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Revolutionary Times @ FIA

The Flint Institute of Arts Presents Revolutionary Times by Detroit Artist Mario Moore

There’s a black-and-white video clip on YouTube of an early TV quiz show where a panel of celebrities tries to guess the identity of a mystery guest. In the clip, the guest is a frail-looking old man who turns out to be the last living witness to the shooting of Abraham Lincoln. The show aired in 1956. My father was born in 1947; he just turned 77, and his life overlaps that of someone who saw the Lincoln assassination. I remember being struck by that thought when I first saw the video, by the idea that the days of chattel slavery and civil war, which can seem like the stuff of textbooks, ancient history (and which some would like us to conveniently regard as such), were actually as close as the span of just two lifetimes. I thought of that video again as I looked at Mario Moore’s current exhibition at the Flint Institute of Arts, Revolutionary Times (running now through April 14), in which the painter repeatedly collapses the distance between the past and the present.

Mario Moore, Installation images, 2022, oil on linen

It’s been quite a year so far for Mario Moore. In addition to the Flint show, the Cranbrook Art Museum is currently featuring a show Moore co-curated called Skilled Labor: Black Realism in Detroit, in which Moore joins several other local painters who work in a range of realist approaches (on view through March 3). Moore’s art is both highly skilled and labor intensive. He works at a level of realism that must be a bit like playing trumpet or violin, where the promise of perfection makes every flub the more obvious. Moore, however, rarely misses a note. While his backgrounds are more loosely painted to suggest depth, his subjects are meticulously rendered, and yet they aren’t fossilized by overly-fussy technique. They breathe, and radiate warmth even when their demeanors are cool, which is often. When they meet the viewers gaze, theres life in their eyes.

Mario Moore, The Drum Rolls On, 2021, oil on linen

Revolutionary Times comprises three bodies of work: one relates to the Civil War, particularly the Black troops who were armed to fight for the Union; another references the Underground Railroad and Detroit’s unique part in its history; and the third, a room of mostly portraits, comments on the fur trade in Detroit while honoring members of Moore’s family and circle of friends. Throughout the show, Moore juxtaposes images of “then and now,” sometimes placing 19th century figures in modern landscapes, or casting friends in the roles of historical personages, or inserting himself into portraits of family members. Each work dissolves the barriers between the historical and the contemporary. At the start of the exhibition the viewer is greeted by The Drum Rolls On, an image of a barefoot Black child, eyes forward and resolute, the sticks in his hands poised to strike up a march on the snare drum slung around his neck. Around him the landscape is in flames, yet he is unharmed and unperturbed. He’s an allegorical figure, though not a timeless one; the shiny calculator watch on his wrist tells us that the time is now.

The next image the visitor encounters is a lithograph featuring the first of a number of artists Moore name-checks throughout the exhibit, David Bowser, the designer of several regimental flags carried by Black troops during the Civil War (a Moore recreation of one of Bowser’s flags hangs elsewhere in the gallery). Across the room is another artist, Moore’s contemporary Mark Thomas Gibson. He’s depicted lounging in front of a Moore-ified version of his large drawing of the battle of Antietam, a fight in which Black troops played a crucial role and which precipitated Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the battle scene, a Union soldier lies dead in one corner, his head blown off with such force that his hat still hovers above the stump of his neck. Gibson’s casual pose, sitting back in a chair with his feet up, mimics that of the collapsed soldier, suggesting that the soldier’s sacrifice then made Gibson’s freedom today possible. On another wall are several portraits based on Civil War-era photographs, now in full color and with the original subjects replaced by friends of Moore’s, all brandishing period swords and firearms. A spoken word recording about the arming of Black troops, Free State, plays in the first gallery as well, though without a chair or headphones, it’s hard to give the 25-minute recording the attention it deserves.

