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Design Highlights and American Perspectives @ GRAM

Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection, installation photo.

Grand Rapids is home to some of the Midwest’s finest contributions to applied art and design, particularly in the furniture industry, and the Grand Rapids Art Museum holds a muscular collection of applied arts, much of which comprises the exhibition Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection. This is a show which brings together work from 20th Century megastars, but also artists and designers who remain completely unknown. Filling the GRAM’s first-floor gallery suite, all these works stand as examples of how artists have sought to bring beauty into everyday life.

The works in this show represent a synthesis of decoration and function, and the distinction between the two is frequently blurred.  It’s a point emphatically made by the inclusion of a ceramic plate, some vases, and a set of cups designed by Picasso for Madoura Pottery in France, all adorned with whimsical vignettes rendered in the artist’s abstract style.

Some of these works explore design for its own sake. There are several lithographs in which Alexander Calder simply plays with basic abstract arrangements of shape, form, and color.  And an iridescent, blow-molded acrylic wall-hanging by Gisela Colon is similarly non-functional, but in its luminescence and simplicity speaks to the potentiality of design alone to capture the viewer’s interest even in the absence of conventional subject matter.

Ovoid Glo-Pod (Iridescent Lilac), Gisela Colon, 2016.  Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection, installation photo

But the overwhelming majority of works here exemplify functional design, ranging from furniture, cutlery, advertising, household appliances, and electronics. A display case housing personal electronic devices underscore the rapidity of the evolution of technological design.  An ensemble comprising several 1950s-era radios, an AM/FM Walkman, a cassette player, a TV, and some cameras is now collectively obsolete, rendered so by the advent of the smartphone.

Grand Rapids is famous in the Midwest for its contributions to furniture design, and visitors to the GRAM can count on several iconic examples of 20th-century furniture always being on display. These often articulate the point that, like technology, furniture design can also substantially shift and evolve over a relatively short time. Here, there are some pieces by Gustav Stickley, Ray Eames, and Charles Eames.  Certainly, the most visually striking pieces are the zainy, sculptural chairs produced by the Westnofa Workshop which manage to re-define the notion of what a chair even is.

Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection, installation photo.

Similarly blurring the distinction between the beautiful and the functional, a concurrent exhibition features 80 works on loan from the collection of the American Folk Art Museum. This large exhibit fills most of the GRAM’s spacious second-floor gallery suite. By its nature, folk art is eclectic and perhaps hard to define, but these works collectively make the point that folk art has the capacity to be punchy, pertinent, and socially engaged.

American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection, installation image courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum comprises a varied assortment of media, and amplifies voices that have been traditionally absent from museum spaces. One of the most moving examples is a ceramic vase by David Drake, an enslaved African American who created an estimated 40,000 works of pottery in his lifetime, invariably signing them “Dave” and often inscribing  witty rhyming couplets on their surfaces.  His signature features prominently on the side of the vase, asserting his personhood and creative agency in triumphant defiance of the dehumanizing institution of slavery.

David Drake (c.1800–c. 1870).Jug,1853.Alkaline-glazed stoneware,14 1/2 x 12 x 11 1/2 inches.CollectionAmerican Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Sally and Paul Hawkins, 1999.18.1.Photo by JohnParnell.

Harnessing an entirely different media, the Grover Cleveland Quilt similarly amplifies a disenfranchised voice, the patches of the quilt declaring its anonymous creator’s support for Grover Cleveland’s candidacy approximately forty years before the vote was extended to women. Created almost exactly a century later, Jessie Telfair’s Freedom Quilt is a monument to the hard-fought rights secured during the Civil Rights Movement.

Jessie B. Telfair (1913–1986)Freedom Quilt,1983.Cotton,with pencil,74 x 68inches.CollectionofAmerican Folk ArtMuseum, New York,Gift of Judith Alexander in loving memory of her sister, Rebecca Alexander, 2004.9.1.Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York.

