Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Author: Michael Hodges Page 3 of 4

Romare Bearden: Abstractions @ UMMA

An installation view of “Romare Bearden: Abstractions,” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through May 15.

“Romare Bearden: Abstractions” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through May 15 tackles work the African-American artist produced between 1952 and 1964, what some scholars call Bearden’s “forgotten decade.” That characterization is intriguing since he exhibited and won commissions during those years. But the pieces he was showing at the time – abstract oils and watercolors, as well as highly stylized figurative works — have since been elbowed aside by the blistering originality of Bearden’s Cubist-inflected collages and photomontages depicting everyday Black life.

For contrast and context, a number of those are also on display in this exhibition. But there’s no disputing the collages are what won the Charlotte, North Carolina native his place in art history. Indeed, in its 1988 obituary, the New York Times called Bearden “the nation’s foremost collagist.”

“Abstractions,” organized by the American Federation of Arts and SUNY’s Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, considers the artist’s formative period in Paris and New York, one that ultimately led to an epiphany about what his art was supposed to do. Bottom line? In an era defined by the Civil Rights struggle, Bearden and many other Black artists felt abstraction was too pure, too apolitical, too far-removed from the demands of the age. So he put it down and turned his energy elsewhere.

“I felt,” Bearden said, “that the Negro was becoming too much of an abstraction, rather than the reality that art can give a subject.” He realized he had to “establish a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic.” That led to the collages – and co-founding Harlem’s Spiral arts collective, whose members tried to work out the responsibility of the Black artist in an era of political and racial upheaval.

Romare Bearden, The Blues Has Got Me, 1944; Watercolor and ink on paper 29 x 35 ½ inches, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, GA, Permanent Collection, Gift of Dr. Walter O. Evans and Mrs. Linda J. Evans©, Romare Bearden Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Courtesy American Federation of Arts

American culture is the richer for Bearden’s shift into collages, but there’s no denying much of his earlier work is gorgeous. Particularly striking are four or five small, stylized water colors, all painted in exquisite tones, that straddle the line between the literal and the abstract. “The Blues Has Got Me” from 1944, for example, is a portrait of two musicians jamming, though only one instrument, a fiddle or violin, is recognizable. The painting is a pleasing mash-up of competing colors and colliding triangles that form legs, chairs and a table. It’s bursting with energy, and frankly fun to examine.

In tone and feel, however, it could hardly be more different from 1962’s “River Mist,” one of Bearden’s later oil abstracts that’s a dreamy, almost geologic study in blue water tones and soft terra cotta. Long versed in watercolor, Bearden had struggled through much of the 1950s with oils. But when he and his wife Nanette moved from Harlem to a downtown loft on Canal Street, where Bearden spent the rest of his life, the artist began experimenting with much larger-scale works and developed his signature approach to abstract art.

Romare Bearden, River Mist, ca. 1962; Oil on unprimed linen, and oil, casein, and colored pencil on canvas, cut, torn, and mounted on painted board 54 ¼ x 40 7/8 inches, Romare Bearden Foundation, Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York© Romare Bearden Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Courtesy American Federation of Arts

During this period, he also started studying with a Chinese master, identified only as a Mr. Wu on Bayard Street, in the techniques of Chinese calligraphy and ink-wash painting. That influence is especially visible in “Eastern Gate” from 1961, a diaphanous exercise in shades of pinkish beige crisscrossed by what appear to be fragments of calligraphy.

Romare Bearden, Eastern Gate, ca. 1961; Oil on canvas 55 7/8 x 44 inches, Romare Bearden Foundation, Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York©, Romare Bearden Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Courtesy American Federation of Arts

Romare Howard Bearden was born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina, but his parents moved to Harlem when he was very small. His father was a pianist, while his mother was a political activist, and the two created a rich, intellectually vibrant household for a young person to grow up in. The Bearden apartment became a favorite stopping-off point for poet Langston Hughes and other members of the Harlem Renaissance.

