Elise Ansel & Al Held @ David Klein Galleries

Installation image, courtesy of the David Klein Gallery, photo by Samantha Schefman

Both exhibitions delayed their openings this spring because of the Covid 19 pandemic, but now, each are on display separately at the two galleries. The new exhibition of oil paintings at David Klein downtown, Palimpsest, is a collection of eleven works of art by Elise Ansel.

You ask yourself where do artists get their ideas for a painting?  Is it from observation, photographs, events, setting up objects, imagination or from the depths of the collective unconscious?  The answer is usually all or a mix of the above. Artists bring their own experience to the creation.

Elise Ansel finds motivation in historical works of art from which she reconstructs a realistic representational work of art using abstract expressionism as her vehicle. The work in this exhibition bases its reconstructions on Old Master paintings from the Detroit Institute of Arts collection.

She says in her statement, “I create by translating Old Master paintings into a contemporary pictorial language. I mine art historical imagery for color, structure, and meaning. Thus, my paintings use the Old Masters as points of departure. They move into Abstraction by transforming the representational content, which is obfuscated and ultimately eclipsed by my focus on color, gesture, and the materiality of paint. I interrupt linear, rational readings so that the real subject becomes the substance and surface of oil paint, the range of its applications, and the ways in which it can be used to celebrate life. My work deconstructs both pictorial language and authorial agency to excavate and liberate meanings buried beneath the surface of the works from which my paintings spring.”

Elise Ansel, Hybrid 1, Oil on canvas, 48 x 36, all images courtesy of the David Klein Gallery

 

Rachel Ruysch, Flowers in a Glass Vase, Oil on canvas, 33 X 26, 1704, Image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

The work Hybrid 1 draws on the Ruysch still life and attracts the viewer in a multitude of ways. Set against a black background, the textured strokes, color palette,  Miro-like delicacy and  expressive linework renders a kind of feminine harmony. Hybrid 1 plays off Rachel Ruysch’s Flowers in a Glass Vase, 1704,  and leaves the experience wide open to interpretation.  The most profound concept here is that we all bring our own personal experience to a work of art. So when I view the Ruysch still life, where do I go?  Handsomely composed and decorated, like the photograph of an apple, it leaves little room for interpretation.

Studio, Elise Ansel

Elise Ansel, Judith lll, Oil on Canvas, 72 x 56″,

The same concept applies to the reconstruction of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith 1. Ansel goes to great lengths in the interpretation by writer Mary Garrard with references to her book, Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Post Modernism, in which she writes, “The cultural habit of seeing woman as an object-to-be-looked-at, the site of scopophilic pleasure” is denied and replaced with a focus on the artist hand.  What exactly is being killed in Gentileschi’s painting: toxic scopophilia and the myth of white supremacy.” Forgive me, but there aren’t too many psychiatrists who use Sigmund Freud in their practice these days.

Ansel’s paintings are vibrant and compelling in their execution.  Using an extra-large brush stroke of vibrant colored oil paint against these mostly dark backgrounds without reference to Caravaggio or Rembrandt would work just fine.  Some paintings retain images from Old Master works she has dissected, while others are pure abstractions whose relationship to any source is invisible. The visit to the museum feels more like contrivance and is not needed for this viewer as the paintings stand on their own and express their own individual form of abstract expressionism.

Elise Ansel, a native of New York City, is a graduate of Brown University and earned an MFA from Southern Methodist University. Her work has been exhibited widely in the United States and abroad and is in multiple private and public collections, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Krakow, Poland, Brown University, Providence, RI, and Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME. Elise Ansel lives and works in Portland, Maine.

 

Al Held @ David Klein – Birmingham

Al Held, Installation, All images courtesy of David Klein Gallery

For this exhibition, David Klein draws on the Al Held Foundation for a modest show of Al Held watercolors from the early 1990s, which were painted mostly near Rome, Italy, at his studio on Janiculum Hill sometime after his residency at the American Academy (1981-82) where he spent time creating his watercolors and studying what some would call the Renaissance vision.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928, Al Held grew up in the East Bronx, the son of a poor Polish family thrown into the stresses of welfare during the depression. He showed little interest in art until leaving the Navy in 1947, where he enrolled in the Art Students League of New York. In 1951, with support from the G.I. Bill, Held traveled to Paris for two years to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In Paris, he decided that realism was not for him and moved into Abstraction and worked alongside the early 50s abstract expressionists. The single major retrospective of his career remains the survey curated by Marcia Tucker at the Whitney in 1974, which traced his development from his heavily pigmented, gestural Expressionist paintings in the 1950s, to his pioneering of flatly rendered geometric Abstraction in the context of post-painterly Abstraction in the 1960s, to his veering off on his own path in his reintroduction of illusionism into abstract painting in the early 1970s.

