Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Author: Ashley Cook

Tylonn J. Sawyer @ N’Namdi

Dark Matter: Tylonn J. Sawyer at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

Installation, Tylonn J. Sawyer, Dark Matter, 2023,   All photo images by Ashley Cook

The scope of Afrofuturism is vast. It has served as a primary foundation for the creative expression of Black culture for decades before even having a name. The term was coined in 1993 by Mark Dery in his essay Black to the Future and has been used retroactively and moving forward to encompass philosophical applications that depict visions of the future through a Black lens. The dreams and concerns of an Afrofuturist world transcend the real-world struggles of disenfranchised people, particularly those of African descent, in order to imagine a place where their power and contributions are undeniably recognized, appreciated, and valued. Often looped into the genre of science-fiction, it is not uncommon to see images, read stories or hear sounds that seem unusual to us in our contemporary world consumed by oppressive issues of race. Like many Detroit-based artists, the work of Tylonn J. Sawyer actively participates in Afrofuturist conversations surrounding new representations of Black greatness and reclamations of lost agencies. On March 17, 2023, his newest exhibition Dark Matter opened at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Detroit.

Tylonn J. Sawyer, Embellishment Study: Man on a Black Horse, Charcoal, pastel, and glitter on paper 2022.

Here, some of the genre’s common motifs are revisited in order to remind us that imagining a future and building a world is a practice that requires maintenance. The effort to carve a place where one was previously not allotted is a process that involves looking forward to the future and looking back to the past. The artist exercises this through classical compositions like portraiture on horseback or in Victorian dress. Embellishment Study: Man on a Black Horse and For Small Creatures Such as We the Vastness is Bearable only Through Love position Black figures in roles traditionally held by white royalty. They are large-scale charcoal drawings that evoke other artists like painter Kehinde Wiley who is known for his naturalistic Old-Master-like portraits. This, of course, falls closely in line with Tylonn J. Sawyer’s history as a student at the New York Academy of Art, a school renowned for its figurative program.

Tylonn J. Sawyer, For Small Creatures Such as We the Vastness is Bearable only Through Love, Charcoal, pastel, pearls, and collage on paper 2022.

Forward-thinking and backward thinking certainly do still take into account contemporary challenges, treating them as critical jumping-off points to open discussions of potential in these world-building efforts. The title Turf War was given to two different oil paintings, each depicting a group of people holding up masks to block their faces. This has been common in Sawyer’s work; many of these masks use the faces of important public figures held often by the artist himself. These paintings in this exhibition are installed directly across from each other, communicating to each other, and challenging each other, white on one side, Black on the other. There is a significance to the hand gestures in each as well; the body language communicates seemingly sinister intent on one side and a fight for power on the other.

Tylonn J. Sawyer, Matriarch, Charcoal, pastel, and collage on paper 2022.

The use of gold leaf returns us back again to the decorated lifestyle of kings and queens in Moonlight while The Space between Adam’s Reach and God’s Unrequited Love has a background that mirrors the glitter in the aforementioned work of a figure on horseback. These materials and drawing techniques echo visual aesthetics often used in depictions of outer space, uniting the relics of the past with dreams of the future. Matriarch and Royal II are surrounded by the cosmos; there is an homage and dignity being paid to the women in these drawings, their contributions to the world, and the potential they represent. Like Tylonn J. Sawyer, there is and has been for decades, a consistent focus on space travel while imagining a new world and inclusive future for the Black community. From George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic to Sun Ra to Jeff Mills, the feeling of being “alien” or “other” is widely expressed and explored as a healing mechanism that, on one level, could act as a form of escapism while on another, a tool for empowerment. Dark Matter asks us what is needed to push even further out of our boxes and reach even greater heights. Time and place are some of the most important aspects of our conscious reality to consider when deconstructing and reconstructing our identities, an act that continues to be essential to the resilience of the human spirit.

