Labyrinths: Shiva Ahmadi @ Elaine L. Jacob Gallery

Installation view: Shiva Ahmad opening Photos courtesy of Elaine J. Jacobs Gallery

Shiva Ahmadi @ Elaine L. Jacob Gallery –  Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan

There was a palpable groundswell of pride and affection for Iranian artist Shiva Ahmadi from the audience when Grace Serra, curator of Wayne State University Art Collection, introduced her at her recent talk during the opening of her exhibition, “Labyrinths,” at the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery. Indeed, during her talk she reciprocated the feeling, referencing the faculty of Wayne State University’s art department and Cranbrook Academy of Arts, where she received an MFA in drawing (2003) and MFA in painting (2005) respectively. She honored faculty members who trained and nurtured her there. She remembered the late Professor Stanley Rosenthal’s energetic support who aided her in getting from Tehran, Iran to Detroit (enduring the United States own 9/11 nightmare) and into the WSU Degree program. The legends of Wayne’s art department faculty showed up to celebrate Ahmadi. John Hegerty was there with hugs. Jeffrey Abt leaned over and whispered “Shiva was a marvelous student.” Marilyn Zimmerman sang praises from the audience. Dora Appel exclaimed, “Her work is wonderful.” As an artist, she appeared strong and resolute and as a human being filled with gratitude for what Wayne’s art department had done for her. It was a proud moment for Wayne State University.

At the Opening: Professor John Hegerty and Shiva Ahmadi

Shiva Ahmadi was born in Tehran, Iran in 1975, just before the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah and the Iraq-Iran war that wreaked bloody mayhem on both countries for years and still continues. An estimated million people were slaughtered. As a child, Ahmadi witnessed and lived through that bloodshed. It’s the prime mover of her current body of work.

Shiva Ahmadi, “The Wall,”2016, Watercolor and ink on paper, 40” X 60”

In a mix of water color, ink, acrylic, and video, Ahmadi’s “Labyrinths” engages a meditation on the dynamics of capricious power, mindless loyalty, blood and oil economics and war. Inspired by the tradition of miniature paintings of Persia, stunningly drawn, large scale watercolor and ink drawings establish an index of characters—animal and human figures— set in a haunting landscape. Ahmadi’s tableaux usually situated in walled or gardenlike landscapes, insulated interiors, controlled by an often-empty throne. The large watercolors, “The Knot,” “Mesh,” and “The Wall,” 2016, establish and illustrate the cosmology of Ahmadi’s world. And she can draw. Always beguilingly lyrical, her faceless figures (parody of Islamic aniconism?) float aimlessly, in her magical but existential emptiness, waiting.

In these remarkably executed watercolors, a captivating choreography of Ahmadi’s characters pay mindless fealty to elaborately decorated thrones (Persian history), signifying 2500 years of history. Ahmadi’s primate-like, docile minions carry out the job of salaaming the throne and among other things, seem to be processing uranium for operating nuclear reactors, and like graceful automatons, juggle beautiful bubbles into bombs. In “Minaret,” (2017) four interconnected minarets, towers used to call the faithful to prayer, are represented as nuclear towers for nuclear energy and bombs. Like the Persian miniatures, Ahmadi’s palette of colors is composed of rich earth tones punctuated by a background of transparent watercolor wash. They are elegant yet they are drawn with purpose as if from memory.

Shiva Ahmadi, “Minaret,” 2017, Watercolor on paper, 20.5” x 29.5 “

If Islamic miniatures are the main inspiration for Ahmadi’s iconography, the modern cartoon seems to have also played its part. In conversation Shiva alluded to her youthful preoccupation of watching cartoons. While most Persian miniatures are densely packed with a precisely drawn geometry of figures and architectural spaces, Ahmadi’s open spaced compositions read, cartoon-like, as sites of movement and action, suggesting metaphoric narratives. Some of the loose gestural watercolor figures resemble cartoon characters but the brush work comes straight out of abstract expressionism. The tableaux in “Green Painting” and “Burning Car,” employing aggressive brushwork of globs of paint, read as horrific attacks on the home and individual lives and the bloody gore, as if painted with human viscera itself, the nightmare of revolution. One cannot ultimately help but read them as a kind of personal exorcism of the nightmare Ahmadi has witnessed. Some of the works, like “Burning Car,” read as Biblical representations of hell itself with demonic human figures in combat rending others into bloody gore.

