Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

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Mario Moore @ David Klein Gallery

An installation view of Midnight and Canaan at the David Klein Gallery in Detroit, up through Nov. 5, 2022

Mario Moore’s solo show, Midnight and Canaan, which just opened at Detroit’s David Klein Gallery, is well worth going way out of your way to catch. The figurative oil paintings in front and the three silverpoint-on-paper works in the back room are mesmerizing, particularly when you get the story behind them.  Midnight and Canaan will be up through Nov. 5.

Moore, a College for Creative Studies grad with an MFA from Yale, has taken a sober, admiring look at Black leaders who worked the last stretch of the Underground Railroad in Michigan – names that would be unfamiliar to most people. In his Artist’s Statement, Moore notes that he learned a lot about the Great Migration in school, which brought African-Americans from the deep south to northern cities, but almost nothing about Black abolitionists before the Civil War, who deserve to be honored for their persistence and unfathomable courage, given all that they were up against.

As for the title, “Midnight” and “Canaan” were code words for Detroit and Canada, respectively, that abolitionists employed.

The operation of the Underground Railroad was both sophisticated and practical. Moore quotes from an 1886 Detroit Tribune interview with a William Lambert, who explains how they’d transport individuals fleeing slavery in “tin-peddling wagons with false bottoms, large enough to hold three men, traveling through the South.”

Lambert himself gets an affectionate shout-out with Moore’s large, silverpoint portrait. As with the other two silverpoint works of Sojourner Truth and George DeBaptiste, lines stitched onto the fabric by Moore’s mother, Detroit artist and Kresge Artist Fellow Sabrina Nelson, delineate the routes the three took while working for the Underground Railroad, whether to Battle Creek, Port Huron, Detroit or Amherstburg, Ontario.

Laid down with actual gold thread, the lines take the shape of branching railroad tracks. In all three cases, Nelson’s linear needlework frames the individual in question, hovering above their heads a bit like angular halos, at the same time that the lines all reach toward the right – i.e., the east – to Canada and freedom. As for the gentleman himself, Lambert — handsomely dressed in frock coat and tie — stares out at the viewer with determined, undeceived eyes. So too does Sojourner Truth on the facing wall.

Mario Moore, Sojourner Truth, 2022, Silverpoint on prepared paper, Gold Thread, Embroidery by Sabrina Nelson, 74.5 x 47.5 inches, Courtesy David Klein Gallery.

What may not be apparent as you walk into the gallery is that the entire show, in one way or another, is a tribute to the Underground Railroad and those hardy souls it ushered to freedom in Canaan – even the contemporary pieces at the front of the gallery.

Reading through “A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland” from Wayne State University Press (edited by Karolyn Smardz Frost and Veta Smith Tucker), Moore stumbled upon a married couple – Thornton and Lucie Blackburn — who escaped slavery in Kentucky and finally settled and prospered in Toronto. The artist calls their story a “cornerstone in my understanding of Detroit’s Black militancy,” and little wonder.

The Canadian Encyclopedia notes that the Blackburns made a dramatic escape from Kentucky in 1831, only to be recaptured in Detroit two years later. Miraculously, somehow the two were spirited from their cells and across the waters where they were re-arrested and threatened with being sent back to the United States. That prospect sparked riots on both sides of the border, and ultimately, a change in Canadian law to admit political refugees.

Rather than portraying the pair in historic garb, as Moore’s done with the silverpoint portraits, they’re a sexy, 21st-century couple lounging in bathing suits along the Detroit riverfront – a flight of fancy that somehow helps us see these intrepid souls more clearly than we might if they were outfitted in historically accurate, if distancing, petticoats and trousers.

Thornton and Lucie Blackburn in Canaan shows the recumbent Blackburns apparently enjoying a hot evening in safety along the Windsor riverfront, with Detroit looming – and erupting in flames – behind them. Lucie’s gazing up at the stars, while Thornton, hand on her hip, stares straight out into the Ontario night.

Mario Moore, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn in Canaan, 2022, Oil on linen, 63 x 90 inches, Courtesy David Klein Gallery.

