Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Author: K.A. Letts Page 1 of 5


Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft @ BBAC

Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

If there ever was a bright line of distinction between what we call contemporary fine art and what is now considered to be craft, that line has long ago been crossed and obliterated.  The mixed bag of artifacts on display in the exhibition at Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center from May 6 to June 2 illustrates this, with a range of objects and images that contrast the useful with the expressive, the carefully crafted with the emotionally contingent.  “Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft” takes us on a tour of the increasingly porous borders between objects that can claim to be fine art, but qualify as craft only because they refer tangentially to traditional crafts and finely handmade objects that are intended for utilitarian purposes.

Wall Vessel V, Constance Compton Pappas, unfired clay, cedar


Balanced, Constance Compton Pappas, cedar, plaster, clay

The objects in the exhibition fall roughly into two categories. Works by artists such as Constance Compton Pappas, Dylan Strzynski, Sandra Cardew and Sharon Harper privilege the expressive properties of the materials and push them to the limits of their identity. Often there is a toy-like mood to this work.  Any pretense to utility is deeply submerged beneath the artists’ emotionally poignant themes. Pappas’s wall-mounted, naturally irregular wooden shelves support clay objects that only refer to vessels, and certainly were never intended to function.  They are signs for cups and the considerable pleasure to be derived from them rests upon their rough, stony texture contrasted with the irregularities of the wooden support. Elsewhere in the gallery, Pappas uses the abstract shapes of 3 cast plaster houses, again placed on a raw wood pedestal in a stack, entitled Balanced, that implies a state of wonky precarity.  Dylan Strzynski’s playful, barn-red house model, Attic, made of wood, sticks and wire, suggests a kind of Baba Yaga cottage on legs, poised to jump off its pedestal in pursuit of the viewer. Sandra Cardew’s Boy with Broom continues the preoccupation with play. The subdued color and rough fabric of the golem-child is both a little funny and a little ominous. Sharon Harper’s Pink Trailer makes an interesting kind of mini-installation by hanging a 2-dimensional photo landscape on the wall behind a diminutive clay trailer, suggesting the possibility of travel through wide open spaces.

Attic, Dylan Strzynski, wood, paint, sticks, wire, string


Sandra Cardew, Boy with Broom, mixed media assemblage

Danielle Bodine’s wall installation, Celestial Dance, offers a floating population of tiny woven wire and paper elements that might claim to be plankton or might be satellites.  Whatever they are, their yellow starlike shapes weightlessly orbit a larger, spiky planetary body, and cast lively shadows on the wall. The basketry techniques that Bodine has employed for nearly 20 years allow her complete freedom to invent these minute entities in three dimensions.

Sharon Harper, Pink Trailer, low fire clay, photograph

The fiber artist Carole Harris, who has several works in the show, continues to be in a class by herself. From her beginnings as a more conventional quilter, Harris has traveled far and wide, taking inspiration from Asia, Africa and beyond. Her carefully composed, expressively dyed and stitched formal abstractions are emotionally resonant and reliably satisfying. The artist employs a mix of fabrics and papers, along with hand-stitching and applique, with the easy virtuosity of long practice.

Danielle Bodine, Celestial Dance, mulberry and recycled papers cast on Malaysian baskets, removed, stitched, painted, stamped, waxed linen coiled objects, plastic tubes, beads,

Carol Harris, Yesterdays, quilted collage

Russ Orlando’s pebbly pastel ceramic urn-on-a-table, Finding #171, is covered by contrasting buttons and frogs wired to the substrate. The vessel evokes a friendly presence: it wants to know and be known.

Two artists in “Many Voices,” Lynn Avadenka and Karen Baldner, are masters in the craft bookmaking/printing, whose work perfectly balances function and form, though to different ends. Baldner’s snaky, wiggly rice paper centipede of a book, Letting Go, shows how exquisite technique can pair with creative expressiveness to yield an original effect. The restrained elegance of Lynne Avadenka’s handmade screen Comes and Goes III demonstrates that utility and esthetic pleasure need not be mutually exclusive.

Karen Baldner, Letting Go, piano hinge binding with horsehair, mixed media print transfers


Lynne Avadenka, Comes and Goes III, unique folding screen, relief printing, letter press, typewriting, book board, Tyvek

Among the objects in this collection, Colin Tury’s handsome, minimalist metal LT Chair hews closest to traditional ideas of craft, as does Cory Robinson’s smoothly crafted side table, which looks as if it belongs in a hip, mid-century bachelor’s lair.