Shiva Ahmadi, “Burning Car,” 2019 Acrylic and Watercolor on Aquaboard, 36” x 46 “

Ahmadi has also translated pressure cookers, used in many terrorist attacks as bombs (including the 2013 Boston Marathon that killed three and maimed hundreds), into sculptures, filled with nails and adorned with intaglio hand-etching with Arabic script and Islamic decoration, becoming satires on sanctity Islamic culture. The brutal irony of the text that is etched on them is that it is what Muslims pray before they die.

Shiva Ahmadi, “Pressure Cooker #4,” 2016, Etching on Aluminum Pressure cooker 10 x 19.5 x 12 inches

Two videos animate Ahmadi’s drawings into mesmerizing narratives that critique the nature of political and religious power. “Lotus,” commissioned by the Asian Society Museum, proposes what would happen if the Buddha, a surrogate for God, loses his enlightenment, signified by the flight of the word for God or Allah in Farsi, snatched by a dove, leaving the throne Godless. Leaving the servile devotees without a spiritual center, the landscape is thrown into total chaos, populated by Ahmadi’s now meaningless, randomly dispersed figures and objects. The implications of Lotus are global.

Shiva Ahmadi, “Lotus,” 2013, Watercolor, ink and acrylic on Aquaboard, 60” X 120”

“Ascend,” is an animation that tells the recent, internationally read, news story of the life of a Syrian child refuge whose body was washed up on the shore of Turkish coast, after his family attempted to flee war torn Syria, hoping for a safer life in Europe and eventually Vancouver, Canada. The video is painfully lyrical, composed of Ahmadi’s animal figures frolicking together with bubbling toys which ultimately leads to the young boy’s drowned body washed ashore.

Aside from the current relevance of her subject matter, the attraction of Ahmadi’s painting is quite simply the combination of the elegance and deftness of her drawing and the masterful handling of paint and watercolor on the paper. Her work gains traction by the apt appropriation of Islamic iconography, turning it on its head and reversing its message. Ahmadi is a testimony to the significant role artists can play, but don’t often enough, in giving shape to our political dialogue.

Elaine L. Jacob Gallery Wayne State University
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LABYRINTHS: Shiva Ahmadi
Dates: January 16 through March 20, 2020
Gallery Hours: Wednesdays through Fridays, 1-5PM

Summer Wheat & Hirosuke Yabe @ Wasserman Projects

Wasserman Projects Presents Summer Wheat, Hirosuke Yabe, and Matthew Bennett Laurents

Installation view of Wasserman exhibit, 2019, Images PD Rearick

A warehouse-gallery bristling with whacky lines and florid color, the current Wasserman Projects exhibition is testament to the wonderful volatility of contemporary artistic production. Featuring the inventive paintings and sculpture of Oklahoma City native artist Summer Wheat and complimented by the exuberant, folk-like sculpture and installations of Japanese artist Hirosuke Yabe, both of whose work employ crafty processes to achieve a singularly, spectacular visual presence. And while their playfully beguiling surfaces shimmer with  graphic energy both artist’s work limn deep political and economic issues.

To achieve the magical inlaid surfaces of her paintings, resembling the high craft marquetry of Renaissance cabinetry, Wheat squeegees paint through aluminum screen that serves as her warp and weft structure, to create stunning, flat biomorphic shapes of women, engaged in inscrutable activities. Like the Medieval and Renaissance tapestries that inspired them, Wheat’s paintings read as allegories that engage themes of historical, moral and religious importance. And like the stories in those tapestries, they are belied by the stunning surface that composes them.

Summer Wheat, “Picnic with Coins,” 2019, acrylic on aluminum mesh, 68” x 96”

Embedded in the flat, Picassoan/Matissean, cubist arrangement of colored puzzle pieces, Wheat’s narratives turn on money and women. The center piece of her exhibition is “Picnic with Coins,”2019, a triumphant play on the history of picnic painting. Lounging about, a group of intertwined women whose central preoccupation seems to be the bags of coin instead of sensuous human relationships and picnic baskets. Not the harem of Matisse’s “Joy of Life,” if there is anything joyfully erotic it is bodily connection to collections of dollars and coins that decorate the landscape. The surface of the flat paintings is detailed with a novel, raised relief of cake decorator-like, squiggled drawings and loose grids of paint.

