Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Category: Metal

“Seven Mile and Livernois” @ the Detroit Institute of Art

Detroit Artist Tiff Massey Mounts an Exhibition: “Seven Mile and Livernoisat the Detroit Institute of Art

Tiff Massey, Installation image, Courtesy of DAR, 2024

Museums are often risk-averse institutions, choosing their curatorial offerings with an eye to what is safe and canonical. The Detroit Institute of Art has made a provocative and unexpected choice with its just-opened exhibition of Detroit-based sculptor and community activist Tiff Massey.  “Seven Mile and Livernois,” as this year-long exhibition is called, places the artist’s practice squarely in the neighborhood where she grew up while also acknowledging her ties to art history, and in particular to artists whose works in the DIA’s collection shaped her childhood experience.

Massey is the youngest artist to be chosen for a museum exhibition at the DIA, as well as the first Black woman to earn an MFA in metalsmithing from the Cranbrook Academy of Art.  The artworks, 11 in all, range from a piece, Facet, that she created in 2010 when she was still a student at Cranbrook, to 4 recent artworks commissioned by the DIA. (The museum provided funds for fabrication, though the artist retains ownership.)

Tiff Massey, Whatupdoe (part 1), 2024, stainless steel, photo K.A. Letts

As we enter the exhibition, a delicate swag of metal chain is draped high across a deep blue wall.  Through the door into the next gallery, however, we see that this chain is connected to a much longer one that, as it grows in size, goes from ornament to architecture. At its midpoint, individual components reach beyond head-high and we simultaneously shrink from adult to child size and perhaps smaller as we measure our bodies against these monumental links. It is a through-the-looking-glass experience.

The chain, entitled WhatupDoe, is intended by the artist as a love letter to her spiritual community in Detroit and beyond. She celebrates her affection for the city, for its hair salons, fashion boutiques, and coffee shops, its hip hop artists and hair weaves, in the sculptures that extend throughout the exhibition. In a nearby wall title for an older piece, I Got Bricks (2014), Massey directly addresses her audience, “Detroit, I’m designing for us, so we can see ourselves …This represents us building something together.”

Tiff Massey, I Remember Way Back When, 2023, stained wood, photo K.A. Letts

Massey’s intense emotional involvement with her social connections, friends and family is balanced by her acknowledgement of her early art education.  As the artist developed plans for the exhibition with Juana Williams and Katie Pfohl, Associate Curators of Contemporary Art, she chose a couple of artworks from the DIA’s collection that hold special resonance for her: they are now displayed in the galleries along with her own work.  She draws a particularly interesting comparison between her art practice and Stack, a minimalist sculpture by Donald Judd.  In a recent interview in Detroit Cultural she says, “I chose Donald Judd because I remember this piece specifically from when I was a kid and my mom would take me to all of these institutions.” Stack, narrow and tall, climbs militantly up the wall of the gallery, a lacquered green tower of rectangles. In response, Massey has created Baby Bling, an adjacent, long row of objects that reference the hair ties she wore as a child. Made of enormous red metal beads, woven rope and brass, their horizontal orientation implies movement outward, toward caring and community.

Stack by Donald Judd (r.) 1969, plexiglass and stainless steel on the right.   Tiff Massey,  Baby Bling (detail, l.) installation on the left), photo K.A. Letts

Themes of adornment run through the exhibition, rituals involving hair being especially prominent. Across the gallery from Baby Bling we find I Remember Way Back When. Eleven outsize scarlet replicas of Snap-Tight Kiddie Barrettes recall the 1980s when little girls’ hair was carefully dressed by grandmas, mothers, and aunties. And at the end of the gallery, there is an enormous, wall-size homage to the elegant and exuberant hair weave, in ombre shades of green and seemingly endless in its shapes and patterns.