The teenaged Bearden ended up finishing high school in Pittsburgh while living with his grandparents, but after a stint at Boston University, he transferred to New York University, where he studied with the great satiric German artist George Grosz. After enlisting in the army during World War II, Bearden took advantage of the GI Bill and spent 1950 at the Sorbonne reading philosophy. While in the City of Lights he met writer Richard Wright as well Pablo Picasso, George Braque, and Constantin Brancusi – becoming good friends with the latter.

“Abstractions” is organized more or less chronologically, so you pass through galleries hung with large abstracts, and then round a corner and suddenly find yourself surrounded by the later collages. It’s a bracing, delightful shift in dynamism and excitement. Simply put, the collages – which often mix the beautiful and the bizarre – bristle with energy and veiled meaning.

Romare Bearden, Melon Season, 1967; Mixed media on canvas 56 ½ x 44 ½ inches, Collection Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University New York, Gift of Roy R. Neuberger, 1976.26.45 ©, Romare Bearden Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Courtesy American Federation of Arts

One of the most striking is the 1967 “Melon Season,” a startling collage of two African-American women, in which the Cubist influence is undeniable. The woman at left is austere and rather beautiful, her profile comprised of contrasting black squares. For her part, the woman on the right has a deformed face patched together with three or four different graphic elements, one eye a good inch above the other, giving her a slightly daft look. It’s a little shocking, frankly, yet it’s precisely that tension between composure and disturbance that gives this grave work its magnetism

You’ll find “Abstractions” on UMMA’s second floor, in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery 1. But before ascending the grand curved staircase, consider wandering the small exhibition, “You Are Here,” hung in the apse on the first floor of the original, neoclassical building. This show features pieces from the museum’s own collection that vault across centuries and genres. The superstar here is Kehinde Wiley’s 2008 “Saint Francis of Assisi,” based on Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert” from 1480. But all the works selected by Jennifer M. Friess, UMMA associate curator of photography, are compelling. And as she encourages us, by all means, do play with Harry Bertoia’s small, elegant sound sculpture. You won’t regret it.

An installation view of “You Are Here” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through May 7.

“Romare Bearden: Abstractions” is at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through May 15. “You Are Here” will be up through May 7.

 

Salon Redux @ David Klein Gallery

An installation view of “Salon Redux” at Detroit’s David Klein Gallery.

 “Salon Redux” at Detroit’s David Klein Gallery is a handsomely staged 28-person group show that includes almost any medium you can hang on a wall (and a couple that sit on the floor), and manages to be a refreshing antidote to lousy weather and other contemporary ills. But you’ll have to move quickly; “Salon Redux” is up only till Feb. 26.

The exhibition was inspired in part, says Christine Schefman, Klein director of contemporary art, by the strong positive reaction to an earlier “Salon” in 2019.  “That show had such great energy,” Schefman said, “so we decided to do it again — or ‘redux.’” She adds that it’s a spirited way to kick off the new year, and there’s no denying that.

Twenty-eight artists are represented in the salon-style group show.

Hanging works salon-style, of course, means creating a sort of wall collage, with pieces hung above and below one another in large groupings, rather than the standard approach with everything at eye level and in a single row. (The excellent wall arrangements in “Redux,” by the way, were done by preparator Craig Hejka.)

Three walls are taken up with these narrative groupings, and while they feature very different smallish works, there are a few commonalities linking them. In particular, each wall includes an irregularly-shaped color collage by Cranbrook grad Sylvain Malfroy-Camine, which in a couple cases almost resemble an artist’s old-fashioned wooden paint palette, with irregular splotches of color on a roughly circular background.

The most interesting of the three is “Diving Bell.” With its background of deep-sea blue, the work immediately calls up notions of water, while the spray of dark-blue, green, and yellow ovals covering it – all vertical — resemble nothing so much as bubbles rising to the surface. If you need a tranquil spot to rest your eyes for a minute, this would be a good choice.

Sylvain Malfroy-Camine, Diving Bell – 2021, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 23 1/2 x 26 1/2 inches.

