Cass Corridor @ Simone DeSousa Gallery

Cass Corridor, Connecting Times: Brenda Goodman, Kathryn Bracket Luchs, Ann Mikolowski, Nancy Mitchnick, Ellen Phelan, and Nancy Pletos

Cass Corridor, Connecting Times: Brenda Goodman, Kathryn Bracket Luchs, Ann Mikolowski, Nancy Mitchnick, Ellen Phelan, and Nancy Pletos. Image DAR

Until very recently driving into Detroit from the nearby suburbs on Friday night was hassle-free and at most a 15-minute drive. For the opening of Simone DeSousa Gallery’s current exhibition, “Cass Corridor: Connecting times,” the last in the series to explore art of the 60s and 70s in Detroit’s infamous bohemian community, the drive was a delightful pain in the ass. The freeway was clogged with impatient drivers going to the Red Wing Hockey game, or the Tiger game or the half dozen art openings in the cultural center or music concerts or to hang at all manner of clubs and bars or to dine at the literally dozens of new restaurants in the new Foodie capital of the United States. We always knew the city would come back and we knew that we would regret it and also rejoice.

Nancy Mitchnick, “Dog Party,” 2017, oil on canvas. All images Courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery.

Forty or so years ago when the six women artists in this exhibition came down to Wayne State University or the Detroit Society of Arts and Craft to begin their art education, from each of their nearby homes in the broad reaches of Detroit’s working class neighborhoods, they were adventurers in a pretty much strange land. The exodus from racially torn Detroit had begun and the seamy, derelict parts were rising; the city seemed abandoned. Rents were cheap and studio space abundant.

These young women had the freedom to grow and become what they would without the usual college routines. Each did grow and develop as artists in their own unique way, for a while each living in the intellectually and artistically energetic Cass Corridor, staying the course to become fully, accomplished artists.

Brenda Goodman, “Balance,” 2017, Oil on Canvas

For years, the Brenda Goodman that Detroit knew had been the stalwart painter of a personal, iconography that was always executed with a masterful surface and line but left us waiting for a little more expansive, less inward preoccupation. Her drawing always had an underlying tenderness that contrasted with its moody, psychological content.

It appears that Brenda has broken out of her reflexive imagery, to do what John Yau has said about another fine artist, making “improvisation and surprise central” to her practice. In the two paintings at DeSousa, fresh new shapes and forms are the message and they are both wrought with Goodman’s characteristically sure hand and architecturally acute eye. “Tomorrow’s Promise” is a wonderful folding of trapezoids, ribbons and biomorphic shapes into an enigmatic etched space of brilliant thin orange and lime green wash activated by black and gray outlining. An inscrutable, colorful triangle sits in the center challenging the whole.

“Balance,” a black and white phallic yoga posture abstraction, has a sculptural presence and carries a memory of Goodman’s earlier cartoony symbolism.

Nancy Pletos,”Topsy Turvy,” 2001, Cardboad, paint, glue, found objects

 

Nancy Pletos, the spiritual linchpin of the Corridor art scene, and always one of its most formally inventive artists, transformed bits and pieces of wood molding and found objects into imaginary gardenscapes and architectural dreamscapes. At once zany as well as magical, she also recomposed sheets of Masonite back into 2-dimensional log forms. There are a number of her childlike gardenscapes (“Standing Gardens”) and wood sculptures in the exhibition, but the centerpiece of her work there is “Topsy Turvy,” 2001, the last wall reliefs she did before turning to smaller works. A multimedia piece of cardboard, paint, glue and found objects, “Topsy Turvy” is a hybrid wall relief, at once flora and fauna, creature and plant, serpent and garden, lacking a fixed identity and a wonderful synthesis of Pletos’ realizations of the natural world.

Ann Mikolowski, always a magical presence herself in the Cass Corridor, is represented by six of her famed miniature portraits of the movers and shakers of the art world. She of course did large paintings that always surprised with their unique subject matter and perspective. She did wonderful paintings of Lake Huron in various states of being and an enormous black and white cow, but her miniatures are her iconic works. Among the six portraits exhibited her portrait of “Mike Knight,” 1991, 3”x 5,” playing guitar, with the Ghost Band at the Third Street Bar, is a small miracle in capturing Knight’s singular presence, with red bandana and Harley-Davison T-shirt, on the stage. The detail of the stage setting is comical with a blue plastic milk crate supporting guitar player Ron Kopac’s Fender amp behind his cowboy boots, and two beer bottles hiding under the drum kit.

