Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Author: Michael Hodges Page 1 of 3

Mario Moore @ David Klein Gallery

An installation view of Midnight and Canaan at the David Klein Gallery in Detroit, up through Nov. 5, 2022

Mario Moore’s solo show, Midnight and Canaan, which just opened at Detroit’s David Klein Gallery, is well worth going way out of your way to catch. The figurative oil paintings in front and the three silverpoint-on-paper works in the back room are mesmerizing, particularly when you get the story behind them.  Midnight and Canaan will be up through Nov. 5.

Moore, a College for Creative Studies grad with an MFA from Yale, has taken a sober, admiring look at Black leaders who worked the last stretch of the Underground Railroad in Michigan – names that would be unfamiliar to most people. In his Artist’s Statement, Moore notes that he learned a lot about the Great Migration in school, which brought African-Americans from the deep south to northern cities, but almost nothing about Black abolitionists before the Civil War, who deserve to be honored for their persistence and unfathomable courage, given all that they were up against.

As for the title, “Midnight” and “Canaan” were code words for Detroit and Canada, respectively, that abolitionists employed.

The operation of the Underground Railroad was both sophisticated and practical. Moore quotes from an 1886 Detroit Tribune interview with a William Lambert, who explains how they’d transport individuals fleeing slavery in “tin-peddling wagons with false bottoms, large enough to hold three men, traveling through the South.”

Lambert himself gets an affectionate shout-out with Moore’s large, silverpoint portrait. As with the other two silverpoint works of Sojourner Truth and George DeBaptiste, lines stitched onto the fabric by Moore’s mother, Detroit artist and Kresge Artist Fellow Sabrina Nelson, delineate the routes the three took while working for the Underground Railroad, whether to Battle Creek, Port Huron, Detroit or Amherstburg, Ontario.

Laid down with actual gold thread, the lines take the shape of branching railroad tracks. In all three cases, Nelson’s linear needlework frames the individual in question, hovering above their heads a bit like angular halos, at the same time that the lines all reach toward the right – i.e., the east – to Canada and freedom. As for the gentleman himself, Lambert — handsomely dressed in frock coat and tie — stares out at the viewer with determined, undeceived eyes. So too does Sojourner Truth on the facing wall.

Mario Moore, Sojourner Truth, 2022, Silverpoint on prepared paper, Gold Thread, Embroidery by Sabrina Nelson, 74.5 x 47.5 inches, Courtesy David Klein Gallery.

What may not be apparent as you walk into the gallery is that the entire show, in one way or another, is a tribute to the Underground Railroad and those hardy souls it ushered to freedom in Canaan – even the contemporary pieces at the front of the gallery.

Reading through “A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland” from Wayne State University Press (edited by Karolyn Smardz Frost and Veta Smith Tucker), Moore stumbled upon a married couple – Thornton and Lucie Blackburn — who escaped slavery in Kentucky and finally settled and prospered in Toronto. The artist calls their story a “cornerstone in my understanding of Detroit’s Black militancy,” and little wonder.

The Canadian Encyclopedia notes that the Blackburns made a dramatic escape from Kentucky in 1831, only to be recaptured in Detroit two years later. Miraculously, somehow the two were spirited from their cells and across the waters where they were re-arrested and threatened with being sent back to the United States. That prospect sparked riots on both sides of the border, and ultimately, a change in Canadian law to admit political refugees.

Rather than portraying the pair in historic garb, as Moore’s done with the silverpoint portraits, they’re a sexy, 21st-century couple lounging in bathing suits along the Detroit riverfront – a flight of fancy that somehow helps us see these intrepid souls more clearly than we might if they were outfitted in historically accurate, if distancing, petticoats and trousers.

Thornton and Lucie Blackburn in Canaan shows the recumbent Blackburns apparently enjoying a hot evening in safety along the Windsor riverfront, with Detroit looming – and erupting in flames – behind them. Lucie’s gazing up at the stars, while Thornton, hand on her hip, stares straight out into the Ontario night.

Mario Moore, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn in Canaan, 2022, Oil on linen, 63 x 90 inches, Courtesy David Klein Gallery.

Social and political themes underlie much of Moore’s artwork, as with these heroes of the Underground Railroad. In 2018, when he was the Hodder Fellowship artist-in-residence at Princeton University, he produced “The Work of Several Lifetimes” — painting the college’s African-American service workers in the style ordinarily accorded to the great and famous.

