Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Author: K.A. Letts Page 1 of 8


“Seven Mile and Livernois” @ the Detroit Institute of Art

Detroit Artist Tiff Massey Mounts an Exhibition: “Seven Mile and Livernoisat the Detroit Institute of Art

Tiff Massey, Installation image, Courtesy of DAR, 2024

Museums are often risk-averse institutions, choosing their curatorial offerings with an eye to what is safe and canonical. The Detroit Institute of Art has made a provocative and unexpected choice with its just-opened exhibition of Detroit-based sculptor and community activist Tiff Massey.  “Seven Mile and Livernois,” as this year-long exhibition is called, places the artist’s practice squarely in the neighborhood where she grew up while also acknowledging her ties to art history, and in particular to artists whose works in the DIA’s collection shaped her childhood experience.

Massey is the youngest artist to be chosen for a museum exhibition at the DIA, as well as the first Black woman to earn an MFA in metalsmithing from the Cranbrook Academy of Art.  The artworks, 11 in all, range from a piece, Facet, that she created in 2010 when she was still a student at Cranbrook, to 4 recent artworks commissioned by the DIA. (The museum provided funds for fabrication, though the artist retains ownership.)

Tiff Massey, Whatupdoe (part 1), 2024, stainless steel, photo K.A. Letts

As we enter the exhibition, a delicate swag of metal chain is draped high across a deep blue wall.  Through the door into the next gallery, however, we see that this chain is connected to a much longer one that, as it grows in size, goes from ornament to architecture. At its midpoint, individual components reach beyond head-high and we simultaneously shrink from adult to child size and perhaps smaller as we measure our bodies against these monumental links. It is a through-the-looking-glass experience.

The chain, entitled WhatupDoe, is intended by the artist as a love letter to her spiritual community in Detroit and beyond. She celebrates her affection for the city, for its hair salons, fashion boutiques, and coffee shops, its hip hop artists and hair weaves, in the sculptures that extend throughout the exhibition. In a nearby wall title for an older piece, I Got Bricks (2014), Massey directly addresses her audience, “Detroit, I’m designing for us, so we can see ourselves …This represents us building something together.”

Tiff Massey, I Remember Way Back When, 2023, stained wood, photo K.A. Letts

Massey’s intense emotional involvement with her social connections, friends and family is balanced by her acknowledgement of her early art education.  As the artist developed plans for the exhibition with Juana Williams and Katie Pfohl, Associate Curators of Contemporary Art, she chose a couple of artworks from the DIA’s collection that hold special resonance for her: they are now displayed in the galleries along with her own work.  She draws a particularly interesting comparison between her art practice and Stack, a minimalist sculpture by Donald Judd.  In a recent interview in Detroit Cultural she says, “I chose Donald Judd because I remember this piece specifically from when I was a kid and my mom would take me to all of these institutions.” Stack, narrow and tall, climbs militantly up the wall of the gallery, a lacquered green tower of rectangles. In response, Massey has created Baby Bling, an adjacent, long row of objects that reference the hair ties she wore as a child. Made of enormous red metal beads, woven rope and brass, their horizontal orientation implies movement outward, toward caring and community.

Stack by Donald Judd (r.) 1969, plexiglass and stainless steel on the right.   Tiff Massey,  Baby Bling (detail, l.) installation on the left), photo K.A. Letts

Themes of adornment run through the exhibition, rituals involving hair being especially prominent. Across the gallery from Baby Bling we find I Remember Way Back When. Eleven outsize scarlet replicas of Snap-Tight Kiddie Barrettes recall the 1980s when little girls’ hair was carefully dressed by grandmas, mothers, and aunties. And at the end of the gallery, there is an enormous, wall-size homage to the elegant and exuberant hair weave, in ombre shades of green and seemingly endless in its shapes and patterns.