Ann Mikolowski, “Mike Knight,” 1991, Oil on canvas

Both Nancy Mitchnick and Ellen Phelan were powerful artistic, intellectual, and social forces in the Cass Corridor, before moving to New York City in 1973, to establish extraordinary careers. Composed of narrative comedy, painterly gymnastics and intuitive invention Mitchnick’s “Dog Party,” 2017, is just that, a delightful playdate for six dogs of diverse shape, color, and breed. Situated in a Southwestern-like landscape, with pink sky caressing distant mountains and arid green foreground with three horizontal canals articulating the space, the dogs, are dispersed like notes on a music scale. It’s a marvelous painting and arch illustration of Mitchnick’s enchanting inventions.

Ellen Phelan’s most notable works are her atmospheric and luminescent landscapes and her soft-focus doll paintings, but there is clearly a relationship between the early wood and paint sculpture in the exhibition and those later works. “Untitled,” 1976-77, is composed of three vertical wood boards painted gray, green and one unpainted, creating a column which is mounted to the wall. It has a black horizontal panel bifurcating it. Like her landscapes and soft focus dolls, “Untitled,” has an atmospheric presence. Its ambiguity is its definition. The black horizontal panel makes it a cruciform but only adds to it’s minimalist autonomy. Like Mitchnick, Phelan, in exploring multiple artistic tropes throughout her career, imposed an artistic and intellectual rigor to the Cass Corridor art scene.

Last, but spectacularly not least, is the Kathryn Brackett Luchs’ “Open,” 2018, a carved, 4’X8,’ birch plywood wood block and print diptych. Intensely gouged and carved with naturalistic patterns, and skimmed with green patina, resembling a landscape topography, it is imposing as a gorgeous monumental wall relief. Paper thin glassine was pressed into the block to create a gossamer, textured, echo-like print that was treated with sumi, a kind of printer’s ink, to insinuate a haunting aura.  Luchs’ wood block and print is reminiscent of the early Cass Corridor artist’s experiments with gouging and violently attacking plywood panels with a circular saw. Overall there is a beautiful coppery patina that fills the room with a beautiful glow.

With its focus on women, this last installment of “Cass Corridor: Connecting Times” couldn’t be more timely. The Cass Corridor moment is past, and this exhibition is palpable proof of the power of social and political forces in compelling and honing an engaged, creative community and, in this revolutionary moment, it is fitting that its revisiting ends with powerful women artists.  Simone DeSousa Gallery’s ambitious undertaking to revisit this artistic reaction to a dystopic Detroit is a resounding success. More important than anything else is that the Cass Corridor cultural scene was a collective community response, not to just a local crisis, but a worldwide psychic calamity. The art was one was one element of an incredibly complex time.  Celebrated here are six women artists whose work emerged from that moment and of course many equally fine artists, political activists, and intellectuals, who ultimately created and defined it, have not. It was the actual experience of that community, that was life/mind changing. It will be interesting to see what forms of a community and art loom out of the new Detroit.

Kathryn Bracket Luchs,  “Open,” 2018, Wood block—carved birch plywood with ink. Print—layered glassine with sumi on canvas, varnished.

 

Cass Corridor, Connecting Times: Brenda Goodman, Kathryn Bracket Luchs, Ann Mikolowski, Nancy Mitchnick, Ellen Phelan, and Nancy Pletos at Simone DeSousa Gallery through Oct 14, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Mirrors and Intersections @ Grand Rapids Art Museum

Anila Quayyum Agha (American, b. Pakistan 1965). Intersections, 2013. Laser-cut wood, 6.5 x 6.5 x 6.5 feet. Courtesy of the Artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha’s ethereal sculptural installation Intersections is likely the most photographed work of art in Grand Rapids at the moment, surpassing even the city’s iconic, blazing-red Calder.  At Artprize 2014 (the city’s annual public-art festival), Intersections won both the People’s Choice and Judges’ Choice awards, and now, through the end of Summer, it returns to the Grand Rapids Art Museum where it made its auspicious debut.  It was a work calculatedly fashioned to appeal across social and cultural demographics, and if Instagramability is a worthy criterion of a work’s public appeal, then the artist certainly succeeded.

