Brian Rutenberg and Frank Fisher @ BBAC

Brian Rutenberg, painter, and Frank James Fisher, ceramicist, open the Spring Season of 2021 at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

As Michiganders crawl out of the winter and the Covid-19 pandemic (be it as slow as it is), we are greeted by the BBAC exhibitions that make it worth our time for a visit.  The main gallery features the ceramic work by Frank Fisher and Brian Rutenberg’s abstractions in the Robinson Gallery. “This is a must-see, exceptional exhibit,” said Annie VanGelderen, BBAC president and CEO. “Truly, all of our spring exhibiting artists are particularly wonderful in their own mediums.  Visitors will certainly leave inspired.”

Brian Rutenberg, Installation, 3.2021 All images courtesy of DAR

Sitting in the Robinson Gallery for a lengthy amount of time, I begin to acclimate to these large oil paintings by the nationally known artist from South Carolina, Brian Rutenberg.  The imagery gradually falls into place, something I would describe as abstract landscapes where there is an abundance of woodlands, horizons, skies, streams and rivers. Although he has spent his adult life, post-graduate school,  in New York City, these compositions are unique, inspired by the coastal Carolina landscape of his youth.  Those formative years must have made its mark on Rutenberg’s sensibility in terms of subject matter, as he brings this vibrant color scheme and the issue of scale to the forefront of the work.  If these paintings were all 20 x 30 inches, we would not be so affected. Still, Green River is a portal into the richness of heavily applied oil paint in a variety of ways and a color scheme that uses primary and secondary colors in a form that is individual to each painting.  There is a newness in how Rutenberg handles his forms, something that separates him from other abstract landscape painters, leaving us with a unique experience.

Brian Rutenberg, Green River, Oil on Linen, 63 x 160″

Brian Rutenberg, Detail Green River

Here is a detail from Green River (18 x 20 inches), where we see Rutenberg using a large variety of tools to spread paint: brushes, sticks, pallet knives and trowels. There is a color selection which repeats throughout the work that reflects on the subjects, a stream or vertical branch, and skies that reach out into a variety of pastel hues.

Brian Rutenbert, Corsair, Oil on Linen, 60 x 82",

The large 60 x 82 inch oil painting, Corsair, is another example of an abstract landscape where there is a horizon running horizontally with vertical lines like tree branches on the left and a blue stream on the right. The foreground dominates the composition with organic brown and foliage green.  The landscape may be subliminal, but it is clear to this viewer that Rutenberg’s abstract expressionism consistently repeats itself throughout the work. The Myrtle Beach-born painter is obsessed with the physicality of low hanging trees along South Carolina’s waterways, and continued to draw on those years long after moving to New York City.  When I refer to the term abstract expressionism, it would be similar to the female paintings by Willem de Kooning, where the figure is abstracted. Rutenberg does this in a unique way with his abstract landscapes.

Brian Rutenberg earned his undergraduate degree from the College of Charleston and his Masters of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

 

Frank James Fisher Ceramics Draw on Everyday Imagery

Frank James Fisher, The Ol’ Yes No, Slab-built porcelain, Raku Fired, reduction

A native Michigander from Milford, Frank James Fisher, has what he calls Pop Artifacts on display in the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center’s main gallery.  These reasonably small works are mostly slab construction using porcelain clay and a Raku firing. Some of the parts to these ceramic pieces are thrown on a potter’s wheel, but most come from lumps of clay rolled out into slab constructions where he adds photo imagery to the surface.  The title Pop Artifacts comes from using commercial images like Starbucks and goes back to the 1970s when artists like Andy Warhol used images from Campbell soup cans and a Brillo pad logo to create their art.

Frank James Fisher, Starbanks, Slab-built porcelain, Raku Fired, reduction

He says in his statement, “Advertising has recalibrated my brain. Forty years of working in the marketing community has saturated and skewed my aesthetic away from traditional art expression. My mind prefers graphics, headlines, logos, body copy, photos, illustrations, taglines, and any other marketing tool to express my creative thoughts. These are the tools I use to build narratives and fabricate impossible consumer products out of clay. I call them Pop Artifacts. Sculpted, cast, pressed, or thrown, these ceramic objects represent the desires we chase in the hope of capturing satisfaction.

