Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

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Best Times @ David Klein Gallery

Best Times Installation at David Klein Gallery, photo: K.A. Letts

“They were the best of times, they were the worst of times…”     

As Charles Dickens begins his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, he describes a historical period of political and social turbulence that is, in some ways, similar to our own.  To those disposed to pessimism, 2021 might seem like a time to despair, but the artists now showing work in Best Times at David Klein Gallery beg to differ. They celebrate beauty–in the natural world, in art, in everyday objects–while remaining clear-eyed observers of contemporary life and its discontents. Color is the star of the show here; its emotional impact ranges from the giddy pastel polygons of Sylvain Malfroy-Camine to the contemplative gray formalism of Matthew Hawtin, with quite a lot in between.

Late Stage, New Age (red exercise band infinity, sage, Kombucha, green aura) by Cooper Holoweski, 2020, mixed media, 40 x 24.75 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Cooper Holoweski sets the tone for the exhibit with conceptually and procedurally complex works on paper from his Late Stage, New Age series of works on paper.  He seems both enamored by and critical of the technological ecosystem’s marvels. Each piece is a demonstration of complex digital processes such as inkjet printing and laser cutting in dialog with the images of technology that their use makes possible. The cheerful consumerist palette of these mixed media artworks sets up an uneasy resonance with ghostly, truncated human anatomy. Juxtaposed with mundane food and household products, digital devices intrude–a new, added component to daily life that alters the human experience of the self and the environment.

Untitled (January 15) by Lauren Semivan, 2021, archival pigment print, 50 x 40 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Similarly-sized archival pigment prints by Lauren Semivan make an interesting point of comparison to Holoweski’s work. Her lyrical photo collages are composed of humble detritus–fairly anonymous, slightly used paper napkins, net tulle fabric, and the like. Those diaphanous and often translucent elements are bisected with thin lines of color, transforming the shallow fictive space into elegant compositions that fool the eye. The artist describes color in her work as an “emotional descriptor.”  Up close, the marks and scratches on the surface suggest imagined topographies and the physical records of human presence. Step back though, and the picture begins to pulse with the luminosity of a cloudy sky.

Lost City #2 by Susan Goethel Campbell, 2020, two-layered perforated woodblock print on Goyu paper, edition of 5, 23.5 x 31 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Susan Goethel Campbell’s color-saturated and heavily pierced works on paper describe tropical landscapes seen from above.  From a distance their source in aerial photography is evident, but as we draw nearer, the subtle striations of the wood block printing plates she uses to apply color and the tiny pin pricks that admit hues from the layer beneath begin to make the landscape dissolve into a dreamy abstract matrix of lines and shapes. Goethel Campbell’s choice of colors–acid-y greens, deep blues and aquatic turquoise–are evocative of equatorial environments but avoid the picture postcard aesthetic of tourist destinations.  The artist’s title for the series, Lost Cities, obliquely hints at the ephemeral nature of island ecosystems.

Sedition by Matthew Hawtin, 2020, collage on paper, 22 x 22 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

In the middle gallery, Matthew Hawtin’s small, austere collages remain in the world of the handmade, but just barely.  His specialty is the subtle variation of textures and lines within a minimalist esthetic. These intimate artworks force us into closer examination, where we begin to discern the tiny differences in each severely cut rectilinear line and shape. There is something restful about contemplating the warm grays juxtaposed with clear bright reds and yellows.

A Specificity by Ben Pritchard, 2021, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

For gallery visitors who hunger for something a little more visceral than Hawtin’s cerebral formalism, a collection of heavily textured, richly colored abstractions by Ben Pritchard occupies the opposite wall and might be just the thing. These lush, impasto-ed paintings in robust blues, greens, oranges and browns bring to mind the idiosyncratic paintings of the early modernist Arthur Dove. Pritchard is a painter of signs and symbols–cryptic shapes that might be stylized animals or kites or moons, but remain just outside the realm of the known. They are objects of meditation, nonspecifically directing the range of our thoughts and emotions.