The work is the star of a pair of closely related solo exhibitions on view in adjacent gallery spaces, one showcasing Agha, and the other featuring Iranian artist Monir Shaharoudy Farmanfarmaian. There’s a thematic continuity between their distinctive styles that make the pairing work almost as a single show. Both artists apply sophisticated tessellations and kaleidoscopic patters so characteristic of visual culture in the pan-Arab world, and both artists explore the visual possibilities of reflected light and cast shadow.  Their works are also both—to some degree– participatory and interactive.

Monir Shaharoudy Farmanfarmaian, Installation image, Courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum

The first exhibition space contains Mirror Variations, Farmanfarmaian’s luminous glass sculptures which represent an inventive fusion of traditional Persian art mixed with the American abstraction the artist encountered during her formative years in New York between 1945 and 1957, where she met art-world luminaries like Willem de Kooning and Louise Nevelson.  (In 2015 her work came full circle; New York’s Guggenheim awarded the artist her first solo American show—perhaps a curiously late honor for an artist and socialite of such import that she and her husband once played host to President John and Jackie Kennedy in Tehran.)

Inspired both by Arabic architecture and by principles of Sufi geometry, Farmanfarmaian’s work applies repetition and progression of simple shapes.  Like mosaics in 3D, her sculptures comprise tens of thousands of individual glass components which reflect light, diffusing fragmented geometric shapes across the gallery walls, ceiling, and floor.   One pentagonal sculpture—though prohibitively stowed behind glass on a pedestal—reflects light onto the ceiling and into the viewer’s space, directly involving the GRAM’s architecture into her work.  The lack of artisans in the United States able to help execute such detailed cut-glass work as this is partly why the artist eventually returned to her home country in 2004 after over 20 years of exile initiated by the Iranian Revolution.

Monir Farmanfarmaian (Iranian, b. 1924). Tir (Convertible Series), 2015. Mirror, reverse-glass painting, plaster on wood, 63 x 63 x 6 inches

These stately, ordered sculptures might seem the polar opposite of the often noisy, raucous world of the Postwar New York School, but some of her hanging sculptures invite a certain relinquishment of control that seems to parallel the likes of Robert Rauschenberg—particularly his playfully interactive Synapsis Shuffle (incidentally, a series of paintings which the GRAM exhibited in this very room back in 2012). Her Convertible series explores the myriad of varying geometric possibilities that can be created with a set of identical, interlocking shapes.  Each polygonic component is a fairly complex work in its own right, but the specific way they are arranged on the wall remains entirely fluid, ever-changing wherever they happen to be installed.

The second major gallery space is entirely devoted to Agha’s Intersections.  The work is a suspended black cube (about 7 feet square) crafted out of laser-cut wood, and inside a high-power bulb blasts the form’s intricate geometric shadows onto the gallery’s walls, ceiling, and floor, transforming every cubic millimeter of the space.  Its patterns derive from architectural elements of Spain’s Alhambra,the famed 14thcentury Nasarid dynasty palace and fortress.   It’s visually striking, but the work is conceptual as well.  Agha states that growing up in Pakistan as a female, she was not allowed to enter mosques, and with Intersections, wished to create a work which was open and accessible across all demographics.  Indeed, there’s something democratic and participatory about seeing yourself silhouetted on the gallery wall alongside the shadows of other visitors, all invariably with phones drawn, ready to share the moment on social media.

Video interview with Agha

In an auxiliary exhibition space, viewers confront a final bit of shadowplay.  A circular sculpture comprising  hundreds of identical triangular shapes is affixed from a wall and tactfully illuminated from three different angles.  The shadows it casts resemble a mash-up of a Venn-diagram and a series of tessellations by M.C. Escher.

