Shapeshifters @ Cranbrook Museum of Art

Frank Stella, Takt-i-Sulayman Variation I (Protractor Series) 1969, acrylic and fluorescent acrylic on canvas

It has always seemed to me that the most magical thing about art objects in a gallery is that they exist at the same time and place, in the same now, no matter when they were created. An archaic vase, a classical Greek sculpture and a minimalist painting can rest side by side, in a kind of eternal conversation that illuminates how humans think and perceive, and what they value over time.  This thought re-occurred to me with some force as I walked into the main gallery of the Cranbrook Art Museum last week, to see Shapeshifters, an eclectic exhibit that draws from the museum’s collection of over 6000 artworks. It covers a broad range of modern and contemporary artists and esthetic philosophies, all in lively conversation with each other and with us. Much of the work on display is by international artists with big reputations, but voices and visions of many younger, less established, artists have also found their way into Shapeshifters. Often these artists are from the Detroit area, many of them graduates of Cranbrook Art Academy’s M.F.A program; to my mind they provide the most interesting pieces in a wide-ranging survey of artists’ methods and mindsets.

The entry gallery of the museum announces the ambitious nature of the exhibit with a forceful collection of minimalist and post-minimalist artists. Paintings and sculptures by art historical heavyweights like Donald Judd and Frank Stella ring the gallery.  These self-referential abstract objects and images  hark back to a brief moment in art history, 1960’s and 1970’s, when  the methods and formal objectives of contemporary art seemed clear. These confident–and also mostly white, male–artists seemed to say they had found the endpoint of modernism, after which no further progress was possible–or necessary. Even Agnes Martin, whose (usually) much smaller pieces seem more interior and meditative, is represented in Shapeshifters by a large canvas, Untitled (1974) that shows her to be a member in good standing of the minimalist club.

Ato Ribeiro, Home Away From Home 2, 2017, repurposed wood, glue

Ato Ribeiro, Detail

But even as these monumental, even grandiose, pieces stake their claim to dominance in this room and  in art history, the show’s curator Laura Mott, slyly introduces an artist who says, quietly, “yes, but…”

Ato Ribeiro, a 2017 graduate of Cranbrook’s print program, has created a wood assemblage that superficially resembles many of the pieces in the main gallery, but suggests alternative cultural references that speak to more private, idiosyncratic aims. Home Away from Home 2 is a pieced quilt of a sort, made of discarded wood, re-cycled and re-assembled into an elaborate composition that references hieroglyphs, Kente cloth, traditional African symbols, and signals a turning away from minimalist generalities and toward more particularized personal references.

Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Dupp Dup, 2016, plaster, burlap, sisal rope wood

This insistence by young artists on private processes and meanings continues in the next gallery, with the awkward yet elegant and slightly comic Dupp Dup by Ebitenyefa Baralaye. A 2016 M.F.A.  graduate of the ceramics program at Cranbrook, Baralaye has re-purposed the process of ceramic casting in a literally heartfelt way. The shape of the plaster cast is reminiscent of a human heart, signifying both a physical state of being and an emotional state of desiring. Its implied weightiness is animated and supported by a spindly wooden tripod.   In the adjoining gallery, Sonya Clark’s scratchy ziggurat of a headpiece, assembled from hair curlers, is both humble and regal. Clark re-imagines these everyday materials using processes familiar to her from her background in fiber art; the result is both surprising and satisfying.

Sonya Clark, Curled, 1998, metal hair curlers, thread, wire

Two of Detroit’s art eminences occupy the middle gallery and are hung in proximity with two other artists who reinnforce and illuminate their importance as masters of their craft and figures of note in Detroit’s contemporary art scene. Allie McGhee’s folded and draped Window (2019) easily holds its own next to the much larger–and very lovely–Preface for Chris by Joan Mitchell, with which it is paired. McGhee is scheduled for an upcoming solo exhibition in the fall of 2021, and Windows provides a tantalizing foretaste of what we can expect and hope for. Carole Harris, whose work impresses me more each time I see it, is represented by In a Silent Way (2017).  Harris is a textile virtuoso. Her work occupies the surprisingly capacious space between expressive quilting and painterly abstraction, and somehow manages to be more than the sum of the two mediums.   The way in which she exercises complete control of flat or felted or lacy textures, of staccato stitched lines, of carefully dyed and rusted colors, adds a tactile element to her work against which the nearby untitled painting by Jose Joya struggles to compete.