Social and political themes underlie much of Moore’s artwork, as with these heroes of the Underground Railroad. In 2018, when he was the Hodder Fellowship artist-in-residence at Princeton University, he produced “The Work of Several Lifetimes” — painting the college’s African-American service workers in the style ordinarily accorded to the great and famous.

With Midnight and Canaan, Moore tips his hat to “Black pioneers” in contemporary Detroit as well, singling out Detroit artists like the much-respected Allie McGhee and metalworker Tiff Massey, who was also a Kresge Artist Fellow. His portrait of her, Tiff Like Granite, What Up Doe, is especially compelling. Standing defiantly on rocks by the riverside in long black cloak, aviator glasses and red slacks tucked into boots, Massey looks, for all the world, a bit like a Revolutionary War war hero.

Mario Moore, Tiff Like Granite, What Up Doe, 2022, Oil on linen, 72 x 48 inches, Courtesy David Klein Gallery.

Rounding out his history of Michigan’s role in helping enslaved persons flee to Canada, Moore also paints two of the institutions – both churches – that played critical roles in the endeavor. His portrait of the Second Baptist Church, which was key to the freedom struggle, is about as heroic as a painting of a building can be. Lit by two outdoor lamps at night, the church positively glows with hope and promise.

Mario Moore, Light in the Darkness, 2022, Oil on linen, 55 x 39 inches, Courtesy David Klein Gallery.

Finally, right at the front of the gallery above the reception desk, you’ll find Keep On Keepin On, Don’t Look Back, which is likely to intrigue and perhaps amuse all but the hard-hearted. Seemingly suspended a hundred feet above the Detroit River, with Renaissance Center and the Ambassador Bridge in the background, a nattily dressed couple – he in top hat and frock coat, she in a long red dress – walk slowly towards the Canadian Canaan, framed by dark wintry clouds.

Mario Moore, Keep On Keepin On, Don’t Look Back, 2022, Oil on linen, 30 x 38 inches, Courtesy David Klein Gallery.

Midnight and Canaan will be up through Nov 5. A reception for the artist will take place on Saturday, September 24, 5 – 8 PM.

 Midnight and Canaan, a solo show by Mario Moore, will be at Detroit’s David Klein Gallery through Nov. 5.

Dog Days of August @ Detroit Art Review

MOCAD-Installation, Nep Sidhu, Paradox of Harmonics, photo: Charles E. Letts

An atmosphere of renewal marks the summer of 2022 in the Detroit arts community as the city’s creatives have returned to action after two years of COVID isolation, Mighty Real/Queer Detroit started the season off during Pride Month in June with a comprehensive and inclusive exhibition of work by 150 LGBTQ+ artists in 17 galleries throughout the city.  This wide-ranging series of exhibits, performances and events was the first–but will not be the last–celebration of gender diversity in Detroit. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAD) had an especially impressive roster of summer shows: remarkable paintings, sculpture, tapestries, performance and video  by multi-media Toronto artist Nep Sidhu, along with dream hampton’s Freshwater, an elegiac video of flooding in Detroit, artworks from the James Dozier collection of Black Detroit abstract artists and Sterling Toles’s S(h)elves? a community-based project at the Mark Kelly Mobile Homestead.

During this relatively quiet month of August, a couple of group shows have opened–one at Belle Isle Viewing Room and the other at David Klein Gallery–that hint at what we can anticipate for Detroit art this fall.

Allie McGhee, 2008, Self Portrait, enamel and acrylic on paint sticks, photo: Belle Isle Viewing Room


Carlo Vitale, 1979-1988, The Embrace, acrylic on canvas, 51.5 x 72.25 photo: Belle Isle Viewing Room

Belle Isle Viewing Room is a relative newcomer to the Detroit gallery scene.  Nik Pence, the gallerist behind the enterprise, opened a small one-room space on East Jefferson eighteen months ago, and in the short time he has been in operation, has attracted a formidable collection of talent. The group show that opened on August 13 includes nine of the artists whose work Pence has shown since the gallery opened.  Allie McGhee, fresh from his recent solo exhibition Banana Moon Horn at the Cranbrook Museum of Art, has contributed two artworks that reprise elements of his retrospective.  A large painting entitled The Embrace by Carlo Vitale–whose work was new to me–occupies a lively corner of the space with fizzy, dotty abstraction.  Martha Mysko’s monumental, wall-size piece Forecasting incorporates elements of home décor from the final edition of the Sears catalog and touches on themes of class and consumerism. The current show coincides with a doubling in size of the previously modest gallery space.

