Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Author: K.A. Letts Page 1 of 7

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Nostalgia & Outrage @ OUAG

Mary Fortuna and Adrian Hatfield @ Oakland University Art Gallery January 19-March 24, 2024

Nostalgia and Outrage, Installation, Oakland University Art Gallery. All photos by K.A. Letts.

Nostalgia and Outrage, an exhibition of artworks by fiber artist Mary Fortuna and multi-media collagist Adrian Hatfield, opened on January 19 at Oakland University Art Gallery in spite of Michigan’s typically lousy winter weather.  The paintings, textiles, toys, mobiles and dioramas on display address death, mass extinction, disaster (both personal and societal) and general apocalypse–doomsday themes that might seem gratuitously gloomy for this dark time of year. But instead, this lively–even cheerful—exhibition reminded me of the well-known aphorism: “The situation is hopeless but not serious.”

Mary Fortuna, Protection Flag, 2023, linen, cotton applique, embroidery.

Fortuna and Hatfield approach their art in ways that simultaneously diverge from and resonate with each other.  In the slim but informative catalog that accompanies the show, gallery director Dick Goody teases out insights from the artists on their motives and methods. “We both have a sense of humor and we’re both anxious or pissed off about the state of the world. We share environmental concerns,” says Fortuna. Hatfield adds that the two also use storytelling or narrative as a hook and often reference archetypal characters in their work. In the interview, Hatfield and Fortuna trace recurring themes in their art to childhood experiences. Echoes of each artist’s early obsessions linger in their current art practice and lend an air of playfulness to many of the artworks.

Adrian Hatfield, Teamwork makes the dream work, 2022, oil and acrylic on canvas.

Mary Fortuna

Fortuna remembers that as a child she expected to become “a nun, a cook or a nurse.” She grew up mostly in the company of her older sister Mady and describes this pivotal relationship as one based on creativity and invention. “We spent hours together drawing, making up stories, sharing books, dressing up, making dolls and puppets and paper dolls and comic books. We wrote little plays and made up songs,” she says.

Mary Fortuna, Button Skull Mask, 2021, wool felt, buttons, embroidery.

Fortuna’s medium of choice is fiber and she is adept at manipulating the formal properties of fabric, beads and thread to produce a variety of appealing objects and images. She uses the submerged cultural references of stitched objects—toys, flags, masks–with the fluid ease of long practice to reveal hidden meaning. The emotional resonances of her carefully embroidered vintage linens, the creepy effect of her masks and hoods and the humor  of her idiosyncratic insect dolls and baby devils show her to be not only a master of her medium,  but also a virtuosic and subtle storyteller.

Mary Fortuna, Let it Be, 2018, embroidery on vintage textile.

These talents come together with particular force in Fortuna’s heartfelt grouping of embroidered vintage textiles that memorialize her recently deceased brother and sister. The artist remembers her brother Jon as a protector, an inventive playmate and a companion on innumerable camping trips; she has embroidered the two of them on vintage cloth with a tent in the background, together in memory.  Fortuna commemorates the special bond she shared with her sister Mady in an embroidered image of the two children from a photo taken on the occasion of Fortuna’s First Communion. As is typical of much of her work, he identifies these images as ex votos, calling them “offerings to the universe on Mady’s behalf.”

Mary Fortuna, Nageena, 2015, leather, fur, horsehair

The varied objects produced by Fortuna for this show are so uniformly well-conceived and executed that it would be hard to pick a favorite. But I was particularly drawn to Nageena,  a soft sculpture that combines the charm of a doll that a child might play with and the subversive menace of a voodoo fetish. Typical of much of her work, Nageena combines cozy approachability with a slightly sinister subtext.

Adrian Hatfield

Hatfield, whose parents were scientists, remembers his rather specific childhood ambition to become “a vertebrate paleontologist or marine biologist.” Many of the images he incorporates into his paintings and installations come from early memories of comic book characters juxtaposed with figures from historical art sources.

Adrian Hatfield, Manifest Destiny: there ain’t no party like a Donner Party, 2020, oil and acrylic on canvas.

