Detroit Art Review

Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

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Scott Hocking @ Cranbrook Art Museum

An installation view of Scott Hocking: Detroit Stories at the Cranbrook Art Museum. Detroit Stories is up through March 19, 2023.  Image courtesy of Cranbrook Art Museum

There was a time, not so long ago, when most suburbanites and even some Detroiters regarded our grand, dilapidated city as an embarrassment. It would take youngsters just out of college in the early 2000s, dazzled by the postwar-Berlin landscape and surfeit of abandoned buildings to explore, to start to write a different narrative that didn’t run away from the city’s blemishes, but celebrated the beauty to be found within our fabulous ruins.

Scott Hocking, a 40something working-class kid from Redford Township, was in the forefront of that cultural vanguard two decades back, and his early forays caught the attention of a nation accustomed to ignoring Detroit. Luckily for those unfamiliar with his work and those who love it alike, the Cranbrook Art Museum has just opened his first career retrospective, Scott Hocking: Detroit Stories, up through March 19, 2023.

After getting his degree at the College for Creative Studies, Hocking established himself as one Detroit’s most articulate storytellers, creating work that reminded the world that the Motor City, for all its problems, is a mythic place deeply rooted in the American consciousness.

Starting in 2008, Hocking – impoverished like many students after graduation – began working with that great Detroit resource, found objects, out of sheer necessity. They were about all he could afford. But unlike the gifted Cass Corridor artists from the 1970s and 80s, who plowed the same field, Hocking wasn’t just picking up junk and creating artful collage or 3-D pastiche. His ambitions were epic in scale, and it quickly became clear his was a unique voice in a city increasingly crowded with interesting artists.

Scott Hocking, Ziggurat—East, Summer, 2008, installation view Fisher Body Plant 21, Detroit. Photo Courtesy of Scott Hocking and David Klein Gallery, Detroit.

Hocking’s first grand conceit lit up the art world like a meteor — and vanished almost as quickly. Collecting some 6,201 wooden “bricks” that paved the concrete floors of Fisher Body Plant 21, a crumbling auto factory near the east-side tangle of railroad tracks known as Milwaukee Junction, Hocking built, block by repetitive block, a majestic Ziggurat or stepped pyramid. Set in the dead center of a vast, rubble-strewn factory floor and framed by two rows of industrial “martini columns,” the massive structure looked, for all the world, like an artifact from a lost civilization. For pure sculptural drama, Ziggurat was unbeatable – mysterious and jaw-dropping all at the same time.

“I always try to explain the beauty I see in Detroit,” Hocking’s said, and it amounts to a sort of professional ethic. And indeed, his creations go a long ways toward accomplishing just that. For its part, Ziggurat quickly got national exposure. A photographer, Sean Hemmerle, rounded a corner while exploring the city’s industrial infrastructure and happened upon the monument unawares. In an interview with The Detroit News, he confessed it knocked him right off his feet. The picture he produced would end up running across a full page and a half in Time magazine as part of an essay on Detroit.

Unfortunately, Ziggurat had a short shelf life. In a development completely unrelated to the sculpture, the EPA bulldozed all the floors in Fisher Body Plant 21 to clear out toxic debris – including Hocking’s sober stepped pyramid. But it hardly matters. Also a talented photographer, he documents all his constructions so they live on long after they’ve degraded or disappeared.

It’s also worth noting, whether intentional or not, that Ziggurat works superbly at the symbolic level. Had Hocking erected a tombstone in a dead auto factory, it’d be a gesture both banal and trite. But a ziggurat, like the pyramids, is a funerary object — even if that’s not our first association upon seeing it. It’s the oblique nature of the reference that gave the doomed structure its pathos.

It has to be said that Hocking’s a veritable artistic polymath, with work ranging from the large-scale sculptures to installations to the haunting series, Detroit Nights, where he documents the dark city using available light. In the words of the show’s short introductory essay, Hocking – part archeologist and archivist – “[uncovers] layers of history, meaning and memory, with a historian’s sense of discovery and a writer’s craft of storytelling.”

