Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Author: K.A. Letts Page 1 of 4

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Best Times @ David Klein Gallery

Best Times Installation at David Klein Gallery, photo: K.A. Letts

“They were the best of times, they were the worst of times…”     

As Charles Dickens begins his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, he describes a historical period of political and social turbulence that is, in some ways, similar to our own.  To those disposed to pessimism, 2021 might seem like a time to despair, but the artists now showing work in Best Times at David Klein Gallery beg to differ. They celebrate beauty–in the natural world, in art, in everyday objects–while remaining clear-eyed observers of contemporary life and its discontents. Color is the star of the show here; its emotional impact ranges from the giddy pastel polygons of Sylvain Malfroy-Camine to the contemplative gray formalism of Matthew Hawtin, with quite a lot in between.

Late Stage, New Age (red exercise band infinity, sage, Kombucha, green aura) by Cooper Holoweski, 2020, mixed media, 40 x 24.75 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Cooper Holoweski sets the tone for the exhibit with conceptually and procedurally complex works on paper from his Late Stage, New Age series of works on paper.  He seems both enamored by and critical of the technological ecosystem’s marvels. Each piece is a demonstration of complex digital processes such as inkjet printing and laser cutting in dialog with the images of technology that their use makes possible. The cheerful consumerist palette of these mixed media artworks sets up an uneasy resonance with ghostly, truncated human anatomy. Juxtaposed with mundane food and household products, digital devices intrude–a new, added component to daily life that alters the human experience of the self and the environment.

Untitled (January 15) by Lauren Semivan, 2021, archival pigment print, 50 x 40 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Similarly-sized archival pigment prints by Lauren Semivan make an interesting point of comparison to Holoweski’s work. Her lyrical photo collages are composed of humble detritus–fairly anonymous, slightly used paper napkins, net tulle fabric, and the like. Those diaphanous and often translucent elements are bisected with thin lines of color, transforming the shallow fictive space into elegant compositions that fool the eye. The artist describes color in her work as an “emotional descriptor.”  Up close, the marks and scratches on the surface suggest imagined topographies and the physical records of human presence. Step back though, and the picture begins to pulse with the luminosity of a cloudy sky.

Lost City #2 by Susan Goethel Campbell, 2020, two-layered perforated woodblock print on Goyu paper, edition of 5, 23.5 x 31 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Susan Goethel Campbell’s color-saturated and heavily pierced works on paper describe tropical landscapes seen from above.  From a distance their source in aerial photography is evident, but as we draw nearer, the subtle striations of the wood block printing plates she uses to apply color and the tiny pin pricks that admit hues from the layer beneath begin to make the landscape dissolve into a dreamy abstract matrix of lines and shapes. Goethel Campbell’s choice of colors–acid-y greens, deep blues and aquatic turquoise–are evocative of equatorial environments but avoid the picture postcard aesthetic of tourist destinations.  The artist’s title for the series, Lost Cities, obliquely hints at the ephemeral nature of island ecosystems.

Sedition by Matthew Hawtin, 2020, collage on paper, 22 x 22 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

In the middle gallery, Matthew Hawtin’s small, austere collages remain in the world of the handmade, but just barely.  His specialty is the subtle variation of textures and lines within a minimalist esthetic. These intimate artworks force us into closer examination, where we begin to discern the tiny differences in each severely cut rectilinear line and shape. There is something restful about contemplating the warm grays juxtaposed with clear bright reds and yellows.

A Specificity by Ben Pritchard, 2021, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

For gallery visitors who hunger for something a little more visceral than Hawtin’s cerebral formalism, a collection of heavily textured, richly colored abstractions by Ben Pritchard occupies the opposite wall and might be just the thing. These lush, impasto-ed paintings in robust blues, greens, oranges and browns bring to mind the idiosyncratic paintings of the early modernist Arthur Dove. Pritchard is a painter of signs and symbols–cryptic shapes that might be stylized animals or kites or moons, but remain just outside the realm of the known. They are objects of meditation, nonspecifically directing the range of our thoughts and emotions.

Yellow Rose Moon by Mitch Cope, 2021, oil on Masonite panel, 73 x 73 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

From the two loosely painted floral tondos on view, Mitch Cope, who is best known for large-scale installations exploring the Detroit landscape and the objects within it, is taking a little vacation from all that. He seems to be having a great time. The frowsy, slightly retro painted blossoms on Masonite retain a kind of subtle urban surface that suggests found objects and undercuts the prettiness of the subject matter.