Tiff Massey, Quilt Code 6, Assmbledge, Detroit Institute of Arts, 2024

The other artwork with which Massey has chosen to pair her work is Louise Nevelson’s Homage to the World. The correspondences between this wall relief and Massey’s Quilt Code 6 are straightforward. As the artist developed plans for the exhibition with Juana Williams and Katie Pfohl, Associate Curators of Contemporary Art, she chose a couple of artworks from the DIA’s collection that hold special resonance for her; they are now displayed in the galleries along with her own work. ”Nevelson’s relief derives its power from the accretion of randomly found scraps into a massive wall of chunky wood pieces in sooty black; Quilt Code 6, by contrast, is finer and more literary, composed of carefully curated symbols and signs. As the name suggests, this piece shares characteristics with the American story quilt, a folk art fiber genre used to great effect by Faith Ringgold.

Tiff Massey, 39 Reasons I am not Playing, 2018, brass, photo K.A. Letts

In this exhibition, Massey both speaks for and to her community; she is fluent in the language of the hood and of the academy as she advocates for her city:  “We’re a UNESCO city of design, and I’ve been talking about this in every interview but I don’t think we’re taking that designation seriously enough, and so to me it’s like how can I bring these elements and make sure that we have highly curated, beautiful spaces in the hood too.”

Massey demonstrates her commitment to her city and her people in “Seven Mile and Livernois.” It seems only fair, at least to this writer, that the DIA should take this opportunity to reciprocate by acquiring one of her public artworks for their permanent collection.

Tiff Massey, Whatupdoe, Stainless Steel, 2014, image courtesy DIA.

Tiff Massey’s exhibition, “Seven Mile and Livernois“, at the Detroit Institute of Art, is on display through May 11, 2025. 

 

 

 

 

Critical Voices @ Oakland University Art Gallery

Critical Voices: Selections from the Hall Collection at OUAG

Install Image Critical Voices: Selections from the Hall Collection 2022

The Oakland University Art Gallery opened the fall season with Critical Voices: Selections from the Hall Collection on September 9, 2022,  curated by Leo Barnes, the new OUAG Gallery Manager.  This is Barnes’ curatorial debut, but he’s leveraging five years of prior experience working with the Hall Foundation and its highly respected collection of both American and German contemporary art.  He says, “The artworks, collected by Andrew and Christine Hall, present a unique index of the best contemporary art of the late 20th and 21stcenturies. It provides a window onto the complementary social conditions prevailing in two distinct continental spheres: Germany and the United States.

Tony Matelli, Fuck’d, Mixed Media Sculpture, the Hall Collection

Tony Matelli is an American sculptor perhaps best known for his work Sleepwalker. He was born in Chicago and received his MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1995. He now lives and works in New York City. He incorporates figurative, botanical, and abstract forms in his sculpture, creating uncanny objects that are both unsettling and comical.  Fuck’d up is a good example of these characteristics as it takes center stage in the OUAG gallery. Mr. Matelli has employed his formula of high-quality craftsmanship and lewd provocation, like the chimp being crucified using garden and household implements. Whatever the message, the artist leaves the viewer to interpret and make sense of the experience based on their own experience.

David Shrigley, Horror, Acrylic on Canvas, 40 x 40″, the Hall Collection

Horror is a kind of pop art with drips.  When you scroll through David Shrigley’s Instagram page, there is a continuous stream of simple, single images of objects, all using bright colors. A maverick and an artist working in multiple disciplines, David Shrigley is now considered one of the most significant figures in contemporary British art.  Making sense seems like nonsense is one way to describe his faux-naif work, which combines sweet childlike renderings with a sour, sardonic tone.   In January 2020, the artist was awarded the decoration of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE). The British visual artist was born in 1968 and is now living in England after living in Scotland for 27 years.

