Thomas Berding @ Oakland University Art Gallery


Thomas Berding, Command Tree, 44 X 48″, Oil on Canvas, 2013, Courtesy of Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum Collection


Oakland University Art Gallery opened an exhibition, The Berding Memorandum, on September 15, 2016, with a collection of abstract expressionist work by Thomas Berdling, Professor of Studio Art at Michigan State University. His abstract expressionism has obliviously evolved over several years where earlier work has more reference to the real world, be it landscape or figures. While his work is not a literal translation, there is no mistake the paintings are a response to a particular situation, often referenced in work’s title. An example is the painting Command Tree, 2013, where you find a reference to an orange-yellow tree that comes forward dominating the composition over a re-shuffled landscape with background structures.

He says in an interview with Dick Goody, Director of the Oakland University Art Gallery, “While my paintings are not literal translations of the reference material I use, the paintings of the last five years have indeed been made in response to sources like the ones you intuitively feel are in the work. This includes the screen-based and two-dimensional schematic constructions that visualize this making and unmaking of the world, such as explosion views common in assembly manuals, flow charts, diagrammatic schemes, encrypted texts, among others.”


Thomas Berding, Breakage, Oil on Canvas, 70 X 76″, 2014 All Images Courtesy of Oakland University Art Gallery


Abstract Expressionism, born in the mid-1940s and lead the way for ten years as part of the New York City art scene, made a deep and lasting impression on artist Berding’s age group. It’s not hard to see the remnants of early Pollack, de Kooning, and color similarities with Matisse in Berding’s work. In the work Breakage, we experience a landscape that has a busy foreground, making way to a mid-ground of larger shapes, and upward to a sky with transparent building like shapes. His tools are less brush, and more palette knife and tape removed. Through out his work there is a unified effort to create a color feel, often a thematic color arrangement for a particular painting where a sense of mapping, charting or sorting is taking place.

Many historians feel the AE period was cut short as society sped towards change that was mirrored in daily life of the 1960’s and embraced Pop Art, Minimalism, and later conceptual art that thrived on installation. Looking back over the millennium, movements in art typically lasted longer, and this could be why artists of a certain age still want to explore the qualities they relate to in abstract work as if to say, the period wasn’t yet finished.


Thomas Berding, By Land and By Sea, Oil on Canvas, 70 X 76, 2008


With a palette dominated by green in Land and Sky, this abstraction seems to have an elevated point of view, as if the viewer is located high across the river overlooking the cityscape that leads to a horizon of buildings. The converging yellow shapes create an unreal type of perspective that takes the eye back towards the mid ground of complex color and shape. Richard Diebenkorn started out as a realistic artist, and gradually became an abstract painter that used the landscape in the 1950’s to create his Ocean Park series that depended deeply on his dependence with the local landscape. Here too, Berding give us his distinctively intense yet aloof rendition of his landscape experience, producing an ambiguous degree of abstraction that makes us wonder where he is going with this personal pandemonium?


Thomas Berding, Turning Tables, Oil, Acrylic, Flashe on Canvas, 24 X 24, 2016













In a gallery full of smaller square 24 X 24” work, we experience a work process that some would describe as studies. Here in Turning Tables, Berding gives us a painting that shares a sensibility with Matisse, both in using shape and color. Because smaller work can move along faster, it might be that the artist is using this process to become more spontaneous and intuitive with his internal tools. It’s as if he has said to himself; I need to loosen up and work a bit faster, at least conceptually and see where it goes?

Thomas Berding, born in Cincinnati, Ohio and received his MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, has been recognized with awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Pollack-Krasner Foundation, and over his career has exhibited in many venues through out the mid-west. He has obviously been educated and influenced by modernism with its reductive style, drawn to abstraction, resulting in a personal narrative that expresses a kind of controlled explosion of color and shape. For those living in the Metro Detroit area, the OUAG provides their students, and us with a fresh experience in the abstract expressionistic work of Thomas Berding.