Rome by Sylvain Malfroy-Camine, 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 25 x 30.75 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Sylvain Malfroy-Camine’s many-sided paintings perhaps best describe the euphoric mood that pervades Best Times. Fenced within their polygonal pens, multi-colored ovals and swatches have escaped the earth’s gravity and float or explode inside the pictorial space. In addition to his studio practice, Malfroy-Camine is a musician, and the discrete spots of color in each artwork suggest musical notes in a jubilant symphony.

The artists in Best Times aren’t starry-eyed optimists. There are ample references to contemporary unease, from Cooper Holoweski’s cheerily ominous digital devices to Susan Goethal Campbell’s lush depictions of fugitive coastlines. But hope is a choice, and for right now, the joyful ambience of this summer collection seems right.

Best of Times, Group Exhibition, through August 28th, 2021 at the David Klein Gallery

With Eyes Wide Opened @ Cranbrook Museum of Art

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, Sculpture Court and Mixing Chamber, installation, photo: PD Rearick

With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art since 1932 has just opened at the Cranbrook Museum of Art in Bloomfield Hills, to great acclaim and national attention. Covered by the New York Times Magazine with a spiffy video tour and ample media attention both local and national, it’s a hydra-headed beast of a show with many sponsors but no single curator. Objects and images from every period of the Academy’s history compete for space and attention, with no fewer than ten dueling accounts threaded throughout the museum’s seven galleries.

The organizers seem to have had difficulty settling on a single narrative for this exhaustive survey of the Academy’s history–and no wonder. The tapestries, sculptures, paintings, prints, photographs, product prototypes and mass-produced products tell a kaleidoscopic story of the many creative minds whose vision and creativity have emanated from the school over time.

The history of this premier American art institution is told through objects in only piecemeal fashion in the physical exhibit; the accompanying printed volume, a 624-page doorstop of a book, contains a more complete narrative of the school’s history, along with one-page profiles of many (though not all) of the artists and designers represented in the show.

Untitled (Aluchair) by Christopher Schanck (MFA, 3D Design 2011), 2019, aluminum foil, resin Collection Cranbrook Art Museum

At the entrance to the main gallery, visitors can watch American Look. Commissioned in 1958 by Chevrolet, this cold war artifact celebrates many of the post-World War II designed amenities that were newly available to middle class consumers of a certain limited demographic.  Throughout the celebratory video, the “American-ness” of the consumer lifestyle is promoted relentlessly. Even though the uncritical materialism may seem cringe-worthy to a modern viewer, the optimism and can-do mentality expressed in the video amply show why the period beginning in 1950 is often called the American Century. The film provides a good starting point for With Eyes Opened, which takes us on a visual tour not only of the mid-century American esthetic, but also, by implication, through a consideration of how those perceptions and values have grown and changed over time to include contemporary preoccupations with equity, diversity and sustainability.

Model 1601 Stacking Chair by Don Albinson (Cranbrook Academy of Art Sculpture, 1940-1941), 1965, aluminum, nylon, molded plastic. Photo PD Rearick

The video serves as an introduction to one of the more successful elements of the exhibit, which celebrates the modern chair. Designers like Charles and Ray Kaiser Eames and Don Albinson  were uniquely successful at conceptualizing and producing practical, relatively inexpensive and attractive mass production chairs, many instantly recognizable today as fixtures of modern life in home and office.  The chair as a concept unifies this display;  in addition to the mass produced chairs there are a number of hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind examples such as Chris Schank’s Alufoil  Chair and Terence Main’s  Queen Anne, Queen Anne doubled chair. Here, as throughout the exhibit, the organizers have decided to mix the mass-produced and the hand-crafted, without comparing or contrasting the purposes and philosophies involved.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, Sculpture Court, installation. Photo: DAR

The physical and esthetic center of the exhibition, which brings the concept of design and art to a satisfying apotheosis of the handmade and the mass-produced, comes in the Mixing Chamber. There,  the room-sized mural of black and white figures by Cleon Peterson suggests the sensibility of a 21st century Egon Schiele. Tortured, semi-nude bodies surround the wittily conceived bench by Vivian Beer, whose automotive-painted red drape on the slipper shape is at once modern and baroque.

