Winter @ Cranbrook Art Museum: Craft Takes a Bow

Untitled II (for Ashgebat) by Christy Matson, 2016-2019, hand-woven cotton, linen, wool, indigo dye and acrylic on stretched canvas.

Contemporary craft is having a moment. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently placed ceramics by George Ohr next to Van Gogh’s Starry Night in their re-installed galleries. Taking a Thread for a Walk, an exhibit that celebrates weaving and fiber art in all its forms, both ancient and modern, will be on view there until April, 2020. Meanwhile, over at the Whitney, there’s a comprehensive survey of modern and contemporary American craft from 1950-2019, called Making/Knowing: Craft in Art.

Members of the Cranbrook arts community might be forgiven for asking what took so long; since its founding in 1922, Cranbrook has been a champion for American craft traditions. The museum seems to be taking a victory lap for its prescience right now:  4 exhibits on view through March carry the vision of craft as art forward while also looking back at important moments of its history, in Detroit and beyond.

Wireworks by Ruth Adler Schnee, 1950, ink on white dreamspun batiste

Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living

A major retrospective (her first) of eminent Detroit textile and interior designer Ruth Adler Schnee occupies the museum’s front gallery. Adler Schnee’s family fled Nazi German in 1939, settling in Detroit, where she attended Cass Technical High School. After earning a degree in design at the Rhode Island School of Design, Adler Schnee returned to Detroit to study architecture with Eliel Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, graduating in 1946. She faced obstacles as a woman to a career in the male-dominated field of architecture, but immediately found success in textile design. Her memorable modernist cotton prints are on display and will be immediately familiar to anyone who feels an affinity for the recently resurgent interest in midcentury modern design.

Ruth Adler Schnee made it her mission to democratize good design for the post-war mass American market. “We are living in a democracy. Our designs for living must have social implications,” she states in her Cranbrook master’s thesis.    She worked extensively as an interior designer and textile designer with architects like Minoru Yamasaki, Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen, as well as operating (for 30 years with her husband Eddie) Adler Schnee Associates, a retail design business in Detroit. She also worked with American car companies; for an amusing look at their symbiotic relationship and a historic overview of the importance of Detroit as a driver of design in the 50’s and 60’s you can view American Look, a 1958 promotional film sponsored by Chevrolet.

At 96, Adler Schnee continues to be a relevant force in textile design today through adaptation of her classic printed textile designs into woven fabrics and carpet design. Examples of both are on display in the gallery.

Designs Worth Repeating, Woven Textiles by Ruth Adler Schnee. Woven fabrics based on Adler Schnee’s mid-century modern prints, re-introduced for the 21st century.

Christy Matson: Crossings

Contemporary L.A. fiber artist Christy Matson is a multi-disciplinary shape shifter whose work occupies an esthetic space at the intersection of painting, weaving and collage.  Employing digital technology and a jacquard loom, Matson expands the formal parameters of weaving. She creates tapestries that incorporate organic curving lines and shapes unavailable via more traditional techniques and employs novel fibers and pigments added to traditional yarns and threads. The results are fiber artworks that have been aptly described as “painterly.”

Crossings, a solo exhibit of her work currently on view at the museum, consists of two large tapestries realized as a commission for the U.S. Embassy in Ashgebat, Turkmenistan, as well as several smaller, more intimate pieces that allow a welcome closer look at Matson’s technical means.

Matson has an expressed interest in the symbolism and the technical realization of traditional Turkmen textiles, as well as a kinship with the women who make them. The traditional costumes of Turkmenistan are deeply symbolic and incorporate imagery specific to the gender, social position and age of the wearer. Varieties of technical decoration in local costume, such as patchwork and embroidery, make a richly colorful and tactile pastiche that relates formally to Matson’s work.  The rugs for which the region is justly famous are woven by women from a variety of fibers dyed with a combination of synthetic and natural dyes, another point of correspondence with the artist.

Untitled I (for Ashgebat) by Christy Matson, 2016-2019, hand-woven cotton, linen, wool, indigo dye and arcylic on stretched canvas.

The two colossal tapestries that anchor the exhibition incorporate abstract pattern and stylized images of plants using long narrow woven panels joined two by two.  Untitled 1 (for Ashgebat) consists of stripes and floral motifs that are repeated and occasionally reversed and tilted to yield a roughly symmetrical counterpoint. A central stylized blossom anchors the composition.  Untitled II (for Ashgebat) flirts with the illusion of pictorial space.  The hazy vertical stripes on the left suggest grasslands, while the same lines reversed and repeated on the right suggest the fringe of a rug.  The stylized seed heads and blossoms on each panel create a satisfying rhythm without precisely repeating themselves.

