Tom Livo @ Image Works

Paintings by Tom Livo, Installation shot, All images courtesy of Image Works

Like many cultural institutions in the era of Covid-19, art galleries are struggling with economic pain that goes along with the physical peril of the pandemic. So it’s a pleasure to find an art venue that is both showing interesting work and managing to keep the lights on.  Image Works is the brainchild of photographer Chris Bennett, a recent arrival to the Detroit area from Portland, Oregon. While the back portion of Image Works is dedicated to Bennett’s day job as a provider of fine art and photographic printing, the front features a small but pristine gallery where the paintings of Tom Livo are on display until November 27.

In the roomful of Livo’s images  now at Image Works, the artist explores childhood memories, translating family snapshots into painterly compositions that recapture and give significance to  fleeting recollections of times past. Born in Garden City, Michigan in the 60’s, the CCS graduate describes his method: “I revisited family albums, shuffling through stacks of old Polaroids and snapshots, choosing which to paint. The people and situations come alive again, reigniting fond, half memories and themes that, I suppose, resonate universally.”

Tom Livo, Walking My Gargoyle, Oil on Board, 12×12″, 2019

Two bodies of the artist’s work are represented in the gallery, each quite different from the other in scale, palette, composition and mood. By comparing and contrasting them, we can find a way into the artist’s mind and discover both his ambivalence and his affection for family, friends and his own childhood.

One side of the gallery is packed, salon style, with small, usually colorful, paintings of figures, many of them children. Derived from photographs of long-ago holidays and parties, the kids are routinely costumed and mugging for the camera. The compositions emphasize the outsize personalities of the subjects; often the children are disguised as monsters.  The pictured adults are lumpy, unglamorous, almost as monstrous as their costumed offspring, but unembarrassed by their own imperfections. They boldly make eye contact with the viewer: while they know they are being watched, they are also watching us.

Tom Livo, The Hair Curlers, Oil on Board, 12×12″, 2019

Because the pieces in this collection are intimate in scale, the virtuosity of Livo’s brushwork surges to the fore–these small works are beautifully painted. Backgrounds are either (mostly) flat white or minimally detailed. The general effect of these paintings, while subtly menacing, is cheerful, even gleeful.

By contrast, the big monochrome paintings that make up the rest of the artworks in this exhibit are too chilly to be nostalgic. They are arms length recollections, replete with ambiguous meaning and emotion.   The painting She’s Not There, is an exercise in mid-tone gray that recalls the low resolution, low contrast images of pre-color television. An elderly woman (the artist’s grandmother, as it happens) stands in a featureless room, next to a television that is as much an enigmatic presence as she is. The blank face of the turned-off set is echoed in the glare of the woman’s glasses, obscuring her eyes, and implying, it seems, the diminished presence of old age.  The two companion figures, tv and woman, are relatively small within the blank expanse of the modest interior, a device the painter employs again in his painting N’Octover. In the picture, a young man reclines, apparently asleep in an armchair. The table lamp, centrally located, seems more sentient than the man. Here, the emptiness of the room suggests a barren psychic landscape where the inhabitants’ interior lives are unknown and unknowable.

Tom Livo, She’s Not There, Oil on Canvas, 64×48″, 2020

Livo explores a different compositional strategy in his portrait of a young, bespectacled girl. Her gray face fills the picture, like a woman in a particularly joyless Alex Katz painting, and we are hard pressed to penetrate the smooth surface of her skin to find the soul within.  The artist’s lens zooms back out for his most engaging black and white painting, The Riviera. Unlike She’s Not There and N’Octover, The Riviera  is set outdoors, in a neighborhood very much like the one outside the gallery walls of Image Works. A tidy brick ranch home with a lush yard provides the background for a sporty muscle car in the driveway. The two men in the picture seem relaxed and satisfied with their lot, comfortable at a time when the American Dream seemed like an entitlement. Today, the neighborhood remains, but the sense of ease has gone.

Tom Livo, The Riviera, oil on canvas, 48” x 60”, 2020

Livo’s paintings memorialize a time and place to which he can’t return, and it isn’t clear from the mood of the paintings if he even really wants to.   Instead they provide a frame of reference for the present, to help us remember when things were different, if not better.   The world we live in today is more consumer driven, more atomized, more diverse and less secure than ever. The past will remain forever out of reach, but with these paintings, Livo seems to be saying that, just sometimes, it’s a joyful and useful exercise to remind ourselves what those days, those people, those places–and we–were like.

