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.

 

 

Al Held @ David Klein Gallery

Installation image of Al Held at David Klein with “Orion V,”1991, Acrylic on canvas,198”X192” and “Duccio VIII,” 1991, Acrylic on canvas, 108”X108”   Photography provided by Robert Hensleigh

 

In 1979 Detroit’s Cass Corridor art scene was thriving and, while he didn’t represent what was to become the iconic Cass Corridor aesthetic, Wayne State University painting professor John Egner was making interesting art. It was that year that he painted “Burnt Umber,” which eventually was purchased by then Director of the Detroit Institute of Art, Fred Cummings, and hung in the administrative offices of the Detroit Institute of Arts for a while before eventually hanging in the Modern Galleries. “Burnt Umber” is a monumental sized, stunning oil painting of almost spiritual implications, that bridges hard edge geometric abstraction and abstract expressionism with an interesting optical element as well. Incredibly energetic and busy, it was a unique painting for the Detroit art scene and was the centerpiece of Egner’s solo exhibition at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery. It was a very visible painting to all who lived in the Cass Corridor. It was in fact a painting that inspired poets to write poems and this poet to begin writing about painting.

Al Held, “Geocentric IV,” 1990, 96”X144” and “Scand III,” Acrylic on canvas, 72”96”

Walking into the Al Held exhibition at the David Klein gallery this week, it was overwhelming to experience the imposing presence of his geometric abstract painting, “Orion V,” 1991. Immediately reminiscent of Egner’s big painting of nearly 40 years ago in its monumentality (actually the same size) it is what a Renaissance painting is supposed to be and do. Like Egner’s it is awe inspiring.  Like the constellation Orion’s prominence in the night sky itself, the painting demands immediate attention and defies immediate description.  Of course, like the constellation the painting looks nothing like Orion the hunter, after whom it was named, but you make it fit because that is what Held called it. It is ripe with all manner of geometric shapes and perspectives—instead of angels, cherubs and saints, hollow cylinders looming out of a distant sky, a quixotic, puzzle-shaped plane of vibrant orange, concentric rings floating in imagined ether, a pure purple triangular wedge—in fact other than a distant blue sky-like back drop, the colors seem purposely mystifying and the composition is anything but modern. The acrylic paint is seamlessly laid on like powder-coating on a custom car.  Because of the strange, bottomless, topless, perspective the viewer is somehow disembodied amidst the gyre of movement in the painting. Held was inspired by the abstract formulations of Mondrian but because Mondrian was firmly planted on earth, with a stubborn horizon that wouldn’t let him escape, he eventually painted with horizontal and vertical lines. Inspired by Renaissance conceptions of the universe, Held was out in the universe where there is no up and down or in and out, and “Orion V” describes that.

Al Held, “Umbria XXIV,” 1992, watercolor on paper, 49”X 56 ½” and ”Primo V”, 1990, watercolor on paper, 49 3/16” X 57 ½”

Because of its title “Orion V” might be read metaphorically. It could be a celebratory image related to space travel, certainly prominent at the time, but, more likely it could simply be a secular version of the Renaissance vision. Defying famed art critic Clement Greenberg’s prescriptive ideas of flatness, “Orion V” thrives on and exhilarates in the illusion of deep space. It combines the minimalist elements of simple geometry with a hallucinatory landscape.

Another big canvas, “Geocentric IV,” 1990 is more readily grounded in nature, with an emerald green backdrop composed of hollow cylinders, cubes and triangles of heated up primary colors. With a title that sees the earth as the center of the universe, “Geocentric,” a confection of kitschy colors explodes this onslaught of primary forms, reductively standing in for the fundamental forms of nature. A tsunami of these primary forms seems to hurl toward us from a single point in the upper right hand corner. A collection of pinkish-brown cubes in the distant background serves as a substratum (earth?) for the foreground’s explosion of the primary forms. Held spent 1981-2 in Italy at the American Academy studying Renaissance painting and it could be that “Geocentric IV” is as close to a religious painting as he ever painted. Or perhaps more akin to a “Big Bang” Creation myth image, cascading, fluorescing red cubes join with brilliant blue cylinders surrounding a brilliant yellow triangle, cone and cube floating off into space. The classical compositions are unmistakable.

The remaining two paintings are also composed of a multicolored, seamlessly painted, arrangements of triangles, cubes and cylinders, and while they abound in hard-edged geometric shapes, there is a sense of an expressionistic energy behind their composition. There is a playfulness, then, in Held’s painting and brings with it a challenge to sort out perspective and the arrangement of shapes as if in a wilderness composed of a forest of forms.

