Marie Herwald Hermann @ Reyes/Finn Gallery

Quite like the majority of us, ceramicist Marie Herwald Hermann has been confined to work from home since March last year, and she found inspiration in this unfamiliar circumstance. As the country begins to mend  And the Walls Became the World All Around Us reminds us of the power of art to not only create beauty, but to build community through a greater understanding of humanity.

Taking over the entire single-room space at Reyes / Finn, a fairly new, professional contemporary art gallery in Corktown led by Terese Reyes and Bridget Finn, the markedly colorful installation crafted from clay, wood, silicone, and pigment, comprises over twenty works either in the form of a single object or a combination of several into an arrangement. Having worked with Simone de Sousa Gallery in 2015 and Reyes Projects in 2017 and 2018, among other venues, Copenhagen-born Hermann is no stranger to Detroit as she moved here after graduating from the Royal College of Art in London with an M.A. in Fine Arts in 2009, only to settle into an academic teaching position in ceramics at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2018.

Installation detail of Marie Herwald Hermann, And the Walls Became the World All Around Us, 2021. Photo by Clare Gatto. Courtesy of the artist and Reyes | Finn, Detroit.

The title of Hermann’s vibrant and vivid show, And the Walls Became the World All Around Us, alludes to a 1963 American children’s picture book classic Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak that functions as a meditation on how dreams and the imagination are tied to experiences of confinement, restriction, and trauma. The main character Max, a young boy who is sent crying to his bedroom by his mother after playing recklessly in the house while wearing a wolf suit, envisions a magical journey to an island where he reigns over and dances with terrifying in appearance but playful and sensitive half-reptilian, half-mammilian wild things before returning home. Philosophers in the empiricist tradition believe that we can only imagine things using the materials that we have previously perceived. Since many features of the wild things’ world resemble Max’s actual world, including Max himself, this book, not unlike this exhibition, provides an opportunity to think about whether this empiricist claim is true.

Exceedingly well executed and in pursuit of an overall aesthetic of cohesion, And the Walls Became the World All Around Us features in the very center of the space a long, green display table that cuts diagonally across the rectangular room. The display is reminiscent of the painted still lives of early modern Italian artist Giorgio Morandi known to depict apparently simple domestic objects such as vases, bottles, and bowls with great tonal subtleties, an art historical point of reference acknowledged by the artist.

Installation detail of Marie Herwald Hermann, And the Walls Became the World All Around Us, 2021. Photo by Clare Gatto. Courtesy of the artist and Reyes | Finn, Detroit.

While the green table perfectly matches the color of the tall, vertical wall right behind it, the entire arrangement stands out in shape, color, and process from the surrounding objects, albeit ever so subtly. The table and twenty-three ceramic vases and bowls set atop are, interestingly enough, not listed in the work inventory for the exhibition—a fact this author will return to presently.

Hermann’s installations in general, and this one in particular, deliver a delightful impression of unity between sculptural objects, surrounding walls, and the floor that many visual artists in the twentieth century have been after, including the passion of Minimalist and Postminimalist sculptors in the 1960s for placing objects directly on the floor. In a free-standing tub-shape of sorts, Untitled (Blue and Yellow), floor, wall, and object enter into a pleasing aesthetic unity with sutle variations in hue, texture, and material make-up.

Marie Herwald Hermann, Untitled (Blue and Yellow), 2021 Stoneware and maple wood, 9.5 x 40.5 x 11.5 in. Photo by Clare Gatto. Courtesy of the artist and Reyes | Finn, Detroit.

As the human eye moves through the space from one field of vision to another, changing permutational differences in shape, color, and texture create a dynamic experience while preserving cohesion. As such Hermann operates with the logic of a visual artist who conceives of ceramic objects as entities that cannot be unbound from the coordinates of space-time perception. The many references that occur in her work to the history and practice of visual artists build a fruitful bridge between ceramics, sculpture, and painting. Color conceived of as a field, and this is something abstract painters explore, promotes sculptural integration between wall and objects. An exploration of the impact of color on human perception introduces a new avenue of pursuit for the artist.

