Detroit Art Review

Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Best Times @ David Klein Gallery

Best Times Installation at David Klein Gallery, photo: K.A. Letts

“They were the best of times, they were the worst of times…”     

As Charles Dickens begins his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, he describes a historical period of political and social turbulence that is, in some ways, similar to our own.  To those disposed to pessimism, 2021 might seem like a time to despair, but the artists now showing work in Best Times at David Klein Gallery beg to differ. They celebrate beauty–in the natural world, in art, in everyday objects–while remaining clear-eyed observers of contemporary life and its discontents. Color is the star of the show here; its emotional impact ranges from the giddy pastel polygons of Sylvain Malfroy-Camine to the contemplative gray formalism of Matthew Hawtin, with quite a lot in between.

Late Stage, New Age (red exercise band infinity, sage, Kombucha, green aura) by Cooper Holoweski, 2020, mixed media, 40 x 24.75 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Cooper Holoweski sets the tone for the exhibit with conceptually and procedurally complex works on paper from his Late Stage, New Age series of works on paper.  He seems both enamored by and critical of the technological ecosystem’s marvels. Each piece is a demonstration of complex digital processes such as inkjet printing and laser cutting in dialog with the images of technology that their use makes possible. The cheerful consumerist palette of these mixed media artworks sets up an uneasy resonance with ghostly, truncated human anatomy. Juxtaposed with mundane food and household products, digital devices intrude–a new, added component to daily life that alters the human experience of the self and the environment.

Untitled (January 15) by Lauren Semivan, 2021, archival pigment print, 50 x 40 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Similarly-sized archival pigment prints by Lauren Semivan make an interesting point of comparison to Holoweski’s work. Her lyrical photo collages are composed of humble detritus–fairly anonymous, slightly used paper napkins, net tulle fabric, and the like. Those diaphanous and often translucent elements are bisected with thin lines of color, transforming the shallow fictive space into elegant compositions that fool the eye. The artist describes color in her work as an “emotional descriptor.”  Up close, the marks and scratches on the surface suggest imagined topographies and the physical records of human presence. Step back though, and the picture begins to pulse with the luminosity of a cloudy sky.

Lost City #2 by Susan Goethel Campbell, 2020, two-layered perforated woodblock print on Goyu paper, edition of 5, 23.5 x 31 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Susan Goethel Campbell’s color-saturated and heavily pierced works on paper describe tropical landscapes seen from above.  From a distance their source in aerial photography is evident, but as we draw nearer, the subtle striations of the wood block printing plates she uses to apply color and the tiny pin pricks that admit hues from the layer beneath begin to make the landscape dissolve into a dreamy abstract matrix of lines and shapes. Goethel Campbell’s choice of colors–acid-y greens, deep blues and aquatic turquoise–are evocative of equatorial environments but avoid the picture postcard aesthetic of tourist destinations.  The artist’s title for the series, Lost Cities, obliquely hints at the ephemeral nature of island ecosystems.

Sedition by Matthew Hawtin, 2020, collage on paper, 22 x 22 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

In the middle gallery, Matthew Hawtin’s small, austere collages remain in the world of the handmade, but just barely.  His specialty is the subtle variation of textures and lines within a minimalist esthetic. These intimate artworks force us into closer examination, where we begin to discern the tiny differences in each severely cut rectilinear line and shape. There is something restful about contemplating the warm grays juxtaposed with clear bright reds and yellows.

A Specificity by Ben Pritchard, 2021, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

For gallery visitors who hunger for something a little more visceral than Hawtin’s cerebral formalism, a collection of heavily textured, richly colored abstractions by Ben Pritchard occupies the opposite wall and might be just the thing. These lush, impasto-ed paintings in robust blues, greens, oranges and browns bring to mind the idiosyncratic paintings of the early modernist Arthur Dove. Pritchard is a painter of signs and symbols–cryptic shapes that might be stylized animals or kites or moons, but remain just outside the realm of the known. They are objects of meditation, nonspecifically directing the range of our thoughts and emotions.

Yellow Rose Moon by Mitch Cope, 2021, oil on Masonite panel, 73 x 73 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

From the two loosely painted floral tondos on view, Mitch Cope, who is best known for large-scale installations exploring the Detroit landscape and the objects within it, is taking a little vacation from all that. He seems to be having a great time. The frowsy, slightly retro painted blossoms on Masonite retain a kind of subtle urban surface that suggests found objects and undercuts the prettiness of the subject matter.

