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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 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 and,  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, 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 effected 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 effected 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 at the Henry Ford Museum on display through March 2024.

Valerie Mann @ Bloomfield Birmingham Art Center

“Good Grief” by Valerie Mann is on exhibition at the Bloomfield Birmingham Art Center

Spidery wire grids that cast shadows on the gallery walls, subtly worn fabrics, discarded electrical cords and occasional flashing lights populate a solo exhibition of recent work by Michigan artist Valerie Mann. “Good Grief,” now at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center until June 1, shows this mid-career creative, once again, to be a master of her materials. An inveterate collector of scavenged bits and pieces, Mann finds creative promise in unloved discards that speak of a previous life and re-purposes them to tell a story of loss, recovery, and resilience.

Unlike many artists who are newly enamored of upcycling in their art practice, Mann’s childhood on an Indiana farm birthed her make-and-mend mentality and honed her appreciation for the expressive potential of discarded objects and commonly available commodities.  As she points out, “I’ve worked this way long before it was cool.” Her virtuosic use of reclaimed oddments perfectly illustrates a moment when contemporary art trends catch up with the long-held vision of an individual artist.

Valerie Mann, Safety Net, 2021, reclaimed fabric and wire, thread, steel, 39” x 44” x 6,”    All images by K.A. Letts

In formal terms, the best works in “Good Grief” are four large wall assemblages made of various common materials arranged in loose grids. Each beautifully crafted, tapestry-adjacent artwork has its own visual vocabulary and tells an emotive story that transcends mere narrative. Each invites us to a slightly different meditative state, weaving the familiar with the fantastical.

The ethereal Safety Net evokes feelings of weightless consciousness at the boundary of sleep and wakefulness. Carefully sewn, empty pockets of reclaimed cotton tulle in subtle tones of pink and green are reminiscent of small nets used in home aquariums, and we feel ourselves slipping through them to the cloud shadows beyond.  In this liminal space, the poetic and the practical are perfectly balanced.

Valerie Mann, Spill, 2023, utility wire, 73” x 60” x 5”

In Spill, Mann has chosen a relatively anonymous base component—workaday galvanized steel utility wire—in order to let the rectangular forms, interconnected and repeated in varying sizes, dominate the composition. We can almost hear the silvery sound of pins or nails or paper clips dropping as she catches the moment in mid-fall. The relative featurelessness of the wire shortens the perceptual distance between the physical forms and the shadows on the wall behind them, setting up a visual fugue–the shape introduced in substance and repeated in shadow. The result is a satisfying contrapuntal composition.

The artwork that most directly addresses the exhibition’s theme of loss is Lamentations, a recent winner of the BBAC President’s Award. Tiny bits of unrecognizable detritus, charred fragments in small bags of tulle, muslin, and lace, illustrate a state of sorrow felt by the community as well as the individual. It reminds us that grieving is both a collective and a solitary pursuit. The title Lamentations recalls Biblical references to sack cloth and ashes. The emotional contrast between the delicate containers of reclaimed fabric and the raw, burned contents within captures the way in which unspeakable loss is contained within public conventions of mourning.

Valerie Mann, Lamentations, 2022, reclaimed fabric, thread steel, ashes, 49” x 67” x 5″

The mood lightens considerably with Correspondence, an exuberant assemblage made from tangled rows of various wires, extension cords and blinking Christmas lights.   Who knew that electrical supplies could come in such variety? The composition of the piece, with its more-or-less orderly lines of looping scribbles, suggests a kind of calligraphy, as if the artist is writing us a cheerful holiday letter. The informal, yet intentional, quality of the composition is reminiscent of late paintings by Cy Twombly.