Al Weiwei, Oil Spills, 10 pieces, Porcelain, The Hall Collection

Oil Spills is an early piece by the renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a visual artist, dissident, and documentarian who is often referred to as the most influential artist of our time. Ai Weiwei was born in 1957 in Beijing. His father, the poet Ai Qing, was labeled a “rightist” in 1958, and Ai and his family were exiled, first to Heilongjiang in northeastern China and then soon after to the deserts of Xinjiang in northwestern China. Mr. Weiwei moved to the United States in 1981, living in New York between 1983 and 1999, where he briefly studied at the Parsons School of Design. His output over the past thirty years explores his ambivalent rapport with Western culture and with the culture of his own country.  Oil Spills is an example of his conceptual art that explores the social issue and the aesthetics of an oil spill. This short video documents his exhibition in New York City in 2017.   https://www.nytimes.com/video/arts/100000005490574/ai-weiwei-puts-up-fences-to-promote-freedom.html

Robert Longo, Icarus Rising, Single Channel video projection, 9 minutes & 44 seconds. The Hall Collection

The video Icarus Rising from the title of the exhibition, Amerika, is the German spelling of America, where Robert Longo references the Franz Kafka novel that traces an immigrant’s journey from Germany to New York.  The nine-minute black and white video splices together images of torn paper and appears to be the artist’s first video work since the 1990s. The film features slowed footage of layers of printed photographic images, tweets, and headlines from news media being torn apart. The recorded incidental sounds of the tearing slowed in synchronization with the visuals, creating a soundtrack of groaning scrapes. The combined effect unsettlingly underscores the force, and often violence, of the actions captured in the images as well as the role the images play in shaping our world.  Sculptor, painter, and draftsman Robert Longo is well known for his bold drawings and sculptural works fusing pop culture and Fine Art. Longo attended the University of North Texas before deciding to study sculpture in New York; he later received a BFA from SUNY Buffalo.

Katherine Bradford, Beautiful Lake, Oil on Canvas, 57×48″, 2009, the Hall Collection

The figurative painter, Katherine Bradford, provides this lush, color-saturated, and metaphorical lake to the Hall Collection. She combines a theatrical sense of light with an oblique narrative. The work here in Beautiful Lake is a kind of romantic realism, whimsical and spacious.  Best known for her irregular grids and rows of dots spread out and around the figures, her representational work is meditative, laconic, and poetic.  Born in 1942 in New York City, she attended Bryn Mawr College and later received her MFA from SUNY Purchase. The artist currently divides her time between Brooklyn, NY, and Brunswick, ME.

Joseph Beuys, The Dictatorship of the Parties Can be Overcome, Printed on a polyethylene shopping bag, 29.6 x 20, the Hall Collection.

Joseph Heinrich Beuys was a German artist, teacher, performance artist, and art theorist whose work reflected concepts of humanism, sociology, and anthroposophy.   He was a founder of a provocative art movement known as Fluxus and was a key figure in the development of Happenings.  The chart How the Dictatorship of the Parties Can Be Overcome was printed on a polyethylene shopping bag. It was produced by the Organization of Non-Voters Free Collective Referendum as a means by which to publicize their policies. The first diagram, which was originally hand drawn by Beuys, urges the replacement of political parties with a process of a direct referendum in German society.   Do you get the idea?  The complexity of his work is too large and long to mention here, but he says, “Only a conception of art revolutionized to this degree can turn into a politically productive force, coursing through each person and shaping history.” Joseph Beuys was born in 1921 in Krefeld, Germany, and died in 1986. After military service and time as a prisoner of war, Beuys studied sculpture at the Kunstacademie in Dusseldorf and served as Professor there from 1961 until 1972.

Derrick Adams, Figure in Urban Landscape, Acrylic paint and mixed media, 25 x 25″ the Hall Collection

In Figure in the Urban Landscape 40, Brooklyn-based Derrick Adams employs the tradition of portraiture to navigate and reimagine life in an urban society. On matte and painterly backgrounds of teal, silver, emerald, and integrated earth tones, two miniature model cars traverse the open, perpendicular blacktop roads that cut the ends of the composition. Adams draws inspiration from pop culture, personal memory, and neighbors; he says, “I pay attention to everything, from store windows to people in cafes talking, to people on the corner communicating. I like to think about surroundings as source materials.” Adams received his MFA from Columbia University and BFA from Pratt Institute.