Dark Matter by Tylonn J. Sawyer is on view until June 19 at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, 52 E. Forest Avenue in Detroit. Information:   https://nnamdicenter.org/

Christina Haylett @ U of M-Dearborn Stamelos Gallery

Christina Haylett: Revelations in Paint at the University of Michigan-Dearborn Stamelos Gallery Center

Boogie Woogie Polka, Mixed Media on Board, 2022, All photos: Ashley Cook

Michigan-based artist Christina Haylett has exhibited her work throughout the state and particularly throughout the Metro-Detroit area since 1980 when she graduated from College for Creative Studies with a degree in painting. While holding a position at Chrysler, Haylett consistently sought exhibition opportunities, balancing this full-time job with the intention to one day become a full-time artist. After twenty-three years working in the car industry, Haylett took the plunge and retired in 2008, dedicating all of her time to her studio and exhibition practice. The works on display in her solo show Revelations in Paint at the Stalemos Gallery span time and reveal the succession of her practice from 2009 until now.

Revelations in Paint – Installation View, 2023

The qualities of this exhibition are uncovered one by one, starting with the comprehensive text about the artist’s personal, educational, and professional background. Laura Cotton, the curator of Stamelos Gallery, worked closely with the artist to assemble these details as an educational resource for the public, serving as an access point to enter the work with ease. This text is complemented by the informational placards containing backstories to many of the works on display, written by the artist herself. As we review these placards, we learn about the numerous influences that were at play throughout the years. We learn about her exploration of portraiture and appreciation for the work of Alice Neel. We learn about her experience with a stink bug infestation, her journey through cancer recovery, her interactions with the spaces and people around her, like a cement factory along Macomb Orchard Trail, her young neighbor Piper or her professor Charles McGee. We learn about the ways that she approaches the development of a piece, which are ultimately informed by all of these life experiences.

Portrait Series, Mixed Media on Board and Paper, 2017

Her portraits of Starbucks baristas and physical therapists are relatively straight-forward figurative studies that explore form, color, line, brushwork and occasionally mixed-media collage. They contain an intimacy that underlines the remarkable relationships that Haylett has with her subjects, which is again defined in her plein-air landscape paintings depicting some of her favorite places in Michigan like Frankfort, Port Hope and Glen Arbor. Haylett’s practice has regularly oscillated between representation and non-representation since she began to seriously explore the world of abstraction in 2009. It is in abstraction that she is able to engage more directly with the spiritual and intuitive nature of creative production.

Days Gone By, Acrylic on Canvas, 2019

Haylett’s uniquely innovative approach to material application, color combinations, line work and composition is most confidently present in her abstract paintings. Her educational background in art comes through in the criticality of decision-making that references a multitude of modern artists without compromising her individuality. Christina’s Journey marks the early stages of her use of a particular methodology similar to automatism. Beginning with a loose thought, concern or inspiration, she marks the paper or canvas again and again, allowing them to guide her each time as she balances between conscious and subconscious resolutions. Elements emerge, and meaning is revealed as she participates in this process of discovery through painting.

Christina’s Journey, Mixed Media on Board, 2009

While paintings like Toy Box, Sometimes I Feel a Little Crazy, Progress and Where You Are Headed remain in a realm governed primarily by color and form, other paintings rooted in abstraction incorporate symbolism like animals, faces, numbers, peace signs, stars, silhouettes and shadows. A viewer’s interpretation can be guided by titles like Premonition, The Nature of Things, My Clear Eyes Can See Forever, Spirit Travelers or Boogie Woogie Polka as they navigate the show. These paintings have the potential to become therapeutic tools for anyone willing to get lost in them and find meaning in the chaos.

