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Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft @ BBAC

Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

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.

 

 

Kahlo Without Borders @ MSU Broad

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Everything changed for Frida Kahlo during a fateful bus ride through Mexico City in 1925.  A few blocks from her school, where the 17-year-old Frida was a senior and exhibited precocious intelligence, the bus rounded a corner and collided with an oncoming trolley, severely injuring dozens of passengers. The wooden bus blew apart, leaving Frida with catastrophic injuries, including a steel rod that pierced through much of her body. She was pulled from the wreckage covered in gold dust, likely from a passenger who was an artist. She survived, defying the initial pessimistic assessment of the doctors at the Red Cross hospital. But much of the rest of her life was spent bedridden in hospitals in Mexico and the United States, where she underwent 32 surgeries. To pass the time, Frida began to paint.

Kahlo Without Borders at the MSU Broad explores Kahlo’s support network of friends and family, with a particular focus on the doctors she befriended during her many extended hospital stays. The exhibition is conceived as an intimate journey through a family scrapbook or photo album, and on view (for the first time, in some cases) are candid family photographs, letters, and even hospital records from the Kahlo family archives. This is an intimate and interdisciplinary show which traverses the boundary between the visual arts and the medical field, much like Frida Kahlo’s paintings.

Antonio Kahlo, Frida with cane, ca. 1950. Courtesy Cristina Kahlo and the Broad Art Museum

Kahlo was well-connected, and her social orbit encompassed many famous poets, artists, and writers. There are candid snapshots of Kahlo with muralist Diego Rivera, who Frida married, divorced, and re-married (theirs was an acrimonious relationship, but to the end they remained ardently supportive of each other’s career). We also see Kahlo with Leon Trotsky, a close family friend and, for a little while, Kahlo’s lover.

And, of course, we are introduced to a few of the doctors and nurses Frida Kahlo befriended, such as Leo Eloesser, Juan Farill, and Judith Ferrato. The letters and correspondence on view demonstrates the gratitude and affection Kahlo felt for these people. Kahlo featured Farill in her Self Portrait with the Portrait of Dr. Farill, and also gifted him a copy of the book The Complete Anatomy of A Man, which she accompanied with a note reading, “Dearest Dr. Farill. So you may laugh at the surrealist ‘Anatomy.’ Save it with Frida’s love.” Both the book and the note are on view.

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Particularly moving are the photographs of Kahlo in hospital beds. Several of these show her working on various paintings, triumphantly affirming life in the midst of tragedy. But other images speak to the very visceral and unglamourous reality of her extended hospital stays. Into the 1950s, she appears visibly frail and worn, as in a picture captured by Raúl Anaya a few months before her death.

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

For Kahlo enthusiasts, the highlight of the show will certainly be the small ensemble of her original drawings, which include a pencil rendering of the 1925 tram accident, a subject she never actually painted. Two of these drawings were made in response to her second miscarriage, which occurred in Detroit while she was accompanying Diego, who was occupied painting his murals at the Detroit Institute of Art. One of these drawings, The Dream, visually anticipates the painting she would later make of the incident, Henry Ford Hospital: 1932. In both the drawing and the painting, a crumpled and visibly broken Frida lies naked, bleeding, and uncovered on a spartan hospital bed.

Kahlo’s grandniece, photographer Cristina Kahlo (who helped organize the show), lends contemporary insight into Frida’s life with a series of photographs that explore her stay at the American British Cowdray Hospital in Mexico City. An ensemble of photographs by Cristina shows the varied artifices and prosthetics that intruded into Frida’s body and art, such as her prosthetic leg and one of the corsets she had to wear. An ardent Communist, Frida personalized this particular corset with a hammer and sickle. In a large lightbox (mimicking a microfilm reader) we see actual records of Frida’s vital signs during some of her surgeries. Looking at a still frame from a monitor showing Frida’s heartbeat, one immediately recalls the many times Frida portrayed her heart in her paintings. Here, we can see its literal rhythm. Cristina Kahlo also photographed Frida’s hospital gowns which, as she painted, she would use to wipe excess paint from her brushes. Here, Cristiana Kahlo offers these images as an “absent portrait” of the artist.

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

This exhibition is a must-see for Frida Kahlo fans. As for the uninitiated, this show might come across as visually thin, given the prevalence of letters and correspondence. But it’s certainly thematically compelling. Perhaps it’s cliche to say of Frida Kahlo that, phoenix-like, she harnessed personal tragedy as the source of life and beauty. Then again, Kahlo’s art certainly isn’t beautiful. But it’s always eloquently and gut-wrenchingly truthful, speaking to the pain we all inevitably face at one time or another. And as for Frida, the portrait that emerges between the lines suggests that in spite of everything she endured, she possessed an indefatigable fortitude, a zest for life, and a deep affection and gratitude for her support network. Whether or not you’re a fan of Frida Kahlo’s art, her spirit is inspiring, and Kahlo Without Borders serves as an affectionate and personal tribute.