Valerie Mann, Correspondence, 2023, reclaimed wire, cords, lights, and steel, 72” x 68” x 4”

Several small works on paper and wall assemblages round out the offerings in “Good Grief.”  Good Grief, Hold; Good Grief, Detach; Connect, and Relate are based on the larger pieces, transpositions of the wall constructions themselves into two-dimensions.  Along with Good Grief V and Good Grief VI, these seem less consequential than the larger assemblages. While skillfully executed, the two-dimensional watercolors, collages and drawings lack the visceral energy and textural interest of the three-dimensional work. Several smaller wall-mounted constructions, Uncontained, Good Grief, Connect and Compartmentalize embody the feelings of detachment and isolation with which we can all identify post-pandemic.

Valerie Mann, Good Grief, Hold, 2022, watercolor, gouache, graphite, 16” x 20,”

The artworks in “Good Grief,” many of which Mann created during her residency in June of 2022 at the Glen Arbor Art Center in Leelanau County, Michigan, address emotions that have been very much front and center in our shared consciousness since COVID-19’s assault on our complacency. Mann describes her creative motivation:  The ideas I’ve been thinking about for the last few years are grief; how we individually, collectively, and communally experience grief; how we process grief and maintain some of our wholenesses or become more whole; how we learn about ourselves and our connections to the universal experience of grief.

Valerie Mann, Good Grief, Connect, 2022, found objects, linen thread, 24” x 26” x 2”

Our confidence has been shaken. More sensitive to dislocations in the community than most, Mann possesses the formal means to speak for all of us about our collective loss. Through the artworks in “Good Grief,” she has performed a kind of exorcism and a ritual of remembrance which we can all share.

Valerie Mann, Good Grief, Relationships,2022, watercolor, collage, 16” x 20,”

Valerie Mann has been making, exhibiting, and selling her work in the U.S. and abroad for over 30 years. In 1989, she earned a BFA in painting from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and in 1991 was awarded an MFA in sculpture from Michigan State University. 

Good Grief  by Valerie Mann is on exhibition at the Bloomfield Birmingham Art Center

Concerning Landscape @ Detroit Artists Market

An installation shot of Concerning Landscape at Detroit Artists Market, up through Feb. 18. Image courtesy of Michael Hodges.

Over the centuries, the venerable landscape painting has evolved far from the Dutch masters who first perfected the genre — a fact underlined by the heterogeneous work in Concerning Landscape, up through Feb. 18 at both the Detroit Artists Market and the new Brigitte Harris Cancer Pavilion at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute in Detroit.

Curator Megan Winkel has adopted a refreshingly ecumenical point of view in pulling this together. Works range from Ann Smith’s intriguingly peculiar sculptures with their bunched reeds and dangling root systems to Carla Anderson’s photographic prints of geologic forms, including lyrically striated rocks in a spring in Yellowstone County, Wyoming.

A fan of the grand view? Not to worry. Concerning Landscape also embraces figurative vistas, like Helen Gotlib’s meticulous intaglio print, West Lake Preserve II, or Bill Schahfer’s lush photo study, Lagoon Life.

Helen Gotlib, West Lake Preserve II, Intaglio print, carved birch panel, palladium leaf; 2021.  All Images courtesy of DAM

 “West Lake Preserve” places the viewer right in the tall weeds, looking up a small valley to a pond and woods, a highly satisfying view. The large print’s divided into eight separate panels, and with the exception of a little dull orange at the top, it’s mostly a duotone essay in sepia and black. The photographic print, Lagoon Life, by contrast, stars a white ibis posing beneath a jungle crush of palm trees that all loom, menacingly, over the elegant bird’s head.

Winkel comes at all this curation from an interesting vantage point. She’s the manager and curator for the Healing Arts Program at Henry Ford Health Systems in Detroit, tasked with buying art for the sprawling medical empire. “Curatorial projects for me are mostly big buildings now,” she said, “and thinking about all the ways people can experience art when they’re not seeking it out.” The landscape, she adds, has understandably long found a home in medical centers given its generally soothing visions of a natural world far beyond the reach of the artificial light of the hospital ward.