The Nature of Things, Mixed Media on Board, 2022

Revelations in Paint is the second solo exhibition of Christina Haylett’s career. In 2014, she produced a body of work for her first solo show, which took place at the Starkweather Gallery in Romeo, Michigan; she has never shown outside of Michigan, although the references elicited by her work are far-reaching. This exhibition, currently on view at the Stamelos  Gallery, consists of previously shown, along with many paintings that were never seen before now.The work in the Stamelos Gallery is complemented by a medley of glass pieces from the Art Collections and Exhibitions Department at the University of Michigan. The department offers dynamic programming to enhance the presence of art within the university overall. This is done through exhibitions as well as acquisitions to grow their collection and made it available for research as well as loans to other institutions.

Glass Works at Revelations in Paint, 2023

Revelations in Paint by Christina Haylett at the U of M Dearborn Stamelos Gallery opened on January 19 and closes on March 28, 2023

Learn more about the Stamelos Gallery 

Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century @ DIA

Exhibition view of Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century. All Images: Ashley CookPrintmaking in the Twenty-First Century at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century @ Detroit Institute of Arts

On view at the Detroit Institute of Arts is an exhibition that focuses on printmaking with over 60 works by local, national and international artists. Clare Rogan, who is the Curator of Prints & Drawings at the DIA, unpacks the magic of printmaking through placards that explain some of the most widely used processes and their history dating back to 700 AD in China. Since the first moment that ink was applied to a carved plate and pressed onto paper, it became evident that this new technology would change the trajectory of creative expression forever. Printmaking, unlike drawing or painting, allowed for the production of multiples, which gave artists a chance to produce more and reach a broader audience while still remaining true to their vision. Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century presents a plethora of practices including woodcuts, aquatints, linocuts, screenprints, lithographs, intaglios, relief collagraphs, letterpresses, monoprints, etchings, drypoints, spitbites, photo etchings and engravings. While the featured artists draw inspiration from a lineage over 1300 years old, the works in this exhibition span from the year 2000 until now.

The Schwarz Galleries of Print and Drawing is where you can find this show. Depending on which door you enter, you will receive the body of work differently, however all guests will walk away having witnessed the breadth of concerns these printmakers have addressed. Experimentation is particularly evident in works like Shadows II by William Kentridge, Arise by Fred Wilson, Aerial #3 by Susan Goethel Campbell and Untitled by Tara Donovan. Each of these pieces participate in conversations of abstraction through investigations of material and process. Visually, experimentation by printmakers seems to have furthered aesthetic potential and often achieved deeply mystical outcomes. Many times the printmaker’s multi-step process of creating is mysterious; the informative literature throughout the show satisfies the curiosity a fascinated viewer may have.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Aerial #3, Monoprint printed in brown and black ink with hand punching on kozo paper, 2010

Kota Ezawa, X3D, Color aquatint on paper, edition 3/35, 2009.

 For those who prefer representation, this show also has what you’re looking for. While experimentation is still evident in pieces like Watermark by Nicole Eisenmen and X3D by Kota Ezawa, there is as much concern for producing a legible illustration as there is for exploring the different ways to do so. There are also impressively complex representations of birds in Dying Words by Walton Ford and bugs in The Bestiary of Museum Visitors Notable Bird Beaks of American Museum History Exhibition Paradise and Perdition Thorny Territory by Mark Dion. These two, however, utilize more traditional methods of printmaking to explore the possibilities of realism, which highlights yet another of printmaking’s many facets.

Further into the exhibition is On Press Project: Prints for Non-profits, organized by Detroit-based printshop Signal Return who invited local artists to produce posters for non-profits in the Detroit area. There are 24 linocut and letterpress posters that were made between 2018 and 2022 that bring awareness to organizations, including Detroit Hives, Black Family Development, Keep Growing Detroit, Freedom House, The Children’s Center, and Greening of Detroit. Amongst them are posters for Detroit Will Breathe, an activist group that represents and supports Detroit’s participation in the global Black Lives Matter movement. These simple yet powerful protest posters silently shout DEMOCRACY FOR ALL! and remind us of the essential role that printmaking has held in the realm of activism throughout time. Signal Return spent much of 2020 producing protest posters for Black Lives Matter activists free of charge, which have fueled the demonstrations in the streets. This gesture is not new; researching images of human rights marches throughout history, we see that mass-produced messages designed by artists and produced by printmakers have been critical.