Summer Wheat, “Coin Cart,” 2019, acrylic on aluminum mesh, 68” x 47”

Using the same intriguing squeegee process, Wheat’s painting, “Piggy Bank Version ll,” 2019, has a profile of a piggy bank which ironically, like a Grecian urn, is festooned with female figures in various poses, “embracing” (seducing?) the piggy bank. The symbolic piggy bank contains coins decorated with female figures and female figures that seem to have managed to gain entrance to the bank. Art historical references are inscribed throughout her drawing including Egyptian-like figures such as in the remarkable domestic image, “Coin cart,” 2019, of a stylized Egyptian female figure wearing harem pants, pushing a grocery cart burdened with a large coin imprinted with a female head. Wheat’s parody of our social landscape functions by symbols and irony and requires a certain acrobatic, visual literacy to unpack, but is rewarding in its astute payoff. The sharp edged, cartoony drawing and over-the-top, dazzling color palette are worth the price of admission themselves.

Like Wheat, Hirosuke Yabe’s large installations and scores of small wood sculptural works are teeming with a sort of shanty-town aesthetic in their jury-rigged construction methods but belie adroit hands and keen craftsmanship. The small wooden heads and full animated figures are sculpted with a nata, a small traditional Japanese woodsman hatchet, that renders an incised angular cut into the wood, not unlike Wheat’s own crosshatching in her paintings, giving a consistent look and feel to his cast of characters. One senses a rich history in the form and mark that the nata hatchet makes in sculpting the heads.

Hirosuke Yabe, “Old Dog Man,” 2019, reclaimed wood, motors, dimensions variable

The center piece of Yabe’s work are three large sculptural installations that function as an anchor for his whole body of work, including the heads and animated anthropomorphic pieces. Composed of repurposed wood salvaged in Detroit, “Old Dog Man,” 2019, and “Young Dog Man,” 2019, are abstracted, geometrical dog figures, instrumental in an allegorical narrative that belong to the large shack-like, “House of Consumption,” 2019, (perhaps a dog house). All three sculptures are animated by small whirligigs attached to the body of the dogs, including a beautiful ceiling fan in the house, operated by small electric motors. The whirligigs are brilliant in giving life, a kind of Rube Goldberg, kinetic life, to the dog-like sculptures, that symbolize the rudimentary instinct for consumption. (Think Labrador Retriever eating dinner!)

Hirosuke Yabe, “House of Consumption,” 2019, reclaimed wood, motor, dimensions variable

Accompanied by the small sculpted heads, each of which gives expression to the emotional range—from ghoulish to angelic– of human psychology, Yabe’s overall installation reads like a parody of the human landscape. There is story book quality to his work that is tempts us to read it like moral tale. Yabe’s “crudely” (yet elegantly) hacked and chopped forms of bodies and heads, and faces, are take offs on classical modernist forms from surrealism to African masks and totemic poles. The whole of the Wasserman Projects’ warehouse space is alive with a population of faces and bodies and composed of a brilliant array of lines and colors, a testimony to the, as usual, smart curatorial job led by Alison Wong. Part of the joy of this latest iteration of the Wasserman Projects is to explore the helter-skelter shapes and forms and mark-making of all three of the artist’s work that makes up this delightful wilderness of art.

Installation view of Matthew Bennett Laurents (Wasserman rear gallery)

To compliment the duo of artists in the front room gallery, in the rear gallery are a range of ceramic vessels wrought by Portland Oregon artist and Cranbrook Art Academy grad, Matthew Bennett Laurents. Adding to the limitless possibility of human expression that the exhibition already displays, Laurents’s vessels contain faces exuding archetypal human emotion or conditions of life. His faces, especially, add to the forest of lines and surfaces that inhabit this fine exhibition.