Tiff Massey, Quilt Code 6, Assmbledge, Detroit Institute of Arts, 2024

The other artwork with which Massey has chosen to pair her work is Louise Nevelson’s Homage to the World. The correspondences between this wall relief and Massey’s Quilt Code 6 are straightforward. As the artist developed plans for the exhibition with Juana Williams and Katie Pfohl, Associate Curators of Contemporary Art, she chose a couple of artworks from the DIA’s collection that hold special resonance for her; they are now displayed in the galleries along with her own work. ”Nevelson’s relief derives its power from the accretion of randomly found scraps into a massive wall of chunky wood pieces in sooty black; Quilt Code 6, by contrast, is finer and more literary, composed of carefully curated symbols and signs. As the name suggests, this piece shares characteristics with the American story quilt, a folk art fiber genre used to great effect by Faith Ringgold.

Tiff Massey, 39 Reasons I am not Playing, 2018, brass, photo K.A. Letts

In this exhibition, Massey both speaks for and to her community; she is fluent in the language of the hood and of the academy as she advocates for her city:  “We’re a UNESCO city of design, and I’ve been talking about this in every interview but I don’t think we’re taking that designation seriously enough, and so to me it’s like how can I bring these elements and make sure that we have highly curated, beautiful spaces in the hood too.”

Massey demonstrates her commitment to her city and her people in “Seven Mile and Livernois.” It seems only fair, at least to this writer, that the DIA should take this opportunity to reciprocate by acquiring one of her public artworks for their permanent collection.

Tiff Massey, Whatupdoe, Stainless Steel, 2014, image courtesy DIA.

Tiff Massey’s exhibition, “Seven Mile and Livernois“, at the Detroit Institute of Art, is on display through May 11, 2025. 





Marisol: A Retrospective @ Toledo Museum of Art

Marisol, The Party, 1965-1966, installation, Toledo Museum of Art, 15 figures, 3 wall panels, painted and carved wood, mirrors, plastic, television set, clothes, shoes, glasses and other accessories. Toledo Museum of Art Collection, photo: K.A. Letts.

It’s far from common for a major artist’s retrospective to drop at Detroit’s doorstep rather than on the coasts, but “Marisol: A Retrospective,” at the Toledo Museum of Art has just landed like a thunderclap, shattering previous dismissive evaluations of the artist’s work and life. Until June 2, anyone with eyes and transportation should be beating a path to this paradigm-shifting survey of a boundary-breaking artist.  For museum visitors who may previously have seen only one or two of Marisol’s pieces, this exhibition will be a revelation.

 Born in Paris in 1930 to an elite Venezuelan family, Maria Sol Escobar spent her early childhood traveling between the U.S. and South America. Despite the family’s comfortable circumstances, Marisol suffered early trauma when her mother, Josefina, committed suicide. In response, she began a prolonged period of silence, a gesture that became a habit. Throughout her life Marisol maintained a Garbo-esque mystique which both intrigued and alienated her audience and may have contributed to later critical neglect of her work.

Marisol arrived in New York in the 1950’s where she studied at the Art Students League, the New School for Social Research and the Brooklyn Museum of Art School. Several works from this early period, during which she was influenced by Pre-Columbian clay figures, as well as Rodin’s Gates of Hell, are on display in the museum’s entry gallery, and along with a comprehensive timeline of her life, provides an introduction to the more iconic work that follows.

Although Pop art, with which Marisol was later strongly associated, was in its early stages, her work was first noticed and shown by Leo Castelli in 1957. Spooked by the sudden attention, the artist left for Rome in 1958 and stayed away for two years, a pattern of alternating visibility and absence that repeated itself several times throughout her life. Upon returning to New York in 1960, Marisol found herself drawn to Andy Warhol and his circle. She began to work in assemblage, combining found, carved and drawn components in sculptures that came to define her singular style.  She was a sensation, both artistically and socially. Warhol included her in two of his films, and she was often photographed for Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times Magazine, and Vogue.   Her exotic good looks made her both a victim and a beneficiary of the casual sexism of the time.