Oakland University Art Gallery






Senghor Reid @ NCA Gallery

A Diabolical Element – Senghor Reid’s exhibition at the National Conference of Artist Gallery

In the hallway outside of NCA Gallery, housed in a vibrant Community Center in Northwest Detroit, you encounter the first wave of Senghor Reid’s solo exhibition Diabolique. The imposing group of large-scale acrylic paintings depict shifting, shimmering surfaces of water in different weather conditions and light. Reid’s dynamic, disquieting treatment of the ever-moving element of water recalls David Hockney’s pool paintings. Both artists weave water as a substance in movements and marks that eerily echo the nature of the element itself- slashes, splotches, dense, doily-like layers of marks that begin to suggest forms even as those forms collapse and drain away before your eyes. Reid’s work evokes Hockney’s, also, in the strange, visually transmitted metaphor presented by both artist’s treatments of this element- that of the complete unknown, the otherworld that mirrors and impacts our own, that lies just beneath the surface.


Senghor Reid, The Ice Storm 2, 48 X 60, Acrylic on Canvas, 2016

The title of Reid’s exhibition, Diabolique, references the 1955 French film Les Diaboliques, the plot of which revolves around the concealment of a corpse in a body of water. The water swallows the corpse and refuses to yield it up- it appears later, brought uncannily back to life, rising from the waters of a bathtub. The mysterious, treacherous capability of water to give both life and death, to absorb evil only to reveal it later in the most intimate settings, is examined with a plethora of materials and media, through scientific and aesthetic lenses, in Diabolique. True to the origin of its title, the exhibition features a series of self-portraits of the artist washed up on a vaguely tropical shore, an uncanny, amphibious humanoid, his face concealed behind swimming goggles and a gas mask that suggests both survival in a toxic environment and gills. The figure of the artist appears both resurrected and consigned to dwell forever in conditions his body was not designed for.


Senghor Reid, Freshwater Assassins, 12 X 18″, Digital Print, 2016

This could be seen as the fate of humanity at the dawn of the Twenty-first Century- our surroundings are now rife with invisible, and not so invisible, contaminants that have resulted from our misuse of the natural world. Reid uses the element of water as the aesthetic touchstone of his exploration of those harmful elements, and their insidious presence in our daily lives. The most sinister elements on the periodic table- mercury, cobalt, lead- are carried into our communities and bodies through the vehicle of water. These same elements, like water, are aesthetically beautiful- possessed of a seductive, ever-shifting sheen. That paradox of beauty, vitality, nature and toxicity is presented in every one of Reid’s works, the large-scale water paintings, the smaller water studies executed in oil pastel and paint marker, the sensuous prints on gold and copper paper, the installation of crystalline vintage bottles labeled with the acids and heavy metals they once held.


Senhor Reid, The Element of Crime Shelves & Apothecary Bottles, 24 X 30, 2016

The shimmer, and Reid’s capture of it in almost every medium imaginable, wreathes an elegant, fragile dialog between art, science and nature in Diabolique. It is the surface of water, which has become so loaded (the Flint water crisis and Detroit’s ongoing scandal of water shut-offs are only two examples of the element’s presence in crises of health, politics, race, and class) with essential and unanswered cultural urgencies. It is the glint of heavy metals, and the faceted surface of glass, containers and transmitters for elements that delight our eyes and leave putrid, invisible traces. It is deep, lurid, sensuous hues that sing of our love of nature as they paradoxically poison our environment. The shimmer conceals the corpse that will, inevitably, rise up from the murky inheritance of our chemical-spewing forbears. The rest of us may not be so lucky- yet, Diabolique seems to suggest, where there’s beauty, there’s hope.


Senghor Reid, Breaking Waves 4, Paint Marker, 11 X 14″ 2016

 Diabolique,  by Senghor Reid,  at NCA Gallery through October 21, 2016.