Matthew Bennett Laurents, “Fear,”2015, ceramic, 9.75” x 5.75” x 5.25” Image courtesy of Glen Mannisto, DAR

Wasserman Projects Presents Summer Wheat, Hirosuke Yabe, and Matthew Bennett Laurents through December 21, 2019

 

Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality @ Cranbrook Art Museum

Landlord Colors artists and curators: Left to Right: Elizabet Cervino, Reynier Leyva Novo, Laura Mott, Ryan Myers-Johnson, Billy Mark (in the back), Taylor Aldridge, Sterling Toles (in the back), Elizabeth Youngblood (in the front/cape), Susana Pilar, Cornelius Harris.  Photo by Sarah Blanchette

In “Landlord Colors,” Laura Mott, innovative Senior Curator of Contemporary Art and Design of the Cranbrook Museum of Art, has assembled an ambitious project that takes a look at not only some Detroit art since the 1967 “Uprising,” aka “Detroit Riots,” but situates Detroit’s art production in an international context of art scenes in similar political and economic straits. Focusing on four additional art moments– including Italy’s art provera movement of the 1960-80s; South Korea’s Dansaekhwa painting movement; Cuban art post-Soviet Union collapse, and art in Greece’s after its 2009 economic crisis– with similar political and economic crisis, Mott has, with passionate commitment curated an intellectually engaging and thoroughly researched exhibition. Focusing on the materiality of artistic production, Mott, rather than through an aesthetic lens, has abided by the principle of seeing art as cultural documents and explored them accordingly. Thus, she sees the artist’s choice of artistic materials as a complex expression of sociopolitical dynamics. To echo Marshall McLuhan the material is the meaning.

Punctuating the Cranbrook Art Museum in seemingly random order, the installation is neither chronologically nor thematically arranged but rather it seems organized by visual impact. There are stunning works throughout the exhibition, that, while they invite comparison, regardless of context, are completely remarkable in their inventive use of unusual or unique materials. One almost need not heed the didactic panels that articulate Mott’s theme as it reveals itself in every work.

Gordon Newton, “Diamond Follow,”1975, 112” x 59” x 39,” Canvas, paint, polymer resin, synthetic fabric on wood. Photo by Julie Fracker

Almost as homage to Cass Corridor artist Gordon Newton who recently passed, the first object encountered at the entrance to the exhibit, is one of his large plywood abstract drawing/reliefs. “Diamond Follow” is composed of a plywood panel, one of the most rudimentary and readily available building materials, mounted on an easel and vigorously incised, cut, gouged, punctured with a circular saw and auto-body grinder and dabbed with paint and resin and collaged with canvas and fabric. Newton was singular in his aggressive manipulation and wrangling of just about any material into a platform for an expressive image. Back-in-the-day, a nightly visit to the Cass Corridor’s Bronx Bar was de rigueur where intense conversations about art and politics often took place. On one occasion Gordie, artist Jim Chatelain and poet Dennis Teichman were having a beer there and discussing art making and Gordie expressed with much force, “Anything goes, any material, just no stories, no telling stories!” By which I always thought he meant no narrative in visual art, only the intensely focused image, fraught with emotional information, whether abstraction or figure, regardless of material. Interestingly he avoided conversational storytelling as well and only seemed to be interested in explorational and energetic exchange. That interpretation seems to hold up in most of his work.

Hong Chong-Hyun,” Untitled 72-(A),” 1972, Barbed wire on panel, 45” x 94.5.” Photo by Julie Fracker

Equally edgy and dramatic is Korean artist, Ha Chong-Hyun’s, “Untitiled 72-(A)-1,” 1972, which sees rows of barbed wire stretched across a large, flat gray panel. Minimal in effect, it is an emotionally dark, flat field that expresses no exit from Korea’s war torn moment. Like Newton’s plywood, it thrives on an inventive and semiotic play on (the cruelty) of a simple material.

Two Cuban works express a similar political anxiety, both of which reference desire and peril of escape from oppressive social and political circumstances. Commissioned for Landlord Colors, Reynier Leyva Novo’s “Untitled (Immigrants), 2019, is a huge, colorful tapestry, 16’x16,’ woven of the clothing worn by Cuban immigrants, in Cuba by “paid workers,” during their passage to the United States. The epic rag seems at once celebratory of their escape to freedom and a memorial to the loss of their homeland. As material expression of their Cuban cultural homeland of which they were apart and lost, no material could be more expressive than the clothes off of their bodies.

Installation shot with Reynier Leyva Novo, “Untitled (immigrants),” 2019, clothing, 192”x 192” Commission for Landlord Colors Photo by Paul-David Rearick

Cuban artist Yoan Capote’s astonishing mixed media painting “Island (see-escape),” 2010, is 12’x 32,’ is composed of oil paint and some 500,000 large fishhooks that quite literally suggest the dangerous journey in attempting escape across the hundred miles of the Straits of Florida, from Cuba to the United States.

