diego Rivera drawing from DIA Collection

Throughout the exhibition the female body is explored as the medium of exchange for cultural expression and happily this exhibition gives us the opportunity of seeing four of Rivera’s breathtaking Detroit Industry preparatory cartoons, two of which are female figures representing the seed and fruit of the female body. Because of their fragile paper the cartoons are not displayed often.

Much of the “Labor of Love” exhibition becomes a treasure hunt. Spread throughout the museum are nine Isabel Toledo’s playful, sexy, even downright erotic designs for female adornment which are in response to particular themes and moments of the history of art arranged in the chronological galleries. It is intriguing to ferret out the connections to the specific art or gallery theme. A map is provided but, even for a seasoned museum visitor, it’s a joy to walk through the museum, with chance encounters of things that catch your eye, trying to find Isabel’s interventions. It is a clever way to break the museum’s “ideology” and cast a completely different agenda on its organization, and get the public into the galleries.

Isabel Toledo, “Synthetic Cloud,” 2018, Nylon

There are many intriguingly inventive responses and fashion interventions by the Toledos including Isabel Toledo’s design for Michele Obama’s inauguration outfit found in the American Colonial house and interesting twists on the shenanigans of the surrealists, and to Alison Saar’s “Blood/Sweat/Tears” sculpture, but the most engaging is “Synthetic Cloud.” Installed in the “minimalist” gallery and inspired, it appears mostly by Robert Irwin’s diaphanous acrylic disc, “Untitled, “ but as well by the hard-edged paintings and sculpture of Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, Eva Hesse and Ellsworth Kelly.  Above Irwin’s chimerical disc, the most mysterious piece of art in the museum, hang eleven multicolored, nylon, tulle tutus that float like a formation of clouds high above our heads. Layer upon layer of pastel underskirts support the dancing figures that also support the rigid wire bodices of the imaginary ballerinas. Somehow echoing Irwin’s ineffable image of light and shadow, Toledo’s fantastic ballerina clouds are worth the trek.

Panoramic installation view of gallery

Isabel and Ruben Toledo: Labor of Love, Detroit Institute of Arts    –  Through July 7, 2019

 

Detroit Group Exhibition @ Oakland University Art Gallery

The Oakland University Art Gallery (OUAG) has opened an exhibition, Who Were They Then, on October 20, 2018, that puts together visual artists with ties in and around Detroit. Five artists working in different media create a biographical sketch of their work spanning back to what they might consider as early beginnings.

Morgan Barrie, Pest 1, 40 x 50″ digital archival print, 2018

Morgan Barrie photo collages are landscapes that usually include an animal, as in the example Pest 1, a 40 x 50-inch digital archive print, in which the artist places an animal on a pedestal and surrounds the subject with flowering plants native to the Midwest.  The formal arrangement and centered fox, with a solid background and this array of plants carefully placed, would seem to be an application in composition, shape, and color. Needless to say, all of these elements are brought into a digital environment, carefully placed, where the light varies slightly.  There are five of these vertical compositions, each with an animal at the center: a dog, a fawn and a cat.    Her work in Re: Formation, at 600 Jefferson Avenue, Toledo, Ohio where she places a female figure in the landscape with floating Plasticene bags in Future Seasons, suggests an interest in environmental issues. In fact, she has created a body of work dominated by these bags set against clean water and open sky as subjects.

She says in her statement, “I view landscapes as teeming with millions of constantly changing factors…I like to have sections of the frame that are overwhelming to capture that idea.  All my work is a way to have a dialogue with my fear and confusion as I try to understand the way we as humans relate to the rest of the natural world, or rather don’t relate to it.”

Morgan Barrie earned her Bachelor of Arts in photography from Columbia College Chicago and her M.F.A in Photography from Eastern Michigan University.

Mel Rosas, Rooftop III, 6.5 x 9.75″, lithograph, 1981

 

Mel Rosas, Professor of Painting and Drawing at Wayne State University takes us way back to his lithograph Rooftop III, 1981 as a starting point for his magical realism in a landscape. There are few artists from Detroit who have had a long and successful career being represented in New York City by a major gallery.  For Mel Rosas, it was 1991 when he began his relationship with Davison Contemporary then located on 724 Fifth Avenue, and in 2014 moved to Chelsea on West 26th street.