Marisol  Baby Girl, 1963 wood and mixed media overall: 74 x 35 x 47 inches (187.96 x 88.9 x 119.38 cm) Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1964

The central gallery of Toledo Museum of Art, in which the most iconic of Marisol’s sculptures are displayed, shows Marisol’s art practice during the 1960’s at the most critically successful period of her career.  The quantity and quality of the work is breathtaking. The artist’s output from this period is both intensely personal and often baldly political, formally inventive yet thematically transparent. Though Marisol’s career pre-dated the second-wave feminism of the seventies, and she was never a fully “feminist” artist, many of her pieces are filtered through an unmistakable female identity.

Two of the most celebrated sculptures on display from this period are the enormous Baby Boy (1962-1963) and Baby Girl (1963). These sentimental yet monstrous infants–Baby Boy is 8 feet tall, and Baby Girl, if standing, would reach 10 feet in height—are psychologically fraught comments on the dominant role children play in society’s definition of women as mothers. Each child clutches a tiny representation of the mother, both of whom are likenesses of Marisol herself.  The artist also said that Baby Boy, who is wearing red, white and blue, was a representation of the United States as an infant, heedlessly throwing his weight around on the world stage.

Marisol, Mi Mama y Yo, 1968, wood and mixed media, 74” x 35” x 47” Buffalo AKG Museum, Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1964 (K1964:8) © Estate of Marisol / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Brenda Bieger, Buffalo AKG Art Museum

Though it would be hard to pick out a favorite piece among the many masterworks in the gallery, a few stand out. One is an installation with multiple figures, The Party, which coincidentally is in the Toledo Museum of Art’s permanent collection. A flock of fashionable ladies in mid-century formal attire– and all with Marisol’s face– gather for cocktails, a group portrait of social isolation. Marisol puts an even finer point on her alienation in a photograph taken by John B. Schiff in 1963. The real Marisol sits at a table with two 3-dimensional images of herself in Dinner Date. She is alone yet keeping herself company.

Marisol, Pope John 23, 1961, wood, mixed media, Abrams Family Collection, photo: K.A. Letts.

In many of her assemblages and installations, Marisol shows herself to be wickedly clever at mocking social pretension, political hypocrisy, and male privilege. Her assemblage Pope John 23 (1962) shows Marisol at her most deftly satirical. A barrel-clad pope sits astride a roughly knocked-together hobby horse, its head featuring the face of the artist, literally being ridden by the patriarchy. Marisol created sculptures of prominent political figures such as the Kennedy family, the British royal family and even Lyndon Baines Johnson, holding 3 small birds representing his wife, Lady Bird, and two daughters.

Marisol, The Fishman, 1973, Wood, plaster, paint acrylic, and glass eyes, 68.25 x 28 x 33.25, Buffalo AKG Art Museum Bequest of Marisol, 2016 (2021:37a-g) © Estate of Marisol / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Brenda Bieger, Buffalo AKG Art Museum

At the height of her fame in the late 1960’s, Marisol once again abandoned the New York art world for Tahiti, where she took up scuba diving and spent several years creating a new body of work centered around environmental themes. The artworks in the penultimate gallery at the TMA are devoted to these misunderstood images and objects, which to contemporary eyes now seem prescient. Though Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published in 1962, and the first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970, the destructive relationship of humans to the planet–and its implications–hadn’t fully registered with the cultural elite. The new work also had a surrealist edge that was at odds with art fashions of that moment such as conceptual art and post-minimalism.   The glossily finished, figurative sculptures of fish she made and then exhibited in 1973 met with bafflement and critical rejection.