Yoan Capote, “Island (see-escape),” 2010, Oil, nails, fish hooks, on jute on panel,106” x 384” x 4” Photo by Paul-David Rearick

One of the most seemingly traditional works in Landlord Colors is Cuban artist Diana Fonseca Quinones’ painting “Untitled,” seemingly a classic abstraction of energetic splotches, almost like a topographical map, of paint that in fact are chips or flakes of paint collected from derelict buildings in Havana, Cuba. Laura Mott’s description of the painting in her own energetically, exhaustive monograph sees Quinones’s project as a “portrait of the Cuban psyche itself” as well as a “record over the years of economic trial.”

Diana Fonseca Quinones, “Untitled,” from the Degradation series, 2017, Paint fragments on wood, 47.244” x 47.244.” Photo by Julie Fracker

There are sixty works spread across the museum floors and walls that explore the diversity of, mostly, non-traditional art materials, each with its own resultant form of reflection of troubled times. But Motts curatorial intervention went further and the day after the opening, a series of installations and performances, entitled “Material Detroit,” commenced: starting with Detroit poet Billy Mark’s surreal performance/installation of the raising up a flagpole of a symbolic Hoodie with twenty-five foot arms. Audience participation allowed for audience members to wear the hoodie as its arms were raised, like a parody of a military ritual, and were invited to talk about the emotional experience of wearing this emancipating hoodie. The performance will become a ritual celebration of healing and empowerment in Mark’s North end neighborhood as it will be performed daily for thirty-seven days.

Billy Marks, “Wind Participation Ritual,” (Hoodie performance), 858 Blaine Street, Unidentified participant and Billy Marks. Photo by Glen Mannisto

In the afternoon Havana-based, Afro-Cuban artist, and celebrated feminist, Susana Pilar, led a group of Detroit musicians in a magical performance at the site of the infamous Algiers Motel, 8301 Woodward Avenue, where multiple murders, with Detroit Police accusations, occurred and where the R&B group The Dramatics (“Me and Mrs. Jones”) were staying-out the Detroit uprising that night. Ceramicist and installation artist’s Anders Ruhwald’s “immersive” installation in “Unit 1: 3583 Dubois,” a charred black multi-room apartment with iconic anthropomorphic ceramic forms haunting the darkness, conjuring ghettoized nightmares was on the agenda.

The afternoon featured a visit to Olayami Dabls’ ever growing, Phoenix-like installations that adorn a building and surrounding lots on Grand River Avenue. Composed of a magnificent series of African inspired collaged murals, ceramic and mirror mosaics that celebrate Detroit’s African-American heritage, Dabl’s 19 installations, entitiled “Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust,” is quite simply a Detroit treasure. Dabls’ project probably illustrates the curatorial theme of artist’s material resourcefulness and invention as well as any of the artists in the entire exhibition. The inscrutable Elizabeth Youngblood, inaugurates Dabl’s new gallery space with a mercurial painting from her new series of metallic paint on mylar and paper, two textile hangings, a geometric abstract painting and a series of small black ceramic vessels. Letting the molten-like metallic paint find its sensuous resting form and the blackened clay its universal metaphoric being is Youngblood’s deft handed genius.

The day ended with a visit to still-one-more brilliant epic installation, “Bone black,” by Scott Hocking of a metaphorically messianic vision of abandoned boats, rescued by Hocking (an ongoing theme in Hocking’s work), ethereally floating in an abandoned crane warehouse on the Detroit River front.

Scott Hocking, “Bone Black,” Installation image at former Detroit crane factory with Elizabeth Youngblood, 2019. Photo by Glen Mannisto

Laura Mott, and co-curators Taylor Renee Aldridge and Ryan Myers-Johnson’s project is over-the-top outrageously, assertively and critically engaged in its obsession with Detroit’s and our fragile global history. There is a continuing schedule of amazing events into the Fall including: Kresge grant winning, hip-hop artist Sterling Toles will occupy Gordon Park (where the Detroit uprising started) in Detroit in a performance of his “Resurget Cinerbus,” a sound work based on Detroit’s Rebellion. Curator Taylor Renee Aldridge will lead a series of Discussions. Check out the website for a list of other Fall events.