Tom Livo, Polish Karen, oil on canvas, 48” x 48” 2020

During the pandemic, Image Works, located at 3726 Monroe St., Dearborn MI 48124, is open by appointment: call 313-768-5020 or email info@imageworksfineart.com

 

 

Familiar @ David Klein Gallery

Mario Moore Curates a Group exhibition at the David Klein Gallery

Familiar Installation, Jason Patterson (L) , Mario Moore (C), Senghor Reid (R) All images courtesy of David Klein Gallery except noted.

The historical moment in which we find ourselves, a moment when a pandemic and racial unrest crash into the political upheaval of a presidential campaign, seems to demand that artists respond  somehow with starkly political work that addresses our collective  pain.  And many artists have responded with polemic art, to great effect.

But there is a more intimate, personal and equally valid response to make at this juncture in our history. That is the road that Detroit artist and curator Mario Moore has chosen to follow.  For this  group exhibition Familiar, at David Klein Gallery until October 24th, Moore has chosen five other like-minded artists to join him in meditations on memory, work, and family–most particularly mothers–in Black American history. These artists have taken the cultural moment into account, but they produce art that acknowledges the zeitgeist while operating on a deeper, more enduring level.

Mario Moore has become a visual historian of Black experience through his intimate portraits of the people that inhabit his world. His recent project, The Work of Several Lifetimes, emphasizes the importance of  essential workers,  often unseen and under-appreciated. In his paintings, he brings the figures that inhabit the background into the foreground, and in so doing makes an argument for the dignity of labor in all its forms.

Mario Moore, I Continue to Dream, 2020, oil on linen,44” x 62”

The three paintings Moore has chosen for exploration in Familiar are based on a photograph he recently discovered, of a Detroit diner once owned by his family.  Moore was unfamiliar with this part of his family history and he set about learning more. Initially, he made a faithful black and white painting of the restaurant and its occupants, which included his grandmother and great grandparents. The two subsequent paintings are colored–literally–by the artist’s conversations with his grandmother, who described the place and people in more detail, thus combining archival images with familial oral history to recapture a past he never knew.

In contrast to Moore’s intimate storytelling, Illinois-born artist Jason Patterson’s images are arms-length and archetypal. He can convincingly claim to be an archivist and cultural historian of Black experience in addition to his considerable skills as a draftsman and craftsman.  For the diptych The Negro Mothers on display, part of his series New Americans: Our Mutual Improvement & Social Elevation, he has drawn from vintage photographs of Reconstruction era Black women in the Randolph Linsly Simpson Collection in Yale’s Beinecke Library. The resulting monumental pastels of upwardly mobile African American matriarchs of the 19th century stand their ground on varnished, sepia-toned raw canvas. Patterson has surrounded and embedded these towering images in elaborate, coffin-like pine boxes that foreshadow the frustration of Black aspirations during Jim Crow. To further press his point, Patterson has carved quotes from the Langston Hughes poem, The Negro Mother, into the pine boxes.

Beverly McIver, Turning 50, 2013, oil on canvas, 40” x 30”

Beverly McIver comes at her examination of family through intimacy.  Her medium-sized square compositions are dominated by the larger-than-life heads of her subjects, in this instance her father, her sister and herself.  The backgrounds are hazy, featureless fields of color, her lively brushwork is confined to the interiors of the painted faces. Compositional simplicity powers these modestly sized but impactful paintings. The portrait of her sister, Renee, is particularly interesting, her smiling face in the upper third of the picture offset by the flat whiteness of the cat in the foreground.  McIver’s self-portrait is equally satisfying; she gazes ruefully out of the picture plane, a party hat perched on her head as she contemplates turning 50. The elegant simplicity of McIver’s paintings is a pointed reminder that sometimes less really is more.

Senghor Reid, In Which We Serve, 2020, oil on canvas, 58” x 39 ½ “

Detroit artist Senghor Reid’s harshly daylit, everyday rooms can be interpreted as metaphors for his interior life. Each element in these crowded interiors–a book, food, a potted plant–is apparently mundane but exists simultaneously on a parallel symbolic plane.  Of particular interest among the three paintings Reid has contributed to the show is In Which We Serve which brings up, once again,  the importance of the black mother in the life of the family and in the context of the larger community.  Shirley Woodson Reid, a prominent Detroit arts educator and Senghor Reid’s mother, is the  authoritative primary figure. Her stern features occupy the center of the painting, both literally and figuratively, while arrayed before her are carefully selected objects that seem to suggest devotional offerings. Her importance, both to the artist and to the community, is acknowledged even within this modest domestic setting.

