Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Author: Sean Bieri Page 1 of 2

Doomscrolling @ Broad Art Museum

Kayla Mattes – Doomscrolling Exhibition at the  Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, MSU, Lansing

Installation view, All works by Kayla Mattes. All images courtesy of Sean Bieri  2024

“Doomscrolling” is internet-speak for the online equivalent of a death spiral: the act of compulsively flicking at the screen of a smartphone and trolling for bad news, absorbing the steady stream of tragedy, atrocity, injustice, and outrage that the algorithm floats past our eyeballs until we’ve lost track of time, and possibly our grip on reality. (The corollary habit of compulsively seeking out tidbits of lightweight entertainment to counteract such horrors is an issue in its own right.) “Doomscrolling” isn’t just a buzzword; googling the term brings up pages on the National Institutes of Health’s website that associate the phenomenon with anxiety, depression, and other disorders. Textile artist Kayla Mattes’ exhibition Doomscrolling (open now through August 18 at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Lansing) is an engaging and often humorous attempt to pull the viewer out of this virtual tailspin by transposing the web’s cacophony of video clips, headlines, memes, and emojis into the more tangible medium of woven tapestries, allowing us to examine them at a remove, the better to reflect on how the internet is rewiring our brains.

Born in 1989, Mattes is a “digital native,” a child of the information age who can scarcely recall a time before the internet. Some of the individual memes she works into her tapestries have become classics of the medium; a few are golden oldies that may be as nostalgia-inducing for younger viewers as Saturday morning cartoons are for a Gen Xer. Many visitors will smile with recognition when they spot the “Awkward Look Monkey Puppet,” a synthetic simian who nervously shifts its gaze in response to some uncomfortable situation; the “This Is Fine” dog, a cartoon canine who smiles contentedly while the room burns down around him; and of course the iconic “Keyboard Cat,” a tabby pawing at an electric piano who “plays off,” Vaudeville style, the victim of some catastrophic personal failure in a series of memes that dates back to the primeval year of 2009.

Kayla Mattes, Fun Fact, 2023, Handwoven cotton, wool, and acrylic

It’s fun spotting these familiar characters within Mattes’ tapestries, though it’s a bit like being a soup enthusiast at a Warhol show — focusing only on such details misses the larger point. Mattes collages all this digital detritus carefully to give each tapestry a theme. For instance, Keyboard Cat appears in a piece called “Fun Fact,” surrounded by warning icons, error messages, and a rewind button. The phrase “The internet was once a fun place for watching cat videos instead of monitoring the real-time collapse of late-stage capitalism” appears over the musical feline’s head so that he seems to be “playing off” the failed promise of the World Wide Web and the remains of our collective innocence.

Kayla Mattes, Better Help, 2022, Handwoven cotton, wool, and polyester

“Better Help” borrows its title from an online mental health service and features various images suggesting tension and anxiety: a finger poised over two red buttons labeled “hope” and “nope” (aka, the “Daily Struggle” meme); an hourglass icon; a smiley face hovering over a black hole. The “This Is Fine” dog — originally from a comic strip by KC Green illustrating our masochistic ability to acclimate to any “new normal,” no matter how calamitous — appears in a tapestry called “5%.” Surrounding the dog are images of flames, a rising thermometer, and the exploding head of the “mind blown” emoji, along with a “low battery” warning, suggesting that even as the global situation becomes increasingly heated, our ability to respond is dwindling. Another piece called “‘the apps’ (iykyk)” is strewn with the iconography of various dating apps, along with an image of Sesame Street’s Elmo engulfed in flames, and a map of the freeways of Los Angeles (Mattes’ hometown), both of which provide analogies for the frustrating hellscape that is the online dating scene. Other works in the show address climate change, commerce, and astrology.

Kayla Mattes, 5%, 2023 Handwoven cotton, wool, mohair, and acrylic

The juxtaposition of all this info-ephemera with the centuries-old handicraft of weaving may seem like an odd pairing at first (not as jarring as seeing attack helicopters and rocket launchers woven into an Afghan war rug, maybe, but the disconnect feels similar). It isn’t really as strange as it seems. After all, as Mattes points out, both computers and looms utilize a binary logic of sorts: the intersection points of warp and weft in a tapestry correspond to the on-or-off state of pixels on a screen. Plus, it was an early attempt at automating the weaving process, by one Joseph Marie Jacquard, that produced the punch card technology that made the first proto-computers — or “analytical engines” — possible.