Untitled (Asthma, High Blood Pressure) by Beverly Fishman (Artist-in-Residence, Dept. of Painting 1992-2019) 2018, urethane paint on wood. Photo: PD Rearick

In the adjacent North Gallery, 34 paintings, works on paper and photographs hang floor to ceiling, with abstraction as the ostensible unifying theme. The hanging of contemporary art salon style is a fraught strategy that calls for sensitively selected and carefully coordinated curation and enough space around each piece to allow the work to breathe.  Here the disparate artworks compete visually, like guests at a crowded cocktail party shouting to be heard.  Beverly Fishman’s brightly colored, sharp-edged geometric polygons (almost) hold their own, and McArthur Binion manages to succeed simply by installing a painting, DNA: Study (Lake St. Clair), too large to share the space with other artwork. As worthy as each piece in the gallery may be, a little editing would have been welcome.

Untitled by Rebecca Ripple (Artist-in-Residence, Dept. of Sculpture, 2017-present) 2016, plastic, aluminum brass, photocopy, pencil, hair, champagne foil. Photo: K.A. Letts

In the Sculpture Court, through the Mixing Chamber ‘s other doorway, Nick Cave’s exuberant  SoundSuit (2012) holds the floor, with a recessive companion, Flamer, by Mark Newport, hanging on the adjacent wall.  Duane Hanson’s provocatively banal figure lounges nearby, unimpressed. Other strong work in the sculpture court includes several fiber pieces which seem to have wandered in, perhaps to provide space between the large and diverse 3-dimensional works–not a bad idea as it turns out. The white-on-white tapestry Montana 30, by Colombian artist Olga de Amaral, made up of small squares of white painted canvas relieved with touches of red, is especially welcome here. Sculptures by artists of the past such as Marshall Fredericks and Carl Milles share the space, more or less peacefully, with artworks by younger artists like Tyanna Buie and Kate Clark. Toward the back of the gallery, James Surl’s spiky mobile floats in its own private galaxy, next to a terrific assemblage by Rebecca Ripple that radiates an ad hoc starburst of Miro-esque energy.

Auburndale Site, Detroit MI (#4) by Object Orange, 2006, archival color photograph, 1/25 Cranbrook Museum of Art. Photo: K.A. Letts

In a small side gallery near the elevators, three photographs by the art collective Object Orange deliver a moment of surreal surprise. From 2005-2007, these (anonymous) Cranbrook graduates undertook a conceptual project called Detroit, Demolition, Disneyland which involved painting–in “Tiggerific” Orange– derelict structures in the city as a form of both public performance and protest. The photographs, brilliant orange structures against bleak gray backgrounds, are arresting, unexpected and a bit melancholy.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, Object Islands, installation, Photo: PD Rearick

The Wainger Gallery, last stop on the main floor galleries, features a clever installation of “object islands,” table height circular plinths that subtly guide the viewer through a broad array of fairly small- scale ceramics, metal objects and product design prototypes. Many of the objects in this gallery are one-of-a-kind art objects in a variety of media, often in unusual combinations, such as Iris Eichenberg’s untitled brooch made of porcelain, silver and linen.

With Eyes Opened takes on a lighter tone in the museum’s lower level gallery with The Menagerie, a whimsical collection of figures and objects inspired by the natural world, from Marshall Frederick’s chunky Two Bears to Stephen Malinowski’s photograph Cafeteria, a surreal bison-in-a-dining room.  The playful theme of The Menagerie is echoed nearby with a small collection of toy and playground designs that, while welcome, seem like an afterthought.

In the adjacent hall gallery, prints and posters highlight Cranbrook’s influential graphic design program. Installed next to printed media that feature collage, photomontage and progressive typography, several unique works hint at the endless formal potential of paper as a medium.  Elizabeth Youngblood’s elegant, silvery process drawing is tucked into a corner near Laurence Barker’s more exuberant hand-made paper piece.  Layers from the Disemboweled Series by Winifred Lutz takes the medium into the realm of expressionism.

Yet Untitled by Elizabeth Youngblood (MFA Design, 1975) 2018, paint, mylar. Photo: Glenn Mannisto

And last–but not least–some of Cranbrook Academy’s most recent graduates inhabit the lower level deSalle Gallery with distinction. Many of these young artists currently live and work in Detroit and continue the Academy’s tradition of excellence in both craft and conception. The growing diversity of the school is on display here, pointing to a more inclusive future, now enabled by the recent $30 million gift from Dan and Jennifer Gilbert to support student diversity.  Ricky Weaver’s gray and white photo-apparitions emanate spirituality, across from Ebitenyefa Baralaye’s Portrait II, a comic-sinister stoneware head.  Around the corner, Marianna Olague’s painting El Pleno Dia seems to emit its own light.  The emerging artists in this gallery demonstrate the continuing influence of the Academy’s alumni on the Detroit art scene and beyond.