The scenes he creates are more assembled than painted, with elements of art history, vintage illustration and pop culture reproduced using photographic silkscreens and overlaid on large format canvases. Nineteenth-century Romantic landscape painting is referenced in the compositions by skillfully painted clouds, trees, and mountains rendered in acid pastels not found in nature.

Adrian Hatfield, Plotting happiness and flinging empty bottles, 2023, oil and acrylic on canvas.

Hatfield seems to have a particular fondness for the absurdist icon Alfred E. Neuman of Mad Magazine fame, whose face appears in several of the paintings in the exhibition. (Actually an earlier iteration of the famous nitwit which more closely resembles Hatfield’s version appeared in an 1895 ad for Atmore’s Mince Meat and Genuine English Plum Pudding. But I digress.) His gap-tooth visage sets a tone of absurdist catastrophe, undercutting and perhaps trivializing the ostensibly tragic themes. Disasters of all kinds and descriptions figure in the pictures, from the Donner Party to snakes attacking a man stuck in a barrel. The oversized face looking out idiotically from behind the picture plane seems to imply that the human race deserves its sad and silly fate.

Adrian Hatfield, King of the Impossible, 2011, mixed media

On a more serious note, Hatfield references the Swamp Thing in his painting Plotting happiness and flinging empty bottles. The Swamp Thing was a comic book character that the artist remembers from his childhood, a scientist devastated by exposure to toxins that transform him into a creature composed of plant matter, who then becomes a tragic and heroic protector of the environment. Hatfield’s characteristic pastel underpainting is overlaid with black photographic depictions of a sinking ship and tire-filled toxic sludge from which the Swamp Thing emerges. The speech balloon in the upper center of the canvas remains empty. Could it be that in the face of disaster threatening human existence, we have no coherent response?

In a change of pace, Hatfield has created several dioramas in addition to his paintings. A notable example is his wall-mounted King of the Impossible which features a tiny half-figure—who might be the Invisible Man–on an elaborate decorative plinth overlooking a fantasy landscape, complete with a stegosaurus at one end of the scene and a tiny lambkin by a pool at the other. The rocky scene seems to float in mid-air, and the relationship of the figure above to the goings-on below is unclear, at least to me. Still, the whole thing is pretty entertaining.

The comic satire of Hatfield’s paintings moves us to both laughter and chagrin, while the emotional complexities of Mary Fortuna’s fabric creations gently and humorously remind us of our human connection. It’s clear that both artists have thought long and hard about where the human race has been and where it’s headed, and have come away with some serious reservations. But they also intuitively understand that it’s not the job of the artist to despair.  Nostalgia and Outrage, instead, offers us hope against all odds, a feast for the eyes and food for thought in this wintry season.

Mary Fortuna and Adrian Hatfield @ Oakland University Art Gallery until March 24, 2024.

Larry Zdeb @ Color / Ink Studio

Larry Zdeb: Dream Journals – Mixed Media Assemblages at the Color|Ink Studio

“Dream Journals,” a solo show of mixed media assemblages by Troy artist Larry Zdeb, installation and reception at Color|Ink Studio, Dec. 10, 2023.

Larry Zdeb is a connoisseur of other people’s memories and a gifted poet of the found object.  He collects anonymous vintage photographs, broken bits of machinery and unidentifiable detritus, fashioning them into cryptic but emotionally resonant assemblages that puzzle and intrigue. Culled from rich troves of innumerable estate sales, musty basements and obscure garages in Detroit and environs over the last 20 years, 40 of his three-dimensional constructs, entitled “Dream Journals,” will populate the walls of Color|Ink Studio in Hazel Park until December 20, 2023.

Assemblage, the 3-d cousin of 2-d collage, has been a dominant genre in artists’ practice since the early 20th century. The constructivists, followed by cubists and surrealists–and thousands of artists from then to now–have found the idiosyncratic combination of industrially produced images and objects, handmade tchotchkes and cryptic images into compelling artworks an ideal mode for expressing the dislocations and absurdities of modern life.   Picasso and Braque, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Dubuffet, and Robert Rauschenberg have all had their say, but Zdeb finds he is most influenced by the surrealist boxes of Joseph Cornell as well as the work of a lesser-known near-contemporary Janice Lowry (1946-2009).