Together, Mirror Variations and Intersections both manage to tactfully translate centuries-old Arabic visual culture into the language of 21stCentury abstraction.  And both artists manipulate light to transform a gallery space, creating works that transcend the beautiful and perhaps approach the sublime.  Their works slow us down—even in an art museum, after all, one is tempted to rush through to take everything in, spending, according to one study, less than 30 seconds in front of each painting.  But here the artists invite us to linger, and these exhibitions suppress our impulse to hurriedly move on the next thing.

Grand Rapids Museum  – through August 26, 2018

NAIAS @ Cobo Hall, Detroit, Michigan, USA

Floor View of NAIAS

So last year, I wandered out onto the farthest fringe of the fine art community and made a decision to write about the 2017 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). At the time I declared it to be an exhibition in the Detroit metro area worthy of our time and effort. Now, the new 2018 review comes on the heels of writing a review of Monet: Framing Life, an exhibition now at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In my 2017 Auto Show review, I gave recognition to the Eyes on Design competition and to the College for Creative Studies for their exemplary Transportation Design Program. In addition, I acknowledged all the fine artists who worked in the automotive design process by day, and do their own personal and private fine art work in their home studios on weekends and by night. I did this review based on attending the 2017 public viewing of the auto show, packed with a widely diverse audience of families and individuals from all walks of life. When the review was published, I did get positive feedback from NAIAS officials as they recommended that in 2018, I should apply for a press credential. For the 2017 Detroit Art Review, I went about my business and selected a luxury production car, the 2017 Lincoln Continental, as having the highest level of overall aesthetic appeal, followed up by my reasons for the selection and why.

There were critics, of course, both writers and artists who thought I had lost my mind by comparing the design elements of a car to the exhibition of paintings by Van Gogh or Edward Hopper, but many more could easily see the connection between the artisans who work in the automobile design departments and their personal artistic talent, of which many men and women exhibit in galleries, museums, and fine art competitions right here in Detroit.

But that was last year. In December of 2017, I contemplated a new review of 2018 NAIAS. Should I do another?  I began by applying for a press credential and was rejected and then rejected again on appeal. Then I approached the Chairman of the CCS Transportation Design program by email and asked for his input. He said he supported the idea whole-heartedly, but soon his emails stopped and he could not be reached. After the rejection by NAIAS for press access, they suggested that I should simply attend one of the Industry Preview Days. I did that and paid dearly for the, um, privilege. $110 for the ticket, $15 for parking and $4 to hang up my coat, all in a good effort to provide publicity and good will to the auto industry. (I am happy to report that using the men’s room is still free.)

Audi V-10 R8 Coupe convertible

The first thing I bumped into on the showroom floor was the new Audi R8 V-10 sports coupe powered by a 10-cylinder gas guzzling engine with a 14mpg (they may have fudged on the mileage). Considering the price tag of $175,000, that seemed like enough money and cylinders for four cars.

I moseyed up to a high platform where the view consisted of thousands of white men, aged 30-60 years old, in dull slacks, dress shirts, short hair, and glasses. Many were clustered in groups and held an itemized pad for notes and iPhones for taking pictures.

Several times I asked those working the show what was meant by Industry Preview Day. Their responses varied greatly. “Mostly engineers…looking at the competition,” or “VIPs from headquarters” or “today is for the auto designers and their teams,” or “it’s mostly a perk for suppliers or dealers.” My guess is they all were provided with a free ticket.

Bluntly, it was a sea of Caucasian men as far as I could see. I did see an African American security guard in a red coat, and an African American cleaning lady, in that same red coat. To be fair, there might have been one or two women there, probably VIP spouses, and a few Asian engineers. Notable were several undercover police officers with sniffer dogs, and at each entrance, African American security guards (in their red coats) doing body scans with an electronic wand. Well, good. I felt safe, but there was a new experience ahead.

As you might recall or imagine, the Cobo exhibition hall is a large, circular space filled, in this case, with very expensive sets are individually designed and assigned to each automobile manufacturer. What I didn’t expect to see was a section devoted to automotive suppliers. I guess that means more revenue for NAIAS and Cobo Hall.

The first supplier exhibit I came across was Aramco Transport Technologies, which provides technology that improves mileage, emissions, and efficiency. I asked a representative where their headquarters were, and they said, Novi, Michigan. Apparently, they are also located in other parts of the world, like Paris, France. When pressed, they said they were a division of Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, the state-owned oil company that is the world’s top exporter of oil and natural gas.