Mattes worked with a modern Jacquard loom to create the centerpieces of the show, three vertical banners that hang down one wall and scroll out onto the floor. Each banner features a list of automated Google search suggestions prompted by the questions “What is…?,” “When is…?,” and “Why is…?” Not entirely random, the suggestions were based on searches trending on the internet at the time; they were then curated and arranged by Mattes. The resulting questions range from the existential (“what is wrong with the world today?”; “when is it time to move on?”) to the trivial (“why is comic sans hated?”; “when is an avocado ripe?”). Taken together, they paint a collective portrait of the internet community that’s reassuringly “relatable” — both humorous and endearing for the humanity that shows through the cold logic of the algorithm.

On either side of the gallery entrance, vertical strings have been hung so visitors can write their own “searches” onto strips of paper, then weave them — and themselves — into the fabric of the show. There’s also a demonstration video showing Mattes at her loom; at one point the artist’s cat appears, batting at balls of thread while Mattes tries to work, because how would an exhibition like this be complete without its very own funny cat video?

Kayla Mattes – Doomscrolling Exhibition at the  Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum through August 18, 2024.

Jefferson Pinder – Weapons and White Music, @ WSU

Jefferson Pinder – Weapons and White Music, at the Wayne State University’s Elaine Jacob Gallery

Jefferson Pinder, Installation image, Colored Entrance, 2017

In a lecture given a few years ago, Jefferson Pinder opened by speaking about two luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance: sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, who believed the only worthwhile art a Black artist could make was propaganda that advanced the cause of social justice; and philosopher Alain Locke, who believed Black artists needed the freedom to, as Locke’s biographer Jeffrey C. Stewart puts it, “produce a black subjectivity that could become the agent of a cultural and social revolution.” Weapons and White Music, a compact anthology of Pinder’s art from the last decade or so, on view at Wayne State University’s Elaine Jacob Gallery now through April 27, showcases a body of work that balances aesthetics and activism. It addresses issues of race not with unequivocal slogans, but in an audio-visual language that prompts contemplation, investigation, and soul-searching. There are no handy wall labels here to coach the visitor, so inevitably the nature of that contemplation will vary from one person to the next.

Jefferson Pinder, Bent Spear (after John Brown), 2024

Those averse to violence on principle, for example, might be discomfited by an exhibition that features spears, billy clubs, and Molotov cocktails (never mind that the collection of armor, swords, and firearms in the Great Hall of the nearby Detroit Institute of Arts is one of the museum’s most popular attractions). Some context might help; Bent Spear (after John Brown), a piece comprising a volley of pikes displayed across one wall of the Jacob gallery’s first floor, references weapons once commissioned by the titular white abolitionist, who intended to supply them to freed Black men for use in the uprising he hoped to provoke. The spears here are arrayed behind a vitrine containing the Head of a Man — a human skull with teeth plated in gold. Drawings of a similar skull are superimposed over photos of Black Panther leader Huey Newton in a series of nearby screen prints.

The musical part of the exhibition’s title also appears on the gallery’s first floor. Facing the entrance are five monitors playing a 50-minute loop of videos featuring Black “singers” lip-syncing to a series of songs by white pop-rock bands. Some of the performers onscreen are expressive, some are deadpan, and each takes a different part of the harmonies. Entitled Revival, the piece is described on the artist’s website as a “virtual choir” that “reverses a longstanding tradition of mainstream cultural appropriation.” Some of the songs featured are more mainstream than others, but many share themes of violence that “hit different,” as the kids say, when apparently voiced by Black performers. Consider Born Under Punches by Talking Heads, with its haunted refrain, “all I want is to breathe,” that can’t help evoking Eric Garner’s dying words. (Pinder had incorporated the song into the piece prior to Garner’s killing.) Also featured are Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, about an imprisoned youth facing execution; The Flaming Lips’ The W.A.N.D. — short for “The Will Always Negates Defeat” — which boasts, “I’ve got a tricked-out magic stick that will make them all fall / We’ve got the power now, motherfuckers, that’s where it belongs”; even The Smiths’ Girlfriend In A Coma is included. It’s hard to know what someone unfamiliar with these songs will make of the piece, but for those who know, Revival will cast the music in a different light.