From painting to sculpture to installations the Landlord Colors makes inescapable the palpable relationship between art and sociopolitical conditions and ultimately as political action. Laura Mott’s startling curatorial intervention has profound implications in further negotiations of art history. Not only did the uprising of Detroit’s black citizens against a calculous of racism create a pall of pain over the city but shows, as do all of the five sites she explored, that art in fact springs from the isolated provinces of the local and defines the global condition.

An exhaustive and beautifully produced exhibition catalogue, Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality, written by Laura Mott with essays and interviews by artists and curators accompanies the exhibition.

Artists in the exhibition:
Italy) Giovanni Anselmo, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Riccardo Dalisi, Lucio Fontana, Jannis Kounellis, Maria Lai, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini, Michelangelo Pistoletto (Korea) Ha Chong-Hyun, Kwon Young-Woo, Lee Ufan, Park Hyun-Ki, Park Seo-Bo, Yun Hyong-Keun (Cuba) Belkis Ayón, Tania Bruguera, Yoan Capote, Elizabet Cerviño, Julio Llópiz-Casal, Reynier Leyva Novo, Eduardo Ponjuán, Wilfredo Prieto, Diana Fonseca Quiñones, Ezequiel O. Suárez; (Greece) Andreas Angelidakis, Dora Economou, Andreas Lolis, Panos Papadopoulos, Zoë Paul, Socratis Socratous, Kostis Velonis; (Detroit, USA) Cay Bahnmiller, Kevin Beasley, James Lee Byars, Olayami Dabls, Brenda Goodman, Tyree Guyton, Carole Harris, Matthew Angelo Harrison, Patrick Hill, Scott Hocking, Addie Langford, Kylie Lockwood, Alvin Loving, Michael Luchs, Tiff Massey, Charles McGee, Allie McGhee, Jason Murphy, Gordon Newton, Chris Schanck, and Gilda Snowden.

Artists in “Material Detroit”:
(Installations) Dabls’ MBAD African Bead Museum, Jennifer Harge, Scott Hocking, Billy Mark, Anders Ruhwald, The Fringe Society, Elizabeth Youngblood. (Performances/Events) Big Red Wall Dance Company, Susana Pilar, Michelangelo Pistoletto (Third Paradise performance and a Detroit Rebirth Forum), Sterling Toles. The project culminates with the Landlord Colors Symposium at Cranbrook Art Museum in the fall.

Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality  – June 22-October 6, 2019
Cranbrook Art Museum     39221 Woodward Avenue, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

Elizabeth Youngblood @ Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

Elizabeth Youngblood :: New Knowns :: New Work @ Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

Elizabeth Youngblood at BBAC exhibition opening, photo courtesy of Stewart Shevin

Many years ago, Elizabeth Youngblood wrapped a tiny silver spoon in cotton swaddling. Perhaps it was exhibited in a show of her work but at the time I saw it in her studio at the vast complex now known as the Russell Industrial Center. Designed by Albert Kahn and John William Murray for J.W. Murray Mfg., his automotive sheet metal manufacturing company, the Russell Industrial Center now houses artist’s studios, small businesses and cottage industries and shops, but it was then known as “an apartment house for industry.” The irony of this tiny swaddled silver spoon having been created in an enormous automotive factory that stamped car bodies, did not escape me at the time. As a tiny conceptual sculpture, it was very moving to me. Youngblood’s mother had recently passed and we talked of her mother’s influence on her art, and I’ve often thought since then about the vulnerable swaddled teaspoon as an image of tenderness and delicate caring as well as protection against the monstrous, repetitive brutality of big industry.

Elizabeth Youngblood, “Obelisk with Window,” Paint, Mylar. 43”x 55,” 2018  –   Remaining images courtesy of  Glen Mannisto

The current Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center’s exhibition, “New Knowns :: New Work :: Elizabeth Youngblood,” is a collection of over twenty-five paintings, drawings and small sculptures. The paintings are silver paint on Mylar or paper; the sculptures are small drawings made with wire and the drawings are ink on paper. The silver paintings hark back to Youngblood’s swaddled teaspoon. Each work in the show seems to turn on the idea of swaddling or wrapping. Thick, creamy silver paint, strangely sensuous, is applied in a gesture of wrapping, as if an object is being contained, or protected by swaths of paint. The gestural swaths accumulate and become images that are abstracted, slightly askew shapes, some almost container-like, others abbreviated marks as if a beginning of something. They are forms that are on the verge of meaning, and in their gestural immediacy they deny machine reproduction, asserting the enigma of individual identity.

