Shapeshifters @ Cranbrook Museum of Art

Frank Stella, Takt-i-Sulayman Variation I (Protractor Series) 1969, acrylic and fluorescent acrylic on canvas

It has always seemed to me that the most magical thing about art objects in a gallery is that they exist at the same time and place, in the same now, no matter when they were created. An archaic vase, a classical Greek sculpture and a minimalist painting can rest side by side, in a kind of eternal conversation that illuminates how humans think and perceive, and what they value over time.  This thought re-occurred to me with some force as I walked into the main gallery of the Cranbrook Art Museum last week, to see Shapeshifters, an eclectic exhibit that draws from the museum’s collection of over 6000 artworks. It covers a broad range of modern and contemporary artists and esthetic philosophies, all in lively conversation with each other and with us. Much of the work on display is by international artists with big reputations, but voices and visions of many younger, less established, artists have also found their way into Shapeshifters. Often these artists are from the Detroit area, many of them graduates of Cranbrook Art Academy’s M.F.A program; to my mind they provide the most interesting pieces in a wide-ranging survey of artists’ methods and mindsets.

The entry gallery of the museum announces the ambitious nature of the exhibit with a forceful collection of minimalist and post-minimalist artists. Paintings and sculptures by art historical heavyweights like Donald Judd and Frank Stella ring the gallery.  These self-referential abstract objects and images  hark back to a brief moment in art history, 1960’s and 1970’s, when  the methods and formal objectives of contemporary art seemed clear. These confident–and also mostly white, male–artists seemed to say they had found the endpoint of modernism, after which no further progress was possible–or necessary. Even Agnes Martin, whose (usually) much smaller pieces seem more interior and meditative, is represented in Shapeshifters by a large canvas, Untitled (1974) that shows her to be a member in good standing of the minimalist club.

Ato Ribeiro, Home Away From Home 2, 2017, repurposed wood, glue

Ato Ribeiro, Detail

But even as these monumental, even grandiose, pieces stake their claim to dominance in this room and  in art history, the show’s curator Laura Mott, slyly introduces an artist who says, quietly, “yes, but…”

Ato Ribeiro, a 2017 graduate of Cranbrook’s print program, has created a wood assemblage that superficially resembles many of the pieces in the main gallery, but suggests alternative cultural references that speak to more private, idiosyncratic aims. Home Away from Home 2 is a pieced quilt of a sort, made of discarded wood, re-cycled and re-assembled into an elaborate composition that references hieroglyphs, Kente cloth, traditional African symbols, and signals a turning away from minimalist generalities and toward more particularized personal references.

Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Dupp Dup, 2016, plaster, burlap, sisal rope wood

This insistence by young artists on private processes and meanings continues in the next gallery, with the awkward yet elegant and slightly comic Dupp Dup by Ebitenyefa Baralaye. A 2016 M.F.A.  graduate of the ceramics program at Cranbrook, Baralaye has re-purposed the process of ceramic casting in a literally heartfelt way. The shape of the plaster cast is reminiscent of a human heart, signifying both a physical state of being and an emotional state of desiring. Its implied weightiness is animated and supported by a spindly wooden tripod.   In the adjoining gallery, Sonya Clark’s scratchy ziggurat of a headpiece, assembled from hair curlers, is both humble and regal. Clark re-imagines these everyday materials using processes familiar to her from her background in fiber art; the result is both surprising and satisfying.

Sonya Clark, Curled, 1998, metal hair curlers, thread, wire

Two of Detroit’s art eminences occupy the middle gallery and are hung in proximity with two other artists who reinnforce and illuminate their importance as masters of their craft and figures of note in Detroit’s contemporary art scene. Allie McGhee’s folded and draped Window (2019) easily holds its own next to the much larger–and very lovely–Preface for Chris by Joan Mitchell, with which it is paired. McGhee is scheduled for an upcoming solo exhibition in the fall of 2021, and Windows provides a tantalizing foretaste of what we can expect and hope for. Carole Harris, whose work impresses me more each time I see it, is represented by In a Silent Way (2017).  Harris is a textile virtuoso. Her work occupies the surprisingly capacious space between expressive quilting and painterly abstraction, and somehow manages to be more than the sum of the two mediums.   The way in which she exercises complete control of flat or felted or lacy textures, of staccato stitched lines, of carefully dyed and rusted colors, adds a tactile element to her work against which the nearby untitled painting by Jose Joya struggles to compete.

