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Kahlo Without Borders @ MSU Broad

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Everything changed for Frida Kahlo during a fateful bus ride through Mexico City in 1925.  A few blocks from her school, where the 17-year-old Frida was a senior and exhibited precocious intelligence, the bus rounded a corner and collided with an oncoming trolley, severely injuring dozens of passengers. The wooden bus blew apart, leaving Frida with catastrophic injuries, including a steel rod that pierced through much of her body. She was pulled from the wreckage covered in gold dust, likely from a passenger who was an artist. She survived, defying the initial pessimistic assessment of the doctors at the Red Cross hospital. But much of the rest of her life was spent bedridden in hospitals in Mexico and the United States, where she underwent 32 surgeries. To pass the time, Frida began to paint.

Kahlo Without Borders at the MSU Broad explores Kahlo’s support network of friends and family, with a particular focus on the doctors she befriended during her many extended hospital stays. The exhibition is conceived as an intimate journey through a family scrapbook or photo album, and on view (for the first time, in some cases) are candid family photographs, letters, and even hospital records from the Kahlo family archives. This is an intimate and interdisciplinary show which traverses the boundary between the visual arts and the medical field, much like Frida Kahlo’s paintings.

Antonio Kahlo, Frida with cane, ca. 1950. Courtesy Cristina Kahlo and the Broad Art Museum

Kahlo was well-connected, and her social orbit encompassed many famous poets, artists, and writers. There are candid snapshots of Kahlo with muralist Diego Rivera, who Frida married, divorced, and re-married (theirs was an acrimonious relationship, but to the end they remained ardently supportive of each other’s career). We also see Kahlo with Leon Trotsky, a close family friend and, for a little while, Kahlo’s lover.

And, of course, we are introduced to a few of the doctors and nurses Frida Kahlo befriended, such as Leo Eloesser, Juan Farill, and Judith Ferrato. The letters and correspondence on view demonstrates the gratitude and affection Kahlo felt for these people. Kahlo featured Farill in her Self Portrait with the Portrait of Dr. Farill, and also gifted him a copy of the book The Complete Anatomy of A Man, which she accompanied with a note reading, “Dearest Dr. Farill. So you may laugh at the surrealist ‘Anatomy.’ Save it with Frida’s love.” Both the book and the note are on view.

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Particularly moving are the photographs of Kahlo in hospital beds. Several of these show her working on various paintings, triumphantly affirming life in the midst of tragedy. But other images speak to the very visceral and unglamourous reality of her extended hospital stays. Into the 1950s, she appears visibly frail and worn, as in a picture captured by Raúl Anaya a few months before her death.

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

For Kahlo enthusiasts, the highlight of the show will certainly be the small ensemble of her original drawings, which include a pencil rendering of the 1925 tram accident, a subject she never actually painted. Two of these drawings were made in response to her second miscarriage, which occurred in Detroit while she was accompanying Diego, who was occupied painting his murals at the Detroit Institute of Art. One of these drawings, The Dream, visually anticipates the painting she would later make of the incident, Henry Ford Hospital: 1932. In both the drawing and the painting, a crumpled and visibly broken Frida lies naked, bleeding, and uncovered on a spartan hospital bed.

Kahlo’s grandniece, photographer Cristina Kahlo (who helped organize the show), lends contemporary insight into Frida’s life with a series of photographs that explore her stay at the American British Cowdray Hospital in Mexico City. An ensemble of photographs by Cristina shows the varied artifices and prosthetics that intruded into Frida’s body and art, such as her prosthetic leg and one of the corsets she had to wear. An ardent Communist, Frida personalized this particular corset with a hammer and sickle. In a large lightbox (mimicking a microfilm reader) we see actual records of Frida’s vital signs during some of her surgeries. Looking at a still frame from a monitor showing Frida’s heartbeat, one immediately recalls the many times Frida portrayed her heart in her paintings. Here, we can see its literal rhythm. Cristina Kahlo also photographed Frida’s hospital gowns which, as she painted, she would use to wipe excess paint from her brushes. Here, Cristiana Kahlo offers these images as an “absent portrait” of the artist.