Marie Herwald Hermann, and the silence returned, 2021 Porcelain and stoneware, 15.5 x 16.5 x 7.5 in Photo by Clare Gatto. Courtesy of the artist and Reyes | Finn, Detroit.

In the bright yellow and pink arrangement and the silence returned, it becomes especially apparent that color holds power over feelings. The base color yellow has a strong orange tint that heightens its chromatic intensity. While the wall and shelf are painted in the same color, the cup and bulb-like object with its pointy tip appear in a somewhat lighter tone. Both hues enter into a pleasing resonance of barely perceptible difference with the light pink of the long rod and roundish saucer-like plate. Fashioning her signature wall shelves, and not just the objects supported by it, out of clay and in matching colors speaks to an artistic desire for integration as an aesthetic concern often accompanied by an intellectual desire for a more wholistic approach to life in general. In an unpublished artist talk in 2020, she states that objects “on their own they are un-significant,” only in a group will the object achieve “significance.”

Returning to the green table arrangement, Hermann acts yet again more directly like a painter when color pigments are brushed onto the vessels and protected by a transparent seal that acts like a varnish. By extension, the surrounding works appear in different colors and feature different shapes in porcelain and stoneware, two harder variants of clay fired at high temperatures. We cannot talk about ceramic objects without talking about texture and tactility. Despite the artist’s programmatic refusal to leave expressive finger marks on her ceramic objects, process is paramount to her work.

Throwing clay onto a wheel, the artist confesses to this author, is a purely automatic routine at this stage of her career, just like riding a bicycle, and there is an innate beauty to it. The “thinking body,” Hermann notes, can do “things” during the process of throwing. What we commonly but somewhat misleadingly might refer to as muscle memory (muscles cannot have memory only the brain does), scientists have termed a form of procedural memory that allows us to do certain tasks without thinking about them. In this sense, the ceramic vessels on the green table function as props for human experience. They stand for the thoughts and feelings that occurred during the physical task of throwing. A byproduct of the working process, rather than an end product, they are not for sale.

Memories play an important role in the work of Hermann in general. There is much that researchers do not understand about human memory and how it operates. Some suggest that instead of different, distinct types of memory, it operates in successive stages anchored in sensory memory, short-term and long-term memory occur. Sensory memories committed to explicit or episodic long-term storage in the form of autobiographical events repeatedly surface in her installations. The vibrant wall colors in And the Walls Became the World All Around Us are inspired by childhood memories of visiting the classical art collection of the Thorvaldson Museum in Copenhagen with her architect-parents. The clash between three-dimensional Greek and Roman marble sculptures offset against bright yellow, blue, or red backdrops gives way here to an aesthetic of integration and fluidity instead of contrast.

In addition to yellow and green, blue is the third dominant color in this installation.

Installation detail of Marie Herwald Hermann, And the Walls Became the World All Around Us, 2021. Photo by Clare Gatto. Courtesy of the artist and Reyes | Finn, Detroit.

Interestingly, as memory studies emphasizes, yellow and blue are colors in our semantic memory that represent nature in language. We note that the “sun is yellow” or that the “sky is blue,” even though, in scientific terms, this is not accurate. The sky only appears to be blue as light and air contain the full spectrum of color and the sun is not a yellow planet nor is the light that it emits yellow.

Many types of shapes occur in the show: circles, rings, elongated ovals, needles, cups without handles, bowls etc. Some of the objects cary strong associations with kitchen utensils or plumbing fixtures such as towel rings evoking ideas of cleanliness, beautification, and the labor of washing, while others remain entirely abstract. At any rate, tentative links with elements of the domestic realm attributed to women emerge. This holds especially true for Double.

Marie Herwald Hermann, Double, 2021 Oakwood and silicone, 47 x 9 x 1 in. Photo by Clare Gatto. Courtesy of the artist and Reyes | Finn, Detroit.