The curving stairway to the gallery’s second floor is cleverly incorporated into the exhibit itself.  Toward the bottom of the stairs is a weathered neon sign with a red arrow, that might be from a historical museum’s display about the days of Jim Crow, except that a “d” has been added to turn the phrase “colored entrance” into “colored entranced,” with connotations both of wonder and bewitchment. Hovering above the top of the stairs, where the visitor must pass under it to proceed, is Gauntlet, a menacing cloud of charred billy clubs that threatens to rain harm onto anyone below.

Jefferson Pinder, Fire Next Time, 2021 – Glass bottles, graphite, fabric, matches and catalyst.

At the top of the stairs is Fire Next Time, a set of four shelves of varying widths arranged in an inverted pyramid, upon which are displayed 25 Molotov cocktails — improvised incendiaries made from bottles, rags, and gasoline, associated with what’s sometimes called irregular warfare. They appear both grubbily utilitarian and oddly compelling in the way weapons often are. Up close, they’re revealed to be adorned with wire, duct tape, packed mud, BBs, matches, hair, shards of glass, and other material. The presentation itself is formal, its ascending shape suggesting escalating conflict or the rising flames themselves.

Projected onto a wall on the other side of the gallery is a new work, a video installation called Greatest Hits (violent pun likely intended); it’s a montage of scenes from movies and television programs in which white actors utter the N-word. The films range from earnest dramas (Roots; Do The Right Thing; In The Heat of the Night) and cop flicks (Dirty Harry; The French Connection; Starsky & Hutch), to satire (Blazing Saddles, a notorious Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor), broad comedy (Bad News Bears; The Jerk), and more, including the works of Quentin Tarantino, without which no such compilation would be complete. The montage closes with two musical performances: punk godmother Patti Smith belting her 1978 song “Rock & Roll N—,” adding herself to a long line of white artists who have tried to liken themselves to marginalized minorities in an attempt to set themselves apart from mainstream society; and a 1972 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, in which John Lennon and Yoko Ono remark on the abuse of women across the racial spectrum with their song “Woman is the N— of the World.”

Jefferson Pinder, Greatest Hits, 2024 – HD Video (running time:23 Min.

The creators of these films would presumably have justifications for their use of the offensive term, even if it was only for verisimilitude. For viewers familiar with these films, the contexts in which the slur is used will be understood, though not everyone will accept the justifications for its use from one film to the next, or at all. To anyone unfamiliar with them, the piece may not be much more than a litany of hate speech being ejected from anonymous white mouths. Throughout, though, there are intriguing juxtapositions within the montage, such as that of a scene from the Civil War drama Glorymashed up against one from Kubrick’s Vietnam picture Full Metal Jacket, drawing a line between the two conflicts. A theme emerges of white anti-heroes excusing their racism with the claim that they hate everybody equally. And while it’s unclear how Beastie Boys’ song “Sure Shot” relates to the scenes from The Jerk and Roots over which it’s played, putting The Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin” over a clip featuring Ku Klux Klan “knights” from Birth Of A Nation makes for a jarring audiovisual pun.

Jefferson Pinder – Weapons and White Music, at the Wayne State University’s Elaine Jacob Gallery on view through April 27, 2024.

Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity @ Henry Ford Museum

When Diego Rivera came to the Detroit Institute of Arts to create the Detroit Industry murals, the communist painter formed an unlikely bond with arch-capitalist Henry Ford over their shared fascination with technology. Ford had zero interest in art, but he was an avid collector of obsolete machinery, relics of the only sort of history he respected. When Rivera heard of Ford’s collection, he had himself driven to Dearborn early one morning and stayed until well after dark, poring over the metal menagerie that would eventually become the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

The intersection of art and technology is on display throughout the Henry Ford Museum: in Charles and Ray Eames’ playful “Mathematica” exhibit, in the quirky product designs of Michael Graves and the Apple graphical user interface created by Susan Kare, and in the array of works displayed in the Modern Glass Gallery. It’s a connection that’s further explored in Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity (open through March), the inaugural exhibit of the Ford’s new Collections Gallery, a space that will feature some of the museum’s more ephemeral objects that seldom go on display.