The smaller pieces in Crossings allow a closer look at Matson’s art practice. Particularly illuminating is her Overshot Variation 1 which incorporates bands of painted paper using the overshot technique often employed in Jacquard weaving.

Overshot Variation I by Christy Matson, 2018, deadstock overseen linen, acrylic and spray paint on paper, Einband Icelandic wood

In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969

For artists who dream of an idyllic creative space where collaboration, mutual support and disciplinary cross-pollination are the rule, the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts represents a dream come true. The 90 pieces that fill, and threaten to overflow, the museum’s middle galleries recount the history of this important creative community from 1950-1969 for the first time.  The objects in the exhibit range from textiles to printmaking, ceramics, metalwork and painting, and even to jewelry making and glass art. By discarding ideas regarding the primacy of fine art versus craft, the members of Haystack approached a non-hierarchical egalitarian ideal. Many of the artists represented in the exhibit also had ties to the Cranbrook arts community during a particularly fertile period for craftspeople who lived and worked and created in this uniquely supportive creative environment.

Video still, from Dance of the Looney Spoons, by Stan VanDerBeek with Johanna VanDerBeek, 1959-1965, 16 mm black and white film transferred to video with sound, 5:20 minutes (Haystack)

Silver Road Runner by Stan VanDerBeek, 1954, assorted metal silverware (Haysta

 

Ancient People by Hodaka Yoshida, 1956, relief print on paper (Haystack)

For the Record: Artists on Vinyl

In the lower level gallery, you can experience the unexpected pleasure of 50 designs for vinyl records–some vintage, some recent– by a who’s who of artists comfortable working at the intersection of design and fine art:  Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Banksy, Shephard Fairey and Keith Haring, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Motherwell, to name only a few. The square parameters of the vinyl record cover seem to have offered the perfect creative space for artists to create bite-size versions of their more ambitious works. It’s worth a trip down the stairs just to see Jean Dubuffet’s painting Promenade a deux from the museum’s collection, installed next to his lithograph Musical Experiences.

Promenade a deux by Jean Dubuffet, 1974, vinyl on canvas, matt Cryla varnish

The exhibits at Cranbrook right now, particularly the Ruth Adler Schnee retrospective, demonstrate some of the diverse ways in which craft and design have historically influenced America’s aspirational culture. The built environment of the country, though, has changed–is changing.  As the past gives way to the future, the times will require creatives that bring the same level of creativity seen here to new challenges like technological innovation and environmental change.

Winter at Cranbrook Art Museum: Craft Takes a Bow  through March 15, 2020

 

Art Basel Miami @ Detroit Art Review

Miami Art week, the mammoth fine art fair comprised of Art Basel Miami Beach plus twenty satellite fairs, events and parties, salted around the city like raisins in a fruitcake,  has just ended.   It was an all-you-can see buffet of contemporary art, much of it excellent. It’s impossible to see it all without developing a serious case of esthetic indigestion. But my project to see the art coming from the Great Lakes region, and Detroit in particular, made the task more manageable.

A string of fairs located in lavish oversize tents, Scope, Pulse, Untitled, Context and Art Miami, were lined up along the beach and interspersed with large public art works exposed to the sun and air.   Art Miami, at 30, which predates Art Basel and is the oldest and one of the most respected  fairs,  is where I found David Klein Gallery’s booth. This year, the gallery showcased a  collection of Detroit artists who will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention, as well as a couple of talented newcomers.

David Klein Booth at Art Miami, Photo by K.A. Letts 2019

Gallerist David Klein told me that the gallery opened its first booth at Art Miami 11 years ago, during the height of the Great Recession, and that they’ve been coming every year since.  The booth was anchored by Kelly Reemtsen’s monumental Rise Up.The warm Miami air seemed to billow the voluminous taffeta skirt of her genteel but assertive debutante, and the light in the heavy white  impasto surrounding the figure felt a little different on the beach in Miami than it had when I saw the piece in Detroit.

Rosalind Tallmadge and Marianna Olague, two recent graduates of Cranbrook Art Academy, were represented by David Klein in Miami this year. Klein described Cranbrook as “…a great resource for us. Rosalind we met when she was in the painting program [there] and Marianna Olague is also a very recent Cranbrook grad.” Artworks by the two seemed to respond to the ambient Florida sunshine, though in different ways.  Tallmadge’s formal mica, glass bead and metal leaf-encrusted artworks, which seem more the product of geology than of art, shimmered, while Marianna Olague’s self-contained and pensive young women occupied a pictorial space suffused with the warm light of her native El Paso.

