Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Author: Jonathan Rinck Page 1 of 9

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Patrick Earl Hammie and Charles Mintz @ Crooked Tree Arts Center

Lustron Stories, Installation image, Crooked Tree Arts Center

The Crooked Tree Arts Center, situated in a forested neighborhood on 6th street in Traverse City, MI, is just far enough removed from the city center that it serves as an oasis from the heavily trafficked streets of the town’s perennially congested main drag. But this relatively hidden gallery space offers first-rate programming worth the five-minute walk from Front Street, where all the action is. Crooked Tree currently hosts two exhibitions: an ensemble of large-scale paintings by Patrick Earl Hammie, and a body of photographs by Charles Mintz. Both shows combine technical finesse with layers of considered and understated social commentary.

This is a busy month for Illinois-based Patrick Earl Hammie; concurrent with this show in Traverse City, he also has work featured in the newly-opened Men of Change exhibit at Detroit’s Wright Museum (a show organized by the Smithsonian Institution), and a solo exhibition about to open at the Freeport Museum in Illinois.  At the Crooked Tree, Hammie presents a selection of large paintings (and a few smaller studies) that are deeply personal but also engage in discourse with broader social issues.

In Untimely Ripp’d, Hammie presents viewers with a confrontationally large painting of a mother delivering a baby by cesarean section. Discussing the work at the show’s opening, Hammie notes that, historically, paintings of medical procedures typically present the operating room as an emphatically male-dominated space– The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, for example, or Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.  Subverting this convention, Hammie peoples this space entirely with women. Further challenging art-historical norms, the large scale of the work serves as a direct response to the imposingly large paintings of the Romantic era, so often accompanied by hyper-masculine bravado and saber-rattling.

Patrick Earl Hammie, Untimely ripp’d (Work Cited: Fadhley, Salim [2014]. “Cesarean section photography.” Wikiversity Journal of Medicine), 2017, oil on linen, 96 x 70 in.

Hammie’s portrait of his mother (C.R.H.) is an affectionate tribute. Painted while she was recovering from a stroke, here she confronts us with a determined and resolute expression, ardently refusing to let her stroke get the best of her faculties.  Step in close, and it’s easy to detect Hammie’s interest in Expressionism. He applies paint thickly, and you could count the brush strokes if you cared to. But his scrubbed-in brushwork never compromises the clarity of his subjects (if this seems a little paradoxical, perhaps zoom in on some o fRembrandt’s later paintings, and marvel at his uncanny ability to capture a lucid likeness through the loosest brushwork).

 

Patrick Earl Hammie, C.R.H., 2017, oil on linen, 80 x 68 in

Several smaller paintings in this ensemble come from the artist’s Oedipus series, an exploratory body of work over ten years in the making. Oedipus’ name means “swollen foot,” and Hammie’s expressive, close-up renderings of feet were informed by references to historical and personal associations. Feet can evoke the means by which enslaved individuals escaped and trekked toward freedom for example; alternatively, feet could suggest the manacles and restraints that kept the enslaved in bondage. But the series also obliquely references the artist’s father, who lost several toes as the result of diabetes, and who was reduced to a comatose state as the result of surgical complications, leaving Hammie (young at the time) with the difficult decision of whether or not to prolong his father’s life, and under what conditions. Like the rest of his work, these paintings combine technical excellence with conceptual depth.

Patrick Earl Hammie, Study for Oedipus, 2017, charcoal on linen, 68 x 68 in.

Concurrent with this exhibition, the Crooked Tree Arts Center is also showing a body of photography by Charles Mintz, who here explores the American dream of home-ownership.  Mintz is an Ohio-based photographer whose series Every Place I’ve Ever Lived (a body of work that addresses the housing foreclosure crisis) is featured in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Lustron Stories, on view at the Crooked Tree, is an extension of Mintz’s interest in photographing working-class domestic spaces.