Colin Tury, LT Chair, aluminum, steel


Cory Robinson, Canberra Table, American black walnut

In this time and place, and as illustrated by the artists in “Many Voices,” the categorization of an object as “art” or “craft” has become less and less useful. Historically, crafts based on highly technical knowledge—ceramics, fiber glass and the like –have been assigned a lesser status because of their identity as objects of utility.  It is undeniable too that many of these crafts were practiced by women, which devalued them in the estimation of collectors and galleries. Fortunately, those preconceptions are receding into the past, as artists progress toward a future that is more open to new forms and voices, new materials and subjects.

The artists in “Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft” are: Kathrine Allen Coleman, Lynne Avadenka, Karen Baldner, Danielle Bodine, Sandra Cardew, Candace Compton Pappas, Nathan Grubich, Christine Hagedorn, Sharon Harper, Carole Harris, Amanda St. Hillaire, Sherry Moore, Russ Orlando, Cory Robinson, Dylan Strzynski, Colin Tury.

Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center runs until June 2, 2022.



Asymmetry @ Library Street Collective

Asymmetry, installation at Library Street Collective All images: Library Street Collective

 Asymmetry, a two-person exhibition of work by Robert Moreland and Jacqueline Surdell on view at Library Street Collective until May 4, 2022, continues the gallery’s program of pairing the work of two artists in a provocative dialog.  Zenax, the recent show of Beverly Fishman and California painter Gary Lang could have been described as a more-or-less harmonious conversation; Asymmetry is something more along the lines of a very civil argument.

Untitled Yellow Square, by Robert Moreland, 2022, canvas on wooden panel with acrylic paint, tacks and leather hinges.

The exhibition demonstrates that the tenets of Constructivism–that materials and methods of construction generate the meaning and physical presence of art objects–retain their relevance well into the 21st century.   This philosophical habit of mind underpins the work of both Moreland and Surdell, but as one might expect of a line of aesthetic thought that is over 100 years old, their common starting point has diverged, resulting in endpoints that are quite far from each other in appearance and intent.

Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Robert Moreland dropped out of high school in his sophomore year and later began to teach himself about art by hanging out with friends at the margins of art school, talking to the professors and attending the occasional lecture. He worked with a woodworker for a time, where he learned the craftsmanship that is still a salient feature of his art practice.  Moreland moved to L.A. some years ago and credits the anonymity and openness of the city as a creative catalyst for his recent work.

Moreland prizes the labor of making art as a meditative act, and gravitates to the routine, everyday nature of fabrication.  The artist proceeds with deliberation when creating a piece, a working habit which he credits to his art conservator mother who, he says, showed him how to “slow down and take my time.” The artist uses hundreds of tacks—invisible on the face of the constructs–to secure the cloth on the underlying wooden components. Leather hinges connect the constituent pieces of each artwork. Taken together, these components and physical processes define his highly personal, almost ritualistic art practice.

Untitled Blue Rectangle IV, by Robert Moreland, 2021, canvas on wooden panel with acrylic paint, tacks and leather hinges.


Untitled Blue Rectangle IV, by Robert Moreland, 2021, side installation view.

The artist describes himself as more of a builder than a painter. These paintings or sculptures (Moreland resists referring to them as one or the other) operate as activators of the space around and in front of them. His artworks in Asymmetry, each listed as “Untitled” beside an austere description of their physical shape and color, are painted with stripes or squares of an intense single hue that follows the contours of each piece. The canvas components are stretched over rigid rectilinear –and occasionally columnar–wooden structures, which are then assembled into folded and buckled shapes that call to mind the vintage toy Jacob’s ladder, or perhaps reference industrial shapes like tank treads or conveyor belts. The 5 precisely constructed pieces installed in the gallery look as if they could fold or open or climb down the wall, implying movement event though they are static.

More defined by what they do not offer rather than by what they do, Moreland’s constructions are rigorous and demanding, their expressive content confined within narrow formal boundaries that refuse referentiality, gesture and imagery. In this, he follows in the footsteps of a well-established philosophy of aesthetics practiced by mid-century minimalists like Ellsworth Kelly and Donald Judd, artists Moreland professes to admire.