Landscape as an art subject, of course, has a long, respectable history. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed the genre, and the walls in upper-class homes were sometimes painted with pastoral views. But the status of the landscape plummeted in the Middle Ages, when religion elbowed every other art subject aside. Indeed, the natural world was reduced to a mere afterthought, and one with generally lousy perspective, to boot.

Things began to turn around in the Renaissance, particularly during Holland’s “Golden Age” in the late 16th and 17thcenturies, when an exquisite sensitivity to landscape and weather welled up in many studios, yielding in the best cases – van Ruisdael comes to mind — breathtakingly believable clouds and storm-tossed skies. Indeed, an online essay by the National Gallery of Art notes that “with their emphasis on atmosphere, Dutch landscapes might better be called ‘sky-scapes.’” (The Detroit Institute of Arts, by the way, has an outstanding collection of Golden Age Dutch paintings, well worth seeking out on your next visit.)

Catherine Peet, Looking Up from the Deep, Mixed media, 10” diameter.

The one piece in Concerning Landscape that gives van Ruisdael a run for his money is the vertiginous, gorgeous, Looking Up from the Deep by Catherine Peet, which you’ll find at the Henry Ford Cancer Pavilion gallery. This delicate sunrise or sunset-tinged cloudscape feels like it should be peering down at you from the dome of some state capitol, an impression strengthened by its circular frame.

Sharing some of the same warm tones but at the far abstract end of the spectrum is Carole Harris’ mixed-media Desert Flower. The 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow has constructed an overlapping stack of hand-made fiber sheets that read like thick, highly textured paper, in colors ranging from cocoa to an alarming red peeking out beneath all the others.

The simplicity of this particular conceit is striking, as is Harris’ ability to make real drama out of colors that only emerge as narrow strips visible beneath the warm brown sheet on top. That Desert Flower pushes the boundary of “landscape” goes without question – so, too, the fact that it kind of knocks the wind out of you.

Carole Harris, Desert Flower, Fiber, 2023

Russian transplant Olya Salimova, currently on a one-year BOLT Residency with the Chicago Artists Coalition, gives us something entirely different with her Body into Dill, one of the most original and daffy conceptions in the entire show. The centerpiece of this photograph is a rectangular garden space – disturbingly, about the size of a grave – that’s dug into the patchy lawn of some unpretentious backyard. Metal garden edging sunk in the turned-up dirt sketches a simple human shape, rather like police outlines of dead bodies on the sidewalk. Within that human-like enclosure, someone – Salimova? — has planted dill weed.

Its obvious imperfections are part of what makes this image so compelling. The yard clearly needs work, and the plantings in the “body” are scattered, newly dug and unsubstantial — apart from some vigorous leaf action filling up the head.

Olya Salimova, Body into Dill, Photography, 2021.

For those who enjoy a little disorientation in their photography – And when well done, who doesn’t? – Jon Setter’s collection of a half-dozen large prints, all up-close shots of building details, is a delight to behold. Each reads as an abstract design in 1920s Russian Constructivist mode. But in one case you’re looking at parallel diagonals on the late, lamented Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, and in another, the Detroit Free Press building downtown on West Lafayette.  As a group, these deliberately confusing framings are both mischievous and fun to examine.

Jon Setter, Purple and Gold with Shadow (Detroit Free Press), Archival pigment print, 2021.

 Finally, Scenic Overlook 2 by Sharon Que, an Ann Arbor sculptor who also does high-end violin restoration, might remind you of a minimalist diorama minus the glass case. On a simple wooden shelf, Que’s sacked two smaller pieces of wood topped by a chalky white boulder or peak – part of the fun is the uncertainty — next to which sits a big, black, bushy… something.

Let’s stipulate that the white form is, indeed, a mountaintop. Call the spiky black, roundish thing next to it a plant, and you’ve got a surprisingly convincing perspective study of a bush and a white peak far, far in the distance – never mind its actual proximity in the assemblage.

Is it weird? Is it oddly compelling? Yes and yes.