This show is a photographic exploration of Lustron houses and their enduring legacy. Manufactured in Columbus, OH, in the late 1940s by Lustron Corporation, these 1,100 square-foot prefabricated steel houses offered affordable housing to the working class. They utilized reductive spaces stripped bare of almost all decorative elements, and could be purchased for approximately $10,000.  About a third of these 2,500 homes are still extant, and most are still inhabited.

Charles Mintz, Mr. Kahle – Defiance, OH, 2014, inkjet print from scanned film, 30 x 39

It takes just a few images to get a sense of the Lustron aesthetic; after all, there wasn’t much variety and customization wasn’t an option.  They were made from steel and coated with enamel, rendering magnets the best device to personalize the interiors with pictures or other wall-hangings. They came in four colors, and much of the furniture was built in, like the ubiquitous recessed bookcase and mirror we see in several of the living rooms pictured here.

Though the houses themselves have a similar (if not exactly uniform) aesthetic, in this series Mintz manages to suggest the varied personalities and walks of life of their inhabitants. Each individual (or family) poses beside or within their home, surrounded by personal effects and belongings that speak to their personal stories.  Pat C, for example, sits in her living room (flanked by the ever-present Lustron bookshelf), surrounded by a myriad of collectibles, paintings, and photographs (some in black and white, and others in the sort of washed-out color characteristic of photographs from the 70s) that offer us glimpses of her multi-generational family history.

Charles Mintz, Pat C – Canton, OH, 2012, inkjet print from scanned film, 30 x 39 in.

Like much else from the postwar era, it’s difficult not to look back at Lustron homes without seeing them as remnants of a more optimistic time when anything factory-made and mass-produced, from Tupperware to TV Dinners, promised a forward-facing domestic utopia. It’s an optimism that, in retrospect, seems altogether naive. But the goal of universal home-ownership was (and remains) admirable and worth pursuing. Even Frank Lloyd Wright tried his hand at designing affordable housing, an ambition that gave rise to his Usonian homes; however, he was never able to translate his lofty and ideal design aesthetic into homes that were actually affordable for the broader public. So say what you will about the reductive design of Lustron homes; they were an innovative and largely successful approach to affordable housing, and arguably succeeded in accomplishing what Wright never did. But still, the series leaves one wondering, in the end, if perhaps America’s working class is deserving of something just a little more…

Charles Mintz, Clementine and Anita – Oak Park, MI, 2012, inkjet print from scanned film, 30 x 39

Forward and Lustron Stories are both on view at the Crooked Tree Arts Center in Traverse City, MI through November 13, 2021.

Design Highlights and American Perspectives @ GRAM

Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection, installation photo.

Grand Rapids is home to some of the Midwest’s finest contributions to applied art and design, particularly in the furniture industry, and the Grand Rapids Art Museum holds a muscular collection of applied arts, much of which comprises the exhibition Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection. This is a show which brings together work from 20th Century megastars, but also artists and designers who remain completely unknown. Filling the GRAM’s first-floor gallery suite, all these works stand as examples of how artists have sought to bring beauty into everyday life.

The works in this show represent a synthesis of decoration and function, and the distinction between the two is frequently blurred.  It’s a point emphatically made by the inclusion of a ceramic plate, some vases, and a set of cups designed by Picasso for Madoura Pottery in France, all adorned with whimsical vignettes rendered in the artist’s abstract style.

Some of these works explore design for its own sake. There are several lithographs in which Alexander Calder simply plays with basic abstract arrangements of shape, form, and color.  And an iridescent, blow-molded acrylic wall-hanging by Gisela Colon is similarly non-functional, but in its luminescence and simplicity speaks to the potentiality of design alone to capture the viewer’s interest even in the absence of conventional subject matter.

