Radical Tradition @ Toledo Museum of Art

Therese Agnew, Portrait of a Textile Worker, Shorewood, WI, 2002, clothing labels, thread, fabric backing. 94 1/2 x 109 3.4 in. Image Credit: Museum of Arts and Design, New York; purchase with funds provided by private donors, 2006 Photo: Peter DiAntoni

There’s something visceral and tangible about quilting that sets it apart from other artistic media.   In a very literal sense, quilters stitch together the fabrics of the past and present, imbuing each work with a historical and cultural weight.  Radical Tradition, on view until February 14 at the Toledo Art Museum, explores how American quilts of the 19th through 21st centuries have engaged with prescient social issues.  The show supplements works from the TMA’s own collection with a generous selection of quilts from nearly two dozen lending institutions, and together they demonstrate the medium’s historically robust social engagement, speaking to issues ranging from racial justice, prison reform, women’s suffrage, LGBTQ rights, immigration, and much more.

Radical Tradition forcefully challenges our preconceptions of what a quilt even is, and what’s on view might better be described more broadly as “fiber art.”  Ben, for example, greets viewers at the show’s entrance.  Ben, from the TMA’s own collection, is an endearing fiber sculpture by Faith Ringgold of a 1970s-era homeless man, brandishing buttons, pins, and patches which serve to tell his story.  He’s a veteran of the Vietnam War, and the meagre few possessions he totes and the bottle of alcohol he clutches are suggestive that he’s fallen onto hard times. The buttons he wears call for various progressive political and social reforms.  It’s a very human, heartfelt, and sympathetic portrait.

Faith Ringgold, Ben, 1978. Soft sculpture/mixed media, 39 x 12 x 12. Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, Ohio) Image Credit: © 2020 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

At Work III isn’t even fiber, but rather backlit strips of 16mm polyester film sewn together to form a traditional “log cabin” quilt pattern.  The film strips are extracted from various industrial films showing anonymous female hands engaged in labor in the textile industry, and the work addresses the historical anonymity of those in the textile and garment industries.

Sabrina Gschwandtner, Hands at Work III, 2017, 16mm film, polyester thread, LEDs, 26 7/8 x 27 x 3 in. Image Credit: Image Courtesy of the artist and Shoshana Wayne Gallery

While this exhibit is perhaps liberal with what materially constitutes a quilt, there’s certainly a thematic continuity in the show’s focus on quilting and social engagement.  Many of the quilts on view (especially the older ones) were created to raise money for various social causes or humanitarian organizations, such as the Cradle Quilt (for the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society), Liberty Tree (for the temperance movement), and the Red Cross Quilt (to support the organization during the First World War). The Vietnam Era Signature Quilt was made to raise funds to rebuild a North Vietnamese hospital that had been bombed during the Vietnam War, and it includes the signatures of Leonard Bernstein, Gloria Steinem, and Pete Seeger, among many others.

Abolition Quilt, ca. 1850. Silk embroidered quilt, 59 x 59 in. Historic New England, 2.1923. Courtesy of Historic New England. Loan from Mrs. Benjamin F. Pitman, 2.1923.

 

Gen Guracar, Vietnam Era Signature Quilt, c. 1965-1973. Made in Mountain View, California, 80 x 63.5 inches. International Quilt Museum, Gift of Needle and Thread Arts Society, 2007.008.0001 Image Credit: International Quilt Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

In many, the very fabric of these quilts helps to underscore their message, such as Portrait of a Textile Worker by Terese Agnew. It’s an image based on a photograph taken by an undercover human rights advocate of a sweatshop worker in Bangladesh. The quilt comprises 30,000 individual clothing labels, each only individually visible up close; mosaic-like, together they form an image of a textile worker stationed at her sewing machine.  It’s a poignant image that speaks to the exploitation of underage and underpaid laborers in the garment industry who work as temporary contractors for big-box clothing brands.

One particularly arresting and prominent work is the ensemble of large, triangular quilt blocks from the International Honor Quilt, a project initiated by Judy Chicago and originally intended to complement her iconic Dinner Party.  Just like each individual place setting of Dinner Party, here each triangular block pays homage to a significant woman from history or mythology, and in its entirety the work consists of 542 individual sections. Each block was created by a different individual, and they reflect a wide variety of styles and techniques.