Allie McGhee, Window, 2019, acrylic, enamel, vinyl

Carole Harris, In a Silent Way, 2017, quilt with rusted textiles

In the next gallery, photography –and related technologies–has its day as a means to revelation. The prosaic, descriptive reality of everyday photography gives way to the deeper truth of artists’ personal and subjective experience. A particularly beautiful example of this is Kottie Gaydos’s Unfixed, Fold #3, a dreamy, undulating field of deep blue in which a minimalist strategy yields a deeply romantic and poetic image. Matthew Angelo Harrison’s low-resolution replicas of African artifacts by way of his homemade 3-d printers are familiar to most of the Detroit art public by now, but they remain impressive, resonant in their expression of the African American diaspora’s sense of cultural loss from the trauma of enslavement.

Kottie Gaydos, Unfixed, Fold #3, 2016, archival pigment print, artist frame with unfixed cyanotype

The wan ironies of Andy Warhol’s Polaroids and Rosenquist’s lithographs are interesting as historical artifacts, but pale beside Kara Thompson’s polemical silhouettes and the robust immediacy of Maya Stovall’s dancers, doing their thing in the parking lot of a Detroit convenience store. Her video, Liquor Store Theatre, Vol. 4, No. 7, records the bemused reaction of bystanders along with the precise and angular movements of the black-clad performers.

Maya Stoval, Liquor Store Theatre, Vo. 4, #7, 2017, video still

The back gallery of Shapeshifters is devoted, appropriately for an exhibit about transformation and adaptation, to a short feature film entitled Upright: Detroit.  Set in the ruins of the historic Michigan Theater, the film records a kind of initiation. Performers arrive, one by one, dressed in ordinary street clothes.  Here, they are ritually transformed, with assistance from members of the Ruth Ellis Center for LGBTQ+ youth, into other-worldly beings by way of Nick Cave’s iconic Soundsuits. In the subsequent procession, initiates are accompanied by a choir of singers from Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theater. With this performance, Shapeshifters brings us full circle, from the exuberant hubris of the minimalists to the joyous communality of the performers in Upright: Detroit, a thought-provoking journey from the general to the personal in search of our universal humanity.

Artist in Shapeshifters: Richard Anuszkiewicz, Jo Baer, Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Romare Bearden, McArthur Binion, Susan Goethel Campbell, Anthony Caro, Nick Cave, Nicole Cherubini, Sonya Clark, Liz Cohen, Conrad Egyir, Beverly Fishman, Kottie Gaydos, Sam Gilliam, Kara Güt, Carole Harris, Matthew Angelo Harrison, José Joya, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Allie McGhee, Marilyn Minter, Brittany Nelson, Kenneth Noland, Marianna Olague, Robert Rauschenberg, Ato Ribeiro, James Rosenquist, Beau Sinchai, Julian Stanczak, Frank Stella, Maya Stovall, Toshiko Takaezu, Carl Toth, Kara Walker, Andy Warhol, and Richard Yarde, among others.

The museum is open with some restrictions.  For more information, go to: https://cranbrookartmuseum.org/plan-your-visit/

WSU 2020 Art Faculty – Virtual Exhibition

The James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History, Wayne State University, presents the 2020 WSU Faculty Exhibition, a virtual exhibition that opened November 19, 2020.