Ovoid Glo-Pod (Iridescent Lilac), Gisela Colon, 2016.  Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection, installation photo

But the overwhelming majority of works here exemplify functional design, ranging from furniture, cutlery, advertising, household appliances, and electronics. A display case housing personal electronic devices underscore the rapidity of the evolution of technological design.  An ensemble comprising several 1950s-era radios, an AM/FM Walkman, a cassette player, a TV, and some cameras is now collectively obsolete, rendered so by the advent of the smartphone.

Grand Rapids is famous in the Midwest for its contributions to furniture design, and visitors to the GRAM can count on several iconic examples of 20th-century furniture always being on display. These often articulate the point that, like technology, furniture design can also substantially shift and evolve over a relatively short time. Here, there are some pieces by Gustav Stickley, Ray Eames, and Charles Eames.  Certainly, the most visually striking pieces are the zainy, sculptural chairs produced by the Westnofa Workshop which manage to re-define the notion of what a chair even is.

Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection, installation photo.

Similarly blurring the distinction between the beautiful and the functional, a concurrent exhibition features 80 works on loan from the collection of the American Folk Art Museum. This large exhibit fills most of the GRAM’s spacious second-floor gallery suite. By its nature, folk art is eclectic and perhaps hard to define, but these works collectively make the point that folk art has the capacity to be punchy, pertinent, and socially engaged.

American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection, installation image courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum comprises a varied assortment of media, and amplifies voices that have been traditionally absent from museum spaces. One of the most moving examples is a ceramic vase by David Drake, an enslaved African American who created an estimated 40,000 works of pottery in his lifetime, invariably signing them “Dave” and often inscribing  witty rhyming couplets on their surfaces.  His signature features prominently on the side of the vase, asserting his personhood and creative agency in triumphant defiance of the dehumanizing institution of slavery.

David Drake (c.1800–c. 1870).Jug,1853.Alkaline-glazed stoneware,14 1/2 x 12 x 11 1/2 inches.CollectionAmerican Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Sally and Paul Hawkins, 1999.18.1.Photo by JohnParnell.

Harnessing an entirely different media, the Grover Cleveland Quilt similarly amplifies a disenfranchised voice, the patches of the quilt declaring its anonymous creator’s support for Grover Cleveland’s candidacy approximately forty years before the vote was extended to women. Created almost exactly a century later, Jessie Telfair’s Freedom Quilt is a monument to the hard-fought rights secured during the Civil Rights Movement.

Jessie B. Telfair (1913–1986)Freedom Quilt,1983.Cotton,with pencil,74 x 68inches.CollectionofAmerican Folk ArtMuseum, New York,Gift of Judith Alexander in loving memory of her sister, Rebecca Alexander, 2004.9.1.Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York.

Work by immigrants to America features prominently in the show. A visual centerpiece of the exhibit is Mariano Ariti’sArchitectural Palace, a model for a hypothetical museum celebrating human innovation. An Italian immigrant to the United States, he envisioned this colossal structure to stand in Washington D.C., and if realized, the building would have been as tall as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.  Its ambitious scale speaks to the artist’s optimistic vision of the nation’s capabilities.  

American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection, installation image courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Born to a family of immigrants in the Bronx, Ralph Fasanella’s Workers Holiday portrays the city’s working-class masses headed to Coney Island as a momentary escape from the daily grind, and indirectly speaks to his impassioned interest in worker’s rights.  Not incidentally, just a few feet away from Fasanella’s painting is an original wooden carousel horse, itself a form of handcrafted folk-art, from the merry-go-round at Coney Island amusement park.

This is an ambitious pair of exhibitions, given that they bring together an eclectic assortment of art and design which we might not conventionally think of as museum art.  As different in form and content as both of these exhibits are, together they bring together non-traditional media which assertively makes the point that visual culture isn’t simply the stuff of sterile and hushed museums and galleries, but that craft and design can frequently burst into real-world, real-life spaces.

Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection runs through August 14, 2021, and American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum runs through August 28, 2021.

Art + Labor & The Long Goodbye @ MSU Broad

24/7: Art + Labor Around the Clock installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Aaron Word/MSU Broad.