Not one but not two either (blue), by Jacqueline Surdell, 2022, braided cotton cord, steel, 108” x 51” x 11.” Photo: Library Street Collective.

In emotional temperature and methodological expressiveness, the work of Jacqueline Surdell could hardly offer a stronger contrast to Moreland’s recessive artworks. Exuberant and improvisational, her three free-form tapestries made from thick ropes and lines nearly dance off the wall. They nod to the warp and weft of traditional fiber works, but with these hefty woven pieces, Surdell has achieved a kind of painterly freedom in execution that is both novel and exhilarating. In overall shape she allows some scope to the effect of gravity, with elements of the artworks seeming to sink downward, referencing natural forms like bird nests or insect cases. Clotted knots and twisty braids surround circular portals, while individual cords escape and crawl across the floor.

As a native Chicagoan, Surdell feels related to the environment, history, and blue-collar work ethic of the city, with childhood memories of her grandmother’s plein air landscape painting adding yet another level of complexity. The physical act of creating the works, which weigh an average of 150 pounds, demands considerable physical strength that the artist, a self-described recovering athlete, has in abundance.  She often uses her own body as a shuttle, weaving pounds of rope together as she unifies figure and ground.

Earth Licker, by Jacqueline Surdell, 2022, Braided cotton cord, nylon cord, steel, 120” x 120” x 16.” Photo: Library Street Collective

Not one but not two either (blue-detail)

The palette of Surdell’s work is determined by the native color of commercially available nylon and cotton lines.  The repetitive, almost beaded effect of row upon row of knots in Earth Licker suggests a ceremonial process like the traditional craft of some imaginary future tribe. The woven elements frame and celebrate the implied portal.  In the other two pieces, Not one but not two either (blue) and Not one but not two either (red), triangular imagery points to the open spaces, setting up a bilateral conversation between a circular void and pointing chevron. Her process is open-ended and spontaneous, yet the results seem inevitable.

Fiber art, a medium long devalued because of its association with women’s work, seems–at last–to be coming into prominence as a medium. Here in Detroit, recent shows of woven work by distinguished international textile artist Olga de Amaral at the Cranbrook Art Museum, as well as exhibitions by Detroit artists Carole Harris, Boisali Biswas and Jeanne Bieri, seem to indicate that fiber art has entered a new era of acceptance as a major medium of expression. Surdell’s work is a welcome addition to this burgeoning contemporary art practice.

In this age of pluralism and inclusivity, these contrasting bodies of work by Robert Moreland and Jacqueline Surdell in Asymmetry represent two valid ways of making and thinking about art among many. Moreland’s artworks depend upon an established minimalist esthetic that retains considerable currency in contemporary art, even as Surdell’s tapestries set off for unknown territory. The choice is not either/or, but both/and.

Asymmetry, a two-person exhibition of work by Robert Moreland and Jacqueline Surdell on view at Library Street Collective until May 4, 2022

Susan Goethel Campbell:  Second Nature @ David Klein Gallery

Susan Goethel Campbell, Installation Image, Second Nature, David Klein Gallery, photo by DAR.

“This exhibition is a marker of transitions, not permanence,” says multimedia artist Susan Goethel Campbell. In her solo show Second Nature, on view from March 12 – April 30 at David Klein Gallery in Detroit, the artist continues her collaboration with the environment, creating elegiac artworks that speak of impermanence and transition, loss and rebirth. In this latest, process-driven iteration of her ongoing art practice, she collects fugitive elements of the world around her—blossoms, fallen leaves, the shadowy stains of walnuts–and transforms them into potent meditative objects.

Although a printmaker by training, Campbell’s art practice has expanded over time to include video, installation, and environmental and community-based art. Second Nature builds upon her established art practice but adds an element of spirituality, a creative development in her work that she describes as “a reminder of the bridge between life, death, and reformation.” She has produced two separate but related bodies of work for this exhibition that complement and reinforce each other.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Seasonal No. 4, 2022, walnut stains with hand perforation and hand-sewing on Japanese paper, 108” x 59.” Photo: Samantha Bankle Schefman.