Work by immigrants to America features prominently in the show. A visual centerpiece of the exhibit is Mariano Ariti’sArchitectural Palace, a model for a hypothetical museum celebrating human innovation. An Italian immigrant to the United States, he envisioned this colossal structure to stand in Washington D.C., and if realized, the building would have been as tall as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.  Its ambitious scale speaks to the artist’s optimistic vision of the nation’s capabilities.  

American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection, installation image courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Born to a family of immigrants in the Bronx, Ralph Fasanella’s Workers Holiday portrays the city’s working-class masses headed to Coney Island as a momentary escape from the daily grind, and indirectly speaks to his impassioned interest in worker’s rights.  Not incidentally, just a few feet away from Fasanella’s painting is an original wooden carousel horse, itself a form of handcrafted folk-art, from the merry-go-round at Coney Island amusement park.

This is an ambitious pair of exhibitions, given that they bring together an eclectic assortment of art and design which we might not conventionally think of as museum art.  As different in form and content as both of these exhibits are, together they bring together non-traditional media which assertively makes the point that visual culture isn’t simply the stuff of sterile and hushed museums and galleries, but that craft and design can frequently burst into real-world, real-life spaces.

Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection runs through August 14, 2021, and American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum runs through August 28, 2021.

Art + Labor & The Long Goodbye @ MSU Broad

24/7: Art + Labor Around the Clock installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Aaron Word/MSU Broad.

COVID-19 had a dramatic impact on how we work; even as we return to normalcy, it remains unclear if the workplace will ever fully return to how things were in pre-pandemic years.  An intimate, single-gallery exhibit at the MSU Broad offers an ensemble of works which explore labor as depicted in art, with a particular focus placed on the ambiguity between domestic vs. work spaces. Anyone who has worked from home this past year will immediately relate to the contents of 24/7: Art + Labor Around the Clock.

This is a show which brings together an eclectic ensemble of photography and works on paper which span just over a hundred years.  Together, these works speak to the notion of work beyond the boundaries of the 9 to 5 workday. COVID forced many of us to work from home, but for many people in certain lines of work this was historically the normative experience.  A trio of anonymous photographs shows workers in telecommunications, textile, and agriculture, all industries which once were performed principally in domestic settings (telephone operators once had switchboards in their homes, for example, so they could be on call day and night).

The Hidden World Collection, (Picture of women working at a telephone switchboard). MSU purchase, Eli and Edythe Broad Fund for the Acquisition of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Two works approach this theme with tongue-in-cheek humor.  In a wry parody of the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, Krithika Varagur and Eric Macomber give us Good Night Zoom; its imagery, color palette, and style echoes that of the original classic, but now our beloved rabbit protagonist is wishing goodnight to the things which have become fixtures of our pandemic-era lives (“Goodnight screens,” for example).  Also approaching the subject with humor is the animated film El Empleo (The Employee) by Santiago Grasso and Patricio Plaza, in which there’s no boundary between work and domestic spaces, and humans are paid to perform the roles of functional, inanimate objects.  The redundant, joyless lives of the film’s characters echo the pulverizing tedium of the fictional worlds envisioned in the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett.

El Empleo (The Employee), Santiago Grasso and Patricio Plaza, 2008.

Some of these works are visually mesmerizing, such as Michael Kenna’s moody, backlit photographs of Dearborn’s Ford Rouge Complex, which manage to turn the factory into something that verges on the sublime and the surreal.  Together, these images seem to suggest that this complex is a living, breathing behemoth that never truly shuts down.

Michael Kenna, The Rouge, Study #1, 1992. MSU purchase, partially funded by an anonymous donor.

Jenny Kendler: The Long Goodbye installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Concurrent with (but unrelated to) 24/7: Art + Work Around the Clock, a second gallery space explores the human impact on the planet’s biodiversity.  The Long Goodbye is a considered ensemble of sculptural work by multimedia artist Jenny Kendler, who tactfully integrates the media she uses with the message she delivers. Although inhabiting a comparatively small space, the visual impact of this exhibit is striking.