Frank James Fisher, Frank Oil Tea-can, Wheel thrown, hand-built porcelain, Raku- fired, reduction, metal & wood handle

Inspired by mineral spirit containers from years ago, Fisher’s Tea-cans have the retro-look of an older metal fabricated chamber that might resemble a favorite of many ceramicists, the Tea Pot. Using hand-cut stencils, he applies them to greenware by adding glaze to the bare surface in various steps and then relies on the Raku process to achieve his desired aged look.

Frank James Fisher earned his BFA in graphic design from Central Michigan University and worked in advertising for 25 years until 2006 and teaches advanced ceramics courses in the metro-Detroit area where he demonstrates his art methods at workshops.

Both exhibitions at the BBAC run through April 22, 2021

Tylonn J. Sawyer @ N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

Installation image, Tylonn J. Sawyer, N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, 3.2021 All images courtesy of the Detroit Art Review

A new exhibition, White History Month Volume I and II: The Year of the Flood by Detroit native artist Tylonn J. Sawyer is now on display at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art and runs until June 19, 2021.  There is a cadre of contemporary Detroit artists that express themselves using the figure as the dominant source of their subject matter, including Mario Moore, Sydney James, Peter Williams, Tyanna Buie, Senghor Reid, Rashaun Rucker to name only a few, but no one that takes on the visual language associated with the power and oppression leading to the social injustice against African Americans, as does Tylonn J. Sawyer.

He says in his statement, “Within this collective body of work, I’m interested in themes of black motherhood, confident hypocrisies observed in politics, religion, and the overall social order. Culling from the Western History and cultural tropes, the work in this exhibition centers on the distortions in American social fabric.”

Tylonn J. Sawyer, The Birth of Venus, Oil and Mixed Media on canvas, 72 x 48″, 2021

The painting from 1480 by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, depicts the goddess Venus arriving at the shore after her birth when she had emerged from the sea fully-grown. The painting was created during the Italian Renaissance, has dominated western art for seven centuries, and as we see,  Sawyer selects the title to give new meaning to this painting’s title.  When I first experienced the work, I was thinking of Madonna and Child in our contemporary urban world, taking from one of the most popular titles in art history. Here in Sawyer’s work, the standing portrait with child is drenched in symbolism. The American flag is the backdrop for this new mom holding her infant surrounded by butterflies.

Tylonn J. Sawyer, Three Graces: Aretha, Oil on canvas, 72 x 60″, 2019

The painting Three Graces: Aretha is a large oil painting that depicts three African American women standing in front of the American flag with these hand-held black and white masks of the performer Aretha Franklin.  This motif is used in several of Sawyer’s paintings; as an example, he uses Nina Simone and Martin Luther King as the subject of masks.  The concept raises a question in the viewer’s mind: What is the idea presented, and where does it come from?

Sawyer explains, “Borrowing from rituals in sub-Saharan Africa where people would place the mask of their ancestors and spiritual deities to seek counsel for contemporary problems, the figures in this exhibition wear masks of civil rights leaders, activists, artists, and political figures. The figures represent metaphoric deities placed on the backdrop of Americana. Using religious metaphor, history, pop culture, and the flag as sacred symbols of America, I am exploring questions of how Blacks exist within the mythology of Americana.”

Tylonn J. Sawyer, Your Founding Fathers Owned Slaves and We Ain’t Forgot that Shit II, Oil on canvas, 48 x 32″, 2021

Tylonn Sawyer must have known that when it came time to apply for graduate school, he wanted to attend a school specializing in representational art, focusing on figurative painting. The New York Academy of Art is a graduate school that combines intensive technical training using methods and techniques that met his goals.  The painting Your Founding Fathers…the work that is tongue-in-cheek where the African American female is working on a portrait of George Washington—reminds us that not everyone is a descendent of the first U.S. president.

Tylonn J. Sawyer, Missy Misdemeanor Elliot, Charcoal and glitter on paper, 30 x 22, 2020

Throughout the exhibition, there is a collection of charcoal drawings, 30 x 22″ as in Missy Misdemeanor Elliot, that illustrates portraits from famous contemporary celebrities that remind people that there is much accomplishment in the entertainment business.  Sawyer gives credit where credit is due by featuring these realistic headshots where some are surrounded with gold foil.  Sawyer says “Using Hip-Hop, a music genre and culture as a not only medium for both the audio and historical soundtrack, but also as witness to our participation in history, Year of the Flood, immerses the viewer in a body that  refracts movement through a false sense of stasis, offering various aspects of praise and conflict with and of Americana.”