Seasonal Series

In Seasonal, a series of five large new works on paper, Campbell has made shadowy dye from walnuts and arranges the resulting translucent, circular brown blotches in loosely symmetrical compositions on sheets of Japanese rice paper. This repetitive dripping process is followed by folding the sheets onto each other and yields a tapestry-like image that seems both random and intentional. The artist employs the resulting dorsiventral symmetry, found throughout nature in most animals and many plants, to imply an adumbral presence. The artworks also immediately call to mind projective psychological Rorschach tests. Tiny, meticulously placed perforations that punctuate the ad hoc stains give emphasis and a kind of ceremonial dignity to the work. The sheets of paper are sutured together by the artist’s hand, creating the effect of subtle scarring, an implication of remembered pain.  The assembled layers have been mounted several inches away from the wall and cast shadows of the perforations on the wall behind the paper, forming a fugitive second artwork behind the foreground image. The resulting pattern drains away from the random quality of the staining in favor of the purely intentional punched design.

Susan Goethel Cambell, Hibiscus Years No. 3, 2022, archival inkjet print, 19” x 25.” Photo: Tim Thayer.

Hibiscus Years

The simple image of a hibiscus blossom, magnified to many times its original size, is the subject—or a pretext for–the digital photography series Hibiscus Years. The routine nature of the flower as a subject in art conceals the true preoccupation of this work: time, beauty, impermanence, and their relation to each other. Each hibiscus blossom, which lasts for only a day, has been fixed in time through digital photography, and the blooms are layered one on top of the other. The resulting composite images in Hibiscus 1-4 are simple re-iterations of the blossom shape; the layers create densely dark centers that transition at the edges to delicate chiffon-like veils of plum, mauve and buff. The torn edges and slightly faded colors undermine the natural prettiness of the image and give them psychological depth. Campbell adds a sense of linear time in Hibiscus Years No. 5 Scroll, with the symmetrical image repeated in a vertical format that calls to mind a roll of film.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Hibiscus Years No. 5, Scroll, 2022, archival inkjet print on Japanese paper, 92 ¼” x 48.” (scrolled) edition of 3. Photo: Tim Thayer.

Perhaps the most mysterious works in the exhibition, both in process and intent, are Hibiscus Years 6 and 7. The images seem both allusive and elusive while being the most purely abstract images in the series. These circular shapes invite and frustrate perceptions; they are both evocative but indistinct, circumventing an easy reading of the image. They withhold meaning that we reach for but can’t touch.  The flat gray of shadows against the milky whiteness of the paper hint at a transcendent reality just outside our field of vision.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Hibiscus Years No. 6, 2022, altered archival digital print, walnut stains, 38” x 12.” Photo: Tim Thayer.

In Second Nature, Susan Goethel Campbell has created a collection of fragile yet resilient poetic images that express the spirit of this moment, a visible and resonant record of the calamitous years we have just experienced.  It has been a time of the pandemic, climate change, political unrest–and now, war. But rather than suggesting that we dwell upon our losses, the artist has found us some solid ground to stand on. She tentatively proposes a spring of renewal, when death is followed by rebirth, growth proceeds from decay and hope wins over sorrow.

Susan Goethel Campbell – Hibiscus Years No. 7, 2022, altered archival digital print, walnut stains, 31” x 29.” Photo: Tim Thayer.

Installation image. Photo by Samantha Bankle Schefman.

Susan Goethel Campbell:  Second Nature @ David Klein Gallery is on view through April 30, 2022.

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi @ DIA

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800 at the Detroit Institute of the Arts

Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1523-1525, oil on canvas, photo DIA

If you are suffering from the cold gray February doldrums and you’re looking for a short vacation from wintry isolation, the Detroit Institute of Art has a solution for you. “By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800” offers a tightly focused survey of masterpieces by women artists, some famous and others less so, in a warm and inviting setting. The exhibition spotlights compelling stories and transcendent artworks of the anomalous female Italian art stars who managed to make remarkable art—and conduct successful careers–in an age when few women had access to the knowledge and tools to make art at all.

In a series of adjoining galleries, visitors are expertly guided by the organizers from the Detroit Institute of Art and the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art on a three century-long tour of women artists who were significant and highly successful in their time. Some of the most famous surviving examples of their work are on view, as well as some fascinating additions.   The exhibition tells each artist’s surprisingly varied life story:  how each managed to conduct a successful arts career in a cultural environment that did not welcome women.