Clinton Snider, Greening of Detroit, Linocut, 202

This exhibition does not shy away from themes of colonization and the oppression of marginalized groups. It confidently moves on to explore more ways in which printmaking can be a functional approach to critiquing such realities while honoring and supporting those who are challenged with underrepresentation. Curated into the show is a series of printed medical-grade masks by world-renowned political artist Ai Weiwei. They were created in 2020 and sold to raise money for Covid-19 relief programs like Human Rights Watch, Refugees International, and Doctors without Borders. Sultana’s Dream is a large-scale imaginative series that depicts the array of achievements by women who live in a world free from the laws and wars of men. The purpose of these images is to illustrate a short novel by Bengali writer and women’s rights activist Rokeya Sakhamat Houssain.

Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei MASK, Screenprints on polypropylene masks, unlimited edition, 2020.

 Additionally, the beautiful life-size works of artist Dyani White Hawk represent the dentalium dresses worn by indigenous women of North America. Roger Shimomura addresses anti-Asian racism through his depiction of childhood memories as a boy living in Japanese internment camps during WWII. Robert Pruitt illustrates the complexities of Black identities through an image of a female basketball player with the Black Panther Party slogan “Black is Beautiful” on her jersey. Hernan Bas presents the male characters of Hardy Boys mystery novels with fairy wings to challenge gender norms and the disparagement of homosexuality. It would be safe to assume that nearly half of the works on display in this exhibition were done as a product of material experimentation with something to learn, while the other half were done as a product of support with something to say. The common thread is that they all require a curious urge to explore and an open mind to appreciate.

Exhibition view of Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century

Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts until April 9, 2023, accessible with the museum general admission pass.

 

Outside Work: Faculty Exhibition @ OUAG

Outside Work: Faculty Exhibition at Oakland University Department of Art and Art History

Installation view of Outside Work featuring Black Marquee, The Wild Bunch by Ryan Stanfest, and Getting Golder by Lindsey Camelio.  All images courtesy of Ashley Cook

The promotional material for Outside Work at Oakland University Art Gallery includes an image of an organic object with a form similar to a bone or a piece of wood, lending itself to preconceptions that the exhibition would be focused on the natural outside world. Realizing upon visiting the work that this piece by David Lambert is a series of spoons carved from a native sycamore tree could pique the interest of nature lovers. The rest of the work, however, undermines from this assumption that nature is the consistent focus and quickly clarifies that what we have is a group of works by the faculty of the university done outside of their work within the Department of Art and Art History. Dick Goody is the director of the gallery and a Professor of Art at Oakland University; curated into the show are fourteen of his oil paintings along with other works of art by Claude Baillargeon, Meaghan Barry, Lindsey Camelio, Dho Yee Chung, Satareh Ghoreishi, David Lambert, Colleen Ludwig, Karen McGarry, Maria Smith Bohannon, Ryan Standfest and Cody VanderKaay.

Maria Smith Brohannon, Emily uses Dashes, Glichee on canvas, 2022.

Visitors are first welcomed with a poster by Maria Smith Bohannon, who is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design. This poster Emily uses Dashes places a strong focus on the poetic punctuation practices of Emily Dickinson in order to soften the heavy statistics of climate change that are peppered around the poetry. Eight conceptual maps by Karen McGarry are presented along the adjacent wall and then a second piece by Bohannon, Emily is Hopeful. The maps entitled These Places Thus Far by McGarry, who is a Lecturer in Art, utilize collage as the primary technique to touch on her experiences living in different places throughout her life as a student and arts educator, including Detroit, Chicago, New York, Oxford, Singapore, Dublin, Cincinnati and Los Angeles.

Dho Yee Chung, The Room Series, mixed digital media, 2022.