Mario Moore, Blackburn, Lucie, and Thornton Blackburn’s Arrival in Midnight, 2022, oil on linen

Entering the second part of the exhibition, the visitor meets two bathing suit-clad figures, a man and woman reclining on the shore of the Detroit River. They represent Lucia and Thornton Blackburn, an enslaved couple who fled Kentucky for Canada along the storied Underground Railroad. They eventually escaped to Windsor, depicted here by the apartment blocks and casinos of the city’s modern skyline, just as the Blackburns are portrayed by two friends of Moore’s, closing the gap between the two time periods. The Underground codename for Windsor was “Canaan”; Detroit was called “Midnight.” Between them runs the river, a fluid frontier that appears in the backgrounds of a number of the pictures in this gallery, most dramatically in Troubled Waters: Henry Bibb And/Or Mary Ann Shadd. In the painting, the titular abolitionists bob in precariously small boats on the rough waters of the strait, reaching out to one another yet separated by their differing views on tactics (Bibb welcomed white allies, Shadd felt Black people could free themselves without them). In the foreground between the two boats, her back turned to the viewer to reveal her elaborately embroidered robe, a Black woman looks on as if contemplating the dispute, inviting us to do the same. Moore’s handling of water is excellent, especially the range of color he brings to the river, from industrial grays to translucent greens to deep blues. Also in this gallery are three large-scale portraits of anti-slavery figures with Michigan connections: William Lambert, George deBaptiste, and Sojourner Truth. Each is drawn in silverpoint, evoking daguerreotype photographs, and each is embellished by gold threads — provided by Moore’s mother, the artist and educator Sabrina Nelson — that chart routes along the Underground Railroad, adding a thoughtful graphic element to the portraits.

Mario Moore, Troubled Waters: Henry Bibb and/or Mary Ann Shadd, 2022, oil on canvas

Detroit was founded 320-plus years ago as an outpost for the French fur trade, an industry that relied on the labor of enslaved Black people in order to thrive. The third gallery in the Flint exhibition depicts Moore’s friends and family dressed in fur, flipping the historical dynamic as well as celebrating a fashion statement that Moore has noticed is particular to Detroiters. His painting Expansion is a full-length portrait of local entrepreneur Cyndia Robinson, who stands framed in a doorway wearing black lingerie, as well as a fur jacket that once belonged to her mother. On either side of Robinson are historical paintings, like those still found in some libraries or schools, depicting the fur trade: white men with muskets receive furs delivered by Native American trappers, while an enslaved Black man shoulders a bundle of hides. On the opposite wall is the closest thing to an abstract image in the show, Moore’s striking bird’s-eye view portrait of Sheefy McFly, in which the rapper/artist/DJ, clad in an all-pink outfit and a brown fur coat, reclines in a small wooden boat. The vessel’s arrowhead shape, like a “you are here” pointer on a map, is sharpened by the field of dark cobalt water on which it floats. (If this painting hasn’t been used as an album cover yet, it’s something to consider!)

Mario Moore, Troubled Waters: Henry Bibb and/or Mary Ann Shadd, 2022, oil on canvas

Bookending the exhibition is a stunning group portrait of five women: Moore’s wife Danielle Eliska, his sister, mother, and his two grandmothers, arranged in a pyramid-shaped composition with Eliska’s profile at its peak. The women exude supreme strength and confidence. Arrayed around a table in a snowy forest environment, they look anything but cold; in fact they glow with a warm, golden light in defiance of their icy surroundings. Moore’s love and admiration for these women he calls Pillars of the Frontier in the paintings title is palpable. His mother Sabrina Nelson holds a pencil poised over her open sketchbook, recalling the poised drumsticks held by the child at the show’s beginning. She locks eyes with the viewer — really with her son, the painter painting her, as if to create his portrait in return, keeping the dialogue between generations alive.

Mario Moore, Pillars International Detroit Playa: Sheefy, 2022, oil on linen Mario Moore, Pillars of the Frontier, 2024, oil on linen

The Flint Institute of Arts Presents Revolutionary Times by Detroit Artist Mario Moore on view until March 3, 2024.

Nostalgia & Outrage @ OUAG

Mary Fortuna and Adrian Hatfield @ Oakland University Art Gallery January 19-March 24, 2024

Nostalgia and Outrage, Installation, Oakland University Art Gallery. All photos by K.A. Letts.

Nostalgia and Outrage, an exhibition of artworks by fiber artist Mary Fortuna and multi-media collagist Adrian Hatfield, opened on January 19 at Oakland University Art Gallery in spite of Michigan’s typically lousy winter weather.  The paintings, textiles, toys, mobiles and dioramas on display address death, mass extinction, disaster (both personal and societal) and general apocalypse–doomsday themes that might seem gratuitously gloomy for this dark time of year. But instead, this lively–even cheerful—exhibition reminded me of the well-known aphorism: “The situation is hopeless but not serious.”

