Public Art in Detroit

“There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.” JFK

Culture is at the heart of any great city; integral to its experience and legacy. Without that, its buildings and streets stand cold, feral. The Detroit Institute of Arts’ world class collection was allowed to remain intact through the city’s bankruptcy and continues to be critical to anchoring a community where people don’t just want to visit, but want to invest, live, work and put down roots. The Heidelberg Project endured its share of scathing criticism, and arson, only to stand today as symbol of our fortitude. Charles McGee’s recent sculpture “United We Stand”, installed outside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, continues that call to creative arms.

DAR archival image of Charles McGee’s United We Stand

Robert Schefman, Faculty Professor at the College of Creative Studies and an artist of over 40 years experience with public shows, commented, “For centuries, public art has been a responsibility for those who governed, and could afford the funding. In America, theoretically, we are the government, and democracy puts responsibility for public work, with the public. I will assume that there is some agreement on the benefits of placing artwork in public for everyone to enjoy, regardless of their position in society, because the communication of ideas and experiences through artwork of any discipline enrich us all.”

However, he continues, “When we talk about public art, we change how we relate to our spaces. Change is a double edged sword, and the changes are not always desired by current residents, no matter how much it will beautify, or improve an environment. A mural is placed in a space that draws more people into the area, and the look of the area, altering the way the current occupant feels about “their” space. People often fight change.” Case in point is the installation of “Waiting”, a 17-foot bronze sculpture by internationally acclaimed artist KAWS. The piece is sort of a cross between a Disney and an M. Night Shyamalan character. To say it provoked a strong response is an understatement. Whether attracted, repelled, confused by it, most can’t resist taking a selfie with it. It does what art is supposed to do, engage with the viewer.

“Waiting” KAWS, 17’ bronze sculpture, image courtesy of Kim Fay.

Born from a public art project on New York City’s High Line, John Sauvé enlisted students from a local school where arts funding had been cut. Very quietly and with little promotion, a silhouette of an orange man sporting a fedora began appearing on city rooftops. Now known as The Man in the City International Sculpture Project, the on-going installation is comprised of 60 sculptures located on the rooftops throughout the City of Detroit and Windsor. The Man in the City Project creates a metaphor for life that transforms the skyline and encourages people to look around. It’s an ingenious vehicle to highlight this city’s sensational architecture as well as prompt the viewer’s sense of their place within the city. In our increasingly busy lives, our faces habitually planted in our handheld screens, the sudden materialization of a bright figure incongruous with its architectural host gives pause and a moment to remember ourselves and our community.

John Sauvé, The Man in the City Project, courtesy Michigan Radio

Until recently public art traditionally consisted of elegant sculpture arranged in neatly manicured gardens or parks leaving two-dimensional art relegated to gallery and museum walls. Graffiti has been around since Lascaux Cave’s Paleolithic I-was-here paintings. Contemporary inscriptions became ubiquitous on any modern city’s decaying buildings. Rough and raw, quickly written, it was considered an emblem of decline and abandonment. As the global spotlight on Detroit’s ravaged neighborhoods grew brighter, images of that blight were distributed worldwide. What those images failed to convey was our soul. Detroiters know how to grind. Our resilience has been historically expressed through note and rhyme. Today, it’s described in canned brushstrokes, metals and ink. Indigenous graffiti has evolved from a name scrawled under a bridge somewhere into beautifully executed pieces displayed proudly where everyone can see them. Bold and immediately recognizable styles envelop buildings from Eastern Market to the Creative Corridor. As Schefman stated, there is resistance to change. Those first towering blasts of color, although legally commissioned, still carried the old stigma. Is it vandalism or is it art?

Pose, the Belt, Detroit, image Kim Fay

One the highest concentrations of street art in the world is The Belt/Z Garage’s international collaboration of writers. You can’t miss Shepard Fairey’s mural on One Campus Martius. His smaller piece “Pattern of Destruction” is part of the Belt, a culturally redefined alley between Broadway and Library Street showcasing a gauntlet of creative minds including Cleon Peterson, Nina Chanel Abney, Pose, Hoxxoh and our own Tiff Massey. Peterson describes his images of faceless street fighters as “a gray world where law breakers and law enforcers are one in the same; a world where ethics have been abandoned in favor of personal entitlement.” Tiff Massey references African culture in her work and says, “It’s always going to be large. It’s always going to be in your face.”  Their work turns a meal, a couple cocktails and a packed gallery opening into a raucous street fair.

Cleon Peterson, Nina Chanel Abney, the Belt, Detroit, image Kim Fay

Hoxxoh, the Belt, Detroit, image Kim Fay

This genre has gotten such attention Detroit hosts the annual event Murals in the Market organized by 1xRun and located primarily in Eastern Market. The sprawling festival draws artists from all over the world. It includes local writers Malt and Fel3000ft who collaborated on a piece for the festival. I caught up with artist Malt, who has prominent aerosol pieces in the Dequindre Cut, Lincoln Street Art Park as well as a few remaining underground tags from when he started writing in 1994. His style was inspired by skateboard graphics from the 80’s. Strong color, hard black lines. He says, “Graffiti has always been here. People evolved and got better. Everyone’s still doing their thing just on a larger scale.” Public interest has helped him out tremendously. Before it was all out of his own pocket. Now he gets commissions and has gallery representation. “There’s been a huge progression over the last 10 years. It’s rad. People respect it. It attracts more people to the city.” He adds, “I’d rather look at a colorful wall than beige cinder block.” Amen.