With Midnight and Canaan, Moore tips his hat to “Black pioneers” in contemporary Detroit as well, singling out Detroit artists like the much-respected Allie McGhee and metalworker Tiff Massey, who was also a Kresge Artist Fellow. His portrait of her, Tiff Like Granite, What Up Doe, is especially compelling. Standing defiantly on rocks by the riverside in long black cloak, aviator glasses and red slacks tucked into boots, Massey looks, for all the world, a bit like a Revolutionary War war hero.

Mario Moore, Tiff Like Granite, What Up Doe, 2022, Oil on linen, 72 x 48 inches, Courtesy David Klein Gallery.

Rounding out his history of Michigan’s role in helping enslaved persons flee to Canada, Moore also paints two of the institutions – both churches – that played critical roles in the endeavor. His portrait of the Second Baptist Church, which was key to the freedom struggle, is about as heroic as a painting of a building can be. Lit by two outdoor lamps at night, the church positively glows with hope and promise.

Mario Moore, Light in the Darkness, 2022, Oil on linen, 55 x 39 inches, Courtesy David Klein Gallery.

Finally, right at the front of the gallery above the reception desk, you’ll find Keep On Keepin On, Don’t Look Back, which is likely to intrigue and perhaps amuse all but the hard-hearted. Seemingly suspended a hundred feet above the Detroit River, with Renaissance Center and the Ambassador Bridge in the background, a nattily dressed couple – he in top hat and frock coat, she in a long red dress – walk slowly towards the Canadian Canaan, framed by dark wintry clouds.

Mario Moore, Keep On Keepin On, Don’t Look Back, 2022, Oil on linen, 30 x 38 inches, Courtesy David Klein Gallery.

Midnight and Canaan will be up through Nov 5. A reception for the artist will take place on Saturday, September 24, 5 – 8 PM.

 Midnight and Canaan, a solo show by Mario Moore, will be at Detroit’s David Klein Gallery through Nov. 5.

Conscious Response @ Detroit Institute of Arts

Conscious Response: Photographers Changing the Way We See, an exhibition on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts

An installation view of Conscious Response: Photographers Changing the Way We See, on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts through Jan. 8, 2023

A photo exhibition of gifts and new acquisitions at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Conscious Response: Photographers Changing the Way We See, highlights impressive new talent from the Detroit area, as well as big names from the photographic canon whose work, mostly in black-and-white, you’re likely to recognize. The show is up through Jan. 8.

Nancy Barr, the James Pearson Duffy Curator of Photography, has selected work by 17 international artists to illustrate the depth and breadth of the collection, which was first assembled in the 1950s right as photography began entering major museums as a bonafide art form.

Conscious Response is staged in the Albert and Peggy de Salle Gallery of Photography on the museum’s first floor, not far from Kresge Court — a highly comfortable space with the Goldilocks virtues of being neither too big nor too small. You’ll want to browse at leisure.

Among recent famous gifts are works by the legendary Bruce Davidson, including some of his “street gang” series, as well as the iconic image from the 1965 march from Selma to Birmingham, Ala., of a young man with “VOTE” stenciled in white on his forehead.

There are also new prints by the celebrated Diane Arbus, who hasn’t been on display at the DIA in some time. One recently acquired image numbers among her most famous – Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, NYC, 1962 – and for good reason. The backlighting behind the little boy may be gorgeous, but it’s the child’s thrillingly unhinged expression – Talk about the decisive moment! — that propels this from documentation to artwork, momentarily freezing the viewer in place (who, like as not, is stifling a giggle).

In addition to heavyweights from decades past, Barr pulls in a number of young, emerging voices from metro Detroit, as well as outsiders like Farah Al Qasimi who’ve done extensive work locally.

Farah Al Qasimi, Shisha, 2019; Pigment print. Museum Purchase, Albert and Peggy DeSalle Charitable Trust and Asian Art Deaccession Fund, 2021.289. © Farah Al Qasimi, 2022.

Originally from the United Arab Emirates, the 31-year-old New Yorker with a Yale MFA spent a month in Dearborn three years ago shooting everyday life in the Arab-American community on a residency supported by Wayne State University, the Arab-American National Museum and the Knight Foundation.