Mary Fortuna, Protection Flag, 2023, linen, cotton applique, embroidery.

Fortuna and Hatfield approach their art in ways that simultaneously diverge from and resonate with each other.  In the slim but informative catalog that accompanies the show, gallery director Dick Goody teases out insights from the artists on their motives and methods. “We both have a sense of humor and we’re both anxious or pissed off about the state of the world. We share environmental concerns,” says Fortuna. Hatfield adds that the two also use storytelling or narrative as a hook and often reference archetypal characters in their work. In the interview, Hatfield and Fortuna trace recurring themes in their art to childhood experiences. Echoes of each artist’s early obsessions linger in their current art practice and lend an air of playfulness to many of the artworks.

Adrian Hatfield, Teamwork makes the dream work, 2022, oil and acrylic on canvas.

Mary Fortuna

Fortuna remembers that as a child she expected to become “a nun, a cook or a nurse.” She grew up mostly in the company of her older sister Mady and describes this pivotal relationship as one based on creativity and invention. “We spent hours together drawing, making up stories, sharing books, dressing up, making dolls and puppets and paper dolls and comic books. We wrote little plays and made up songs,” she says.

Mary Fortuna, Button Skull Mask, 2021, wool felt, buttons, embroidery.

Fortuna’s medium of choice is fiber and she is adept at manipulating the formal properties of fabric, beads and thread to produce a variety of appealing objects and images. She uses the submerged cultural references of stitched objects—toys, flags, masks–with the fluid ease of long practice to reveal hidden meaning. The emotional resonances of her carefully embroidered vintage linens, the creepy effect of her masks and hoods and the humor  of her idiosyncratic insect dolls and baby devils show her to be not only a master of her medium,  but also a virtuosic and subtle storyteller.

Mary Fortuna, Let it Be, 2018, embroidery on vintage textile.

These talents come together with particular force in Fortuna’s heartfelt grouping of embroidered vintage textiles that memorialize her recently deceased brother and sister. The artist remembers her brother Jon as a protector, an inventive playmate and a companion on innumerable camping trips; she has embroidered the two of them on vintage cloth with a tent in the background, together in memory.  Fortuna commemorates the special bond she shared with her sister Mady in an embroidered image of the two children from a photo taken on the occasion of Fortuna’s First Communion. As is typical of much of her work, he identifies these images as ex votos, calling them “offerings to the universe on Mady’s behalf.”

Mary Fortuna, Nageena, 2015, leather, fur, horsehair

The varied objects produced by Fortuna for this show are so uniformly well-conceived and executed that it would be hard to pick a favorite. But I was particularly drawn to Nageena,  a soft sculpture that combines the charm of a doll that a child might play with and the subversive menace of a voodoo fetish. Typical of much of her work, Nageena combines cozy approachability with a slightly sinister subtext.

Adrian Hatfield

Hatfield, whose parents were scientists, remembers his rather specific childhood ambition to become “a vertebrate paleontologist or marine biologist.” Many of the images he incorporates into his paintings and installations come from early memories of comic book characters juxtaposed with figures from historical art sources.

Adrian Hatfield, Manifest Destiny: there ain’t no party like a Donner Party, 2020, oil and acrylic on canvas.

The scenes he creates are more assembled than painted, with elements of art history, vintage illustration and pop culture reproduced using photographic silkscreens and overlaid on large format canvases. Nineteenth-century Romantic landscape painting is referenced in the compositions by skillfully painted clouds, trees, and mountains rendered in acid pastels not found in nature.

Adrian Hatfield, Plotting happiness and flinging empty bottles, 2023, oil and acrylic on canvas.

Hatfield seems to have a particular fondness for the absurdist icon Alfred E. Neuman of Mad Magazine fame, whose face appears in several of the paintings in the exhibition. (Actually an earlier iteration of the famous nitwit which more closely resembles Hatfield’s version appeared in an 1895 ad for Atmore’s Mince Meat and Genuine English Plum Pudding. But I digress.) His gap-tooth visage sets a tone of absurdist catastrophe, undercutting and perhaps trivializing the ostensibly tragic themes. Disasters of all kinds and descriptions figure in the pictures, from the Donner Party to snakes attacking a man stuck in a barrel. The oversized face looking out idiotically from behind the picture plane seems to imply that the human race deserves its sad and silly fate.