Judy Chicago, International Honor Quilt (IHQ), initiated by Judy Chicago in 1980, Created in response to The Dinner Party. Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville. Image Credit: © 2020 Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As a telescope enthusiast, I was naturally drawn to Anna Van Mertens’ evocative Midnight until the first sighting of land, October 12, 1942, six miles off the coast of current day San Salvador Island, Bahamas.  It’s a black quilt which, as the title implies, charts the course of the stars in a patch of sky as they would have been seen by Columbus and his crew during these hours, so fatefully freighted with the weight of history to come.

This is a visually satisfying show with much to offer, and it makes the most of the TMA’s spacious New Media gallery suite.  There’s also an impressively broad range in style and content.   Some of the works range from the playfully exuberant VanDykesTransDykesTransanTransGranmx DykesTransAmDentalDamDamn (a showstopping, mural-scale work that is as massive and wild as its title implies) to the solemn Dachau 1945, a quilt made from the subdued, neutral patches from prison uniforms of inmates of Germany’s notorious Dachau concentration camp.  Radical Tradition masterfully combines beauty, poignancy, energy, and conceptual depth, and it’s a show that triumphantly lives up to its wittily oxymoronic name.

Unknown Maker, Dachau 1945, 1945, Wool, 69 1/2 x 77 in., Michigan State University Museum Collection, 2015:66.2. Image Credit: Courtesy of Michigan State University Museum. Photographed by Pearl Yee Wong

Radical Tradition is on view at the Toledo Museum of Art through February 14.  The show is accompanied with an exhibition catalogue.

Shapeshifters @ Cranbrook Museum of Art

Frank Stella, Takt-i-Sulayman Variation I (Protractor Series) 1969, acrylic and fluorescent acrylic on canvas

It has always seemed to me that the most magical thing about art objects in a gallery is that they exist at the same time and place, in the same now, no matter when they were created. An archaic vase, a classical Greek sculpture and a minimalist painting can rest side by side, in a kind of eternal conversation that illuminates how humans think and perceive, and what they value over time.  This thought re-occurred to me with some force as I walked into the main gallery of the Cranbrook Art Museum last week, to see Shapeshifters, an eclectic exhibit that draws from the museum’s collection of over 6000 artworks. It covers a broad range of modern and contemporary artists and esthetic philosophies, all in lively conversation with each other and with us. Much of the work on display is by international artists with big reputations, but voices and visions of many younger, less established, artists have also found their way into Shapeshifters. Often these artists are from the Detroit area, many of them graduates of Cranbrook Art Academy’s M.F.A program; to my mind they provide the most interesting pieces in a wide-ranging survey of artists’ methods and mindsets.

The entry gallery of the museum announces the ambitious nature of the exhibit with a forceful collection of minimalist and post-minimalist artists. Paintings and sculptures by art historical heavyweights like Donald Judd and Frank Stella ring the gallery.  These self-referential abstract objects and images  hark back to a brief moment in art history, 1960’s and 1970’s, when  the methods and formal objectives of contemporary art seemed clear. These confident–and also mostly white, male–artists seemed to say they had found the endpoint of modernism, after which no further progress was possible–or necessary. Even Agnes Martin, whose (usually) much smaller pieces seem more interior and meditative, is represented in Shapeshifters by a large canvas, Untitled (1974) that shows her to be a member in good standing of the minimalist club.

Ato Ribeiro, Home Away From Home 2, 2017, repurposed wood, glue

Ato Ribeiro, Detail

But even as these monumental, even grandiose, pieces stake their claim to dominance in this room and  in art history, the show’s curator Laura Mott, slyly introduces an artist who says, quietly, “yes, but…”

Ato Ribeiro, a 2017 graduate of Cranbrook’s print program, has created a wood assemblage that superficially resembles many of the pieces in the main gallery, but suggests alternative cultural references that speak to more private, idiosyncratic aims. Home Away from Home 2 is a pieced quilt of a sort, made of discarded wood, re-cycled and re-assembled into an elaborate composition that references hieroglyphs, Kente cloth, traditional African symbols, and signals a turning away from minimalist generalities and toward more particularized personal references.

Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Dupp Dup, 2016, plaster, burlap, sisal rope wood

This insistence by young artists on private processes and meanings continues in the next gallery, with the awkward yet elegant and slightly comic Dupp Dup by Ebitenyefa Baralaye. A 2016 M.F.A.  graduate of the ceramics program at Cranbrook, Baralaye has re-purposed the process of ceramic casting in a literally heartfelt way. The shape of the plaster cast is reminiscent of a human heart, signifying both a physical state of being and an emotional state of desiring. Its implied weightiness is animated and supported by a spindly wooden tripod.   In the adjoining gallery, Sonya Clark’s scratchy ziggurat of a headpiece, assembled from hair curlers, is both humble and regal. Clark re-imagines these everyday materials using processes familiar to her from her background in fiber art; the result is both surprising and satisfying.