The shape of “Obelisk” suggests a container, something as small as a cup or as large as a nuclear power plant such as Fermi in SE Michigan which it resembles. Appearing almost logo like, its lack of symmetry proclaims its disconnect from the world of branding and independence from the commercial graphic world in which Youngblood has worked and knows well. Throughout “New Knowns::New Work,” Youngblood is always asserting the individual hand, that character of the eccentric hand. The wabi sabi of personal gesture, the imperfect and anti-engineered or anti-corporate.

Elizabeth Youngblood, “Yet Untitled,” Paint, Mylar, 44”x 54”, 2018

The larger paintings reveal that imperfection best. “Yet Untitled,” the perfect title, because it is a thing in process of becoming, with drips and vertical wrapping brush strokes, draping the illusion of becoming a vessel or a contained identity. The metallic paint seems almost primal and molten, pre-industrial and pre-corporate. To assert the connection with the very early swaddled teaspoon is “Swaddle 1,” which also is in the process of becoming and containing, with swathes of reflective paint articulating its form suggesting a tail of wrapping swaddle loosely hanging.

Many of the paintings suggest this sense of becoming or evolution, and even a sense of failure to become and an unraveling or failure of material. “Silver and Graphite 1,” beautiful in its chance patterns of curing and drying, is a composed of a mixture of graphite and metallic paint whose process of becoming has been arrested, the paint’s coagulating and dripping is remarkable in its incomplete state.

Elizabeth Youngblood, “Silver & Graphite 1,” Mixed Media, 55” x 45,” 2018

Both the “Wire Drawings” and ink drawings exhibit Youngblood’s considerable sensitivity and patient engagement, commitment and deliberate execution of line and form. The fragile wire drawings are coiled and anchored in a porcelain base and express a similar imperfection to the metallic paint paintings and are not machine coiled but seem scribbled and overlapping. While they might suggest figurative drawings, their intrigue is their specific wonky lack of balance. Yet each has a delicate presence and are read by their ever slight (animist?) difference. The same holds true for the ink drawings. Wrought like nerve endings, the inked lines almost quiver by proximity and some fail by some metaphorical disturbance of hand or mind and simply express the fragility of process.

Elizabeth Youngblood, “Six Wire Drawings,” Porcelain, wire, 2016

Some of the metallic paintings forgo the swaddling brushstrokes and simply allow the soft silvery glow of the molten-like paint to show itself by contrast. The beauty of a rough swatch of metallic paint bordered by a cloud of graphite and a line of chartreuse on the background of Mylar substrate is a wonderful invention by itself.

Elizabeth Youngblood, “+Graphite and Chartreuse,” Graphite, Mylar, 55” x 34.25,” 2019

The overall orbit of Youngblood’s “New Knowns :: New Works” describes her physical engagement with mark making, with being engaged, with touching materials and creating processes. In all of the works there is a palpable sense of her presence in the materials rather than with the spectacle. We read the visual results metaphorically but experience the work as a path, not a fully known, but “new known,” and realize that the process of seeing is a process and is continuous.

Elizabeth Youngblood, “Clare Gatto,” ink, paper, 20” x 15,” 2016

Elizabeth Youngblood, New Knowns :: New Works, Through June 6, 2019
Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

Nancy Pletos & Henry Crissman @ Simone DeSousa Gallery

Nancy Pletos:  “Besides, I did not want to do anything but be here” and Henry Crissman at Simone DeSousa Gallery

Nancy Pletos & Henry Crissman @ Simone DeSousa Gallery Installation Image, Courtesy of DAR

 

Continuing to focus on the local art landscape, Simone DeSousa Gallery has combined Detroit history and future in two solo exhibitions in the work of Cass Corridor artist Nancy Pletos, one of the central figures of that moment in Detroit’s vibrant art scene and Henry Crissman. Crissman, like Pletos, is an innovative, multidisciplinary young artist whose ever adventurous exploration of materials and forms challenges notions of artistic production and aesthetic value.