Word to the wise: don’t miss his series of portraits of boats abandoned on Detroit streets.

Scott Hocking, The Secrets of Nature, 2012 / 2014 / 2022, Fiberglas, wood paint, metal, concrete, various found objects, Courtesy of and David Klein Gallery, photo by deo Owensby.

One of the more striking assemblages on display, both funny and daunting, is the wall-sized Secrets of Nature. Here Hocking utilizes figurative artifacts, human and animal alike, found at what he calls “tourist traps and roadside attractions” – in particular, a clutch of Bible characters from the former Good Shepherd Scenic Gardens up north in Mancelona. The installation looms high above the viewer with dozens of saints and sinners peering down at you. The work’s got a weird depth. In the words of the accompanying label, Secrets focuses on “creation and destruction mythologies … and ancient prehistoric wisdom.”

Scott Hocking with The Egg and the MCTS, 2012, Photo Scott Hocking; Courtesy the artist and David Klein Gallery.

Another of Hocking’s astonishing, large sculptures was The Egg in Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, the towering wreck on Michigan Avenue now being renovated by the Ford Motor Co. into high-tech office space — one of the most recognizable symbols of Detroit’s decline.

Using shattered pieces of marble that had cracked off the walls along one of the upper-story hallways after decades of freeze and thaw, Hocking painstakingly assembled thousands of shards to create a symmetrical ovoid sculpture that’s easily nine feet tall. The design has an almost Japanese aesthetic in its use of irregular, jagged elements — albeit all the same thickness – to produce something elegantly and breathtakingly symmetrical.

Workers doing asbestos removal before Ford acquired the depot helpfully suggested to Hocking that the egg’s weight might be too great for the floor. So they built a structural support system right below to prevent collapse.

The Egg reflects Hocking’s interest in geometric shapes, but as with Ziggurat, you can read something more into the design – in this case, birth and renewal rather than death.

Of course, this being Detroit, making art out of the city’s desolation exposes you to the charge of “ruin porn,” the cheap shot leveled most frequently at outsiders who can’t refrain from taking pictures of our astonishing dilapidation – like the French photographers and authors Romain Meffre and Yves Marchand, whose 2010 “The Ruins of Detroit” scandalized Michiganders but dazzled the world.

Cranbrook Art Museum Director Andrew Satake Blauvelt, who curated the show, isn’t buying the allegation. “In this case, Scott is from Detroit,” he said, creating actual art in these buildings, not merely gaping. “It’s not just depressing pictures that will go in a magazine,” Blauvelt said.  He points out that College for Creative Studies Prof. Michael Stone-Richards, who wrote an essay for the exhibition catalog, “also references the idea of ruins,” noting the fascination has a long history – indeed, going back to at least the 17th century, when Germans of means started traveling to Italy in search of the ancient and profound. “We go to Rome to venerate the ruins from past centuries,” Blauvelt said, because like Detroit, “they tell a story.”

Scott Hocking, Celestial Ship of the North (Emergency Ark) AKA The Barnboat #0721, 2016, installation view, Port Austin, Michigan. Photo Courtesy of Scott Hocking and David Klein Gallery, Detroit.

Not all Hocking’s remarkable constructions are in the Motor City. Indeed, he’s been invited to create work around the world. But one of his most recent and compelling pieces is found in Michigan’s thumb outside Port Austin – where he created an enormous sculpture as part of the “barn art project” first launched by former Public Pool gallerist Jim Boyle along with Steve and Dorota Coy, two artists who go by the monicker Hygienic Dress League. The project’s turned four old barns scattered around the countryside into art objects both oddball and beautiful. (See especially architect Catie Newell’s “Secret Sky.”)

With permission from the owner, Hocking deconstructed an 1890s barn starting to slump and rebuilt it into an ark-like sculpture that hangs off several telephone poles — a fitting metaphor, many would say, for our imperiled times.