COVID-19 had a dramatic impact on how we work; even as we return to normalcy, it remains unclear if the workplace will ever fully return to how things were in pre-pandemic years.  An intimate, single-gallery exhibit at the MSU Broad offers an ensemble of works which explore labor as depicted in art, with a particular focus placed on the ambiguity between domestic vs. work spaces. Anyone who has worked from home this past year will immediately relate to the contents of 24/7: Art + Labor Around the Clock.

This is a show which brings together an eclectic ensemble of photography and works on paper which span just over a hundred years.  Together, these works speak to the notion of work beyond the boundaries of the 9 to 5 workday. COVID forced many of us to work from home, but for many people in certain lines of work this was historically the normative experience.  A trio of anonymous photographs shows workers in telecommunications, textile, and agriculture, all industries which once were performed principally in domestic settings (telephone operators once had switchboards in their homes, for example, so they could be on call day and night).

The Hidden World Collection, (Picture of women working at a telephone switchboard). MSU purchase, Eli and Edythe Broad Fund for the Acquisition of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Two works approach this theme with tongue-in-cheek humor.  In a wry parody of the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, Krithika Varagur and Eric Macomber give us Good Night Zoom; its imagery, color palette, and style echoes that of the original classic, but now our beloved rabbit protagonist is wishing goodnight to the things which have become fixtures of our pandemic-era lives (“Goodnight screens,” for example).  Also approaching the subject with humor is the animated film El Empleo (The Employee) by Santiago Grasso and Patricio Plaza, in which there’s no boundary between work and domestic spaces, and humans are paid to perform the roles of functional, inanimate objects.  The redundant, joyless lives of the film’s characters echo the pulverizing tedium of the fictional worlds envisioned in the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett.

El Empleo (The Employee), Santiago Grasso and Patricio Plaza, 2008.

Some of these works are visually mesmerizing, such as Michael Kenna’s moody, backlit photographs of Dearborn’s Ford Rouge Complex, which manage to turn the factory into something that verges on the sublime and the surreal.  Together, these images seem to suggest that this complex is a living, breathing behemoth that never truly shuts down.

Michael Kenna, The Rouge, Study #1, 1992. MSU purchase, partially funded by an anonymous donor.

Jenny Kendler: The Long Goodbye installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Concurrent with (but unrelated to) 24/7: Art + Work Around the Clock, a second gallery space explores the human impact on the planet’s biodiversity.  The Long Goodbye is a considered ensemble of sculptural work by multimedia artist Jenny Kendler, who tactfully integrates the media she uses with the message she delivers. Although inhabiting a comparatively small space, the visual impact of this exhibit is striking.

Nearly filling the length of one of the gallery walls is Whale Bells, a collaborative project by Kendler and glass artist Andrew Bearnot.  This is an ensemble of two dozen functional glass bells.  The ropes for each bell incorporate traditional sailor’s knots, and the clappers are actual fossilized ear bones from Miocene-epoch rorqual whales, the ancestors of today’s humpback.  Kendler makes the point that 5-20 million years ago, these now-extinct whales, equipped with the ability to create music, were once very likely the most culturally advanced entities on earth. Here, the bones that once allowed these whales to perceive sound are now employed as the literal instruments which project sound. The environmental commentary here is understated, but the installation invites us to consider that today’s humpback whale was once an endangered species before it became the center of one of the first international environmental campaigns (Save the Whales) in the 1970s.  Through this installation’s use of sound, we’re also reminded that in recent years noise pollution caused by human commercial activity in the ocean (tand he oil industry in particular) has had a detrimental effect on whales’ migration patterns and mating activity.

