Useful and Beautiful @ Flint Institute of Art

Installation image, Two bowls, and silver setting

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” urged the great designer and social reformer William Morris to an audience in 1880.  Hardly just making a quip about interior design, Morris was being a counter-cultural thorn in the side of the Victorian capitalist and industrial establishment, whose factories churned out mass-produced artless products, and whose workers were accorded little more status than that of the machine.  Morris argued that there was a better way, and even established a workshop that taught people skilled trades in the applied arts, in which workers could harness their creative agencies while earning living wages and producing objects of quality and beauty.  This launched the Arts and Crafts Movement, the reverberations of which were felt on both sides of the Atlantic.

Paul de Lamerie, English, 1688–1751. “George II Oval Cake Basket,” 1742. Silver. 14 7/8 x 11 7/8 x 11 7/8 inches. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William L. Richards through the Viola E. Bray Charitable Trust, 1984.23

Not all the works that comprise the show Useful and Beautiful on view at the Flint Institute of Art are the products of the Arts and Crafts Movement (though some, like those produced by Liberty & Co. or  the architectural studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, absolutely were), but they all stand in the tradition of skilled artisan craft that seamlessly integrated functionality with exquisite design.  Collectively, this diverse ensemble of work voice a triumphant rebuttal to Oscar Wilde’s quip that “all art is quite useless.”

The chronological and geographical scope of this smallish exhibition is impressively broad.  Spanning a 500-year breadth, the show presents examples of decorative arts ranging from a lavishly decorated 17th century wheellock pistol to stained glass by Frank Lloyd Wright.  A sizeable number of these works hail from non-western cultures (Asian and American Indian, specifically) which never drew a line between the fine and applied arts, as did the Western/European world.  Everything on view comes from the FIA’s permanent collection, and the FIA really is the perfect venue for this exhibit: in addition to a muscular collection of traditional “fine art,” the museum now boasts a newly opened wing that displays a world-class collection of ceramic and glass art, much of which fudges the boundary between the beautiful and the functional.

Artist Unknown, German. Fullstock High Art Wheelock Pistol, ca. 1680. Wood, steel, ivory, and mother of pearl. 16 7/16 x 4 13/16 x 1 7/8 inches. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. George H. Greidinger, 1976.

These artifacts are diverse and sometimes surprising.  A pair of engraved golden cigarette cases from Japan possesses the lavish attention to detail that we might expect instead from devotional artifacts belonging to a Constantinian-era emperor, or perhaps something unearthed from a Viking burial.  The same could certainly be said of a Celtic-inspired bowl designed by Alfred Knox for Liberty & Co. Usually the largeness of a work of art seems to grab people’s attention, but in the case of six finely-crafted tiny salt and pepper dispensers (imagine a set of tiny witch’s cauldrons, but made of silver and about the size of a thimble, replete with a tiny serving spoons), it’s precisely the smallness of this set that makes it such a tour-de-force of applied design.  A tiny pair of Sioux children’s moccasins, adorned with meticulous beadwork, is similarly arresting for their petite size.  Perhaps the most unexpected objects in the show are the set of streamline 1930s-era Art-Deco silver cutlery, custom-made exclusively for American Airlines, and intended to stress the point that travelling by airplane was the fabulous and luxurious modern way to travel (contemplate this as you attempt to pry apart your next airline meal with a semi-functional plastic spork).

Liberty & Co., British, founded London, 1875. Bowl, ca. 1900. 3 1/2 x 7 1/8 x 7 1/8 inches. Gift of Janis and William Wetsman, 2016.

Many works on view, beautiful as they are, were produced by anonymous artisans who likely never imagined their craft would one day appear in an art museum—decorative Pueblo pottery, for example, or a pewter flagon from Germany.  Nevertheless, this show does boast a selection of art-world heavyweights.  There’s a decorative ceramic bowl created in collaboration with the famed American painter Andrew Wyeth.  Viewers will also see one of the stained-glass windows designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for a home at Midway Gardens in Chicago; heavily inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, Wright famously custom-designed every component of a building, including light fixtures, furniture, silverware, and windows.

Artist Unknown, German. Flagon, n.d. Pewter. 12 9/16 x 4 5/16 x 6 ¼ inches. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Keith Davis, 1972.