“I fell in love with Dearborn really fast,” Al Qasimi told the South End, the Wayne State student paper. “It felt like home – more like home than my home.” That affection shows. Shisha, a shot of a romantic couple in a green-lit hookah lounge, their faces hidden behind a greenish cloud of tobacco smoke, is both kind of a hoot and a gorgeous color study.

Exploring notions of home and identity as well is local photographer Jarod Lew who, according to Barr, is just about to start his own graduate photography program at Yale. The young man’s artistic journey is intriguing. In 2012, Lew discovered his mother had been engaged to Vincent Chin when the Chinese-American man was beaten to death in 1982 in Highland Park – on the very night of his bachelor party — by two auto workers enraged by Japanese inroads into the U.S. car market. (The pair, by the way, never served jail time.) That unsettling discovery set Lew on a path to shoot family and friends in their homes as a way of documenting and giving face to Asian-Americans in the Motor City.

Like so many first-generation kids, Lew’s had to straddle the pull of competing identities. He’s famously said that when he’s at his mother’s home, he’s the least-Asian thing in sight, but once outside, he’s the most. It’s a disorienting phenomenon he illustrates with The Most American Thing, a self-portrait in which Lew lies on a sofa in a room crammed with Asian artifacts, his yellow hoodie pulled so tightly around his head that only his eyes and nose are visible.

Jarod Lew, The Most American Thing, 2021. Pigment print. Museum Purchase, Albert and Peggy DeSalle Charitable Trust and Asian Art Deaccession Fund, T2022.73 © Jarod Lew, 2022.

Illustrating that identity tug-of-war as well is Gracie, in which a skinny, young Asian woman stretches her hands over her head in an awkward pose while surrounded by a profoundly “American” dining room, complete with fussy china cabinet and large painting of a woman on the wall who’s undeniably white.

There are a lot of things that make this picture great, including Gracie’s Bart Simpson t-shirt, where America’s favorite buffoon is speaking Korean. Then there’s the peculiar white, paper mask stretched across the young woman’s face. Did the photographer interrupt her midway through a beauty treatment, or, a bit like the room décor, is this a high-concept reference to racial identity? Ghostly Gracie isn’t saying.

Several photographers wrestle with crises that have plagued the recent past, including Merik Goma, a Manistee native now living in Connecticut whose Your Absence Is My Monument conjures up a spellbinding sense of loss tied to the covid pandemic.

Merik Goma, Your Absence Is My Monument, 2020; Pigment print. Museum Purchase, Mary Martin Semmes Fund, T2022.23, © Merik Goma, 2022.

Goma, who’s partway through an 18-month, $150,000 artistic fellowship with the Amistad Center for Art & Culture in West Hartford, creates painterly tableaux in his studio that serve as affecting backdrops for his portraits. In Your Absence, a sober young African-American woman sits in front of a window with an empty birdcage, door wide open, next to her. The lighting is gorgeous, even if the overall vibe is somewhat funereal.

Equally funereal in its own way is LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Flint Water Treatment Plant, an aerial shot of the huge water tower that’s become the visual symbol for the lead-pipe calamity in Buick’s one-time hometown.

A photography professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Frazier first traveled to Flint in 2016 on a magazine assignment, but subsequently got to know the local Cobb family, and spent five years documenting both their struggles and the city’s. Her work there has just been published in a new book, LaToya Ruby Frazier: Flint Is Family in Three Acts.

 

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Flint Water Treatment Plant, Flint, Michigan, from Flint Is Family, 2016; Gelatin silver print. Museum Purchase, Albert and Peggy DeSalle Charitable Trust and Asian Art Deaccession Fund, 2021.247. © LaToya Ruby Frasier, 2022.

Finally, a Detroiter who’s turned drone photography into a mesmerizing art form, Brian Day, gives us a straight-down picture of the 2020 mural that artist Hubert Massey painted with high-schoolers on Woodward Avenue between Congress and Larned. The work honors Juneteenth, now a federal holiday, that celebrates the date when the last African-Americans in Texas finally learned they were free citizens, June 19, 1865.

Day’s dazzling drone work was compiled last year in Detroit from Above, which is available from Peanut Press Books. Happily, the artist hasn’t limited himself to just aerial photography, however gripping that may be. Conscious Response also includes some of his Planet Detroit series, a project launched in 2010 that stars the city’s denizens.