With Eyes Opened is multi-faceted, rich and a little chaotic, more of a class reunion than a retrospective.  What comes through loud and clear in this exhaustive–and sometimes exhausting–survey, though, is the Academy’s continued vitality and its ongoing relevance to any discussion of the 21st century designed environment. And really, that’s enough.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, deSalle Gallery, installation, Photo: P.D. Rearick.

Eyes Wide Open at Cranbrook Museum of Art through September 19, 2021

Carrie Moyer and Anke Weyer @ David Klein Gallery

Installation image, Carrie Moyer and Anke Weyer, David Klein Gallery image courtesy of Samantha Bankle Schefman.

We live in an age of attention deficit disorder. Recent studies have shown the average amount of time that the art museum visitor looks at an artwork ranges from 15 to thirty seconds, long enough for a selfie to document that we are in the same room, if not in the same headspace. And by perverse incentive, much of what is produced and shown in contemporary art galleries seems calculated to fit within that narrow band of time and attention.

The two contemporary abstract painters, Carrie Moyer and Anke Weyer, now showing their work at David Klein Gallery until June 26, defy our ever-shortening attention span. Their smart, dense, idiosyncratic paintings ask–or require–that we pay attention.

Carrie Moyer

Spider Song, Carrie Moyer, 2018, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 72” x 84” photo courtesy of D.C. Moore Gallery and David Klein Gallery

 In a 2016 interview for Hyperallergic, Carrie Moyer recalls her midwestern childhood: “I was born in Detroit, where my family has longstanding roots. My grandfather was a policeman during the Detroit riots in the 1960s.” Moyer remembers visiting the Detroit institute of Arts with her mother, where she saw Diego Rivera’s murals. After a serious car accident during her first year of college in Bennington, Vermont, she moved to New York where she studied painting at Pratt Institute. After art school, Moyer found work as a freelance graphic artist, and in 1991 used her graphic expertise to create, in partnership with photographer Sue Schaffner, one of the earliest feminist public art projects, Dyke Action Machine! After graduate school at Bard, she turned to abstract painting, though her graphic art experience continued to influence her work.

Conflagration with Bangs, Carrie Moyer, 2015, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 72” x 84” photo courtesy of D.C. Moore Gallery and David Klein Gallery

Moyers’ picture-making incorporates methods employed by earlier abstract artists: the wonky referentiality of Elizabeth Murray, the diaphanous chromatic veils of Helen Frankenthaler, the cosmic frontality of Kenneth Noland. From these disparate–and one might say contradictory–elements, she synthesizes a formal vocabulary appropriate to the internet age. Her paintings refer to methods particular to traditions of abstract expressionism, while addressing the contemporary culture of the internet, the ubiquity of screens and video games.

For Moyer, the conceptual and formal originality in a work of art is its most important quality. Each painting is grounded in art history but adds to it the images and qualities that make us see and think about the world now in new ways. Of her work she says:  ”I like to have illusionistic space and flatness in the same painting. Somehow this goes back to working as a designer in the advent of the desktop computer… I’m not so interested in a virtuosic brush mark, I’m more interested in setting up this relationship between atmospheric color and these hard-edge flat shapes.”

The Green Lantern, Carrie Moyer, 2015, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 72” x 60” photo courtesy of D.C. Moore Gallery and David Klein Gallery

Moyer’s canvases tend to the monumental and suggest mysterious, fugitive spaces between the real and the virtual.  The three large paintings installed now in the gallery invite the viewer to fall into an alien world. Spider Swag nicely illustrates the artist’s strategy, which juxtaposes sharp-edged green and black icons painted with matte Flashe floating on the surface of the picture plane, in front of hazy, translucent washes of acrylic color–and occasional glitter–deeper within the pictorial space. The just-barely-referential eight-legged figure on the right skitters up the side of the painting, defying the implied gravity of the magenta-skied world.

The light comic edge of Spider Swag is characteristic of Conflagration with Bangs as well. A curvy red shape undulates behind a chartreuse proscenium–if a painting can dance, that’s what this one does. And in The Green Lantern, Moyer once again sets up a portal through which we can see a mysterious, incandescent figure.