Photographer Ricky Weaver examines her ambivalence toward female identity from within.  Her two self-portraits, Breathing 1 and 2, show the artist in conflict with the camera’s lens, the unwilling protagonist in her own story.  Trapped by the camera’s eye, Weaver is locked in a futile struggle to escape her environment, her blurred image simultaneously there and not-there. She makes herself  both subject and object, the viewer and the observed. The theme of the cornered subject is repeated in Untitled (Sunday Morning) which features the artist’s daughter backed up against the fence in an otherwise idyllic environment.

Chris Watts’s single translucent abstraction, Invisible Mirror II, features cloudy veils of pigment on silk; it’s an outlier among the more figurative works in Familiar.  Its intrinsic merits aside, this seems an odd inclusion in an otherwise tightly organized collection of narrative work.

The temptation for artists to descend into the topical is powerful at this moment in history, when so much seems to be in contention. But the artists in Familiar seem well aware that there is a larger story to tell, and one that will continue regardless of current events. They know that their job is not just to advocate, but also to observe, report–to think–in broader and more abiding terms about the struggles that concern us all.

Familiar Installation, Ricky Weaver (L), Mario Moore (R)

Familiar, curated by Mario Moore, includes work by Moore, Beverly McIver, Jason Patterson, Senghor Reid, Chris Watts and Ricky Weaver.

David Klein Gallery is located at 1520 Washington Blvd, Detroit. Gallery Hours, Wednesday through Saturday 12 p.m.-5:30.

 

 

Sabrina Nelson @ Galerie Camille

Sabrina Nelson, They Go in Threes, installation detail, mixed media and drawings.

Sabrina Nelson, Detroit artist, educator and activist, has chosen the totemic blackbird as the animating metaphor for her exhibit Blackbird & Paloma Negra: The Mothers, on view now at Galerie Camille in Detroit, until October 3. Through drawing and installation with both constructed and found objects, she explores the psychic territory between private grief and public mourning felt by mothers of Black children lost to racial violence.

Nelson was born during the Detroit Rebellion of the 60’s, descended from a long line of strong Detroit women who she credits with galvanizing her spirit early on.  In a recent article for detroitlover.net, she describes her female forbears as “three generations of remarkable, independent women who each had her own way of being… My mother was probably the most rebellious in the house. She was young, had an afro and this attitude like, ‘I ain’t doing none of that stuff y’all did — this is the new deal.’ She was down with the Black Panthers and was fighting for what she felt was right at the time. There was some serious rebellion going on when I was in her belly, so I’m sure there’s a part of that energy in me.”

True to the spirit of the matriarchs in her family, Nelson has found her own way of being and means of expression as an artist. She recognizes the emotional dissonance between the lonely, visceral sorrow a mother feels at the loss of her child and the public rhetoric that surrounds the Black Lives Matter movement.  She honors this more personal sorrow with a series of artworks that are poignant, elegiac and at times seem poised to disintegrate into their broken and damaged constituent parts. In her statement she writes, ”We live in a hash-tag era, where Black and Brown bodies are brutally murdered and swiftly turned into hash-tag symbols on social media; where often the focus of how they were killed is sensationalized and who they were as valued beings in their communities is ignored.”

Sabrina Nelson, The First Home/ Grace 3, hanging sculpture, mixed media, size variable.

Three fragile tissue and tulle dresses hang from the ceiling in the main gallery of Galerie Camille, threatening to dissolve at the exhalation of a sigh. The dresses provide a surround for sooty and slightly deformed birdcages, their womblike forms evocatively referencing both the absence of the child and the remaining husk of the inconsolable mother. These three artworks represent the emotional core of the show and seemed, to me, to be the most direct and moving expression of her theme.