Similarly balming in its way is Detroiter James Benjamin Franklin’s “Roam,” a gorgeous geometric color study of various shapes, with one large, off-balance dot – painted cerulean blue — that looks like it’s tiptoeing across the canvas toward escape. It’s a delightfully unstable element that defines the entire painting. Franklin’s use of colors is instructive as well. The tans, greens, and darker blues absorb light, while a silver streak and a semi-circle of lustrous black pop it right back at the viewer, compounding the visual texture.

Franklin, another Cranbrook MFA, is having a moment – in addition to “Salon Redux,” he’s got a solo show at Reyes Finn in Detroit with nine of his large-scale, abstract works, also up through Feb. 26, 2022.

As it happens, Cranbrook enjoys pride of place in this exhibition, claiming 11 of the 28 artists. In addition to Malfroy-Camine and Franklin, there’s Emmy Bright with her “NO, 4/4” – two black ceramic letters spelling out “NO” that hang from a hand-made brass chain. Bright, who co-heads the graduate school’s print media department, often plays with cryptic messaging that at its best toggles between the puckish and the almost-profound. Also well worth a look is Brooklyn artist Rosalind Tallmadge’s copper-hued “Cross Section X,” one of her remarkable layered constructions made of gold leaf and mica that read a bit like aerial views of scarred, metallic moonscapes.

Emmy Bright, NO, 4/4 – 2017, Ceramic, handmade brass chain, Letters 6 x 4 1/2 inches.

Among figurative paintings on display, Bakpak Durden’s “The Refrigerator” is a bit of an intriguing puzzler. Durden, whose website ID’s him as a “multi-disciplinary, queer, hyperrealistic artist based in Detroit,” has painted a fellow who’s facing away from us. He’s got long dreadlocks and is leaning on a refrigerator’s wide-open door, seemingly looking within for something good to eat. But there are possible clues to a more distressing narrative. Is the subject searching for last night’s leftover steak, or is his face, hidden from us, actually buried in the crook of his elbow that’s propped on the refrigerator door? Is he grabbing his dreads with one hand in an idle gesture, or is it a signal of despair? Adding mystery as well is the outline of a triangle, color orange and completely out of context, albeit fascinating, that’s got the young man within its snare. Meaning — who knows? The can of Café Bustelo coffee on the shelf to the right isn’t saying.

Bakpak Durden, The Refrigerator – 2020, Oil on wood panel, 24 x 24 inches.

On a lighter note, Ohioan Anthony Mastromatteo’s oil-on-gesso-board painting, “My & My & My & My & My & My & My Fight, Too” stars seven identical images of Wonder Woman, a repetition of the exact same cut-out cartoon panel “taped” in each case, one after the other, to a blank blue background. The DC comics super-heroine is sprinting towards us, her thoughts on Artemis, goddess of wild animals and the hunt. Given the me-too moment we’re living in, there seems little doubt some male abuser’s about to get his comeuppance, big-time and bruising. In any case, as a work of art, it’s an oddball, charming concept. (Mastromatteo has a nice touch for unsentimental whimsy. His online resume features a fly at the upper-left corner, casting a little shadow on the CV.)

Also lightening the mood are three stainless-steel, fanciful line sculptures by Los Angeles artist Brad Howe, each mounted five inches off the wall. Looking a bit like happy graphics or electronic circuitry, they’re painted in unlikely hues that, magically, all work splendidly together. In particular, “Bingo by the Sea”is a fizzy essay enlivened, like all three compositions in the show, by shadows on the wall beneath that echo the sculpture’s lines.

Brad Howe, Bingo by the Sea – 2021, Stainless steel and acrylic, 24 x 18 x 5 inches.