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Cristina Kahlo, Absent Portrait 1 (2016)

Kahlo Without Borders is on view at the MSU Broad through Aug. 7, 2022.

Susan Goethel Campbell:  Second Nature @ David Klein Gallery

Susan Goethel Campbell, Installation Image, Second Nature, David Klein Gallery, photo by DAR.

“This exhibition is a marker of transitions, not permanence,” says multimedia artist Susan Goethel Campbell. In her solo show Second Nature, on view from March 12 – April 30 at David Klein Gallery in Detroit, the artist continues her collaboration with the environment, creating elegiac artworks that speak of impermanence and transition, loss and rebirth. In this latest, process-driven iteration of her ongoing art practice, she collects fugitive elements of the world around her—blossoms, fallen leaves, the shadowy stains of walnuts–and transforms them into potent meditative objects.

Although a printmaker by training, Campbell’s art practice has expanded over time to include video, installation, and environmental and community-based art. Second Nature builds upon her established art practice but adds an element of spirituality, a creative development in her work that she describes as “a reminder of the bridge between life, death, and reformation.” She has produced two separate but related bodies of work for this exhibition that complement and reinforce each other.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Seasonal No. 4, 2022, walnut stains with hand perforation and hand-sewing on Japanese paper, 108” x 59.” Photo: Samantha Bankle Schefman.

Seasonal Series

In Seasonal, a series of five large new works on paper, Campbell has made shadowy dye from walnuts and arranges the resulting translucent, circular brown blotches in loosely symmetrical compositions on sheets of Japanese rice paper. This repetitive dripping process is followed by folding the sheets onto each other and yields a tapestry-like image that seems both random and intentional. The artist employs the resulting dorsiventral symmetry, found throughout nature in most animals and many plants, to imply an adumbral presence. The artworks also immediately call to mind projective psychological Rorschach tests. Tiny, meticulously placed perforations that punctuate the ad hoc stains give emphasis and a kind of ceremonial dignity to the work. The sheets of paper are sutured together by the artist’s hand, creating the effect of subtle scarring, an implication of remembered pain.  The assembled layers have been mounted several inches away from the wall and cast shadows of the perforations on the wall behind the paper, forming a fugitive second artwork behind the foreground image. The resulting pattern drains away from the random quality of the staining in favor of the purely intentional punched design.

Susan Goethel Cambell, Hibiscus Years No. 3, 2022, archival inkjet print, 19” x 25.” Photo: Tim Thayer.

Hibiscus Years

The simple image of a hibiscus blossom, magnified to many times its original size, is the subject—or a pretext for–the digital photography series Hibiscus Years. The routine nature of the flower as a subject in art conceals the true preoccupation of this work: time, beauty, impermanence, and their relation to each other. Each hibiscus blossom, which lasts for only a day, has been fixed in time through digital photography, and the blooms are layered one on top of the other. The resulting composite images in Hibiscus 1-4 are simple re-iterations of the blossom shape; the layers create densely dark centers that transition at the edges to delicate chiffon-like veils of plum, mauve and buff. The torn edges and slightly faded colors undermine the natural prettiness of the image and give them psychological depth. Campbell adds a sense of linear time in Hibiscus Years No. 5 Scroll, with the symmetrical image repeated in a vertical format that calls to mind a roll of film.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Hibiscus Years No. 5, Scroll, 2022, archival inkjet print on Japanese paper, 92 ¼” x 48.” (scrolled) edition of 3. Photo: Tim Thayer.

Perhaps the most mysterious works in the exhibition, both in process and intent, are Hibiscus Years 6 and 7. The images seem both allusive and elusive while being the most purely abstract images in the series. These circular shapes invite and frustrate perceptions; they are both evocative but indistinct, circumventing an easy reading of the image. They withhold meaning that we reach for but can’t touch.  The flat gray of shadows against the milky whiteness of the paper hint at a transcendent reality just outside our field of vision.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Hibiscus Years No. 6, 2022, altered archival digital print, walnut stains, 38” x 12.” Photo: Tim Thayer.