This exhibition rhetorically asks if there really is a meaningful distinction between the fine and decorative arts, and playfully blurs the boundary between these two categories.  It’s a question perhaps best posed by a bronze doorknocker crafted by Renaissance sculptor Tiziano Aspetti, which features a Greco-Roman inspired Venus standing in elegant contrapposto, directly quoting the famed Aphrodite of Knidos, one the most copied sculpture of classical antiquity.  At this level, distinctions between the fine and applied arts become, in the final analysis, a bit petty.

Collectively, these works serve to break down some unnecessary distinctions we’ve created to categorize the arts, but there’s an understated social element to this exhibit as well.  This show wistfully looks backward to a time before the Walmartification of culture, which invariably takes material culture down toward the absolute lowest threshold of quality and craft that people will settle for.  In its quiet way, this show suggests that technological advancement is not necessarily always progress forward, and that perhaps we shouldn’t always be so quick to sacrifice beauty for the sake of efficiency.

Useful and Beautiful exhibition at the  Flint Institute of Art through July 26, 2020

 

Sixty Seconds in Kusama’s Infinity @ Toledo Museum of Art

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Fireflies on the Water, 2002. Mirrors, plexiglass, lights, and water, 111 × 144 1/2 × 144 1/2 in. (281.9 × 367 × 367 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Postwar Committee and the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and partial gift of Betsy Wittenborn Miller 2003.322.

 

Stepping into Yayoi Kusama’s installation Fireflies on the Water at the Toledo Museum of Art is a dreamlike experience; it comes as little surprise to learn that this other-worldly sculptural environment was inspired by a childhood dream in which the artist saw a myriad of fireflies over a river on a summer night.  To experience Fireflies, visitors individually enter a darkened room in which every surface (including the floor and ceiling) reflects into infinity the tranquilly pulsating shimmers emitted by 150 tiny electric lights suspended at different heights.   The visual and sensory effect is one of floating in infinite space; the impulse is to linger, just as you might under a starry night sky, but once your allocated 60 seconds inside this space are over, you’re kindly asked to leave so the next guest can enter, and the experience lives on only as a fleeting memory.

The tranquil beauty of Fireflies belies the tenacious, fiery spirit that defined much of Kusama’s artistic career in Postwar Abstraction, which spans well over half a century.  Her parents ardently discouraged her from becoming an artist; nevertheless, while in her twenties Kusama left Japan and, in 1958, entrenched herself in New York City, the newly established capital of the art-world.  Her friends and acquaintances included Georgia O’Keefe, Donald Judd, and the surrealist Joseph Cornell.  Her early works anticipated (and very possibly even directly inspired) both the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg and the famously repetitive screen-prints of Andy Warhol.  During the Vietnam War, she even organized provocative nude anti-war protests in public spaces like Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the Museum of Modern Art.  Her critical reputation at one time surpassed even Warhol’s, in part because of her theatrical Happenings, and may have continued to do so had she not returned to Japan in 1973, and, in the West at least, faded into comparative obscurity.

No. Green No. 1. Oil on canvas, 70 x 49.5 in (177.8 x 124.8 cm).  Baltimore Museum of Art, The Edith Ferry Hooper Bequest Fund, BMA 1996.11

America re-discovered Kusama around the turn of the Millennium, precisely when she began re-inventing the Infinity Rooms for which she’s now most associated with.  They originate with her Infinity Net paintings of the 1960s, for which Kusama would apply a thickly impastoed net of paint onto a dark canvass, allowing the ground of the canvass to show through in the negative space as a seemingly infinite network of dots.  Breaking away from the finite confines of the canvass, she began experimenting with enclosed, mirrored environments in which whimsically colored dots and vegetal, gourd-like forms really did seem to repeat into eternal space.

Fireflies on the Water was the first in the next generation of Infinity Rooms, which, rather than playfully burst with full-intensity vibrant colors, evoke the subdued quiet stillness of a starry night.  Visitors to Fireflies stand on a small platform surrounded by water, which ripples just enough to allow the reflected lights to shimmer, though almost imperceptibly.  The lights aren’t a uniform yellow, as a firefly’s signal might be, but range from subtle yellows, reds, and blues, much like the stars.   The lights seem to extend infinitely in 360 degrees (including vertically), so the illusion is that you’re standing on a platform hovering infinitely high in indeterminate space—don’t look down…it’s quite disorienting.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Fireflies on the Water, 2002. Mirrors, plexiglass, lights, and water, 111 × 144 1/2 × 144 1/2 in. (281.9 × 367 × 367 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Postwar Committee and the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and partial gift of Betsy Wittenborn Miller 2003.322.