Nearly filling the length of one of the gallery walls is Whale Bells, a collaborative project by Kendler and glass artist Andrew Bearnot.  This is an ensemble of two dozen functional glass bells.  The ropes for each bell incorporate traditional sailor’s knots, and the clappers are actual fossilized ear bones from Miocene-epoch rorqual whales, the ancestors of today’s humpback.  Kendler makes the point that 5-20 million years ago, these now-extinct whales, equipped with the ability to create music, were once very likely the most culturally advanced entities on earth. Here, the bones that once allowed these whales to perceive sound are now employed as the literal instruments which project sound. The environmental commentary here is understated, but the installation invites us to consider that today’s humpback whale was once an endangered species before it became the center of one of the first international environmental campaigns (Save the Whales) in the 1970s.  Through this installation’s use of sound, we’re also reminded that in recent years noise pollution caused by human commercial activity in the ocean (tand he oil industry in particular) has had a detrimental effect on whales’ migration patterns and mating activity.

Jenny Kendler: The Long Goodbye installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

The literal centerpiece of this exhibition space is Amber Archive, a circular table on which are displayed approximately 130 fragments from different plant and animal species which are vulnerable to extinction as the direct result of human activity.  Each specimen is individually encased in a glowing orb of amber resin.  These include (among many other things) fragments of bird feathers, whale baleen, and snakeskin.  This installation is visually striking, but it also serves as a sort of DNA time-capsule, not unlike the world’s seed-vaults which aim to preserve and protect Earth’s biodiversity.

Jenny Kendler: The Long Goodbye installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Each of these two exhibits nicely supplement the Broad’s current lead exhibitions.  Interstates of Mind, with its focus on Michigan’s automotive industry, certainly parallels much of the content of Art + Labor, particularly Michael Kenna’s photographic series on the Rouge automotive plant.  And Kendler’s work certainly underscores Seeds of Resistance in her emphasis on preserving biodiversity.  Taken together, this quartet of exhibitions prompts us to consider the relationship between industry and the environment, and how our commercial pursuits have lasting ecological consequences.

24/7: Art + Work Around the Clock is on view through August 22.

The Long Goodbye is one view through June 27, 2021 at the East Lansing Broad Museum.

Photography @ Scarab Club

50th Annual Photography Exhibition at the Scarab Club

Installation view, 50th Annual Scarab Club Photography Exhibition, Installation photo by Christopher Gene, all other photos courtesy of Scarab Club

A striking and expansive display of photographic sensibilities, currently on view in the 50th Annual Scarab Club Photography Exhibition, continues a long-standing tradition of welcoming and introducing current photographic practice. Juried by Ralph Jones, Detroit photographer, documentarian, educator, mentor, and exhibiting artist, this “unthemed” show (as per the Club’s Call for Entry application) is visually vibrant and emotionally rich. The spacious installation of the submissions of 38 artists enhances a diverse array of figurative and abstract images, formats both commandingly large and gem-like in scale, and bold, colorful pictures in tandem with austerely black and white compositions.

Technically, Matthew Raupp’s Detroit Photo Series (2020) might be termed a relief, projecting as it does some three inches plus from the wall. His compendium of 192 colorful, miniature views of buildings (2 x 2” each) represent sharply focused, frontal images of structures drawn from the precincts of Detroit. Each is individually mounted on a 2 “ wood cube imbuing them with the weight and heft of a three-dimensional structure. Fronts of houses, storefronts, banks, churches, and fire stations in various states of repair–intact, rehabbed, repurposed, or derelict– attest to the adaptability and resiliency of The D. Additionally, an iPhone mounted dead center zooms through the entire ensemble of facades, offering an alternative, fast-paced scan (so 21st century) through Raupp’s personal land bank.