Worth seeking out as well are New Jersey artist Jessica Rohrer’s two photorealist aerial portraits of tidy, well-kept neighborhoods that look like they could be in Chicago or Detroit – engaging drone’s-eye portrayals of the American Dream that, along with an astringent color palette, feel remarkably fresh. There are also intriguing, minimalist sculptures with light by Detroiter Patrick Ethen and Toronto’s Matthew Hawtin, and in a show that otherwise eschews politics, Brooklynite Mary-Ann Monforton has crafted a sly put-down with “Mar-a-Lago.” It features a clunky dinner place-setting with concrete “silverware,” each piece plastered within an inch of its life in gold leaf — a puckish conceit with bite.

“Salon Redux” will be at the David Klein Gallery in Detroit through Feb. 26.

 

 

 

King Tutankhamun @ Charles Wright

“King Tutankhamun: ‘Wonderful Things’ from the Pharaoh’s Tomb” at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History” through August 22, 2022.

Installation image of “King Tutankhamun: ‘Wonderful Things’ from the Pharaoh’s Tomb” at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. All images courtesy of DAR, unless noted.

Detroiters asked for it, so 100 years after British archeologist Howard Carter discovered his tomb, King Tut and his fabulous furniture are back at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History with “King Tutankhamun: ‘Wonderful Things’ from the Pharaoh’s Tomb.”  It’s a glittering show it’d be silly to miss.

Comprised of 130 meticulously recreated artifacts that took over 10 years to make (the real deals from the Cairo Museum only toured in 1976), “Wonderful Things” was a big hit for the Wright in 2008, and museum officials admit there’s been sustained clamor ever since to bring it back. (The quote in the title, by the way, was Carter’s gasping response when asked what he saw when he first peered through a drilled hole into the tomb.)

One conclusion you won’t be able to escape — those ancient Egyptians, and here we’re talking the 18thDynasty when Tut ruled, sure were nuts about their gold. It’s hard to find an artifact here that isn’t gilded, and each and every one pops against the Wright’s color-saturated walls.

“Golden Funeary Mask of Tutankhamun,” 18th Dynasty, Cairo Museum, courtesy of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

So it’s easy to understand Carter’s astonishment when he got that first glimpse: “As my eyes grew accustomed to the light,” he would write, “details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold.” Among items on display that he discovered, you’ll find Tut’s iconic gold mummy case, his throne, child’s chair, a statuette of Tut throwing a harpoon, an embalming couch, bed, jewelry, the dazzling royal mummy itself and the astonishing, and super-famous, funeary mask — probably the one image that almost everyone around the world remembers.

Tut is called the boy-king for good reason – he ascended to the throne when he was just 9, and died about a decade later, probably of malaria and complications from the inbreeding typical of Egyptian royals. (His wife was his half-sister, daughter of Nefertiti.)

But we’re lucky any of this treasure was ever found. Back in 1922, Carter had been searching for Tut’s underground tomb in the Valley of the Kings for years, with nothing to show for his pains. Just as the British earl funding the research was about to pull the plug, the archeologist decided to excavate the ground between the tombs of Ramesses II and Ramesses VI. Carter wasn’t holding his breath. The vacant plot showed some evidence of workers’ huts that might have been erected during the construction of one of the nearby crypts, and it seemed unlikely they’d be allowed to camp out on top of a pharaoh.

“Relief of a Noble Couple at a Banquet,” 18th Dynasty, Louvre Museum

All the same, Carter’s men began digging and eventually discovered a stairway, gateway to the extravagant tomb. As Steve Martin put it on “Saturday Night Live,” King Tut’s “condo made o’ stone-a” consisted of four rooms – an antechamber, which had been ransacked, and the untouched annex, burial chamber and treasury, where some of the most remarkable finds were located, beyond.

Interestingly, at the start of the excavation – after workers dug down to where the stairway ended at a door marked with symbols of a royal necropolis – Carter had them fill the entire thing back in and posted guards. He wanted to get his patron, the fifth earl of Carnarvon, to Egypt before he pushed into the tomb itself that November, and wasn’t going to take any chances that vandals might discover the tomb before then.