Installation image

Al Held, Tesoro 14, Watercolor on Paper mounted on board, 31 x 40″, 1993

The watercolors are dominated with geometric shapes, often either suspended in space or moving backward in perspective.  The use of primary color played against secondary color creates a convergence of color and shape.  Some of these paintings have horizontal windows, reminding me at times of Diego Rivera without the use of the figure.  These futuristic landscapes defined by complexly organized architectural scaffolds are not grounded nor do they pay attention to an outside light source; instead, they darken the interior of a cube or box. Inspired by Renaissance conceptions of the universe, one could see classical compositions that are topless or bottomless, juxtaposed to Mondrian, firmly planted on earth. These works on paper are stretched on stretcher frames and float in their picture frames, much like an oil painting.

Al Held (1928-2005) was one of the last and best of the big-impact abstract painters to emerge from the postwar era.  My personal favorite in this exhibition is Tesoro 14  that moves horizontally, right to the left, in a circular motion like a giant cog in a wooden windlass that harnesses and transfers energy.  The use of color complements is dominated by primaries and a centered composition that generates its densely packed strength.

In 1962, Held was appointed Associate Professor of Art at Yale University in 1962. He was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966. He has also been included in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago, to name a few. His work is in the public collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

At David Klein Galleries, both exhibitions are on display through August 22, 2020.

Dorota & Steve Coy, and Adrian Wong @ Wasserman Projects

Wasserman Projects has extended its two spring exhibitions, Dorota & Steve Coy: The Five Realms and Adrian Wong: Tiles, Grates, Poles, Rocks, Plants, and Veggies, into summer 2020. Both exhibitions were slated to open to the public on March 13, but were closed just days prior in accordance with health and safety guidelines. The Five Realms features five distinct immersive installations that continue Detroit-based artists Dorota & Steve Coy’s examinations of the relationships between humanity, the natural world, and commodity, past, present, and into the future. Tiles, Grates, Poles, Rocks, Plants, and Veggies includes works from across 10 years of Chicago-based artist Adrian Wong’s practice, which together capture his engagement with the underlying conceptual ideas and historic contexts found within simple, everyday design elements. These exhibitions communicate with each other through an exploration of the commodification of resources that sustain life itself and the ones that make it worth existing at all.

Adrian Wong, Rock Stack I with Ferns, Foliage, 2020 Fiberglass, paint, artificial plants 66.5” x 63” x 40” All images are courtesy of Wasserman Projects.

This show’s narrative alternates between the two exhibitions beginning with Adrian Wong’s opening remarks on structure, pattern and a desire for beauty that attempts, through aggressive pursuit of the material, to quell personal insecurity but winds up unnatural and often flawed. In 1935, Mr. Aw, the inventor of the Tiger Balm Ointment, built a private residence adjoining a garden for public enjoyment. Noted for its spectacular assortment of Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist characters on display in a picturesque setting and a ferocious tiger seated on the brink of a cliff, [Tiger Balm Garden] captured the imagination of the older generation of Hong Kongese. Rock Stack I with Ferns, Foliage, 2020 is a riff on Mr. Aw’s artificially created garden using amplified color-charged ‘rocks’ and plastic foliage generating an unsettling vibe.

Adrian Wong, Untitled (Grates VIII/IX: Derrick Industrial Building / Shun Tak Ferry Terminal), 2014 MDF, latex, enamel, stainless steel, glass, neon 46” x 46” x 7”

Untitled (Grates VIII/IX: Derrick Industrial Building / Shun Tak Ferry Terminal) references both a demarcated public space and the Buddhist symbol of the eight spoked wheel, a symbol of both compartmentalized physical and psychological space. His grates explore seen and unseen social and cultural boundaries. Its geometry is a perfect visual transition to Dorota and Steve Coy’s adjacent mathematical sketches.