The charcoal and acrylic drawing of a monumental blackbird entitled Raven: Attempted Conspiracy, occupies a central position in the main gallery, gazing quizzically at gallery visitors as they enter. Its intent is mysterious, its cunning obvious. Her choice of the blackbird as a visual metaphor throughout Blackbird and Paloma Negra: The Mothers is both potent and equivocal and allows for multi-layered interpretations.  The corvid’s complex associations across a variety of world cultures resonate throughout the collective consciousness, freeing Nelson to play at the shadowy margins. She skates metaphorically along the borders of confinement and flight, freedom, death and the afterlife, embracing the poetic ambiguity of the blackbird. She says of the species, “Our body and our nesting always tell the truth. A group of black crows is called “a murder of crows” and a grouping of ravens is called “a conspiracy of ravens” or “an unkindness of ravens”. These poetic names were given to these corvid creatures during the 15th century.”

Sabrina Nelson, Raven: Attempted Conspiracy, charcoal and acrylic on paper, 50” x 93”

In Galerie Camille’s back gallery, Nelson strikes a reverential note with her complex, multi-faceted installation Altar, a ritual display that features devotional objects: feathers, candles and nests, along with drawings. The immediate mainstream association to a visitor might be with the commemorative ofrendas that appear yearly in Hispanic households for the Dia de los Muertos. This is a perfectly satisfactory association as far as it goes, but it’s likely that Nelson is also referencing devotional shrines of the African Yoruba religion, which forms the basis for a number of diasporic belief systems such as santeria and vodou.

Nelson is an accomplished draftsman, and her skills are on display throughout the exhibit, but are especially striking in her wall of small drawings in the gallery’s Cube Room.  Her handling of the water media in They Go in Threes is technically impressive and emotionally resonant. She employs the liquid properties of the paint to suggest shadows and fugitive movement. The drawings hint at both the presence and absence of bird souls, the accretion of images delivering a powerful charge of nostalgia and a suggestion of violence in the dripping inks.

Sabrina Nelson, Altar, installation, mixed media

Nelson specifically references Black singer Nina Simone’s lament Blackbird (released 1966) as an influence in developing the work for this show:

Why you want to fly Blackbird you ain’t ever gonna fly
No place big enough for holding all the tears you’re gonna cry
’cause your mama’s name was lonely and your daddy’s name was pain…

The continued relevance of Simone’s lyrics serves as an indictment of our slow progress toward racial equity. Paul McCartney’s Blackbird, from the same period, is also about the struggle for Black civil rights, but strikes a more hopeful note:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free…

In Blackbird and Paloma Negra: The Mothers, Sabrina Nelson channels the mood of this moment in history in the U.S. and in Detroit. There is grief and pain, yes, but also hope.

An Artist Talk will be held on Sept 18, 3:00 p.m. Live on our Facebook and Sabrina’s Instagram live feed @sabrinanelson67. Galerie Camille hours are Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., by appointment during the pandemic. Please make an appointment by email info@galeriecamille.com

Alternative Testimony @ David Klein Gallery

Install Image, Alternative Testimony, Image Courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Alternative Testimony, a group show at David Klein Gallery that is part chemistry experiment, part art historical tour of photographic processes, features the work of four artists who have slipped the tether  binding conventional photography  to representation. They proceed to spin the medium off into new and unexplored territory where the resulting abstract images challenge established notions about the function and purpose of photography.

Untitled: 3/23/2016, 8:15 a.m., by Cyrus Karimipour, archival pigment print, 44” x 44” (ed.1/5, 2 ap) All photos are courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Cyrus Karimipour’s hazy pastel vistas are barely-there evocations of images recorded by trail cameras. He placed them on his remote Michigan property, where they documented trespassers over the course of several years.  At first, he viewed the hikers as unwelcome interlopers, but Karimipour came to accept them as a part of the natural wildlife on his land and as a resource for his work.   “I used to dread finding people on the cameras, but now I rely on their presence,“ he says.

Karimipour combines contact printing, a photographic technique popular in the 1890’s, with contemporary inkjet materials to create a kind of process art. His method depends on the serendipitous interaction of built-up pigment on low adhesion film, which is then applied to a more absorptive surface. The pigment immediately dries and bonds the films to each other. The effect, which is evident in Untitled, 03/23/2016, 8:15 a.m.  is somewhat map-adjacent, like traditional Asian charts that render the view in forced perspective from a high, almost aerial, angle.  Much of the visual incident in each picture  comes from the bubble-like spherical puddles distributed throughout the composition.  The ghostly result is a little reminiscent of video static, through which, occasionally, one can detect trees, humans and the like, purely coincidental remnants of the artist’s time-based exploration of the landscape.