The Art Department Faculty Exhibition at Wayne State University began as an installation in the Community Arts Gallery but quickly became virtual in mid-November 2020 to conform with university Covid-19 requirements. Faculty members from the department who advance the study and practice of art history, design and fine art come together to reflect the university’s full spectrum of area disciplines.  Click on this link, and you’ll find these images above are links to each faculty member’s work here: https://www.waynestategalleries.org/2020-faculty-exhibition-2

Adrian Hatfield, If this isn’t nice, what is?, 2019 oil and acrylic on canvas 48” x 36”

The painting and sculpture of Adrian Hatfield remind this writer of the term magical realism, more often referred to in literature, but that may apply here.  The term magical realism was introduced by Franz Roh, a German art critic in 1925. When Roh coined the term, he meant it to create an art category that strayed from the strict guidelines of realism, which Hatfield’s collage-like work conveys. Hatfield’s work recombines art historical imagery from the industrial revolution and the Romantic era with imagery from current and environmental concerns. In the work, he creates a black & white drawn universe, juxtaposed to these full colored floating dimensional shapes and landscape, part of a dualism that plays with the viewer’s process.

In his statement, he says, “As I explore this dualistic theme through the remodeling of art-historical and scientific imagery, the resultant pieces are mournful, unnerving, and yet oddly hopeful.”  Adrian Clark Hatfield earned his B.F.A. from Ohio State University and his M.F.A. from Ohio University.   https://www.adrianhatfield.com/

Margi Weir, Caution Guardrail, 2020 India ink, Sumi ink, watercolor

Patterns are a large dominating part of Margi Weir’s oeuvre, as illustrated here in this work, Caution Guard Rail, 2020. She uses this technique she describes as Snap Line when she dips cotton twine into thinned acrylic paint or ink and snaps a taut line onto a supporting surface. The spray from the line often begins the process for the composition. Weir’s body of work is expansive and includes paintings, drawings, prints, and installations. The paintings and prints are dominated by a highly developed geometric and colorful pattern. There is a theme reflected somewhere in the pattern, often in the border, where she stitches together multiple symbols to make them visually appealing.

She says in her statement, “In one body of my work, I use a computer (a non-traditional painter’s tool) to repeat images that I stitch together visually in order to make an appealing pattern, often resulting in tapestry-like, spatially flattened compositions.  This references pre-Renaissance and/or non-western methods of pictorial organization, for storytelling purposes, that were used in textiles, ceramics, and architectural decoration.  This particular use of juxtaposed images, stacked and repeated, is a unique addition to the visual language of painting in the 21st century.”

Ms. Weir earned her MFA in painting from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA); her MA in painting from New Mexico State University. She also holds a BFA in painting from San Francisco Art Institute and BA in art history from Wheaton College.   https://margiweir.weebly.com/

Millee Tibbs, Transfrontalier, 2018 Gelatin Silver Print + Custom Frame

To describe Millee Tibbs’s work as landscape photography would not be complete, although she is using a camera and capturing images of mountainous terrain. Instead, that would be the starting point for various manipulations; whether it be the entire shape of the image or the overlay of a second geometric shape on the terrain, there is an astute variety in how these images are presented.  The artwork derives from Tibbs’s interest in photography’s ubiquity and the tension inherent in manipulating reality. Sometimes it is in the overlay of a geometric shape on the mountainside; other times it includes the shape of the image, mat, and frame. It’s as if the mountain terrain becomes the backdrop for an artist interested in what I might call a shaped canvas work: Frank Stella, 1965; Ellsworth Kelly, 1970, or Elizabeth Murray, 2006.

She says in her statement, “My work has evolved into an investigation of idealized landscape imagery – the kind that is easily consumable and often commodified. I am fascinated with the landscape genre and its language, the aesthetic imposed onto the land through photographic framing, and the historical rhetoric inherent in these images that justified Manifest Destiny and conquest through what is left out—namely inhabitants.”

Millee Tibbs earned her B.A. from Vassar College and her M.F.A. from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)    https://www.milleetibbs.com/

Sheryl Oring, “I Wish to Say” Video, 5:13 minutes

The video work of Sherl Oring investigates social issues through projects that incorporate on-camera interviews that examine public opinion. In “I Wish to Say”, Oring sets up a portable office where woman in secretarial costume interview individuals at large about the state-0f-affairs in the U.S. and documents their comments using a typewriter, intending to main a postcard to the White House.  To date, nearly 4000 postcards were mailed.