World’s Fair, 1970, Kinetic sculpture & Proxima Centauri, 1968   Kinetic sculpture

Schwartz is a pioneer in the field of electronic art. Beginning in the late 1960s, at a time when computer-generated art was still something of an anomaly, Schwartz collaborated with numerous engineers, programmers, and fellow artists to use the emerging technologies of the day in off-label ways to create her work. The Henry Ford recently received Schwartz’s archives and is still in the process of sorting through it all, but the current exhibit of 100-plus items is an exciting distillation of her life story. It features paintings, prints and drawings, sculptures, short films, plenty of ephemera from Schwartz’s long career, and, true to form for this museum, some of the gadgets she worked with, such as film editing equipment and projectors. It’s especially fortunate that this celebration of Schwartz’s work should be mounted while she’s still with us — born in 1927, the artist is now 96 years old.

Art supplies were hard to come by when Schwartz was a child, so she made use of whatever she could get ahold of — scraps of wallpaper, salvaged bits of sidewalk chalk, even leftover bread dough for sculpting. Some of her earlier artworks, from the 1950s, are on display here. Bright and colorful, they are decidedly analog but hint at the improvisatory ethic of her childhood and at the boundary-jumping approach Schwartz would apply to her art throughout her life: some feature collaged elements, others are painted onto overlapping layers of repurposed thin, translucent fabric rather than canvas.

On display nearby are some of her sculptures from the 1960s. They look wonderfully retro-futuristic, like they’d be at home on the set of a classic science fiction movie. In fact, one object called Proxima Centauri, a translucent globe that rises from inside a dark pedestal and flickers with colorful light when the viewer steps on a pressure pad, was used as a prop on the original Star Trek TV series (as well as appearing in the 1968 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, The Machine As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age). Another work, World’s Fair, a glowing box full of spiraling glass tubes that siphon up multicolored fluids, could be the circulatory system for some cybernetic organism. The tubes were trash-picked from a glass factory, and the red and green liquids coursing through them were originally cough syrup and creme de menthe!

Grandma and Grandpa, Etching, 1975

In 1968, Schwartz was invited to come to Bell Labs, the storied incubator of tech innovation, as part of an initiative to humanize computers in the eyes of the public. Technological pointillism!” she declared upon seeing an image at Bell of a reclining nude woman comprising a grid of hundreds of computer code glyphs. The nude had been printed out by a couple of Bell programmers as a joke, but Schwartz saw the real art-making potential in the technology. Hopping back and forth between the analog and digital worlds, she first drew faces onto graph paper, fed them into computers to be encoded, and then made silkscreen prints of the resulting pixelated portraits.

Later, using Bell’s circuit etching equipment, Schwartz rearranged the mazes and starbursts of circuit boards to create two figures she named Grandma and Grandpa; appearing both high-tech and primordial, they suggest totems erected to ancestors yet to be born. She used the same technique to create a streamlined variation on a Marcel Duchamp masterwork; hers is called Nude Ascending a Staircase. It doesn’t function as a circuit board anymore; it’s “merely” art, an homage that the Dadaist disruptor and creator of Fountain would no doubt have appreciated.

Still from Olympiad, 1971, Film transferred to video

In the center of the exhibit is a small black-box theater showing a number of short animated movies Schwartz made in collaboration with technicians and fellow electronic art and music innovators. Again, she melds the physical with the nascent digital technologies; one film includes abstracted images of a brain scan, while another juxtaposes matrices of growing crystals with distorted laser beams that waft around onscreen like deep sea creatures. In Olympiad, Schwartz animates digitized photos of a running man borrowed from Eadweard Muybridge’s groundbreaking motion photo series of the late 1800s (another technological advance that affected the art that came after). She later created a life-sized analog image of this pixelated athlete using a grid of black and white thumbtacks, once more swerving across the boundaries of different media.