Sonya Clark, Curled, 1998, metal hair curlers, thread, wire

Two of Detroit’s art eminences occupy the middle gallery and are hung in proximity with two other artists who reinnforce and illuminate their importance as masters of their craft and figures of note in Detroit’s contemporary art scene. Allie McGhee’s folded and draped Window (2019) easily holds its own next to the much larger–and very lovely–Preface for Chris by Joan Mitchell, with which it is paired. McGhee is scheduled for an upcoming solo exhibition in the fall of 2021, and Windows provides a tantalizing foretaste of what we can expect and hope for. Carole Harris, whose work impresses me more each time I see it, is represented by In a Silent Way (2017).  Harris is a textile virtuoso. Her work occupies the surprisingly capacious space between expressive quilting and painterly abstraction, and somehow manages to be more than the sum of the two mediums.   The way in which she exercises complete control of flat or felted or lacy textures, of staccato stitched lines, of carefully dyed and rusted colors, adds a tactile element to her work against which the nearby untitled painting by Jose Joya struggles to compete.

Allie McGhee, Window, 2019, acrylic, enamel, vinyl

Carole Harris, In a Silent Way, 2017, quilt with rusted textiles

In the next gallery, photography –and related technologies–has its day as a means to revelation. The prosaic, descriptive reality of everyday photography gives way to the deeper truth of artists’ personal and subjective experience. A particularly beautiful example of this is Kottie Gaydos’s Unfixed, Fold #3, a dreamy, undulating field of deep blue in which a minimalist strategy yields a deeply romantic and poetic image. Matthew Angelo Harrison’s low-resolution replicas of African artifacts by way of his homemade 3-d printers are familiar to most of the Detroit art public by now, but they remain impressive, resonant in their expression of the African American diaspora’s sense of cultural loss from the trauma of enslavement.

Kottie Gaydos, Unfixed, Fold #3, 2016, archival pigment print, artist frame with unfixed cyanotype

The wan ironies of Andy Warhol’s Polaroids and Rosenquist’s lithographs are interesting as historical artifacts, but pale beside Kara Thompson’s polemical silhouettes and the robust immediacy of Maya Stovall’s dancers, doing their thing in the parking lot of a Detroit convenience store. Her video, Liquor Store Theatre, Vol. 4, No. 7, records the bemused reaction of bystanders along with the precise and angular movements of the black-clad performers.

Maya Stoval, Liquor Store Theatre, Vo. 4, #7, 2017, video still

The back gallery of Shapeshifters is devoted, appropriately for an exhibit about transformation and adaptation, to a short feature film entitled Upright: Detroit.  Set in the ruins of the historic Michigan Theater, the film records a kind of initiation. Performers arrive, one by one, dressed in ordinary street clothes.  Here, they are ritually transformed, with assistance from members of the Ruth Ellis Center for LGBTQ+ youth, into other-worldly beings by way of Nick Cave’s iconic Soundsuits. In the subsequent procession, initiates are accompanied by a choir of singers from Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theater. With this performance, Shapeshifters brings us full circle, from the exuberant hubris of the minimalists to the joyous communality of the performers in Upright: Detroit, a thought-provoking journey from the general to the personal in search of our universal humanity.

Artist in Shapeshifters: Richard Anuszkiewicz, Jo Baer, Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Romare Bearden, McArthur Binion, Susan Goethel Campbell, Anthony Caro, Nick Cave, Nicole Cherubini, Sonya Clark, Liz Cohen, Conrad Egyir, Beverly Fishman, Kottie Gaydos, Sam Gilliam, Kara Güt, Carole Harris, Matthew Angelo Harrison, José Joya, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Allie McGhee, Marilyn Minter, Brittany Nelson, Kenneth Noland, Marianna Olague, Robert Rauschenberg, Ato Ribeiro, James Rosenquist, Beau Sinchai, Julian Stanczak, Frank Stella, Maya Stovall, Toshiko Takaezu, Carl Toth, Kara Walker, Andy Warhol, and Richard Yarde, among others.