Taken from her personal writings, the title of Pleto’s exhibition, “Besides, I did not want to do anything but be there,” encapsulates Pletos’ conception of her engagement with the personal, ever private, use of everyday materials of everyday life in her work. She gathered, and made, the bits and pieces of mirror, beads, dried flowers, even banal building materials such as Masonite and pine molding, constructing, small intriguing objects and large elaborate sculptures and complex wall sculpture/drawings. It was a modest desire and modest project that ended up as a diverse and complex engagement with artistic process and vision.

Nancy Pletos, “Yellow Spiral /Farm IV,” 1978, Wood, wooden beads, paint, glue, mirror glass, craft jewels, shellac

Her iconic works are elaborate vertical sculptures composed of thousands of wooden flower and plant petals cut on a small, manual miter box from various sized quarter-round pine molding. — each piece of molding, glued together to create flowers and plant petals. Throughout her work there is evidence of a preoccupation with mathematics and geometry and even a consideration of the role of geometry in the formation of DNA and the Genetic code. Beside the geometry of flowers her large “Yellow Spiral/Farm IV,” as well as many of her plants representations, resemble the spiral construction of the double helix chain of nucleotides that carries the genetic instruction for reproduction for all living organisms.

Nancy Pletos, “Parental Guidance (2),” 1982, Wood, mailing cardboard, found objects, paint, shellac. With “Library” in foreground.

All of Pletos’s work is a nod to either nature’s or man’s built world, of how things– whether flower, or animal, or building—fit together to compose the world. Sculptures of elaborate flowering plants, cartooned sections of wooden logs, miniature buildings and jewel-like architectural details. There is a progression from the small “occasional” objects to her elaborate sculptures and her wall collages that, like amber inclusions with entrapped insects, are filled with “found objects.” Her wall relief “Parental Guidance” is gorgeous construction of an assortment of humble objects and images embedded in a thick amber shellac that seem to compose a narrative from her life. Including children’s toys and silhouettes of heads and hands, birds and butterflies, “Parental Guidance” is, like amber inclusions of fossilized insects, a personal time capsule that composes a frozen moment into a beautifully “drawn” structure that occupies a brilliant intersection of science, mathematics, a deep passion for nature and personal memory.

Henry Crissman, “New Balance # 1 & #2,” 2019, oil paint, oil pastel, vinyl New Balance advertisement

Henry Crissman’s new work occupies the “Edition” side of the Simone DeSousa Gallery and as such seems to suggest an introduction of Crissman’s work to the DeSousa collection of artists. Two large paintings and eight ceramic works introduce us to a mix of expressionist painting and a diverse group of aggressively kitschy ceramics, including a chia-pet self-portrait (that’s a guess), a Transformer chicken/eagle and “Bust,” which is a mass of ceramic, epoxy and molten plastic bottles, all of which test the limits of material and form. Crissman suggested that painting was the ultimate model and stimulus for his work and the overall effect of his work reveals as much. He has always painted his energetically expressive ceramics with abandon.

Henry Crissman, “Bust,” 2019, plastic bottle, ceramic, epoxy.

The two paintings are painted on appropriated vinyl from New Balance athletic shoe advertisements. Other than to redact its corporate BS message by hiding or blocking it out with spectacular color, how much the ad was a prompt for the paintings marks is up for grabs. With the loose, scroll-like, vinyl hanging like an unstretched canvas, Crissman’s New Balance paintings hang comfortably like a banner, rather than with the pretension of a painting. In both there is a depiction of a head with a semi-readable text insinuated, as well as dates and numbers. In many of Crissman’s previous ceramic pieces, as in the New Balance paintings, there are messages to the viewer, phone numbers, even an invitation to call him, creating a seamless, personal aesthetic that combined with the expressionistic painting becomes a diaristic narrative. In conversation Crissman suggested that each of the ceramic works are plays on personal incidents or “stories” as well. Echoing Nancy Pletos’ exhibition title, Crissman said: “I am constantly thrilled to be in the world, to be translating my experience into objects, onto surfaces, not to fetishize but to celebrate.”

Nancy Pletos, Installation view of logs, 1975, Plywood, paint.

 

Nancy Pletos  “Besides, I did not want to do anything but be here”
and Henry Crissman at Simone DeSousa Gallery: Through May 25, 2019