In a 2016 Interview, Moyer describes the improvisational nature of her creative process:

 I feel like if I am too formulaic about it, then I lose interest. If I can imagine the painting before I paint it, it’s not going to be an interesting painting. I need to figure it out as I am making it and be surprised by it. It would become too illustrative to me, because I am making these material discoveries every time I am making a painting. Things I didn’t know the paint can do. That requires having a lot of room for surprises and moments where I am not sure what is going to happen.

 

Anke Weyer

Still I’m Blue, Anke Weyer, 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 58.5” x 74.25” photo courtesy of Canada New York and David Klein Gallery

Although Anke Weyer makes use of some of the same art historical antecedents and improvisational techniques as Carrie Moyer, her paintings project a distinctly different mood–energetic, inventive, a little angsty.  The New York-based, German painter has describedpainting as a form of “constant crisis management.” In a recent interview she adds “I can’t stand it when a painting looks as if it’s just a pastime. It is serious work and comes loaded with so much history and responsibility, which is what makes it so interesting.”

She considers her paintings to be a record of the creative process within the artwork:  an intuitive series of marks and shapes that describe the visual and emotional content of her conversation with the painting.  Each artwork is the record of a dialog that the painter engages with on the canvas. It is an inherently hermetic process. “Of course I cannot explain all my choices; most of them are made while painting, and there is no explanation for them other than the painting itself.”

Invocation, Anke Weyer, 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 81.5” x 60.25” photo courtesy of Canada New York and David Klein Gallery

Her painting Still I’m Blue, illustrates some of the hallmarks of her art practice.  The substance of the paint applied to the canvas leaves little room for illusionistic space.  Exuberant strokes and shapes in vibrant colors circle the canvas in a vortex of chromatic energy. Weyer acts upon the painting as if it is a body upon which she adds layer upon layer of mark and gesture. In Invocation, the painter’s brush moves restlessly around the perimeter of the canvas leaving dark blue dots; an ominous, snaky red line slithers up the right side of the painting and the anxious yellow center is punctuated by restless white streaks. Each of Weyer’s paintings documents her perilous creative travels. She is a painterly Icarus occupying the risky space between falling and flying.

While Weyer does not claim to be continuing the tradition of Abstract Expressionism, she is cognizant of the historical underpinnings of her work.  She describes her art-making practice as one of constant, highly instinctive editing, a slow process requiring time and contemplation.  Like personal notes, all thoughts or traces of thoughts are allowed to play out on the canvas.

What is fascinating about both these painters, and what gives them a kind of constantly regenerative liveliness is the reflective mental consideration they require from the viewer. We must parse, meditate–marvel–at the infinite number of decisions they continuously make on the road to a finished work. We want, and get, from these painters a kind of freshness built upon the foundations of modern art history, but speaking specifically and genuinely to our moment.

Carrie Moyer and Anke Weyer,  artists work at David Klein Gallery until June 26, 2021

 

Dual Vision @ MOCAD

Install image, Dual Vision, MOCAD, 202, All images courtesy of K.A. Letts

It’s March 2021, and we’re beginning to sense the coming of spring and an end to our seemingly endless COVID winter.  If crowded bars and restaurants are still out of the question, we can at least look forward to pants with waistbands and the occasional coffee at Starbucks.  The curators of Dual Vision at MOCAD appear to be sensing it too. Curator Jova Lynne, assisted by Maceo Keeling and advised by Kathryn Brackett Luchs, Ed Fraga and Robert Sestok, have assembled 40 Detroit artists, working in pairs, to showcase the personal interactions we have all been missing.  Some of Detroit’s best known and most accomplished creatives–along with a few newcomers– are celebrating at least the prospect of a return to normal.

Betty Brownlee + Cristin Richard, A Critique of Jean-Luc Goddard, 2021, mixed media detail.

Dual Vision, on view at MOCAD until August 8, 2021, is an all-of-the-above kind of exhibition that allows plenty of scope for artists working in a variety of media–video, painting, sculpture, sound, photography, fiber, printmaking. In the spirit of re-connecting, I met my friend and fellow arts writer Mariwyn Curtin at the gallery. Our visit provided us with an opportunity to practice the cultural interaction that will soon be part of our lives again. We hope.

Mariwyn and I noticed immediately the preponderance of installation among the entries.   This makes sense; the installation form allows maximum individual expression for each artist, while demonstrating–as if we didn’t know it already–that a collaborative artwork can be more than the sum of its parts.