Jenny Kendler: The Long Goodbye installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

The literal centerpiece of this exhibition space is Amber Archive, a circular table on which are displayed approximately 130 fragments from different plant and animal species which are vulnerable to extinction as the direct result of human activity.  Each specimen is individually encased in a glowing orb of amber resin.  These include (among many other things) fragments of bird feathers, whale baleen, and snakeskin.  This installation is visually striking, but it also serves as a sort of DNA time-capsule, not unlike the world’s seed-vaults which aim to preserve and protect Earth’s biodiversity.

Jenny Kendler: The Long Goodbye installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Each of these two exhibits nicely supplement the Broad’s current lead exhibitions.  Interstates of Mind, with its focus on Michigan’s automotive industry, certainly parallels much of the content of Art + Labor, particularly Michael Kenna’s photographic series on the Rouge automotive plant.  And Kendler’s work certainly underscores Seeds of Resistance in her emphasis on preserving biodiversity.  Taken together, this quartet of exhibitions prompts us to consider the relationship between industry and the environment, and how our commercial pursuits have lasting ecological consequences.

24/7: Art + Work Around the Clock is on view through August 22.

The Long Goodbye is one view through June 27, 2021 at the East Lansing Broad Museum.

Seeds of Resistance @ MSU Broad

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Within the Arctic Svalbard Archipelago on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen is a structure known colloquially as the “Doomsday Vault.” Here, buried deep within a mountain and preserved in sub-zero temperatures are thousands of boxes from all over the world containing roughly a million airtight seed packets.  The vault exists to preserve Earth’s biodiversity, acting as a safety net mitigating the environmental effects of any potential natural or human-made ecological disaster. It’s also a sort of United Nations; here you’ll find boxes of seeds deposited by both the United States and North Korea (and they’re quite literally on the same shelf, no less).  The Doomsday Vault is just one of many seed vaults and libraries catalogued in Dornith Doherty’s photographic series Archiving Eden: The Vaults, a body of work which documents our best efforts at ecological preservation. At Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum, her work currently joins that of many other artists who collectively speak to the need for humanity to actively preserve Earth’s biodiversity.

Seeds of Resistance compellingly equates the preservation of seeds with the preservation of genetic information, cultural heritage, and cultural knowledge.  The show brings together a diverse body of work by international artists and educators who collectively assert the importance of biodiversity, and reflect on the human imprint on the environment, for better or for ill.  The show also celebrates the legacy of MSU’s own Dr. William Beal (1833-1924), the founder of the school’s W.J. Beal Botanical Garden, and whose Seed Viability Experiment remains the longest running scientific experiment in modern history.

Several prominent works on view emphasize the presence of healthy, living soil as integral to any vibrant ecosystem.  A large multimedia ensemble by Claire Pentecost invites us to consider the value of healthy soil by drawing a parallel between soil and currency.  Here, she stacks blocks of soil sculpted to resemble gold ingots; these are accompanied by twenty-six paintings arranged into a sort of triptych.  They collectively represent a hypothetical currency which Pentecost calls the soil-erg, a counterpart to the petro-dollar.  Using actual soil to render these images, each painting suggests a different type of imagined bank-note; some commemorate historic figures famous for their contributions to our understanding of agriculture, and others celebrate the non-human creatures that are an integral part of the soil-food web.  The earthworm and the bumblebee are championed along with Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau.

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

The works of Antonio Moreno and Dylan Miner also thoughtfully underscore the content of their art with the material they work with.  For his collective project Live the Free Fields, Moreno invited over fifty participants to fashion over 1,000 mushrooms out of clay (itself a type of soil), which here seem to be sprouting from the floor of the gallery space and together suggest the Earth’s many extant varieties of fungi.  Conversely, Dylan Miner speaks to the destruction of healthy ecosystems with a triptych showing a stretch of the Kalamazoo River, the sight of a massive oil spill in 2010.  To render the map-like painting, Miner applied bitumen, a type of crude oil, to give the painting its sludgy, oily appearance.