Brian Day, Woodward Avenue, Hubert Massey Mural, from Detroit from Above, 2020; Pigment print. Museum Purchase, Coville Photographic Fund, 2021.37. © Brian Day, 2022.

Conscious Response: Photographers Changing the Way We See, on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts through Jan. 8, 2023.

 

 

Jose Parla @ Library Street Collective and Heather Day @  Louis / Buhl

An installation view of José Parlá’s Polarities at Detroit’s Library Street Collective through Aug. 24. Courtesy Library Street Collective.

An explosion of color, Polarities by Cuban-American multi-media artist José Parlá is now on view at the reconfigured Library Street Collective in downtown Detroit – oddly, a richly-hued show prompted in large part by the covid pandemic. Polarities will run through Aug. 24.

Brooklyn-based Parlá is part of a growing cohort of artists, from Detroit’s Scott Hocking to New York photographer Camilo José Vergara, who are mesmerized by the effects time and weathering work on the world, and in particular on urban landscapes. In Parlá’s case, this leads to color-rich canvases with a complex accretion of layered acrylic, plaster, script and paper collage.

José Parlá, Breath, 2022, Acrylic and oil paint on canvas, 72 x 48 in. Courtesy Library Street Collective.

The nine paintings on display, all quite large, are highly textured. A number of them, like Breath, have a bit of Jackson Pollack about them in their looping lines of color — others have compared the Brooklyn artist to Cy Twombly — though Parlá’s work is looser and less controlled than either of those masters. In some respects, Breath resembles a time-lapse image of munitions exploding, with crazy, sharp lines criss-crossing and looping back over a thicker, wider substrata of color. Art writers often say a given painting has energy. This one has momentum, which somehow, inexplicably, feels different.

Interestingly, given the title of Breath, Parlá, who’s 49 and grew up in Puerto Rico and Miami, spent months in the hospital with covid early in the epidemic – reportedly so sick his doctors were skeptical he’d ever return to painting. With Breath as well as his other canvases, all completed post-illness, there’s a core of strong color that looks vaguely like an organ – call it a heart – from which brushstrokes and incredibly fine, energetic lines explode, in the process creating odd and absorbing sub-cutaneous maps and topographies.

José Parlá, La Habana y Detroit, Acrylic, collage, ink and enamel on wood, 90 x 55 x 10 in. Courtesy Library Street Collective

 Seven of the Library Street pieces are paintings hung on the wall, but two others are free-standing and resemble stone monoliths (they’re actually wood constructions). Daubed with broader splotches of paint, La Habana y Detroit is rendered in rich tropical tones, while Detroit/Habana – in light blue, grays and black — is chillier and more monochromatic.  Both stand in distinct counterpoint to Breath or the equally immersive Polarity, with its shattered explosions streaking across the canvas.

In her catalog essay, Laura Mott, the Cranbrook Art Museum’s chief curator, argues that the pairing of Detroit and Havana might be more logical than it looks at first, at least in the quality of their respective urban decay. “There is a similar entropy on the surfaces of their architecture,” she writes, a layered and progressive erosion that Parlá harnesses to his own work.

José Parlá, Detroit/La Habana, 2022, Acrylic, collage, ink, and enamel on wood, 90 x 55 x 10 in. Courtesy Library Street Collective.

If you haven’t been to Library Street in a while, be forewarned that you will have to enter through the back. The reorganized space now opens onto The Belt, the cool “activated” alleyway with outsider-art murals, bars and restaurants between Grand River and Gratiot that Anthony and JJ Curis, LSC owners and founders, helped to create eight years ago.

As it happens, Library Street and its founders are dramatically expanding their footprint in Detroit.  The Crruses are partway through restoring an east-side Catholic Church and parish house into an art compound to be called The Shepherd, debuting next spring, along with a sculpture garden open to the public honoring the late artist Charles McGee that Dan and Jennifer Gilbert will underwrite.

The Curises will run the art center out of the old red-brick Good Shepherd Catholic Church in addition to LSC downtown, so all in all, this represents a significant growth in their corner of the Detroit art world.