In an era of sophisticated CGI, when video games are nearly as realistic as blockbuster movies and the “uncanny valley” gets narrower every day, it may be too easy to regard Schwartz’s films, with their chunky graphics, vivid color, and bleeping soundtracks as quaint baby steps toward modern computer animation. But they deserve to be appreciated on their own merits. They are by turns whimsical, hypnotic, and disorienting, sometimes like racing at warp speed through a Color Field painting exhibit, other times like drifting into a psychedelic dreamscape in which the acid-colored eyes of swirling galaxies seem to stare back at you.

Olympiad, c. 1970,  Mixed media collage

There’s much more to explore in this exhibit: how her bout with polio while living in post-war Japan affected Schwartz’s art, and how scar tissue in one of her eyes caused her to see “Picasso-like” visions; her pioneering TV spot for MoMA, the first computer animated advertisement to win an Emmy; her attempt to use computers to prove that Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was partially a self-portrait (a dubious theory, but an interesting use of the software). There are also her run-ins with sexism and her sometimes awkward relationship with the suits at Bell Labs. In the mid-1980s, after many years of involvement with Bell, Schwartz was finally given a job title of sorts — resident visitor,” an appropriately sci-fi-sounding designation. She was also called a morphodynamicist” in order to make her seem sufficiently scientific to visiting Bell shareholders. Schwartz once half-jokingly referred to herself as a pixellist.” But whatever her name badge reads and whatever high- or low-tech media she takes up, Schwartz is an artist through and through. In the midst of current debates over how artificial intelligence will disrupt the art world, Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity is proof that it’s the human being wielding the tools that will always make the difference.

Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity @ Henry Ford Museum on display through March 2024.

Revolutionary Times @ FIA

The Flint Institute of Arts Presents Revolutionary Times by Detroit Artist Mario Moore

There’s a black-and-white video clip on YouTube of an early TV quiz show where a panel of celebrities tries to guess the identity of a mystery guest. In the clip, the guest is a frail-looking old man who turns out to be the last living witness to the shooting of Abraham Lincoln. The show aired in 1956. My father was born in 1947; he just turned 77, and his life overlaps that of someone who saw the Lincoln assassination. I remember being struck by that thought when I first saw the video, by the idea that the days of chattel slavery and civil war, which can seem like the stuff of textbooks, ancient history (and which some would like us to conveniently regard as such), were actually as close as the span of just two lifetimes. I thought of that video again as I looked at Mario Moore’s current exhibition at the Flint Institute of Arts, Revolutionary Times (running now through April 14), in which the painter repeatedly collapses the distance between the past and the present.

Michael Moore, Installation image, Revolutionary Times, FIA

It’s been quite a year so far for Mario Moore. In addition to the Flint show, the Cranbrook Art Museum is currently featuring a show Moore co-curated called Skilled Labor: Black Realism in Detroit, in which Moore joins several other local painters who work in a range of realist approaches (on view through March 3). Moore’s art is both highly skilled and labor intensive. He works at a level of realism that must be a bit like playing trumpet or violin, where the promise of perfection makes every flub the more obvious. Moore, however, rarely misses a note. While his backgrounds are more loosely painted to suggest depth, his subjects are meticulously rendered, and yet they aren’t fossilized by overly-fussy techniques. They breathe, and radiate warmth even when their demeanors are cool, which is often. When they meet the viewers gaze, theres life in their eyes.

Mario Moore, The Drums Roll On,

Revolutionary Times comprises three bodies of work: one relates to the Civil War, particularly the Black troops who were armed to fight for the Union; another references the Underground Railroad and Detroit’s unique part in its history; and the third, a room of mostly portraits, comments on the fur trade in Detroit while honoring members of Moore’s family and circle of friends. Throughout the show, Moore juxtaposes images of “then and now,” sometimes placing 19th-century figures in modern landscapes, casting friends in the roles of historical personages, or inserting himself into portraits of family members. Each work dissolves the barriers between the historical and the contemporary. At the start of the exhibition, the viewer is greeted by The Drum Rolls On, an image of a barefoot Black child, eyes forward and resolute, the sticks in his hands poised to strike up a march on the snare drum slung around his neck. Around him, the landscape is in flames, yet he is unharmed and unperturbed. He’s an allegorical figure, though not a timeless one; the shiny calculator watch on his wrist tells us that the time is now.