Tylonn J. Sawyer, Every Now and Then, 84 x 50″, Charcoal and Acrylic on Paper, 2017

The large work, Now and Then, charcoal and acrylic is a field of police painted with flat white acrylic faces, depicts the officers as automated cutout droids crammed together in search of a strategy. The symbolism of a police force lacking the diversity it deserves is one more example of Sawyer’s tools to make his social injustice message loud and clear.

Tylonn J. Sawyer, The King James Version, 30 x 22″, Oil on Paper, 2020

The King James Version, also known as the King James Bible, is an English translation of the Christian Bible for the Church of England in 1604.  Historically,  Britons were enslaved in large numbers, typically by wealthy merchants, who exported indigenous slaves from pre-Roman times and became significant participants in the Atlantic slave trade. The painterly portrait here depicts a contemporary African American draped in the U.S. flag, poking fun at such an event’s impossibility.

Throughout our country’s history, the intersection of art and activism has played a crucial role in social movements against inequality, oppression and injustice.  The authors of the Declaration of Independence outlined a bold vision for America: a nation where there would be equal justice for all. More than two hundred years later, it has yet to be achieved.  Though generations of civil rights activism have led to significant gains in legal, political, social and educational realms, the forced removal of indigenous peoples and the institution of slavery marked the beginnings of a system of racial injustice from which our country has yet to recover.

Tylonn J. Sawyer earned his BFA from Eastern Michigan University and his MFA from the New York Academy of Art.

White History Month Volume I and II: The Year of the Flood at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art runs through June 19, 2021.

 

New Work / New Year @ David Klein Gallery

Installation image, New Work, New Year, 2021

If it has been hard to survive 2020, that has been especially true for the art community. Artists have had to be concerned with their health, livelihood and families, endure a deadly virus and experience a tumultuous political environment that heightened the anxiety in everyone’s lives.  Art exhibitions struggled to even exist in 2020, while some opted to be exclusively virtual. The David Klein galleries have consistently staged openings, albeit with masks, social distancing and staggered appointments.

The David Klein Gallery’s Director of Contemporary Art, Christine Schefman, has started off the new year by looking back at 2020 with an exhibition statement about this new show. She says, “2020 was a year of uncertainty, but one thing we know that remained constant was artists making art. Maybe there was a pause at the beginning, but ultimately artists found the inspiration to keep moving forward. Whether they continued to explore an ongoing body of work or create something entirely new, their practice endured.”

In this exhibition of fifteen artists, the first two artists I will mention are Robert Schefman and Kelly Reemtsen, both clearly figurative painters with a depth of experience yet whose work is completely juxtaposed.

Schefman talks about choosing an illusionist narrative while avoiding the term photorealism, and he has worked hard at finding a story that uses the human form as his subject.  Over the years, his technique has been impeccable. He has made a point to find a theme, a secret or a mystery that dominates these large oil paintings, and he obviously devotes time to the color pallet and composition.  Reemtsen on the other hand, who has spent time on the west coast and is drawn to Wayne Thiebaud’s work, creates tension between a headless female figure in a pop art patterned dress grasping tradesmen tools; be it a saw, a shovel or an ax. Schefman’s oil paint is carefully and smoothly applied with photo accuracy. In contrast, Reemtsen’s oil paint is very thick and applied loosely at times with a palette knife to the background, while the dresses are always A-line designs cinched at the waist. Her work shouts out contemporary like Balthus, while Schefman’s work is soft and traditionally romantic like Vermeer. It is noted here that the figure has become popular as of late, but it is always a challenge to follow in the steps of DaVinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Ingres, Manet, Klimt, Sargent and Picasso, to name just a few.

Robert Schefman, Lola, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 40″, 2020

Robert Schefman’s last solo exhibition at the David Klein Gallery in November 2019 focused on a series of works exploring hidden secrets sent to him via social media with no names attached. He leaves that process during 2020 with Lola, an aerial view of a Formula 4 race car as a crew member changes a tire while a figure holds the umbrella protecting the driver from heat or approaching rainfall.  It fits nicely into his illusionistic narrative. The strength here is the point of view, the use of color and the construction of a compelling composition. Although it gleams with the craft of realism and the precise replication of photo imagery, it is likely the nostalgia of this moment in time draws the artist back to an earlier period in his life.