Adrian Hatfield, King of the Impossible, 2011, mixed media

On a more serious note, Hatfield references the Swamp Thing in his painting Plotting happiness and flinging empty bottles. The Swamp Thing was a comic book character that the artist remembers from his childhood, a scientist devastated by exposure to toxins that transform him into a creature composed of plant matter, who then becomes a tragic and heroic protector of the environment. Hatfield’s characteristic pastel underpainting is overlaid with black photographic depictions of a sinking ship and tire-filled toxic sludge from which the Swamp Thing emerges. The speech balloon in the upper center of the canvas remains empty. Could it be that in the face of disaster threatening human existence, we have no coherent response?

In a change of pace, Hatfield has created several dioramas in addition to his paintings. A notable example is his wall-mounted King of the Impossible which features a tiny half-figure—who might be the Invisible Man–on an elaborate decorative plinth overlooking a fantasy landscape, complete with a stegosaurus at one end of the scene and a tiny lambkin by a pool at the other. The rocky scene seems to float in mid-air, and the relationship of the figure above to the goings-on below is unclear, at least to me. Still, the whole thing is pretty entertaining.

The comic satire of Hatfield’s paintings moves us to both laughter and chagrin, while the emotional complexities of Mary Fortuna’s fabric creations gently and humorously remind us of our human connection. It’s clear that both artists have thought long and hard about where the human race has been and where it’s headed, and have come away with some serious reservations. But they also intuitively understand that it’s not the job of the artist to despair.  Nostalgia and Outrage, instead, offers us hope against all odds, a feast for the eyes and food for thought in this wintry season.

Mary Fortuna and Adrian Hatfield @ Oakland University Art Gallery until March 24, 2024.

Beyond Topography Exhibition @ Janice Charach Gallery

Beyond Topography is a 23-person group show of Michigan Artists at the Janice Charach Gallery

An installation shot of Beyond Topography, a group show up through Feb. 21 at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield. (Photos courtesy of Clinton Snider.)

 Painter, curator, and teacher Clinton Snider always found early depictions of the American wilderness transporting. Think of the first large room in the American wing on the second floor of the Detroit Institute of Arts, with its canvases crammed with mountains, gorges and other examples of glorious, untamed landscape. Snider acknowledges the current of Manifest Destiny running through many of these paintings, but notes that “at the same time, they’re deeply beautiful and spiritual.”

So when Natalie Balazovich, the director of West Bloomfield’s Janice Charach Gallery asked Snider to curate a show on landscape, he found himself thinking of those classic works, but at the same time, in his words, “reacting against them.” He knew he didn’t want a show of pretty views. His intent was always to bend the landscape paradigm, but still arrive at something with spirituality and force. The result is Beyond Topography, a 23-person group show of Michigan artists up through Feb. 21 that takes a broad view indeed of what constitutes a landscape.

Jim Nawara, Studio View – Powerline Shadows, Oil on panel, 34 x 44 inches.

Studio View – Powerline Shadows by Jim Nawara straddles both the traditional landscape and the unconventional approach Snider is reaching for. The use of color in this lush portrait is exhilarating. It gives the composition three-dimensionality but also amounts to a stirring essay in greens and greenish-blues.

Cutting through this Arcadia, however, are two parallel black lines a little like skid marks – the shadows of overhead power lines that stripe horizontally across tree trunks and bush alike. It’s a human intervention – a desecration, if you will — that on the one hand coarsens this image of perfect beauty, but on the other elevates Studio View above and beyond the merely pretty, landing it someplace immensely satisfying.

Mel Rosas, The Excursion, Oil on canvas, 48 x 72 inches.

In The Excursion, a peeling wall with a Spanish colonial look dominates the foreground, framing an arch that opens onto a sub-tropical landscape of fields and mountains that beckon like postcards from Eden. On our side of this magic threshold, all is every day and grimy. On the other side lies paradise, and the viewer can hardly resist its gravitational pull.  Rosas, who taught for years at Wayne State and says he grew up speaking English but dreaming in Spanish, has repeatedly traveled to Panama, where his father was born. The artist’s work nearly always involves these sorts of gritty, Latin urban vignettes, often pierced by a wormhole into a bucolic past that’s mostly lost or despoiled worldwide. These are visions both spiritual and deeply uncertain. Even within the imaginary logic of the specific painting, there’s no guarantee that the idyll beyond the door frame is accessible or even exists.

