Visiting the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City is an experience unique to Northern Michigan. Situated at the base of Old Mission Peninsula, since 1991 the Dennos served as a multipurpose art and science museum, and it houses one of the finest collections of Inuit art you’ll ever see. In 2018 it underwent a major expansion, and an impressively large suite of chic gallery spaces now allows the Dennos to show off much more of its permanent collection, and it really does have some good holdings. The museum has even just been awarded status as a Smithsonian affiliate. But while the focus of the museum is on the art within, the floor-to-ceiling windows of many of its exterior galleries offer visitors a commanding view of the pleasantly forested campus of Northwestern Michigan College. Through May 29, this emphatically northern space is the appropriate home to the annual Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition.
The show amply fills the museum’s spacious temporary exhibition space. It presents multimedia work by artists from 37 Michigan counties, including the entirety of the Upper Peninsula and much of the Lower Peninsula’s Northwest. Submissions were open to anyone, providing that the work was created during 2021. Juried by Vera Ingrid Grant, a curator and writer based in Ann Arbor and whose accomplishments include fellowships at Harvard and Columbia universities, the 90 works on view represent highlights from the show’s nearly 400 submissions.
Any juried show is destined to be varied in scope and media, and these works are certainly diverse– there are 83 artists represented, after all. Painting, sculpture, photography, and illustration join forces with quilting, fabric art, wood art, and pottery, blurring boundaries between fine art, folk art, and handcraft. Nevertheless, some themes do emerge, such as our shared experience of Covid-19, here directly addressed in about half a dozen works. Several works offer social commentary on timely subjects like media saturation and information overload.
Many of these works take the landscapes, waterscapes, and textures of Northern Michigan itself as their subject. Ample views of Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan’s sand-dunes firmly locate this show in Northern Michigan. Thomas Guback’s Northport Sailboat Race is a photograph that beautifully transposes the lucid diamond-tipped ripples of Lake Michigan’s waters into black and white, applying some of Ansel Adams’ magic to demonstrate that color isn’t necessary to give the viewer an arresting image. And Lynn Stephenson’s tightly rendered pencil drawing of a row of weathered, neglected dock pilings captures a sight common at any marina on Lake Michigan’s shoreline; Stephenson renders the texture of the mostly rotted wood and the ripples of the water with impressively photographic, illustrative detail.
Other artists engaged Northern Michigan’s geography in more playfully abstract terms. Susan Yamasaki’s Hieroglyphs applies perpendicular, geometric sections of birch bark and mixed media to create what could pass as Northern Michigan’s answer to Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. And the Best of Show award went to Kevin Summers, a multimedia artist whose Michigan Shoreline is a conceptual installation comprising driftwood, electronic fans, and sound.
Certain to be a highlight among visitors is the mural-sized bead tapestry by Marie Wohadlo, 10:23. Gently backlit, this work comprises nearly a million individual luminous glass beads. It’s a work that invites viewers to play the same game as one might play with a pointillist work by Seurat. Step up close, and the individual beads create a pixelated, abstract void. Step back, and they materialize into a photographic rendering of two distant faces. The planning and execution of a work on this scale is impressive, even allowing for photographic and technological assistance.
Shows like this have a leveling, democratizing effect on art. There’s nothing to differentiate the skilled amateurs from the seasoned professionals. And in the absence of any descriptive didactic panels, viewers are left to interpret these works entirely on their own. Perhaps this is a good thing; too often I find myself relying on an exhibition’s expository text to do much of the thinking for me. But here, viewers are given the opportunity to approach the work on their own terms, and the works on view are given the chance to speak for themselves.
The 2022 Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition runs through May 29, 2022. Views of the evergreens on the NMC campus are available all year round.