Dorota & Steve Coy, Metatron 2, 2020 Ink on Paper 16.75” x 17” (framed: 18.75” x 19”)

Dorota & Steve Coy, Spirit of the Forest, 2020 Cast aluminum, automotive enamel Unique edition of 7, 87” x 22” x 15”

From here the story moves into what looks like a mad scientist’s notes, ponderings, warnings. Dorota and Steve Coy have translated actual text into an imaginary language underscoring celestial maps, DNA strands and geometric equations that calculate and consider global catastrophes like warfare and disease through math and science. The Spirit of the Forest, a deer/human centaur-like statue, stands sentinel, beckons and tempts you to the next engagement. It’s antlers call to a lonely tree’s branches just inside a completely dark second realm. The mystery draws you around the corner to the shock and sadness of a single spotlight illuminating a golden melting rhinoceros. Looking deeply into its glass eye, its soul is present, pleading. The Black Forest’s menacing trees are right out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, you’re half expecting them to move, taunt or maybe throw their apples in an effort to push you through. Nothing to see here . . . A perfect metaphor for corporate greed’s indiscriminate destruction of natural resources for the benefit of their bottom line.

Dorota & Steve Coy, Nature of Commodity, 2020 Fiberglass, resin, gold enamel 38” x 125” x 92”

Dorota & Steve Coy, The Deity, 2020 Fiberglass, resin, paint, marble 120” x 132” x 132”

Carrying the weight of that realization, you are suddenly thrust out into a large open and airy space dominated by a ten foot Ganesh-blue female human/ram, The Deity, presented as a symbol of hope and recovery. Included in this Hall of the Gods are three panels of icon paintings reminiscent of Byzantine altar triptychs often employed for private devotional use. These images combine traditional Christian postures and palette, but replace the Madonna and Child with the recurring theme of horned animals meant to inspire strength in their power.

Dorota & Steve Coy,  Therianthropic Deity 2, 2020 Acrylic and gold leaf on panel 36.75” x 23.75” x 1.5”

Here the flow is interrupted allowing you to choose your own path. The artists’ choice is to enter a museum set 10,000 years from now featuring elements of debris and a particularly poignant sculpture, Lover of Wisdom, which is comprised of a classical bust wearing a respirator. Here you are faced with the consequences of our current treatment of our shared home, Earth. Living in an American goal-oriented society, is this what we’re shooting for?

Dorota & Steve Coy,  Lover of Wisdom, 2020 Cast concrete 21” x 18.5” x 11”

Heading to the rear of the gallery you enter the final chapter in this tale of humanity. The Hygienic Dress League project, a high-end boutique which offers items like cans of air, food and clean water communicating the scarcity of basic necessities to simply sustain life and their ominous commodification. For the discerning consumer, couture respirators glitter for their buyers. One More Sunny Day is either an image of what’s outside or an homage to what was outside, presented in that 3-paneled configuration where blue sky and fluffy clouds are the objects of our adoration.

Dorota & Steve Coy,  Provisions: AIR, 2020 Mixed Media 10” x 10” x 7.875” (AIR 4.875” x 4.125” x 4.125”)

The sales pitch is complete with Adrian Wong’s octagonal barber shop poles, ubiquitous across Asia, hawking everything from noodle shops, parking lots, one-woman brothels and meat vendors in a kinetic coded language. The motion along with an audible buzzing puts you on edge prompting a swift exit; after you score a cheap pair of flip flops to wear while hanging out in your man-made garden in search of peace.

Adrian Wong,  Hypnagogia (Espadrilles, Flip Flops), 2020 Corian, acrylic, fluorescent tubes, magnetic drive motors, vinyl 42.25” x 13.75” x 7”

Adrian Wong, Tiling Error IV (Dogwood & Danishes), 2019 MDF, enamel, sanded grout 36.5” x 60.5”

Dorota & Steve Coy, Homosapien Vessel (BB2) c.2000-2020, 2020 Stoneware, glaze 6” x 8.5” x 1.5”

Powerful gods and human flaws. Are we at the mercy of the gods, or can we recognize our flaws and correct them by contemplating through formal means and spaces? Are the spirits and the heavens closer than we think, hovering next to us at this very moment? Is there any difference between what we choose to worship as a channel to holy transformation such as the Buddhist 8-spoked wheel, or those we choose to discard like a random pattern stamped on the bottom of a garbage can? After all humanity has discovered and employed for the advancement of our society, does it amount to nothing but fossilized plastic bottles or can we leave a legacy of compassionate, intelligent and courageous change?