Martha Mysko, 2022, Forecasting, digital prints on vinyl on wood, house paint, spray paint, sublimation dye prints on aluminum, chrome display grids and hardware, wood shelves, cast plastic, ice cube trays, ceramic mugs, plastic margarita cups, ceramic vases, plastic bowls, plastic drinking cups, and wire-mesh cup holder, measuring cups, necktie, wooden box, shoes, fabric, plastic colander, hand weights, hand juicer. 192” x 12” x 96”, photo: Belle Isle Viewing Room.

August Selections, which opened at David Klein Gallery Detroit gallery on August 13 and continues through September 2, is an eclectic assortment of work by many of the gallery’s artists. Kelly Reemstra’s murderous debutantes share a wall with a painting by Marianna Olague, Blond Grass. The portrait, which features the artist’s sister, shows the subject’s face in shadow and adds an element of emotional resonance to Olague’s characteristic flat southwestern light.  Silvain Malfroy-Camine’s confetti-infused pink-and-blue party of a painting, Riviere, is an exercise in spirit-lifting alchemy. Kim McCarty’s giant, diaphanous watercolor butterflies combine art and entymology. Selections features four pieces by Scott Hocking, a preview of sorts for his upcoming solo show at the Cranbrook Museum of Art in November. Celestial Ship of the North (Emergency Ark) aka The Barnboat and Detroit Nights, Boblo Boat , Rouge Reflection are photographic  documentation of the fugitive artifacts for which the artist has become well-known, while two small copper wire sculptures occupy the windows of the gallery and hint at what’s coming to Cranbrook this fall.

Silvain Malfroy-Camine, Riviere, 2022, oil and colored pencils on six canvas panels, 23” x 67” Image  courtesy of the artist and David Klein Gallery


Kim McCarty, Blue Butterfly, 2021, watercolor on arches paper, 30” x 22” Image  courtesy of the artist and David Klein Gallery


Marianna Olague, Blond Grass, 2021, oil on canvas, 40” x 30” Image courtesy of the artist and David Klein Gallery


Scott Hocking, 2015, Detroit Nights, Boblo Boat, Rouge Reflection, archival inkjet print, 33” x 49.5”, edition 2 of 11 images courtesy of the artist and David Klein Gallery

Anyone curious about the plans of Simone DeSousa, whose Edition gallery space was closed for renovation during the summer, will be interested to know that the gallery has been reconfigured to provide a more classic display setting for the artists she represents and will re-open this September 16 with a solo show featuring work by the reliably brilliant textile artist Carole Harris. The opening is planned as a celebration of renewal, with music on the patio from jazz musicians selected by Harris. The gallery is now a pristine white box–with improved lighting–and includes an adjoining private viewing room for clients. Many of the prominent artists DeSousa represents–Michael Luchs, Robert Sestok, Brenda Goodman and Kathryn Brackett Luchs—are slated for exhibitions in the 2022-2023 season.

DeSousa has not given up on the Editions concept, which she describes as “a space focused on accessible and collectible art and design.”  It will be part of a re-imagined cultural campus the gallerist is developing in cooperation with real estate entrepreneur Philip Kafka in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood, with April 2023 as the date of a planned launch. The complex will include a café and a bookstore along with the Edition space, as well as a gallery for experimental work by young, emerging artists and a pocket park for outdoor installations.

Carole Harris, Motor City Blues, 2021, Commercially printed cottons, raw silk and thread, cotton batting, 455” x 45”, photo courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery and the artist.Carole Harris, Other People’s Memories, 2016, commercially printed cottons, raw silk and thread, cotton batting, 57” x 39,” photo courtesy of Simone DeSousa and the artist.