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

In an adjacent gallery space we find an ensemble of large photographic prints from Dornith Doherty’s Archiving Eden series.  Some of these unpeopled images come across as haunting and surreal.  Perhaps this is what we might expect, after all, of images documenting a place nicknamed “The Doomsday Vault” (though the place is more properly called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault).  Her series documents seed vaults and libraries all over the world though, and some of these libraries are actually very much alive, such as the apple tree collection at Cornell University in New York, which is an orchard preserving over 300 species of apple.  Fittingly, in this space her work is complemented with an actual library catalog, itself a conceptual work by Johannes Heldén and Håkan Jonson.  With the help of artificial intelligence, the artists filled the drawers of an old-style library catalog with 30,000 index cards, each describing some imaginary future species of creature made extinct by humans.  Inside this exhibition’s program/pamphlet, you’ll find several sample copies of these entries on 3×5 index cards (mine included an entry for “Megaptera citri,” described as a social, urban, nocturnal creature made extinct by humans in 2514 AD).

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Supplementing the art in this gallery space are several tables which display artifacts and ephemera that belonged to Dr. William Beal.  Here we learn about Beal’s Seed Viability Experiment; launched in 1879, the experiment is still going on today, and it assesses the duration of the seed’s ability to remain dormant and still be able to sprout. The content here is historic and informational rather than artistic, but Beal’s importance to agricultural botany and his significance to MSU aptly makes him a central part of this exhibition.

With Seeds of Resistance, the Broad continues its fine tradition of programming that connects the visual arts with the sciences and other disciplines, and this show in particular makes excellent use of the University’s strengths as an agricultural school. Furthermore, the topic of preserving Earth’s biodiversity is certainly relevant.  In 2015, after all, as the direct result of civil war, Syria became the first country that found it necessary to withdraw the seeds it had deposited into the Spitsbergen Norway Seed Vault. It very likely won’t be the last.

Seeds of Resistance is on view at the MSU Broad through July 18.

Wayne Thiebaud @ Toledo Museum of Art

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings @TMA

Wayne Thiebaud, Boston Cremes, 1962. Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 in. Crocker Art Museum Purchase, 1964.22. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

 

Prior to the Toledo Museum of Art’s exhibition Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints and Drawings, all my knowledge of the artist came from a handful of images from 20th Century art history books, which mostly featured his paintings of slices of cake behind glass which, like the repetitive Campbell’s Soup cans of Andy Warhol, offered subtle commentary on postwar commercialism and mass-production. But here we’re exposed to the full breadth of his artistic career, which also encompassed still life painting, portraiture, landscapes, cityscapes, and more, and all in a broad array of media. While Thiebaud may have initially made his mark as a staple of Pop-art, this exhibition reveals that his work is surprisingly diverse and rooted in art-historical tradition, and that he had an uncanny ability to translate centuries-old genres into the artistic vocabulary of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Born in 1920, Wayne Thiebaud’s panoramic career has taken many trajectories, and it isn’t over yet.  When he was just sixteen, he took a job at Walt Disney Studios, working as an animator for Pinocchio and a variety of film shorts.  During the Second World War he joined the airforce intending to become a pilot, but was transferred to the Special Services Department where he worked as a map, mural, and poster designer.  After the war, he both studied and taught at Sacramento City College, and fell under the influence of the New York School of postwar abstract expressionists, such as Pollock, Kline, and DeKooning, whose gestural abstract style he  conscientiously began to quote in his own work, as in his very abstract painting The Sea Rolls In (on view in this exhibition). But Thiebaud ultimately  preferred representational art, and in his serialized paintings of frosting-rich plates of cake, he found a way to synthesize the gestural impasto of DeKooning with the illustrative nature of traditional still-life painting.