Sharon Que, Scenic Overlook 2, Wood, magnetite, paint; 2016.

Concerning Landscape at Detroit Artists Market, up through Feb. 18.

Scott Hocking @ Cranbrook Art Museum

An installation view of Scott Hocking: Detroit Stories at the Cranbrook Art Museum. Detroit Stories is up through March 19, 2023.  Image courtesy of Cranbrook Art Museum

There was a time, not so long ago, when most suburbanites and even some Detroiters regarded our grand, dilapidated city as an embarrassment. It would take youngsters just out of college in the early 2000s, dazzled by the postwar-Berlin landscape and surfeit of abandoned buildings to explore, to start to write a different narrative that didn’t run away from the city’s blemishes, but celebrated the beauty to be found within our fabulous ruins.

Scott Hocking, a 40something working-class kid from Redford Township, was in the forefront of that cultural vanguard two decades back, and his early forays caught the attention of a nation accustomed to ignoring Detroit. Luckily for those unfamiliar with his work and those who love it alike, the Cranbrook Art Museum has just opened his first career retrospective, Scott Hocking: Detroit Stories, up through March 19, 2023.

After getting his degree at the College for Creative Studies, Hocking established himself as one Detroit’s most articulate storytellers, creating work that reminded the world that the Motor City, for all its problems, is a mythic place deeply rooted in the American consciousness.

Starting in 2008, Hocking – impoverished like many students after graduation – began working with that great Detroit resource, found objects, out of sheer necessity. They were about all he could afford. But unlike the gifted Cass Corridor artists from the 1970s and 80s, who plowed the same field, Hocking wasn’t just picking up junk and creating artful collage or 3-D pastiche. His ambitions were epic in scale, and it quickly became clear his was a unique voice in a city increasingly crowded with interesting artists.

Scott Hocking, Ziggurat—East, Summer, 2008, installation view Fisher Body Plant 21, Detroit. Photo Courtesy of Scott Hocking and David Klein Gallery, Detroit.

Hocking’s first grand conceit lit up the art world like a meteor — and vanished almost as quickly. Collecting some 6,201 wooden “bricks” that paved the concrete floors of Fisher Body Plant 21, a crumbling auto factory near the east-side tangle of railroad tracks known as Milwaukee Junction, Hocking built, block by repetitive block, a majestic Ziggurat or stepped pyramid. Set in the dead center of a vast, rubble-strewn factory floor and framed by two rows of industrial “martini columns,” the massive structure looked, for all the world, like an artifact from a lost civilization. For pure sculptural drama, Ziggurat was unbeatable – mysterious and jaw-dropping all at the same time.

“I always try to explain the beauty I see in Detroit,” Hocking’s said, and it amounts to a sort of professional ethic. And indeed, his creations go a long ways toward accomplishing just that. For its part, Ziggurat quickly got national exposure. A photographer, Sean Hemmerle, rounded a corner while exploring the city’s industrial infrastructure and happened upon the monument unawares. In an interview with The Detroit News, he confessed it knocked him right off his feet. The picture he produced would end up running across a full page and a half in Time magazine as part of an essay on Detroit.

Unfortunately, Ziggurat had a short shelf life. In a development completely unrelated to the sculpture, the EPA bulldozed all the floors in Fisher Body Plant 21 to clear out toxic debris – including Hocking’s sober stepped pyramid. But it hardly matters. Also a talented photographer, he documents all his constructions so they live on long after they’ve degraded or disappeared.

It’s also worth noting, whether intentional or not, that Ziggurat works superbly at the symbolic level. Had Hocking erected a tombstone in a dead auto factory, it’d be a gesture both banal and trite. But a ziggurat, like the pyramids, is a funerary object — even if that’s not our first association upon seeing it. It’s the oblique nature of the reference that gave the doomed structure its pathos.