The backrooms of the gallery include eight watercolors and a black and white painting. It is difficult to compare them to the acrylic painting but they are, it seems, from where the title of the exhibition, “Luminous Constructs,” is derived. Quite simply they exude light as if lit from within. “Umbria XXIV,” 1992, which probably takes its title from Held’s travels to Umbria, the magnificent Italian region of natural beauty and culture, is composed of a brilliant tangerine-orange, cruciform shape, constructed of various sized rectangular forms. The floor, the only reference to a built space in the exhibition, is emerald green and yellow checkered and the cruciform, has red, halo-like rings floating above and around it. The transparent glow of the watercolors give them an immediate, sketch-like or cartoon but sure-handed quality. Of course, the imagery of the forms are Held’s play on Christian iconography.

When John Egner was an entering art student at Yale University,  he was placed at Al Held’s interview table.  Egner told Held that he was there specifically to study with famed Abstract Expressionist Jack Tworkov.  Held called over to Tworkov’s desk and said “Hey Jack this one is for you.” Egner got up and went over to Tworkov for the interview.  Years later Egner told me, “I guess for many years at least if I was asked who was my favorite painter I would have replied “Al Held.” A little Detroit art history to go with a vibrant and rare view of an American master.

Al Held, “Victoria VIII,” 1991, watercolor on paper, 43 5/8” X 49 ¼” and “Plaza IV, 1993, watercolor on paper, 49 ¼”X63”

Al Held one-person exhibition at the David Klein Gallery through April 28, 2018

James Collins @ Simone DeSousa Gallery

Exploring the Tributaries

James Collins, Installation image, 2018

The Simone DeSousa Gallery opened an exhibition of work by James Collins on March 17, 2018, with a body of abstract paintings that exude both simplicity and complexity. A few of the paintings have an op art feel but not to their detriment, rather to their intrigue.

In these three paintings, Collins uses acrylic over a substrate made from clear vinyl shower curtains, and then uses a squeegee that he customizes from a rubber door sweep to apply the paint. He cuts notches in the rubber sweep that provide the line work he desires, using oil paint over the acrylic. He relies on the fact that oil and water do not mix. Therefore the oil and acrylic repel one another while still in their fluid state. It is a catalytic event as the different mediums repel each other momentarily. If the chemistry is off, and the painting does not work, it has to be destroyed, and he starts over. The extraordinary result is light, delicate and playful. What more could you ask for?

James Collins, Untitled, 60 x 48″, Media on Vinyl, 2018

In this 60 x 48” abstraction, the viewer can see the stretcher frame through the translucent shower curtain, but it is the dance with paint that draws us closer. It’s worth noting that these particular pieces leave us with an experience not well captured in an image, but come alive in person.

In the gallery statement about Collins work, it says, “Detroit-based artist James Collins is known for minimalist op art and abstract works that are created through a variety of imaginative processes that embody chemistry and chance. These processes create a spacious and gestural sense of predictable unpredictability. In his multidimensional line-heavy chance-based works, Collins applies a custom process in which oil paint and water-based acrylic interact in a fluid state and repel each other.

James Collins, Untitled, 60 x 48″, Mixed Media on Vinyl 2018

It’s the handling of and application of paint that conveys the spontaneity in Collins’ art. In this untitled orange-ish painting, the stretcher frame is even more exposed, intentionally. Each painting embodies an element of chance and little regarding the predetermined outcome. The artist’s goal is not solely to create new imagery but to coax the painting to life through the gestures in its making. In conversation, when I asked Collins about other artists he looks at with interest, he mentioned Bernard Frize, Wade Guyton and Jason Dodge.

James Collins, Four Untitled, each 20 x 16″, Mixed Media on Vinyl 2018

These square blue canvases are abstract fields of cloth imprints with oil paint. Each varies based on the type of rag or material used to create an impression. The consistent elements in these four paintings are the size and the color of paint, but the impressions are random patterns of folded cloth.

James Collins grew up in Superior, Wisconsin and lived in Minneapolis before moving to Detroit six years ago. He lives and works in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, on the canal. If you find Superior on a map, water and open space abound pretty much in all directions. How much of that early life determines the unconscious foundation in an abstract artist? I am not sure, but this work is original, powerful and refreshing.