Elsinore, Larry Zdeb, 2015, wood box with photograph in a steel frame, automotive identification number, adding machine button and copper tube.

Zdeb was born in Highland Park, Michigan, and discovered his vocation for art as a draftee during the Vietnam War era. He was trained and served as an Air Force cartographer, and upon his discharge studied art at Oakland Community College. He began creating his signature assemblages in 2003 and has since participated in over a hundred exhibitions from California to New York City.

The artworks in “Dream Journals” are drawn from unlovely constituent parts, often technical or industrial in nature—a funnel, a cloudy lens, obscure bits of obsolete technical equipment. He traffics only in the broken and discarded, never breaking an intact object, always intent upon reclaiming the discarded.  His color palette runs to shades of gray, olive drab and khaki reminiscent of his military experience.  These aggregations of neglected and lost mementos, while carefully crafted, maintain an air of the contingent. They are formally simple but emotionally complex, nostalgic but unsentimental.

Harris, Larry Zdeb, 2012, 8” x 9″ wood drawer, photograph under engineering acetate, clock spring, brass stencil, fasteners & telescope part.

His assemblage Harris illustrates Zdeb at his most enigmatic. A photo of a formally dressed young man is mounted inside a small wooden box. He gazes out at the viewer seriously, but his expression is obscured by the shadow of a sheet metal label placed above, and a thin curl of steel in front of his face emphasizes his anonymity.  Outside the box, an attached, cloudy lens implies that perhaps some memories can’t be retrieved.

Wednesday, Larry Zdeb, 2010, 14” x 24″ wood frame, 1943 license plate tab, cardboard box with the pictures, newspaper engraver mat, painted tin, feed sack, wire, adding machine part, sand toy, steel part with switch for battery-powered illumination.

In the work Wednesday, the image of a comely young woman in an improbable pose raises more questions than it answers. Next to her, a headline promises: “Spectacle Opens at Auditorium Tonight.” Is she the spectacle? Once again, shadow plays an important part in the composition, the ultramarine funnel casting a heart-shaped penumbra on the forms below. The specificity of the day and date underline–but don’t explain–the mystery of the artwork’s meaning.

Les Preludes, Larry Zdeb, 2023, 12” x 19″ wood, violin part with license plate number, brass mesh, fasteners, hinge, photograph under painted orange plastic, leather glove cut fingers, player piano part with wires, changeable alarm clock numbers, newspaper engraver mat, paper & cloth.

Zdeb offers a small collection of performance-related imagery in Les Preludes: a photograph of a dancer–her prettiness marred by a grubby translucent orange overlay–part of a violin, embossed advertisements, numbers (seat numbers?) The constituent parts are arranged in a row like a sentence or a line from a poem.  In one of his more recent assemblages, the artist breaks out of his usual preferred box format into a line of connected images.

Parasol, 2022, Larry Zdeb, 12” x 18”, painted toy parasol, architectural wood parts, piano part with cloth, antique photograph, wood, copper, buttons, adding machine button.

Parasol, similarly, offers a kind of triptych: a modified cross on the left connects to the center image of a young woman in a hat, surrounded by an elaborate, improvised wooden frame and followed on the right by an open canvas sunshade. The rough textures and faded, abraded colors of the combined elements undermine their intrinsic sweetness.

Zdeb’s artworks might all be said to be about memory and its elusive nature. He returns again and again to photographic images of unidentified subjects, often in costume or in uniform, as if they are reaching out from the past to present themselves to a modern audience. His components form implied narratives that hint at, but then withhold their meanings.

The Clown, Larry Zdeb, 2022, 13” x 14, wood box with steel chambers, each chamber has rolled engineering acetate pieces with rolling wood balls inside, player piano parts with wires, cast iron vent and photograph under refrigerator door plastic.

Each composition in “Dream Journals” is its own conundrum. Zeb is careful not to reveal too much—that would be telling. Instead, his basketball players and ballerinas, his musicians and mannequins, suggest half-remembered visions and barely recalled reminiscences of past friends, past events, and past lives.   These imperfectly recalled scenarios illuminate a larger theme—that no matter how hard we try to retain our memories, they are constantly in the process of slipping away.

Dream Journals: Mixed Media Assemblages by Larry Zdeb at the Color|Ink Studio through December 20, 2023.