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

This exhibition is a must-see for Frida Kahlo fans. As for the uninitiated, this show might come across as visually thin, given the prevalence of letters and correspondence. But it’s certainly thematically compelling. Perhaps it’s cliche to say of Frida Kahlo that, phoenix-like, she harnessed personal tragedy as the source of life and beauty. Then again, Kahlo’s art certainly isn’t beautiful. But it’s always eloquently and gut-wrenchingly truthful, speaking to the pain we all inevitably face at one time or another. And as for Frida, the portrait that emerges between the lines suggests that in spite of everything she endured, she possessed an indefatigable fortitude, a zest for life, and a deep affection and gratitude for her support network. Whether or not you’re a fan of Frida Kahlo’s art, her spirit is inspiring, and Kahlo Without Borders serves as an affectionate and personal tribute.

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Cristina Kahlo, Absent Portrait 1 (2016)

Kahlo Without Borders is on view at the MSU Broad through Aug. 7, 2022.

Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male @ FIA

Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male & Drawing from Life – Exhibition at the Flint Institute of Arts

Courtesy of the Flint Institute of Art and Jerry Taliaferro

Five years ago, the Flint Institute of Art presented the exhibition Women of a New Tribe, an immensely popular photography show which celebrated the physical and spiritual beauty of 49 Flint area African American women, all photographed by North Carolina-based artist Jerry Taliaferro. An accomplished artist and commercial photographer, Taliaferro’s work has been exhibited in shows on both sides of the Atlantic, including two exhibitions sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Taliaferro now returns to the FIA with Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male. This is a large body of work that fills the FIA’s spacious Henry and Hodge Galleries, and serves to confront perceptions and biases while celebrating some of Flint’s civic, business, and spiritual leaders.

Courtesy of the Flint Institute of Art and Jerry Taliaferro

Like Women of a New Tribe, this is a traveling exhibition that has different iterations at each host venue. Here, community members nominated men who had impacted Flint in a positive way, and these individuals became the subjects of the exhibit. Entering the gallery space, visitors first encounter a set of black and white photographs of each individual, and text on the wall poses the question “Who do you see when you look at me?” Each subject meets the camera’s gaze, unsmiling. Everything below their chins is cropped out, and their heads seem to hover in indeterminate space. The absence of any props or details invites viewers to encounter each face at, well, face value, and try to read the furrowed brows and creased foreheads for some hint at deciphering their respective stories and personalities.

Courtesy of the Flint Institute of Art and Jerry Taliaferro

 

This first series of images is answered with a second set of larger color photographs, and accompanying text on the gallery wall declares “I Am…” The same men pose for three-quarter portraits this time, sometimes whimsically (though always dignified), and the clothing they wear and the props they carry offer us substantially more insight into who these individuals actually are. Unlike the first series, these photographs are accompanied with the name and a brief biography of each individual. All deeply involved in their respective communities, these men are teachers, pastors, businessmen, entrepreneurs, musicians, philanthropists, volunteers, husbands, fathers, and sons.

Careful and thoughtfully posed compositions assist in the visual storytelling to elevate these images beyond a photographic directory of Flint’s Who’s Who. And there is thoughtful conceptual significance in presenting these two parallel sets of portraits. Taliaferro writes, “As a Black American male I have sensed the discomfort of others (and myself) in certain encounters, I have also been amazed how this discomfort dissipates as we learn more about one another and discover the many things we have in common. This simple exhibition is a humble attempt to dispel some of the fear and discomfort.” Indeed, after we’ve learned about these individuals and heard their stories, returning to the first set of photographs seems like returning to old acquaintances, and the exhibition invites us to reflect on the ways and the frequency with which we subconsciously and baselessly draw conclusions about individuals.

Courtesy of the Flint Institute of Art and Jerry Taliaferro

Courtesy of the Flint Institute of Art and Jerry Taliaferro

Drawing from Life, a concurrent (but unrelated) exhibition in the FIA’s single-space Graphics Gallery complements Sons with an exhibition of socially and spiritually resonant drawings by Ed Watkins, a Flint native who taught at the Genesee Area Skill Center and Mott Community College. The show takes its title both from the artistic practice of drawing from life, and also from Watkins’ philosophy of art, for which his creative practice is guided by his lived experience as a Black artist, and the Black experience is central to his work.

Courtesy of the Flint Institute of Art and Ed Watkins

Watkins’ ambitiously large drawings employ a visual magic realism; his figures are rendered with exquisite draftsmanship, and elements within his drawings add layers of symbolism and allegory. His drawings stylistically rhyme with the works of Chicago’s Charles White, whose drawings were also rendered ambitiously large and applied tight, representational draftsmanship relentlessly underscored by faith and a yearning for justice.