The Artist’s Sister in the Garb of a Nun by Sofonisba Anguissola, 1551, Oil on canvas, photo DIA.

Sofonisba Anguissola, a singular international talent

The exhibition starts off with a bang. Sofonisba Anguissola’s striking portrait of her sister Elena dressed as a nun hangs in solitary splendor on its own wall at the exhibition’s entrance.  Painted when Anguissola was only 16, this emotionally resonant white on white likeness foreshadows her future prominence as an internationally known portrait painter.

Unlike most of the artists in “By Her Hand,” Anguissola was not the daughter of a professional artist.   Her noble Cremonese father, Amilcore Anguissola, was an enlightened proponent of education for women. He arranged for all six of his daughters, of which Sofonisba was the eldest, to receive instruction in Latin, music and painting. Already a local art celebrity at a young age, she was known for painting a large number of self-portraits which served as calling cards advertising her skills. She was sufficiently celebrated in her twenties to be invited to join the Spanish court of Philip II in Madrid, where she later painted the portrait of Infante Don Fernando in 1573 which is now on view in the gallery. Unfortunately, not many of her paintings survive; most of the artworks from her Spanish residency were lost in a 17th century fire.

Fede Galizia, Orsola Maddelena Caccia, Diana Scultori, Lavinia Fontana enter the family business.

Each of the four artists who share the gallery adjoining the entrance found her own path to success in the cultural environment of her day. As was usual at the time, Fede Galizia, Orsola Maddelena Caccia, Lavinia Fontana and Diana Scultori all gained access to the art world through connection with their artist fathers, but from there their stories widely diverge.

Glass Tazza with Peaches, Jasmine Flowers and Apples by Fede Galizia, 1607, oil on panel, photo DIA

Fede Galizia (1578- c.1630), the daughter of a well-known painter of miniatures, chose to concentrate on portraits and religious scenes, but was particularly admired as a pioneer in the new genre of still life.  The very beautiful, modestly sized Glass Tazza with Peaches, Jasmine Flowers and Apples featured in this exhibit is typical of her work. In it, a centrally positioned bowl of vibrantly colored fruit almost invites the viewer to reach out for a delicious taste.

Vases of Flowers on a Table by Orsola Maddelena Caccia, 1615-25, oil on canvas, photo K.A. Letts

Perhaps the most interesting life story of the four is that of Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596–1676).  Her father Guglielmo Caccia, a Mannerist painter, founded the Ursuline Convent at Moncalvo to shelter his six daughters from the political turbulence of the region. Caccia later became abbess there and encouraged the nuns to make art as a means to support the convent. She herself painted religious scenes as well as spiritually symbolic still life compositions. (Coincidentally three of Caccia’s paintings, which are vanishingly rare outside the region of their production, were recently donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they now are on display in the newly reinstalled European painting galleries.)

Spinario, State 1, by Diana Scultori 1581, engraving on laid paper, photo DIA

The engraver Diana Scultori (1547–1612), learned her craft from her father and used her expertise to promote the fortunes of her architect husband, Francesco da Volterra, during their long and productive professional lives in Rome. Lacking a strong foundation in drawing, and like many other engravers, Scultori often used other artists’ work as the basis for her prints. Most of the drawings for her engravings came from her husband, her father, or an artist with whom she was acquainted. She was well known during her life as a savvy businesswoman who promoted the interests of her family through the acquisition of the Papal Privilege, a kind of license that allowed her to make and market her own work.

Of the four painters in this gallery, Lavinia Fontana, (1552-1614) was probably the most famous during her lifetime. She had the good luck to be born in Bologna, where attitudes toward women in the professions, including art, were unusually enlightened. She was trained by her father Prospero Fontana and had a highly successful career as a portraitist, as well as a painter of mythological and religious subjects. Her meticulously observed and psychologically penetrating Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani shows why the artist was greatly admired by her contemporaries.