Critical Voices: Selections from the Hall Collection includes artists:  Derrick Adams, Joseph Beuys, Katherine Bradford, Edward Burtynsky, Naoya Hatakeyama, Georg Herold, Barbara Kruger, Robert Longo, David Maisel, Tony Matelli, Carlos Motta, Robin Rhode, Wilhelm Sasnal, David Shrigley, Ai Weiwei.

For more than 40 years, the Oakland University Art Gallery (OUAG) has delivered diverse, museum-quality art to metro Detroit audiences. From September to May, the OUAG presents four different exhibitions – from cutting-edge contemporary art to projects exploring historical and global themes. The gallery also presents lectures, performances, tours, special events, and more.

The exhibition at OUAG  is open through November 20, 2022.

 

 

 

Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft @ BBAC

Installation image, Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft @ BBAC

If there ever was a bright line of distinction between what we call contemporary fine art and what is now considered to be craft, that line has long ago been crossed and obliterated.  The mixed bag of artifacts on display in the exhibition at Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center from May 6 to June 2 illustrates this, with a range of objects and images that contrast the useful with the expressive, the carefully crafted with the emotionally contingent.  “Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft” takes us on a tour of the increasingly porous borders between objects that can claim to be fine art, but qualify as craft only because they refer tangentially to traditional crafts and finely handmade objects that are intended for utilitarian purposes.

Wall Vessel V, Constance Compton Pappas, unfired clay, cedar

 

Balanced, Constance Compton Pappas, cedar, plaster, clay

The objects in the exhibition fall roughly into two categories. Works by artists such as Constance Compton Pappas, Dylan Strzynski, Sandra Cardew and Sharon Harper privilege the expressive properties of the materials and push them to the limits of their identity. Often there is a toy-like mood to this work.  Any pretense to utility is deeply submerged beneath the artists’ emotionally poignant themes. Pappas’s wall-mounted, naturally irregular wooden shelves support clay objects that only refer to vessels, and certainly were never intended to function.  They are signs for cups and the considerable pleasure to be derived from them rests upon their rough, stony texture contrasted with the irregularities of the wooden support. Elsewhere in the gallery, Pappas uses the abstract shapes of 3 cast plaster houses, again placed on a raw wood pedestal in a stack, entitled Balanced, that implies a state of wonky precarity.  Dylan Strzynski’s playful, barn-red house model, Attic, made of wood, sticks and wire, suggests a kind of Baba Yaga cottage on legs, poised to jump off its pedestal in pursuit of the viewer. Sandra Cardew’s Boy with Broom continues the preoccupation with play. The subdued color and rough fabric of the golem-child is both a little funny and a little ominous. Sharon Harper’s Pink Trailer makes an interesting kind of mini-installation by hanging a 2-dimensional photo landscape on the wall behind a diminutive clay trailer, suggesting the possibility of travel through wide open spaces.

Attic, Dylan Strzynski, wood, paint, sticks, wire, string

 

Sandra Cardew, Boy with Broom, mixed media assemblage

Danielle Bodine’s wall installation, Celestial Dance, offers a floating population of tiny woven wire and paper elements that might claim to be plankton or might be satellites.  Whatever they are, their yellow starlike shapes weightlessly orbit a larger, spiky planetary body, and cast lively shadows on the wall. The basketry techniques that Bodine has employed for nearly 20 years allow her complete freedom to invent these minute entities in three dimensions.