Tom Phardel @ Simone DeSousa Gallery


Tom Phardel, Install image, Photographs by Tim Thayer and Robert Hensleigh, courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery

Tom Phardel’s exhibition, Inner Core, opened at Simone DeSousa Gallery, October 15, 2016. The work continues in a direction that I first viewed when I wrote a review of Phardel’s exhibition at Popp’s Packing in May of 2015. Normally I would not write something this close to that period of work. However, this new work demands attention, exploration and, quite honestly, tribute.  The strengths in Phardel’s work are originality and a preponderance of skillful execution of materials that is not limited to clay, stone, glass or metal, but rather touches on all of these and more. He says in a statement, “It’s here, in the inner unseen spaces, that my interest lies, where the wisdom, power, and soul resides.”


Tom Phardel, Red-Bi-Lobe “Listening” 2016 Fabricated steel





















In R-Bi-Lobe “Listening”, which is similar to but refined from an earlier work, Phardel uses fabricated steel to create a perfect form, two ovals intersecting, and an interior oval with two valve-like openings. On a technical level, the work makes the viewer wonder how it was created or fabricated. Then there is a lustrous paint finish and a sanded edge that reveals the metal in a precise way. The object feels like a cross-section, but of what? These are all the qualities that make the sculpture so strong that it leaves the viewer with a longing for an explanation. This quality is what artists seek to find: The Mona Lisa smile quality that brings the viewer back for a closer look, seeking an explanation or understanding.


Tom Phardel, “Inner Mountain” 2016 Ceramic

Here, with Inner Mountain, we are presented with a clay object thrown on a wheel with a clay object inside. Within this interior mound, there is an indentation of two circles, what this viewer might consider an infinity symbol. This object presents questions: Is it stoneware with a crackle glaze or raku, as the darkened edge suggests, and how many artists are making sculpture that incorporates wheel-thrown forms? There are ceramic artists that have used wheel thrown forms, but Phardel goes beyond that. We know Mr. Phardel has been the Chairperson of Ceramics at the Center for Creative Studies since 1988 and oversees the philosophy of clay-made forms, and now we know why. He demonstrates that we are not limited by the material and its conventional use.


Tom Phardel, “Union of Two Points” 2016, Ceramic, granite, glass

In The Union of Two Points, Phardel gives us an object that feels spiritual, as it rests on these two pieces of steel (looks like wood) that act as a base. It seems to this viewer that he is using a router to indent the granite in a precise and uniform way. The clay object in a circular indentation creates the illusion that it is levitating. Again, a meditative and spiritual piece of three-dimensional artwork so new in its form, we are left to contemplate the careful selection of material and execution.


Tom Phardel, Tea Wisk & Bolder – “Whispers from the Rock” 2016 Steel, glass & gold leaf

Above is the large and overwhelming sculpture, Tea Wisk & Boulder – “Whispers from the Rock,” in which the combination of materials and how they are used is unbelievably inspiring. Mr. Phardel must have spent some time in Far East countries where a small Tea Wisk is commonplace, and he internalized the form and made it his own, not from bamboo, but many times larger and fabricated in stainless steel. What we experience is a face-off between the Tea Wisk and the large stone boulder, only to be moderated by a small vertical opening in the large inch-thick square of plate glass.

In this exhibition of three -dimensional art, Mr. Phardel distills form to its core essence and presents a hidden interior that gives way to the love of making original objects. All great literature, music, dance and visual art appeal to people when they bring their experience to the art form, and this is where Phardel succeeds. Phardel’s focus on meditative and contemplative form separates his work from many artists who work in three-dimension, not just in the Detroit metro area, but also in the world at large. If there is a time when an artist arrives at a place where his or her work demands greater attention, I would say that time has come for Tom Phardel.

If the Detroit Institute of Arts had a contemporary curator, they would, or should be all over this exhibition.