Works by Assistant Professors of Graphic Design Dho Yee Chung and Lindsey Camelio differ from each other despite both using digital media as their means of production. Dho Yee Chung’s triptych The Room Series uses surrealist compositions, missing ceilings and floors, animated walls, and translucent floating forms to depict the control of human labor within a digital workspace. Camelio embraces elements of surrealism too, but with the objective of exploring a realm between luxury and everyday life through odd combinations of subject, pattern, color, and form. A strong focus on color and form is also at play in the work across the room by Cody VenderKaay who is an Associate Professor of Art, the Director of the Studio Art Program, and a sculptor. These abstract red and blue towers are in fact made of pine despite them looking like plastic. This carries over as well to the gray wall works they frame, which are shaped and primed birch.

Cody VanderKaay, Lodestone (Roulette) and Lodestone (High Dive) made of shaped and painted pine, Untitled (Subliminal Landscape) made of shaped and primed birch, 2022.

Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Satareh Ghoreishi and Assistant Professor of Art Ryan Standfest encourage us to consider the impacts of Covid-19 on consumerism around the world. The two works by Ghoreishi focus on the massive influx of online shopping that took place during the onset of the pandemic through her sculptural assemblages that combine contemporary shipping boxes and fashion items with personal items from years ago. The 3D collages by Standfest highlight the unfortunate impact that the pandemic has had on our ability to gather together in physical spaces. He touches on this through the display of two abandoned movie theater facades and a watercolor painting of a rundown marquee. Sharing the same space is Associate Professor of Art Colleen Ludwig’s crocheted fiber and mushroom root sculptures Saccu 1 and Saccu 2. They use the superorganism mycelium to test its ability to merge with fiber with the aim of discovering the potential for new habitat designs to house small creatures within the natural world. This work has a very particular concentration that combines biology with creative production similar to Untitled (Spoons) by Lecturer in Art David Lambert, who uses the tradition of spoon making from his Scots/Irish ancestry to produce these seven forms that teeter on the line between concept and function.

David Lambert, Untitled (Spoons), sycamore, 2020.

The long-standing painting practice of Dick Goody holds a place in this show alongside Professor of Art History Claude Baillargeon’s ink-jet prints entitled Memorial Monuments of Racial Terror, The Equal Justice Initiative (EIJ) Community Remembrance Project, and A Knight of Columbus Facing Justice. These photographs represent the Equal Justice Institute and its work in confronting the history of racism in the United States as a way of healing and achieving justice. And finally, the Department of Art and Art History Chair Meaghan Berry introduces her graphic design firm Unsold Studio through the presentation of six posters that were commissioned by the Michigan Opera Theatre’s 2021-2022 season In MOTion. These promotional designs were made for each performance in the season and visually communicated a freshness through the sense of motion with the goal of not only continuing to attract long-time attendees but new audiences as well.

Meaghan Barry, In MOTion: A visual identity system for Michigan Opera Theatre’s 2021-2022 Season, 2021.

The professional and personal concerns of the artists are represented through the work they chose to include in this group exhibition. Outside Work successfully highlights the dynamics at play within the Department of Art and Art History and makes it clear that each of these artists sustains a studio practice and active professional career in the world of art and design in addition to their position as an educator, which is an essential trait to the faculty of any distinguished university.

Outside Work at Oakland University Art Gallery opened on January 12 and is on view until April 2, 2023.   You can learn more at https://www.ouartgallery.org/exhibitions/outside-work/

 

Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration @ Flint Institute of Arts

View of exhibition entrance with a large-scale digital print of St. George and the Dragon by Donato Giancola, oil on panel, 2010. All photos: Ashley Cook

The role that enchantment has played in the history of storytelling dates as far back as 2100 BC with The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is considered the point of emergence of the hero’s journey and various fantasy archetypes that we know so well today. The dragons, great floods, serpents and treks through the underworld are just some of the elements that have reliably appeared in scenes of imaginative tales told through time, so much so that the world-building efforts of fantasy writers have constructed an actual parallel universe complete with its own rules, landscapes, species and lessons. Since this first rendition of the dragon, writers and illustrators have contributed to further developing this place that conveniently mirrors our own to serve as a tool for catharsis, entertainment and morality. Enchantment: A History of Fantasy Illustration is the first ever full-scale exhibition to take a serious look at the expanse of this genre and its influence on the history of art, religion, popular culture, and subcultures, with a timeline of works spanning from as early as 1589 to as current as 2021.