It’s easy to understand the current widespread appeal of Kusama’s works; though her mirrored spaces long predate the Smartphone, they now resonate perfectly with the culture of the Instagram selfie.  Earlier this fall, the New York Times advised readers to expect a two hour wait to experience her infinity room at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York.  (It should be noted that the TMA has a timed-ticket system, and viewers won’t wait in line more than fifteen minutes.) In the hands on another artist, such an application of mirrors might conceivably be reduced to a funhouse gimmick.  But Kusama’s Fireflies is undeniably transcendent, applying the illusion of infinity a way to guide us toward thinking about eternity (and perhaps by extension, mortality), and viewers to the Toledo Museum of Art will find it well worth the fifteen minute wait to experience their own sixty seconds in Kusama’s Infinity.

Fireflies on the Water is on view at the Toledo Museum of Art through April 26, 2020

Between Light and Shadow @ Toledo Museum of Art

Intersections, installation – All images courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Many in the Midwest will already be familiar with Pakistani artist Anila Quayyum Agha, whose luminous sculpture Intersections won both the Public Vote and Juried Grand Prize at Art Prize 2014, the only time  this has happened at Grand Rapids’ highly acclaimed and much-imitated public art festival.  Through February 9, 2020, three installations by Agha transform a suite of galleries at the Toledo Museum of Art, comprising the exhibition Between Light and Shadow. Visually, these immersive works are an extension of her prizewinning installation originally displayed at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, but these new works are subtly informed by current events, and in addition to being undeniably beautiful, they carry an understated political resonance.

In a public conversation at the exhibition’s opening with Diane Wright, the TMA’s curator of glass and decorative arts, Agha revealed that she had always faced obstacles as a female artist.  In Lahore, Pakistan, where she was born and raised, she was barred entrance to some spaces open to men.  In the United States where she received her MFA, one of her instructor’s, speaking from personal experience,  told her to expect to work twice as hard for the same opportunities accorded to men.  But Agha humorously revealed that it was the defining moment when her son, anxious for a pair of Nike shoes, asked “why are we so poor?” that she realized her only option was to face her prospects with the unflagging grit and steely determination needed to succeed, whatever the odds.

She started as a fiber artist, drawn to the medium for its practicality and commercial marketability.  But her work became increasingly sculptural and immersive, gradually incorporating light and shadow.  She was particularly influenced by the exploded sheds by Cornelia Parker– sheds detonated by the artist and then partially re-assembled in gallery spaces; lit by an internal light, these suspended works scatter their shadows across the gallery space, and seem to arrest a moment in time, mid-explosion.  Looking at Agha’s works in Between Light and Shadow, all of which are illuminated from the interior, it’s easy to detect Parker’s influence.

Though these works are variations on a common visual motif of diffused light and shadow, each of the three installations in this exhibit subtly convey different aims.  The centerpiece that anchors the show is a variant of her Intersections.  In this iteration, the sculpture is metallic, yet, suspended from the ceiling by barely noticeable thin cables, it appears to hover weightlessly and the gallery transforms into an ethereal space in which the Earthly laws of physics no longer apply.  The cube’s complex geometric arabesque patterns are direct quotations from the Alhambra in Spain, a place historically associated with religious and ethnic tolerance during Moorish rule of the Iberian Peninsula.  Though all the versions of Intersections apply the common motif of an internally-lit suspended cube, subtle variations ensure that wherever these works are displayed, viewers will never experience the same environment twice.  Here, the red walls of the gallery space were inspired by the red wedding dress a Pakistani bride traditionally wears on her wedding day.

Occupying the two other rooms in the gallery suite are similar installations, The Greys in Between and This is Not a Refuge! 2, and both deliver subtle social and political commentary.   Like Intersections, the internally lit Greys in Between diffuses light and shadow across the gallery space.  But this ensemble of laser-cut sculpted forms comprises two distinct but similar and symbiotically connected rhomboidal elements.  In its original state, Agha wanted the surface of these forms to reflect the serene greens and blues she had recently encountered during a trip to the Florida Keys.  But in 2017 the Trump administration’s rhetoric toward immigration became increasingly hostile, and in response Agha subsequently blackened the work, responding to the diminishing prospects of immigrants in America.  In this work, Agha wanted to add the element of time; the mechanized parts of Greys in Between rotate at one revolution per hour, and viewers who linger a bit may notice the sculpture’s organic and vegetal patterns slowly, almost imperceptibly, moving across the gallery walls.