For its part, “Wonderful Things” is loosely divided into five sections covering ancient Egypt, the archeological discovery, the “private” pharaoh, the “public” pharaoh, and the royal burial. Dominating the center of the first gallery is the “Golden Canopic Shrine and Tutelary Goddesses,” a tall, lavishly gilded chest mounted on a sledge that held the embalmed viscera of the young king. Surrounding it are four gilt goddesses, each responsible for safeguarding a different internal organ – the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines.

The “Shrine” didn’t make the trip from Egypt to the U.S. in 1976 (amusingly, all artifacts were transported by the U.S. Navy). So if you’re at all chagrined about looking at replicas rather than the original, bear in mind that you wouldn’t have found the “Shrine” or the casket with its embalmed Tut in the original 1976 show.

“Golden Canopic Shrine and Tutelary Goddesses,” 18th Dynasty, Cairo Museum

There’s no denying the shrine is a striking monument, but it gets a lot of competition from the reconstruction of Tut’s “Golden State Chariot,” which would make any kid tooling around town look cool, as well as the gilt, open casket containing a recreation of Tut’s withered, embalmed, and very black body. (Note to parents – little boys will love this one.) All the artifacts in the show, by the way, were created by artisans using the same techniques as the ancients as far as they could. Intriguingly, the coffin – which in real life was solid gold — was first sculpted in foam, then covered with polyurethane and painted.

As it happens, the Egyptian embalming process blackened the skin. But it still raises the old question as to whether Tut resembled contemporary Egyptians or south-of-the-Sahara Africans. One of the reasons the Wright was interested in a Tut exhibit 13 years ago, said Patrina Chatman, curator of collections and exhibitions, is because emerging research suggests the boy-king did not have the light skin we associate with the Arab world.

Noting that some statues, like “The Guardian,” are ebony black, Chatman said, “The point is that ancient Egyptians were not the ones we see in the movies, but members of a dark race,” adding that Tut and his family had Nubian blood mixed with the Egyptian.

“Royal Mummy of Pharaoh Tutankhamun,” 18th Dynasty, Valley of the Kings Tomb 62.

Truth be told, King Tut – who ruled from 1333 BCE to 1323 BCE – was not a particularly important pharaoh as these things go, no matter what the boy-king himself might have thought. That said, he had no way of knowing that his would be the most-famous tomb ever discovered — one in which vandals only made it into the first chamber, and not to the greatest treasures beyond. A bit like Imelda Marcos and her shoes, King Tut would become a worldwide symbol and legend based almost entirely on his accessories. Lucky boy.

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History will host “King Tutankhamun: ‘Wonderful Things’ from the Pharaoh’s Tomb” through Aug. 22, 2022.

 

African Fashion & Shirley Woodson @ DIA

The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion & Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections on exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts

 

The New Black Vanguard Photography, installation image at the DIA, courtesy of DAR

For anyone laboring under the winter blues, two luminous new shows by Black artists at the Detroit Institute of Arts promise a quick, color-saturated cure — “Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections,” up through June 12, and “The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion,” which comes down April 17, 2022.

While the two exhibitions are very different – oil paintings by a Detroit artist vs. international high-fashion photos – they resemble one another in their fresh spirit and the undeniable sense that you’re witnessing something strong and new.

Take “The New Black Vanguard” first, a traveling show organized by Aperture, the photography nonprofit in New York City. This dazzling exhibition features the work of 15 emerging Black photographers from Africa and the African diaspora, working in places as disparate as Johannesburg, Harlem, Lagos, and London. Many of the images on display were drawn from fashion magazines, advertisements, museum collections, and social media.  In a nice localizing touch, there’s also a DIA-curated section in the last gallery, “New Gazes – Detroit,” which focuses on six metro-area Black photographers.

Many of the artists here are pushing boundaries, both aesthetic and cultural, with all their might, engaging topics as diverse as colorism, gender expression and alternate concepts of beauty. Nancy Barr, who heads the museum’s Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, calls the exhibition “inspiring,” and says she’s been gratified by “how easily visitors are connecting with the imagery and quotes from the photographers.” Given the punchiness and variety of pictures on display, that’s no surprise.