Filling the entirety of the TMA’s spacious Levis Gallery (and even spilling over into a large adjacent gallery) are chronologically arranged works which span the breadth of Thiebaud’s career, some on view for the first time.  Trucker’s Supper, a work in the TMA’s permanent collection, sets the tone of much of the subsequent work on view; a plate with a slab of roast beef and some french fries inhabits a stark-white indeterminate background space, all the paint rendered in rich imposto (an effect which mostly gets lost in translation when these works are reproduced in books or online).  Thiebaud was a figurative and illustrative artist, but if you step in close, you’ll see passages of brushwork that reveal his admiration for his abstract expressionist counterparts. While his paintings are certainly not hyperrealistic, in applying the paint so thickly some of his paintings of cakes become almost sculptural, and the paint mimics the texture of frosting with a surprising realism bordering on trompe l’oeil trickery.

Wayne Thiebaud, Pies, Pies, Pies, 1961. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Philip L. Ehlert in memory of Dorothy Evelyn Ehlert, 1974.12. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

After firmly (and perhaps unwittingly) establishing his reputation as the painter of cakes and pies, Thiebaud explored figure painting so as not to be defined by a single subject. Like his still lifes, his figures generally inhabit empty white spaces, recalling the portraits of Manet, who often placed his figures against grey, uninhabited space (as he did with his portrait of the French journalist Antonin Proust, a work in the TMA’s collection just a few galleries away).

Wayne Thiebaud, Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book, 1965–1969. Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Thiebaud, 1969.21. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Thiebaud was largely unsatisfied with his early attempts at portraiture, however, and in the 1960s he turned toward landscapes and cityscapes, genres he would continue to explore in subsequent decades.  But his treatment of the subject is joyously whimsical.  Thiebaud’s improbably vertical cityscapes and landscapes heave and buckle in a visual parody of the streets of San Francisco and the mountainous terrain surrounding the San Fernando Valley.  Some of these stylized landscapes feature parabola-shaped hills, and seem like playful, almost cartoon-like caricatures of the land (in the 1940s, Thiebaud indeed worked for a while as a cartoonist).

Wayne Thiebaud, Street and Shadow, 1982–1983/1996. Oil on linen, 35 3/4 x 23 3/4 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1996.3. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Wayne Thiebaud, Park Place, 1995. Color etching hand-worked with watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, graphite, and pastel, 29 9/16 x 20 3/4 in. (sheet/image). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.50. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

A generous selection of prints and drawings makes the point that Thiebaud was also a consummate draftsman.  He was interested in printmaking for the entirety of his career, and in Delights (a series of seventeen aquatints), Thiebaud applied the visual textures of hatching and cross-hatching to replicate in a different media the tactile textures we find in all his previous still lifes.  Featuring reductive, scribbled-in  illustrations of cakes, pies, and ice-cream cones, these small prints have the stylized polish we might expect of a New Yorker cartoon (a publication for which Thiebaud illustrated many covers, and subscribers to the magazine will have recently seen his painting Double Scoop grace the August 17, 2020 issue).

Wayne Thiebaud, Dark Chocolates, n.d. Etching hand-worked with colored pencil, 8 7/8 x 10 1/4 in. (plate), 14 3/8 x 15 1/4 in. (sheet). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.36. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Wayne Thiebaud, Cake Window, from Delights series, 1964. Etching, 4 15/16 x 5 7/8 in. (plate), 12 3/4 x 10 3/4 in. (sheet). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.1.13. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The show concludes in an adjacent gallery space which showcases some of his recent work, which is largely a continued exploration of earlier themes and genres.  But here we also find an ensemble of paintings that feature clowns, a new subject in his work.  Stylistically, these subtly parallel his paintings of cake and pies, and much as Thiebaud used paint to replicate the thick frosting on a cake, here it replicates impastoed clown makeup.

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is a diverse and sprawling exhibition, which is exactly the sort of retrospective the artist deserves given the breadth and depth of his oeuvre.  While Thiebaud developed a distinctly recognizable style of his own, he was never bound to a specific theme or genre, and this exhibition triumphantly gives the lie to any notion that Thiebaud was simply the Pop-era painter of cakes and pies.

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is on view at the TMA until May 2, 2021

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