Mario Moore, Espansion

The next image the visitor encounters is a lithograph featuring the first of a number of artists Moore name-checks throughout the exhibit: David Bowser, the designer of several regimental flags carried by Black troops during the Civil War (a Moore recreation of one of Bowser’s flags hangs elsewhere in the gallery). Across the room is another artist, Moore’s contemporary Mark Thomas Gibson. He’s depicted lounging in front of a Moore-ified version of his large drawing of the battle of Antietam, a fight in which Black troops played a crucial role and which precipitated Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the battle scene, a Union soldier lies dead in one corner, his head blown off with such force that his hat still hovers above the stump of his neck. Gibson’s casual pose, sitting back in a chair with his feet up, mimics that of the collapsed soldier, suggesting that the soldier’s sacrifice then made Gibson’s freedom today possible. On another wall are several portraits based on Civil War-era photographs, now in full color and with the original subjects replaced by friends of Moore’s, all brandishing period swords and firearms. A spoken word recording about the arming of Black troops, Free State, plays in the first gallery as well, though without a chair or headphones it’s hard to give the 25-minute recording the attention it deserves.

Entering the second part of the exhibition, the visitor meets two bathing suit-clad figures, a man and woman, reclining on the shore of the Detroit River. They represent Lucia and Thornton Blackburn, an enslaved couple who fled Kentucky for Canada along the storied Underground Railroad. They eventually escaped to Windsor, depicted here by the apartment blocks and casinos of the city’s modern skyline, just as the Blackburns are portrayed by two friends of Moore’s, closing the gap between the two time periods. The Underground codename for Windsor was “Canaan”; Detroit was called “Midnight.” Between them runs the river, a fluid frontier that appears in the backgrounds of a number of the pictures in this gallery, most dramatically in Troubled Waters: Henry Bibb And/Or Mary Ann Shadd. In the painting, the titular abolitionists bob in precariously small boats on the rough waters of the strait, reaching out to one another yet separated by their differing views on tactics (Bibb welcomed white allies, and Shadd felt Black people could free themselves without them). In the foreground between the two boats, her back turned to the viewer to reveal her elaborately embroidered robe, a Black woman looks on as if contemplating the dispute, inviting us to do the same. Moore’s handling of water is excellent, especially the range of color he brings to the river, from industrial grays to translucent greens to deep blues. Also in this gallery are three large-scale portraits of anti-slavery figures with Michigan connections: William Lambert, George deBaptiste, and Sojourner Truth. Each is drawn in silverpoint, evoking daguerreotype photographs, and each is embellished by gold threads — provided by Moore’s mother, the artist and educator Sabrina Nelson — that chart routes along the Underground Railroad, adding a thoughtful graphic element to the portraits.

Mario Moore, The Drums Roll On

Detroit was founded 320-plus years ago as an outpost for the French fur trade, an industry that relied on the labor of enslaved Black people in order to thrive. The third gallery in the Flint exhibition depicts Moore’s friends and family dressed in fur, flipping the historical dynamic as well as celebrating a fashion statement that Moore has noticed is particular to Detroiters. His painting Expansion is a full-length portrait of local entrepreneur Cyndia Robinson, who stands framed in a doorway wearing black lingerie, as well as a fur jacket that once belonged to her mother. On either side of Robinson are historical paintings, like those still found in some libraries or schools, depicting the fur trade: white men with muskets receive furs delivered by Native American trappers, while an enslaved Black man shoulders a bundle of hides. On the opposite wall is the closest thing to an abstract image in the show, Moore’s striking bird’s-eye view portrait of Sheefy McFly, in which the rapper/artist/DJ, clad in an all-pink outfit and a brown fur coat, reclines in a small wooden boat. The vessel’s arrowhead shape, like a “you are here” pointer on a map, is sharpened by the field of dark cobalt water on which it floats. (If this painting hasn’t been used as an album cover yet, it’s something to consider!)

Michael Moore, Installation, Troubled

Bookending the exhibition is a stunning group portrait of five women: Moore’s wife, Danielle Eliska, his sister, mother, and his two grandmothers, arranged in a pyramid-shaped composition with Eliska’s profile at its peak. The women exude supreme strength and confidence. Arrayed around a table in a snowy forest environment, they look anything but cold; in fact, they glow with a warm, golden light in defiance of their icy surroundings. Moore’s love and admiration for these women he calls Pillars of the Frontier in the paintings title is palpable. His mother, Sabrina Nelson, holds a pencil poised over her open sketchbook, recalling the poised drumsticks held by the child at the show’s beginning. She locks eyes with the viewer — really with her son, the painter painting her, as if to create his portrait in return, keeping the dialogue between generations alive.