Marianna Olague, Here Lies Toro, 2019, David Klein Gallery, Art Miami, 2019

Mario Moore, The Visit, 2019, David Klein Gallery, Art Miami, photo courtesy David Klein Gallery

David Klein Gallery has routinely shown the work of African American artists, but suddenly at Art Basel Miami Beach 2019, there was a notable increase in artists of color prominently displayed throughout all the fairs. Mario Moore’s large single-subject portraits were exactly on trend.  The self-possessed, casually dressed inhabitants in Moore’s paintings, situated comfortably in their everyday  environments, projected confidence and understated dignity.

The highest concentration of Detroit representation was at NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance), which bodes well for the future of the art scene in Detroit.  This fair shows work by up-and-coming galleries and artists (and famously provides a hunting ground for more established galleries hoping to poach promising young artists.) Held in the Ice Palace Studios, Nada’s relaxed atmosphere, with some artworks scattered around the grounds and hammocks and picnic blankets provided for physically exhausted and/or visually overstimulated fairgoers, was a welcome change from the more aggressively commercial fairs.

Detroit was represented in the main exhibitors’ section by Simone DeSousa Gallery and Reyes/Finn. And in the NADA Projects section–a sort of junior NADA–I encountered Detroit Presents, a collection of Islamic prayer rug-inspired collages by Anthony Giannini presented by Detroit Art Week.

This was the second year that that Simone DeSousa has represented artists at NADA. She chose to exhibit the work of two Detroit-based creatives, Veha Nedpathak and Iris Eichenberg. NedPathak’s richly colored, freeform process-derived paper tapestries, created by her self-invented ritualistic practice, contrasted nicely with Eichenberg’s light absorbing, idiosyncratic black objects.

Neha Vedpathak, So many stars in the sky some for me and some for them, 2018, Simone DeSousa Gallery, NADA (photo courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery)

Iris Eichenberg, Untitled, Simone DeSousa Gallery, NADA, photo by K.A. Letts

When I asked DeSousa about her plans for future art fairs, she pointed out that there is considerable expense involved in participating, but the Nada fair makes the most sense for the gallery, and so far it has proved to be a good showcase for the artists and for her. It’s likely that she will to present artists from her gallery there in future.

A more conceptual vibe prevailed at Reyes/Finn, where the frosty glow of Detroit-born Maya Stovall’s hermetic neon signs referred to year dates significant to the artist and referenced coincident meaningful cultural touchstones. These gnomic objects, though compelling in themselves, represent only a small portion of Stovall’s work in performance, installation and video. Co-exhibitor Nick Doyle celebrated common man-made objects raised to monumental scale–a giant wall outlet, a huge, discarded coffee cup–rendered in denim-blue, a color both common and cool.

Maya Stovall, 1959 from 1526 (NASDAQ:FAANG) series, 2019, photo by K.A. Letts

Nick Doyle, Shutter, 2019, Reyes/Finn Gallery, NADA, photo by K.A. Letts

The street art esthetic that is so prevalent in Detroit was noticeably absent from the established fairs, with the exception of Scope, where I saw a pair of Chicago galleries, Vertical and Line Dot Editions, that carried the flag for that way of thinking and making.   The Mana Wynwood neighborhood is the place to see that esthetic expressed. A lot of the art is on the street, and it’s rude and risky.  Some of the most impressive work that I saw in this vein wasn’t in a fair at all, but at Mana Contemporary, where Miami’s indigenous art community has a home. There, I saw work that hasn’t (yet) made it into the mainstream unless you count a small piece by Karl Wirsum that I glimpsed in the back room at Corbett vs. Dempsey in their Art Basel Miami Beach exhibit. And Detroit/Brooklyn-based SaveArtSpace.org  engaged in its usual end run around the establishment, with three street-side bus stop ads featuring the work of Chris Pyrate, Brian Cattelle and Peat “EYEZ” Wolleager.

Keya Tama, Love Trap, Mana Contemporary, Wynwood neighborhood, photo by K.A. Letts

Peat “EYEZ” Walleager, EYE Want You by, SaveArtSpace.org, (photo courtesy of SaveArtSpace.org)

A visit to Miami Art Week is probably the most efficient way to take the pulse of the art scene now, in all its diversity and variety, even though you may come away troubled, as I did. I found that the art world is just another part of the real world, where the .1 percent, by virtue of its vast resources, decides how art is defined and commodified. And lingering in the distance like a thundercloud is climate change, a looming presence that’s hard to ignore while looking at art on a vulnerable beach.