Also new downtown is what LSC is calling a next-door “sister gallery,” Louis Buhl, which opened in 2020 on The Belt when Library Street was reorganized. (The front of LSC is now administrative offices and a private showroom.) Louis Buhl grew out of an online store and takes a more consumer-oriented approach to the gallery experience with, in addition to original art shows, a limited selection of art books, ceramics, and artist-designed fashions.

On display at Louis Buhl now, also through Aug. 24, is Night Crackle by California artist Heather Day, whose home and studio are in the desert town of Joshua Tree adjacent to the national park.

Heather Day, Last Light No. 2, 2022, Mixed media on stitched canvas, 30 x 22 in. Courtesy Louis Buhl Gallery.

 Day has reportedly been inspired by the rich hues of the California desert, and the dramatic sunrises and sunsets that are a large part of its seductive charm. Her washes on canvas, once completed, are then dissected, cut up and fastened back together in geometric fashion. The works on display come in either hot reds and oranges or sharp blues in a range of late-light hues. Common to many of her paintings are what the artist calls “that last burst of color,” like a blotch of pink on the otherwise flaming red Last Light No. 2.

Also on view along with Night Crackle are a series of monoprints Day produced with the off-grid, solar-powered Farrington Press, located in the high desert of southern California as well.

Heather Day, Night Crackle No. 3, 2022 (left) 50 x 58 in., and Night Crackle No. 4, 2022, 55.5 x 47.5 in. Courtesy Louis Buhl Gallery.

 Polarities by José Parlá at Detroit’s Library Street Collective will be up through Aug. 24. Next door at Louis Buhl Gallery, Heather Day’s Night Crackle will also be up through Aug. 24.

LGBTQ @ Scarab Club

“Mighty Real / Queer Detroit: Remembrance of Things Present” will be up at Detroit’s Scarab Club through July 9. The other 16 exhibition spaces will take the show down on June 30, 2022.

An installation view of “Mighty Real / Queer Detroit” at the Scarab Club, up through July 9.

“Mighty Real / Queer Detroit: Remembrance of Things Present,” the monumental art exhibition of LGBTQ art that sprawls over 17 venues, underlines just how much has changed in America in the new millennium. Even 10 years ago, this sort of mammoth undertaking devoted to queer artists and their allies would be hard to imagine outside of a few trend-setting cities, mostly on the coasts.

Boasting more than 700 pieces by 150 artists both established and emerging, as well as some who’ve passed on, MRQD is being mounted in partnership with the City of Detroit’s Office of Art, Culture, and Entrepreneurship.

The shows at participating galleries are up through the end of June.

Apparently sparked by a suggestion from Detroit artist and longtime gay activist Charles Alexander, the project was curated and muscled into glorious existence by Patrick Burton, a visual and performance artist who teaches in the Detroit schools. The exhibition was originally set for 2020, and at the time involved just four or five galleries. But two years of covid delays gave Burton time to extend his reach, pulling in other outlets all over town.

“Patrick did just a beautiful job putting together portfolios of work for all the different spaces,” said Treena Flannery-Erickson, gallery director at the Scarab Club. “It’s historic and amazing.”

Among the participating galleries are Hatch Art in Hamtramck, Detroit Artists Market, the David Klein Gallery and, out in Mt. Clemens, the Anton Art Center – said to have one of the liveliest displays.

“This project is presenting queer artists, or humanizing us, in a new way,” Burton told The Detroit News. “We’re not often represented. We’re often sexualized and we’re not thought of us as full beings who live life and create art. This is about offering a queer culture and expanding minds and hearts.”

Stephanie Crawford, Green Still Life 3, Watercolor on paper, 22” x 15,” 2018. Courtesy The Scarab Club.

At Detroit’s Scarab Club, the 32 artists on view represent a wide and intriguing range of work, which will stay up longer than at other venues — through July 9. Some pieces here are thematically tied to the queer experience, like the late Jack O. Summers’ collage of itsy-bitsy naked men, while other canvases, such as the technicolor trio of still-lifes by Stephanie Crawford, a Black native Detroiter in her 80s, eschew messaging in favor of simple, striking beauty.

By contrast, the 1999 “Blue Bathroom Blues 1” by Frederick Weston, raised in Detroit before moving to New York, clearly points to the AIDS catastrophe. Look closely at this gorgeous, geometric collage in shades of blue and aqua and you’ll find a reference to the protease inhibitor Crixivan, an anti-HIV drug right beneath an advertising slogan, “Safe for Septic Systems.”