Yellow Rose Moon by Mitch Cope, 2021, oil on Masonite panel, 73 x 73 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

From the two loosely painted floral tondos on view, Mitch Cope, who is best known for large-scale installations exploring the Detroit landscape and the objects within it, is taking a little vacation from all that. He seems to be having a great time. The frowsy, slightly retro painted blossoms on Masonite retain a kind of subtle urban surface that suggests found objects and undercuts the prettiness of the subject matter.

Rome by Sylvain Malfroy-Camine, 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 25 x 30.75 inches, photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Sylvain Malfroy-Camine’s many-sided paintings perhaps best describe the euphoric mood that pervades Best Times. Fenced within their polygonal pens, multi-colored ovals and swatches have escaped the earth’s gravity and float or explode inside the pictorial space. In addition to his studio practice, Malfroy-Camine is a musician, and the discrete spots of color in each artwork suggest musical notes in a jubilant symphony.

The artists in Best Times aren’t starry-eyed optimists. There are ample references to contemporary unease, from Cooper Holoweski’s cheerily ominous digital devices to Susan Goethal Campbell’s lush depictions of fugitive coastlines. But hope is a choice, and for right now, the joyful ambience of this summer collection seems right.

Best of Times, Group Exhibition, through August 28th, 2021 at the David Klein Gallery

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.

With Eyes Wide Opened @ Cranbrook Museum of Art

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, Sculpture Court and Mixing Chamber, installation, photo: PD Rearick

With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art since 1932 has just opened at the Cranbrook Museum of Art in Bloomfield Hills, to great acclaim and national attention. Covered by the New York Times Magazine with a spiffy video tour and ample media attention both local and national, it’s a hydra-headed beast of a show with many sponsors but no single curator. Objects and images from every period of the Academy’s history compete for space and attention, with no fewer than ten dueling accounts threaded throughout the museum’s seven galleries.

The organizers seem to have had difficulty settling on a single narrative for this exhaustive survey of the Academy’s history–and no wonder. The tapestries, sculptures, paintings, prints, photographs, product prototypes and mass-produced products tell a kaleidoscopic story of the many creative minds whose vision and creativity have emanated from the school over time.

The history of this premier American art institution is told through objects in only piecemeal fashion in the physical exhibit; the accompanying printed volume, a 624-page doorstop of a book, contains a more complete narrative of the school’s history, along with one-page profiles of many (though not all) of the artists and designers represented in the show.

Untitled (Aluchair) by Christopher Schanck (MFA, 3D Design 2011), 2019, aluminum foil, resin Collection Cranbrook Art Museum

At the entrance to the main gallery, visitors can watch American Look. Commissioned in 1958 by Chevrolet, this cold war artifact celebrates many of the post-World War II designed amenities that were newly available to middle class consumers of a certain limited demographic.  Throughout the celebratory video, the “American-ness” of the consumer lifestyle is promoted relentlessly. Even though the uncritical materialism may seem cringe-worthy to a modern viewer, the optimism and can-do mentality expressed in the video amply show why the period beginning in 1950 is often called the American Century. The film provides a good starting point for With Eyes Opened, which takes us on a visual tour not only of the mid-century American esthetic, but also, by implication, through a consideration of how those perceptions and values have grown and changed over time to include contemporary preoccupations with equity, diversity and sustainability.

Model 1601 Stacking Chair by Don Albinson (Cranbrook Academy of Art Sculpture, 1940-1941), 1965, aluminum, nylon, molded plastic. Photo PD Rearick

The video serves as an introduction to one of the more successful elements of the exhibit, which celebrates the modern chair. Designers like Charles and Ray Kaiser Eames and Don Albinson  were uniquely successful at conceptualizing and producing practical, relatively inexpensive and attractive mass production chairs, many instantly recognizable today as fixtures of modern life in home and office.  The chair as a concept unifies this display;  in addition to the mass produced chairs there are a number of hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind examples such as Chris Schank’s Alufoil  Chair and Terence Main’s  Queen Anne, Queen Anne doubled chair. Here, as throughout the exhibit, the organizers have decided to mix the mass-produced and the hand-crafted, without comparing or contrasting the purposes and philosophies involved.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, Sculpture Court, installation. Photo: DAR

The physical and esthetic center of the exhibition, which brings the concept of design and art to a satisfying apotheosis of the handmade and the mass-produced, comes in the Mixing Chamber. There,  the room-sized mural of black and white figures by Cleon Peterson suggests the sensibility of a 21st century Egon Schiele. Tortured, semi-nude bodies surround the wittily conceived bench by Vivian Beer, whose automotive-painted red drape on the slipper shape is at once modern and baroque.