These images over the years have shared common components.  The apparent elements are his use of a flat picture plane facing the viewer, and always an opening to space beyond, whether it’s the ocean, a sky, a room or just around a corner.  The settings are Latin American culture and ethnic identity, an influence that may come from his father’s homeland of Panama. The symbolism included on his street walls is often of graffiti, old movie posters, religious iconography, traffic signs and automobiles from the 1950s. Occasionally the figure of a man in a white suit appears in his work, as in Searching for the Romantic, where he places himself in the painting. In visual art, as in literature, it’s hard to get beyond oneself.

Mel Rosas, Gentrification, 36 x 36″ Oil on Panel, 2016

In Gentrification, Mel Rosas gives us the iconography of a Latin urban landscape with suggestions of construction and rebirth. Traditionally, he places his focus on composition, color and space with extraordinary detail to texture in this one-perspective rendition of a street scene.  Most who are friends of the artist know he has always added two numerals indicating his age at the time he executed the work.

He says in a statement, “I have developed an interest in Latin American Literature, both realism (Bolano) and magic realism (Borges, Marquez). I am fortunate to have traveled through several Latin American countries; my research is an ongoing investigation addressing questions of place, culture, and ethnic identity.”

Mel Rosas earned his Master of Fine Arts from Tyler School of Art, Temple University, and he has been a recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Grant, Charles H. Gershenson Distinguished Faculty Award, and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, New York, NY, 2009.

Bryant Hillman, Honda Accord, 16 x 20″, Acrylic on Canvas, 2014

Bryant Tillman is a Detroit artist who has been painting Detroit expressionistic landscapes for over thirty-five years.  In this exhibition, he presents ten works of art, fluid representational compositions of cars, people and buildings.  These high-contrast acrylic works are probably executed in a short time, from start to finish before the acrylic dries. In his painting, Honda Accord, he paints in his shadow as he takes his image during low light.  Back in the studio, the “moment in time” gets rendered with a loose, painterly brush stroke with surfaces that grab the viewer’s attention.

He says in his statement, “Painting like a dead Frenchman, you tend to often think like one when selecting subject matter, locale, or method. Natural scenes and surroundings, like freshly manicured lawns and gardens or wildly verdant wooded areas, are not alien to Detroit.  Also, the impressionists often included subjects that are considered contemporary to that time…steamships and steam locomotives, for example. So I felt it only natural to include in my work an occasional late model car in my urban scenes.”

Selected as the Visual Arts Fellow in 2013 by Kresge Arts in Detroit, Tillman shows things as they are, and lets the viewer bring their experience to the work. With his use of long, low shadows of light and color, the viewer sees a more vibrant, fertile reality than what actually exists.  He puts a painterly face on the landscapes of Detroit.

Carole Harris, Time and Again, 43.5 x 37″, cotton, silk, linen, 2018

For this writer, what is interesting about the biographical sketch of Carole Harris is the earlier work, as in View from the Kitchen on Preston Street, from quilt/ fiber artist to abstractionist, as in Time and Again, 2018.  Having written about Harris’s work when exhibited at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art and recently in her exhibition, Repetition, Rhythm, and Vocab, with Allie McGee, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, you see a unique path to non-representational art. Here in the OUAG exhibition, you view the 1999 piece, cluttered with improvisational polygons, triangles, rectangles and squares to the 2018 work, Time and Again, that depends more on the subtlety of stitchery, layers upon layers of cloth and color, while establishing a more distinct composition working from a dark background to a light off-set foreground.  One can trace back to pre-Reconstruction in the South, where quilts were necessities, and female artists went unrecognized for their aesthetics, but Carole Harris had her beginnings in textile work in the mid-1960s and gradually evolved to a pure abstract narrative, with original gestures, layered textures and innovative compositional ideas.

She says in her statement, “As an art student in college, I remember seeing the work of Romare Bearden as one of the first artists I can remember who depicted African American imagery, which made an impact even though, and probably because, it was abstract.”

Carole Harris earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Wayne State University and was the recipient of the 2015 Kresge Visual Art Fellowship.