Matthew Raupp, Detroit Photo Series, 48 x 48 x 3,” Wood blocks, photographic prints, iPhone

 

Detail, Matthew Raupp, Detroit Photo Series

Two vertical compositions, rather like exclamation points, punctuate one wall, making the most of the slender height of the format. In Kate Gowman’s five feet tall Scrapyard Fire (2012), no flames are in sight. Instead, a hazy atmosphere pervades the scene. The smoggy smoke of the fire, some distance away, merges with the gray, shapeshifting clouds and gracefully listing tree trunks, while two men quietly inhabit the crisply detailed foreground, one perched atop a wrecked car and the other standing nearby, while gazing toward the unseen fire. Aesthetically, the subtle tonalist merging of gray hues belies the alarming import of Gowman’s title. In contrast, Vincent Cervantez’s poignant The Unveiling (2021), a three feet tall still life of a white bridal(?) veil sprawled on a bed of brown, parched leaves, evokes loss, accidental or deliberate, perhaps a dream forsook, or even a violent encounter. Discarded objects and litter–masks, plastic bags and containers, whippets, and etc.–pervade the culture. Here, rather affectingly, an eddy of wind lifts the veil and threatens to whisk it out of sight.

Kate Gowman, Scrapyard Fire, 60 x 36,” Fine art print on Hahnemuhle paper

Vincent Cervantez, The Unveiling, 36 x 24,” Digital print

Affirmation rules as well in the Scarab Club’s 50th anniversary show. Tom Stoye’s Leap of Farith (2016) presents a silhouetted figure, legs spread wide (the print is 32” broad), head skimming the top of the frame, bounding through a spray of water. Its lithe, explosive energy swiftly transports the viewer aloft and across the expanse of paper. The small, square, quiescent People in a Pandemic (2020), by Anne Knight Weber, however, features four clustered, stationary figures (one adult and three children) on a vast beach as avatars of the endemic isolation of a pandemic. Sans a frame, water, wet sand, reflections, and azure sky shimmer and float free of the gallery wall heightening the glassy stasis of the scene.

Tom Stoye, Leap of Faith, 21 x 32,” Photographic print

Anne Knight Weber, People in a Pandemic, 11 x 11,” Photograph, acrylic glass

Other photographers focus upon the uneasy balance and oft tense interaction between figuration and abstraction. An emphatic zig zaging line rivets the view of Jerry Basierbe’s Steel Breakwater #3–Point Betsie, MI (2019), while in Hats(2016) by David Clements a swirling orange oval governs the foreground. In the former, the dark, zig zagging line of the breakwater thrusts the viewer into the silky, placid waters of Lake Michigan, a coastal locale frequented by the artist. It’s a harsh, slicing armature that connotes something of the blunt force of industrialization. In the latter, Clements presents a vignette drawn from his ongoing series documenting African American church services. Here, the elliptical orange confection up front instantly captures the viewer’s eye before noting another woman, also attired in a matching, eye-catching hat and coat, seated in the next pew forward.

Jerry Basierbe, Steel Breakwater #3–Point Betsie, MI, 18 x 18,” Digital photographic print

David Clements, Hats, 14 x 16,” Photograph

One of the smallest works in the exhibition also touches on fashion. Teresa Petersen’s Fashion for Women and Children (2018), a mere 3 x 3,” presents a fenced off storefront featuring pink and blue pastel raiment for women and children. Like Raupp, Basierbe, Clements, and others, she too scours particular locales for definitive subjects. Alas, here the fashions on parade are imprisoned behind a metal grate, teasingly short-circuiting a window shopper’s desires.

Teresa Petersen, Fashion for Women and Children, 3 x 3,” Photograph

Small, medium, or large, splendidly hued or chastely black and white, figurative or abstract, these singular examples may indeed spur a desire to encounter more of the photographs on display. And that is exactly what this golden anniversary exhibition at the Scarab Club proffers: all 38 selections remain on view through June 26, 2021.

The Scarab Club is located at 217 Farnsworth St. across the street from the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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.

 

 

Seeds of Resistance @ MSU Broad

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Within the Arctic Svalbard Archipelago on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen is a structure known colloquially as the “Doomsday Vault.” Here, buried deep within a mountain and preserved in sub-zero temperatures are thousands of boxes from all over the world containing roughly a million airtight seed packets.  The vault exists to preserve Earth’s biodiversity, acting as a safety net mitigating the environmental effects of any potential natural or human-made ecological disaster. It’s also a sort of United Nations; here you’ll find boxes of seeds deposited by both the United States and North Korea (and they’re quite literally on the same shelf, no less).  The Doomsday Vault is just one of many seed vaults and libraries catalogued in Dornith Doherty’s photographic series Archiving Eden: The Vaults, a body of work which documents our best efforts at ecological preservation. At Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum, her work currently joins that of many other artists who collectively speak to the need for humanity to actively preserve Earth’s biodiversity.