Some of his most socially resonant works are those inspired by the recent police shootings of Michael Brown (Surrender Jonesz) and the death of George Floyd (Breathe), the latter of which portrays Tristan Taylor, organizer of the “Detroit Will Breathe” march in the summer of 2020. Taylor’s face is largely covered by his facemask, but Watkins captures his impassioned eyes and furrowed brow, which speak to the moral weight of his cause.

Faith informs many of these images, some of which are richly freighted with spiritual symbolism. The Ravens: I Kings 17 depicts a volunteer distributing cardboard boxes of food to unseen recipients while under the watchful eyes of nearby ravens. The work references the Biblical story of Elijah, miraculously sustained in the wilderness by ravens who brought him food. It’s an image also inspired by the toll the Covid pandemic took on individuals suddenly displaced from their jobs, and the churches and community organizations that distributed provisions to the food-insecure.

The four works on view from his Preacher series are particularly forceful. Sometimes rapturously animated, sometimes soulfully contemplative, but always expressive, these drawings portray pastors, including some from the Flint area.  Watkins tactfully uses the stained-glass windows in the background to underscore the content of the sermons which directly inspired each work. Most of these drawings show each preacher mid-sermon, but his portrait of Marvin Jennings (Sr. Pastor Emeritus of Flint’s Grace Emmanuel Baptist Church) captures the subject in a moment of solitude and quiet reflection, the stained glass panels in the background portraying Ghanaian symbols for peace, unity, and other virtues.

Courtesy of the Flint Institute of Art and Ed Watkins

Courtesy of the Flint Institute of Art and Ed Watkins

Taliaferro’s photographs and Watkins’ drawings are most rewarding when viewed in person, where their comparatively large scale can be best appreciated. But much of Taliaferro’s show can be accessed digitally, including video interviews of each of the men featured in Sons.  While each of these two exhibitions apply different media to explore different facets of the Black experience, they certainly pair well together. Both shows are imbued with social relevance, and each is fortified by quiet dignity and relentless optimism.

Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male is on view at the Flint Institute of Art through April 16, 2022.

Drawing From Life: Ed Watkins is on view through April 10, 2022.

 

 

Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition @ The Dennos

Installation image. All photos courtesy of the Dennos Museum Center

Visiting the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City is an experience unique to Northern Michigan. Situated at the base of Old Mission Peninsula, since 1991 the Dennos served as a multipurpose art and science museum, and it houses one of the finest collections of Inuit art you’ll ever see. In 2018 it underwent a major expansion, and an impressively large suite of chic gallery spaces now allows the Dennos to show off much more of its permanent collection, and it really does have some good holdings. The museum has even just been awarded status as a Smithsonian affiliate. But while the focus of the museum is on the art within, the floor-to-ceiling windows of many of its exterior galleries offer visitors a commanding view of the pleasantly forested campus of Northwestern Michigan College.  Through May 29, this emphatically northern space is the appropriate home to the annual Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition.

The show amply fills the museum’s spacious temporary exhibition space. It presents multimedia work by artists from 37 Michigan counties, including the entirety of the Upper Peninsula and much of the Lower Peninsula’s Northwest.  Submissions were open to anyone, providing that the work was created during 2021.  Juried by Vera Ingrid Grant, a curator and writer based in Ann Arbor and whose accomplishments include fellowships at Harvard and Columbia universities, the 90 works on view represent highlights from the show’s nearly 400 submissions.

Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City Installation image.

Any juried show is destined to be varied in scope and media, and these works are certainly diverse– there are 83 artists represented, after all. Painting, sculpture, photography, and illustration join forces with quilting, fabric art, wood art, and pottery, blurring boundaries between fine art, folk art, and handcraft. Nevertheless, some themes do emerge, such as our shared experience of Covid-19, here directly addressed in about half a dozen works. Several works offer social commentary on timely subjects like media saturation and information overload.

Many of these works take the landscapes, waterscapes, and textures of Northern Michigan itself as their subject. Ample views of Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan’s sand-dunes firmly locate this show in Northern Michigan. Thomas Guback’s Northport Sailboat Race is a photograph that beautifully transposes the lucid diamond-tipped ripples of Lake Michigan’s waters into black and white, applying some of Ansel Adams’ magic to demonstrate that color isn’t necessary to give the viewer an arresting image. And Lynn Stephenson’s tightly rendered pencil drawing of a row of weathered, neglected dock pilings captures a sight common at any marina on Lake Michigan’s shoreline; Stephenson renders the texture of the mostly rotted wood and the ripples of the water with impressively photographic, illustrative detail.