Clinton Snider, The Last Winter, 42 x 84″, Oil on Panel, 2013

A familiar artist in Detroit, Clinton Snider’se work in this OUAG exhibition stands by itself in a separate corner space. His expressive post-industrial landscapes vary in both size and shape, occasionally including a figure.  In this sizeable rectangular work, Last Winter, Snider creates an eerie light that sets a mood as a low sunset casting long shadows across the snow.  It almost feels apocalyptic.  Trimmed and truncated trees surrounded by old debris speaks to a time gone by in a once thriving era, perhaps Detroit, waiting to be repurposed. The architecture in Snider’s buildings are almost always pre-world war II, reflective of an older neighborhood, and sometimes nostalgic, as in Back Forty, where the extra wide angle image plays heavily into the composition with extended shadows from objects spread out across a lush lawn.

Not many visual artists collaborate, and one collaboration that includes Clinton Snider is with fellow artist Scott Hocking. Most notably, their installation, Relics, consists of some 400 identical square boxes of Detroit’s discarded found objects and rummage, that were connected and set up as a grid in the exhibition Artists Take on Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2001.

Snider says in a statement, “I think that simply growing up in and around a city with a post-industrial status like Detroit has had the greatest effect on my work over the years. It feels like walking through the texture and material substance of history. Still, within this crumbling of infrastructure and architecture, a spirit remained intact that manifests itself in creativity, innovation, and a tenacity of people, that changes one’s perspective on how society functions. “

Clinton Snider earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the College for Creative Studies and was represented by Susanne Hilberry gallery.

Who Were They Then was curated by Dick Goody, Professor of Art, Chair of Department of Art & Art History and Director of Oakland University Art Gallery. In recent years he has reached out to curate many new types of exhibitions that would include installations, conceptual work and leading types of experimentation by artists from all parts of the country and beyond. Here, Goody comes back to an exhibition of Detroit artists, largely made up of representational work (with the exception of Carole Harris) that survey the artists’ work over time, and in some way feels like he comes full circle.

Who Were They Then at Oakland University Art Gallery runs through November 18, 2018.

 

 

Carole Harris & Allie McGhee @ Detroit Institute of Arts

Installation Image, Courtesy of the Detroit Art Review

As part of the kick-off for the Detroit Art Week events, the Detroit Institute of Arts mounted an exhibition coordinated by Laurie Ann Farrell, department head of contemporary art at the museum and curated by Amani Olu, Repetition, Rhythm, and Vocab, features the visual art of Carole Harris and Allie McGhee. Both artists have been prominent in the Detroit art community for over forty years, each delivering their own individual language of abstraction. The celebration commenced with a talk, and this writer was pleasantly surprised to see a full house of guests in the DIA auditorium where the artists gave a part biographical, part philosophical, talk just before the opening of their two-person exhibition in the second floor Robinson Gallery.

Allie McGhee & Carole Harris portrait Image Courtesy of Kate Gowan

Introduced by DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons, with remarks by Farrell, the talk was moderated by Amani Olu, the producer/organizer of the new Detroit Art Week.  Originally from Philadelphia, later working in New York City, Olu moved to Detroit in 2016 and founded a business to provide marketing and business consulting services to individuals, companies and organizations in the arts.  He said, “The overall vision is that we want to do our part to establish Detroit as a global destination for contemporary art just like every other major city.”

As the talk got underway, both artists shared many common themes, as they both were educated at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School and attended state colleges, Harris at Wayne State University, and McGhee at Eastern Michigan University.  They both mentioned the importance of early family support in their pursuit of art, as each told stories about their mother’s influence, and both did not see their work as part of any political movement, or part of Detroit’s revitalization, but more about a constant internal energy to create and evolve as an artist, regardless of politics or race. Harris mentioned her work was continually evolving, and McGhee suggested the influence of science, and both gave credit to the impact of the Kresge Foundation for the Arts.

I have written about both artists multiple times for exhibitions at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art and most recently at the Hill Gallery where both artists’ work were present. Allie McGhee has a long exhibition record starting back in in the mid-1970’s.  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 his lathe-like constructions. He has often folded thick painted paper into shapes that display themselves as objects on the wall.