In Second Nature, Susan Goethel Campbell has created a collection of fragile yet resilient poetic images that express the spirit of this moment, a visible and resonant record of the calamitous years we have just experienced.  It has been a time of the pandemic, climate change, political unrest–and now, war. But rather than suggesting that we dwell upon our losses, the artist has found us some solid ground to stand on. She tentatively proposes a spring of renewal, when death is followed by rebirth, growth proceeds from decay and hope wins over sorrow.

Susan Goethel Campbell – Hibiscus Years No. 7, 2022, altered archival digital print, walnut stains, 31” x 29.” Photo: Tim Thayer.

Installation image. Photo by Samantha Bankle Schefman.

Susan Goethel Campbell:  Second Nature @ David Klein Gallery is on view through April 30, 2022.

Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition @ The Dennos

Installation image. All photos courtesy of the Dennos Museum Center

Visiting the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City is an experience unique to Northern Michigan. Situated at the base of Old Mission Peninsula, since 1991 the Dennos served as a multipurpose art and science museum, and it houses one of the finest collections of Inuit art you’ll ever see. In 2018 it underwent a major expansion, and an impressively large suite of chic gallery spaces now allows the Dennos to show off much more of its permanent collection, and it really does have some good holdings. The museum has even just been awarded status as a Smithsonian affiliate. But while the focus of the museum is on the art within, the floor-to-ceiling windows of many of its exterior galleries offer visitors a commanding view of the pleasantly forested campus of Northwestern Michigan College.  Through May 29, this emphatically northern space is the appropriate home to the annual Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition.

The show amply fills the museum’s spacious temporary exhibition space. It presents multimedia work by artists from 37 Michigan counties, including the entirety of the Upper Peninsula and much of the Lower Peninsula’s Northwest.  Submissions were open to anyone, providing that the work was created during 2021.  Juried by Vera Ingrid Grant, a curator and writer based in Ann Arbor and whose accomplishments include fellowships at Harvard and Columbia universities, the 90 works on view represent highlights from the show’s nearly 400 submissions.

Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City Installation image.

Any juried show is destined to be varied in scope and media, and these works are certainly diverse– there are 83 artists represented, after all. Painting, sculpture, photography, and illustration join forces with quilting, fabric art, wood art, and pottery, blurring boundaries between fine art, folk art, and handcraft. Nevertheless, some themes do emerge, such as our shared experience of Covid-19, here directly addressed in about half a dozen works. Several works offer social commentary on timely subjects like media saturation and information overload.

Many of these works take the landscapes, waterscapes, and textures of Northern Michigan itself as their subject. Ample views of Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan’s sand-dunes firmly locate this show in Northern Michigan. Thomas Guback’s Northport Sailboat Race is a photograph that beautifully transposes the lucid diamond-tipped ripples of Lake Michigan’s waters into black and white, applying some of Ansel Adams’ magic to demonstrate that color isn’t necessary to give the viewer an arresting image. And Lynn Stephenson’s tightly rendered pencil drawing of a row of weathered, neglected dock pilings captures a sight common at any marina on Lake Michigan’s shoreline; Stephenson renders the texture of the mostly rotted wood and the ripples of the water with impressively photographic, illustrative detail.

Lynn Stephenson, Still Standing [detail]. 2021, Colored pencil on Paper.

Other artists engaged Northern Michigan’s geography in more playfully abstract terms.  Susan Yamasaki’s Hieroglyphs applies perpendicular, geometric sections of birch bark and mixed media to create what could pass as Northern Michigan’s answer to Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. And the Best of Show award went to Kevin Summers, a multimedia artist whose Michigan Shoreline is a conceptual installation comprising driftwood, electronic fans, and sound.

Susan Yamasaki, Hieroglyphs. 2021, Birchbark and mixed media on birch panel.

 

Kevin Summers, Michigan Shoreline. 2021, Driftwood, fans, and electronics.

Certain to be a highlight among visitors is the mural-sized bead tapestry by Marie Wohadlo, 10:23. Gently backlit, this work comprises nearly a million individual luminous glass beads. It’s a work that invites viewers to play the same game as one might play with a pointillist work by Seurat. Step up close, and the individual beads create a pixelated, abstract void. Step back, and they materialize into a photographic rendering of two distant faces. The planning and execution of a work on this scale is impressive, even allowing for photographic and technological assistance.

Marie Wohadlo, 10:23 [detail]. 2021, Glass bead tapestry.

Marie Wohadlo, 10:23 [detail]. 2021, Glass bead tapestry.

Shows like this have a leveling, democratizing effect on art. There’s nothing to differentiate the skilled amateurs from the seasoned professionals.  And in the absence of any descriptive didactic panels, viewers are left to interpret these works entirely on their own. Perhaps this is a good thing; too often I find myself relying on an exhibition’s expository text to do much of the thinking for me.  But here, viewers are given the opportunity to approach the work on their own terms, and the works on view are given the chance to speak for themselves.