Carole Harris, Motor City Blues, 2021, Commercially printed cottons, raw silk and thread, cotton batting, 455” x 45”, photo courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery and the artist.

In this moment of stasis, when the summer shows have ended and the fall art season has not yet begun, we sense that beneath the quiet of this moment that there is plenty of activity in preparation for upcoming events. The one constant in Detroit is change, and these exhibitions foretell what we can anticipate in the art season to come.

The Detroit Art Review looks forward to reviewing visual art exhibitions in the Detroit Metro area and beyond.

Jose Parla @ Library Street Collective and Heather Day @  Louis / Buhl

An installation view of José Parlá’s Polarities at Detroit’s Library Street Collective through Aug. 24. Courtesy Library Street Collective.

An explosion of color, Polarities by Cuban-American multi-media artist José Parlá is now on view at the reconfigured Library Street Collective in downtown Detroit – oddly, a richly-hued show prompted in large part by the covid pandemic. Polarities will run through Aug. 24.

Brooklyn-based Parlá is part of a growing cohort of artists, from Detroit’s Scott Hocking to New York photographer Camilo José Vergara, who are mesmerized by the effects time and weathering work on the world, and in particular on urban landscapes. In Parlá’s case, this leads to color-rich canvases with a complex accretion of layered acrylic, plaster, script and paper collage.

José Parlá, Breath, 2022, Acrylic and oil paint on canvas, 72 x 48 in. Courtesy Library Street Collective.

The nine paintings on display, all quite large, are highly textured. A number of them, like Breath, have a bit of Jackson Pollack about them in their looping lines of color — others have compared the Brooklyn artist to Cy Twombly — though Parlá’s work is looser and less controlled than either of those masters. In some respects, Breath resembles a time-lapse image of munitions exploding, with crazy, sharp lines criss-crossing and looping back over a thicker, wider substrata of color. Art writers often say a given painting has energy. This one has momentum, which somehow, inexplicably, feels different.

Interestingly, given the title of Breath, Parlá, who’s 49 and grew up in Puerto Rico and Miami, spent months in the hospital with covid early in the epidemic – reportedly so sick his doctors were skeptical he’d ever return to painting. With Breath as well as his other canvases, all completed post-illness, there’s a core of strong color that looks vaguely like an organ – call it a heart – from which brushstrokes and incredibly fine, energetic lines explode, in the process creating odd and absorbing sub-cutaneous maps and topographies.

José Parlá, La Habana y Detroit, Acrylic, collage, ink and enamel on wood, 90 x 55 x 10 in. Courtesy Library Street Collective

 Seven of the Library Street pieces are paintings hung on the wall, but two others are free-standing and resemble stone monoliths (they’re actually wood constructions). Daubed with broader splotches of paint, La Habana y Detroit is rendered in rich tropical tones, while Detroit/Habana – in light blue, grays and black — is chillier and more monochromatic.  Both stand in distinct counterpoint to Breath or the equally immersive Polarity, with its shattered explosions streaking across the canvas.

In her catalog essay, Laura Mott, the Cranbrook Art Museum’s chief curator, argues that the pairing of Detroit and Havana might be more logical than it looks at first, at least in the quality of their respective urban decay. “There is a similar entropy on the surfaces of their architecture,” she writes, a layered and progressive erosion that Parlá harnesses to his own work.

José Parlá, Detroit/La Habana, 2022, Acrylic, collage, ink, and enamel on wood, 90 x 55 x 10 in. Courtesy Library Street Collective.

If you haven’t been to Library Street in a while, be forewarned that you will have to enter through the back. The reorganized space now opens onto The Belt, the cool “activated” alleyway with outsider-art murals, bars and restaurants between Grand River and Gratiot that Anthony and JJ Curis, LSC owners and founders, helped to create eight years ago.

As it happens, Library Street and its founders are dramatically expanding their footprint in Detroit.  The Crruses are partway through restoring an east-side Catholic Church and parish house into an art compound to be called The Shepherd, debuting next spring, along with a sculpture garden open to the public honoring the late artist Charles McGee that Dan and Jennifer Gilbert will underwrite.