 

Ruth E. Carter @ The Wright

Ruth E. Carter Costume Design at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, Michigan.

“Roots” (2016) Miniseries directed by Bruce Beresford, Thomas Carter, Phillip Noyce, and Mario Van Peebles, installation with costumes by Ruth E. Carter for Nancy (Anna Paquin) and Charlotte (Joy Jacobson). All Photos:  K.A. Letts

When we go to the movies, we are often only dimly conscious that each film is a complex work of collaboration, with thousands of anonymous artists and craftsmen working together to realize the vision of a singular director at the top of the credits. But Ruth E. Carter, the creative mind and eye behind the costumes in over 70 films by a who’s who of talented filmmakers, stands out as a uniquely talented contributor to this most collaborative art form.   The current retrospective of her work, with costumes and props from her 40-year career, “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design,” is now on view at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History until March 31, 2024.  It’s well worth a visit and the (rather steep) price of admission to appreciate, in person, these exquisitely realized artifacts of Carter’s long career.

Carter has been the go-to designer for a distinguished collection of directors—Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler, among others—who depend upon her meticulous research and masterful craftsmanship to give visual heft and historical authenticity to the stories they tell.  The exhibition takes us on a tour of the artist’s work from her comic designs for the 1988 send-up of blaxploitation films “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka” to the historical authenticity of the 2016 re-make of “Roots” to her most recent Afrofuturist costume inventions for “Black Panther” (2018) and “Wakanda Forever” (2022.) A two-time Oscar winner, Carter doesn’t merely dress her actors—she illuminates the characters and the story through her attention to detail and careful research, a process she describes as “reading about a time period, speaking to historians, studying the way the mind thought and body moved, and learning about innovative or ancient design techniques that can enhance the costume.”

“Malcolm X,” (1992) Directed by Spike Lee, installation with zoot suits for Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) and Shorty ((Spike Lee) designed by Ruth E. Carter.

The costumes in this exhibition often tell stories based on important events in Black American history such as “Malcolm X,” “Selma,” and  “Amistad.”  But her work on more fictional plots like “Coming 2 America,” “Dolemite is my Name” and even the Black Panther movies, deliver an equal sense of authenticity thanks to her extensive research into American fashion history and ethnographic studies from African sources.

Particularly impressive are some of the modern costumes designed by Carter for “Malcolm X.” The 2 zoot suits on display, with their exaggerated silhouettes and outrageous color palettes,  though extreme even on their own terms, are remarkably well-realized and convincing. The trajectory of Malcolm X’s life can be traced through Carter’s costumes, from his early origins as a young hipster through his subsequent ideological embrace of the National of Islam and culminating in his post-hajj conversion to Sunni Islam and civil rights activism.

“Selma” (2014) Directed by Ava DuVernay, installation with Sunday dresses designed by Ruth E. Carter for the young girls: Addie Mae Collins (Mikeria Howard,) Denise McNair (Trinity Simone,) Carol Rosamond Robertson ( Ebony Billups,) Cynthia Dionne Wesley (Nadej K. Bailey,) and Sarah Collins Rudolph (Jordan Rice.)

Another particularly poignant collection of delicate Sunday School dresses for the little girls in “Selma” shows Carter at her most subtly expressive. Each dress is finely detailed, from the voile and taffeta fabrics to the eyelet under-petticoats to the ribbon sashes. The  violent fate of the five is subtly foreshadowed and rendered more horrific by the butterfly-like fragility and beauty of these pastel confections.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2020) Directed by Ryan Coogler. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) Carter’s design for the queen’s crown was based on the traditional South African woman’s marriage hat. Fabric designs were developed in cooperation with Austrian designer Julie Koerner.

Carter’s most recent costumes for “Black Panther” (2018) and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2022) are the headliners in this exhibition, and deservedly so. Her already prominent reputation as a costume designer has been raised exponentially by the two high profile and highly profitable films.   (“Black Panther” grossed over $1.3 billion worldwide and broke numerous box office records, becoming the highest-grossing film directed by a Black filmmaker and the second highest grossing film of 2018.)