Fashioned in oakwood, the irregular oval frame is reminiscent of a mirror in form and name. Double reminds us that a mirror image is a reflected duplication by means of light that only appears to be identical. Setting malleable materials such as latex, resin, or now silicone, alongside hard and durable stoneware and porcelain, allows for time and process to enter the work as silicone changes when it ages. That silicone is a material employed in kitchens and bathrooms, as well as in breast implants, as the artist reminded this author, expands on the larger theme of the work as a poetic meditation on everyday life.

“I like titles with hints at something romantic and beautiful, but also titles that withdraw in the end, and have a tone of sadness and melancholia,” Hermann revealed in a public interview with Glenn Adamson at Simone de Sousa Gallery in 2015. Reading the exhibition title And the Walls Became the World All Around Us in conjunction with the work titles reads like a nature poem: “whispers in passing, us, double, in passing me, in passing, you, three clouds, green as the woods I miss, and we watched, and the silence returned.” Like in a poem, meaning emerges by allusive references that are more or less present one moment, only to evaporate in the next.

To make ceramic sculpture speak to us in the manner of poetry, and with the intense visual satisfaction of radiant colors, interesting shapes and vivid textures, certainly feels like a tremendous artistic accomplishment. Anchored in the personal but speaking to the universal, Hermann’s walls advocate an integration of nature and culture, of work life and domestic life, of the visual and the textual, the sculptural and the pictorial.

Marie Herwald Hermann’s exhibition: And the Walls Became the World All Around Us at the Reyes/Finn Gallery through June 26, 2021.

 

 

Roger Martin @ Image Works

A humbly titled show, Cass Corridor, at Image Works Gallery, one of Dearborn’s most interesting new exhibition venues, provides a rare look at ordinary daily life in the Cass Corridor in the 1970s. Michigan photographer Roger Martin’s first series as an emerging artist reveals the many shades of life in this diverse neighborhood. In search for chance encounters and unnoticed moments, a young, long haired Martin walked the streets of the Cass Corridor routinely, often several days a week, between 1969 and 1972. An impressive archive of about 10.000 street and interior shots accumulated over time, none of them dated or labelled.

Installation Image, Roger Martin, Cass Corridor, Image Works, 3.2021 – All images courtesy of Images Works, and the artist.

Bordering the campus of Wayne State University, where Martin was working on his B.A. in Photography at the time, was a depressed inner-city neighborhood bisected by Cass Avenue, now subsumed under Midtown and associated with Detroit’s most recent revival. The Cass Corridor, referred to by some historians astringently as a “planned slum,” held a mixed population of African Americans and Chinese, many of whom spilled over from the demolished Black Bottom and old Chinatown neighborhoods Downtown. Also, home to a considerable White community in low-income public housing, it was plagued by alcoholism, prostitution, and other ailments. Largely operating outside of the values of a postwar middle-class society, underground culture and lifestyle movements such as a thriving LGBTQ and experimental arts community emerged facilitated by a low rent environment, a rich bar culture, and proximity to cultural and educational institutions. The neighborhood made national news due to its burgeoning crime and drug culture dominated by heroin, cocaine, and crack. While housing was predominantly segregated by ethnicity, the streets provided a more open place for encounters, at least by degree.

Twenty carefully selected Archival Pigment prints in sizes of 12” x 6” and 7.5” x 9.5” have been newly scanned from negatives, digitally remastered, and printed by Chris Bennett, the owner and chief curator of Image Works Gallery. Bennett, a photographer and digital print professional who moved here from the West Coast in 2017, provides national programming dedicated primarily to photography in its many historical and contemporary facets. The vast majority of the photographs, selected by Bennett in close collaboration with Martin, had not seen the light of day before.

The photographs in the show are newly titled, mostly in a descriptive fashion, and hung to further enhance the visual drama that occurs inside the frame: a choreography of changing angles, bodily positions, single or multiple figure groupings, and alternating backgrounds provide the chosen sequence with a pleasantly strong sense of visual rhythm. Consequently, the images can be viewed in any order. But one image does stand out. Hung right below the exhibition title, Peterboro and Cass showcases Chinatown’s urban façade shot from street level with an obliquely receding pavement line that bifurcates the urban space into two unequal halves.

Roger Martin, Cass and Peterboro, Archival Pigment Print, n.d.