Collins has shown in a number of group exhibitions, including An Anonymous System at the Rogaland Kunstsenter in Stavanger Norway; A Painting Show at Simone DeSousa Gallery in Detroit; 99 cents or Less at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit; Summer Group Show and What Birds Can See at Document in Chicago, IL; New American Paintings at the Elmhurst Art Museum, Elmhurst, IL; On the Blue Shores of Silence at Tracy Williams Ltd., New York; FOG Design and Art with Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; Library Street Collective, Detroit; Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, Grand Rapids, Mich. and at the West Michigan Area Show, Kalamazoo, where he was awarded the Grand Prize in 2012.

Exploring the Tributaries, work by James Collins at the Simone DeSousa Gallery, runs through April 15, 2018.

 

 

 

Susanne Stephenson @ Pewabic Pottery

Up, Down, and Around: The Impassioned Art of Susanne Stephenson

Susanne Stephenson, Transfigurement, Installation image by J. C. Perez.

Sweeping curves, twisting curlicues, and swirling whiplashes are the potent, rhythmic movements that generate the larger-than-life vision of the art of Susanne Stephenson. Simultaneously sculpture, vessel, and/or abstract form her terra cottas heave, spiral, and careen up, down, and around as a perceiver circles and dives into the come-hither interiors of her lusty landscapes and seascapes.

Susanne Stephenson, Bronze Luster Trojan Soup Tureen, 1976, porcelain, 8 x 10 x 10 in.

Handsomely installed in all three galleries of the Pewabic Pottery exhibition space, this expressive and timely retrospective numbers 34 signature works by the estimable Stephenson dating from 1976 through 2016. Ohio born, and a long-time Ann Arborite and professor of ceramics at Eastern Michigan University, she studied at Carnegie Mellon University and Cranbrook Academy of Art. The four decade evolution of her oeuvre now on view illustrates both the comparatively reserved, minding-their-own-business early vessels, such as the Bronze Luster Trojan Soup Tureen with horn-like handles from 1976 and the breakthrough Cut Edge Black Water Mountain of 1983. In the latter, the “mountain” peak has literally blown its top implied by a taut, upraised flap (sliced off and reattached in process), while the creamy, overflowing lava sets up a strong white/black contrast, both coloristic and tactile, between it—matt, chunky–and the dark, shiny circular mountain top.

Susanne Stephenson, Cut Edge Water Rush, 2000, terra cotta, 24 x 15 x 15 in.

Traditional vessel forms, such as vases, often serve as starting points for Stephenson’s windswept forms. In Cut Edge Water Rush (2000), for example, the rush of spiraling color and form circumnavigates the two feet tall shape at warp speed, its vibrant, multi-hued palette enhancing passage around the tapering form, as it whirls with the unflagging energy of a whirling dervish. Her universe seems alive with ceaseless motion, not unlike the insistent energy of a Jackson Pollock drip composition. (Stephenson, like many sculptors, was originally a painter.) Indeed, an expressionist aesthetic, whether German or Abstract or Californian (think Peter Voulkos), has surged into view multiple times in the course of the twentieth century.

Susanne Stephenson, Red Beach, 1993, terra cotta, 17 x 20 x 15 in.

Stephenson’s bowls, too, work similarly on a visitor, as in Red Beach (1993). One is swiftly swept round its form while the S-shaped, upraised flange, like an undertow, sucks an unwary swimmer-viewer into its depths. Spring Coast, also on display and sculpted the following year, offers another cathartic experience: glazed orange at the bottom segueing to green around the rim, it too seduces the viewer to lean and peer into its alluring recesses.

Susanne Stephenson, Blue Wave, 2007, terra cotta, 22 x 29 x 9 in.

The large scale of another cluster of works—thick, hefty, ovoid wall reliefs—may in fact be described as seascapes. Bearing such titles as Blue Wave, Orange Wave I, and Spring Wave II, and often two feet or more in width and projecting up to ten inches, they fully evoke the thrust and even brutality of waves crashing ashore. The weighty physicality of Stephenson’s roiling, tactile surf in these reliefs is heightened by vivid and furrowed swaths of color realized by mixing the slip with paper pulp. As such they resonate with the underlying, inescapable momentum of the universe, essentially Stephenson’s world view whether addressing the immensities of mountains and sea or transfiguring the domestic tropes of the land of clay (vases, bowls, platters).

Organized by a trio of curators, Darlene Carroll, Paul Kotula, and Tom Phardel, “Susanne Stephenson: Transfigurement” remains on view through May 13. Catch it while you can at Pewabic Pottery, 10125 E. Jefferson Avenue in Detroit.

 

 

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.