Dana Scruggs, Nyadhour, Elevated, Death Valley, California, 2018, photo print.

 Start with Dana Scruggs. This Chicago-born artist, whose work has appeared in GQ, ESPN magazine, and Rolling Stone, has finessed the fine art of highlighting the drama in very dark skin, playing with an almost Caravaggio-like chiaroscuro that gives her work remarkable tone and depth. The models in question, of course, are the sorts who in an earlier, more-colorist era, would likely have been shunned as “too Black.” But in Scruggs’ prints, their chiseled features and sculpted bodies pass beyond mere beauty into something more profound — an almost mythic presence, simultaneously universal and individual.

Her 2018 “Nyadhour, Elevated, Death Valley, California” is one of the most captivating images in a show full of them. The lean, striking American model Nyadhour Deng wears a one-piece black swimsuit that virtually disappears against her skin in the blinding desert glare. She appears to be one-third of the way into a cartwheel – both hands planted in the sand, and one leg starting its aerial rotation. The odd, arched pose is echoed by the sharp shadow beneath. Set against sun-baked dunes, the composition reads more like contemporary sculpture than a fashion shoot.

Daniel Obasi, from Lagos, Nigeria, also creates something monumental with his remarkable tableau, “Moments of Youth,” featuring four young men fashionably attired in tropical colors, and shot from below as they balance precariously on the prow of a wooden vessel. This being a fashion shoot (first published in the journal Primary Paper), the bare-chested man in front in the 1940s-style slacks has a green, gauzy fabric wrapped about his black-marble torso, but while setting up a cool visual contrast, it does nothing to lessen the photo’s heroic vibe.

Daniel Obasi, Moments of Youth, Lagos, Nigeria, 2019, photo print

 Color, in this case, strong pink, plays a huge role in Tyler Mitchell’s 2019 “Untitled (Hijab Couture), New York,” resulting in an image that’s both puckish and breathtaking. Its young beauty is encased, as it were, from head to toe by a garment made of huge, pink flower petals that form a sort of impenetrable shell. For all the hauteur in the young woman’s eyes above her pink-pink lips, Mitchell – whose September 2018 Vogue cover shot of Beyoncé was a first, remarkably, for a Black photographer – has created an intimate, albeit intense, portrait. So too with his “Untitled (Hat), New York, 2018,” a gender-bending study of a young man with challenging eyes beneath a large, tilt-disc hat of the sort favored by British royalty.

(Visitors who enjoy “Black Vanguard’s” intensely colorful display might also want to walk through “Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite,” a black-and-white show of work from the 1960s that’s up at the museum through Jan. 16.)

Tyler Mitchell, Untitled (Hijab Couture), New York, 2019, photo print

For her part, Detroit artist Shirley Woodson, now in her mid-80s, has had quite a year. Last January, she was named the Kresge Foundation’s 2021 Eminent Artist, an honor that spotlights a lifetime of artistic achievement and community engagement, and comes with a $50,000 no-strings stipend. And earlier this fall, Detroit Artists Market hosted a career retrospective, “Shirley Woodson: Why Do I Delight,” which closed just before Halloween.

Now comes the artist’s first solo show at the DIA, “Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections,” with 11 brightly colored canvases guaranteed to staunch your seasonal affective disorder. As the title suggests, a river runs through almost all of these, Woodson’s testament to the spiritual and cultural significance of the Nile for Black Africans, both on the continent and in the diaspora.

Detroit artist Allie McGhee (whose solo show, “Banana Moon Horn,” is up at the Cranbrook Art Museum through March 20), calls Woodson’s richly textured style “a sort of bridge between abstract and Impressionism,” and there’s no denying her freely rendered, lush canvases pack a vibrance and hard-to-define emotional punch. Wielding vivid color, symbols and figures, Woodson creates bright, inscrutable canvases laden with totemic meaning. Interestingly, however, most of her female figures look out at the world with blank faces. The artist explains she doesn’t assign them features “because I think the viewer can become a part of the work using [their] own imagination.”