The Curises will run the art center out of the old red-brick Good Shepherd Catholic Church in addition to LSC downtown, so all in all, this represents a significant growth in their corner of the Detroit art world.

Also new downtown is what LSC is calling a next-door “sister gallery,” Louis Buhl, which opened in 2020 on The Belt when Library Street was reorganized. (The front of LSC is now administrative offices and a private showroom.) Louis Buhl grew out of an online store and takes a more consumer-oriented approach to the gallery experience with, in addition to original art shows, a limited selection of art books, ceramics, and artist-designed fashions.

On display at Louis Buhl now, also through Aug. 24, is Night Crackle by California artist Heather Day, whose home and studio are in the desert town of Joshua Tree adjacent to the national park.

Heather Day, Last Light No. 2, 2022, Mixed media on stitched canvas, 30 x 22 in. Courtesy Louis Buhl Gallery.

 Day has reportedly been inspired by the rich hues of the California desert, and the dramatic sunrises and sunsets that are a large part of its seductive charm. Her washes on canvas, once completed, are then dissected, cut up and fastened back together in geometric fashion. The works on display come in either hot reds and oranges or sharp blues in a range of late-light hues. Common to many of her paintings are what the artist calls “that last burst of color,” like a blotch of pink on the otherwise flaming red Last Light No. 2.

Also on view along with Night Crackle are a series of monoprints Day produced with the off-grid, solar-powered Farrington Press, located in the high desert of southern California as well.

Heather Day, Night Crackle No. 3, 2022 (left) 50 x 58 in., and Night Crackle No. 4, 2022, 55.5 x 47.5 in. Courtesy Louis Buhl Gallery.

 Polarities by José Parlá at Detroit’s Library Street Collective will be up through Aug. 24. Next door at Louis Buhl Gallery, Heather Day’s Night Crackle will also be up through Aug. 24.

Family Ties @ David Klein Gallery

Family Ties, David Klein Gallery, Detroit, installation,  photo by Samantha  Bankle Schefman and all other images courtesy of David Klein Gallery

The four artists in Family Ties, now on view at David Klein Gallery in Detroit through August 6, demonstrate a kind of taxonomy of relationship—a way of claiming kinship while comparing and contrasting thought processes, techniques, and materials. As in any family where resemblances like the arch of an eyebrow, a laugh or a sense of style can demonstrate common ancestry, these artists share ways of making and thinking that illustrate the complex interaction of their shared, yet distinct histories.

Ceramicist Ebitenyefa Baralaye, who organized the show, says in his curatorial statement:

Family Ties touches on the multi-layered bonds that connect our given and adopted family members, friends, and community. These bonds are manifested in traditions, shared history, common spaces, and elements of identity encompassing everything from the rituals and patterns of styling hair, the particulars of gathering places for meals, and the textures and shades that mark bodies.

Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Grace, 2022, stoneware, slip, 21” x 14” x 14” photo: courtesy of David Klein Gallery


Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Aishetu, 2022, stoneware, slip, 23” x 13” x 13” photo: courtesy of David Klein Gallery


Baralaye sets the tone of the exhibition with his 4 compact yet monumental stoneware heads. They are vessels turned upside down and presented as stylized sculptural portraits. These chunky heads bear a passing resemblance to folk art stoneware face jugs traditionally made by African American slaves, re-purposed to celebrate Baralaye’s female ancestry. There is an element of affectionate caricature here, as well as a liveliness in the slight irregularity of their coiled clay construction. Grace and Anna depend mostly upon the surface application of rolled clay on unadorned fired stoneware for their features, while with Apreye and Aishetu, Baralaye does a particularly masterful job of balancing the three-dimensional low relief surface detail with painted-on black markings–no mean feat.

Shea Burke, Vessel Portrait III, 2022, porcelain, glaze, 10” x 8” x 5” photo courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Shea Burke, Clothed Vessel, 2022, brown stoneware, porcelain, glaze, 20” x 15” x 15”

Shea Burke, a ceramic artist from Rochester, New York, shares some of Baralaye’s methods and themes; they use coil construction to build Vessels, Portrait I, II and II, but the coils have escaped the constraints of the classic shapes to suggest wild, snaky topknots of exotic ceremonial headdresses. The artist places particular importance in the temporal process of building, layer upon layer, an object that is a record of time’s passage. “While coil-building I shape the vessel as a place to put the things that slip through our fingers. There is comfort in the idea of having a place to store what we struggle to hold onto: memories, traditions, and moments that are eroded by time,” they say.