Malt-Fel3000ft collaboration 1xRun Murals in the Market, courtesy of the artist

Malt – Dequindre Cut, courtesy of the artist

No more cloak of darkness with a backpack full of cans. This art form is legit. Love it or hate it, the work is stunning, fun and livens up how we look at life. I still have mad respect for an old school tag dangling on a freeway overpass. As with any art form, how’d they do that?

*Malt and Freddy Diaz open their two-person show at M Contemporary tentatively April 17

Angela Glajcar @ K.OSS Contemporary Art

Angela Glajcar, K.OSS Contemporary Art Installation image 2020

K.OSS Contemporary Art presents Angela Glajcar in a solo exhibition titled “My Silence Is My Self Defense.” Glajcar was born in Mainz Germany and studied at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Nuremberg. She achieved Master Student status and has been the recipient of several prestigious awards. Following her Detroit exhibition at K.OSS, she has a show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C. this June.

Angela Glajcar, Terforation  Installation detail

K.OSS’s IG promotional images of achromatic abstract paper sculpture caught my attention;  “My Silence Is My Self Defense” sealed my curiosity. The title was taken from a Billy Joel song “And So It Goes” where the lyrics read:

In every heart there is a room
A sanctuary safe and strong
To heal the wounds from lovers past
Until a new one comes along

I spoke to you in cautious tones
You answered me with no pretense
And still I feel I said too much
My silence is my self defense

And every time I’ve held a rose
It seems I only felt the thorns
And so it goes, and so it goes
And so will you soon I suppose

But if my silence made you leave
Then that would be my worst mistake
So I will share this room with you
And you can have this heart to break

And this is why my eyes are closed
It’s just as well for all I’ve seen
And so it goes…

I’ve been intrigued with low- to no-color work as I’ve been following Daniel Arsham for a while. In a welcomed respite to current trends where the viewer is regularly bludgeoned with color, the absence of it makes the work intrinsically calmer. It invites introspection and is instinctively meditative. Glajcar takes us on an other-worldly foray into cloudlike glacial caves of transparency, light, and shadowy layers; ever peering into the soul of an unchartered destination.

Angela Gajcar,  Terforation Installation 50 x 39 x 196″

Successful diatonic work is a feat in itself. It’s a lot like losing one of the five senses forcing you to rely on the remaining four to evaluate your surroundings. An artist requires some serious skills to pull off strong work without the use of color. The piece can’t rely on a shock of red to salvage a mediocre composition. Sculpture affords depth in its naturally occurring dimensions. The viewer has the luxury of physically circumnavigating the piece, interpreting it from every available angle. Representational sculpture allows the viewer to seamlessly connect through an easily recognizable subject. Glajcar has created abstract work that draws the viewer in via mysterious allure. Her expansive installation is particularly compelling in that every person who attended the opening found themselves absorbed in their attempt to discover its secrets by looking through the piece from one end to the other; even placing themselves into the middle of it, determined to force the piece to revelation. We looked again, deeper, closer: each reexamination whispering like a best friend revealing the latest gossip.

Glajcar writes, “I have chosen one of my ”Terforations“ as a “route“, is a way of dealing with space. My work in general is about exploring how space is experienced. “Terforation“ is a term I established by myself. It partly stems from perforation (from the Latin for hole, foramen), that is, the perforation of hollow or flat objects. It also refers to terra, the Latin word for earth. It alludes to the term terra incognita (unknown land; figurative: new land) to indicate that my work is about exploring unknown regions. For terra incognita hints at a vague idea, the supposition of knowledge as yet not clearly definable. The object refusing to be defined more clearly is the shape, the space created by the horizontal layering of sheets of paper with holes in them. To draw the viewer’s attention to this interstice, this void, it is never possible to look straight through the works, because the holes are positioned such that the hollow stretches into the unknown.”

Angela Gajcar,  Terforation,  installation detail

Although the paper material is quite heavy at 300g, it reads exquisitely graceful. The sculpture at once takes and gives space. The hand-torn edges grant detail to the Universal language of exploration; the search for love and sanctuary.

Glajcar writes, “Using paper was somehow the end of a long journey. After working with wood and steel I found out that paper is meeting my particular
requirements perfectly. Initially, paper appears light and fragile. Depending on its quality and layering, however, it can also be heavy and resilient. Since paper is made of natural substances and is therefore perishable like any other natural tissue, it takes up a position halfway between natural and artificial. In contrast to wood or metal it absorbs color and is permeable without being of any color itself. Paper can be processed without any tools – although this requires quite a bit of effort – and can easily be agitated, so that the works that already give the impression of floating begin to sway, casting a moving shadow. For me no other medium is of such a wide range of possibilities.”