Lynn Stephenson, Still Standing [detail]. 2021, Colored pencil on Paper.

Other artists engaged Northern Michigan’s geography in more playfully abstract terms.  Susan Yamasaki’s Hieroglyphs applies perpendicular, geometric sections of birch bark and mixed media to create what could pass as Northern Michigan’s answer to Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. And the Best of Show award went to Kevin Summers, a multimedia artist whose Michigan Shoreline is a conceptual installation comprising driftwood, electronic fans, and sound.

Susan Yamasaki, Hieroglyphs. 2021, Birchbark and mixed media on birch panel.

 

Kevin Summers, Michigan Shoreline. 2021, Driftwood, fans, and electronics.

Certain to be a highlight among visitors is the mural-sized bead tapestry by Marie Wohadlo, 10:23. Gently backlit, this work comprises nearly a million individual luminous glass beads. It’s a work that invites viewers to play the same game as one might play with a pointillist work by Seurat. Step up close, and the individual beads create a pixelated, abstract void. Step back, and they materialize into a photographic rendering of two distant faces. The planning and execution of a work on this scale is impressive, even allowing for photographic and technological assistance.

Marie Wohadlo, 10:23 [detail]. 2021, Glass bead tapestry.

Marie Wohadlo, 10:23 [detail]. 2021, Glass bead tapestry.

Shows like this have a leveling, democratizing effect on art. There’s nothing to differentiate the skilled amateurs from the seasoned professionals.  And in the absence of any descriptive didactic panels, viewers are left to interpret these works entirely on their own. Perhaps this is a good thing; too often I find myself relying on an exhibition’s expository text to do much of the thinking for me.  But here, viewers are given the opportunity to approach the work on their own terms, and the works on view are given the chance to speak for themselves.

The 2022 Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition runs through May 29, 2022. Views of the evergreens on the NMC campus are available all year round.

 

 

 

Per(Sister) and Free Your Mind @ MSU Broad

Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Zoe Kissel/MSU Broad. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The United States is home to the world’s most incarcerated population, with 2.2 million individuals held within its prison system. Over the past 40 years, the incarceration rate for women has increased by over 800%. Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States is a socially-driven exhibition that harnesses the arts to raise awareness of the particular challenges women face during and after incarceration, with attention given to exploring some of the underlying societal conditions that have helped drive forward incarceration rates in the first place.

This exhibit was arranged by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in Louisiana, and paired 30 current and formerly incarcerated women (referred throughout the exhibit as “PerSisters”) with artists who listened to their stories and translated their experiences into artistic form. At the time of the show’s creation, Louisiana was the incarceration capital of the world, with over 1,000 incarcerates per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 600 per 100,000 in Russia, and 118 per 100,000 in China. Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum now hosts this traveling exhibit. Underscoring the relevance of the show across state lines, the Broad complements the show with the adjacent exhibition Free Your Mind, which addresses incarceration specifically in Michigan.  Together, both shows encourage us to view these individuals with empathy and dignity.

Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Zoe Kissel/MSU Broad. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The works of art (ranging from photography, painting, site-specific installation, fabric art, sculpture, and even music) are eclectic, reflecting the individual experiences they represent. One wall prominently displays large black and white portraits of all 30 PerSisters featured in the exhibition, sympathetically photographed by Allison Beondé; visitors can hear these women in their own words at stations equipped with electronic devices and headphones, and printed excerpts from their interviews accompany many of works in the show, so their voices and faces are always present.

Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Zoe Kissel/MSU Broad. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Zoe Kissel/MSU Broad. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

While each work of art in Per(Sister) responds to an individual’s personal experience, many of these works also address broader issues regarding the prison system more generally. Epaul Julien’s portrait of Dolita Wilhike conscientiously recalls images of the iconic political activist Angela Davis. But in the background is a prominent American flag which, up close, is revealed to be a collage of historic images of enslaved African Americans, including the familiar schematic rendering of the notorious Brookes slave ship. We also see the script of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolishes slavery “except as punishment for a crime,” a constitutional loophole that effectively allows institutional slavery to persist in the form of the prison industrial complex. Artist Amy Elkins confronts the leasing of convicts for unpaid labor in the garment industry in particular with her site-specific wallpaper which mimics textile art, its floral imagery stitched together with the colors used for prisoners’ uniforms.

Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Zoe Kissel/MSU Broad. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

One of the most compelling stories in the exhibit is that of Bobbie Jean Johnson, imprisoned for 40 years for a murder she denied committing. She was released in 2018 with the help of the Innocence Project, which provided compelling evidence in support of Johnson’s testimony that her confession was coerced by an officer who was asphyxiating her with a plastic bag. Making the point that in the American justice system a confession is regarded as the “queen of criminal evidence,” artist Rontherin Ratliff created a large sculpture of a queen, which, in the game of chess, is the most powerful piece. But confessions are problematic, as several high-profile cases amply demonstrate– the now-exonerated “Central Park Five” come to mind.

Caption: Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana, installation view at the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University, 2019. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Plenty of didactic text and informational graphic-illustrations guide viewers through the root causes of female incarceration, the impact of incarceration on mothers, the physical and mental impact of incarceration, and specific challenges women face upon re-entering society. Some specific issues addressed include the lack of access to proper healthcare, as many jails and prisons are not equipped to provide basic prenatal and postpartum care to female inmates. The show also addresses the impact of incarceration on families; nearly 80% of female incarcerates are mothers, the majority of whom are the sole caregivers to their children.

In an adjacent gallery space, the exhibition Free Your Mind complements Per(Sister) with a specific focus on incarceration in Michigan. While Michigan has fewer incarcerated individuals than other states, it leads the way in punitive sentencing, with its 33,000 inmates serving more time on average than those of any other state. This exhibition addresses four themes: the length of sentencing, the impact of incarceration on women, the impact of incarceration on youth, and the impact of COVID-19. All the works in this single-gallery space come from incarcerated individuals who have exhibited with the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan.

Even allowing that these works were created by individuals with no formal training in art, the technical skill in some of these works is, by all standards, astonishing.  Daniel Valentine’s pencil drawing of a hand holding a rose, The Scarlet Fancy, is rendered with such realism that it looks like a photograph, even when viewed from just a few inches.  Sarah Yien’s small charcoal drawing I Need to Breathe, showing a body struggling to break through some sort of translucent tarp, also seems photographic, but evokes the blurred photorealism we might expect from the paintings of Gerhard Richter.

Suffragette City is a deceptively playful and visually flamboyant approach to social criticism. In this colorful watercolor and pen & ink panorama which vaguely resembles the busy pages of a Where’s Waldo book, artist Rik McDonough populates a zany cityscape with humorous, thinly veiled allegories of the social and political forces behind mass incarceration. We see armies of pawns scurrying about a dystopian cityscape, and close inspection reveals that many of the buildings in this city are rows of books, all calculatedly chosen titles (Les Misérables, Animal Farm, and 1984, for example).

Incarceration rates among women in Michigan have risen over the past ten years even as the overall statewide prison population has decreased, and much of Free Your Mind features work by women artists. Samantha Bachynski’s Rose Trellis Dream Wedding Dress, a life-sized crocheted wedding dress, is particularly evocative. As quoted in the show, Bachynski movingly says of the dress, “It’s a beautiful piece of art and I’m so proud of it, but I know I’m not going to get to do the two things I wanted to in my life: get married or be a mom. So I want someone else to feel absolutely beautiful wearing it and experience what I’m not going to experience….It’s not a complete end. I still have a life in here. It’s not the life I wanted, but it’s the life I have made for myself.”

Samantha Bachynski, Rose Trellis Dream Wedding Dress, 2019. Courtesy of the Prison Creative Arts Project, University of Michigan.

Although these are both art shows, they’re information-heavy, and visitors should expect to read their way through much of these two exhibits. The accompanying booklet to Per(Sister) is a generous 126 pages long and is really an exhibition catalog replete with introductory essays, biographies of the participants, a brief timeline of the American prison system, and a glossary of terms. It’s perhaps cliche to describe an exhibition as thought-provoking, but the content of these shows really does have a way of getting inside one’s head, only to keep resurfacing as time passes. Together, Per(Sister) and Free Your Mind serve to amplify the voices of a population which, though sizable, remains largely invisible, and they emphatically make the point that individuals shouldn’t forfeit their humanity once they enter the carceral system.

Per(Sister) and Free Your Mind are both on view at the Michigan State University Broad Art Museum through December 12, 2021.

 

 

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.

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