Things take a homely turn with Burke’s earthily tactile, coiled and pinched vessels, contrasted with slick, shiny porcelain sheets draped over and around, a kind of metaphoric clothing for the fleshy clay.


Patrice Renee Washington, Onyx Peak, 2022, glazed stoneware, concrete, 36” x 15” x 15”



Patrice Renee Washington, Dirty Jasper, 2022, glazed stoneware, 20.5´x 13” x 13”

Formal family resemblance continues in the work of Patrice Renee Washington, originally from Chicago, but now living and working in Newburgh, New York. She hand-builds her pagoda-shaped vessels and decorates them with twisted and braided clay applique reminiscent of African hair weaves. The gray color and pointy tops of Onyx Peak and Dirty Jasper take these vessels into the realm of fantasy architecture—or perhaps they are reliquaries. A hidden meaning may be contained in their interior, but it remains inaccessible, mysterious.

Patrick Quarm, Royal Ama, 2020, mixed media, oil and acrylic paint on African fabric, 65” x 54” photo: courtesy of the artist

Patrick Quarm, The Obverse, 2020, mixed media, oil and acrylic paint on African print fabric, 43” x 33” inches photo: courtesy of the artist

To this otherwise intimately-scaled collection of three-dimensional ceramic pieces in subdued earth-tone colors,  Ghanian painter Patrick Quarm adds color as well as the implication of a broader relationship of the artists in the exhibition to the family of African and African American artists worldwide. In relational terms, Quarm could be called a cousin to Kehinde Wiley and Yinka Shonebare, both of whom use the patterns of African textiles and brilliant color to tell complex stories of European colonialism and the African diaspora. His contribution to the cultural conversation is a thoughtful yet intuitive visual analysis of the complex interactions, some positive and many not, of civilizations at their point of contact.

Quarm’s paintings are acts of synthesis, weaving veils of pierced, painted and patterned fabric into a meaningful whole from the disparate elements of his past. Stories of his father’s life in colonial Ghana are added to his own experience as an inhabitant of cultural and social spheres in Africa and the U.S. Many of Quarm’s pieces feature separate sheets of painted fabric loosely fluttering from battens which, viewed from the side, look three dimensional. But from the front they coalesce into a unified composition, perfect metaphors for his aim to create a coherent identity from the diverse and sometimes antithetical parts of his history. He says of his work, “My task or duty as an artist is to strip each layer after the other to bring clarity, to understand the past and how the past shapes the present.”

Not everything about any family—or this family of artists–can be known. There is an interior conversation among these four that must remain a mystery outside its sacred circle, even as it nourishes the creativity of its members. But Family Ties gives us an intriguing intimation of the usually unseen lines that connect them. As Baralaye says, “Family ties are a reminder of the commitment and the persistence of connection even in hard times and through complicated realities.”

Family Ties,  on exhibition at the David Klein Gallery, through August 6, 2022.

Cezanne @ Art Institute of Chicago

Right now in Chicago, there is probably more Cezzane under one roof than anywhere else in the world. The Art Institute of Chicago goes big with its special exhibitions, and its current offering of works by Cezanne is a beast of a show, comprising 80 paintings, 20 watercolors, two sketchbooks, and a smattering of pencil sketches, and together they demonstrate the artist’s stylistic and thematic breadth. This is Cezanne’s first American retrospective in 25 years, and it brings together works from collections in North and South America, Australia, Europe, and Asia. The show emphasizes Cezanne’s multigenerational appeal; lauded after his death as the “father of modern art,” his paintings (including many on display) were owned by well-known 19th and 20th-century artists, and his enduring reach extends to the present day.

CÈzanne Paul (1839-1906). Paris, musÈe d’Orsay.