The Marvel Studio-derived adventures of king T’Challa and his royal clan, set in the mythical African nation of Wakanda, nevertheless take on a convincing reality based on Carter’s imaginative world-building. The films are a recent iteration of the cultural esthetic known as Afrofuturism, a term first coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in 1993. What began as a more-or-less literary trend centered on science fiction has since made inroads into other genres such as fantasy and magic realism.  Historians point to Ralph Ellison’s 1952 science fiction novel “Invisible Man” as a precursor, and Octavia Butler’s novels are often associated with the genre.  Carter defines the movement for herself  as “using technology and intertwining it with imagination, self-expression, and an entrepreneurial spirit, promoting a philosophy for Black Americans, Africans, and Indigenous people to believe and create without the limiting construct of slavery and colonialism.” She has ably combined her characteristic attention to historical and ethnic costume history with an inventive admixture of computer-generated and 3d-printed detail that makes the complex story believable on a visceral level.

“Black Panther” (2018) Directed by Ryan Coogler. Ayo Dora Milaje (Florence Kasumba) Carter’s costume designs for the Wakandan warrior clan, the Dora Milaje, were based on traditional dress of the Ndebele women of South Africa.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2020) Directed by Ryan Coogler. Namor, King of Talokan (Tenoch Huerta.) Carter’s designs for the inhabitants of the underwater kingdom were based upon Mexican and Mayan influences.

Carter has earned wide attention for her Black Panther costumes referencing Afrofuturism, but she is far from the only creative to contribute to the ongoing cultural conversation in the visual arts, music, and literature.   In 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City opened “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room.” The exhibition, organized in a “period room” installation format, envisioned the past, present, and future home of someone who lived in Seneca Village, a largely African-American settlement destroyed in the mid-1800’s to make room for Central Park. In 2022, the Hayward Gallery in London curated an exhibition of 11 contemporary artists from the African diaspora who draw on science fiction and myth to speculate on the world’s future.

Visual artists working in the fine arts on a smaller scale, like Nick Cave, Rashad Newsome, Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu, Yinka Shonibare and Ellen Gallagher, can be counted among those influenced by the Afrofuturist esthetic. But Carter, as a high-profile creative in a mass-market art form that reaches millions, may be one of the most prominent visualizers of the genre working now.  “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” provides an excellent opportunity for anyone who wants to feel the texture and sense the power of Afrofuturism to head down to the Wright Museum for a visit this fall and winter.

“Do the Right Thing” (1989) Directed by Spike Lee. Mookie (Spike Lee) Carter’s designs for the film are neon-bright and based on the red, yellow and green of the pan-African flag. Photo: K.A. Letts

Ruth E. Carter: Aftrofuturism in Costume Design   October 10 – March 31, 2024     https://www.thewright.org/exhibitions#current  

New Work @ Matéria Core City (formerly Simone DeSousa Gallery)

Form&Seek: Poetic and Tending Time: Megan Heeres @

Matéria Core City Gallery

Opening night reception for new work by Form&Seek and Megan Heeres at the new Matéria building (previously Simone DeSousa Gallery) September 9, 2023. Images courtesy of Materia Core City.)

Well, the day has finally arrived. After a few of the usual construction delays, Matéria, gallerist Simone DeSousa’s new cultural campus, has opened in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood. Matéria’s first suite of exhibitions, performances, and events extends from September 9 to October 7 and contains multitudes.

The newly opened building houses the tenth-anniversary exhibition of fine craft objects by Bilge Nur Saltik, founder and creative director of the design collective Form&Seek, plus an installation by fiber artist Megan Heeres and Puma, a casual ceviche bar created by Chef Javier Bardauil of Barda.   An eclectic and eccentric schedule of activities and activations in the galleries and in the nearby park include performances by dancer/choreographer Biba Bell with Christopher Woolfolk and Shannon White and music by Matthew Daher. An invitation-only dining experience from Detroit’s farm-to-table collaborative Coriander will round out October’s scheduled activities.

The name Matéria points to a new direction for gallery director Simone DeSousa. While she will retain her former intimate jewel box gallery on Willis Avenue for shows featuring established Cass Corridor artists, DeSousa sees the new Matéria space as a laboratory for experimentation and for the presentation and promotion of new voices and visions in Detroit. “Our new name signals the beginning of a new era of collaborations for our project, as we expand our presence in the city with a second space,” she stated in a recent press release.