Shirley Woodson, Shield of the Nile Reflectins, installment image,

As it happens, Woodson – a longtime Detroit Public Schools art teacher with graduate degrees from Wayne State University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — has been working with the Nile for decades, seeing in the world’s longest river a metaphor for Africa and the African experience generally. With her 1984 “Shield of the Nile, No. 2,” a pair of women deeply immersed in water balance an oval shield between them. The two, apparently treading the rainbow-hued water, are also armed with arrows, suggesting a fierceness that calls to mind the legendary Amazons. Indeed, Woodson has said her figures were partly inspired in part by another mythic figure, Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt. But for all its possible symbolism, “Shield of the Nile” succeeds most extravagantly as a lavish color study whose warmth you can practically feel from across the room.

Shirley Woodson, Shield of the Nile, No. 2, Acrylic on canvas, 1984.

In “Flight with Mirror,” a 2014 work starring a determined-looking woman riding a horse through the waters, the artist has constructed a scene of seeming triumph, never mind the title,  that underlines women’s power and innate creativity long ignored by a male-dominated cultural elite. Interestingly, this woman, unlike so many of her figures, is fully equipped with facial features. If you’re tempted to see Woodson herself in the painting, go right ahead.

Her longtime friend and protégé, the late Gilda Snowden — quoted in the Kresge Foundation monograph “A Palette for the People: The Vibrant World of Shirley Woodson” – put it as well as anyone: “Shirley deftly unites color, myths, historical references with a little bit of magic into works that are glorious renditions of what life could be and should be.”

Shirley Woodson, Flight with Mirror, Acrylic on canvas, 2014.

The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion” will be at the Detroit Institute of Arts through April 17. “Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections” will come down June 12, 2022.

 

Rosalind Tallmadge @ David Klein Gallery

David Klein Gallery Hosts Rosalind Tallmadge Exhibition: Terrain

The lion’s share of Rosalind Tallmadge’s large, luminous paintings in “Terrain” at Detroit’s David Klein Gallery call to mind relief maps, drone’s-eye views of alien, metallic worlds with surfaces both beautiful and hard, and utterly inhospitable to human life. The show, which features work all completed in 2021, is up through Dec. 18, 2021.

But these light-filled, fraught surfaces are actually more earth-bound than you might initially guess because, in addition to piling up natural elements in rich, stratified layers, Tallmadge pulls in a range of man-made materials that evoke both fashion and femininity, whether sequins, glass beads, or glitter. And who doesn’t like glitter?

Installation image of “Rosalind Tallmadge, Terrain,” which is up at Detroit’s David Klein Gallery through Dec. 18. Images courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Several of the most striking pieces on display, including “Ember,” “Dusk Lightning” and “Cross Section X” are so highly reflective, despite their variegated texture, you’d swear they were giving off heat. This is particularly the case with the appropriately named “Ember,” which is covered in a rose-toned gold leaf that resembles polished copper and hooks you with seductive warmth and the lure of the sparkle.

These are paintings with a visceral physical presence, products of a creative synthesis Tallmadge, a 2015 Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., terms “disco alchemy.” For all their brightness, these works ideally call for consideration over the long term, an unhurried process of getting to know the idiosyncratic geography on each sequin-fabric canvas. They’re not cheap dates. They’ll reveal even more of themselves over time.

The rewards associated with this work, it must be noted, are not of the chirpy sort. The paintings exude an almost Cassandra-like vibe, glimpses of an out-of-control future, however glittering. Some pieces are utterly beautiful – there’s no other word. But they’re all grave in aspect as if they sprang from worlds where the zeitgeist is grim.

Rosalind Tallmadge, “Cross Section XII,” Pewter leaf, mica flakes & powdered glass on sequin fabric, 20 x 16 inches, 2021.