Simone DeSousa Gallery


Energy/Mass @ Wasserman Projects


Koen Vanmechelen, Installation, Five Exterior Works, 2016

“While the native breeds that descended from the  original chicken (the Red Junglefowl) are evolutionary  dead-ends (being shaped to reflect the typical cultural  characteristics of its community), Vanmechelen’s  cross-breeds are solutions. Many years of  crossbreeding have proven that each successive generation of hybrids is ‘better’. It is more resilient,  it lives longer, is less susceptible to diseases, and it exhibits less aggressive behavior. Genetic diversity is essential, proves the Cosmopolitan Chicken Research  Project(CC®P), which studies the various CCP Hybrids.”-From Koen Vanmechelen’s artist statement/bio, on “The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” and “Energy/Mass”


Koen Vanmechelen, Installation image, Energy/Mass, – All Images Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

I walked into “Energy/Mass,” the current exhibition at Wasserman Projects, wondering about the distinction between art and science. Having only heard and seen a few snippets of information about the artist, Koen Vanmechelen, and his work, the main question I took in with me was, “how is this art?” This question, in light of many of the openings/panel discussions/bar conversations I’ve found myself in lately, has been puzzling me more and more. There’s much talk, these days, of visual art claiming its rightful place in the hierarchy of sciences, and the importance of visual art (and the humanities at large) in unpacking, interpreting, and finding unique insights into such disciplines as history, mathematics, social justice, and hard science. I fully support this idea- at the same time, it opens a new strain of questioning about what, precisely, can be classified as art practice within the practices of science, academic research, and political activism. Where does studio practice end, and interdisciplinary research begin? How does the one inform the other? An intriguing example of the fertile union between science and art, and how studio practice can maintain its autonomy while exploring in other disciplines, can be found in “Energy/Mass.”

As Wasserman gallerist Megan Keeley reminded me while walking me through “Energy/Mass,” the scientific aspect of the show is hardly trafficking in cutting-edge research. The science of “Energy/Mass” is pretty bare-bones, accepted knowledge of biology and genetics- the processes by which organisms (in this case, chickens) reproduce, and the results of introducing new material into an isolated genetic pool. What “Energy/Mass” explores is a lyrical, artistic interpretation of that long-studied process. The work in “Energy/Mass” presents an aesthetic exploration, backed up by intensive research and field practice, of the processes of reproduction, the surprisingly graceful allegory these processes present for social, historical, and artistic practices, and the vital role visual art can assume in the binding and bridging of disciplines- biological, historical, social, political, and aesthetic.

“The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” centers on the breeding of chickens. A large coop inhabited by live chickens dominates the exhibition, and exposes its beating heart. Being serenaded by roosters while wandering through a gallery is an unusual experience that made me wish I could incorporate audio into this review.


Koen Vanmechelen, Planetary Community Chicken Coop, 2016

Vanmechelen chooses his breeding combinations based upon human-made geographical boundaries. This illuminates the impact of historical nationalism/xenophobia/political activity of humans upon the processes of natural selection and genetic descent. Apparently, we require the flora and fauna within our geographic boundaries to reflect those boundaries as much as our history and politics do. What results, manifested in regional livestock, is, in the context of this body of work, almost numberless distinct breeds of chicken, each iconic of its geographic region.


Koen Vanmechelen, Unpredictable, CCP, Steel / Bronze, 145 X 75 X 34

Vanmechelen’s “Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” is now in its twenty year generation. It has leapt, genetically, from country to country in a migratory pattern that echoes the migrations of humans from one culture to the next on our journey to globalization. The documentation of this fertile chain- from Europe through Asia, Africa, Australia and into the Americas- is displayed in “Energy/Mass” in works encompassing painting, sculpture, and mixed media incorporating taxidermy (all of the physical specimens that find their way into Vanmechelen’s body of work lived long, healthy lives on his incredible farm in Belgium, and died natural deaths prior to their incorporation).


Koen Vanmechelen, Coming World Taxidermy Chick, Steel, 67 X 39 X 39

These lyrical, aesthetic explorations of the sublime subject of birth and reproduction are backed up with huge, red leather-bound volumes filled with indecipherable genetic codes that strike the layman as obscure, and essentially aesthetic, as the more specifically visual works.