Robert Schefman earned a B.F.A. from Michigan State University and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa.

Kelly Reemtsen, Bits and Pieces, Oil on Panel, 36 x 36″, 2020

Kelly Reemtsen gives us her now-familiar depiction of a young woman in retro skirts carrying an ax, with her trademark being pictorially cropped at the head.  Although there have been large paintings in the past that include the female’s head, the work here, Bits and Pieces, is repeated both in composition and the thick, painterly impasto of oil paint.  Set against a white background, the viewer is forced into the tension between the dress pattern and the manly grasp of the color-coordinated ax. Perhaps an early interest in fashion found its way into her mindset, and the niche was oddly a new “post-feminist” expression. The other element that keeps repeating itself is the reoccurring geometric patterns, both on the dresses and in the backgrounds.

Kelly Reemtsen earned her undergraduate degree from Central Michigan University and pursues her graduate degree at California State University at Long Beach.

Cooper Holoweski, Late Stage, New Age Process, Mixed Media, 40 x 24″, 2020

In this exhibition, Cooper Holoweski’s Mixed Media pieces were new, fresh and fascinating. Based on a composition of photo illusions of objects, human parts and abstract forms, the work has an underlying grid that supports the vertical work on paper.  Although the work was a new experience, the name was familiar. I had written  about his video work at the Center Gallery, College of Creative Studies, in 2017.  What still fits from the review is his mention of tension, contradiction and counterbalance, elements present in this new mixed media collage imagery. These mixed media prints are highly technical in their creation, something described as New Age Process. Made on Homasote, a cellulose-based fiber wallboard, several gesso coats are applied, and Holoweski uses a laser engraver to obtain a variety of effects creating his archival inkjet print.

Cooper Holoweski earned a B.F.A from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Mark Sengbusch, Singin in the Rain, Acylic on Plywood, 25 x 31″, 2020

Mark Sengbusch’s work is an assemblage of pieces of colorfully painted shapes made from wood that are arranged on a grid with a solid colored background. From his biography, it appears as though the types of forms he uses have been influenced by the architecture he experienced in his travels to Europe and the Middle East. The feeling one gets relies on the pattern created by these new and unusual shapes in this work, Singin in the Rain, which is a combination of secondary color and repetition. These design elements’ craftsmanship extends to the surrounding border and frame, making it an integrated part of the work. He refers to asemic approaches to writing with no semantic content but rather symbolism that is open to subjective interpretations.

Mark Sengbusch earned his B.F.A. from the College for Creative Studies and his M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Ricky Weaver, My First Mind Tells Me, Archival pigment print, 30 x 45″, 2020

Ricky Weaver’s work employs magical realism to investigate the moment. She uses images of herself to capture a metaphysical sense of reality in her work.  In the work My First Mind Tells Me, she recreates a moment with multiples of the same person while shifting to composition and color aesthetics. The attraction here is bringing the viewer into her world and keeping them questioning where the reality lies. The theme that resonates throughout her work is the black female and her relationship with faith. Much of her work is black & white images, but My First Mind Tells Me is rendered in full color. Repeatedly, she investigates the possibilities of these moments and forces the viewer to imagine a variety of alternatives. It is refreshing to experience an artist so grounded in her beliefs that it transfers to her work.

Ricky Weaver earned her B.F.A. in Photography from Eastern Michigan University and an M.F.A. in photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Scott Hocking is well known for installations both in the gallery and on sites throughout the Detroit Metro region and beyond.  In answering what an artist did in 2020, he responds with a digital film, Kayaking Through the Quarantimes. He mentions in his statement, “Over the years, the experience of kayaking has developed into a full-blown obsession, a much-needed connection to nature and quietude, an art project in itself.”

 

The exhibition includes the work of: Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Susan Campbell, Matthew Hawtin, Scott Hocking, Cooper Holoweski, Kim McCarthy, Mario Moore, Marianna Olague, Jason Patterson, Kelly Reemtsen, Lauren Semivan, Mark Sengbusch, Robert Schefman, Rosalind Tallmadge and Ricky Weaver.