Allie McGhee, Strata Data, Acrylic and Enamel on canvas, 2008

Music is an apt metaphor for McGhee’s methodology. Miles Davis, one of the artist’s favorite musicians, was an explorer of musical forms who gave up traditional jazz in favor of improvisation. Likewise, McGhee has talked about the art of experimentation, and working every day to explore a variety of paint mediums on a vast range of materials, from canvas to paper, window shades, fiberglass, wallpaper and cardboard.

As I wrote about his exhibition Now & Then at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, “ [McGhee’s] emphasis on discovered and spontaneous correlations that are twisted, crushed and crumpled, remind this writer of John Chamberlain, who worked in a similar fashion but mostly with metal and automobile parts. Given the time period of Allie McGhee’s formative years, the obvious influence here is Abstract Expressionism with shades of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline that, despite a seemingly spontaneous appearance, maintains a balance of chaos and control.”  The steady march of fluid and spontaneous abstract expressionism has elevated the work of Allie McGhee to a significant force in Detroit alongside artists like Al Loving, Sam Gilliam and Charles McGee.

Allie McGhee, Birthday Eclipse, 48 36″ Acrylic & Oil on canvas

Carole Harris has been called a needle artist, a quilt artist and a fiber artist, but her work and life seem to have always been in transition.  Now her works of art are titled mixed media textile, and she seems most comfortable being described as a visual artist. It has been a journey for Harris whose mother introduced her to needle arts at an early age while teaching her embroidery and crocheting.  She has had a career as an interior designer working with architectural firms, but the road has led her to express herself with stand-alone mixed media constructions that hang on the wall.  “My work relies on improvisation. I am fascinated with hue and pattern, often drawing inspiration from the color, energy, and movement. It’s like the rhythms of ethnographic rituals as well as jazz, blues, and gospel music that I have learned growing up in Detroit.”

Carole Harris, Mixed Media Textile, 42 x 53″, 2017

The first thing that jumps out from the work Bearing Witnessis not her choice of material, but her use of color, form and composition.  The strength she demonstrates draws on her informal use of space, the counter-play of color, and the texture given to torn shapes and line work.

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.”

Glen Mannisto wrote for the Detroit Art Review about Carole Harris’s solo exhibition at University of Michigan NCRC Rotunda Gallery. “Bearing Witnessis a tour de force of contemporary image making. It amalgamates not only Harris’s quilt-making magic with the disparate influences of her far-reaching eye, but is a profoundly rich metaphor for the deep struggle of living, of the balancing of life’s experiences, of listening and watching and caring for the world. This sublimely visual layering of color, shape and line is not only an act of art but — what resonates through in this process of layering the fabric of life by hand— is an act of deep caring. The title “Bearing Witness” is thus not misplaced on Carole Harris’ practice as a whole.”

Carole Harris, Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, Mixed Media Textile, 41 x 53, 2018

Carole Harris and Allie McGhee’s distinct abstract language has evolved for more than forty years. McGhee is a painter whose abstraction rises to the top based on day-in and day-out hard work where he pours his pigment and allows himself to release an intuition to create variations in composition, color and shape.  Carole Harris rises beyond the confines of fiber or quilted art, revising her decisions that are usually set in place by a medium that progresses linearly. Both of these artists have endured using a distinct abstract aesthetic that has created an homage to the harmony of an improvisational language of abstract expressionism.

In mid-July, during the dog days of summer when the art scene usually lays back and starts to plan and prepare for the fall season, the concept of Detroit Art Week provides some attention to Detroit artists and hopefully creates a tradition for years to come.

Museums, galleries, and sites participating in Detroit Art Week include Detroit Institute of Arts, David Klein Gallery, Playground Detroit, Heidelberg Project, Red Bull Arts Detroit, K. OSS Contemporary Art, Wasserman Projects, Public Pool, N’Namdi Contemporary Art Center, Library Street Collective, Holding House, What Pipeline, Charles H. Wright Museum, Simone DeSousa Gallery, Dell Pryor Gallery, Popps Emporium, and Reyes Projects.