Giovanna Garzoni and Elisabetta Sirani

A Hedgehog in a Landscape by Giovanna Garzoni, 1643-1651, bodycolor on vellum, photo DIA

The sensitively rendered still life paintings of Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), are a highlight of this exhibition; they reward the viewer’s attention with a palpable sense of connection to the artist and her world. Garzoni, who never married, was essentially an itinerant painter who created work for wealthy patrons in Venice, Naples, Florence and Rome. The accuracy and intimacy of Garzoni’s gaze is particularly evident in her wonderfully realized Hedgehog in a Landscape. Each quill of the little creature is lovingly depicted; his soft undercoat is in delightful contrast to his pointy claws and twitchy nose and the chestnuts in the foreground look good enough to eat.

Portia Wounding Her Thigh by Elisabetta Sirani,1664, Oil on canvas. Photo DIA

On the opposite wall of the gallery from Garzoni’s artworks, we find the prolific Bolognese painter Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665). Throughout her short but intense career, Sirani painted a wide range of subjects, from portraits to allegories to religious themes.  Not only was she the source of a remarkably abundant body of work, Sirani founded a painting school for aspiring woman artists. Her painting in this exhibition, Portia Wounding Her Thigh, is remarkable for a number of reasons.  In addition to the rarity of the theme, the veiled eroticism of the subject’s exposed thigh and her dreamy facial expression make this composition startlingly complex on a psychological level. To a modern eye, Sirani’s choice of self-cutting as a mark of female agency may seem fraught, but there is no denying that this is a major painting by a woman artist from the Baroque period.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1615–1617, Oil on canvas, photo DIA

The central placement of Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous painting Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, one of the gems in the DIA’s permanent collection, leaves no doubt that she is the star of this show. The subject of the virtuous Judith triumphing over the villainous Holofernes was a favorite of Renaissance and Baroque painters, but Gentileschi (1593-1652/53) tells the story here with remarkable energy and immediacy. The cinematic play of light and shadow across the face and arm of Judith and the powerful dynamism of the two women united in murderous sisterhood makes this painting unique.

In acknowledgment of Gentileschi’s well-deserved status as the quintessential female painter of the Baroque era, the museum has produced an informative and insightful video that puts her in art historical context and provides welcome detail for understanding of Gentileschi’s life and times.

Penitent Magdalene by Caterina de Julianis, 1717, Polychrome wax, painted paper, glass, tempera on paper, and other materials.

The final gallery in the exhibition, which features work by women artists from the eighteenth century, suffers from a puzzling sense of decline in the energy and scale in the work. Or possibly the bravura visual fireworks of the paintings by Elisabetta Sirani, Giovanna Garzoni and Artemisia Gentileschi in the previous gallery are simply a hard act to follow. Of some interest is the lone 3-dimensional piece in the show, Penitent Magdalene by Caterina de Julianis (1670-1743). The diorama, which is part of the DIA’s permanent collection, contains a small female wax figurine in a wooded environment, surrounded by animals and symbolic elements. The exhibition ends as it began, with a single painting, a  restrained self-portrait of the Florentine artist Anna Bacherini Piattoli (1720-1788), currently on loan from the Uffizi.

The virtuosic and often transcendent work that comprises “By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800” will be on view at the DIA until May 29, 2022. This expertly curated and enlightening exhibition tells the story of women artists who were eminent and highly successful in their time but were often rendered posthumously obscure through misattribution of their work to more famous male artists and other forms of art historical neglect. Shows like this are an important corrective to previous critical malpractice.

While the exhibition’s press release lists the Detroit Institute of Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum as the organizers of “By Her Hand,” it would be a shame not to acknowledge the contributions of the co-curators of this expertly researched and beautifully installed show by name: Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, former Head of European Art Department & Elizabeth and Allan Sheldon Curator of European Paintings at the DIA (and now Curator of Italian and Spanish Paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)  and Doctor Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art at the Wadsworth Atheneum.


Zenax @ Library Street Collective

Untitled (high blood pressure, depression, antipsychotic, depression, anxiety) by Beverly Fishman, 2021, urethane on wood panel, 48” x 113” photo: K.A. Letts

Zenax, an exhibit featuring thought-provoking work by two creative voices in dialog, is on view at the Library Street Collective until January 6. Detroit artist Beverly Fishman and California painter Gary Lang have combined the words Zen and Xanax in the exhibit’s title, creating a neologism that deftly names each artist’s thematic intent. The work of both bears a passing resemblance to the self-referential minimalist paintings and constructions of Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland, but Fishman and Lang appropriate and subvert the memes and tropes of 1960’s and 70’s minimalism to achieve their very different–and quite specific–goals.