Allie McGhee, Window, 2019, acrylic, enamel, vinyl

Carole Harris, In a Silent Way, 2017, quilt with rusted textiles

In the next gallery, photography –and related technologies–has its day as a means to revelation. The prosaic, descriptive reality of everyday photography gives way to the deeper truth of artists’ personal and subjective experience. A particularly beautiful example of this is Kottie Gaydos’s Unfixed, Fold #3, a dreamy, undulating field of deep blue in which a minimalist strategy yields a deeply romantic and poetic image. Matthew Angelo Harrison’s low-resolution replicas of African artifacts by way of his homemade 3-d printers are familiar to most of the Detroit art public by now, but they remain impressive, resonant in their expression of the African American diaspora’s sense of cultural loss from the trauma of enslavement.

Kottie Gaydos, Unfixed, Fold #3, 2016, archival pigment print, artist frame with unfixed cyanotype

The wan ironies of Andy Warhol’s Polaroids and Rosenquist’s lithographs are interesting as historical artifacts, but pale beside Kara Thompson’s polemical silhouettes and the robust immediacy of Maya Stovall’s dancers, doing their thing in the parking lot of a Detroit convenience store. Her video, Liquor Store Theatre, Vol. 4, No. 7, records the bemused reaction of bystanders along with the precise and angular movements of the black-clad performers.

Maya Stoval, Liquor Store Theatre, Vo. 4, #7, 2017, video still

The back gallery of Shapeshifters is devoted, appropriately for an exhibit about transformation and adaptation, to a short feature film entitled Upright: Detroit.  Set in the ruins of the historic Michigan Theater, the film records a kind of initiation. Performers arrive, one by one, dressed in ordinary street clothes.  Here, they are ritually transformed, with assistance from members of the Ruth Ellis Center for LGBTQ+ youth, into other-worldly beings by way of Nick Cave’s iconic Soundsuits. In the subsequent procession, initiates are accompanied by a choir of singers from Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theater. With this performance, Shapeshifters brings us full circle, from the exuberant hubris of the minimalists to the joyous communality of the performers in Upright: Detroit, a thought-provoking journey from the general to the personal in search of our universal humanity.

Artist in Shapeshifters: Richard Anuszkiewicz, Jo Baer, Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Romare Bearden, McArthur Binion, Susan Goethel Campbell, Anthony Caro, Nick Cave, Nicole Cherubini, Sonya Clark, Liz Cohen, Conrad Egyir, Beverly Fishman, Kottie Gaydos, Sam Gilliam, Kara Güt, Carole Harris, Matthew Angelo Harrison, José Joya, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Allie McGhee, Marilyn Minter, Brittany Nelson, Kenneth Noland, Marianna Olague, Robert Rauschenberg, Ato Ribeiro, James Rosenquist, Beau Sinchai, Julian Stanczak, Frank Stella, Maya Stovall, Toshiko Takaezu, Carl Toth, Kara Walker, Andy Warhol, and Richard Yarde, among others.

The museum is open with some restrictions.  For more information, go to: https://cranbrookartmuseum.org/plan-your-visit/

Jaume Plensa Sculpture @ UMMA

Jaume Plensa, 2018, polyester resin and marble dust, 24.5’ h x 9’ x 10’. Gift of J.Ira and Nicki Harris. Photo: Patrick Young, Image Works

 

We knew this would happen.

After a certain amount of hand-wringing and wheel-spinning at the beginning of the pandemic, museums and galleries have begun to come up with increasingly creative ways to engage the public’s interest in art,  both in person and digitally.

The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) has just installed a major new sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa on the museum grounds, where it can be seen all day and all night. (Plensa may be best known to the region’s art-loving  public as the creator of the Crown Fountain, the interactive video sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park.)

Behind the Walls  was on view for the Frieze Sculpture Festival in May 2019 at Rockefeller Center in New York City, but since its purchase and recent installation in November 2020, will be permanently on display outside UMMA. The pure whiteness of the young girl’s head, with her disembodied hands shielding her face, references classical marble sculpture, but its colossal size and slightly distorted perspective bring it into the twenty-first century.

Curriculum/Collection @ UMMA

Hemlock Canyons, Mike Irolla, 2001, hemlock, 25” x 16” x 16” photo: UMMA

Wormwood Vase, David Nish, 1997, wormy ash, 4 1/2” x 4” x 4” photo: UMMA

And if you are lucky enough to have a university i.d. (UMMA is currently closed to the general public during the pandemic) and can get inside the museum, an inventive new and ongoing program called Curriculum/Collection has recently launched. The project integrates art objects from the museum’s collection into the study of university subjects as diverse as philosophy, design and architecture, and as seemingly improbable as health care, data science and social work.  For this project, which will run from October 2020 through June 2021, Andrew W. Mellon Curator David Choberka has enlisted 7 classes from throughout the university to integrate artworks into their course of study to–as he says–“explore the infinite value of art in shaping our understanding of …well, everything.” In addition to the art objects on display in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery I, the Curriculum/Collection has a robust and constantly changing online presence, with plentiful video and textual content to amplify and clarify the explorations of the subject matter through art. Online material will be updated and expanded throughout the year as the classes progress.