The 2022 Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition runs through May 29, 2022. Views of the evergreens on the NMC campus are available all year round.

 

 

 

Allie McGhee @ Cranbrook

Detroit Artist Allie McGhee exhibits a Retrospective, Banana Moon Horn, at Cranbrook Art Museum

Installation image, Allie McGhee, Retrospective, Banana Moon Horn, at Cranbrook Art Museum, all images courtesy CAM

Cranbrook Art Museum (CAM) opened a retrospective exhibition of artwork by artist Allie McGhee on October 30, 2021, which spans five decades of work produced at McGhee’s Jefferson Avenue studio in Detroit.

Laura Mott, the chief curator of contemporary art and design at Cranbrook Art Museum, curated the exhibition. She says, “My interest in Allie McGhee’s work came from seeing his paintings at local galleries in Detroit, but when I did my first studio visit with him, it was a revelation.  In his studio, I saw decades of work and an incredible arc of his artistic practice since the 1960s.  There is also a richness of ideas in his methods of production and research into history and science. When one encounters an incredible mind like Allie’s, it becomes a necessity to tell his story.  Furthermore, his work needed to be contextualized in art history, which is why it was important to have both an exhibition and publication.”

The exhibition brings together artwork that demonstrates the evolution of McGhee’s work back to the 1960’s, beginning with early representational work that quickly evolved to abstraction. McGhee’s work was heavily influenced by trends in the abstract expression movement and influenced by jazz musicians in the Black community.

Andrew Blauvelt, director of Cranbrook Art Museum, said of some of McGhee’s work, “Learning of McGhee’s interest in astronomy, their crumpled and twisted forms have taken on a new resonance, one that recalls the spatial complexities of Catastrophe theory and, in particular, the relative notion of the fold.”

This exhibition takes on more than forty years of paintings and drawings and documents the growth of one of Detroit’s most important artists. The museum produced this short 6-minute video as an introduction to Allie McGhee and his work.

From his recent talk at Cranbrook, the story goes that McGhee came upon an object in the street that reminded him of a KKK hood.  The object was an icing cone used in a bakery.  This occurred in a time period just a year or so after the 1967 Detroit Rebellion and caused McGhee to harness that energy and create an object that hung on the wall alongside a petrified banana, foreshadowing what would repeat itself for years to come.

Allie McGhee, The Ku Klux Klown, Mixed Media on found object, petrified banana, 1961.  All images courtesy of CAM

Ku Klux Klown coincided with his association with a black artist cooperative founded by Charles McGee. Charles organized the landmark 1969 exhibition Seven Black Artists at the Detroit Artists Market and founded Gallery 7. Along with Allie McGhee, members included Lester Johnson, Robert Murray, James Lee, Harold Neal, and Robert J. Stull.  For years, Allie McGhee pursued abstract expressionism using a variety of sizes, shapes, and materials on a flat canvas that hung on the wall. The object and the banana became the center of what was to be called Banana Moon Horn, the title of this exhibition and the Cranbrook publication.

Allie McGhee, TWA Light on Washburn, Mixed Media on canvas, 1989

One of the strongest compositions in the exhibition was from 1989. TWA Light on Washburn, repeats the reoccurring banana symbol that follows him over time. One of the trademarks of McGhee’s work is that he leaves behind the use of traditional brushes for flat sticks of varying sizes to move paint across the surface. In addition, he has a variety of tools to remove paint from a given area, be it cloth, wood or plastic.  This could easily have been when he preferred placing the canvas on the floor instead of using an easel to hold the stretched canvas on a frame. Gravity is his friend on the floor, not an obstacle, where mixing paint worked to his advantage.  In TWA Light on Washburn, we see the primary colors dominating the composition while using the spacing of thirds on the grid, both vertical and horizontal.  There is no evidence of brushwork on the canvas, only the stroke of a long stick he used to create geometric lines, shapes, and sometimes texture. Various values of red, blue, and yellow assist in holding everything together.

Allie McGhee, Apartheid, Mixed Media on Masonite, 48 x 120″, 1984

Most recently viewed in 2017 at the Detroit Institute of Arts as part of a large exhibition, McGhee’s Apartheid was on display in the Art of the Rebellion and Say It Loud, commemorating 50 years since July 23, 1967, when African Americans took to the streets of Detroit to express their anger and frustration with the injustice of law enforcement. It would come to be called the Detroit Rebellion.  McGhee’s work was then being shown by the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art. This painting highlights his use of angular shapes and splatters of paint to evoke and represent the tension of the time. The title Apartheid refers to the oppressive political system that existed in South Africa. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements inspired many African American artists to internalize the fight for civil rights in Detroit.