Tony Rave + Tylonn J. Sawyer, Family Matter Episode 3 x Black and Blue: Field Notes, 2021, mixed media installation detail

A number of ofrenda-adjacent collections of objects and images included strong spiritual themes, while others featured ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy.   Tony Rave and Tylonn J. Sawyer’s installation, Family Matter Episode 3 x Black & Blue: Field Notes managed to combine both elements.  The altar-like installation presented a profusion of Rave’s saccharine white, ready-made ceramic figurines, mostly devotional in nature, their faces obscured by painted-on blackface.  They seemed–to me–to illustrate the artist’s bleak observation that Blackness is itself a social construct perpetrated by White culture. The theme was amplified by Sawyer’s companion pieces, family portrait-sized composite pictures of the 4 officers implicated in the death of George Floyd that provided a bitter corollary comment on the provisional nature of racial identity.

Rashaun Rucker + Mario Moore, Big Ma’s Porch (A Black Sanctuary) 2021, mixed media installation

Some much-needed psychological relief from the rawness of the Rave/Sawyer installation was provided by the nearby collaboration of Mario Moore and Rashaun Rucker. Big Ma’s Porch (A Black Sanctuary) conjures the artist’s wistful childhood recollections of his great grandparents’ front porch, a place of love and safety and tall tales, the mood of warm memory reinforced by Moore’s lovely silverpoint drawing.

My gallery companion brought her own distinctive sensibility to Dual Vision; Mariwyn responded to a couple of collaborations that I perhaps lacked the background to appreciate.  She particularly enjoyed A Critique of Jean-Luc Goddard by Betty Brownlee and Cristin Richard. She observed, “The skin-like translucent paper banners with French words on them was intriguing. Getting to the wall of images behind the banners was a little like passing through a section of forest with tall white trees. When I saw the wall of paintings, I thought immediately of Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills series. Once I made it through to read the label on the wall, it was rewarding to realize that [the collaboration] did indeed feature painted stills from films by Goddard.”

Mariwyn Curtin standing next to In Front of My Backyard by Julia Callis + Josh Kochis, 2021, acrylic, graphite, string on panel, mixed media installation.

The collection of smallish paintings by Nancy Mitchnick and John Corbin on the subject of the periodic table seemed a bit scattershot to me, but Mariwyn found something to like in the looseness of their improvisatory approach. She commented, “I thought it was interesting that the collaboration … was called Untitled when there is such a heavily researched background to the work…The treatment of each element captures the wave state of atoms more so than the Bohr diagrams seen in chemistry textbooks that look like mini solar systems. Each painting or cardboard mosaic seemed like a portrait of the doorway between particle and wave state.”

In the center of the gallery, images in Tyanna Buie and Chelsea A. Flowers’s video collage Call and Response prompted a visceral reaction. Adjacent television monitors engage in cacophonous conversation with each other and deftly capture the drinking-from-a-firehose quality of current events.  The fragmented clips, in which Buie and Flowers use off-the-shelf photographic apps to superimpose their faces onto pop culture and political figures to pointed comic effect, illustrate the extent to which our experience of events is colored by our racial identity in these polarized times.

Gisela McDaniel + Martha Mysko, Self Portraits In: Self portraiture in surrounding, in landscape, in DNA, in objects, in material, in eyes, in stories, in images, in the present, in the past, in plastic, in the familiar, 2021, Mixed media installation

Gisela McDaniel and Martha Mysko‘s mixed media installation wins the prize for best title:  Self Portraits In: Self portraiture in surrounding, in landscape, in DNA, in objects, in material, in eyes, in stories, in images, in the present, in the past, in plastic, in the familiar. This maximalist collection of fuschia and turquoise figurative and abstract paintings next to a bedraggled palm tree, near a pina colada perched  on a wrecked car hood, manages to suggest both a tropical getaway and a post-apocalyptic scene of environmental destruction.  I felt a wave of nostalgia for the beach vacation none of us took this year, along with a distinct urge to get my towel and lie down on the radioactive sand.

Robert Sestok + Kurt Novak, Forgotten Networks, 2020, Welded steel

In the center of the gallery, Robert Sestok and Kurt Novak contributed visual ballast to Dual Vision with their terrific steel assemblage Forgotten Networks. The monumental sculpture, which combines Novak’s humorous accessibility with Sestok’s formal elegance, provides a strong focal point for the exhibit around which the other artists’ work seems to revolve.