Sharon Harper, Pink Trailer, low fire clay, photograph

The fiber artist Carole Harris, who has several works in the show, continues to be in a class by herself. From her beginnings as a more conventional quilter, Harris has traveled far and wide, taking inspiration from Asia, Africa and beyond. Her carefully composed, expressively dyed and stitched formal abstractions are emotionally resonant and reliably satisfying. The artist employs a mix of fabrics and papers, along with hand-stitching and applique, with the easy virtuosity of long practice.

Danielle Bodine, Celestial Dance, mulberry and recycled papers cast on Malaysian baskets, removed, stitched, painted, stamped, waxed linen coiled objects, plastic tubes, beads,

Carol Harris, Yesterdays, quilted collage

Russ Orlando’s pebbly pastel ceramic urn-on-a-table, Finding #171, is covered by contrasting buttons and frogs wired to the substrate. The vessel evokes a friendly presence: it wants to know and be known.

Two artists in “Many Voices,” Lynn Avadenka and Karen Baldner, are masters in the craft bookmaking/printing, whose work perfectly balances function and form, though to different ends. Baldner’s snaky, wiggly rice paper centipede of a book, Letting Go, shows how exquisite technique can pair with creative expressiveness to yield an original effect. The restrained elegance of Lynne Avadenka’s handmade screen Comes and Goes III demonstrates that utility and esthetic pleasure need not be mutually exclusive.

Karen Baldner, Letting Go, piano hinge binding with horsehair, mixed media print transfers

 

Lynne Avadenka, Comes and Goes III, unique folding screen, relief printing, letter press, typewriting, book board, Tyvek

Among the objects in this collection, Colin Tury’s handsome, minimalist metal LT Chair hews closest to traditional ideas of craft, as does Cory Robinson’s smoothly crafted side table, which looks as if it belongs in a hip, mid-century bachelor’s lair.

Colin Tury, LT Chair, aluminum, steel

 

Cory Robinson, Canberra Table, American black walnut

In this time and place, and as illustrated by the artists in “Many Voices,” the categorization of an object as “art” or “craft” has become less and less useful. Historically, crafts based on highly technical knowledge—ceramics, fiber glass and the like –have been assigned a lesser status because of their identity as objects of utility.  It is undeniable too that many of these crafts were practiced by women, which devalued them in the estimation of collectors and galleries. Fortunately, those preconceptions are receding into the past, as artists progress toward a future that is more open to new forms and voices, new materials and subjects.

The artists in “Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft” are: Kathrine Allen Coleman, Lynne Avadenka, Karen Baldner, Danielle Bodine, Sandra Cardew, Candace Compton Pappas, Nathan Grubich, Christine Hagedorn, Sharon Harper, Carole Harris, Amanda St. Hillaire, Sherry Moore, Russ Orlando, Cory Robinson, Dylan Strzynski, Colin Tury.

Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center runs until June 2, 2022.

 

 

2021 Fall Exhibitions @ BBAC

The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center Opens this Fall with Two Female Artists

One of the most prestigious non-profit art centers in Oakland County, the BBAC curates exhibitions in their five spacious galleries, including professional artists and art students taking classes at the art center. These two new exhibitions: Leah Waldo: Memory Gate and Glenna Adkins: Modern Impressions,  provide some fresh and accommodating visual art approaches from both of these up-and-coming artists.

Leah Waldo, Installation image, BBAC 2021

The sculpture of Leah Waldo includes a large variety of materials like clay, glass, wood, and cement. The minimalist forms touch on an assortment of geometric shapes and forms.  The reoccurring vertical clay objects dominate many of the clay pieces. Waldo describes her work by saying, “I consider my work to be distilled landscapes – the essence of physical and emotional landscapes infused into an object. Each piece is a little pocket universe, a soft invitation for the viewer to simply inhabit the emotional space and the spirit of raw, pristine nature. Because of my intention, history, and instinct as a healer, the objects and experiences I create are healing spaces. These pieces are invitations to share intimate moments of my life.”