Detroit Institute of Arts, Repetition, Rhythm, and Vocabruns through November 4, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Objects and Place @ The Scarab Club

A Spring Offensive

Be sure, on your next visit to the Scarab Club, to ascend the staircase to the lounge and “history” rooms above the first floor exhibition space. Upon arrival, make your way past the newly installed wood and yarn screens that momentarily obscure and mystify the familiar doorway into the capacious members lounge. There, awaiting your arrival, you’ll discover “Objects and Place,” a smart, telling transformation, by a collaborative trio of artists, of the dusky, fireplace dominated space.  Marie Herwald Hermann, Laith Karmo, and curator Addie Langford, have reconfigured and refreshed the familiar, cluttered space. Fusty vintage furniture (sofas, tables, and chairs) has been shifted to the margins of the room, drawing attention to the two patterned carpets that sprawl across the floor. Nor are any paintings visible on the dark, wood- paneled walls.

Installation view “Objects and Place”, 2018 – Photographic images by Jenna Belevender

After a brief scan, a few, widely spaced objects stand out: beefy white ashtrays dot sturdy oak tables (Karmo), disembodied vacuums pop up underfoot here and there (Langford), and hundreds of tiny multicolored pins, like an insouciant riff on mille-fleurs, adorn two walls (Hermann). Karmo’s stolid ashtrays, titled Meditating on Misogyny, elicit images of a brace of cigar-smoking men of an afternoon or evening opining on art, pulchritude, and the state of the world in an odiferous, nicotine-stained, smoke-filled man cave. Quills of aromatic incense stud the ashtrays, at the ready to exorcise the stale, tobacco-heavy ozone in favor of fresh air—and, presumably, fresh, alternate topics of discourse. One might also note that Karmo, no fan of prescribed, columnar pedestals, has found especially apt and congenial perches for his chunky stoneware receptacles on the Club’s vintage tables.

Laith Karmo, Meditating on Misogyny #1, Stoneware and incense, 2018

For her part, Langford’s wrecked, dismembered vacuums, shorn of handles and refuse bags, focus on the flat, distorted contours of the housing for motor, wheels, and brushes of a standard upright vacuum. Adding overlapping strips of tape in their wake, she suggests the back and forth, overlapping movements of her Sweepscompulsively scarfing up the accumulated dust and dirt—until they crash. While bearing a resemblance to roombas (said another viewer), Langford’s porcelain wrecks seem much more akin to powerful electric machines at the end of a fruitless, abandoned mission to tidy and neaten up the parameters of art and life. Perhaps too, at this point, a visitor, like this writer, belatedly realizes that the pale, lumpy object laid out on a bench on the landing of the Club’s staircase is in fact a porcelain rendering of a hollow vacuum cleaner bag.

Addie Langford, Scarab Club Lounge, Sweep/Head/Pink, Porcelain and mixed media, 2018

Hermann’s contribution to the “less is more” facelift of this dowdy room, except for her psyche altering screens at the entrance, might be overlooked at first. Absent the bevy of members’ paintings usually enlivening the walls, Hermann and Langford have inserted an array of colorful pins into the holes made by nails that secured thousands of pictures gracing the walls of the lounge since the completion of the club’s building in 1928. Now two multihued waves fifteen feet wide drift and flow freely and joyfully across the gravy-toned walls. Like a wide screen view of masses of swallows wheeling across the sky they evoke something of the tenor, breadth, and sheer number of artists and artifacts embraced by the Club over its long and memorable history.

Marie Hermann & Addie Langford, 28 – 62 #2, (detail) Pins, 2018

Admittedly, this décor altering re-do by team Hermann, Karmo, & Langford tweaks and pokes at the vintage ambience of the grand old Scarab Club housed in its venerable Arts & Crafts building, and its storied practices and programs. More significantly, what “Objects and Place”—and its renovating trio of makers–also sensitively and knowingly acknowledge, in concert with the interventions of generations of exhibitors, is the Club’s long-lived, broadly supportive aesthetic legacy. This eye-opening, conceptually savvy installation, albeit short-lived, now becomes part of its institutional history: perhaps in years to come as the spicy, spirited spring cleaning of 2018?

Scarab Club “Objects and Places” continues at the top of the stairs through May 19, 2018.

 

 

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.