It’s often said that the arts have “saved” Detroit. And it’s indisputable that at the turn of the century, Detroit and the state of Michigan were fortunate in having a rich crop of talent who made the Motor City their subject long before it became chic – among them Taurus Burns, Clinton Snider, Corine Vermeulen and Andrew Moore. While Hocking’s work is the most peculiar and original of the bunch, they’ve all helped Michiganders and the world at large see Detroit in a fresh light.

Scott Hocking and Clinton Snider, Relics, 2001. Photo by deo Owensby.

Scott Hocking: Detroit Stories at the Cranbrook Art Museum is up through March 19, 2023.

Stephen Arboite @ N’Namdi Center for the Arts

Stephen Abolite, Installation image, N’Namdi Center for the Arts,  2022

N’Namdi Center for the Arts opened a solo exhibition on September 22, 2022, by the multidisciplinary artist Stephen Arboite born in Haiti, grew up in New York City, and now resides in Miami. Curated by George N’Namdi, he says, “ The spiritual work is dominated by a greater sense of self. Arboite asks the viewer to immerse themselves in an examination of understanding of self through a psycho-spiritual lens, hopefully generating awareness of emotional and mental well-being, and a path to a potentially reconstructed journey.”

Stephen Abolite, Untitled, Acrylic, Coffee, Graphic Collage, Mixed Media, 57″X56″ 2022

These multimedia collage self-portraits are obviously influenced by his Haitian heritage, which portrays the spiritual essence essentially manipulated by African spiritual practices. The mixture of human imagery with abstract elements engages the viewer with a combination of skill and ritual.

Stephan Aborite, Reflection Series #2, Acrylic, Coffee, Graphite, Collage Mixed Media on paper. 78″ x 31″ 2022

The artist refers to himself as multidisciplinary because some of the work is abstract fields of shape and color. As demonstrated in Reflection Series 2 there is a complex composition material set against a black background. He says in a statement, “Throughout that process, I found that the material itself, and how it dried, had a really intuitive quality,” says Arboite. “The same intuition that drew me to that led me to this current path. All these materials I use yield a certain weight, power, and energy. I think it is deeper than what is on the surface.”

Stephen Arboite, Bwa Kayıma, Acrylic, Coffee, Collage Mix Media, 50″ x 96″ 2022

This image is a combination of large shapes and small motifs that contrast with large solid areas in the composition soon led the artist on a powerful journey to explore his Haitian heritage and various discourses on the Caribbean diaspora. Many, if not most, of these collages use an overlapping outline of the artist’s face to make the point that all of these are self-portraits. Using a staining technique that includes ground coffee, metallic powders, and organic pigment, Arboite portrays the spiritual essence of his subjects. Whereas the spirit is primarily manipulated in African spiritual practices, his artworks perform a ritual that allows the aura to be seen up front and center.

Stephan Abolite, Reflection Series #3, Acrylic, Charcoal, Collage Mixed Media, 60 x 72″, 2022

Stephan Aboite is a multidisciplinary artist of Haitian descent who was born and raised in New York City and now resides in Miami. Arboite’s work considers beauty outside of classical aesthetic paradigms, emphasizing spiritual transformation and the evolution of human consciousness. Arboite considers himself primarily a self-taught artist with a foundation in drawing and painting from the State University of New York, Purchase College. His works have been exhibited nationally at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, N’Namdi Contemporary in Detroit and Miami, Prizm Art Fair, and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Michigan, amongst others. Some notable collections include the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum of Miami, the Eric and Donna Johnson Collection, and the Arthur Primas Collection of African American Art.

The exhibition Big Good Angel is on display at the N’NAMDI Contemporary now through January 16th, 2023.