Koen Vanmechelen, 4 Icon, CCP, UV Print on Gold Leaf, Wood, Steel, 14 X 10 X 1, 2016

This work distills geographic migration- a process which bonds and strengthens- a powerful reminder for us in these strangely xenophobic times. When so much of our political discourse revolves around fear of the other, penetrating our shores, muddying our genetic pool, this work presents a simple, undeniably scientific truth- that cross-breeding, introducing new elements into a long-established system, can only empower.

“Energy/Mass,” A solo exhibition of work by Koen Vanmechelen, is on display at Wasserman Projects through December 17, 2016.

35 Years @ N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art


George N’Namdi stands next to work by Detroit artist, Charles McGee, Noah’s Ark # 8, 60 X 45 1984

George N’Namdi opened the current exhibition, 35 Years in celebration of all the N’Namdi galleries since 1981, when he opened his first gallery, Jazzonia, on Harmonie Park in downtown Detroit. I remember that location because the Detroit Artist Market was on Randolph street and myself, and many friends were part of those DAM exhibitions. This exhibition features works collected by George N’Namdi before and after 1981, which includes over 40 artists spanning many genres and mediums.

Educator and art dealer, George R. N’Namdi was born September 12, 1946, in Columbus, Ohio. He attended Columbus East High School in 1965 and went on to graduated from Ohio State University in 1970, before obtaining his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Michigan in 1974. This exhibition brings together a small selection of work that has been represented in the gallery for a span of near forty years.


Chakiaia Booker, Industrialization, 50 X 59 X 15, 1980

Known for her sculpture made from rubber, and her wearable sculptures, Chakaia Booker was one of the artists supported and exhibited by George N’Namdi in the early eighties. Her work “Echoes in Black, ” was accepted into the Whitney Biennial in 2000.  The successful artist exhibits her work at the June Kelly Gallery in New York City and has work in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Gerald Jackson, Island People, Mixed Media, 84 X 108, 1985

Born in Chicago, Gerald Jackson gained notice when his work was included in two influential 1970s exhibitions–the 1970 Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Boston, and the 1971 Black Artists: Two Generations at the Newark Museum.  Jackson’s Island People is a figurative expressionist work from 1985 where the work outline of figures overlaps within a flatten picture plane.


Sam Gilliam, 71X 98 X10, Trade Mark, Mixed Media on Canvas-Aluminum, 1994

Sam Gilliam, the African American artists, who was born in the south, eventually spent his life in Washington DC, where he taught painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and at Carnegie Mellon University. Known for his color fieldwork, and a lyrical kind of abstraction, he often worked with shaped canvas and was early to move away from using stretcher bars for his canvases.  In the1980s Gilliam’s style changed dramatically to quilted paintings reminiscent of African patchwork quilts from his childhood. In his statement he says, “Only when making the work can I determine the many languages that form the planes on which it is to exist. Like abstract phrases the many intentions of the work (before an audience) passes through an intuitive sieve… The work was not planned, there are ploys, to the way it was laid out and then put together.”


Alvin Loving, Dreams of Amorous, 61 X 51, 1998

Al Loving (1935–2005) was an Abstract Expressionist painter, and one of the few African American artists recognized for his contributions to the movement.  Born and raised in Detroit, he was known for his geometric work using bright color and hard-edge line in his arrangement of cubes and rectangles. Loving receive his BFA from the University of Illinois in 1963, and then his MFA from the University of Michigan in 1965, and soon after moved to New York City.  In 1968, he had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum.

The N’Namdi Collection is one of the finest private collections of African-American art in the United States and combines works covering more than a century of art in many genres.  As demonstrated in this exhibition, there as been a commitment by George N’Namdi to the contributions of African art and the discourse surrounding contemporary art in the United States.  Looking ahead, N’Namdi said “We are putting together an investment team for restaurants and galleries to create a gallery district on Grand River around Rosa Parks.  All this development that is taking place downtown will ultimately begin to spread into our neighborhoods.”

The N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art