Andrew Krieger, Up North, Edenville, MI, Ceramic, 17 by 16.5 by 15 inches.

Andrew Krieger crushes the world of the diorama. He is the undisputed master of this three-dimensional genre so few artists risk, and one which Krieger inhabits with a pleasing mix of artistic brio and elementary-school goofiness. The artist, who’ s shown in Detroit at Popps Packing and the David Klein Gallery, as well as in Saginaw at the Marshall Fredericks Museum, creates visual narratives that usually involve a 3-D figure in front of a curved background screen. As you move around in front these constructions, changing depth and perspective conjure up an oddball sense of reality. Momentarily, the wooden or ceramic figure at the center of the story springs to life.

In the case of Up North, Edenville, MI, a hale fellow in a down parka and blocky sunglasses waves at the viewer. He’s framed by a shallow ceramic bowl painted in black and white with a surprisingly convincing wintry, wooded scene behind him. The ceramic sculpture of the waving gent in front, a blistering white that pops against its background, is at once funny and dead-on accurate in capturing the 21st-century, up-north Michigan male of the species.

Taurus Burns, To Be Black and White in a Colorblind World, Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches.

The concept of landscape gets pushed to its tight-focus extreme with this black-and-white portrait of a front porch and a man, seemingly grieving, who’s slumped over holding a gun in one hand. Behind him is one of those barred metal doors to prevent break-ins, the sort you see all over iffy neighborhoods. Burns, who’s half Black and half White, has recently produced a series of works examining the nature of this dual identity. With To Be Black and White in a Colorblind World, we’re given a portrait of regret or despair framed by the white metal railings on each side of the porch steps. Burns, who earlier this year had a solo show at Ferndale’s M Contemporary, locates at the exact center of the composition a man hunched over on porch steps, his forehead resting on forearms crossed over his knees. Organizationally, this symmetrically composed portrait resolves itself in a series of superimposed triangles comprised of legs, arms and shoulders — an almost Renaissance conceit in its painterly geometry.

Bakpak Durden, Hanging On, Framed archival print from original negative, 27 x 40 inches.

Who knew a photo of a workman’s winter jacket – the sort Carhartt sells – could be so luminous and affecting? Draped in early morning or late afternoon sunlight on a plywood panel in some indoor construction site, the jacket in Hanging On – a tannish sort of orange – positively glows, while the contrast with the rough plywood and half-erected wall nearby makes the humble overcoat read almost like an object of great beauty.

Durden, who also has the exquisite Renaissance-style painting Mimicry in the show, is something of an artistic polymath. In addition to painting and photography, the artist – with recent solo shows at Cranbrook, the University of Michigan, and Playground Detroit – has turned a remarkable number of walls across Detroit into striking murals. Indeed, it’s hard to spend much time in the city without seeing one.

Denise Fanning, A Soft Place to Land (Rest in Peace), Cotton, beeswax, grass, moss, found remnants of nature, sea grass cordage, 6 x 9 feet.

A Soft Spot to Land (Rest in Peace) by Denise Fanning, who taught for years at the College for Creative Studies but now lives in Mt. Pleasant, creates a peculiar and beautiful “landscape” out of 55 identical off-white square pillows and 55 “nests” or creations she’s delicately placed on each one. While the artist does a lot of studio work and has exhibited in galleries from Detroit to Berlin, lately she’s spent an increasing amount of time out of doors arranging and creating in nature itself – crafting ephemeral installations designed, like much of Scott Hocking’s work, to weather and disintegrate over time.

This pillow field is arranged in a 5 by 11′ grid. If you stand at the narrow end and look up the construction, it does a remarkable job of creating a sense of distance and topography, however orderly and symmetrical. The compositions that have alighted on the pillows are extraordinary miniatures in themselves – tiny essays in natural grace.

Other artists in the show include Mitchell Cope, John Charnota, Joel Dugan, Adrian Hatfield, Scott Hocking, Faina Lerman, Alex Martin, Anthony Maughan, Michael McGillis, Ivan Montoya, Lucille Nawara, Rebecca Reeder, Tylonn Sawyer, Clinton Snider, Millee Tibbs, Graem Whyte and Alison Wong.