Frederick Weston, Blue Bathroom Blues 1 (detail), Mixed media collage, 11” x 8.5”, 1999. The Scarab Club.

Corktown resident Jon Strand, a meticulous painter with work in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection, calls the exhibition a seismic event for the local queer community and its visibility. “This is like a declaration that we’re real and we make beautiful art,” he said. “We weren’t trying to promote or indoctrinate. It’s just about great creativity coming from all kinds of sources.”

One of those sources is Strand himself, who has work in this particular show at both Collected Detroit and Detroit Artists Market. The latter includes “The Flaming Pearl of Infinite Wisdom, A Silvery Moon, and Seven Hidden Dragons,” which typifies the artist’s fascination with oddly whimsical, otherworldly canvases created by means of a back-breaking form of pointillism.

Jon Strand, The Flaming Pearl of Infinite Wisdom, A Silvery Moon, and Seven Hidden Dragons, Ink on canvas, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Much of the work throughout MRQD is recent, but Burton also reached back far for some particularly arresting visuals as far away as New York City. Among the most striking, for reasons that are a little hard to decipher, is Marcus Leatherdale’s black-and-white portrait of Sam Wagstaff from 1981, 10 years after he left his curatorial position at the DIA in some disgrace. (For a contemporary art project, Wagstaff in his last year at the museum drove a bulldozer across the museum’s pristine north lawn dragging a 35-ton monolith, “Dragged Mass Displacement” by Michael Heiser, that gouged its own trench and sent the DIA’s board of directors into conniptions.)

Marcus Leatherdale, Sam Wagstaff, Archival pigment print, 22” x 22”, 1981. The Scarab Club.

Leatherdale, a photographer of New York’s demimonde who died in May, gives us a sharply observed portrait of the curator and photography collector at 60, with chiseled good looks and a skeptical gaze some eight years before his lover, Robert Mapplethorp, would die of AIDS.

Another striking image from the now-distant past is Detroiter Katy Hait’s “Marc Mannino, Detroit,” with the tousle-haired artist holding up what look like two punk marionettes. The juxtaposition of the puppets’ menace and Mannino’s youthful gaze, apprehensive but as yet unbruised by life, is a knockout.

Katy Hait, Marc Mannino, Detroit, Archival pigment print, 19” x 13”, 1977. The Scarab Club.

Other participating venues hosting “Mighty Real / Queer Detroit” include Affirmations, Cass Café, the College for Creative Studies Center Galleries, Galerie Camille, M Contemporary Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Design Detroit, N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, Norwest Gallery, Oloman Café & Gallery, Playground Detroit and Public Pool.

In breadth, scope and daring, MRQD will be remembered as a landmark in Detroit’s artistic and gay history. In Flannery-Erickson’s words, “It was a monumental undertaking that involved so many people. At the end of the day, it’s a beautiful salute to community.”

Like all curators, Burton hopes for lasting impact. “It’s a community defining ourselves,” he said. “When you think about, it was just over 50 years ago that there was the Stonewall uprising (in Manhattan). I just think there’s a lot of work still to be done. This exhibition is a beginning here, and we wanted to do it big and we wanted to make sure it got the right attention. The only way to do that was to not just do one gallery.”

“Mighty Real / Queer Detroit: Remembrance of Things Present” will be up at Detroit’s Scarab Club through July 9. The other 16 exhibition spaces will take the show down on June 30.

44 – Portraits of a President @ Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

An installation view of 44 – Portraits of a President at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

In a moment that feels fraught with political peril, the Charles H. Wright has resurrected its show of creatively painted busts of President Barack Obama, first mounted in 2012 and at the time titled Visions of Our 44thPresident.

The current show is called 44 – Portraits of a President and includes a few new Detroit artists not in the original. The exhibition, staged in two galleries on the museum’s lower floor, will be up through Dec. 31, 2022.

All of which raises the question: why resurrect an exhibition after 10 years?

The reason, said Patrina Chatman, the Wright’s director of collections and exhibitions, has everything to do with efforts by some in this country to rewrite the nation’s racial history, downplaying aspects like slavery they find uncomfortable or distasteful.

This deeply offends the historian in Chatman. “You don’t just change the historical record because you don’t want to tell the stories” she said, arguing that those engaging in this sort of revisionism don’t want people to know how dreadful things really were at one time.