Performance park outside the Matéria building, designed by Julie Bargmann of D.I.R.T. Studio, assisted by Andrew Schwartz. Materials gathered from the surrounding environment.  Image courtesy of K.A. Letts.

Matéria Core City and its adjacent park and performance space are only the newest additions to the Core City neighborhood project as envisioned by entrepreneur and developer Philip Kafka of Prince Concepts. The elegantly appointed three-chambered building, one of Detroit’s many formerly unprepossessing low-rise commercial buildings, now transformed into an art, dining and cultural destination, is one of a complex scattered along Grand River Avenue. They include (among others) the Caterpillar and True North, two residential developments, The Magnet, which houses the Argentinian restaurant Barda, and 5k, a former grocery store imaginatively re-configured to serve as headquarters for the marketing firm OLU & Company.  In a recent brief interview at the site, Kafka described his philosophy of development in Core City as a leveraging of local human talent and on-site resources, both natural and architectural, in service to a new vision of contemporary Detroit. Kafka thinks of his collaborations with creatives and the urban environment as a kind of metaphorical jazz improvisation to achieve a result that no single player could arrive at alone.

Installation Form & Seek: Poetic. Clockwise from left: Entwine Rug, 2023, tufted wool, 74” x 56” x 2”; Entwine Rug 2023, tufted wool, 64” x 66” x 1”; 3D Printed Stool (Blue) 2023, 3D printed PLA plastic, 18” x 28” x 16”; 3D Print Table, 2023, 3D printed PLA plastic, glass, 20.5” x 32”; Frosting Lamp, 2023, 3Dprinted PLA plastic, 16” x 9”

Form&Seek: Poetic

Within the first of the three adjoining spaces of the new Matéria building, the design collaborative Form&Seek celebrates its tenth year of existence with an exhibition of all-new work by Bilge Nur Saltik.  Entitled “Form&Seek: Poetic,” the objects displayed explore the ever-more-symbiotic relationship between craft and technology in a pristine gallery environment. The exhibition coincides with the thirteenth anniversary of Detroit’s Month of Design.

In the ten years since its formation in 2013, Form & Seek has employed the talents of over 90 designers from 20 different countries to produce a diverse collection of one-of-a-kind objects that can be described as both objects for everyday use and fine art.  The Form&Seek esthetic philosophy “places a strong emphasis on craftsmanship, materials and the creative journey… [and is] dedicated to crafting one-of-a-kind, functional and whimsical objects.”

Sensuous yet cerebral, the artifacts created by Saltik for “Poetic” often employ 3d printed technology. A variety of scales are represented, from large tables, stools and lamps to smaller vases and planters.  A particular beauty is the elegant 3D Print Wall Sculpture, three white shapes that seem to reference classical Greek columns. Also featured are four wall-mounted tapestries that combine the cozy familiarity of tufted wool with voluptuous, thickly curving shapes in a variety of colors ranging from dusty pastels to saturated ultramarine blue. They seem animated as if the constituent ropey lines were alive and writhing on the wall.

Installation, Megan Heeres, foreground: Somewhere…Else, 2023, paper thread (shifu) from knotweed and grass plants on site, latex paint, repurposed wire and webbing from site, found mirror. Background: Forever Forest, 2023, repurposed duct work and lumber, live plants from site, casters, pigmented paper pulp with growing grains and time. On the back gallery wall, Angle of Repose (Mound Mapping,) 2023, soil from site, fabric, glue.

Megan Heeres: Tending Time

Of all the artists that DeSousa could have chosen for the inaugural exhibition at Matéria, fiber artist and urban forager Megan Heeres most clearly exemplifies, in fine art form, many of the concepts that animate the Core City esthetic. Heeres is no stranger to the upcycling of building materials, keen observation and thoughtful use of indigenous plant material and engagement of community members in the realization of her projects. For her installation “Tending Time,” Heeres has gathered found materials from the site—repurposed pipes, salvaged lumber, brick, terrazzo and asphalt, even dirt. She uses the found components from the immediate neighborhood to create an immersive environment of stylized columnar trees and impromptu low walls that lean casually against the building, both inside and out.