It has to be said that Hocking’s a veritable artistic polymath, with work ranging from the large-scale sculptures to installations to the haunting series, Detroit Nights, where he documents the dark city using available light. In the words of the show’s short introductory essay, Hocking – part archeologist and archivist – “[uncovers] layers of history, meaning and memory, with a historian’s sense of discovery and a writer’s craft of storytelling.”

Word to the wise: don’t miss his series of portraits of boats abandoned on Detroit streets.

Scott Hocking, The Secrets of Nature, 2012 / 2014 / 2022, Fiberglas, wood paint, metal, concrete, various found objects, Courtesy of and David Klein Gallery, photo by deo Owensby.

One of the more striking assemblages on display, both funny and daunting, is the wall-sized Secrets of Nature. Here Hocking utilizes figurative artifacts, human and animal alike, found at what he calls “tourist traps and roadside attractions” – in particular, a clutch of Bible characters from the former Good Shepherd Scenic Gardens up north in Mancelona. The installation looms high above the viewer with dozens of saints and sinners peering down at you. The work’s got a weird depth. In the words of the accompanying label, Secrets focuses on “creation and destruction mythologies … and ancient prehistoric wisdom.”

Scott Hocking with The Egg and the MCTS, 2012, Photo Scott Hocking; Courtesy the artist and David Klein Gallery.

Another of Hocking’s astonishing, large sculptures was The Egg in Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, the towering wreck on Michigan Avenue now being renovated by the Ford Motor Co. into high-tech office space — one of the most recognizable symbols of Detroit’s decline.

Using shattered pieces of marble that had cracked off the walls along one of the upper-story hallways after decades of freeze and thaw, Hocking painstakingly assembled thousands of shards to create a symmetrical ovoid sculpture that’s easily nine feet tall. The design has an almost Japanese aesthetic in its use of irregular, jagged elements — albeit all the same thickness – to produce something elegantly and breathtakingly symmetrical.

Workers doing asbestos removal before Ford acquired the depot helpfully suggested to Hocking that the egg’s weight might be too great for the floor. So they built a structural support system right below to prevent collapse.

The Egg reflects Hocking’s interest in geometric shapes, but as with Ziggurat, you can read something more into the design – in this case, birth and renewal rather than death.

Of course, this being Detroit, making art out of the city’s desolation exposes you to the charge of “ruin porn,” the cheap shot leveled most frequently at outsiders who can’t refrain from taking pictures of our astonishing dilapidation – like the French photographers and authors Romain Meffre and Yves Marchand, whose 2010 “The Ruins of Detroit” scandalized Michiganders but dazzled the world.

Cranbrook Art Museum Director Andrew Satake Blauvelt, who curated the show, isn’t buying the allegation. “In this case, Scott is from Detroit,” he said, creating actual art in these buildings, not merely gaping. “It’s not just depressing pictures that will go in a magazine,” Blauvelt said.  He points out that College for Creative Studies Prof. Michael Stone-Richards, who wrote an essay for the exhibition catalog, “also references the idea of ruins,” noting the fascination has a long history – indeed, going back to at least the 17th century, when Germans of means started traveling to Italy in search of the ancient and profound. “We go to Rome to venerate the ruins from past centuries,” Blauvelt said, because like Detroit, “they tell a story.”

Scott Hocking, Celestial Ship of the North (Emergency Ark) AKA The Barnboat #0721, 2016, installation view, Port Austin, Michigan. Photo Courtesy of Scott Hocking and David Klein Gallery, Detroit.

Not all Hocking’s remarkable constructions are in the Motor City. Indeed, he’s been invited to create work around the world. But one of his most recent and compelling pieces is found in Michigan’s thumb outside Port Austin – where he created an enormous sculpture as part of the “barn art project” first launched by former Public Pool gallerist Jim Boyle along with Steve and Dorota Coy, two artists who go by the monicker Hygienic Dress League. The project’s turned four old barns scattered around the countryside into art objects both oddball and beautiful. (See especially architect Catie Newell’s “Secret Sky.”)