The museum is open with some restrictions.  For more information, go to: https://cranbrookartmuseum.org/plan-your-visit/

WSU 2020 Art Faculty – Virtual Exhibition

The James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History, Wayne State University, presents the 2020 WSU Faculty Exhibition, a virtual exhibition that opened November 19, 2020.

The Art Department Faculty Exhibition at Wayne State University began as an installation in the Community Arts Gallery but quickly became virtual in mid-November 2020 to conform with university Covid-19 requirements. Faculty members from the department who advance the study and practice of art history, design and fine art come together to reflect the university’s full spectrum of area disciplines.  Click on this link, and you’ll find these images above are links to each faculty member’s work here: https://www.waynestategalleries.org/2020-faculty-exhibition-2

Adrian Hatfield, If this isn’t nice, what is?, 2019 oil and acrylic on canvas 48” x 36”

The painting and sculpture of Adrian Hatfield remind this writer of the term magical realism, more often referred to in literature, but that may apply here.  The term magical realism was introduced by Franz Roh, a German art critic in 1925. When Roh coined the term, he meant it to create an art category that strayed from the strict guidelines of realism, which Hatfield’s collage-like work conveys. Hatfield’s work recombines art historical imagery from the industrial revolution and the Romantic era with imagery from current and environmental concerns. In the work, he creates a black & white drawn universe, juxtaposed to these full colored floating dimensional shapes and landscape, part of a dualism that plays with the viewer’s process.

In his statement, he says, “As I explore this dualistic theme through the remodeling of art-historical and scientific imagery, the resultant pieces are mournful, unnerving, and yet oddly hopeful.”  Adrian Clark Hatfield earned his B.F.A. from Ohio State University and his M.F.A. from Ohio University.   https://www.adrianhatfield.com/

Margi Weir, Caution Guardrail, 2020 India ink, Sumi ink, watercolor

Patterns are a large dominating part of Margi Weir’s oeuvre, as illustrated here in this work, Caution Guard Rail, 2020. She uses this technique she describes as Snap Line when she dips cotton twine into thinned acrylic paint or ink and snaps a taut line onto a supporting surface. The spray from the line often begins the process for the composition. Weir’s body of work is expansive and includes paintings, drawings, prints, and installations. The paintings and prints are dominated by a highly developed geometric and colorful pattern. There is a theme reflected somewhere in the pattern, often in the border, where she stitches together multiple symbols to make them visually appealing.

She says in her statement, “In one body of my work, I use a computer (a non-traditional painter’s tool) to repeat images that I stitch together visually in order to make an appealing pattern, often resulting in tapestry-like, spatially flattened compositions.  This references pre-Renaissance and/or non-western methods of pictorial organization, for storytelling purposes, that were used in textiles, ceramics, and architectural decoration.  This particular use of juxtaposed images, stacked and repeated, is a unique addition to the visual language of painting in the 21st century.”

Ms. Weir earned her MFA in painting from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA); her MA in painting from New Mexico State University. She also holds a BFA in painting from San Francisco Art Institute and BA in art history from Wheaton College.   https://margiweir.weebly.com/

Millee Tibbs, Transfrontalier, 2018 Gelatin Silver Print + Custom Frame

To describe Millee Tibbs’s work as landscape photography would not be complete, although she is using a camera and capturing images of mountainous terrain. Instead, that would be the starting point for various manipulations; whether it be the entire shape of the image or the overlay of a second geometric shape on the terrain, there is an astute variety in how these images are presented.  The artwork derives from Tibbs’s interest in photography’s ubiquity and the tension inherent in manipulating reality. Sometimes it is in the overlay of a geometric shape on the mountainside; other times it includes the shape of the image, mat, and frame. It’s as if the mountain terrain becomes the backdrop for an artist interested in what I might call a shaped canvas work: Frank Stella, 1965; Ellsworth Kelly, 1970, or Elizabeth Murray, 2006.

She says in her statement, “My work has evolved into an investigation of idealized landscape imagery – the kind that is easily consumable and often commodified. I am fascinated with the landscape genre and its language, the aesthetic imposed onto the land through photographic framing, and the historical rhetoric inherent in these images that justified Manifest Destiny and conquest through what is left out—namely inhabitants.”