Moving off the street toward the sidewalk, an African American woman dressed in black with a black hat and a black bag stands out markedly against two white parked cars in the foreground. The commercial signage further enhances the strength of this photographic play with visual contrast. Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine and Bow Wah Chop Suey in white on black clash with a black on white Pepsi logo above a Grocerland Market sign. One might be tempted to read into this the idea of a possible cultural confrontation(s). To take a case in point, the Chinese community was only afforded an opportunity to buy properties after a 1960s urban renewal effort moved their Downtown location around Third and Bagley Street up north toward Peterboro and Cass.

Shot in black and white with a 35 mm Leica, Martin’s handheld style seeks sharp focus and stability inside the frame quickly and intuitively. Perfect geometry, metered lighting, or perfect focus give way to an exciting spontaneity of alignment and a focus on people in acts of simply being and doing.

Roger Martin, Professor Pinkus, Archival Pigment Print, n.d.

In Professor Pinkus, we confront a bearded old man with an oversized grey coat, a black woolen hat, and a long white cane with a silver tip, resembling a cane for a blind person, inside a coin laundry. He looks straight but furtively at the camera. Martin shoots from varying distances and angles at which the camera faces the subject, but always at eye level. As the photographer relays the story of Mr. Pinkus, and most images come with a story, he encountered this former Literature Professor several times over the years as he was frequently heard citing Shakespeare in public after succumbing to alcoholism.

The most successful of Martin’s images closely engage with the private aspects of public street life on sideways, in front of facades and door entries, and on porches. These liminal locations hold a special place of interest for the photographer as sites of transition between private and public.

Roger Martin, The Haircut, Archival Pigment Print, n.d.

In The Haircut, five individuals in close physical proximity engage in activities ranging from a buzz cut to drinking and rolling cigarettes after a return from the drugstore. A candid approach to street photography operates as a clandestine practice, but Martin approaches his subjects casually, asking for permission to capture transitory moments in their everyday lives. The choice to react to the presence of the camera is entirely up to the individuals. This opens up an unpredictable range of human gestures and expressions that lends complex visual and emotional interest to many of these images. In Back Pocket, three man are stacked in space, receding gradually into the middle ground from the left foreground. This leads the eye to a man with his head and back turned away from us as he is attempting to drink from a white plastic cup and a bottle tucked into his right trouser pocket.

Roger Martin, Back Pocket, Archival Pigment Print, n.d.

We cannot determine to what extent, if at all, these men are connected. And yet their presence in the same photographic frame implies that there was activity before the photographer took his shot.

These are not just simple documentary images that provide information and aesthetic reward through compositional intricacies, but they are open to a variety of complex meaning and emotions. Not unlike in the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom Martin recounts as a strong inspiration for this series, each image elicits a sense of curiosity or questioning as to the nature of the human interaction: between present and past, between protagonists, between photographer and photographed. This is the particular nature of the photographic event astutely highlighted by Martin’s photographic style. Bresson photographed daily life on the streets of Paris trying to capture what he famously called the decisive moment, a poignant or poetic moment that can pass quickly and enhances the meaning of the photograph. More specifically, the decisive moment in Martin’s images seems to call for the presence of at least two protagonists. The Two demonstrates just that.

Roger Martin, The Two, Archival Pigment Print, n.d.

Two individuals with similar clothing, hair styles, and bodily demeanor, but of considerably different age, stand quietly to be photographed. Set against a tri-part, high contrast white and black backdrop, we are left wondering as to their gender identity. Cass Avenue was once home to the cities’ largest concentration of gay and transgender bars.

In Cass Corridor, Martin does not set out to document the pressures of society, industry, and poverty on race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and class. And yet these images function as fault lines of social identity formation amidst social inequalities without turning the precarities of these lives into spectacles for the public eye. Dearborn-born Martin, who completed his M.A. in Photography at Wayne State in the mid-1970s, has since tried his professional hand at a variety of genres other than street photography, and we can look forward to seeing additional work in the future as he exhibits more locally.

Roger Martin, Cass Corridor,  Image Works,  Exhibition through April 30, 2021