 The group show Beyond Topography will be up through Feb. 21 at the Janice Charach Gallery.


Marianna Olague and Patrick Ethen @ David Klein Gallery

An installation shot of Marianna Olague: People You Know at Detroit’s David Klein Gallery, up through Dec. 23. Running simultaneously: Patrick Ethen: Selected Light Works. (All photos courtesy David Klein Gallery)

Need to get out of the cold? Two shows blazing with light and color in downtown Detroit at the David Klein Gallery should help warm you up and capture your attention at the same time – Marianna Olague: People You Know, and the electronic Patrick Ethen: Selected Light Works. Both shows are up through Dec. 23.

People You Know is the latest in a series of deeply convincing portraits that Olague has produced of family and friends in her hometown of El Paso, Texas, where she’s based. Olague’s gifted on many levels – her technical mastery is striking – but perhaps rarest of all is her enviable skill at finding and replicating the astonishing beauty of the mundane.

Marianna Olague, A Home of Our Own, Oil on canvas, 60 x 58 inches, 2023.

Olague, who got her  MFA in painting at Cranbrook in 2019 and a drawing degree at the University of Texas at El Paso, where she now teaches, creates transfixing portraits rendered in a palette she calls “over-saturated and improbable.” Or call it an intensified version of the way life looks under the pounding Rio Grande sun. In A Home of Our Own, Olague plays with a range of orange hues, from the saffron on the concrete blocks to the tanned skin of the young man whom Olague catches in an unguarded moment, gaze locked on his beloved. There’s a luminosity to A Home of Our Own, visible not just in the impossibly warm orange of that concrete wall, but in the trust and mutual dependence that radiate off the handsome young couple.

While the U.S.-Mexican border itself isn’t represented in these compositions, “it remains,” as Olague writes in her artist’s statement, “an omnipotent presence both on and off the canvas.” Case in point: she notes that the young couple in A Home of Our Own commute back and forth daily between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico.

Marianna Olague, H.O.R.S.E., Oil on canvas, 64 x 48 inches, 2023

Most of the eight portraits here are static, the subject usually seated, generally looking at the viewer. Only H.O.R.S.E. packs kinetic energy, and in this case, the shadow’s the thing – floating beneath the soaring athlete caught mid-leap on the basketball court. Not only does the shadow itself, almost comic in its simplicity, suggest movement, but it gives us a different perspective on the young person in motion – almost like a camera shot from another angle – that makes the whole composition suddenly feel rather 3-D.

Strong colors organize H.O.R.S.E. as much as with A Home of Our Own, but the centerpiece of the portrait – the youngster, seen from behind, jumping and aiming for the hoop – is rendered in muted tones against dull concrete. Balancing those are the piercing green of a tree arched over a storefront, the powerful blue sky, and the orange glow of both basketball and the player’s high-top sneakers.

By contrast, the show-stopper “Onyx” is a dazzling color study in deep blues and yellows starring a sweet-looking black dog seated in front of a kitchen table and chairs, all of which Olague’s simplified until outlines dissolve into blocks of strong color. Shadows in a range of electric blues dominate the frame, scissored here and there by linear strips of sharp sunlight crossing the floor. As color studies go, it’s a knock-out, and does pretty well in the why-we-like-dogs department, too.

Marianna Olague, Onyx, Oil on canvas, 56 x 40 inches, 2023

“Quickening” is a tribute to the artist’s sister, who was eight months pregnant at the time of the painting. Seated on a deck outdoors in late sunset light, Olague’s framed the young woman’s forthright, determined face with a long, pink robe beneath and mottled tones of blue and green forest above and beyond. There’s an engaging verticality at work – in the upright, yellow slats of the railing behind the young woman, and the shadows from their mates on the opposite side that land, distorted into curves, on the woman’s waist and hips.

Marianna Olague, Quickening, 72 x 50 inches, 2023.

In the gallery at the back of David Klein, don’t miss the small solo show – Patrick Ethen: Selected Light Works. Ethen’s light designs are a treat, and have been featured in Detroit’s iconic Movement Electronic Music Festival, Murals at the Market, as well as Detroit Design Week. The works on display here are all small light objects that could go on a household wall, but some of his outdoor installations can be large and immersive. Exploiting both digital and analog technology, Ethen, who’s an architecturally trained artist and designer, gives his practice a New Age spin by calling it a sort of “pseudo-spiritual techno-futurism.” His process of assembling his constructions has been likened to weaving, albeit with circuitry and electronics.