Field Notes II, Larry Cressman, 2009, raspberry twigs, polymer, pins, 32 5/8 x 32 ½ “ photo: UMMA

 

Some areas of study are more obviously related to the visual arts than others. For her undergraduate art and design class, Florilegium: Creating a Plant Compendium,  Penny Stamps School of Art and Design lecturer Cathy Barry has chosen a variety of works by artists who engage in the forms, life processes and cultural meaning of plants. Three of the pieces Barry has selected show how artists can enlist natural systems in creating artworks that meaningfully connect human and natural forces.  For his elegant turned-wood vase Hemlock Canyons, Michigan artist Mike Irolla leaves residual bark on the surface to suggest natural rock formations referenced in the title, and employs fire as the finishing element, adding texture and color the surface. Nearby, Wormwood Vase by David Nish, can be described as a work of art collaboratively created by an insect and a human. In contrast, a delicate assemblage by Larry Cressman implies the careful labor of a natural historian, collecting and cataloging slender twigs in a serene post-minimalist composition that hums with nature’s quiet buzz.   There is clearly a lot of material for the students to work with here, in addition to their field work and their own studio practice.  The final product of all this thought and reflection will be a book-form summation of their studies based on the florilegium, a compendium of plant illustrations popular among the British landed gentry in the 18th century.

Untitled (Paint Cans), Tyree Guyton, 1989, paint cans, wooden crate, American flag, rearview mirror, ceramic figure. Photo: K.A. Letts

Hopeless Gifts to Material Culture, Ryan McGinness, ca. 2000-2008, silkscreen on skateboard. Photo: K.A. Letts

Another particularly interesting collection of objects and images by artists with ties to southeast Michigan will support Introduction to Community Organization, Management and Policy/Evaluation  Practice. Course leader Larry M. Gant, who holds professorships in both the School of Social Work and at the Penny  Stamps School of Art and Design, premises the idea for this course on his view that conventional social work focuses too narrowly on quantifiable socio-economic assets and deficits, while neglecting intangible social capital, such as community based art. Selected artworks include an assemblage by Tyree Guyton, whose Heidelberg Project has famously waxed and waned in Detroit for over 30 years. In a nearby case, a hipster skateboard by Ryan McGinness features cryptic hieroglyphics of urban signage and graffiti. A mask-like assemblage entitled Michigan Worker, by George Garcia, succinctly expresses both drudgery and endurance, and is typical of Detroit artists that use the found detritus of the city as raw material for their art practice.  These artworks make the case for a more nuanced appreciation of visual culture within the context of urban communities, and it will be interesting to watch this class progress and what  conclusions can be teased from the materials provided.

Michigan Worker, George Vargas, 1985,welding goggles, metal, hanging belts, rusty bottle cap, pulleys, chains, padlock mounted on plywood, 20 7/8” x 10 3/8” x 2 9/16” Photo K.A. Letts.

Nociceptor-Heart Sutra, Susan Crowell, 2009, white stoneware, industrial ceramic pigment, 9” x 18” x 9” Photo: UMMA. Class: Perspectives on Health and Health Care.

The direction that the other five classes will take in their exploration of their selected artworks remains to be discovered, as Curriculum/Collection is in its early stages. The museum will provide supporting information on the progress of each class on the museum website, updated throughout the academic year. I, for one, am interested in finding out how art and philosophy, architecture and neural networks, data science, political protest and health science will cross-pollinate and enrich each other. An occasional virtual visit  to Curriculum/Collection to see how the U of M students are doing might be just the thing to get us through this dark pandemic winter.

 

Winter in Ann Arbor, Khaled al-Saa’i, 2002, natural ink, tempera and gouache on paper, 14 1/16” x 8 5/16” Photo: UMMA. Class: Data Science and Predictive Analytics

A Taste of the Desert, A.R. Penck, 1983, drypoint on Arches vellum paper, 29” 5/8” x 41 7/8” Photo: UMMA. Class: Art and Resistance: Global Response to Oppression.