To be fair, Aramco has developed a Mobile Carbon Capture technology that captures the Co2 before it leaves the car, which is then stored and unloaded for reuse. Although there were electric cars, like Volkswagen’s concept car, in most of the displays, but I did not see a supplier of passive energy sources for automotive use.

There was Denso North America, leaders in corrosion prevention and sealant technology, headquartered in Kariya, Japan. There was a large display by Aisin Group that specialized in powertrain components, also head quartered in Japan, but I asked myself; who is coming to NAIAS to look into the technical parts of a car or cross-sections of a transmission? Are they lobbyists? I would be remiss if I did not mention the Michelin Tire Display, fudge from Kyba’s Mackinaw Island and the candied almond vendor.

2018 Lincoln Continental

But back to my mission to find a car that has the highest level of overall aesthetic appeal, which leads me to another revelation: The design of production cars changes very slowly, as this year’s models demonstrated. I was drawn back inexorably to the Lincoln Continental. The understatement of line, shape, and proportion still provides the viewer with a feeling of strength and security. The lines curve down and inward, an aesthetic sometimes seen in European sports cars. The repetition of roundness is soothing. Stylish elements abound, like the way the E-latch door handles provide a graceful inset in the side door, and five LED lamps create a slender design to what used to be a larger headlamp.

2018 Lincoln Continental Grill Detail

The front grill is refined, delicate and proportionate to the front profile, while the small openings in the grill repeat a similar shape of the car logo. A sleek console serves to open up the cabin, while the sophisticated push-button gearshift integrates seamlessly with classic knobs and buttons. The leather-wrapped, hand-stitched steering wheel is mounted ahead of a 12.3-inch fully configurable digital instrument cluster that displays easy-to-read driver information clearly. Sitting in the car, looking closely at its design elements, I was left with what I experienced last year, which is that the Lincoln Motor Company, the luxury automotive brand of Ford Motor Company, is committed to creating an exquisitely designed vehicle that places itself above their competitors.

2018 Lincoln Continental fron interior

 

Everything I experienced with the cars themselves remains the same, particularly when it came to recognizing the designers who work hard at deserving their much-earned success around the world. As I mentioned, NAIAS has its own Eyes on Design program, and this year they gave the KIA Stinger their choice for Best Production Car award. (South Korea is hosting this years Winter Olympics) If you’re curious, the awards are decided on by four chief judges, and thirty-two regular judges who must work together on a process that I cannot imagine, but it is their official program, highly honored and celebrated. Congratulations! But as for my experience with NAIAS 2018 Industry Preview Day, it was enlightening and disappointing. The cars were sleek and shiny, the crowd was bland, and the diversity of people packed into Cobo Hall on this day…was racially offensive.

NAIAS 2018 @ Cobo Hall, Detroit

 

 

 

 

NAIAS 2017 @ Cobo Hall, Detroit

2017 Charity Preview

2017 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) Charity Preview Event

What is now known as the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) began as an event in 1899. The first official Detroit Auto Show was held in 1907 at Beller’s Beer Garden in Riverview Park, where a total of 33 new motor vehicles were shown by 17 vendors, and spectator admission was 50 cents.

So, you wonder, why are you reading about a car exhibition in the Detroit Art Review? We’ll answer that question with a question: How many people who are responsible for the creation of an automobile attended art school? Plenty, as it turns out.

Every week, we at the Detroit Art Review explore the work of artists in galleries and museums in the Detroit Metro Area, but we’ve never tipped our hats to the men and women who contribute to the aesthetics of an automobile. Because we are doing our work here in Detroit, the home of the automobile and most of the automotive industry, it seems fitting to mention an annual event that contributes $500 million to our local economy. More than 800,000 attendees last year and press from all around the world gathered to see the new cars produced that provide a basic staple of American culture: Individualized Transportation. NAIAS has displayed the wares of the automotive industry, a million square feet of it, at Cobo Hall since 1967.

Not to take away from the prestige of the event over all, but the design work that goes into an automobile is recognized by EyesOn Design Awards, which are the sine qua non design awards in the industry, sponsored by the Henry Ford Health System, Department of Ophthalmology. As proof of design excellence, consider a production car that rises to the top in terms of aesthetic appeal: the 2017 Lincoln Continental.