Patrick Ethen, Valence Shell, Sculptural light installation, 19 ¾  x 19 ¾  x  4 ¾ inches, 2023.

 Marianna Olague: People You Know and Patrick Ethen: Selected Light Works will both be up at Detroit’s David Klein Gallery through December 2o23.


After Cubism: Modern Art in Paris @ DIA

After Cubism: Modern Art in Paris,  1918 – 1948, at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Cubism wasn’t born of a manifesto (Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque tended to leave the blah-blah to others), but Cubism’s outsized influence inspired the spilling of much ink as artists and critics sought to explain it, support it, modify it, or, inevitably and however prematurely, proclaim its demise. In the week of the armistice that ended World War One, artists Amédée Ozenfant and Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (aka, Le Corbusier) penned Aprés le Cubisme, announcing the supplanting of the old style with what they dubbed Purism, an attempt at bringing order to the fractured post-war world, and to the jumble of the art world in particular — a world whose undisputed capital was Paris.

Café, Paris, 1929, Archibald John Motley, Jr., American, 1891 – 1981, Oil on canvas. Museum Purchase, Ernest & Rosemarie Kanzler Foundation Fund. © Estate of Archibald John Motley Jr. All reserved rights 2023/Bridgeman Images.

After Cubism: Modern Art in Paris 1918-1948, the Detroit Institute of Art’s current exhibit of graphic works from its collection borrows its name from the Purist manifesto but sets its scene with the sole painting in the show, a recent-ish acquisition by Archibald Motley from 1929, Café, Paris, which depicts an archetypical scene of a Montmartre watering hole populated by various bohemian types. A Black American painter, Motley was one ingredient in the multicultural stew of artists that populated the City of Light between the wars. He’s joined in this exhibit by, among others, Mexico’s Diego Rivera, seen here breaking away from his own version of Cubism with still lifes that suggest the more naturalistic style he’d eventually bring to the DIA’s Detroit Industry murals; Lithuanian-born Jacques Lipchitz, one of a few artists here who kept some version of Cubism alive despite reports of its passing; and the Jewish Russian Marc Chagall, whose etching L’Apparition, a scene of a winged muse descending upon a self-portrait of the painter at his easel, is a secular Annunciation. Also here is Tsugouharu Foujita, whose delicate line drawing Head of a Girl is both modern and reflective of the graphic traditions of his native Japan. The drawing pairs nicely with the small watercolor portrait of A Young Girl by Marie Laurencin, the only painter among the women artists in the show; the others are all photographers: Berenice Abbott, Gertrude Fehr, Dora Maar, and the German-American Ilsa Bing, “queen of the Leica,” who contributes several intriguing compositions. The genderfluid Claude Cahun is represented by a riveting self-portrait as well.

Self Portrait with Leica, 1931, printed 1992, Ilse Bing, American, 1899 – 1998. Gelatin silver print. Gift of the Estate of Ilse Bing Wolff. © Estate of Isle Bing


Self-Portrait, ca. 1927  Claude Cahun, French, 1894-1954. Gelatin silver print. Founders Society Purchase, Albert and Peggy de Salle Charitable Trust and the DeRoy Photographic Acquisition Endowment Fund.

Dominating one wall of the exhibition’s first room is a color mock-up for a mural by Raoul Dufy, a project called The Spirit of Electricity, created for display at the 1937 World’s Fair (and now in the Museum of the City of Paris). Gifted to the DIA in 1999, the large color sketch has some resonance with the Rivera Industry murals; turbines, trains, and other modern marvels are depicted, though Dufy is apparently less interested in the technology of electricity, which he associates with the power of Zeus and other mythological figures, and more fascinated by the “Great Men” of science and history, who throng the bottom of the image. The panels are brightly colored and loosely painted. Compare this with the more muscular, more populist, and tech-savvy vision of Rivera — which may be just to say that artists’ approaches to modernity in these years were various and often contrasting.