Millee Tibbs earned her B.A. from Vassar College and her M.F.A. from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)    https://www.milleetibbs.com/

Sheryl Oring, “I Wish to Say” Video, 5:13 minutes

The video work of Sherl Oring investigates social issues through projects that incorporate on-camera interviews that examine public opinion. In “I Wish to Say”, Oring sets up a portable office where woman in secretarial costume interview individuals at large about the state-0f-affairs in the U.S. and documents their comments using a typewriter, intending to main a postcard to the White House.  To date, nearly 4000 postcards were mailed.

Having worked in educational television, it is important to say the standards and caliber of production in these short videos are of the highest quality: the recording of imagery and audio and the direction and editing of these videos are highly produced.  The “I Wish to Say” project has a companion book from the University of  Chicago Press, Activating Democracy, a result of helping people from across the United States voice their political concerns.

From the Public Art Review, “Sheryl Oring’s multiyear, ongoing I Wish to Say project—in which she sets up a desk with a typewriter and invites people to dictate a letter to the President or a presidential candidate, which she types and sends—is a catalyst for a deeper look at artists’ intersection with public policy.”

Sheryl A. Oring earned her B.S. in Journalism at the University of Colorado and her M.F.A. from the University of California.  http://www.sheryloring.org/

Works by the following full and part-time faculty are featured in the exhibition: Maria Bologna, Kiley Brandt, Betty Brownlee, Allana Clarke, Pamela DeLaura, Jessika Edgar, Laura Foxman, David Stephan Graves, Richard Haley, Adrian Hatfield, Margaret Hull, Lauren Kalman, Deborah Kingery, Ruth Koelewyn, Brian Kritzman, Claas Kuhnen, Evan Larson-Voltz, Heather Macali, Katie MacDonald, Heather Mawson, Judith A. Moldenhauer, Carole Morisseau, Sheryl Oring, Kathyrose Pizzo, Tom Pyrzewski, Kyle Sharkey, Rebekah Sweda, Andrea Thurston-Shaine, Millee Tibbs, Maureen Vachon, Margi Weir, and Golsa Yaghoobi.

Wayne State University,  2020 Faculty Exhibition, a virtual exhibition opened November 19, 2020, and runs through January 8, 2021.

 

 

Russ Marshall @ DIA

Detroit Institute of Arts presents Russ Marshall: Detroit Photographs, 1958-2008 Image courtesy of DIA

Russ Marshall, Installation image courtesy of the DIA

The Detroit Institute of Arts is currently exhibiting over 90 black & white photographs by the Detroit photographer Russ Marshall in their first-floor de Salle gallery. Russ Marshall: Detroit Photographs, 1958–2008 opened November 15, 2020, and will run through June 27, 2021. Department Head in the Prints, Drawings, and Photographs department and the James Pearson Duffy Curator of Photography, Nancy Barr has been working at the DIA for the best part of twenty-five years and is responsible for the very tasteful curation of this rich and comprehensive exhibition.  Although the work broadly covers six decades of freelance work capturing the local labor movement in and around Detroit, for this review, I will focus on the imagery that speaks to Marshall’s artistic work both from his interests in the cultural events of Detroit and his travels to Europe during the years 1987-1990.

To understand his beginnings, Russ Marshall was born in 1940 in the coal-mining town of South Fork, Pennsylvania, to a coal miner and industrial factory worker family. His parents relocated to Detroit in 1943, and he grew up in a federal housing project surrounded by the neighborhood activities comprised of thousands who worked in the automotive factories. His father worked in the Chrysler DeSoto plant assembly line where steel from Great Lakes Steel company provided the iron ore that transformed the raw material into steel for car parts. In his teens, Marshall was the owner of a Scout 120 box camera and began capturing the people around him and the places where he lived.

Marshall says in his statement, “Our family photo album was probably my first significant exposure to photography and on some level, at an early age, it was impressed upon me that it was important to keep the memories of these miners, steelworkers, and farmers alive.”

He goes on in the Huffington Post to describe his childhood, “Growing up in a federal housing project in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit provided a unique perspective to a young boy in the 1940s and ’50s. With activities of the big three auto companies always in the news, which could affect most of my relatives and neighbors, including my father who worked on the Chrysler DeSoto plant assembly line, I was conscious of where I was in this life — where I fit in.”