Waldo utilizes a method called glass casting, in which molds are made out of plaster and silica. The molds are then filled with casting rocks, which melt together in the kiln. Waldo likes to melt the rocks, so they just begin to fuse and clump together, a technique she arrived at by experimenting with different casting cycles.

Leah Waldo, Heartopener, Clay, Glass, & Steel

The oblong vertical form in Heartopener is constructed with low-fire terra cotta and as both cast and etched glass elements supported with fabricated steel.  This introspective and contemplative clay sculpture achieves a contrast of material juxtaposing the exterior self while the glass represents the interior self.

Leah Waldo lives and works in the Asheville, NC area and earned her degree from the College of Creative Studies.

 

Glenna Adkins, Installation image, BBAC, 2021

In the Robinson Gallery, Glenna Adkins introduces her work with an exhibition titled Modern Impressions and provides the viewer with a light palette of color and a moving arrangement of abstract shapes and forms. The artist makes her home in Cincinnati, where her longtime studio is located at the Pendleton Art Center.  These abstract expressionistic paintings could be viewed as aerial landscapes with deliberate contrast between large masses of color and fine lines.

Glenna Adkins, Lucere, Acrylic paint on canvas, graphite.

In the painting Lucere, the work takes on a straightforward landscape painting with a horizon along the bottom and a sky shape dominated by white and blue.  Here she lays down a base layer of acrylic paint using a palette knife and brushes, then comes over the top with graphic pencil and oil stick for detail. Glenna’s work has an attraction to designers looking to place a large abstract in a modern setting.

Glenna Adkins earned a Bachelor of Fine Art at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Art, and Architecture.

The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, founded in 1957, serves the Detroit region’s visual arts community. The mission is “to connect people of all ages and abilities with visual arts education, exhibition and other creative experiences. The BBAC does this by offering classes, exhibits, workshops and events to the public, and their exhibits are always free and open to the public.”

In addition to the two exhibitions reviewed here, the culinarian turned painter, Mary Wilson, has spent years painting with flavors in her own premier catering company. Mary has found her way from the flavor palate to the artistic palette with an eye for color and contrast. In keeping with having student exhibitions, there is an exhibition of work by the students of Fran Seikaly an artist working with oil, pastel and watercolor.

President and CEO Annie VanGelderen talks about this past year. “Courage has been needed in so many ways this past year! Whether it’s about venturing out, re-connecting with friends and loved ones, or exploring your talents, the BBAC has wonderful opportunities for creativity.”

The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center exhibitions opened October 1 and runs through November 4, 2021.

 

 

 

 

Useful and Beautiful @ Flint Institute of Art

Installation image, Two bowls, and silver setting

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” urged the great designer and social reformer William Morris to an audience in 1880.  Hardly just making a quip about interior design, Morris was being a counter-cultural thorn in the side of the Victorian capitalist and industrial establishment, whose factories churned out mass-produced artless products, and whose workers were accorded little more status than that of the machine.  Morris argued that there was a better way, and even established a workshop that taught people skilled trades in the applied arts, in which workers could harness their creative agencies while earning living wages and producing objects of quality and beauty.  This launched the Arts and Crafts Movement, the reverberations of which were felt on both sides of the Atlantic.

Paul de Lamerie, English, 1688–1751. “George II Oval Cake Basket,” 1742. Silver. 14 7/8 x 11 7/8 x 11 7/8 inches. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William L. Richards through the Viola E. Bray Charitable Trust, 1984.23

Not all the works that comprise the show Useful and Beautiful on view at the Flint Institute of Art are the products of the Arts and Crafts Movement (though some, like those produced by Liberty & Co. or  the architectural studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, absolutely were), but they all stand in the tradition of skilled artisan craft that seamlessly integrated functionality with exquisite design.  Collectively, this diverse ensemble of work voice a triumphant rebuttal to Oscar Wilde’s quip that “all art is quite useless.”