Michael Luchs, Moth (Jade), 2020, Woodcut, collagraph, sumi ink on glassine paper on canvas

Kathryn Brackett Luchs, Moth (Pink), 2020-21, Woodcut, sumi ink, on glassine paper on canva

Both Mariwyn and I enjoyed In Front of my Back Yard by Julia Callis and Josh Kochis, though her observations were better articulated than mine. She: “The installation of the distressed wood fence really gave the sense of peeking into a window from the outside yard and made me feel a bit like a voyeur.” Me: “Wow. I love those flat sea green, black and silvery gray colors.” The hues and textures of the wooden and found objects in Callis and Kochis’s environment accord well with the handsome pair of matching kimono-like wall hangings by Kathryn Brackett Luchs and Michael Luchs, installed on an adjacent gallery wall. The tissue-like glassine paper and the jittery marks of the sumi ink of Moth (Jade) and Moth (Pink) bring to mind the silence of moths’ wings as they pursue their life cycle through day and night and space and time.

My visit to Dual Vision with Mariwyn reminded me of how much I’ve missed social interaction and good conversation about art during the pandemic. There was a lot to look at and respond to–more than anyone could see and comment on in only one visit.  Other viewers will respond to some of the work that we haven’t mentioned, and I suppose that on another trip to MOCAD my friend and I might see things we missed on our first pass. Dual Vision has presented us with an invitation to celebrate our resilient and diverse Detroit art community, to reconnect, re-engage and restart our cultural conversation. I suggest you schedule a visit to form your own opinion.  Bring a friend.

Dual Vision Participating Artists:

Robert Sestok & Kurt Novak, Jim Chatelain & Steve Foust, Kathryn Brackett Luchs & Michael Luchs, Joyce Brienza & Deborah Sukenic, Simone DeSousa & Tim Van Laar, Nancy Mitchnick & John Corbin, Carlo Vitale & Ed Fraga, Nicole Macdonald & Carl Wilson, Betty Brownlee & Cristin Richard,  John Egner & Amelia Currier,  Gisela McDaniel & Martha Mysko, Tony Rave & Tylonn Sawyer, Rashaun Rucker & Mario Moore, Tyanna Buie & Cheris Morris,  Nour Ballout & Cyrah Dardas, Bree Gant & Cherise Morris, Sabrina Nelson & Levon Kafafian, Sterling Toles & Nate Mullen, Adam Lee Miller & Nicola Nuperus.

MOCAD Dual Vision through August 8, 2021

Story Word Sound Sway @ Stamps Gallery

Wes Taylor (BFA ’04), Ann Arbor Undercommons, 2020, Installation detail. Lead Archivist Jamall Bufford with assistance from Athletic Mic League. Photo: Nick Beardslee

The MFA’s and BFA’s produced each year by the nation’s academic art programs far exceed the ability of the art establishment–fine art galleries, museums, collectors and the like–to absorb them. What happens to all those aspiring and hopeful young creatives upon graduation?  How do contemporary artists pay rent and continue to work in a world that doesn’t reliably support them financially?  The exhibit Story Word Sound Sway, at the Stamps Gallery from now until February 28, provides a provocative answer of sorts.

Their creative paths as artists are as varied as the individuals–all graduates of the Penny Stamps School of Art and Design–now showing their work in the gallery. Contributions range from highly personal performance-based videos to political activism to graphics to object/image making. Many of the artworks in the gallery represent ongoing projects intended to engage multiple audiences at varying levels of sophistication and in diverse settings, all the while answering in real time the question of how contemporary artists continue to exist and even thrive.

The show, co-curated by Jennifer Junkermeier-Khan and Moteniola Ogundipe, allocates an outsize role to performance-related materials. I counted nearly a dozen time-based artworks, which collectively run to more than 90 minutes, throughout the show. This abundance of content made it challenging–okay, impossible–to experience all of them during the limited time of 25 minutes it was recommended that viewers be in the gallery during the pandemic. (To be fair, some–though not all–of the videos can be viewed online )

One of the most viscerally compelling entries in Story Word Sound Sway is Survivors Among Us, by Elshafei Dafalla (MFA ’08), an ongoing sound installation. It’s a disturbingly evocative description of physical and psychological torture that succeeds by moving the audience one step back from the experience. The first-person, anonymized interviews are both matter-of fact and chilling; the subjects baldly recount their experience without histrionics. They are unnamed, the locales also unknown.  What remains is the sense that capricious yet systematic, politically motivated cruelty can occur anywhere, to anyone.   It seems almost obscene to describe the formal qualities of the piece given the horrific nature of the subject.  Appropriately, Survivors Among Us can be experienced only in the gallery and is not available for online listening.