Rome by Sylvain Malfroy-Camine, 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 25 x 30.75 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Sylvain Malfroy-Camine’s many-sided paintings perhaps best describe the euphoric mood that pervades Best Times. Fenced within their polygonal pens, multi-colored ovals and swatches have escaped the earth’s gravity and float or explode inside the pictorial space. In addition to his studio practice, Malfroy-Camine is a musician, and the discrete spots of color in each artwork suggest musical notes in a jubilant symphony.

The artists in Best Times aren’t starry-eyed optimists. There are ample references to contemporary unease, from Cooper Holoweski’s cheerily ominous digital devices to Susan Goethal Campbell’s lush depictions of fugitive coastlines. But hope is a choice, and for right now, the joyful ambience of this summer collection seems right.

Best of Times, Group Exhibition, through August 28th, 2021 at the David Klein Gallery

Design Highlights and American Perspectives @ GRAM

Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection, installation photo.

Grand Rapids is home to some of the Midwest’s finest contributions to applied art and design, particularly in the furniture industry, and the Grand Rapids Art Museum holds a muscular collection of applied arts, much of which comprises the exhibition Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection. This is a show which brings together work from 20th Century megastars, but also artists and designers who remain completely unknown. Filling the GRAM’s first-floor gallery suite, all these works stand as examples of how artists have sought to bring beauty into everyday life.

The works in this show represent a synthesis of decoration and function, and the distinction between the two is frequently blurred.  It’s a point emphatically made by the inclusion of a ceramic plate, some vases, and a set of cups designed by Picasso for Madoura Pottery in France, all adorned with whimsical vignettes rendered in the artist’s abstract style.

Some of these works explore design for its own sake. There are several lithographs in which Alexander Calder simply plays with basic abstract arrangements of shape, form, and color.  And an iridescent, blow-molded acrylic wall-hanging by Gisela Colon is similarly non-functional, but in its luminescence and simplicity speaks to the potentiality of design alone to capture the viewer’s interest even in the absence of conventional subject matter.

Ovoid Glo-Pod (Iridescent Lilac), Gisela Colon, 2016.  Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection, installation photo

But the overwhelming majority of works here exemplify functional design, ranging from furniture, cutlery, advertising, household appliances, and electronics. A display case housing personal electronic devices underscore the rapidity of the evolution of technological design.  An ensemble comprising several 1950s-era radios, an AM/FM Walkman, a cassette player, a TV, and some cameras is now collectively obsolete, rendered so by the advent of the smartphone.

Grand Rapids is famous in the Midwest for its contributions to furniture design, and visitors to the GRAM can count on several iconic examples of 20th-century furniture always being on display. These often articulate the point that, like technology, furniture design can also substantially shift and evolve over a relatively short time. Here, there are some pieces by Gustav Stickley, Ray Eames, and Charles Eames.  Certainly, the most visually striking pieces are the zainy, sculptural chairs produced by the Westnofa Workshop which manage to re-define the notion of what a chair even is.

Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection, installation photo.

Similarly blurring the distinction between the beautiful and the functional, a concurrent exhibition features 80 works on loan from the collection of the American Folk Art Museum. This large exhibit fills most of the GRAM’s spacious second-floor gallery suite. By its nature, folk art is eclectic and perhaps hard to define, but these works collectively make the point that folk art has the capacity to be punchy, pertinent, and socially engaged.

American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection, installation image courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum comprises a varied assortment of media, and amplifies voices that have been traditionally absent from museum spaces. One of the most moving examples is a ceramic vase by David Drake, an enslaved African American who created an estimated 40,000 works of pottery in his lifetime, invariably signing them “Dave” and often inscribing  witty rhyming couplets on their surfaces.  His signature features prominently on the side of the vase, asserting his personhood and creative agency in triumphant defiance of the dehumanizing institution of slavery.

David Drake (c.1800–c. 1870).Jug,1853.Alkaline-glazed stoneware,14 1/2 x 12 x 11 1/2 inches.CollectionAmerican Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Sally and Paul Hawkins, 1999.18.1.Photo by JohnParnell.