Marisol,   John, Washington, and Emily Roebling Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for the First Time, 1989, wood, stain, graphite, paint, plaster, Buffalo AKG Museum, photo: K.A. Letts


Marisol,   Georgia O’Keeffe and dogs, 1977, graphite and oil on wood. 52.5 x 53 x 60.25” Buffalo AKG Art Museum Bequest of Marisol, 2016 (2021:44a-i) © Estate of Marisol / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Brenda Bieger, Buffalo AKG Art Museum Marisol (Venezuelan and American, born France, 1930-2016

The final gallery in Marisol’s retrospective is filled with maquettes and examples of public art works the artist designed for North and South American sites. Her often controversial commissions featured historical and cultural figures such as the revolutionary Simon Bolivar , Father Damien(a Belgian born missionary to lepers in Hawaii), Mark Twain, Georgia O’Keeffe (and her dogs) and Queen Isabella. A particularly impressive piece is a model for a monument to John, Washington and Emily Roebling, builders of the Brooklyn Bridge, shown crossing for the first time.  Unfortunately the final work was never completed.

After a period of relative obscurity at the beginning of the 21st century, Marisol was the subject of a traveling survey of her work in 2014, organized by the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. The exhibition curator, Marina Pacini, stated at the time that Marisol was “an incredibly significant sculptor who has been inappropriately written out of art history.” Indeed, when the artist died in 2016, the headline for her obituary in the Guardian read “Marisol: The Forgotten Star of Pop Art.” This reductive assessment has begun to change through the efforts of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, which received the artist’s estate and papers as a bequest. “Marisol: A Retrospective” is a welcome step toward the reassessment and rehabilitation of this neglected visionary.

Gallery Installation, Toledo Museum of Art, sculptures and photographs by the artist during the 1970’s, photo: K.A. Letts.

Marisol: A Retrospective is organized by the Buffalo AKG Art Museum (Cathleen Chaffee, Charles Balbach Chief Curator) in cooperation with several major museums, including the Toledo Museum of Art ( Jessica S. Hong, senior curator of modern and contemporary art.)  Exhibition schedule: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Oct. 7, 2023-Jan. 21, 2024; Toledo Museum of Art, March 2-June 2, 2024; Buffalo AKG Art Museum, July 12, 2024-Jan. 6lm2025; Dallas Museum of Art, Feb. 23-July 6, 2025.

 And a Bonus: Caravaggio!

For museum visitors who can make it down to Toledo before April 14, a small but fascinating collection of Renaissance masterpieces awaits. Four paintings by Caravaggio, on loan from The Kimball Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas), the Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, Conn.), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), and the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit) form the framework upon which the organizers of this exhibition build their survey of artworks from the Toledo Museum of Art’s own collection.  Caravaggio’s influence is foregrounded here in paintings by Hendrik ter Brugghen, Artemesia Gentileschi, and Jusepe de Ribera, to name only a few.

Drawing: Detroit @ David Klein Gallery

Tylonn J. Sawyer, Black Man on a Horse: Bayard, 2024, charcoal, pastel and glitter on paper,72” x 88.5” All Photos courtesy of David Klein Gallery

The  21 artists whose work is on view at David Klein Gallery right now can tell you—and show you–that drawing has its own special kind of magic.  “Nothing up my sleeve here,” these creatives seem to say as they produce, with a flourish, images conjured from imagination and a few rudimentary materials. As individual as a fingerprint, each artist’s contribution defines, and sometimes expands, our understanding of what a drawing can be and do.

Tylonn J. Sawyer’s life-size equestrian figure  Black Man on a Horse: Bayard, anchors the exhibition and is very much front and center.  The image depicts civil rights hero Bayard Rustin astride a barely controlled horse that may leap off the wall at any moment. The charcoal on paper drawing invites comparison to Kehinde Wiley’s Officer of the Hussars (2007) at the Detroit Institute of Art but switches out that painting’s pretty fussiness for austere formal and emotional rigor on themes of Black history and identity. The addition of a field of black glitter at the lower portion of the composition adds a mythic edge.

Cydney Camp, Friendly Place, 2024, graphite on paper, 36” x 36

Many of the portrait drawings in the exhibition are life-size or larger. Kim McCarty’s faces of young women, Charles Edward Williams’s handsome swimmers, Cydney Camp’s Friendly Place and Whitfield Lovell’s Spell #16 demand our attention with their scale and skill.  Panning out from the close-up view, Robert Schefman and Joel Daniel Phillips include drawings of single figures that place their subjects within a specific time and place for added context.