Allie McGhee, Fall Rush, Acrylic on enamel paper, 2013

Throughout his talk at Cranbrook Art Museum, McGhee continued to stress and talk about his approach. “ The process is more important than the subject.” Thanks to his diligent years of daily work, we see the artwork on the floor begin to evolve and ultimately create something very new. The work Fall Rush (2013) is acrylic and enamel on paper where McGhee has applied his sensibility to both sides of this heavy-duty paper and then worked on producing a crushed and folded object that would present itself on the wall. When I first viewed the work, my only context was the artwork by sculptor John Chamberlain who did something similar with scrap metal, usually mounted on a base as in Homer, 1960.  Chamberlain didn’t paint the metal, instead, he would find parts from scrap car lots where he discovered his colors in the parts of fenders and related shapes of metal. Here, McGhee, the painter, created his own material by painting both sides of the paper, canvas or vinyl, and inventing his shape using his well-developed sensibility. He puts his trust in the process.

Allie McGhee, Flip Side, Acrylic on enameled vinyl, 2015

In the piece Flip Side (2015), we see the evolution of this work where he adds elements after the object is created and on the wall. During the artist talk, he mentioned his interest in science and the various visual aspects of the universe, either through a telescope or a microscope.  McGhee mentioned participating in an Art & Science program that paired artists with scientists from the University of Michigan. The artists then made an artwork that was auctioned off to support scientific research. McGhee was seeking information based on scientific discovery where he sought truth and imagery in the cosmos.

And Allie McGhee talked briefly about the role of music in creating art with an emphasis on the Black jazz musicians John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus. They all co-mingled with his process.

Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky has said he was deeply inspired by music. He played the violin from an early age and even gave his works of art musical titles: ‘Improvisations’, Compositions’ and ‘Fugue.

I know I carefully select what I play in my studio. I always select instrumental-only by a variety of musicians like Dave Brubeck, Mozart, or Arvo Part.

Richard Dorment, the art historian, said of Paul Klee, “He started every picture with an abstract mark—a square, a triangle, a circle, a line or a dot—and then allowed that motif to evolve or grow, almost like a living organism.” Whether it is from subconscious dreams or Eric Dolphy on the Saxophone, Allie McGhee worked daily to the sound of jazz. The improvisational riffs provided support for the creation of rich abstraction in the studio, experimenting with materials, making the same mistakes over and over until something emerges and falls into place or rises to the top. What resonates in my thoughts is McGhee’s emphatic statement, “It’s the process, not the subject.”

In the Cranbrook publication, McGhee says, “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It is an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks labored and overworked, and you can’t read in it…there is something in there that has not got to do with beautiful art.  And I usually throw these out, though I think very often it takes ten of those over labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.”

Allie McGhee, Bloom, Acrylic, and enamel on fiberglass, 2019

In the acrylic and enamel on fiberglass Bloom, McGhee gives the viewer some insight with the title and adds details to the piece after its painted and folded creation. Who knows? The inspiration may have come from a memory of sitting at his mother’s kitchen table where some flowers were blooming in a vase. We see the surface where the artist draped and dragged the stick over the fiberglass on the floor, then the folding produced fluidity and pattern.

Laura Mott quoted McGhee in her writing about him as saying, “I can tell stories in my paintings about these significant contributions made through our history. To me, that’s a lot more exciting scientifically, spiritually, and visually to feed off of. It’s never-ending. The only limitation is the entire cosmos…I don’t think I will be able to use that up in my lifetime.”

Allie McGhee, Long Look, Acrylic and enamel on vinyl on wood. 2021

Right when you think these folded and crushed colorful objects art are the beneficiaries of a life’s work and might be his last body of new work, he comes back with new flatwork on the wall, like the painting, Long Look, an acrylic and enamel paint on vinyl attached to wood. Is he looking through a microscope or a telescope? Or is he reading The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene about how artists look to science for inspiration?  From the Cranbrook publication, McGhee writes, “I will see the Science section of The New York Times where there will be a photograph that is almost identical to something I painted years ago, like a picture from the Hubble telescope.”

There is something to be said about McGhee’s longevity with respect to being able to continue his process and reap the success of this later work. He is still exploring his evolutionary process, a painter of extraordinary ability who continues to contribute to the art record of Western civilization.

Allie McGhee exhibits a Retrospective, Banana Moon Horn, at Cranbrook Art Museum, through February 13, 2022.

 

 

 

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