Ivan Montoya @ Playground Detroit

Opening night reception for “Semillas” at Playground Detroit, October 22, 2023. Photo by John Sippel

Human beings are a storytelling species–it’s how we make sense of the world. In his solo exhibition “Semillas,” now at Playground Detroit until November 19, Ivan Montoya has painted an idealized origin story as he tries to make sense of his adopted country while also preserving ties to his Hispanic cultural heritage. Based on early memories of his birthplace in Chihuahua, Mexico, and his immigrant childhood in the U.S., the paintings in “Semillas” tell a story of transition and displacement, loss and possibility.

The exhibition title is inspired by the Spanish proverb “hoy semillas, mañana flores,” which can be translated “seeds today, flowers tomorrow.”

That Montoya is aware of the provisional nature of the story he is telling is evident in the storybook quality of the 17 paintings in the exhibition.  Along two walls of the gallery, he has strung together several of his artworks in an implied narrative, each sequence bookended by decorative floral panels as if they are the covers of some mysterious folk tale. The paintings, while presented in a line that suggests a series of events, are stand-alone images that might be disjointed childhood memories or mythical scenarios drawn from dreams.

Ivan Montoya, Setting of the Altar, 2022, acrylic on birch panel, 24” x 36” photo courtesy of the artist and Playground Detroit

One row of paintings includes Setting of the Altar, among others, and seems to center on scenes of more-or-less harmonious community life.  The compositions are bathed in warm colors that give an idyllic air to the timeless Edenic visions. Montoya avoids placing the scenes within a recognizable time and place—they are once-upon-a-time visions that are no place and every place, but they exist in the artist’s imagination most of all.

Ivan Montoya, Inciter, 2022, acrylic on birch panel, 24” x 24” photo by K.A. Letts

The warm, late afternoon light of Montoya’s family-centered paintings gives way to mysterious nocturnal illumination in another loosely narrative series on the opposite wall of the gallery. Once again framed by floral panels, this line of images takes us in a different, more archetypal direction. Inciter and Guardian, a pair of paintings that depict two single but related figures set among the pillars of what appears to be a monumental temple structure at night, imply–but don’t insist–on a story. The Inciter is an impish trickster character, caught in the act of spilling and breaking, all energy and mischief.  The companion painting, Guardian, is occupied by a tired-looking maternal figure wearily cleaning up Inciter’s mess. Like the two paintings flanking it, the central painting, Latchkey, features two masked, child-like figures that convey an air of playful mystery.

Ivan Montoya, Guardian, 2022, acrylic on birch panel, 24” x 24” photo by K.A. Letts

The painting that most clearly references the immigrant experience is found in Paladarium, where a man and woman carry a large glass vessel through a snowy landscape. Two axolotls are contained within. The axolotl is a species of salamander native to Mexico, but which these days is mostly native to research labs, its native habitat having been degraded by urban development and climate change. The species is known for its almost miraculous ability to regenerate damaged limbs, as well as for the fact that it has both lungs and gills. Legend has it that the salamander represents the Aztec god of fire and lightning, and clearly it (along with the jaguar) has significance for Montoya as a metaphor for his dual identity as an immigrant and an American. He explains, “My immigration definitely is something I drew from for this [painting], but more specifically I intend to shed light on the hope behind relocating or changing environments. Paladarium refers to a tank that replicates the biome in which reptiles and amphibians live. This piece references the fact that some creatures only grow as large as the environment that they live in allows them to. Which is essentially many immigrants’ purpose for emigrating.”

Ivan Montoya, Descanso (Rest), 2022 acrylic on birch panel, 24” x 36” photo courtesy of the artist and Playground Detroit

Montoya paints in a straightforward figurative style, with surfaces that are signboard matte on wood panels. No obvious painterly flourishes mediate our experience of the light-filled compositions rendered in saturated colors. The pictorial space of each painting is often filled and activated by two or more stocky figures drawn in a manner reminiscent of mid-twentieth-century Mexican painters like Diego Rivera or Jose Clemente Orozco. Like these artists, Montoya delivers a strong sense of the 3-dimensionality of the figures in his compositions, and there is often an underlying archetypal subtext. But where Montoya’s artistic forebears draw inspiration from the political upheavals of their time, Montoya’s preoccupation is with a more personal journey.