Marianna Olague, Head Over Heels, 2024, graphite, gouache and colored pencil on paper, 30” x 22”

Several of the large figurative portraits depend upon unorthodox points of view to capture our interest.  Conrad Egyir’s recessive figures turn away even as he uses the tools of their creation, arranged on shallow ledges below the images, to draw us in. Kelly Reemtsen, as usual, focuses on the implied social status of her fashionable ladies and the subtle menace of their sharp tools.  Marianna Olague literally turns self-portraiture on its head with a drawing of sneaker-clad feet seen from below, as if she is taking a selfie while lying on her back.

Cayce Zavaglia, Raphaella Blue Cross-Stitch, 2021, ink and hand embroidery on Arches paper, 15” x 11”.

A number of the most impressive still-life drawings depend upon their large scale for impact. Jessica Rohrer’s breathtakingly intricate Red Coleus invites close looking; it irresistibly draws the viewer into a close inspection of the minute red and purple leaves within the magnified whole.  Armin Mersmann’s imposing—and decomposing—giant pear is another spectacular example of how scale can be employed to capture our attention.

Mary-Ann Monforton, Red Chair, 2023, watercolor and pencil on paper, 11” x 8.5”

But large formats don’t entirely dominate. Shea Burke’s sweetly intimate watercolors and Cayce Zavaglia’s embroidery on paper, Raphaella Blue Cross-Stitch, ably make the point that a drawing needn’t be large to be impactful.  Maryann Monforton’s quirky colored pencil drawings invite us into her cozy, art-filled home, where her friendly, funny chairs and snack-laden plates offer hospitality on paper. Willie Wayne Smith’s improvised interior, Boomerang, suggests a situational mystery and raises more questions than it answers. Jack Craig’s finely detailed pencil drawings appear at first to be abstractions, but upon close inspection turn out to accurately reflect his three-dimensional freeform bronze constructions.

Willie Wayne Smith, Boomerang, 2019, charcoal on paper, 24” x 18”

Though the exhibition belongs (mostly) to the figurative realists, a few very welcome abstract drawings make the curatorial cut.  Neha Vedpathak’s light and air-filled Untitled Drawings #1, #2 and #3, with their delicate but insistent marks in metallic dust, charcoal powder, graphite and acrylic, seem to levitate just in front of the paper.  In contrast, Susan Goethel Campbell’s dark, pierced and stained Night Garden builds upon the themes of her recent solo show at the gallery with moody intensity.  Benjamin Pritchard’s paper and ink collage, Night Shapes, is a special visual treat. The dreamlike architecture of geometric shapes and symbols is both weighty and weightless, simple yet enigmatic. Are there more of these beauties lurking somewhere in his studio?  I hope so.

Benjamin Pritchard, Night Shapes, 2021, ink and collage on Arches paper, 42” x 39”

Perhaps the most physically imposing—and formally complex—piece in “Drawing: Detroit, A Line Goes for a Walk” is Emmy Bright’s Big Drawing which combines printmaking, sculpture, conceptual art and assemblage. It is all—and none—of the above. Bright, an artist in residence in print media at Cranbrook Academy of Art, repeats a single line printed on paper many times, then attaches the papers end-to-end to form a bale (A bunch? A bundle?) that hangs on a metal peg on the gallery wall.

The art and craft of drawing represents a core competency for most artists and certainly of the artists in this exhibition. “Drawing: Detroit” offers gallery visitors an eclectic mix of works on paper that combine impressive technical mastery with considerable conceptual interest.  These artworks on paper, made by some of the city’s most accomplished practitioners, will be on view until March 15, 2024.

Emmy Bright, Big Drawing, 2023, polystyrene grommets, acrylic, steel peg, variable dimensions.

Exhibition: Drawing: Detroit, at the  David Klein Gallery  On view through March 15, 2024.

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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.


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