Lincoln_Approach_Detection_2017_Continental

Ford Motor Company, Lincoln Continental, 2017

The understatement of line, shape and proportion provides the viewer with a feeling of strength and security. It is not a pointed, aggressive look, but a mature profile in its approach to visual stability. The lines curve down and inward, an aesthetic seen sometimes in European sports cars. The repetition of roundness is soothing. Stylish elements abound, like the way the E-latch door handles provide a graceful inset in the side door, and five LED lamps create a slender design to what used to be a larger headlamp. The front grill is refined, delicate and proportionate to the front profile, unlike the majority of cars these days that feature a sweeping, forward design with pointed grills, like the V-Motion Nissan sports look, something you might see on a Star Trek movie set, or the Lexus grill that reaches down so low to the street it seems designed to collect debris.

Ford Motor Company, Lincoln Continental, 2017

Growing up and now working in Detroit, I was always acutely aware of the design and engineering sensibility in the metro area that dominated our psyche. For instance, the Sunday New York Times relegates automobile coverage to the business section, while there are two sections devoted entirely to the Arts. In Detroit, there has always been an Auto section in the Sunday Detroit newspapers and no Arts section. Yet the people of Detroit and the tri-county area supported a millage to keep the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) intact. They knew intrinsically that the fine arts were important to our quality of life, and voters made a substantial ten-year commitment to help support the DIA in a time when bankruptcy threatens our city. The Center for Creative Studies has developed an extraordinary Transportation Design program that works closely with the automotive industry to help prepare young designers to meet the technological needs of a changing work force. I know clay sculptors who form the full-scale prototypes at the General Motors Technology Center, and they often exhibit their hand thrown pottery at local art exhibitions.

So at the beginning of each year, the North American International Auto Show displays the new products of an American industry in which artistic design elements, both interior, and exterior, play a vital role. I, for one, am proud to be from Detroit and active in its art community, which includes all the men and women who work to design beautiful products. For those who attend the show or see the Lincoln Continental on the road, take a close look at the design elements and how they personify the rich aesthetics of a luxury car, and remember the Continental was made by artists and engineers here in Detroit.

 

 

 

 

Charles McGee @ Charles H. Wright Museum

 

CHW long

Charles McGee unveiling of United We Stand sculpture -Farnsworth Entrance to the Charles H. Wright Museum

Charles McGee, the first Kresge Eminent art artist in 2008, and one of Detroit’s most well-known artists was present July 23, 2016, at the Charles H. Wright Museum for the unveiling of his massive sculpture, “United We Stand”. The new sculpture displays seven abstract figures in black and white motifs that one cannot help observing the symbolism in its meaning: one people together.

United We Stand

Charles McGee, United We Stand, Poly-chrome steel, high-gloss enamel paint, concrete base

Funded by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, the award of $50,000 was used to create the sculpture that is prominently located just west of the museum’s Farnsworth entrance. The sculpture will serve as a capstone to a long and prestigious career by the Detroit artist, Charles McGee. McGee’s paintings, assemblages, and sculptures are part of many distinguished collections. One of my favorites is “Noah’s Ark” at the Detroit Institute of Arts in the Prentis Court. The enamel and mixed media piece measures fifteen feet long and ten feet high and combines two female figures with animal forms and colorful bands of color.

08 Mcgee_Noah's Ark Genesis

Charles McGee, Noah’s Ark Genesis, Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Charles McGee, now 91 years of age, migrated to Detroit from South Carolina at the age of 10, and attended the College of Creative Studies (then called the Society of Arts and Crafts). He taught art for 18 years at Eastern Michigan University, before retiring in 1987. He also taught at the University of Michigan and received an honorary doctorate from the College for Creative Studies. “The creative mind, “ McGee has written, “continues to test the parameters of conventional knowledge, forever in pursuit of new vistas.”

01 McGee_portrait by Ray Manning

Portrait of Charles McGee by Ray Manning

“United We Stand” is to kick off the upcoming year of exhibitions and activities to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 summer of the Detroit Riots.

The Charles H. Wright Museum