Harnessing an entirely different media, the Grover Cleveland Quilt similarly amplifies a disenfranchised voice, the patches of the quilt declaring its anonymous creator’s support for Grover Cleveland’s candidacy approximately forty years before the vote was extended to women. Created almost exactly a century later, Jessie Telfair’s Freedom Quilt is a monument to the hard-fought rights secured during the Civil Rights Movement.

Jessie B. Telfair (1913–1986)Freedom Quilt,1983.Cotton,with pencil,74 x 68inches.CollectionofAmerican Folk ArtMuseum, New York,Gift of Judith Alexander in loving memory of her sister, Rebecca Alexander, 2004.9.1.Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York.

Work by immigrants to America features prominently in the show. A visual centerpiece of the exhibit is Mariano Ariti’sArchitectural Palace, a model for a hypothetical museum celebrating human innovation. An Italian immigrant to the United States, he envisioned this colossal structure to stand in Washington D.C., and if realized, the building would have been as tall as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.  Its ambitious scale speaks to the artist’s optimistic vision of the nation’s capabilities.  

American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection, installation image courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Born to a family of immigrants in the Bronx, Ralph Fasanella’s Workers Holiday portrays the city’s working-class masses headed to Coney Island as a momentary escape from the daily grind, and indirectly speaks to his impassioned interest in worker’s rights.  Not incidentally, just a few feet away from Fasanella’s painting is an original wooden carousel horse, itself a form of handcrafted folk-art, from the merry-go-round at Coney Island amusement park.

This is an ambitious pair of exhibitions, given that they bring together an eclectic assortment of art and design which we might not conventionally think of as museum art.  As different in form and content as both of these exhibits are, together they bring together non-traditional media which assertively makes the point that visual culture isn’t simply the stuff of sterile and hushed museums and galleries, but that craft and design can frequently burst into real-world, real-life spaces.

Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection runs through August 14, 2021, and American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum runs through August 28, 2021.

With Eyes Wide Opened @ Cranbrook Museum of Art

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, Sculpture Court and Mixing Chamber, installation, photo: PD Rearick

With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art since 1932 has just opened at the Cranbrook Museum of Art in Bloomfield Hills, to great acclaim and national attention. Covered by the New York Times Magazine with a spiffy video tour and ample media attention both local and national, it’s a hydra-headed beast of a show with many sponsors but no single curator. Objects and images from every period of the Academy’s history compete for space and attention, with no fewer than ten dueling accounts threaded throughout the museum’s seven galleries.

The organizers seem to have had difficulty settling on a single narrative for this exhaustive survey of the Academy’s history–and no wonder. The tapestries, sculptures, paintings, prints, photographs, product prototypes and mass-produced products tell a kaleidoscopic story of the many creative minds whose vision and creativity have emanated from the school over time.

The history of this premier American art institution is told through objects in only piecemeal fashion in the physical exhibit; the accompanying printed volume, a 624-page doorstop of a book, contains a more complete narrative of the school’s history, along with one-page profiles of many (though not all) of the artists and designers represented in the show.

Untitled (Aluchair) by Christopher Schanck (MFA, 3D Design 2011), 2019, aluminum foil, resin Collection Cranbrook Art Museum

At the entrance to the main gallery, visitors can watch American Look. Commissioned in 1958 by Chevrolet, this cold war artifact celebrates many of the post-World War II designed amenities that were newly available to middle class consumers of a certain limited demographic.  Throughout the celebratory video, the “American-ness” of the consumer lifestyle is promoted relentlessly. Even though the uncritical materialism may seem cringe-worthy to a modern viewer, the optimism and can-do mentality expressed in the video amply show why the period beginning in 1950 is often called the American Century. The film provides a good starting point for With Eyes Opened, which takes us on a visual tour not only of the mid-century American esthetic, but also, by implication, through a consideration of how those perceptions and values have grown and changed over time to include contemporary preoccupations with equity, diversity and sustainability.