Untitled (Asthma, High Blood Pressure) by Beverly Fishman (Artist-in-Residence, Dept. of Painting 1992-2019) 2018, urethane paint on wood. Photo: PD Rearick

In the adjacent North Gallery, 34 paintings, works on paper and photographs hang floor to ceiling, with abstraction as the ostensible unifying theme. The hanging of contemporary art salon style is a fraught strategy that calls for sensitively selected and carefully coordinated curation and enough space around each piece to allow the work to breathe.  Here the disparate artworks compete visually, like guests at a crowded cocktail party shouting to be heard.  Beverly Fishman’s brightly colored, sharp-edged geometric polygons (almost) hold their own, and McArthur Binion manages to succeed simply by installing a painting, DNA: Study (Lake St. Clair), too large to share the space with other artwork. As worthy as each piece in the gallery may be, a little editing would have been welcome.

Untitled by Rebecca Ripple (Artist-in-Residence, Dept. of Sculpture, 2017-present) 2016, plastic, aluminum brass, photocopy, pencil, hair, champagne foil. Photo: K.A. Letts

In the Sculpture Court, through the Mixing Chamber ‘s other doorway, Nick Cave’s exuberant  SoundSuit (2012) holds the floor, with a recessive companion, Flamer, by Mark Newport, hanging on the adjacent wall.  Duane Hanson’s provocatively banal figure lounges nearby, unimpressed. Other strong work in the sculpture court includes several fiber pieces which seem to have wandered in, perhaps to provide space between the large and diverse 3-dimensional works–not a bad idea as it turns out. The white-on-white tapestry Montana 30, by Colombian artist Olga de Amaral, made up of small squares of white painted canvas relieved with touches of red, is especially welcome here. Sculptures by artists of the past such as Marshall Fredericks and Carl Milles share the space, more or less peacefully, with artworks by younger artists like Tyanna Buie and Kate Clark. Toward the back of the gallery, James Surl’s spiky mobile floats in its own private galaxy, next to a terrific assemblage by Rebecca Ripple that radiates an ad hoc starburst of Miro-esque energy.

Auburndale Site, Detroit MI (#4) by Object Orange, 2006, archival color photograph, 1/25 Cranbrook Museum of Art. Photo: K.A. Letts

In a small side gallery near the elevators, three photographs by the art collective Object Orange deliver a moment of surreal surprise. From 2005-2007, these (anonymous) Cranbrook graduates undertook a conceptual project called Detroit, Demolition, Disneyland which involved painting–in “Tiggerific” Orange– derelict structures in the city as a form of both public performance and protest. The photographs, brilliant orange structures against bleak gray backgrounds, are arresting, unexpected and a bit melancholy.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, Object Islands, installation, Photo: PD Rearick

The Wainger Gallery, last stop on the main floor galleries, features a clever installation of “object islands,” table height circular plinths that subtly guide the viewer through a broad array of fairly small- scale ceramics, metal objects and product design prototypes. Many of the objects in this gallery are one-of-a-kind art objects in a variety of media, often in unusual combinations, such as Iris Eichenberg’s untitled brooch made of porcelain, silver and linen.

With Eyes Opened takes on a lighter tone in the museum’s lower level gallery with The Menagerie, a whimsical collection of figures and objects inspired by the natural world, from Marshall Frederick’s chunky Two Bears to Stephen Malinowski’s photograph Cafeteria, a surreal bison-in-a-dining room.  The playful theme of The Menagerie is echoed nearby with a small collection of toy and playground designs that, while welcome, seem like an afterthought.

In the adjacent hall gallery, prints and posters highlight Cranbrook’s influential graphic design program. Installed next to printed media that feature collage, photomontage and progressive typography, several unique works hint at the endless formal potential of paper as a medium.  Elizabeth Youngblood’s elegant, silvery process drawing is tucked into a corner near Laurence Barker’s more exuberant hand-made paper piece.  Layers from the Disemboweled Series by Winifred Lutz takes the medium into the realm of expressionism.