Russ Marshall, First Annual Detroit Blues Festival, 1977, Dye-based inkjet print, 2019

It was September 22-25, 1977 that Marshall must have discovered the new filters that could be used on a 35mm single reflex lens that applied a star-burst effect filter to light sources as seen in the entrance shot of the first Detroit Blues Festival.  During these predigital years, the filters absorb part of the light available, often necessitating a more prolonged exposure. This image provides a high contrast moment in time, probably 35 mm negative, dominated by the then-latest star filter’s effects.  In 1977 it was a time for trying the filter and its impact, but eventually, photographers grew tired of the special effect. From the citation, the negative was recently printed by creating a Dye-based Inject print in 2019. My guess is that Marshall may have scanned the 35mm negative and brought the image into a digital environment to print.

Russ Marshall, Men’s Lounge, 1959, Gelatin Silver print, 2005

Some will notice the Men’s lounge at the Michigan Central Train depot as a moment in time where the two men are gazing directly into the camera.  The low light source is probably natural light from large windows off-frame to the right.  The citation tells us it is 1959, at a time just as the civil rights movement was just gaining momentum.  The attraction here is on two fronts; the composition, off-center to the left, and dramatic light provide the symbolic idea of two young men, one white, one black, sitting next to each other with ease. For this writer, this may be the strongest work in the exhibition.

Russ Marshall, Soho District, London

In addition to Marshall’s journalistic work, the exhibition includes images featuring Marshall’s photographs taken of public life in England and eastern Europe as the Cold War was on the decline from 1987-1990. The photo taken in the Soho district of London,  captures a figure entirely in silhouette right of center, which depicts this London street’s mood, tightly packed with cars.  The street lights (possibly filtered) takes the viewer back in space along the street’s edge.  A picture like this could quickly be taken on a tripod, where the exposure and focus would require a still camera or braced himself for a slower shutter speed.  From Marshall’s images in Detroit factories and city streets, he usually includes a figure, whether it was hippies on Belle Isle or city workers in a protest line.

Russ Marshall, Ambasador Bridge & Zug Island

Many of Marshall’s industrial images are products of controlled light and soft focus.  Telephoto lenses can make objects in the distance appear larger, and the time of day and printing filters can create a mood.  The Ambassador Bridge and Zug Island image uses these tools and the design element of repetition to capture what he sees as a marker in time.  Often a photographer will set up his camera on a tripod and experiment with various exposures where one will work with the effect he is after.  In this image, the little smoke that billows from behind the six stacks of dark vertical chimneys catches light from the source near the horizon and creates a focal point just left of center.  The sky could be easily manipulated in the darkroom using a dodging tool that helps the late evening sky become diffused and darkened at its edges.

Russ Marshall, Woodward City Man, 2000, Gelatin Silver print, 2005

Similar to London’s image, Marshall grabs a moment of a man on a bicycle in silhouette with the focus on the mood and light, but it is essential to include a figure.  Why? Because it humanizes the setting and provides the viewer with a sense of scale. I asked Marshall about the square formatted images that could suggest using a 2.25-inch format to present square-framed compositions, but he said the square was created in the darkroom from a 35 mm negative.

It would be easy to say that these images fall under the influence of Robert Frank, who spent time in Detroit documenting the auto industry and the people of Detroit.  It would be impossible for someone so dedicated to photography as Russ Marshall to not be drawn to the work of Robert Frank.  Photographers who have seen Frank’s book, The Americans, and are familiar with his images, still feel the overpowering influence of his work today.

The exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts is organized by themes: Everyday Detroit, Public Life, Workers, Sounds of Detroit, and A Lens Towards Europe, including some rare images of an intact Berlin Wall.  Although most of Russ Marshall’s work was journalistic by the nature of the subject, his eye for artistic compositions that transcend time makes the work a perfect exhibition for the DIA.

Detroit Institute of Arts, Museum Hours: Wed – Fri  9am – 4pm, Sat – Sun 10am – 5-pm

Closed Mon & Tues   The museum will be closed New Year’s Day.

 

InterStates of Mind @ MSU Broad

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

In 1928, Ford Motor Company acquired 2.5 million acres of forest in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon with the intent of supplying the company’s Michigan factories with a reliable supply of cheap rubber. Here it erected Fordlandia, a pop-up town populated by locals who, coaxed by competitive wages, worked in the employ of Ford Motors. Ford aggressively pushed American culture onto the workers, mandating, among other things, required poetry readings (in English), community sing-alongs, and American cuisine. In 1930, the workers revolted, and the Brazilian army had to restore order.  The endeavor was a failure.  The region wasn’t sufficiently conducive to growing rubber trees, and by 1934, the project was abandoned; however,  Fordlandia’s buildings still stand, and the town attained immortality as a major inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World.  Fordlandia is just one of many examples of the automotive industry’s influence on culture presented in the MSU Broad’s excellent exhibition InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile.