The chronological and geographical scope of this smallish exhibition is impressively broad.  Spanning a 500-year breadth, the show presents examples of decorative arts ranging from a lavishly decorated 17th century wheellock pistol to stained glass by Frank Lloyd Wright.  A sizeable number of these works hail from non-western cultures (Asian and American Indian, specifically) which never drew a line between the fine and applied arts, as did the Western/European world.  Everything on view comes from the FIA’s permanent collection, and the FIA really is the perfect venue for this exhibit: in addition to a muscular collection of traditional “fine art,” the museum now boasts a newly opened wing that displays a world-class collection of ceramic and glass art, much of which fudges the boundary between the beautiful and the functional.

Artist Unknown, German. Fullstock High Art Wheelock Pistol, ca. 1680. Wood, steel, ivory, and mother of pearl. 16 7/16 x 4 13/16 x 1 7/8 inches. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. George H. Greidinger, 1976.

These artifacts are diverse and sometimes surprising.  A pair of engraved golden cigarette cases from Japan possesses the lavish attention to detail that we might expect instead from devotional artifacts belonging to a Constantinian-era emperor, or perhaps something unearthed from a Viking burial.  The same could certainly be said of a Celtic-inspired bowl designed by Alfred Knox for Liberty & Co. Usually the largeness of a work of art seems to grab people’s attention, but in the case of six finely-crafted tiny salt and pepper dispensers (imagine a set of tiny witch’s cauldrons, but made of silver and about the size of a thimble, replete with a tiny serving spoons), it’s precisely the smallness of this set that makes it such a tour-de-force of applied design.  A tiny pair of Sioux children’s moccasins, adorned with meticulous beadwork, is similarly arresting for their petite size.  Perhaps the most unexpected objects in the show are the set of streamline 1930s-era Art-Deco silver cutlery, custom-made exclusively for American Airlines, and intended to stress the point that travelling by airplane was the fabulous and luxurious modern way to travel (contemplate this as you attempt to pry apart your next airline meal with a semi-functional plastic spork).

Liberty & Co., British, founded London, 1875. Bowl, ca. 1900. 3 1/2 x 7 1/8 x 7 1/8 inches. Gift of Janis and William Wetsman, 2016.

Many works on view, beautiful as they are, were produced by anonymous artisans who likely never imagined their craft would one day appear in an art museum—decorative Pueblo pottery, for example, or a pewter flagon from Germany.  Nevertheless, this show does boast a selection of art-world heavyweights.  There’s a decorative ceramic bowl created in collaboration with the famed American painter Andrew Wyeth.  Viewers will also see one of the stained-glass windows designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for a home at Midway Gardens in Chicago; heavily inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, Wright famously custom-designed every component of a building, including light fixtures, furniture, silverware, and windows.

Artist Unknown, German. Flagon, n.d. Pewter. 12 9/16 x 4 5/16 x 6 ¼ inches. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Keith Davis, 1972.

This exhibition rhetorically asks if there really is a meaningful distinction between the fine and decorative arts, and playfully blurs the boundary between these two categories.  It’s a question perhaps best posed by a bronze doorknocker crafted by Renaissance sculptor Tiziano Aspetti, which features a Greco-Roman inspired Venus standing in elegant contrapposto, directly quoting the famed Aphrodite of Knidos, one the most copied sculpture of classical antiquity.  At this level, distinctions between the fine and applied arts become, in the final analysis, a bit petty.

Collectively, these works serve to break down some unnecessary distinctions we’ve created to categorize the arts, but there’s an understated social element to this exhibit as well.  This show wistfully looks backward to a time before the Walmartification of culture, which invariably takes material culture down toward the absolute lowest threshold of quality and craft that people will settle for.  In its quiet way, this show suggests that technological advancement is not necessarily always progress forward, and that perhaps we shouldn’t always be so quick to sacrifice beauty for the sake of efficiency.

Useful and Beautiful exhibition at the  Flint Institute of Art through July 26, 2020

 

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