Yet Untitled by Elizabeth Youngblood (MFA Design, 1975) 2018, paint, mylar. Photo: Glenn Mannisto

And last–but not least–some of Cranbrook Academy’s most recent graduates inhabit the lower level deSalle Gallery with distinction. Many of these young artists currently live and work in Detroit and continue the Academy’s tradition of excellence in both craft and conception. The growing diversity of the school is on display here, pointing to a more inclusive future, now enabled by the recent $30 million gift from Dan and Jennifer Gilbert to support student diversity.  Ricky Weaver’s gray and white photo-apparitions emanate spirituality, across from Ebitenyefa Baralaye’s Portrait II, a comic-sinister stoneware head.  Around the corner, Marianna Olague’s painting El Pleno Dia seems to emit its own light.  The emerging artists in this gallery demonstrate the continuing influence of the Academy’s alumni on the Detroit art scene and beyond.

With Eyes Opened is multi-faceted, rich and a little chaotic, more of a class reunion than a retrospective.  What comes through loud and clear in this exhaustive–and sometimes exhausting–survey, though, is the Academy’s continued vitality and its ongoing relevance to any discussion of the 21st century designed environment. And really, that’s enough.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, deSalle Gallery, installation, Photo: P.D. Rearick.

Eyes Wide Open at Cranbrook Museum of Art through September 19, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Souls of Black Folk: Bearing Our Truths @ Scarab Club

Installment Image, Souls Of Black Folk, Scarab Club, Detroit, Images : Courtesy of David E. Rudolph/ D. Ericson & Associates Public Relations.

In  W.E.B. DuBois’ essay, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” from his poignant collection, The Souls of Black Folk, the sociologist makes a thorough and thought triggering assessment on being Black in America.

“The  Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world,” he wrote. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness; an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Written in 1903, this passage is  the impetus for  the exhibition Souls of Black Folk: Bearing Our Truths, on view at the Scarab Club through March 20. Curated by Donna Jackson, artist and owner of DMJ Studios, DuBois’ words and concept of dual identity – being Black and being American– resonated on a deeper and heightened level for Jackson throughout 2020 – a year imploded with a global health pandemic that still looms and a socio-political and racial reckoning that forced America to finally discuss racism and injustices on a worldwide stage.

In a reflective statement about the exhibition, Jackson expressed, “With the death of George Floyd and the amount of pain and in many cases,  guilt I have seen poured in our streets and in our media, I went back and re-read The Souls of Black Folk. The two-ness of being Black and American sits heavy and true with me. Sometimes this feeling is hard to pinpoint or express and yet, DuBois did it simply. It freed me to know that this feeling can be described. It is okay to be these two things. To be Black. To be American. The challenge is being accepted as both.”

The collection features the works of twenty, established and emerging Black artists – a first in the Scarab Club’s 100+ year-history– and range in emotion from depictions of harsh truths of existence in a Black body as well as expressions of joy, love and being human.

Jackson’s Black and Blue, sets a strong tone. The massive acrylic painting depicts a faceless  black body as a shooting target, a red dot is on the chest and  the words black and blue are scribbled throughout.  ‘Black Lives Matters’ and  ‘Blue Lives Matter’ chants mentally collide, drawing flashes of the racial  contention and shooting deaths of Black men and women by police officers and white citizens. I am reminded of Dubois’ use of the veil as a metaphorical presentation of the color line, racial oppression and injustices.

Donna Jackson| Black and Blue (Who’s The Target) | Acrylic on Canvas

There’s a trauma that exists within  Blackness that is inexperienced in mainstream America. Yvette Rock’s The Brutal Passage depicts the foundation of that pain. Accompanied by a performance, entitled 400 Years of Labor, the magnitude of the mixed-media canvas is aptly felt. Before the artist appears on screen, chains clinking is the first sound, followed by foot thumps, groans and heavy breathing. The artist appears carrying the thick canvas, each step a struggle. Each step a reminder of slavery and the oppressive mentality behind it.