A big congratulations to Wasserman Projects for being selected by MEDC + PATRONICITY for the MI Local Biz Covid-19 Support Grant! The Michigan Economic Development Corp will match dollar for dollar all donations raised to support their artists and audiences. They just have nine days to meet their goal so donate now!

https://www.patronicity.com/project/wasserman_projects_exhibition__program_support#!/

 Wasserman Projects is located at 3434 Russell Street #502 in Detroit. Exhibition can now be viewed in person by appointment.

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/private-viewing-by-appointment-tickets-108599877156

Michael Luchs @ Simone DeSousa Gallery

Simone DeSousa opens Michael Luchs work On The Fly Online

Installation of Michael Luchs On the Fly, new paintings, All images Courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery

We live in interesting times. The corona virus pandemic not only dictates whether we go out to eat or meet friends, it also dictates when we will again be able to see artworks in person. On the Fly, a solo show of new paintings by Michael Luchs, will be at Simone DeSousa Gallery until July 30, but the gallery is temporarily closed. One hopes that the space will re-open before that date. Once the world is up and running again, this exhibit should be on everyone’s list of Detroit’s must-see art events. In the meantime, here’s a brief overview of the work, with images, and some thoughts about viewing–and reviewing–online shows during the current stay-at-home regime.

Michael Luchs, art shaman, painter of signs and symbols and prominent member of the Cass Corridor Movement from the 1960’s and 70’s, remains relevant to Detroit’s contemporary art scene into his 80’s, with a new collection of 19 archetypal paintings  that repeat, amplify and refine his preoccupation with mapping the relationship between the material and the spiritual.

Michael Luchs, Installation, Three Rabbits, 2019, acrylic , mixed paint on paper, each 26” x 40”

The artist’s famous reluctance to talk about his work appears to extend to attaching titles to his images. Every piece in the show is listed as Untitled, with bald sub-headings in parentheses referencing the totemic creatures in each of the paintings–squirrels and guns, rabbit, bird head and fish.  Dates are given (most of the work is recent, from 2019-2020) but the order in which the paintings were produced is not. He might be proclaiming the status of these artworks as platonic forms that exist in the now, outside of time, enduring and immutable.  Or maybe he just resents the prosaic art world requirement that words must be attached to images, interfering with their metaphysical aura.

The paintings in On the Fly are relatively moderate in size, yet manage to convey monumentality with their oversize renderings of the prey animals that populate Luchs’s symbolic world. The artist’s relationship with the ground that he paints on is fraught–he seems determined to aggressively interact with the paper, canvas or panel, stretching, folding, piercing, scratching. With his extensive visual vocabulary of marks and brush strokes, he builds up a tremulous matrix that expresses the essence of the singular totemic animal in each painting.

Michael Luchs, Untitled (Rabbit), 2019, acrylic mixed paints on paper, 26” x 40”

The rabbit appears most often in Luchs’s paintings–there are nine in On the Fly. Lyrical isn’t a term usually applied to his work, but the three sphinx -like acrylic rabbit paintings on paper, stacked one over the other on the gallery’s wall, qualify.  Joyful and exuberant, the red, aqua and yellow palette oscillates satisfyingly with the white of the paper. Bold black brush strokes and jittery marks punctuate and leaven the sweetness of the colors. This is intuitive painting at its best.

Michael Luchs, Untitled (Bird Head), 1999, acrylic, mixed paints, marker on panel, 43” x 29”

Five other rabbit paintings evoke a more ominous mood. Most are aggressively punctured, and their predominantly red color is less vibrant than anxious. Rays of energy or light or some other mysterious life force extend from some of the images, and in a couple of them, a faint intimation of the fish from another set of paintings seems to have slipped into the composition.  From anxiety we progress to full foreboding in the series of three confrontational birds’ heads. These perforated shapes want very badly to be icons, their round skulls reminiscent of halos. They awkwardly inhabit the picture plane with troubling voids in the lower right and left corners of the compositions.