Greys in Between, installation image courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

The political undertones in Agha’s work are generally understated, but not so in the candidly titled work This is not a Refuge! 2.   The sculpture is based on a previous work of the same title, a highly permeable house intended to be displayed outdoors and exposed to the elements, and thus utterly unsuitable for use as an actual shelter.  The work was conceived as a response to xenophobia in the United States and Europe.  Delicately applying the gentlest possible language to offer historical context, Agha says that many of the current problems which led to the immigration crisis are rooted in conflicts and wars that “the CIA may have fiddled with.”  But she concluded her conversation with Diane Wright remarking that it’s precisely because she loves America so much that she feels the urge to critique it.

This is Not a Refuge!2, installation image courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Agha’s works are poignant and timely, but she avoids the high-decibel screech and the gravitational pull to cliché which is so overabundant in our current political discourse, and somehow manages to deliver understated socio-political commentary through works of art whose transcendent beauty verges on the sublime.  While they respond to real-world issues, they also impart a sense of wonder, which is perhaps what gives her work such widespread appeal.  And as for her son, when an inquiring audience member asked if he ever got his coveted pair of Nike shoes, Agha was happy to report, that yes, in fact he did.

Video courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Between Light and Shadow now on view through February 9, 2020

Copying and Invention in East Asia @ UMMA 

Imperial winter dragon robe, China, early 19th century, embroidered silk. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Elizabeth Henshaw Gasper Brown in memory of Horace, William and Helen Lou, 1989/1.34

In Western visual culture, copying is sometimes freighted with duplicitous or subversive undertones.  Marcel Duchamp’s notorious LHOOQ, a defaced poster of the Mona Lisa, is hardly flattering to the original, after all.  But drawing mostly from the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s permanent collection, the exhibition Copies and Invention in East Asia showcases the many ways the artists of China, Korea, and Japan actively copied and referenced pre-existing visual motifs across borders and across time.

There are over a hundred works on view which snugly fill the UMMA’s spacious Taubman Gallery, mostly gleaned from the past (the oldest artifacts coming from Han Dynasty China, about two millennia ago), though there are a smattering of 20th century and contemporary works on view.  The chronological and geographical scope of this exhibit is ambitiously large, so the show is compartmentalized thematically; there’s a section on literati painting, for example, and another on the auspicious animal symbols that recur.

Seifû Yohei III, White teapot and sencha pitcher with stamped dragonfly designs, circa 1893-1914, porcelain with clear glaze. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Bequest of Margaret Watson Parker, 1954/1.512 and 503

A set of ceramic bowls by the celebrated artist Seifu Yohi III are a case-study for how Japanese art imitated and synthesized the visual cultures of the territories conquered by imperial Japan.  Yohi intently studied pottery from China’s Ming and Song Dynasties (of which there are some examples on view), and his artistic output is one of respectful mimicry.   Employed by the imperial household, his work, characterized by its fine, milky-white glaze, reflected the interest Japanese patrons had in Chinese art.

Yamamoto Baiitsu, Blossoming Prunus Branch, after Wang Mien, 1847, hanging scroll, ink on paper. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. C.D. Carter, 1970/2.156

Copying at its most literal is demonstrated by the Japanese landscape painters who replicated their original Chinese models, right down to the signatures of the original artists, though their intentions were never deceptive.  An elegant ink painting of a wispy tree branch by 19th century Japanese artist Yamamoto Baiitsu is an example, its architype being a 14th century work by Chinese artist Wang Mian.  And an impressively large hanging scroll demonstrates how even within China itself, artists would directly copy preexisting Chinese paintings.  Wu Wei’s Travelers on a Mountain Pass (painted, incidentally, at exactly the same time Leonardo was dabbing away on the Mona Lisa) is a tribute to a painting by the 10th century artist Li Cheng, though Wu’s painting is more abstract, retaining a definitive personal style.  This is also a painting that advances the case for seeing art in person; cinematic in scale, this work practically engulfs the viewer, an effect that would get lost in translation if reproduced in a book.