Seeds of Resistance compellingly equates the preservation of seeds with the preservation of genetic information, cultural heritage, and cultural knowledge.  The show brings together a diverse body of work by international artists and educators who collectively assert the importance of biodiversity, and reflect on the human imprint on the environment, for better or for ill.  The show also celebrates the legacy of MSU’s own Dr. William Beal (1833-1924), the founder of the school’s W.J. Beal Botanical Garden, and whose Seed Viability Experiment remains the longest running scientific experiment in modern history.

Several prominent works on view emphasize the presence of healthy, living soil as integral to any vibrant ecosystem.  A large multimedia ensemble by Claire Pentecost invites us to consider the value of healthy soil by drawing a parallel between soil and currency.  Here, she stacks blocks of soil sculpted to resemble gold ingots; these are accompanied by twenty-six paintings arranged into a sort of triptych.  They collectively represent a hypothetical currency which Pentecost calls the soil-erg, a counterpart to the petro-dollar.  Using actual soil to render these images, each painting suggests a different type of imagined bank-note; some commemorate historic figures famous for their contributions to our understanding of agriculture, and others celebrate the non-human creatures that are an integral part of the soil-food web.  The earthworm and the bumblebee are championed along with Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau.

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

The works of Antonio Moreno and Dylan Miner also thoughtfully underscore the content of their art with the material they work with.  For his collective project Live the Free Fields, Moreno invited over fifty participants to fashion over 1,000 mushrooms out of clay (itself a type of soil), which here seem to be sprouting from the floor of the gallery space and together suggest the Earth’s many extant varieties of fungi.  Conversely, Dylan Miner speaks to the destruction of healthy ecosystems with a triptych showing a stretch of the Kalamazoo River, the sight of a massive oil spill in 2010.  To render the map-like painting, Miner applied bitumen, a type of crude oil, to give the painting its sludgy, oily appearance.

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

In an adjacent gallery space we find an ensemble of large photographic prints from Dornith Doherty’s Archiving Eden series.  Some of these unpeopled images come across as haunting and surreal.  Perhaps this is what we might expect, after all, of images documenting a place nicknamed “The Doomsday Vault” (though the place is more properly called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault).  Her series documents seed vaults and libraries all over the world though, and some of these libraries are actually very much alive, such as the apple tree collection at Cornell University in New York, which is an orchard preserving over 300 species of apple.  Fittingly, in this space her work is complemented with an actual library catalog, itself a conceptual work by Johannes Heldén and Håkan Jonson.  With the help of artificial intelligence, the artists filled the drawers of an old-style library catalog with 30,000 index cards, each describing some imaginary future species of creature made extinct by humans.  Inside this exhibition’s program/pamphlet, you’ll find several sample copies of these entries on 3×5 index cards (mine included an entry for “Megaptera citri,” described as a social, urban, nocturnal creature made extinct by humans in 2514 AD).

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Seeds of Resistance installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum  at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Supplementing the art in this gallery space are several tables which display artifacts and ephemera that belonged to Dr. William Beal.  Here we learn about Beal’s Seed Viability Experiment; launched in 1879, the experiment is still going on today, and it assesses the duration of the seed’s ability to remain dormant and still be able to sprout. The content here is historic and informational rather than artistic, but Beal’s importance to agricultural botany and his significance to MSU aptly makes him a central part of this exhibition.

With Seeds of Resistance, the Broad continues its fine tradition of programming that connects the visual arts with the sciences and other disciplines, and this show in particular makes excellent use of the University’s strengths as an agricultural school. Furthermore, the topic of preserving Earth’s biodiversity is certainly relevant.  In 2015, after all, as the direct result of civil war, Syria became the first country that found it necessary to withdraw the seeds it had deposited into the Spitsbergen Norway Seed Vault. It very likely won’t be the last.

Seeds of Resistance is on view at the MSU Broad through July 18.

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