 

 

Sarah Rose Sharp @ UM Institute of the Humanities Gallery

Map of the Interior: Sarah Rose Sharp’s “Results or Roses” at UM Institute of the Humanities Gallery

Sarah Rose Sharp, Hand of Fate, 2019, screen print by Too x Nail, fabric, embroidery thread, charms, beads, etc., 11.5” x 6” x 2.5

During these Covid times, visual artists’ exhibitions have migrated to online locations, with mixed results. For some whose work is photographic or text-based in nature, the effect is hardly noticeable.  But for artists making very tactile or three-dimensional work, like the artworks in Detroit artist Sarah Rose Sharp’s Results or Roses at UM Institute of the Humanities Gallery, much is lost in translation.  I felt some guilty delight when the gallery curator, Amanda Krugliak, consented to open the gallery (now temporarily closed to the public during the pandemic) for my visit.

Sharp employs traditional needlework and sewing techniques to create a diaristic map of her interior life. The intimately scaled artworks illustrate several different trains of the artist’s thought and share the walls of the gallery and an adjacent vitrine, providing a virtual tour of the artist’s memories, observations and preoccupations. The overarching intention of the work seems to be located somewhere in the psychic territory between nostalgia and satire.

Sarah Rose Sharp, Immigrant Song, 2020, tablecloth by Rose Blaug, rice bag, embroidery thread, sequins, patches, beads, fake flowers, plastic table covering, etc., 24.75 x 24.75”

The modestly-sized but obsessively decorated wall hangings, flags, throw pillows–and some three dimensional assemblages too strange to name–add up to an untamed fantasia of tat and glitz. Sharp combines an improbable array of materials in her free-hand, free-associational compositions, some vintage, some newly minted. Found objects, beads, applique and embroidery seem to boil over the surfaces, threatening to encase the fabric ground entirely. Immigrant Song, perhaps the signature piece of the show, is a demented version of the Statue of Liberty, her single, oversized eye gazing out at the world and radiating energy. The surface is sequin-encrusted, and free-hand needlework decoration vies with store-bought embroidery patches for control of the surface. The fabric base for the artwork is part of a tablecloth that belonged to the artist’s great grandmother, which the artist cherishes as a meaningful collaboration with a woman she never met. Sharp has a real gift for the creative manipulation of materials, but is clearly more interested in their expressive potential  than with conforming to any conventional notion of craft.

Sarah Rose Sharp, Target, 2020, fabric, arrow, handkerchief, t-shirt salvage, beads, sequins etc., 10” x 7.5”, arrow 29”

A native of California, Sharp devotes a number of her works for Results or Roses to both critiquing and humorously celebrating the Hollywoodized cultural signifiers of the West.  In several pieces, she chooses mass market images of a heroic–and often imaginary–past: mustangs and buffalo, limitless deserts, child cowboys and cowgirls. In her flag-and–arrow assemblage Target, she deftly memorializes the near-demise of both Native Americans and buffalo herds, victims of America’s manifest destiny. In Native Daughter, Sharp makes a flag by embellishing a souvenir California handkerchief with appliqued and embroidered images that symbolize features of the state that may no longer exist.  Jupiter Rising conjures an improbably limitless landscape of mountains, horses running free, a child cowboy and a pickup truck with a mysterious figure (Cowboy Jupiter?) presiding. From this work, it appears Sharp is still engaged in the unresolved process of  locating her stance toward her childhood between appreciation and censure.

Sarah Rose Sharp, Detroit Patchwork IV, 2020, fabric, wool salvage, hem binding, corset wire, 32.5” x 15”

Sharp’s textiles referencing her more recent home, Detroit, are more straightforward appreciations of the substance of the city.  She pieces together fabrics that describe architectural features, the voids and recent architectural additions, metaphorical renditions of the urban landscape as it stitches itself back together. Detroit Patchwork III is particularly evocative of the highways that span the city, while the fabrics she has chosen reference the ethnic diversity of its many neighborhoods. Detroit Patchwork IV may be the most formally satisfying of the series, a jubilant combination of oranges, browns and blacks that is slightly reminiscent of work by African American textile artist Carole Harris.

With each piece Sharp engages in an ongoing search for a legible reality from found bits and pieces of her life, past and present. Her question:  are the symbols and images we get from mass media legitimate signifiers of some larger reality, or do the small, observed details painstakingly stitched together each day deserve equal weight in our construction of our own history and identity?

UM Institute of the Humanities Gallery 

This review is re-printed with permission from Pulp, the Ann Arbor District Library’s online culture magazine.

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.