Although Cezanne was never formally accepted into art school, he was firmly rooted in art historical tradition, and he studied the masters of the past. When he moved to Paris in 1861, he frequented the Louvre, which he once described as “an open book I am continually studying.” There, he studied and copied Renaissance and Baroque paintings and sculptures. Several early graphite drawings on view demonstrate his ability to draw the figure in a classical, academic style. These tightly rendered drawings are contrasted in the same room with other early experimental works from the 1860s in which Cezanne applies the paint thickly, using only a palette knife to scribble in his subject. These early works are suggestive of a versatile style and artistic swagger.

Cezanne’s vision brought new life to the centuries-old genres of still life painting and landscape painting, and in his hands the two could become strikingly similar, as a room of his increasingly busy still life paintings demonstrates. There’s nothing “still” about his still-lifes. Thoroughly unburdened by any adherence to linear perspective, these counterintuitive canvasses seem to heave and buckle. Add into the mix a tactfully arranged patterned tablecloth replete with ridges, furrows, and crevices, and the result is tabletop topography.

Still Life with Apples; Paul Cézanne (French, 1839 – 1906); 1893–1894; Oil on canvas; 65.4 × 81.6 cm 25 3/4 × 32 1/8 in.

Paul Cezanne. The Basket of Apples, about 1893. The Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.

Although he studied in the great museums of Paris, Cezanne self-styled himself as a provincial artist. He was born and raised in Aix-en-Provence, and he frequently left Paris to paint the region, geographically defined by the imposing limestone Mont Sainte-Victoire– the location of a second-century Roman military victory and source of local pride. Some of Cezanne’s most recognizable paintings are the serialized studies he affectionately painted of the angular mountain, mostly executed during the last fifteen years of his life. This exhibit presents over a dozen studies and paintings of the mountain, and they represent some of Cezanne’s most daring works.  The individual brushstrokes of his paintings become an increasingly noticeable presence, and the clarity of the landscape dissolves into a mosaic of scrubbed-in patches of color. One of his aims was to “make the air palpable,” and in these paintings, he certainly succeeded. There isn’t any negative space in the most abstract of these paintings; the air itself is rendered with thick chunks of color. These paintings speak to Cezanne’s artistic philosophy, which held that a painting was complete not when it was finished in the conventional sense, but rather when it successfully achieved his personal artistic intent.

Paul Cezanne. Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, about 1887. The Courtauld Gallery, London. © Courtauld Gallery / Bridgeman Images

But even while Cezanne pushed the boundaries of abstraction, leading the charge toward modern art, this show makes it clear that he retained a deep affection for the art of the past. He produced many paintings crowded with frolicking or fighting nudes that acted as contemporary responses to the fleshy Baroque-era Gardens of Love and Bacchanals by the likes of Titian and Reubens. Cezanne’s Battle of Love, in which pairs of abstract nude figures naughtily tussle in a pastoral setting, directly echoes Titian’s 16th century Bacchanal of the Andrians.

The exhibition concludes with the largest and most realized of Cezanne’s Bather paintings, a subject he returned to throughout his life (other similar, smaller versions appear elsewhere in the show). It’s an idealized scene; the models were entirely products of his imagination, and Cezanne rendered the landscape to compliment and answer the composition and movement of the models. Stylistically, these abstracted figures are emphatically modern, and it’s easy to see why they appealed to artists like Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, all of whom once owned some of the paintings presently on these walls.

Paul Cezanne. Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses), about 1894–1905. The National Gallery, London, purchased with a special grant and the aid of the Max Rayne Foundation, 1964.

Cezanne is sometimes described in print as a “painter’s painter.” Perhaps this is unfair since it suggests that the average person just won’t understand his work. But this exhibition gives non-experts plenty of reasons to like his art, whether for his relentlessly imaginative re-working of classical artistic tropes, or perhaps the sheer complexity of his still-life paintings. This exhibition demonstrates his artistic reach, and specialists and non-specialists alike will find the exhibit rewarding. The abundance of works on view amply demonstrates Cezanne’s indebtedness to the past, even as he challenged artistic conventions and boldly anticipated the art of the future.

Cezanne is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 5, 2022. 

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