“Semillas” gallery installation, photo courtesy of the artist and Playground Detroit

The artist credits an eclectic group of Mexican artists as further influences in the development of his style. The surrealist painter Rufino Tamayo, the expressionist Jorge Gonzalez Camarena and the academically trained Saturnino Herràn have all influenced his work in subtle ways. He pays particular attention to Rufino Tamayo’s surreal, earthy humanist themes and the idiosyncratic style that sets him apart from the more political work of his contemporaries. Montoya has studied, too, the pre-Hispanic motifs and reliefs found in Mayan or Aztec culture, combining all these influences in pursuit of an authentic Mexican-American cultural identity.

In his debut solo show at Playground Detroit, Ivan Montoya has clearly mapped out his path toward a worldview and an art practice that makes space for mystery and spirituality while allowing scope for both his American experience and his Hispanic heritage. Whether he is rendering the warm light of a late afternoon in an orchard or moonlight shining on a luminous sea, this hybrid way of being becomes ever more clear in the artist’s work.  Perhaps Montoya says it best:

My cultural identity is the core of what I am trying to understand and make peace with. I’ve grown up in two worlds and I don’t always feel like I belong to one or the other too firmly. So to me, understanding how I’ve been molded by both is super important to how I communicate and create especially because of how many other people feel like I do.”

“Semillas,” gallery installation, preview dinner, photo courtesy of the artist and Playground Detroit

Playground Detroit presents Ivan Montoya’s solo exhibition “Semillas,” now on display until November 19, 2022.

Todd Weinstein @ Janice Charach Gallery

Todd Weinstein’s Stories of Influence: In Search of One’s Own Voice is at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield, Michigan through Dec. 7.

Install image, Stories of Influence: In Search of One’s Own Voice is at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield, Michigan. 2022

Photographer Todd Weinstein’s Stories of Influence: In Search of One’s Own Voice is a high-concept show that employs a delightful gimmick – Weinstein pairs 68 of his photos with a corresponding image from one of his numerous mentors, teachers and friends, and then mats and frames the two together. It’s a career retrospective with punch, and will be up at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield’s Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit through Dec. 7, 2022.

A commercial and artistic shutterbug who grew up in Oak Park, Weinstein had a gift as a youngster for talking his way into jobs with great photographers, some of whose influence he honors with this exhibition. He got an early start after dropping out of the old School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (now the College for Creative Studies), and approaching legendary auto photographer Dick James to ask if he needed an assistant. “How about third-assistant?” James responded. No fool he, Weinstein grabbed the chance.

Like so many young artists in the 1970s, he ultimately left Detroit in the 1970s to make his way in New York’s hurly-burly, and, as it happens, thoroughly succeeded. Weinstein’s got a thriving photography and multi-visual practice, and lives in one of Brooklyn’s handsomest old rowhouse neighborhoods, Boerum Hill.

Among other virtues, Weinstein appears to have an admirable gift for gratitude. The idea of pairing one of his photos with that of an esteemed teacher, mentor or friend as a way of paying tribute struck him when he was in Paris several years ago. Weinstein brought it up with Charach director Natalie Balazovich, and she was immediately enthusiastic, finding it refreshing and new. “Todd’s essentially saying ‘This is why I’m where I’m at,” she said, “’because of these people.’” She added, “I like that the show dives into almost a taboo subject – sharing the things that pushed him to become who he is, and showcasing them.”

Todd Weinstein, Two Lady’s, New York City, NY, c. 1973; Mel Dixon, 19th Street Studio, New York City, NY, c. 1970.

A professional who helped Weinstein in his early New York days, when he was sleeping on a friend’s floor for eight months, was commercial photographer Mel Dixon. One of the first Black fashion photographers to go out on his own some 50 years ago, Dixon had a glittering background – he’d worked with photo greats Avedon and Hero. He offered Weinstein his first job in the big city, working in the studio on commercial and advertising projects.