Unspooling the cosmic metaphor a bit further, Tallmadge has invested these works with a certain timelessness, geologic in breadth, that seems to span millennia by the hundreds. There’s something ancient and fire-blasted about them. Indeed, some look very much like metallic lava of impossible purity, somehow produced in the igneous cataclysm of a volcanic eruption. Or perhaps they’re the product not of catastrophe but unending, unyielding metamorphic heat and pressure, like gemstones. In any case, time hangs heavy on them. Little wonder, perhaps, that a 2018 exhibition Tallmadge had at Marquee Projects in Bellport, N.Y. was titled “Deep Time.” For its part, Brooklyn’s Carvalho Park gallery, where Tallmadge had a show in 2019, termed the Cincinnati native’s work “nebulous and spectral.”

This is what you hope for when you’re a serious art student. Shortly after Tallmadge got out of grad school, David Klein mounted a solo show for her in 2016. Her work has also been exhibited in New York City, Seattle, and Chicago. Prestigious residences she’s snagged include ones at the Oxbow School of Art and the Yale Summer School of Art.

For her part, Tallmadge says in her artist’s statement that she wants to create “elusive, experiential paintings that activate the viewer’s body through their seductive light-based surfaces.” They’re meant to evoke, she adds, “degraded urban surfaces or worn rocks you would happen upon in nature.”

The online, French-language mezzanine notes that Tallmadge “does not paint canvases. She creates atmosphere.” The journal added, “With her, the celestial immensity becomes tangible, though always remains mysterious.” For her part, the artist responds to a question by noting that her paintings “are also a reflection of my daily life in New York. The asphalt surfaces, the worn-out sidewalks, and subway walls furnish my subconscious.”

Rosalind Tallmadge, “Ember,” 22K rose gold leaf, mica flakes & glass beads on sequin fabric, 64 x 60 inches, 2021. An oblique angle highlights Tallmadge’s remarkably textured surfaces.

The natural material that Tallmadge employs most, jammed up against her beads, glitter, and sequins, is mica. There’s an intriguing balancing act going on here between, to use the terms very loosely, the feminine and the masculine. Falling into the latter category are surely the chunks of glittering mica – a shiny form of silica that breaks into wafer-thin, translucent layers—that Tallmadge employs all over her thickly textured canvases. There’s something in mica’s very instability, always threatening to fracture, that plays a role here as if to say, “I glitter, but beware – I’m also brittle. I shatter.”

Rosalind Tallmadge, “Omen,” Mica stone, liquid glass concentrate & pumice on birch panel, 30 x 30 inches, 2021.

 These qualities are on full display with “Omen” and “Estuary,” both crafted from larger pieces of mica stone and pumice. They’ve got smoother surfaces, a break from Tallmadge’s rich impasto elsewhere, and are less raked and eroded than many of the other works on display. “Omen” almost looks like one sheet of black-brown glass that’s been violently shattered but still miraculously holds together. “Estuary,” despite its riverine name, when viewed up-close, looks a bit like the inside of an astonishing geode when you’ve sawed a rock in half and polished the surface.

By contrast, “Cross Section XII,” fabricated with powdered glass and pewter leaf – Who knew?— is blistered and brooding. To return once again to the planetary metaphor, it looks a bit like a silvery moon that’s been battered and scoured by solar winds and remorseless radiation.

Rosalind Tallmadge, “Ember” (detail), 22K rose gold leaf, mica flakes & glass beads on sequin fabric, 64 x 60 inches, 2021.

Particularly with the most heavily textured canvases, it’s fun to examine the surface off to one side and at an acute angle to maximize your appreciation of just how 3-D and stratified these meticulous constructions really are. It’s also gratifying that this is a spaciously hung show, with no cramming works together in unnatural, close proximity. This is important in part because of the glow most of these give off, a nimbus you wouldn’t want competing with radiance from another work right next door.

Rosalind Tallmadge, Terrain” will be up at the David Klein Gallery in Detroit through Dec. 18, 2021

 

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