Model 1601 Stacking Chair by Don Albinson (Cranbrook Academy of Art Sculpture, 1940-1941), 1965, aluminum, nylon, molded plastic. Photo PD Rearick

The video serves as an introduction to one of the more successful elements of the exhibit, which celebrates the modern chair. Designers like Charles and Ray Kaiser Eames and Don Albinson  were uniquely successful at conceptualizing and producing practical, relatively inexpensive and attractive mass production chairs, many instantly recognizable today as fixtures of modern life in home and office.  The chair as a concept unifies this display;  in addition to the mass produced chairs there are a number of hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind examples such as Chris Schank’s Alufoil  Chair and Terence Main’s  Queen Anne, Queen Anne doubled chair. Here, as throughout the exhibit, the organizers have decided to mix the mass-produced and the hand-crafted, without comparing or contrasting the purposes and philosophies involved.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, Sculpture Court, installation. Photo: DAR

The physical and esthetic center of the exhibition, which brings the concept of design and art to a satisfying apotheosis of the handmade and the mass-produced, comes in the Mixing Chamber. There,  the room-sized mural of black and white figures by Cleon Peterson suggests the sensibility of a 21st century Egon Schiele. Tortured, semi-nude bodies surround the wittily conceived bench by Vivian Beer, whose automotive-painted red drape on the slipper shape is at once modern and baroque.

Untitled (Asthma, High Blood Pressure) by Beverly Fishman (Artist-in-Residence, Dept. of Painting 1992-2019) 2018, urethane paint on wood. Photo: PD Rearick

In the adjacent North Gallery, 34 paintings, works on paper and photographs hang floor to ceiling, with abstraction as the ostensible unifying theme. The hanging of contemporary art salon style is a fraught strategy that calls for sensitively selected and carefully coordinated curation and enough space around each piece to allow the work to breathe.  Here the disparate artworks compete visually, like guests at a crowded cocktail party shouting to be heard.  Beverly Fishman’s brightly colored, sharp-edged geometric polygons (almost) hold their own, and McArthur Binion manages to succeed simply by installing a painting, DNA: Study (Lake St. Clair), too large to share the space with other artwork. As worthy as each piece in the gallery may be, a little editing would have been welcome.

Untitled by Rebecca Ripple (Artist-in-Residence, Dept. of Sculpture, 2017-present) 2016, plastic, aluminum brass, photocopy, pencil, hair, champagne foil. Photo: K.A. Letts

In the Sculpture Court, through the Mixing Chamber ‘s other doorway, Nick Cave’s exuberant  SoundSuit (2012) holds the floor, with a recessive companion, Flamer, by Mark Newport, hanging on the adjacent wall.  Duane Hanson’s provocatively banal figure lounges nearby, unimpressed. Other strong work in the sculpture court includes several fiber pieces which seem to have wandered in, perhaps to provide space between the large and diverse 3-dimensional works–not a bad idea as it turns out. The white-on-white tapestry Montana 30, by Colombian artist Olga de Amaral, made up of small squares of white painted canvas relieved with touches of red, is especially welcome here. Sculptures by artists of the past such as Marshall Fredericks and Carl Milles share the space, more or less peacefully, with artworks by younger artists like Tyanna Buie and Kate Clark. Toward the back of the gallery, James Surl’s spiky mobile floats in its own private galaxy, next to a terrific assemblage by Rebecca Ripple that radiates an ad hoc starburst of Miro-esque energy.

Auburndale Site, Detroit MI (#4) by Object Orange, 2006, archival color photograph, 1/25 Cranbrook Museum of Art. Photo: K.A. Letts

In a small side gallery near the elevators, three photographs by the art collective Object Orange deliver a moment of surreal surprise. From 2005-2007, these (anonymous) Cranbrook graduates undertook a conceptual project called Detroit, Demolition, Disneyland which involved painting–in “Tiggerific” Orange– derelict structures in the city as a form of both public performance and protest. The photographs, brilliant orange structures against bleak gray backgrounds, are arresting, unexpected and a bit melancholy.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, Object Islands, installation, Photo: PD Rearick

The Wainger Gallery, last stop on the main floor galleries, features a clever installation of “object islands,” table height circular plinths that subtly guide the viewer through a broad array of fairly small- scale ceramics, metal objects and product design prototypes. Many of the objects in this gallery are one-of-a-kind art objects in a variety of media, often in unusual combinations, such as Iris Eichenberg’s untitled brooch made of porcelain, silver and linen.