Miami Art Basel, December 2019

 

 

Kylie Lockwood:  Becoming a Sculpture @ Simone DeSousa Gallery

Kylie Lockwood, Installation image, Gallery opening, image courtesy of DAR

I was first introduced to work by Kylie Lockwood during Landlord Colors, last summer‘s blockbuster survey of Detroit artists on the world stage at the Cranbrook Museum of Art.  Her small, yet monumental sculpture Porcelain Legs in the Posture of David, stood quietly in the center of the gallery, dominating and animating the surrounding space, whetting my appetite for more. And now I have more. Lockwood’s solo exhibit, Becoming a Sculpture, is currently on view through December 21st at Simone DeSousa Gallery. It does not disappoint.

In Becoming a Sculpture, Lockwood is engaged in a project to “reconcile the experience of living in a female body with the history of sculpture.” She subverts art history’s unhealthy preoccupation with the female form as an object of desire by re-performing, with her own imperfect body, idealized poses from Greek and Roman antiquity.  She imitates and holds these poses while she casts portions of her anatomy–a leg, a hand, a torso–then re-assembles the bits and pieces of milky-white porcelain into a new kind of archetype: the female form as subject, not object.

Attempting Accroupie, by Kylie Lockwood, porcelain and nail polish, 2019 Image courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery

Lockwood makes a point of imperfection in her execution, avoiding over-determination of the figure. The delicate pores and subtle flaws that are apparent on the surface of the cast body parts contrast with the rough edges at the joins and painfully jagged, broken margins. Folds, cracks and tears in the porcelain draw attention to the hollow space within. She makes full use of the fleshy, skin-like texture of the porcelain, and adds life-like sheen to the nails of hands and feet by sly application of pearly nail polish.

The most formally ambitious of the nine artworks in Becoming a Sculpture is Attempting Accroupie, a nearly full-body recapitulation and reimagination of a much-copied Hellenistic sculpture. The subject of Venus surprised in her bath can be traced to an original version by Doidalses of Bithynia in 300  B.C., but the frequency with which the image has been repeated throughout art history, in all media and by artists as diverse as Bouguereau, Corot, and Picasso, speaks of its continued relevance to the prurient (male) artist’s gaze.  Lockwood has chosen her subject well.

The psychological poignancy of this Venus owes quite a lot to the broken and re-assembled features, perfect within themselves, but worked on by gravity and the considerable technical hazards of firing porcelain. The artist is engaged in a kind of ad hoc self-creation here, the undeniable beauty of the cast parts juxtaposed with agonized breaks within the body.

Elsewhere in the gallery, a number of the artworks seem to be concerned specifically with weightbearing and the physics of creating a three-dimensional object from clay. Load bearing leg in the posture of Crouching Venus delivers a strong sense of the implied weight of the body that rests invisibly above it. More painfully, Back in forward lean with fractures from bearing weight unevenly conveys a sharp sense of damage.

Thighs in slight Contrapposto, by Kylie Lockwood, porcelain and unfired clay, 2019 Image courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery

Near the back of the gallery, Lockwood has created a piece that is more modern in its affect and effect. Unlike her more classically derived pieces, Thighs in slight Contrapposto conveys, in its awkward stance, a palpable sense of the artist’s physical presence.  Though the piece is less elegant than the other  artworks, its loss in grace is redeemed by its augmented emotional eloquence.

Lockwood’s Torso in non-classical harmony is a less successful departure from her more complete pieces; this pairing seemed to me a little too flat and inert. By contrast, her sprightly Left hand and leg positioned at rest, as well as her Left foot poised between movement and repose, and Left foot firmly planted in an archaistic stance with hand draped across it in mutual support,retain, in fragmented form, all of the energy and animation of Attempting Accroupie.

Though Lockwood critiques a patriarchy that was ancient long before the Roman era, she seems to have an affinity, even a love, for the archaic and discarded. Her work retains some of the poignancy of recently excavated sculptures from antiquity, damaged yet recognizable to the modern eye. Or to quote the artist’s statement, ”To empathize with the ancient is to identify with the fragment, to feel the pressure entropy through an abbreviated form … which time has chipped away.”

Kylie Lockwood, Becoming a sculpture, archival inkjet prints, single edition, 2019 Image courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery

Becoming a Sculpture shows Lockwood at her most thoughtful.  Her recent work is perfectly imperfect, delivering a satisfying combination of conceptual rigor and visual pleasure.  She is in possession of the technical means to realize her vision and appears to be sure of her artistic mission: to transform our art historical preconceptions of beauty and agency in the female body.

Becoming a Sculpture is now on exhibition at the Simone DeSousa Gallery through December 21, 2019