Luchs’s paintings of fish, (and his two older paintings of squirrels and guns) depend less on single fetishistic signs, and more on the subtle interaction of competing symbols.  In the case of the fish paintings, the circular marks referencing rudimentary clocks or wheels vie for dominance with the barely recognizable fish that swims, literally, around. The linear rings, sometimes accompanied by cryptic letters and numbers, propel energies suggesting the cyclical nature of time.

Michael Luchs, Untitled (Fish), 2020, acrylic, mixed paints on canvas, 24” x 36”

It’s very, very hard to make a good painting, and many artists never find their way forward.  One of the cherished rewards of long experience for a  favored few  is their ever-increasing ability to get it right most of the time.  Michael Luchs is one of that lucky and dedicated number. It’s a particularly cruel irony that the paintings in On the Fly, which depend upon visceral physicality for their psychic charge, can only be seen right now at one remove, in cyberspace.

Michael Lukes, Untitled (Squirrels and Guns) 1989, acrylic , mixed paints on paper, mounted on canvas 49” x 33″

Although the gallery is currently closed because of the pandemic, it’s possible that the restrictions on social interaction will be lifted before the closing date on July 30. In the meantime, I am finding that all online exhibitions are not created equal; fortunately, the images on Artsy for On the Fly are quite high resolution, and about as good as any available on the internet. You can view excellent images of the paintings in the exhibit here.

Michael Luchs   On the Fly   April 11 – July 30, 2020   Simone DeSousa Gallery

Queen @ Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Queen: From The Collection of CCH Pounder on exhibition at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Queen exhibition at Charles Wright Museum install image courtesy of LaToya Cross

“This looks like a movie set,” exclaimed a youthful voice. The brown boy was on a school trip to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and expressed his awe and excitement as he and classmates swirled through the ‘Queen’ exhibit.

A movie set? I could see that. When you enter the AT&T Gallery at the Wright, there is a richness  in the collection and a feeling that you’re in the presence of stars.

On loan to the museum by award-winning actress and avid art collector CCH Pounder ( NCIS: New Orleans), the pieces are from her private collection and during my visit, (prior to Gov. Whitaker’s ‘Stay at Home’ executive order due to the vast spread of COVID-19), the Wright had recently received a new visual bringing the exhibition to a total of 53 artworks that explore Black women across four themes: beauty, agency, strength and dignity. The makers of the paintings, mixed-media installations and sculptures are artists from across the African Diaspora.

Curated by Sarah Anita Clunis, Ph.D., from Xavier University of Louisiana,  “Beauty” opens the gallery space and immediately I am fascinated with Willow Moon  by the late Jamaican painter and mixed-media artist, Tamara Natalie Madden. The woman’s brown skin brushed with rich golden hues and highlights of oranges and reds is illuminating. The definition of the collar bone teases the subject’s soft sensuousness.

Tamara Natalie Madden (Jamaican), Willow Moon, “30 x 20”  Oil on canvas, 2009

In Madden’s work, allegories are significant. There’s a mirrored likeness between the woman and the bird perched on her fingers, from the color palette to the focused gaze in their curled eyes. The bird cameo (a staple in Madden’s paintings) represents struggle, survival and freedom – an offering of the makers’ personal story and battle with a rare form of cancer that led to her passing in 2017. The body is adorned by a quilt with intricately designed fabrics. This attention given to the detailed threads is a compliment to Madden’s Jamaican roots where quilting is a form of familial storytelling and clothing complements one’s essential beauty. An aura is projected evoking a message of divine femininity.

Steve Prince’s Angela, Messenger of God follows this artistic motif in relation to spirit and divinity. The hoop earrings and afro puffs make Angela’s spiritual prowess relatable to the everyday girl. Her posture is bold yet relaxed and absent of worry while owning space and possibly controlling the elements surrounding her. The grayscale drawing is symbolically complex but there’s evidence of floating hearts, stretched out hands, and feminine-structured silhouettes. The motion and rhythm in Prince’s line strokes appear as guided spirits dancing amid the stillness of “the messenger.”

Steve Prince Angela, Messenger of God, 48 x 84”, Conte’,  201

A loving and nurturing essence exudes in Earth Mother, a charcoal rendering by Yrneh Gabon Brown. Originally part of Brown’s installation, Memba Mi Tell Yu (Listen Up, Take Note) that addresses climate change and the effect it has on the California ecosystem, respect and care for the environment is represented in this work. She is a source of life, spirituality and healing. She is soft but not fragile and always a warrior.