With permission from the owner, Hocking deconstructed an 1890s barn starting to slump and rebuilt it into an ark-like sculpture that hangs off several telephone poles — a fitting metaphor, many would say, for our imperiled times.

It’s often said that the arts have “saved” Detroit. And it’s indisputable that at the turn of the century, Detroit and the state of Michigan were fortunate in having a rich crop of talent who made the Motor City their subject long before it became chic – among them Taurus Burns, Clinton Snider, Corine Vermeulen and Andrew Moore. While Hocking’s work is the most peculiar and original of the bunch, they’ve all helped Michiganders and the world at large see Detroit in a fresh light.

Scott Hocking and Clinton Snider, Relics, 2001. Photo by deo Owensby.

Scott Hocking: Detroit Stories at the Cranbrook Art Museum is up through March 19, 2023.

Stephen Arboite @ N’Namdi Center for the Arts

Stephen Abolite, Installation image, N’Namdi Center for the Arts,  2022

N’Namdi Center for the Arts opened a solo exhibition on September 22, 2022, by the multidisciplinary artist Stephen Arboite born in Haiti, grew up in New York City, and now resides in Miami. Curated by George N’Namdi, he says, “ The spiritual work is dominated by a greater sense of self. Arboite asks the viewer to immerse themselves in an examination of understanding of self through a psycho-spiritual lens, hopefully generating awareness of emotional and mental well-being, and a path to a potentially reconstructed journey.”

Stephen Abolite, Untitled, Acrylic, Coffee, Graphic Collage, Mixed Media, 57″X56″ 2022

These multimedia collage self-portraits are obviously influenced by his Haitian heritage, which portrays the spiritual essence essentially manipulated by African spiritual practices. The mixture of human imagery with abstract elements engages the viewer with a combination of skill and ritual.

Stephan Aborite, Reflection Series #2, Acrylic, Coffee, Graphite, Collage Mixed Media on paper. 78″ x 31″ 2022

The artist refers to himself as multidisciplinary because some of the work is abstract fields of shape and color. As demonstrated in Reflection Series 2 there is a complex composition material set against a black background. He says in a statement, “Throughout that process, I found that the material itself, and how it dried, had a really intuitive quality,” says Arboite. “The same intuition that drew me to that led me to this current path. All these materials I use yield a certain weight, power, and energy. I think it is deeper than what is on the surface.”

Stephen Arboite, Bwa Kayıma, Acrylic, Coffee, Collage Mix Media, 50″ x 96″ 2022

This image is a combination of large shapes and small motifs that contrast with large solid areas in the composition soon led the artist on a powerful journey to explore his Haitian heritage and various discourses on the Caribbean diaspora. Many, if not most, of these collages use an overlapping outline of the artist’s face to make the point that all of these are self-portraits. Using a staining technique that includes ground coffee, metallic powders, and organic pigment, Arboite portrays the spiritual essence of his subjects. Whereas the spirit is primarily manipulated in African spiritual practices, his artworks perform a ritual that allows the aura to be seen up front and center.

Stephan Abolite, Reflection Series #3, Acrylic, Charcoal, Collage Mixed Media, 60 x 72″, 2022

Stephan Aboite is a multidisciplinary artist of Haitian descent who was born and raised in New York City and now resides in Miami. Arboite’s work considers beauty outside of classical aesthetic paradigms, emphasizing spiritual transformation and the evolution of human consciousness. Arboite considers himself primarily a self-taught artist with a foundation in drawing and painting from the State University of New York, Purchase College. His works have been exhibited nationally at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, N’Namdi Contemporary in Detroit and Miami, Prizm Art Fair, and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Michigan, amongst others. Some notable collections include the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum of Miami, the Eric and Donna Johnson Collection, and the Arthur Primas Collection of African American Art.

The exhibition Big Good Angel is on display at the N’NAMDI Contemporary now through January 16th, 2023.

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