The Spirit of Electricity, 1936/1937  Raoul Dufy, French, 1877-1953, Watercolor, gouache on paper mounted on canvas. Gift of Sara Lee Corporation. © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Inevitably, perhaps, Picasso becomes at least one of the exhibit’s through lines, his position as the guy to beat implied by the title, his status as a successful giant of the art scene suggested in a photo by Man Ray in which he regards the viewer coolly from behind a respectable suit and cardigan. His decidedly non-cubist pencil drawing from 1920 of a nude bather sitting on a beach, the horizon balanced on her head, is one of the first works in the show; his late-1945 print Head of a Young Boy is one of the show’s final images. Picasso was one of the first to explore what lay beyond Cubism, and he’s shown here returning to classical sources for inspiration, as in his suite of illustrations for Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu— The Unknown Masterpiece, a short story by Balzac about an obsessed artist whose ten-year attempt to paint a portrait of his beloved results only in an undecipherable mess. Picasso’s most direct illustration of the story, showing the placid model knitting on the left, the artist absorbed in his work on the right, and the canvas in between choked by a tangle of arcs and lines, could pass for a wry New Yorker cartoon on the state of modern art. (Picasso related so strongly to the story that he moved his studio to the same Paris neighborhood in which Balzac’s fictional painter worked.) Picasso’s line work throughout the illustrations is in fact, clear and simple, evoking classical sculpture, except when he strategically applies intense hatching to emphasize a particular section of the image.

The complete set of Balzac illustrations is displayed in one of the gallery’s two octagonal side rooms. The other contains another set of illustrations, these by Louis Marcoussis, one of Cubism’s hold-outs, for a text by Gérard de Nerval, the Romantic writer whose dreamy work presaged the concerns of Surrealism. The Surrealists of course took the opposite tack from the return-to-order crowd, deciding after WW1 that irrationality and madness were more relevant to the current age than reason. The movement is represented here by the experimental photographs of Man Ray and others, as well as copies of the lavishly produced journals Minotaure and Verve; the final edition of the latter, the “war issue,” features a defiant Gallic rooster by Joan Miró, the last image to appear in the journal before it closed due to the encroachment of the Nazis.

Elsewhere in the exhibit is Picasso’s The Dream and Lie of Franco, a savage lampooning of the Spanish dictator whom Picasso depicts as some kind of anthropomorphic tumor, running roughshod through a series of grotesque misadventures. It’s one of his best known graphic works, but when you’re mounting a concise survey of thirty of the most storied years in art history, it’s not a bad idea to “play the hits” here and there. Matisse, for example, is well represented by his popular pochoir portfolio called Jazz, derived from the colorful paper cut-outs he created late in his life. Bedridden by illness while his country was being overrun by fascists, Matisse summoned happier memories of the circus and a trip to Tahiti to use as subject matter, but it was his publisher that gave the collection its musical title, to suggest the spirit of improvisation behind the work. The images are likely familiar to many art fans thanks to decades of posters and other inexpensive reproductions, but they definitely merit seeing in their original vibrant colors, and their lyrical compositions deserve a closer look.

Le Cirque, 1943  Henri Matisse, French, 1869-1954  Tériade, Greek, 1897 – 1983  Edmond Vairel, French Pochoir printed in color ink on wove paper. Gift of John S. Newberry. © 2023 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Other “greatest hits” on display here that will delight devotees of the between-the-wars art scene include Cartier-Bresson’s clever photo Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, of a man leaping gingerly over a reflective layer of water on the pavement and Brassaï’s portrait of Bijou, a fading, bejeweled Belle Epoch matron ensconced in some bar in Montmartre who seems to be incapable of finding a path into the future.

“Bijou” of Montmartre, ca. 1932  Brassaï, French, 1899-1984  Gelatin silver print. Founders Society Purchase, Charles L. Freer Fund, Elliott T. Slocum Fund and Hal H. Smith Fund. © ESTATE BRASSAÏ – RMN-Grand Palais.

The path forward for many of the artists in this exhibit included nerve-wracking waits for exit visas, cross-Atlantic escapes, struggles alongside Resistance forces, and interment in concentration camps (or, as with Le Corbusier, collaboration with fascists). While it’s not quite the final image in the exhibit (that’s Bing’s photo of the Eiffel Tower, still standing through everything), maybe Picasso’s doe-eyed child in Head of a Boy, printed only a few months after the end of the war, is a good note to go out on — a fresh-faced hope for a new start after the horrors of the Second World War, from an artist whose post-war work would be so preoccupied by the image of the dove.

After Cubism: Modern Art in Paris,  1918 – 1948, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 2023

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