This large exhibition fills the entirety of the Broad’s second floor gallery suite with a multimedia selection of art and ephemera largely (though not entirely) selected from its own collection. While it sometimes addresses the automobile industry in broad strokes, the exhibition also addresses how the automotive industry shaped Lansing in particular. InterStates of Mind gives special attention to some of the economic, environmental, and social problems exacerbated—if not always directly caused—by the automotive industry.

InterStates opens with a trilogy of early, iconic films which emphatically proclaimed an unfettered optimism of the automobile (and in technology in general) to realize an earthly American utopia.  In 1939, for the New York World’s Fair, General Motors constructed an impressively large animated diorama of a city of the future, at the heart of which was the automotive industry and the highway system.  The 23 minute film Futurama slowly pans through this sprawling model (designed by GM’s Norman Bel Geddes) as a narrator envisions a future in which science, technology, and the highway system are harnessed to create an ideal society. Though many of the film’s predictions indeed came true, its flamboyant optimism in a technology-driven utopia certainly rings hollow in retrospect.

Master Hands, a film also produced by General Motors, artfully walks the viewer through the manufacturing process of a 1936 Chevrolet.  Underscored by a triumphant, Wagneresque soundtrack composed by Samuel Benavie and performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the film’s visuals really are aesthetically beautiful, and the music engages with action on the assembly line in a perfectly coordinated dance. Master Hands showcases the undeniable ingenuity behind the assembly process.

As a foil to the optimism of these films, InterStates also presents an ensemble of the socially poignant photographs of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and other photographers whose work documented the lives of those worst hit by the Great Depression.  “There’s no way like the American way,” a billboard loudly proclaims in a photograph by Arthur Rothstein, though the blighted buildings in the background brutally undercut this cheerful sentiment.  While some of these photographs don’t directly reference the automobile itself, they collectively push against the utopic, concurrent visions of Futurama.  

Arthur Rothstein, Sign, Birmingham, Alabama, 1937, printed 1987. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase

Dorothea Lange, Gas station. Kern County, California, 1939, printed 1987. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase.

This exhibit gives prominence to an ensemble of eight large photographs by Brazilian artist Clarissa Tossin, whose conceptual project When Two Places Look Alike addresses the overtly colonialist nature of Fordlandia.  Many of the American-style homes built for the workers in Fordlandia still stand, and Tossin’s photographs wittily draw visual parallels between the architecture of Fordlandia’s homes with those of Alberta, Michigan, also a company town established by Ford in the 1930s.

Clarissa Tossin, When two places look alike, 2012. Courtesy the artist, Luisa Strina Gallery São Paulo, and Commonwealth Council, Los Angeles.

Given Lansing’s prominence in the automotive industry, it seems fitting that this show localizes much of its content.  A generous portion of the exhibit explores the social impact of I-496, the expressway which serves as a main artery Eastward and Westward through Lansing, and the construction of which displaced a mostly African-American population from their homes.  A massive enlargement of an aerial photograph shows a stretch of these houses prior to the construction of the expressway, hinting at the many lives that it would seriously interrupt.

While much of this show examines the automobile’s influence through a jaundiced eye, it certainly refrains from being drearily pessimistic.  There’s a whole ensemble of photographs highlighting the phenomena of the roadside attraction.  And some works celebrate the visual potential of the materiality of the automobile itself, such as Chakaia Booker’s rubber sculptures that playfully flaunt the aesthetic potential of used tires, which she manages to cut, sculpt, twist, and manipulate into forms that look almost organic.

InterStates of mind offers a considered and thoughtful re-assessment of the automotive industry’s impact on society.  Though this exhibit is certainly informative (expect to find yourself reading your way through large parts of this exhibit), it’s also visually rewarding, offering visitors a veritable cornucopia of works which snugly make the most of the Broad’s exhibition space.  While these works certainly aren’t disparaging of the automobile’s influence on culture, they collectively approach the subject with an honest ambivalence, and the early 20th Century visions and promises of a technology-driven American utopia, in retrospect, ultimately seem to ring hollow.

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

 

Video courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum
InterStates of Mind is currently on view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, and runs through August 2021.  The exhibition is free, but to ensure a safe experience timed tickets must be ordered in advance.