XU ZHEN ® Eternity-Aphrodite of Knidos, Tang Dynasty Sitting Buddha, 2014, glass fiber-reinforced concrete, marble grains, sandstone grains, mineral pigments, steel. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York ©Xu Zhen

For me, the most visually compelling works are the several contemporary sculptures on view.  South Korean artist Chul Hyun Ahn’s deceptively simple light sculpture Two Circles, placed right at the show’s entrance for maximum impact, comprises two colored circular florescent lights positioned concentrically between two mirrors, framed and mounted on the wall; stand directly in front of Two Circles, and the illusion is that you’re staring into an infinity of circles eternally receding into the distance.  Chul Hyun Ahn’s sculptures are abstract references to Zen Buddhist ink paintings, characterized by a reductive though elegant simplicity.  Approaching copying with a wry sense of humor, sculptor Zu Zhen created a literal mash-up of two iconic images in Eastern and Western visual culture: a seated Tang Dynasty statue of Buddha seems to sprout (where its head should be) an upside-down reproduction of the Aphrodite of Knossos.

Copies and Invention in East Asia, to its immense credit, takes a comparatively niche topic and makes it interesting, accessible, and visually punchy.  It’s a diverse show, ranging in scope from 2000+ year old Chinese burial objects to a set of countertop Buddhist stupas fresh off the 3D printer.  It’s a show that playfully gives tangible expression to the Japanese literary critic Hideo Kobayashi’s assertion that “Copying is the mother of creation.”

 

Textures of Detroit @ Kreft Center Gallery

Installation Kreft Gallery, Textures of Detroit, 2019

Installation , Textures of Detroit, Kreft Gallery, 2019

Textures of Detroit is an exhibition of work that revolves around the theme of visual and tactile textures of Detroit.  It’s an intimate, multimedia show of six seasoned and accomplished contemporary Detroit artists (Peter Bernal, Matt Corbin, Roy Feldman, Carol Harris, Carl Wilson, and Ann Smith), whose sometimes rugged and gritty work is almost a foil to the chic polish of Concordia University’s Kreft Center Gallery.

The exhibition opens with a fine salvo of woodblock prints and linocuts by Kresge fellow Carl Wilson, who last year enjoyed a show at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. It’s not hard at all to imagine these as still frames from noir film; they seem like storyboarded images or concept art for black-and-white cinema, evocative of soulful and morose saxophone riffs.  In one graphic-novel style image, we see a line of beleaguered workers trundling toward the beginning of their shifts at some industrial job.    In another an elderly woman sits alone in a dark room illuminated by a solitary hanging bulb, and nurses a glass of indeterminate substance.

There are several textile works on view by textile artist Carole Harris, who creates fiber art that seems almost painterly, and, at times, even sculptural.  Her color palate is rusty and industrial; it’s no surprise to learn she draws inspiration from aging architectural structures.  Move in close, and her arrangements of patchwork abstractions reveal a dizzying network of swirling stitch-work that recalls the pirouetting clouds of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.  Her works subtly reference the time-worn textures of urban Detroit, and they exude an undeniable beauty.

Roy Feldman, “Untitled,” Silver Halide print on Kodak Endura paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

A quintet of photographs by Roy Feldman, a Detroit-based photographer and Emmy-Award winning filmmaker, presents a set of images of multi-layered urban interiors, each characterized by disorienting reflections which lend the set an air of magic-realism, an effect the photographer here achieves by capturing images of people taken ether reflected in mirrors or viewed through windows, a device which misleadingly lends the images the initial appearance of being double-exposed. In one instance, we see the side of a cropped face of a woman applying eyeliner; she holds out a small, circular mirror which reflects her eye as it seems to gaze back directly at us, though seemingly disembodied like a hovering object from a painting by Rene Magritte.

Roy Feldman, “Untitled,” Silver Halide print on Kodak Endura paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ann Smith and Mark Corbin both create sculptures from found objects and detritus, though their respective styles are certainly distinct, Corbin’s works rhyming more with the unrefined assemblage-style works of Detroit’s Tyre Guyton (of the Heidelberg Project), and Ann Smith’s works clearly more fussily worked and refined; the curvaceous metallic wisps of her Squash Blossom are a sort of cursive in 3D.   Together, along with the fiber works of Carole Harris, this ensemble presents Detroit texture in the most literal sense.

Carol Harris, In the Spirit, 69 x 71″ textile, 1992

Like the Copies and Invention show on view at the UMMA, Textures of Detroit takes a relatively niche point of departure and delivers an immensely satisfying result. It’s eclectic, for sure, but these multimedia works seem to come together not just through their application of tactile and visual texture, but also through the understated affection they seem to exhibit for the Motor City, its textures, and its people.