With Eyes Opened takes on a lighter tone in the museum’s lower level gallery with The Menagerie, a whimsical collection of figures and objects inspired by the natural world, from Marshall Frederick’s chunky Two Bears to Stephen Malinowski’s photograph Cafeteria, a surreal bison-in-a-dining room.  The playful theme of The Menagerie is echoed nearby with a small collection of toy and playground designs that, while welcome, seem like an afterthought.

In the adjacent hall gallery, prints and posters highlight Cranbrook’s influential graphic design program. Installed next to printed media that feature collage, photomontage and progressive typography, several unique works hint at the endless formal potential of paper as a medium.  Elizabeth Youngblood’s elegant, silvery process drawing is tucked into a corner near Laurence Barker’s more exuberant hand-made paper piece.  Layers from the Disemboweled Series by Winifred Lutz takes the medium into the realm of expressionism.

Yet Untitled by Elizabeth Youngblood (MFA Design, 1975) 2018, paint, mylar. Photo: Glenn Mannisto

And last–but not least–some of Cranbrook Academy’s most recent graduates inhabit the lower level deSalle Gallery with distinction. Many of these young artists currently live and work in Detroit and continue the Academy’s tradition of excellence in both craft and conception. The growing diversity of the school is on display here, pointing to a more inclusive future, now enabled by the recent $30 million gift from Dan and Jennifer Gilbert to support student diversity.  Ricky Weaver’s gray and white photo-apparitions emanate spirituality, across from Ebitenyefa Baralaye’s Portrait II, a comic-sinister stoneware head.  Around the corner, Marianna Olague’s painting El Pleno Dia seems to emit its own light.  The emerging artists in this gallery demonstrate the continuing influence of the Academy’s alumni on the Detroit art scene and beyond.

With Eyes Opened is multi-faceted, rich and a little chaotic, more of a class reunion than a retrospective.  What comes through loud and clear in this exhaustive–and sometimes exhausting–survey, though, is the Academy’s continued vitality and its ongoing relevance to any discussion of the 21st century designed environment. And really, that’s enough.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, deSalle Gallery, installation, Photo: P.D. Rearick.

Eyes Wide Open at Cranbrook Museum of Art through September 19, 2021

Daniel Arsham @ Library Street Collective

Daniel Arsham, Installation image, Bronze DeLorean, Edition of 3, 2021

The smaller single gallery at Library Street Collective opened an exhibition of work, Turning Wrenches, by the artist from Miami, Daniel Arsham, on June 25, 2021.  It is an exhibition of automotive-based sculpted models of cars 1:3 scale replicas with a connection to the film industry.  The sculptured objects are created from Bronze, Quartz, Selenite, Hydrostone, Amethyst, and Calcite. These stone materials are used to create four cars and some additional car-related artifacts. Asham, now described as a New York-based artist, began his journey by traveling to Easter Island in 2011. He joined archaeologists who were re-excavating a Moai (the giant statue) and ran across early tools left behind for nearly a hundred years.  What he experienced was the effect of acid rain, the environment, and years’ time on the tools.  The experience began back in the studio by creating objects that included a kind of erosion that depicted openings in some of his early objects he purchased off eBay: a camera and a Jam Box. Essentially what followed was a process where he created objects, with carefully placed areas of time abandonment and decay that reveal patches of a surreal organic-like interior.

Daniel Arsham, Bronze DeLorean, 2021

For the Detroit exhibition, his solo exhibition at LSC plays on his interest in the automotive industry and auto culture by linking cars to the film industry.  The DeLorean is a relic of the film Back to the Future and conceptually combines his interest in both a unique car and his interest in manipulating time. The model is produced in Bronze and is available in an edition of three.

Daniel Arsham, Ash and Pyrite Eroded Mustang GT, 2021

The 1968 Mustang G.T. was created using Volcanic Ash and Pyrite, is connected to the film Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen, where everything is black except the surreal interior openings in the car chassis.  The original Mustang in the film’s famous chase scene was dark green.

Daniel Arsham, Rose Quarz Eroded Porsche 930, 2021

Along his journey, Arsham purchased a 1986 Porsche 911 Turbo that may have been connected to his personal fondness for the car during his youth. The replica of the re-imagined model was based on a Porsche 930A and is shown here with an imagined “under the hood” universe. The material sculpted is Rose Quartz and Orange Selenite.