In Forever Forest, Heeres has placed white columns of salvaged duct work, close-packed together, in a forest of post-industrial pillars that terminate at their tops in explosions of greenery. In the front of the space, Somewhere Else, a u-shaped swag of paper thread made from knotweed and grass mixed with latex paint and re-purposed wire, loops from ceiling to floor and is echoed on the back wall of the gallery by an inverted arch, Angle of Repose (Mound Mapping) made of local soil.

Installation, Megan Heeres, Stacks on Stacks on Stacks, 2023, repurposed concrete, brick, terrazzo, asphalt from site, with grains (wheat, rye, buckwheat, millet) growing in pigmented paper pulp, time.

In the spirit of Core City collaboration, Heeres has also created wearable artworks made from her signature, locally fabricated fiber, to clothe dancer Biba Bell and two colleagues for a performance of concrète: a new dance that was performed on Saturday, September 16.

This middle (and as yet unnamed) exhibition venue is intended as a gathering/dining venue as well as a gallery. Its inaugural offering will be an invitation-only dinner on October 4 featuring a menu from Coriander Farm, which bills itself as “the only restaurant in Detroit that is the farm AND the table.”

The third space within the new Matéria building–and still under construction–is Chef Javier Bardauil’s Puma, a casual bar where thirsty art lovers can retire for a variety of beers, cocktails and light fare.

Immediately outside the Matéria building, a newly opened park makes the most of the neighborhood’s abundant open space. Designed by D.I.R.T. Studio’s Julie Bargmann and assisted by Prince Concepts’ Andrew Schwartz, the park seems to arise naturally from the surrounding environment, a “found” space that makes the most of materials at hand. Bargmann explains, “It’s about staying within the spirit of Detroit, which is a whole lot of spontaneous vegetation…It’s the new palette. It’s the new woodland. These projects are part of that.” Permanent and temporary artworks are envisioned for the future, and the park will host performances planned on a schedule developed by Matéria.

The cultural campus that is organically coalescing in the Core City neighborhood is exemplative of an increasingly visible attitude among artists and other creatives. They favor hybrid spaces that lend themselves to performance, dining and social interaction in addition to their function as venues for fine art. Rather than a pristine white box gallery devoid of context—a cultural monoculture, if you will–artworks can now be displayed in more natural, approachable environments that allow for a variety of esthetic experiences.

The design philosophy underpinning Matéria—and behind Core City more generally–makes a potent argument for thoughtful, non-hierarchical and multivalent development of public spaces. This reassessment of conventional ideas about placemaking recognizes the intrinsic value of Detroit’s natural landscape and proposes to build upon it toward a richer, more welcoming and accessible habitat for the city’s art community.

Matéria, Opening reception at new Materia Gallery, September 14, 2023

Valerie Mann @ Bloomfield Birmingham Art Center

“Good Grief” by Valerie Mann is on exhibition at the Bloomfield Birmingham Art Center

Spidery wire grids that cast shadows on the gallery walls, subtly worn fabrics, discarded electrical cords and occasional flashing lights populate a solo exhibition of recent work by Michigan artist Valerie Mann. “Good Grief,” now at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center until June 1, shows this mid-career creative, once again, to be a master of her materials. An inveterate collector of scavenged bits and pieces, Mann finds creative promise in unloved discards that speak of a previous life and re-purposes them to tell a story of loss, recovery, and resilience.

Unlike many artists who are newly enamored of upcycling in their art practice, Mann’s childhood on an Indiana farm birthed her make-and-mend mentality and honed her appreciation for the expressive potential of discarded objects and commonly available commodities.  As she points out, “I’ve worked this way long before it was cool.” Her virtuosic use of reclaimed oddments perfectly illustrates a moment when contemporary art trends catch up with the long-held vision of an individual artist.

Valerie Mann, Safety Net, 2021, reclaimed fabric and wire, thread, steel, 39” x 44” x 6,”    All images by K.A. Letts

In formal terms, the best works in “Good Grief” are four large wall assemblages made of various common materials arranged in loose grids. Each beautifully crafted, tapestry-adjacent artwork has its own visual vocabulary and tells an emotive story that transcends mere narrative. Each invites us to a slightly different meditative state, weaving the familiar with the fantastical.