Yrneh Gabon Brown, Earth Mother, 78 x 53”  Charcoal, 2017

Kine Aw (Senegalese), Coiffeur, 78 x 52” Acrylic, oil and tar, *year not provided*

Memories of going to the hair salon  prompted my liking of Coiffeur;  the coming-of-age essence of getting your hair done in momma’s kitchen and as we got older, your homegirl’s house and eventually graduating to the physical salon or “shop”. The flowy, cool colors and swaying nature of body posture in Kine Aw’s painting feels like a breezy Saturday afternoon among sisters, not necessarily by blood but cultural kinship.

Fritz Koenig (German), Bust of an African Woman, 31 x 20” Bronze, mother of pearl, and marble, 1969

When considering agency, and occupancy of space, women of color have often felt unwelcomed and isolated. The idea that women, Black women specifically, are not enough is an obsolete ideology that is debunked throughout the exhibition. The  slight smile and lifted chin, regal stones, sophisticated clothing and oozing confidence in Bust of an African Woman speaks to ancestry and legacy. With imagination at play, this is my grandmother dressed to mingle and socialize with her peers. The story has a simple theme: dignity.

If I were to create a soundtrack to this exhibition, I’d blend album cuts from Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Jamila Woods’ Legacy! Legacy!  and Rapsody’s Eve, making a bold musical gumbo that feeds the soul with honesty, vulnerability and revelation about the depths of womanhood and the Black experience. The artwork for its release would be Harmonia Rosales’ The Birth of Oshun. The intricately detailed  painting is rooted in traditional Nigerian storytelling and shifts the narrative of Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, an early renaissance rendering that depicts a white Venus with white Angels flying among her.

Rosales, a contextually clever artist, centers Oshun, painted nude with gold patches representative of the goddesses’ vitiligo, in a seashell surrounded by water and Black angels. The visual is aesthetically appealing and reels you in to the arrival of a deity–pure, sacred and powerful.

Harmonia Rosales (Afro-Cuban American), 55 x 67”, The Birth of Oshun Oil on linen, 2017

‘Queen’ is a visceral experience. The collection encourages the viewer to connect with history, appreciate the present, and admire beauty. We’re taken around the globe with an open invitation to experience a cohesive and complex story that celebrates femininity, identity, power and makings of the Black woman. Perhaps, revealing to the young brown boy visiting with his class that melanated women are indeed, movie star status.

Writer’s Note: Special thank you to Arielle Wallace, Coordinator, External Affairs and Jennifer Evans, Assistant Curator at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History for their assistance in providing images and artist credits for this review.

*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. Whitmer’s extended ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ order,  the Charles H. Wright Museum is closed until further notice.

 

 

 

 

Public Art in Detroit

“There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.” JFK

Culture is at the heart of any great city; integral to its experience and legacy. Without that, its buildings and streets stand cold, feral. The Detroit Institute of Arts’ world class collection was allowed to remain intact through the city’s bankruptcy and continues to be critical to anchoring a community where people don’t just want to visit, but want to invest, live, work and put down roots. The Heidelberg Project endured its share of scathing criticism, and arson, only to stand today as symbol of our fortitude. Charles McGee’s recent sculpture “United We Stand”, installed outside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, continues that call to creative arms.

DAR archival image of Charles McGee’s United We Stand

Robert Schefman, Faculty Professor at the College of Creative Studies and an artist of over 40 years experience with public shows, commented, “For centuries, public art has been a responsibility for those who governed, and could afford the funding. In America, theoretically, we are the government, and democracy puts responsibility for public work, with the public. I will assume that there is some agreement on the benefits of placing artwork in public for everyone to enjoy, regardless of their position in society, because the communication of ideas and experiences through artwork of any discipline enrich us all.”

However, he continues, “When we talk about public art, we change how we relate to our spaces. Change is a double edged sword, and the changes are not always desired by current residents, no matter how much it will beautify, or improve an environment. A mural is placed in a space that draws more people into the area, and the look of the area, altering the way the current occupant feels about “their” space. People often fight change.” Case in point is the installation of “Waiting”, a 17-foot bronze sculpture by internationally acclaimed artist KAWS. The piece is sort of a cross between a Disney and an M. Night Shyamalan character. To say it provoked a strong response is an understatement. Whether attracted, repelled, confused by it, most can’t resist taking a selfie with it. It does what art is supposed to do, engage with the viewer.