Daniel Arsham, Amethyst Eroded Pegasus Sign, 2921

In addition to these reduced 1:3 models of cars, Asham includes a variety of design artifacts from the auto industry of the past.  The early icon for Mobil Oil was this Flying Horse Pegasus, a symbol of speed and power. The flying red horse was first used by Vacuum Oil in South Africa in 1911, but after an acquisition in 1931, Pegasus with a nod from Greek Mythology was adopted as its U.S. trademark by Mobil Oil.

Daniel Arsham, Quartz Eroded Gas Pump, 2021

The origin of the Shell name can be traced back to the seashells that Marcus Samuel senior imported from the Far East during the late 19th Century. The gas pump has evolved over many years, and this replica comes from the 1970 time period, which perhaps made an impression on Ashram’s formative years.

Born in Ohio in 1980, Daniel Arsham primarily grew up in Miami. During his childhood, he began to familiarize himself with art, starting with photography and came to be influenced by his grandfather’s art collection. Arsham employs architecture, performance, and sculpture elements to manipulate and distort understandings of structures and space.

He earned his BFA from The Cooper Union, NYC, NY.  Arsham’s work has been shown at PS1 in New York, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami, The Athens Biennial in Athens, Greece, The New Museum In New York, Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, California Carré d’Art de Nîmes, France, among others.

The exhibition Turning Wrenches by Daniel Arsham is on display at the Library Street Collective through August 7, 2021.

 

Mario Moore @ Charles H. Wright Museum

The young African American Detroit artist Mario Moore has landed an exhibition, Enshrined: Presence + Preservation, at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Installation image, Enshrined: Presence + Preservation, at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Mario Moore addressed the large crowd that had gathered at the Charles H. Wright Museum for the opening of his first museum exhibition.  There was plenty to be thankful for, as many people helped Moore on his path from a young Detroit art student at Cass Technical High School to attending College for Creative Studies and then earning his MFA at Yale University.  All of these educational experiences are coupled with his recovery from brain surgery,  coverage on CBS News, and his representation at the David Klein Gallery. It was clear from his remarks that he wanted this exhibition to be at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit, a reflection of how the museum and the city shaped his life.

Taylor Renee Aldridge the curator for the exhibition had been in the planning since 2019 and presented the audience with these buckets of themes ( listed here in bold) that chronologically track Moore’s early work to the present. The Detroiter, Aldridge, worked for a short time at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where she assisted in curating the exhibition Making Home, a collection of fifty works by artists with diverse perspectives and backgrounds. In a variety of media, the DIA exhibition focused on Home as a symbol of belonging. That and many other curatorial efforts prepared her for what she does best, and it is fitting that she would team up with Mario Moore for a museum exhibition at the Charles Wright in Detroit.  She is currently living in Los Angles, where she works as the visual arts curator and program manager at the California African American Museum.

The artwork of Mario Moore from an early age is centered on drawing the figure as part of a personal and realistic narrative. Whether it is family or friends posing for portraits, or ideas from his own ideations, the artwork reflects his experience filtered through the Black culture growing up in Detroit.

He says in his statement for this exhibition, “I continue to be interested in the concept of space.  A physical and mental space. One that directly engages with the human body and how to make a two-dimensional surface interact with three-dimensional ideas.  I hope that my work challenges, confronts, and disrupts perceptions of humanity, the human figure, and more specifically, Black life.”

The Matriarch

Mario Moore, Mom Says I’m Her Sun, Oil on Copper, 2015

It’s not unusual for a young person in the Black culture to be raised by their single mother, including a supportive grandmother. Black Americans’ social standing in the United States has been shaped by a long history of racism in laws, policies and practices that have built racist institutions and exacerbated inequality. Moore pays tribute to both his mother, Sabrina Nelson, and his grandmother, Yvette Ivie, by painting portraits, each displaying a photograph of family members in their hands where the image becomes enshrined. Not a new medium, rather an old medium, Moore often paints on copper. Unlike canvas, the smooth, rigid surface of copper lends itself particularly well to finely detailed brushwork. In the 16th and 17th centuries, many artists painting on copper applied a coating of tin to the copper surface before painting which imbued their works with great luminosity.