Hourly time slots are available with a maximum of 20 visitors per hour. Plan your visit to the gallery at www.exploretock.com/davidkleingallerydetroit For further information, please contact: Christine Schefman Director of Contemporary Art: christine@dkgallery.com

WSU 2020 Art Faculty – Virtual Exhibition

The James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History, Wayne State University, presents the 2020 WSU Faculty Exhibition, a virtual exhibition that opened November 19, 2020.

The Art Department Faculty Exhibition at Wayne State University began as an installation in the Community Arts Gallery but quickly became virtual in mid-November 2020 to conform with university Covid-19 requirements. Faculty members from the department who advance the study and practice of art history, design and fine art come together to reflect the university’s full spectrum of area disciplines.  Click on this link, and you’ll find these images above are links to each faculty member’s work here: https://www.waynestategalleries.org/2020-faculty-exhibition-2

Adrian Hatfield, If this isn’t nice, what is?, 2019 oil and acrylic on canvas 48” x 36”

The painting and sculpture of Adrian Hatfield remind this writer of the term magical realism, more often referred to in literature, but that may apply here.  The term magical realism was introduced by Franz Roh, a German art critic in 1925. When Roh coined the term, he meant it to create an art category that strayed from the strict guidelines of realism, which Hatfield’s collage-like work conveys. Hatfield’s work recombines art historical imagery from the industrial revolution and the Romantic era with imagery from current and environmental concerns. In the work, he creates a black & white drawn universe, juxtaposed to these full colored floating dimensional shapes and landscape, part of a dualism that plays with the viewer’s process.

In his statement, he says, “As I explore this dualistic theme through the remodeling of art-historical and scientific imagery, the resultant pieces are mournful, unnerving, and yet oddly hopeful.”  Adrian Clark Hatfield earned his B.F.A. from Ohio State University and his M.F.A. from Ohio University.   https://www.adrianhatfield.com/

Margi Weir, Caution Guardrail, 2020 India ink, Sumi ink, watercolor

Patterns are a large dominating part of Margi Weir’s oeuvre, as illustrated here in this work, Caution Guard Rail, 2020. She uses this technique she describes as Snap Line when she dips cotton twine into thinned acrylic paint or ink and snaps a taut line onto a supporting surface. The spray from the line often begins the process for the composition. Weir’s body of work is expansive and includes paintings, drawings, prints, and installations. The paintings and prints are dominated by a highly developed geometric and colorful pattern. There is a theme reflected somewhere in the pattern, often in the border, where she stitches together multiple symbols to make them visually appealing.

She says in her statement, “In one body of my work, I use a computer (a non-traditional painter’s tool) to repeat images that I stitch together visually in order to make an appealing pattern, often resulting in tapestry-like, spatially flattened compositions.  This references pre-Renaissance and/or non-western methods of pictorial organization, for storytelling purposes, that were used in textiles, ceramics, and architectural decoration.  This particular use of juxtaposed images, stacked and repeated, is a unique addition to the visual language of painting in the 21st century.”

Ms. Weir earned her MFA in painting from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA); her MA in painting from New Mexico State University. She also holds a BFA in painting from San Francisco Art Institute and BA in art history from Wheaton College.   https://margiweir.weebly.com/

Millee Tibbs, Transfrontalier, 2018 Gelatin Silver Print + Custom Frame

To describe Millee Tibbs’s work as landscape photography would not be complete, although she is using a camera and capturing images of mountainous terrain. Instead, that would be the starting point for various manipulations; whether it be the entire shape of the image or the overlay of a second geometric shape on the terrain, there is an astute variety in how these images are presented.  The artwork derives from Tibbs’s interest in photography’s ubiquity and the tension inherent in manipulating reality. Sometimes it is in the overlay of a geometric shape on the mountainside; other times it includes the shape of the image, mat, and frame. It’s as if the mountain terrain becomes the backdrop for an artist interested in what I might call a shaped canvas work: Frank Stella, 1965; Ellsworth Kelly, 1970, or Elizabeth Murray, 2006.