Angela Gajcar,  Terforation,  installation detail

The smaller pieces seem to be abbreviations of the larger installation but miraculously hold an element of the same unsolvable mystery. The search for resonance isn’t as deep yet delivers satisfactory vibrations. In our world’s persistent cacophony of jarring frequencies, Glajcar’s work offers a momentary hiatus, allowing the viewer’s breath to relax and return to peace.

Installation by Angela Glajcar is on view at K.OSS Contemporary Art through March 28, 2020

Robert Schefman @ David Klein Gallery

Robert Schefman, Installation image, David Klein Gallery, 2019

In his first solo exhibition with David Klein Gallery, Robert Schefman presents a series of works exploring the hidden world of secrets. Via social media, Schefman asked followers to send him one personal secret, no names attached. Protected under a cloak of anonymity, Schefman coaxed quite a few people out of their shame and guilt to reveal the darkest of grave-destined secrets. These confessions became the framework for this series. The paintings are allegorical visual poems inviting the viewer to peer into the subjects’ private space glimpsing their angst or discomfort. Particularly striking is “On the Edge of the Moon,” wherein a woman seated alone on the beach in an ordinary kitchen chair, faces out toward the gloom. She appears to be contemplating her circumstances while the rhythm of the surf calms and comforts. A vital component of this painting is scale. At 78 x 120”, the viewer can mentally walk right into this scene illuminated only by the headlights from a waiting car.

Robert Schefman, “On the Edge of the Moon,” oil on canvas 78 x 120″ 2019

Visually poignant is “In Love with My Best Friend.” Unable to declare his love, possibly at the expense of a valued friendship, the unrequited lover sits amongst tokens of lovelorn and childhood toys, possibly symbolizing the length of the relationship. A bare light bulb harkens to harsh interrogation, coercing the admirer to give up his ghost and confess. His head is slightly bent toward his chest, implying the burden he carries on his broad but heartbroken shoulders.

Robert Schefman,  “In Love with My Best Friend,” oil on canvas 72 x 56″ 2019

Using our familiarity with texting and Twitter, the laser cut words-only pieces, devoid of a supplied visual reference, allows the viewer to consider their secrets. As a painter, reading “Someone Else Did One of My Paintings and I Signed My Name” caused my left eyebrow to rise in Scarlett O’Hara judgment. Identifying with an author makes the show somewhat participatory and taps into empathy on shared common ground. #metoo

Robert Schefman, “I Prefer My Mom’s Company Now That She Has Alzheimer’s,” laser-cut paper 16 x 20″

Robert Schefman,  “I Can’t Admit to All of the Drugs and Alcohol I Constantly Use to Get High” laser-cut paper 16 x 20″

Technology lends to speed and convenience. It made collecting this subject matter considerably easier. What makes this show genuinely compelling is mindful, patient execution. Schefman deftly wields his paintbrush with the best of the Renaissance Italians, masterfully telling dramatic stories through light and shadow. Throw in a side of Dutch trompe l’oeil, and the illusion is astonishing. Upon close inspection, however, it is surprising and delightful to discover the brushstrokes are looser than anticipated affording a soupçon of personal expression. A very relatable image is “Secrets.” In an attempt to silence his torment, this secretary seeks to ‘bury the evidence literally. I get that this image is metaphorical, but the idea of a thief on the precipice of capture, hastily disposing of material that will surely convict him, is far more romantic.

Robert Schefman, “Secrets” oil on canvas 44 x 30″  2017

 

KF: Assuming the models aren’t the confessors, why are most of the subjects’ backs turned?

RBS: Point of view is a valuable element in the narrative, with implications for both content and visible form. It accomplishes a number of goals. The back of a figure gives the viewer an easier opportunity to project themselves into a subject, rather than an encounter a specific person. In “The Edge Of The Moon,” point of view was used to keep the viewer isolated from the figure on the beach, and still experience the intersection of earth, water, sky, and self.

KF: Your genre has historically been an illusionist narrative via sculpture and painting. Why spell it out now with the text-only/no image pieces?

RBS: So much of the “Secrets Project” was generated by words that I wanted to honor the written word with pieces that focused on them. I have a long history of making paper sculpture as well as 2-dimensional work, and developing an idea with these elements resolved itself in a pointed way.

KF: What about your secrets? Are they lurking somewhere in this series unidentified?

RBS: Most of the secrets fell into categories; experiences, fears, and obsessions that we all share, myself included, but the rule of the project is anonymity, so my secrets remain.

Technology has permeated just about every aspect of our lives. From the comfort of our sofa, we command our smart devices to deliver groceries or name a state capitol. (I shudder to think what’s being recorded.) Many people are using social media channels as a crowdsourcing confessional, looking for validation from strangers as often as from people they actually know. It’s getting harder to maintain personal privacy while we demand transparency from public figures. Some feel relieved when they finally clear the slate. What about the participants in this project? Did this action unburden the keepers and free them from their prison? Ask Alexa.

Robert Schefman, Any Particular Secret” 54×36″ oil on canvas 2017

 

“Robert Schefman: Secrets” remains on view through December 21, 2019 at the David Klein Gallery