Justin Gerard, Lair of the Sea Serpent, watercolor on paper, 2019.

 Two large galleries of the Flint Institute of Arts have been reserved for over 150 original works; the collection was curated by Jesse Kowalski of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts, where Enchantment was first shown. It is not surprising to learn that Kowalski has worked on a number of exhibitions that highlight illustration and fantastical subject matter. A text for this exhibition asserts that “the many facets of fantasy illustration have often been misunderstood or overlooked” and this observation seems to be one of the driving forces behind these curatorial efforts.

Hendrick Goltzius, Creation of the Four Elements, illustration, 1589.

 Guests who are familiar with the Henry and Hodges galleries of the museum may notice the walls were freshly painted to set the tone for the rich colors and dreamy compositions of the show. Appropriate to the setting, the styles in which most of these pieces were done employ classical techniques like oil painting, etching, watercolor, and pencil drawings, with the occasional works rendered digitally by the 21st-century artists of the group. One may even occasionally forget that they are looking at scenes from a world of mythical landscapes and not from our own classical kingdoms of the past, as there is so frequently a thematic and aesthetic overlap between the two. Artworks like A Deep Sea Idyll by Herbert James Draper, Garden of Hope by James Gurney, or Allegory by Omar Ryyan place terrestrial beings and elements into impossible realities with a conviction akin to the old masters, and this blurring of the boundaries between imagination and reality is what makes fantasy so powerful.

Herbert James Draper, A Deep Sea Idyll, oil on canvas, 1902.

 The show has the potential to please visitors of many ages and backgrounds. For those whose palates are less versed in the world of fantasy, the exhibition space becomes a place for learning, with many sources of in-depth information and insight to contextualize the surrounding works. Along with exhibition texts focused on some essential aspects of fantasy including storytelling, adventure and the play between good and evil, there are also information plaques about each individual artwork which note the background of the artist and their role in the lineage of fantasy illustration. Taking in this information may be as enjoyable as basking in the quality of the material application or the beautifully carved frames surrounding the art, but for the visitors who are fantasy connoisseurs, it could be particularly special to read that some of the artworks before them were made for productions as big as The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. In fact, almost all of the artworks included in the exhibition have played an important role in the history of fantasy illustration throughout time.

Gustave Doré, Little Red Riding Hood, antique woodcut on thick wove paper, 1880.

 What is interesting about this show is the breadth of work it covers, successfully linking old masters like Gustav Doré, Hendrick Goltzius, Arthur Rackham and Howard Pyle with emerging artists like Victo Ngai and Wayne Barlow. Despite all of the artworks being displayed in a traditional museum style, framed and hung on a wall, many of them were actually originally produced for films and books. There are comic book illustrators like Hal Foster with a drawing from the Prince Valiant series and Dan Dos Santos with the illustration of Red Rose made for Fables. Then we have pulp fiction illustrator Mark Zugs with The Princess of Mars, which was produced for the cover of Mars Trilogy, a compendium which contains original novels originally released in 1917-1919 by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Henry Clarence Pitz’s Dark Water then brings us back to the early 20th-century ink on paper renderings, predated by the oil painting The Other Side by Dean Cornwell, yet throughout this extensive lineage, a strange consistency has been handed down from generation to generation that allows for almost anyone who has been read a fairy tale to feel at least somewhat at home.

Wayne Barlow, Demon Minor, acrylic on illustration board, 2018.

Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration opened September 24, 2022 and is on view until January 8, 2023. Please visit https://flintarts.org/ for more information.

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