She says in her statement, “My work has evolved into an investigation of idealized landscape imagery – the kind that is easily consumable and often commodified. I am fascinated with the landscape genre and its language, the aesthetic imposed onto the land through photographic framing, and the historical rhetoric inherent in these images that justified Manifest Destiny and conquest through what is left out—namely inhabitants.”

Millee Tibbs earned her B.A. from Vassar College and her M.F.A. from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)    https://www.milleetibbs.com/

Sheryl Oring, “I Wish to Say” Video, 5:13 minutes

The video work of Sherl Oring investigates social issues through projects that incorporate on-camera interviews that examine public opinion. In “I Wish to Say”, Oring sets up a portable office where woman in secretarial costume interview individuals at large about the state-0f-affairs in the U.S. and documents their comments using a typewriter, intending to main a postcard to the White House.  To date, nearly 4000 postcards were mailed.

Having worked in educational television, it is important to say the standards and caliber of production in these short videos are of the highest quality: the recording of imagery and audio and the direction and editing of these videos are highly produced.  The “I Wish to Say” project has a companion book from the University of  Chicago Press, Activating Democracy, a result of helping people from across the United States voice their political concerns.

From the Public Art Review, “Sheryl Oring’s multiyear, ongoing I Wish to Say project—in which she sets up a desk with a typewriter and invites people to dictate a letter to the President or a presidential candidate, which she types and sends—is a catalyst for a deeper look at artists’ intersection with public policy.”

Sheryl A. Oring earned her B.S. in Journalism at the University of Colorado and her M.F.A. from the University of California.  http://www.sheryloring.org/

Works by the following full and part-time faculty are featured in the exhibition: Maria Bologna, Kiley Brandt, Betty Brownlee, Allana Clarke, Pamela DeLaura, Jessika Edgar, Laura Foxman, David Stephan Graves, Richard Haley, Adrian Hatfield, Margaret Hull, Lauren Kalman, Deborah Kingery, Ruth Koelewyn, Brian Kritzman, Claas Kuhnen, Evan Larson-Voltz, Heather Macali, Katie MacDonald, Heather Mawson, Judith A. Moldenhauer, Carole Morisseau, Sheryl Oring, Kathyrose Pizzo, Tom Pyrzewski, Kyle Sharkey, Rebekah Sweda, Andrea Thurston-Shaine, Millee Tibbs, Maureen Vachon, Margi Weir, and Golsa Yaghoobi.

Wayne State University,  2020 Faculty Exhibition, a virtual exhibition opened November 19, 2020, and runs through January 8, 2021.

 

 

Russ Marshall @ DIA

Detroit Institute of Arts presents Russ Marshall: Detroit Photographs, 1958-2008 Image courtesy of DIA

Russ Marshall, Installation image courtesy of the DIA

The Detroit Institute of Arts is currently exhibiting over 90 black & white photographs by the Detroit photographer Russ Marshall in their first-floor de Salle gallery. Russ Marshall: Detroit Photographs, 1958–2008 opened November 15, 2020, and will run through June 27, 2021. Department Head in the Prints, Drawings, and Photographs department and the James Pearson Duffy Curator of Photography, Nancy Barr has been working at the DIA for the best part of twenty-five years and is responsible for the very tasteful curation of this rich and comprehensive exhibition.  Although the work broadly covers six decades of freelance work capturing the local labor movement in and around Detroit, for this review, I will focus on the imagery that speaks to Marshall’s artistic work both from his interests in the cultural events of Detroit and his travels to Europe during the years 1987-1990.

To understand his beginnings, Russ Marshall was born in 1940 in the coal-mining town of South Fork, Pennsylvania, to a coal miner and industrial factory worker family. His parents relocated to Detroit in 1943, and he grew up in a federal housing project surrounded by the neighborhood activities comprised of thousands who worked in the automotive factories. His father worked in the Chrysler DeSoto plant assembly line where steel from Great Lakes Steel company provided the iron ore that transformed the raw material into steel for car parts. In his teens, Marshall was the owner of a Scout 120 box camera and began capturing the people around him and the places where he lived.

Marshall says in his statement, “Our family photo album was probably my first significant exposure to photography and on some level, at an early age, it was impressed upon me that it was important to keep the memories of these miners, steelworkers, and farmers alive.”