The Flint Institute of Arts Presents Revolutionary Times by Mario Moore

Laura Magnusson @ Flint Institute of Arts

Laura Magnusson, Blue, 2019

Water is a paradoxical thing, both sustaining and dangerous; it’s our origin, our literal lifeblood, yet it has a hundred ways of eroding our foundations and pulling us under. Canadian interdisciplinary artist, University of Michigan grad, and trained scuba diver Laura Magnusson considers water her collaborator: supportive, receptive, restrictive, indifferent.” Her eleven-minute silent video Blue (2019), on view at the Flint Institute of Arts through December 30, is set entirely underwater — 70 feet below the surface of the Caribbean, in fact, off the shore of the Mexican island of Cozumel. Down there, the horizon disappears into an azure haze that hangs over the cyan-tinted sand of the nearly featureless sea floor. It’s an abstract environment, an open stage for a performance that Magnusson describes as a voyage through the afterlife of sexual violence,” and “the impact statement (she) was never permitted to give before a court of law.”

The video opens on Magnusson crouched on the seabed, wearing a winter parka with a fur-trimmed hood and matching snow boots that seem less incongruous than one might imagine in this alien environment. Magnusson begins to trudge through the course sand, leaning into the water’s resistance, carrying in one hand the large tank that’s providing her with air, and in the other a model of a corrugated metal building complete with pine trees and a porch. In the doorway stands a figure in black underwear, a miniature version of the artist.

Laura Magnusson, Blue, 2019

First Magnusson tries to bury the model building (which was looks to be broken, a corner or fragment rather than a complete structure), scooping sand up over it. She makes a few attempts to leap upward toward the surface, but sinks back down each time, descending to the sea floor in slow motion. She wrestles to remove the parka before appearing half buried in the sand still wearing it. Eventually we see the coat fluttering free through the water like a diaphanous sea creature. Magnusson crouches again, nude now but for underpants and a diver’s weight belt, encircled by the arc of her air tube.

Magnusson alternates between standing, crouching, and self-burial until the cycle is interrupted by a shot of the artist wearing a pained expression above the scuba regulator stuck in her mouth. The hood of the parka is pulled up over her head, and she’s framed by a black void as silver fish dart around her. Crouching again, she screams silently into the sea, bubbles streaming from her mouth. In a close-up, we see her fingers attempting to pry the miniature figure of herself from out of the doorway of the model structure. It feels like a breakthrough, but it’s followed by a literal reversal: the film starts moving backwards. Air retreats into Magnusson’s mouth and she retraces her steps as if pushed back by the current. In the end, the broken building remains planted in the sand, and the black void returns, minus Magnusson, with only the silvery-blue fish remaining. The video loops, and begins again.

Laura Magnusson, Blue, 2019

Speaking in a YouTube video on Blue, Magnusson reveals some of the thinking behind the piece. The model is based on the inn in Manitoba where Magnusson was assaulted; its small scale allows her to better grapple with the place, though she fails to completely bury it or wrest her miniature self from its doorway. The multilayered construction of the handmade parka, which the artist describes as clamshell-like,” was inspired by the shell of Hafrún,” a living clam discovered in Iceland in 2006 that was 507 years old — when it was killed by scientists who pried it open to determine its age. If the coat is protective, why shed it, unless it’s a hindrance as well? Why does Magnusson bury herself? Some sea creatures cloak themselves in sand as camouflage; does the artist want to protect herself, anchor herself, or disappear? Magnusson explains that her actions in Blue were not scripted, but developed during the performance and organized in the editing process. This is not a tidy, linear narrative of someone whos conquered adversity, with a satisfying resolution and a prescription for a clear path forward; its a metaphorical document of a continuing journey toward healing, one Magnusson calls circuitous,” “wandering” and, appropriately, fluid.

Laura Magnusson @ Flint Institute of Arts through December 30, 2023.

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