The ethereal Safety Net evokes feelings of weightless consciousness at the boundary of sleep and wakefulness. Carefully sewn, empty pockets of reclaimed cotton tulle in subtle tones of pink and green are reminiscent of small nets used in home aquariums, and we feel ourselves slipping through them to the cloud shadows beyond.  In this liminal space, the poetic and the practical are perfectly balanced.

Valerie Mann, Spill, 2023, utility wire, 73” x 60” x 5”

In Spill, Mann has chosen a relatively anonymous base component—workaday galvanized steel utility wire—in order to let the rectangular forms, interconnected and repeated in varying sizes, dominate the composition. We can almost hear the silvery sound of pins or nails or paper clips dropping as she catches the moment in mid-fall. The relative featurelessness of the wire shortens the perceptual distance between the physical forms and the shadows on the wall behind them, setting up a visual fugue–the shape introduced in substance and repeated in shadow. The result is a satisfying contrapuntal composition.

The artwork that most directly addresses the exhibition’s theme of loss is Lamentations, a recent winner of the BBAC President’s Award. Tiny bits of unrecognizable detritus, charred fragments in small bags of tulle, muslin, and lace, illustrate a state of sorrow felt by the community as well as the individual. It reminds us that grieving is both a collective and a solitary pursuit. The title Lamentations recalls Biblical references to sack cloth and ashes. The emotional contrast between the delicate containers of reclaimed fabric and the raw, burned contents within captures the way in which unspeakable loss is contained within public conventions of mourning.

Valerie Mann, Lamentations, 2022, reclaimed fabric, thread steel, ashes, 49” x 67” x 5″

The mood lightens considerably with Correspondence, an exuberant assemblage made from tangled rows of various wires, extension cords and blinking Christmas lights.   Who knew that electrical supplies could come in such variety? The composition of the piece, with its more-or-less orderly lines of looping scribbles, suggests a kind of calligraphy, as if the artist is writing us a cheerful holiday letter. The informal, yet intentional, quality of the composition is reminiscent of late paintings by Cy Twombly.

Valerie Mann, Correspondence, 2023, reclaimed wire, cords, lights, and steel, 72” x 68” x 4”

Several small works on paper and wall assemblages round out the offerings in “Good Grief.”  Good Grief, Hold; Good Grief, Detach; Connect, and Relate are based on the larger pieces, transpositions of the wall constructions themselves into two-dimensions.  Along with Good Grief V and Good Grief VI, these seem less consequential than the larger assemblages. While skillfully executed, the two-dimensional watercolors, collages and drawings lack the visceral energy and textural interest of the three-dimensional work. Several smaller wall-mounted constructions, Uncontained, Good Grief, Connect and Compartmentalize embody the feelings of detachment and isolation with which we can all identify post-pandemic.

Valerie Mann, Good Grief, Hold, 2022, watercolor, gouache, graphite, 16” x 20,”

The artworks in “Good Grief,” many of which Mann created during her residency in June of 2022 at the Glen Arbor Art Center in Leelanau County, Michigan, address emotions that have been very much front and center in our shared consciousness since COVID-19’s assault on our complacency. Mann describes her creative motivation:  The ideas I’ve been thinking about for the last few years are grief; how we individually, collectively, and communally experience grief; how we process grief and maintain some of our wholenesses or become more whole; how we learn about ourselves and our connections to the universal experience of grief.

Valerie Mann, Good Grief, Connect, 2022, found objects, linen thread, 24” x 26” x 2”

Our confidence has been shaken. More sensitive to dislocations in the community than most, Mann possesses the formal means to speak for all of us about our collective loss. Through the artworks in “Good Grief,” she has performed a kind of exorcism and a ritual of remembrance which we can all share.

Valerie Mann, Good Grief, Relationships,2022, watercolor, collage, 16” x 20,”

Valerie Mann has been making, exhibiting, and selling her work in the U.S. and abroad for over 30 years. In 1989, she earned a BFA in painting from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and in 1991 was awarded an MFA in sculpture from Michigan State University. 

Good Grief  by Valerie Mann is on exhibition at the Bloomfield Birmingham Art Center

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