On the opposite gallery wall from Karimipour, dimensional collages by Aspen Mays document her long and complicated relationship with the weather–specifically, her recollections of Hurricane Hugo. The category 4 storm devastated her hometown of Charleston SC in 1989 and provided the inspiration for her Hugo Series.  Many of the elements in these assemblages recall her youthful memories of the storm, although the artist freely admits they may be genuine recollections or merely media images that have infiltrated her reminiscence. She recalls with particular interest the ritualistic taping of windows in preparation for the storm, an activity that she describes as more shamanistic than practical.

Hugo 23, by Aspen Mays, 2019, gelatin silverprint, photo gram, blue sintra, 26.5” x 22.5”, unique

Hugo 20, by Aspen Mays, 2019, gelatin silverprint, photogram, grey sintra, 26.5” x 22.5”, unique

In the artworks themselves, grids and x-es of masking tape, starburst shapes and free-form fragments generate exuberant architectonic compositions.  The layered gelatin prints of photograms on rag paper, cut up and reassembled on colorful sintra backing, are curiously cheerful and appealingly tactile. Mays describes the colors as derived from the alert codes used on weather maps to indicate violent weather patterns, but her palette projects a child-like optimism at odds with apprehensions of disaster.

With her cyanotype prints, west coast-based photographer Meghann Riepenhoff engages directly with the natural environment and, in particular, with the dynamic temporal features of her watery surroundings– rain, snow and ice, wind and waves. Cyanotype, a photographic process that will be familiar to many from childhood craft projects, is the fairly primitive technique that the artist employs to brilliant effect in her program to directly record fugitive natural phenomena.  She says, “Each cyanotype is like a fingerprint of a place, a hyper-literal, sometimes three-dimensional photographic record of specific cumulative circumstances.” Her cyanotype Ecotone #163 exemplifies the specificity of her vision: it is a physical record of snow, rain and melting ice on a draped construction barrier in front of a New York City gallery. The rich shades of blue in these visual records of natural phenomena develop over 48 hours and continue to respond over time to local conditions.

Ecotone #163 (parking space in front of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York City, 3/14/17, snow rain, melting ice draped on construction barrier), by Meghann Riepenhoff, dynamic cyanotype, 19” x 24”, unique

Ecotone #287 (Pier 4 beach, Brooklyn, New York, 12/17/17, melting snow under shelf ice), by Meghann Riepenhoff, dynamic cyanotype, 19” x 24”, unique

Of the four artists in Alternative Testimony,  Brittany Nelson seems to be the most militantly committed to discarding  photography’s traditional preoccupation with the surface appearance of things and places. Instead, she engages in an experimental exploration of the medium’s chemical essence.

The two (very large) works by Nelson in Alternative Testimony depend for their visual charge on arcane and caustic 19th  century processes. Mordencage 5 employs a hybrid procedure that starts with the eponymous mordencage, a translucent veiling, draping effect caused by the chemical reaction of acid with the silver content of gelatin paper.  The resulting (very small) print has been digitally enlarged to highlight the diaphanous striations.

Mordencage 5 – 2020, by Brittany Nelson, c-print, 72” x 72”, (ed.1, 2 ap)

It is a little ironic that the only image in Alternative Testimony that can be described as a standard landscape has been produced by Nelson, who most categorically denies the relevance of the pictorial in contemporary photography.  The scene, though, is hardly mundane–in fact it is other-worldly in the most literal sense–a 4 ft. x 6 ft. bromoil print of a Martian landscape from the NASA archives, the largest of its kind ever produced. (bromoil, popular in the early 20th century, is created when a silver gelatin print is bleached and then soaked in water and coated with oil-based ink.)

Tracks 2 – 2019, by Brittany Nelson, bromoil print, 48” x 72”, unique

Each of the four artists in Alternative Testimony can claim a unique art practice, but what they share is unfettered curiosity and a willingness to experiment with alternative photographic processes in unique ways—in combination with contemporary tools— to achieve their formal goals. By avoiding the merely representational, they have found a new and deeper reality at the intersection of science and art, observation and expression.

The Alternative Testimony at the Midtown  David Klein Gallery will be up through March 28, 2020