The emotional and psychological grief  that comes with injustice and trauma carries over into Carole Morriseau’s chilling, The Healing Wall. The mixed-media ensemble comprises four quadrants, containing 1200-1500 colorful ribbons with painted portraits bearing the names of Black lives lost due to police brutality. George Floyd.  Rodney King. Breonna Taylor. Ayanna Jones. Emmett Till. And the list of Black and brown souls, gone (as we see it) too soon, goes on. Morriseau also incorporates phrases #StopTheKillings and #IAmTrayvon to represent social justice movements.  The visual breaks your heart, but there is  also a source of strength, purpose and a knowing that this is why we must continue to lift their names and use the tears as fuel to keep marching forward in hopes of a just world.

Yvette Rock | The Brutal Passage | Mixed Media on Canvas| 72×36| 2020

Carole Morriseau | The Healing Wall | Mixed Media | 45×50| 2020

Grief is heavily felt in the aforementioned pieces and in Rita Dickerson’s$100,000,000 SLAVES: The Absence of Black Ownership and Control, that never settles.  In this assortment of feelingsthere is a visceral balance and resilience presented in the installation. We see the way joy claims its right to shine in spite of historical pain and constant wearing of the veil in Cydney Camp’s Juneteenth (Teenth) painting, which depicts a couple laid out in a yard, smiling while taking in a hot day, and Ralph Jones’ life photo, We’re All Here,  that shows Black and brown children and families playing in water at Hart Plaza,  and certainly in Mandisa Smith’s Black Joy made from felted wool. This is part of the story, too. This is love and care.

Mandisa Smith | Black Joy | Mixed Media | 18inx18in | 2020

Honoring the ancestral realm with spiritual grounding and understanding “I am, because they are,” Monica Brown’s mixed-media-on-wood painting and image-making, I Prayed For You Before You Were Born (I) and Prayed For You Before You Were Born (II ),  are soothing like a needed hug. The art works are part of the artist’s ‘Mythical Memory’ series rooted in connections between the body, memory, personal history and healing. The circular motion in these small but mighty visuals feels like  a continuous prayer and donning of armor by loved ones. 

Monica Brown | I Prayed For You Before You Were Born (I) | Acrylic and Mixed-Media on Wood | 8”x8”

Monica Brown | I Prayed For You Before You Were Born (II) | Acrylic and Mixed-Media on Wood | 8”x8”

Olivia Guterson’s Sankofa, is reminiscent of Ghana’s Akan tribe and the mythical bird that serves as one of the Adinkra’s cultural symbols. With its head turned backward, the posturing speaks to embracing “what is at risk of being left behind.” Further, the three syllables that make up the word “Sankofa” mean return, go, look, seek and take. With this in mind, Guterson’s illustration welcomes a form of travel and seeking wisdom. There’s a present comforting that feels ancestral and communal. The artists’  use of black-and-white, textured lines and eyes throughout the image, brings both intensity and a sort of calm on this quest for knowledge and using the past as a guide to the future.

Olivia Guterson | Sankofa, 2020 Oil and ink on archival paper | 10×14

Throughout Jackson’s curation, we see the complexities and layers of the Black experience. We see love, the rich appreciation of  literature, music, connection, progressive thinking and being amid the struggle and the striving. Souls of Black Folk: Bearing Our Truths is a looking glass for not only a deep dive into DuBois’ philosophy but that of Black life as narrated by Black visual artists.

View closely, Black voices have stories to tell. And this exhibition SPEAKS.

“The human soul cannot be permanently chained.” – W.E.B. Dubois

Olivia Guterson | Sankofa, 2020 Oil and ink on archival paper | 10x14

Desiree Kelly | W.E.B Du Bois | Woodburn, oil, acrylic, collage on wood | 12 x 12

Participating Artists: Monica Brown, Taurus Burns, Cydney Camp, Rita Dickerson, Olivia Guterson, Asia Hamilton, Donna Jackson, Sydney James, Ralph Jones, Desiree Kelly, Charles Miller, Carole Morisseau, Sabrina Nelson, Yvette Rock, Phillip Simpson, Mandisa Smith, Rachel E. Thomas, Charlene Uresy, Carl Wilson, Cara Marie Young

Souls of Black Folk: Bearing Our Truths – On Display at the Scarab Club until March 20, 2021

ALSO ONLINE: https://www.soulsofblackfolk.com/  

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