Mario Moore, “Yeah G-Ma Don’t Play”, 24 x 36, Oil on Copper, 2015

All About Love

A photograph used as part of the informational curation, where Mario Moore’s wife, Danielle, leaves him this note the night before he had his craniotomy surgery. Photo image by Jeff Cancelosi, 2018

This group of works explores a variety of ways Moore touches on examples of love for people and ideas.  One of the informational items in the show has this photograph where the audience sees an image of Mario Moore’s hands holding a card with the 23rd psalm handwritten by his wife Danielle and given to him right before he had craniotomy surgery.

Mario Moore, A Student Dream, Oil on Canvas, 2017

Moore’s brain surgery became the subject of his painting, Dream, where the artist creates this dream image in a surreal-like setting of the past.  He paints himself on a plain wooden table, looking out directly at the viewer while placing an African American male, with two diminished assistants in deep observation. The American Bulldog (that appears symbolically in other work) is sleeping while the skull rests on a footstool.  The skull might present the fact that many slave cadavers were dug up for study in the past and the dog represents an American culture fast asleep, ignoring equality and justice for all people.  This painting and others demonstrate Mario Moore’s ability to invent a new and unique way of creating subject matter from a deeply personal experience.  Suppose one steps back and views the work of many African American artists working today. In that case, we see the human figure dominate the artwork:  Charles White, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden, Claude Clark, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Basquiat, and Mickalene Thomas to name only a few.

Mario Moore, Light on Brother (Jalen), Oil on Linen, 2017

The painting Jalen (brother) from 2019 is my most-liked painting in the exhibition because it seems to encompass all I have learned about Moore’s life and artwork. For instance, it is the strength of the composition where the young man stands relaxed at the table looking into the audience’s eyes (in this case the artist) and is placed one-third into the rectangle. The large window provides the overexposed lighting that helps the color modeling, especially the blue shirt worn by his friend and relies on the influence of using primary color to do the heavy lifting.  The secondary color is there, both orange and green, but nothing can compete with the placement of the yellow plastic basket centered below the figure in the composition.  These elements make a work of art transcend our own experience, successfully capture a moment in time and leave us wanting more. This painting will still grab our attention in a hundred years, even if some viewers do not quite know why.

Mario Moore, Four Portraits of male friends, Mesha Cherie, Toria Turner, Bruce Israel, and Tannisha Reid. Oil on Copper. 2018

These four portraits of either friends or family are painted using oil paint on copper, which is usually far better preserved than those on other substrates. All four are looking off to the side, and not at the viewer.  They are purposefully making pleasant gestures that capture kindness.  It is not an accident that Moore enshrines these four men as a statement of affection and share the commonality of age, gender, and race.

Mario Moore, The American Dream, Oil on Canvas, 2011

This double portrait of American Dream of Moore’s sister Denise and her husband Bomani Diop has this romantic light at night from the left juxtaposed to a violent act just a couple of hundred yards away. Light sources in the houses behind the two figures add to the drama in the street.  It is as if at times the vibe is normal and serene, but violence lurks in the street.

Mario Moore, Lucia, Drawing with Graphite on Paper, 2015

Lucia,  graphite on paper, is a large drawing using conventional rendering where the sitting figure has a full range of black, white and gray.  Many of Moore’s drawings are in silverpoint, but any artist willing to place the book  Art and Culture by Clement Greenberg in a piece of artwork gets special attention from a writer of art criticism.  I am drawn to this full-length portrait where the subject directs the gaze into the viewer’s eyes. What is she trying to say? “Study your Art History?”

Fabricating Oneself

Mario Moore, Red, Black, and Green. Oil on Canvas, 2017

Just as in the painting Dream, and for some people, just as history has provided the art world with a figurative narrative for the past 2000 years, Moore gives us a new experience with his self-portrait, Red, Black, and Green Armor. Think of the armor we cover ourselves in, our skin (black), our trousers, underwear (Green), and a (Red) hoody with shoes.  He pulls them spatially apart while confronting the viewer with his gaze. It is laying yourself open to the world through this kind of realism that is rendered realistically with light casting shadow from the left.  As in much of Moore’s work, it is a new experience in delivering our humanity to the viewing public.