“We’re a history museum,” Chatman added. “We have to make sure these stories are told, and told in different ways.”

The premise for “44,” both 2012 and 2022, is simple: Take replicas of the same bust of President Obama, created for the original exhibition by Santa Fe artist Matthew Gonzales, and encourage artists to have at them. The result is a kaleidoscopic parade of Obama likenesses, dressed up in all the colors of the rainbow, and ranging from literal representations to the very abstract.

All Parties by Detroit artist Tyree Guyton.

One of the most interesting is Detroit artist Tyree Guyton’s high-concept contribution, “All Parties.” The Heidelberg Project founder has given us a blandly painted president with light-coffee skin, gray hair, and a pink suit jacket with an orange, striped tie. In front of him is a table stacked with old-fashioned teacups and spoons, an allusion to the Tea Party that rose up in 2009 to bedevil President Obama and his Affordable Care Act as it made its tortuous way through Congress.

In his artist’s statement, Guyton defined Americans — in particular, apparently, Tea Party conservatives — as a “people in a flummoxed situation of refusing to change with the times.”

Appropriating Obama’s image for artistic purposes, of course, was well established even before the 2012 Wright exhibition. The most-famous example is surely Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster, based on an Associated Press photo and one of the most-totemic images from 2008. On the other side of the aisle, artist Jon McNaughton produced a series of highly critical paintings of the president that variously portray him fiddling while Washington burns, or stepping all over the U.S. Constitution. (Fox News’ Sean Hannity reportedly owns one of McNaughton’s canvases.)

Perhaps “44’s” most-daring treatment comes from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, a Brooklyn artist with an African-American mother and an Iranian father (hence the unusual last name). With “Is He Black Enough?” she tackles the question by painting the top half of the president’s face a deep, rich ebony, while the bottom half looks a lot like a white guy with a good tan.

In so doing, Fazlalizadeh touches on the twin complaints that pursued our first African-American president: For many white people, he was unquestionably “too Black,” at the same time that some members of the African-American community charged he wasn’t Black enough. In her artist’s statement, Fazlalizadeh suggested the question highlights “the potency of the color black.”

My Time to Shine by Nina Chanel Abney.

Also going out on a limb symbolically is New Yorker Nina Chanel Abney with her bust. Somewhat shockingly, “My Time to Shine” represents the 44th president as a clown with yellow hair, circular red cheeks, and a garish outfit. Her aim, Abney said on the accompanying label, was to underline how “the ruler of any country must put on many faces to appeal to the masses,” very much as a clown does in a circus.

It’s a plight that seems to stir some sympathy in the artist. Acknowledging the intense, often hostile, scrutiny any president faces – and Obama was certainly no exception (nor Trump) — Abney said she wanted to explore “the idea of concealment for self-preservation,” an intriguing insight into the psychological drawbacks of presidential power.

Tarred and Feathered by Angelbert Metoyer.

Another bust sure to raise eyebrows is New Orleans artist Angelbert Metoyer’s “Tarred and Feathered,” in which we find the former president, his black face streaked with bright gold, wearing a crown of feathers like a Native American tribal leader. Metoyer suggests opponents, with their fierce disdain, in effect tarred and feathered Obama. But the symbolism is two-sided. “In the Afro-Caribbean cultures of the South,” the artist noted, a crown of feathers signals power and prestige. “With this bust,” she said, wrapping things up nicely, “the punishment became instead an adornment – he is beautified by it.”

Preston Sampson’s Tales Retold.

Finally, the somewhat downbeat “Tales Retold” by Baltimore artist Preston Sampson acknowledges Obama’s huge accomplishment as the first Black president, but steps back to ask whether his administration really changed the trajectory Sampson argues the country’s been on for at least a century.

In “Tales,” Obama is decked out in a Roman centurion’s helmet, complete with red plume. While many Americans are proud that we elected Obama, the artist suggests we still resemble the Roman Empire more than we might like to think, and that the president, for all his virtues, did little to alter that.

Which leads to a heavy question: “Will we follow the same course of ruin?” as Sampson asked in his artist’s statement. “That tale is yet to be told.”

Mr. President Hear Our Cry by Kevin Cole.

44 – Portraits of a President will be up at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History through Dec. 31,2022.

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