 

Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes @ the Broad

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Between 1964 and 1985, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil were variously ruled under dictatorships and military juntas, all of which received tacit support from the United States.  Truth is murky under repressive regimes, as evidenced by the difficulty in pinpointing the actual number of people that were killed or “disappeared” (a sinister verb that acquired notoriety under Argentina’s General Jorge Videla who famously applied the word to describe dissidents “neither dead or alive”), though estimates are that in Argentina alone, approximately 30,000 people were killed in state-sponsored violence.  In South America, the Cold War was always raging hot. Until January, the Broad Art Museum highlights the experimental art produced by South American dissident artists who, at great personal risk, harnessed the visual arts to speak truth to power.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes comprises a diverse array of multimedia work by sixteen South American artists (and two artist collectives) who “lived on the margins,” all united in their use of art as self-assertion and resistance.  Given the censorious nature of the regimes in which these artists lived and worked, most of the art on view necessarily approaches the subject matter metaphorically and indirectly, though the human body, intact or broken, recurs both as subject and, in some wince-inducing instances, the medium.

Much of this art is performance documented through photography or video, the transient nature of performance being perhaps a suitably discrete way to make a resonant statement in a climate of censorship.  A triptych of photographs documents Chilean performance artist Lotty Rosenfeld’s artistic intervention for which she altered the partition lines on a mile of road with white tape, transforming each straight line into a cross, or, alternatively, each “minus” into a “plus.”  For Rosenfeld, disrupting traffic law was a metaphorical act intended to subtly undermine law in a more general sense under Augusto Pinochet.

Another series of photographs documents performance artist Elias Adasme, who posed in various urban settings alongside a map of Chile (in some instances, a map is painted or projected directly onto his body).  In one performance, the artist’s seemingly lifeless body suspends upside-down from a road sign, Adasme’s pose bringing to mind a battered body in a torture cell. As a sort of coda to his performances, Adasme installed photographs of his performances in public spaces and documented the length of time they remained on view before police confiscated them.  Depending on where they were placed, this could range from as little as 30 minutes or as long as a month.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Silhouettes often recur in the show as a symbol for the “disappeared,” and a confrontationally large photograph by Edwardo Gil fills an entire gallery wall, showing Argentinian police arriving on the scene of a public artistic intervention for which artists collaborated with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (the “Mothers of the Disappeared”) and pasted silhouettes on the exteriors of government buildings throughout in Buenos Aires.  The featureless figures stand as surrogates memorializing just a few of the 30,000 people who disappeared under the Videla regime.  Similarly, Argentine artist Fernando Bedoya also applies the silhouette in his drawings, for which he builds human-like figures using letters which spell out the names of various individuals who were abducted or imprisoned.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

A commanding series of seven expressionistic paintings by Brazilian artist Victor Gerhard portrays specific incidents of violence that occurred in Brazil under the country’s veritable litany of Military dictators; Gerhard’s combination of paint with newspaper collage and text recalls some of the politically-charged works of Robert Rauschenberg, who also mined newspapers for content.  A second work by Gerhard also addresses news (specifically, state-sponsored propaganda); a one-channel video in stop-motion animation shows a picture of a woman being force-fed images culled from various newspapers.  The work was the artist’s response to a series of laws which authorized the censorship of the press, and serves as a metaphor for the public’s involuntary consumption of state media with which the Brazilian government force-fed the population.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Any discussion about the Cold War in South America must invariably include the United States, and one gallery wall is filled with a timeline briefly summarizing the rise of each respective dictatorship and the political entanglements which led the United States (largely through the actions of the Central Intelligence Agency) to support these regimes, which, as violent as they were, nonetheless were viewed by Washington as preferable to their leftist and Communist opposition counterparts.  The wall-text also explains Operation Condor, the sordid American-backed alliance between a half-dozen South American regimes which collaborated across borders and shared information and recources to eliminate any opposition.  Actions under Operation Condor included the notorious Argentine “Death Flights” and the assassination of exiled Chilean opposition leader Orlando Letelier by a car bomb on American soil in Washington D.C., very possibly with the approval of the CIA.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Given the weighty subject matter of The Edge of Things: Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes, one might think that this exhibition would be drearily depressing. But the tone of the show, to me at least, seemed ultimately optimistic, showcasing the inventive ways artists continued to create art despite the censorious and restrictive conditions in which they worked, and demonstrating that dictators and death squads ultimately couldn’t crush the triumphant spirit of resistance.

THE EDGE OF THINGS: DISSIDENT ART UNDER REPRESSIVE REGIMES   THE BROAD  JUNE 1, 2019 – JAN. 5, 2020