“Waiting” KAWS, 17’ bronze sculpture, image courtesy of Kim Fay.

Born from a public art project on New York City’s High Line, John Sauvé enlisted students from a local school where arts funding had been cut. Very quietly and with little promotion, a silhouette of an orange man sporting a fedora began appearing on city rooftops. Now known as The Man in the City International Sculpture Project, the on-going installation is comprised of 60 sculptures located on the rooftops throughout the City of Detroit and Windsor. The Man in the City Project creates a metaphor for life that transforms the skyline and encourages people to look around. It’s an ingenious vehicle to highlight this city’s sensational architecture as well as prompt the viewer’s sense of their place within the city. In our increasingly busy lives, our faces habitually planted in our handheld screens, the sudden materialization of a bright figure incongruous with its architectural host gives pause and a moment to remember ourselves and our community.

John Sauvé, The Man in the City Project, courtesy Michigan Radio

Until recently public art traditionally consisted of elegant sculpture arranged in neatly manicured gardens or parks leaving two-dimensional art relegated to gallery and museum walls. Graffiti has been around since Lascaux Cave’s Paleolithic I-was-here paintings. Contemporary inscriptions became ubiquitous on any modern city’s decaying buildings. Rough and raw, quickly written, it was considered an emblem of decline and abandonment. As the global spotlight on Detroit’s ravaged neighborhoods grew brighter, images of that blight were distributed worldwide. What those images failed to convey was our soul. Detroiters know how to grind. Our resilience has been historically expressed through note and rhyme. Today, it’s described in canned brushstrokes, metals and ink. Indigenous graffiti has evolved from a name scrawled under a bridge somewhere into beautifully executed pieces displayed proudly where everyone can see them. Bold and immediately recognizable styles envelop buildings from Eastern Market to the Creative Corridor. As Schefman stated, there is resistance to change. Those first towering blasts of color, although legally commissioned, still carried the old stigma. Is it vandalism or is it art?

Pose, the Belt, Detroit, image Kim Fay

One the highest concentrations of street art in the world is The Belt/Z Garage’s international collaboration of writers. You can’t miss Shepard Fairey’s mural on One Campus Martius. His smaller piece “Pattern of Destruction” is part of the Belt, a culturally redefined alley between Broadway and Library Street showcasing a gauntlet of creative minds including Cleon Peterson, Nina Chanel Abney, Pose, Hoxxoh and our own Tiff Massey. Peterson describes his images of faceless street fighters as “a gray world where law breakers and law enforcers are one in the same; a world where ethics have been abandoned in favor of personal entitlement.” Tiff Massey references African culture in her work and says, “It’s always going to be large. It’s always going to be in your face.”  Their work turns a meal, a couple cocktails and a packed gallery opening into a raucous street fair.

Cleon Peterson, Nina Chanel Abney, the Belt, Detroit, image Kim Fay

Hoxxoh, the Belt, Detroit, image Kim Fay

This genre has gotten such attention Detroit hosts the annual event Murals in the Market organized by 1xRun and located primarily in Eastern Market. The sprawling festival draws artists from all over the world. It includes local writers Malt and Fel3000ft who collaborated on a piece for the festival. I caught up with artist Malt, who has prominent aerosol pieces in the Dequindre Cut, Lincoln Street Art Park as well as a few remaining underground tags from when he started writing in 1994. His style was inspired by skateboard graphics from the 80’s. Strong color, hard black lines. He says, “Graffiti has always been here. People evolved and got better. Everyone’s still doing their thing just on a larger scale.” Public interest has helped him out tremendously. Before it was all out of his own pocket. Now he gets commissions and has gallery representation. “There’s been a huge progression over the last 10 years. It’s rad. People respect it. It attracts more people to the city.” He adds, “I’d rather look at a colorful wall than beige cinder block.” Amen.

Malt-Fel3000ft collaboration 1xRun Murals in the Market, courtesy of the artist

Malt – Dequindre Cut, courtesy of the artist

No more cloak of darkness with a backpack full of cans. This art form is legit. Love it or hate it, the work is stunning, fun and livens up how we look at life. I still have mad respect for an old school tag dangling on a freeway overpass. As with any art form, how’d they do that?

*Malt and Freddy Diaz open their two-person show at M Contemporary tentatively April 17