Mario Moore, Not Your Landscape Oil on Canvas, 2018

Mario Moore did a series of silverpoint drawings of men at rest that was the subject of an exhibition at the David Klein Gallery.  Some of that must have come from the recuperation time he needed after his surgery. Through interviews, he expresses this idea that black men were constantly working to keep ahead and survive the massive discrimination that was part of the white Anglo-Saxon culture. The painting Not Your Landscape accomplishes a couple of things. It is a biographical documentary of the artist resting during his recuperation time but also allows him to flex his muscles as a painter, trained to render the landscape in its splendor realistically.  The image is of himself sitting in a lounge chair centered in the lower third of the composition, with low sunlight coming from the left which helps define the figure, and the texture of the grass and surrounding foliage supported with reflections from the background lake. It’s his landscape, not yours.

Legacies of Labor

Mario Moore, Clyde Sky High, Oil on Linen, 2018

After Moore’s graduate school experience at Yale University, he was offered a residency at Princeton University’s Museum, and it seemed like the concept he would use to create a series just fell into his thought process as he arrived in 2018.  In addition, he has said he was inspired by his father, a former security guard at the Detroit Institute of Arts when he first encountered aged white men’s portraits, deans, donors, and alumni, all hanging on the museum walls.  This painting Clyde Sky High was Moore’s first painting in a series documenting the cleaning staff, cooks, and security guards.  In December 2019, I closed my review of the exhibition, Detroit Collects, at the DIA with this remark, “Recently Moore has spent his time as a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, depicting large-scale paintings of black men and women who work around the campus in blue-collar jobs. When I think about the work of Mario Moore, there is a message of social justice that reminds me of Kehinde Wiley, who addresses the issue of inequality in the selection of the figurative subjects in paintings of the past.  This early review was the beginning of my exposure to Mario Moore’s artwork, and I now have seen Moore’s artwork, Black & Blue is a painting that expresses his feelings around social justice.

Grand Uprising

Mario Moore, Black and Blue, Oil on Canvas, 2016

With all the violence perpetrated on Black Americans for three hundred years, the trauma and anxiety layered into their daily lives, it should not surprise anyone that many artists are drawn to ideas that express imagery that reflects those events.  The painting Black & Blue is a painting that represents the frustration and anger when the police arrive with their attack dogs. The woman is depicted in full realistic color as she strikes a powerful blow to the dog depicted in a solid monotone blue that characterizes the police and his riot dog. How many people would like to feel the success of this moment as the bat comes around from contact with the police?  Not enough.

Mario Moore, PTSD for a Lifetime it seems. Oil on Canvas, 2015

Ask yourself why this young boy is afraid, upset, and crying?  The children’s illustration lying on the floor is that of a policeman shooting a Black American.  Who is caring for this very young boy as the American Bulldog sleeps?  This could easily be a vivid memory of a young Mario Moore where the background is made up of the two symbols present in a vacant urban landscape: A Liquor Store and a Church. These are the only tools left when justice fails Black Americans.  If this depicts the interior of a parking structure, why isn’t the male passerby within earshot of a crying boy?  The visual art tools are vital in this formal composition, with light low and to the left.  The artist is asking a question to the viewer: Do Black Lives Matter?

In American art today, portraits of Black men by Black artists are uncommon. They keep their inner lives to themselves.  It is not given much attention.  In 1994 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Thelma Golden curated: The Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.  This exhibition investigated the social and cultural history of the black male body in contemporary art and media after the Civil Rights era.  Mario Moore is a successor to the legacy of the Black Male artists and one of the most talented young artists of his generation. With a painting practice based on figurative realism, Moore satirizes psychological transactions between himself, his ideas, his narrative, and the viewer. The work challenges and confronts perceptions of humanity, the human figure, and more specifically, Black American life.

Mario Moore was born in 1987 and has lived his life growing up in the heart of Detroit.  Moore earned a BFA in Illustration from the College for Creative Studies and an MFA in Painting from the Yale School of Art. He was awarded the prestigious Princeton Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University and has participated as an artist-in-residence at Knox College, a Fountainhead residency, through the generosity of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.

Mario Moore, Enshrined: Presence + Preservation at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, through September 19, 2021

 

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