Elizabeth Youngblood (BFA ’73), Cone + Chartreuse, 2020, graphite on paper, 20” x 22” photo: K.A. Letts

In the case of Elizabeth Youngblood (BFA ‘73), the process of art-making takes on the character of ritual, a theme that runs just under the surface in the work of several artists in Story Word Sound Sway. Youngblood employs humble materials–aluminum paint from the hardware store, simple pen and paper, in her incremental journey toward transcendence.  Through her use of chance processes and repetition, the artist weaves a statement that is both private and universal.

Yvette Rock, Community Conversations, Kahtara and Dwan, 2016-2020, mixed media fiber, 18” x 12” x 2.5” Photo: Nick Beardslee.

Yvette (MFA ’99) Rock’s re-patched fiber pieces are visual metaphors for the spiritual process of healing–her carefully constructed fabric bands in Community Conversations illustrate the laborious one-on-one process of piecing back together the torn social fabric of Detroit.  In addition, Rock contributes a video of an accompanying performance set in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit demonstrating her ongoing commitment to the restoration of her community.

Two videos, What the Tide Brought In by Carisa Bledsoe (BFA Interarts ’14) and Sift Shift Swoosh Bods by Levester Williams (BFA ‘13) continue the inward-directed spiritual strands of Story Word Sound Sway in narrative form. Both are hermetic performances that cast the spectator as bemused observer of  enigmatic private mysteries.

Perhaps the most clearly community-facing work in Story Word Sound Sway is Schroeder (BFA ‘76) Cherry’s installation employing rod puppets the artist uses to reach out to a broad audience with public service messages both humorous and colloquial. His puppets have performed in museums, libraries, and cultural centers for adults and children across the U.S. in productions such as The Civil Rights Children’s CrusadeCan You Spell Harlem?, and Underground Railroad, Not A Subway. The main character in this particular installation is Khordell, whose casual instructions to and from his fellow puppets include reminders to wear a mask, to not drink disinfectant and to register to vote–all good advice.

Schroeder Cherry, Dallas Dan, 1992, digital print, 11” x 17” photo: Schroeder Cherry

A room-sized display of ephemera from the Ann Arbor Undercommons, collected by Wes Taylor (BFA ’04), provides extensive documentation of a performance-based collective of Ann Arbor students of color from Huron High School. Dated from 1993 to the present, the materials record the underground hip-hop scene in Ann Arbor, particularly the ongoing activities of the Athletic Mic League. The artists hope that this exhibition will serve as a catalyst to get the process started toward a final documentary product that remains to be defined.

Other event-related installations, like The Collab by Caleb Moss (BFA ’13) speak specifically to the artist’s ongoing involvement in his Detroit community. As community activist and graphic designer, Moss’s entries consist of video documenting community cultural events intended to raise funds for scholarships, and a display of way-finding graphics for The Detroit Department of Transportation. Moss explains,  “My work with The Collab has allowed my friends and me to give back to Detroit Public School students while utilizing our varying skills. “The Connection” (our staple event) is a night of art, music, and fellowship that highlights the many talents of local Detroit artists.” The diversity of his work illustrates the multiple routes by which art–and artists–can find a way into the cultural ecosystem of a city.

Caleb Moss, The Collab, 2020, Installation detail, poster. Photo: K.A. Letts

The curators describe Story Word Sound Sway as “research-driven and collaborative… a document and documentation… an analysis, a celebration, a critique.” Co-Curator Jennifer Junkmeier-Khan goes on, “The artists tell stories, use words, create and transmit sounds; physically sway in their work and sway “us” with their ideas.”   In the process they have also illustrated a more private and often unseen struggle by artists to contribute to their environment while managing to live a creative life in the arts. They are part of a cultural community that, like dark matter, is invisible but essential.

Artists in Story Word Sound Sway: Carisa Bledsoe (BFA Interarts ’14), Schroeder Cherry (BFA ’76), Elshafei Dafalla (MFA ’08), Masimba Hwati (MFA ’19), Caleb Moss (BFA ’13), Senghor Reid (BFA ’99), Valencia Robin (MFA ’08), Yvette Rock (MFA ’99), Wes Taylor (BFA ’04), Levester Williams (BFA ’13), and Elizabeth Youngblood (BFA ’73)

Penny Stamps Gallery is open during limited hours to holders of the MCard. For more information go here.

This review is re-printed with permission from the Ann Arbor District Library’s online culture magazine Pulp. (Editor: Christopher Porter)

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