Beverly Fishman

Fishman’s wall constructions speak the language of manufactured consumer products, of blister packs and digital devices. But most especially they speak the language of pharmaceuticals. As part of her ongoing studio practice, she explores the implications, both good and not-so-good, of pharmacological self-modification in emotion and behavior.

Fishman has researched, online, the seductive shapes, colors, and surface sheen of pills and drug packaging to develop her idiosyncratic visual vocabulary. Using these found shapes as source material, she begins her creative process with collages in a variety of materials and in colors that range from the fleshy pink tints of makeup to paint sample colors from the hardware store. Specialists then fabricate the slightly convex trapezoids, rounded polygons and bisected sections of circles. They are finished with smooth, featureless surfaces in consumerist colors, which are assembled into the final artworks. Fishman links the slickly constructed components based on her intuitive sense of how the shapes and colors interact. Her compositional intention is tore-configure and re-arrange them “until they finally surprise me.”

Untitled (depression, depression, adhd) by Beverly Fishman, 2021, urethane on wood panel, 42´x 43” photo: K.A. Letts

Fishman’s 5-piece wall construction, Untitled (high blood pressure, depression, antipsychotic, depression, anxiety), is the largest of the four pieces she has contributed to Zenax, and showcases her creative strategy. The color palette is an aggressively pleasant combination of pastel and neon hues that are at once both attractive and slightly ominous. The consumer-friendly colors—pinks, aquas and burgundies—are bordered by neon reds, greens and oranges that both unify the composition and militantly guard the boundaries of the constituent shapes.

Perhaps more than most artists, Fishman uses the titles of her wall constructions to guide the viewer toward her underlying theme. She both praises and condemns modern medicine for giving us the dubious capacity to deliver social control on a molecular level–scientific advances with unexpected side effects. Her somber observation:  pharmacology has advanced to the point that drugs can control not only how we behave, but what we are allowed to feel.


Gary Lang

After the chilly perfection of Fishman’s shaped artworks, the three paintings by Gary Lang in Zenax seem almost lyrical. While subtle, the sweep of his brush and its interaction with the surface of the painting is palpable and ever-present. Lang works within the same visual language of geometry and optics as Fishman, but his aim is transcendence. His meditative use of repetition and a highly organized, yet intuitive compositional methodology results in paintings that seem to vibrate with silent energy.

Maverick 2 by Gary Lang, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 53” x 53” photo: K.A. Letts

Lang skillfully wields the optical properties of his colors to manipulate the perception of the space within his paintings. Maverick 2, shows this strategy at work. A black square-framed in white marks the outer boundary of the painting. A thinner black and white frame repeats the outer boundary and seems to invite entrance. Two flat bands of green and orange mark the surface of the inner picture plane, with a gray shadow seeming to raise them slightly off the surface. Lang leads the eye into the fictive space behind the surface with carefully calibrated, concentric veils of translucent yellow-green. Yet another double band of flat color delivers us–finally–to the glowing inner core of the painting.

His painting ROR bears a passing resemblance to the Ojo de Dios, a native American votive object, and provides another clue to the meditative aims of the artist. The repeated black diamonds alternating with flat primary bands and the graded yellow-green layers fading into white light once again beckon the viewer toward a higher state of being.

ROR by Gary Lang, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 91” x 103” photo: K.A. Letts

While the alternating and telescoping colors within the paintings appear calculated, for Lang they are intuitive. In a 2015 interview with Eric Fischl, he describes his method: “I juggle colors and spatial ratios compulsively prior to painting in order to get a mutable footprint, and adjust and articulate my notations spontaneously once [I am] painting.” The result is a body of work that invites comparison to sacred objects and altered states.

The artworks in Zenax share a common formal vocabulary that allows an interesting dialog between two artists who wield similar means toward contrasting ends. Fishman flatly rejects the purely formal; her work is specifically referential and represents a kind of socially engaged abstraction. Lang’s aims are specific as well but refer to the life of the spirit. Consciousness is the subject at hand for both artists though: its nature, its susceptibility to alteration by means pharmacological or spiritual. It’s a conversation worth having.

Zenax @ Library Street Collective install image courtesy LSC.

Zenax @ Library Street Collective through January 6, 2022





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