He goes on in the Huffington Post to describe his childhood, “Growing up in a federal housing project in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit provided a unique perspective to a young boy in the 1940s and ’50s. With activities of the big three auto companies always in the news, which could affect most of my relatives and neighbors, including my father who worked on the Chrysler DeSoto plant assembly line, I was conscious of where I was in this life — where I fit in.”

Russ Marshall, First Annual Detroit Blues Festival, 1977, Dye-based inkjet print, 2019

It was September 22-25, 1977 that Marshall must have discovered the new filters that could be used on a 35mm single reflex lens that applied a star-burst effect filter to light sources as seen in the entrance shot of the first Detroit Blues Festival.  During these predigital years, the filters absorb part of the light available, often necessitating a more prolonged exposure. This image provides a high contrast moment in time, probably 35 mm negative, dominated by the then-latest star filter’s effects.  In 1977 it was a time for trying the filter and its impact, but eventually, photographers grew tired of the special effect. From the citation, the negative was recently printed by creating a Dye-based Inject print in 2019. My guess is that Marshall may have scanned the 35mm negative and brought the image into a digital environment to print.

Russ Marshall, Men’s Lounge, 1959, Gelatin Silver print, 2005

Some will notice the Men’s lounge at the Michigan Central Train depot as a moment in time where the two men are gazing directly into the camera.  The low light source is probably natural light from large windows off-frame to the right.  The citation tells us it is 1959, at a time just as the civil rights movement was just gaining momentum.  The attraction here is on two fronts; the composition, off-center to the left, and dramatic light provide the symbolic idea of two young men, one white, one black, sitting next to each other with ease. For this writer, this may be the strongest work in the exhibition.

Russ Marshall, Soho District, London

In addition to Marshall’s journalistic work, the exhibition includes images featuring Marshall’s photographs taken of public life in England and eastern Europe as the Cold War was on the decline from 1987-1990. The photo taken in the Soho district of London,  captures a figure entirely in silhouette right of center, which depicts this London street’s mood, tightly packed with cars.  The street lights (possibly filtered) takes the viewer back in space along the street’s edge.  A picture like this could quickly be taken on a tripod, where the exposure and focus would require a still camera or braced himself for a slower shutter speed.  From Marshall’s images in Detroit factories and city streets, he usually includes a figure, whether it was hippies on Belle Isle or city workers in a protest line.

Russ Marshall, Ambasador Bridge & Zug Island

Many of Marshall’s industrial images are products of controlled light and soft focus.  Telephoto lenses can make objects in the distance appear larger, and the time of day and printing filters can create a mood.  The Ambassador Bridge and Zug Island image uses these tools and the design element of repetition to capture what he sees as a marker in time.  Often a photographer will set up his camera on a tripod and experiment with various exposures where one will work with the effect he is after.  In this image, the little smoke that billows from behind the six stacks of dark vertical chimneys catches light from the source near the horizon and creates a focal point just left of center.  The sky could be easily manipulated in the darkroom using a dodging tool that helps the late evening sky become diffused and darkened at its edges.

Russ Marshall, Woodward City Man, 2000, Gelatin Silver print, 2005

Similar to London’s image, Marshall grabs a moment of a man on a bicycle in silhouette with the focus on the mood and light, but it is essential to include a figure.  Why? Because it humanizes the setting and provides the viewer with a sense of scale. I asked Marshall about the square formatted images that could suggest using a 2.25-inch format to present square-framed compositions, but he said the square was created in the darkroom from a 35 mm negative.

It would be easy to say that these images fall under the influence of Robert Frank, who spent time in Detroit documenting the auto industry and the people of Detroit.  It would be impossible for someone so dedicated to photography as Russ Marshall to not be drawn to the work of Robert Frank.  Photographers who have seen Frank’s book, The Americans, and are familiar with his images, still feel the overpowering influence of his work today.

The exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts is organized by themes: Everyday Detroit, Public Life, Workers, Sounds of Detroit, and A Lens Towards Europe, including some rare images of an intact Berlin Wall.  Although most of Russ Marshall’s work was journalistic by the nature of the subject, his eye for artistic compositions that transcend time makes the work a perfect exhibition for the DIA.

Detroit Institute of Arts, Museum Hours: Wed – Fri  9am – 4pm, Sat – Sun 10am – 5-pm

Closed Mon & Tues   The museum will be closed New Year’s Day.