“Mel gave me the chance,” Weinstein said. “We shot luggage, brides. All that kind of stuff.” He wasn’t really that interested in studio work, but it gave him the opportunity to earn a living while exploring other paths for his future.

The image Dixon contributed to the show is a black-and-white study of a girl. Her shoulders and face are completely dark, while her broad, white hat catches all the light in the frame. It’s elegant, high-class, high-fashion photography.

In his artist’s statement, Weinstein notes that in pairing images he relied on the structures of jazz – employing a sort of visual syncopation, as it were. You clearly see that in his rejoinder, the 1973 Two Lady’s, New York City, NY. It, too, is a fashion study — this time of two models facing away from us, one lithe and Black, the other short and white. Both are wearing headdresses that fall like curtains down to their shoulders. The white girl has a hand on the other’s back, which prompts her to twist her head around in apparent rapture.

Todd Weinstein, Brooklyn Bridge, New York, NY, c. 1980s; Bob Day, Manhattan Bridge, New York, NY, 1980.

Another significant mentor was painter and photographer Bob Day. The two went into business together on Manhattan’s East 17th Street half a century ago, “back when you could get a 6,000-square-foot studio for like $300 a month,” Weinstein said. Day’s 1980 image, Manhattan Bridge, NY, NY, is a powerfully compressed telephoto shot. Day frames the very top of the Manhattan Bridge, a lush blue-green, sharply etched essay in cross-bracing around a central gothic arch. Looming in the near distance – unrealistically large, thanks to the powerful lens — is a gray and gold Empire State Building seen through the bridge’s vertical suspension wires. It lends immensely satisfying balance to the drama of the bridge crown in both shape and color.

By contrast, Weinstein’s Brooklyn Bridge, NY, NY is grittier. A close shot of a taxicab takes up most of the frame, the vehicle’s “Off Duty” crown lit and glowing. The aesthetic is ordinary and everyday — even the Brooklyn Bridge rising in the distance looks a little dull. All the print’s visual power, which is considerable, comes from the illuminated “Off Duty” sign that, alone out of the entire shot, glows with a warm light, and whose shape echoes the tops of the two bridges.

Julian Teachworth, Untitled, 1997; Todd Weinstein, Little Ninja, Brooklyn, NY, 1973.

Not all of the images contributed by mentors are photos. In one, Weinstein pairs his picture of what looks like a collapsed, rainbow-striped mylar balloon on the street with painter Julian Teachworth’s amusing and gorgeous abstract of many colors, an untitled work from 1997. Here Weinstein riffs on the similarity in colors and the loopy geometry present in both. “I photographed all of Julian’s paintings,” Weinstein said. “He’s an incredible painter, mentor and spirit.”

There’s something undeniably spiritual about the twinned images by Weinstein and the great photographer of the Civil Rights movement, Dan Budnik. The latter’s photo, ‘Do-Right Rogers’ on the Selma to Montgomery March, March, 1965 is a classic of the genre, and one that Weinstein says he recalls from childhood. A skinny, African-American youngster marches down an endless dirt road, carrying a pole with a large American flag that’s unfurled in all its red, white and blue glory. The association of deep patriotism with individuals who still had to fight a for their rights is palpably moving.

Todd Weinstein, Mural, Detroit, 2019; Dan Budnik, ‘Do-Right Rogers’ on the Selma to Montgomery March, March 1965.

For his part, Weinstein gives us a black-and-white mural in Detroit on a brick wall honoring the late Daisy Elizabeth Elliott, a champion of Black rights who died in 2015. The quote next to her portrait, in which she cites her willingness to die in the fight for civil rights, is powerful and unexpected – a bit like this show.

Todd Weinstein, Cloud over Manhattan, New York, NY, 2008.

Stories of Influence: In Search of One’s Own Voice is at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield through Dec. 7.

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