Having worked in educational television, it is important to say the standards and caliber of production in these short videos are of the highest quality: the recording of imagery and audio and the direction and editing of these videos are highly produced.  The “I Wish to Say” project has a companion book from the University of  Chicago Press, Activating Democracy, a result of helping people from across the United States voice their political concerns.

From the Public Art Review, “Sheryl Oring’s multiyear, ongoing I Wish to Say project—in which she sets up a desk with a typewriter and invites people to dictate a letter to the President or a presidential candidate, which she types and sends—is a catalyst for a deeper look at artists’ intersection with public policy.”

Sheryl A. Oring earned her B.S. in Journalism at the University of Colorado and her M.F.A. from the University of California.  http://www.sheryloring.org/

Works by the following full and part-time faculty are featured in the exhibition: Maria Bologna, Kiley Brandt, Betty Brownlee, Allana Clarke, Pamela DeLaura, Jessika Edgar, Laura Foxman, David Stephan Graves, Richard Haley, Adrian Hatfield, Margaret Hull, Lauren Kalman, Deborah Kingery, Ruth Koelewyn, Brian Kritzman, Claas Kuhnen, Evan Larson-Voltz, Heather Macali, Katie MacDonald, Heather Mawson, Judith A. Moldenhauer, Carole Morisseau, Sheryl Oring, Kathyrose Pizzo, Tom Pyrzewski, Kyle Sharkey, Rebekah Sweda, Andrea Thurston-Shaine, Millee Tibbs, Maureen Vachon, Margi Weir, and Golsa Yaghoobi.

Wayne State University,  2020 Faculty Exhibition, a virtual exhibition opened November 19, 2020, and runs through January 8, 2021.

 

 

InterStates of Mind @ MSU Broad

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

In 1928, Ford Motor Company acquired 2.5 million acres of forest in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon with the intent of supplying the company’s Michigan factories with a reliable supply of cheap rubber. Here it erected Fordlandia, a pop-up town populated by locals who, coaxed by competitive wages, worked in the employ of Ford Motors. Ford aggressively pushed American culture onto the workers, mandating, among other things, required poetry readings (in English), community sing-alongs, and American cuisine. In 1930, the workers revolted, and the Brazilian army had to restore order.  The endeavor was a failure.  The region wasn’t sufficiently conducive to growing rubber trees, and by 1934, the project was abandoned; however,  Fordlandia’s buildings still stand, and the town attained immortality as a major inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World.  Fordlandia is just one of many examples of the automotive industry’s influence on culture presented in the MSU Broad’s excellent exhibition InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile.

This large exhibition fills the entirety of the Broad’s second floor gallery suite with a multimedia selection of art and ephemera largely (though not entirely) selected from its own collection. While it sometimes addresses the automobile industry in broad strokes, the exhibition also addresses how the automotive industry shaped Lansing in particular. InterStates of Mind gives special attention to some of the economic, environmental, and social problems exacerbated—if not always directly caused—by the automotive industry.

InterStates opens with a trilogy of early, iconic films which emphatically proclaimed an unfettered optimism of the automobile (and in technology in general) to realize an earthly American utopia.  In 1939, for the New York World’s Fair, General Motors constructed an impressively large animated diorama of a city of the future, at the heart of which was the automotive industry and the highway system.  The 23 minute film Futurama slowly pans through this sprawling model (designed by GM’s Norman Bel Geddes) as a narrator envisions a future in which science, technology, and the highway system are harnessed to create an ideal society. Though many of the film’s predictions indeed came true, its flamboyant optimism in a technology-driven utopia certainly rings hollow in retrospect.

Master Hands, a film also produced by General Motors, artfully walks the viewer through the manufacturing process of a 1936 Chevrolet.  Underscored by a triumphant, Wagneresque soundtrack composed by Samuel Benavie and performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the film’s visuals really are aesthetically beautiful, and the music engages with action on the assembly line in a perfectly coordinated dance. Master Hands showcases the undeniable ingenuity behind the assembly process.

As a foil to the optimism of these films, InterStates also presents an ensemble of the socially poignant photographs of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and other photographers whose work documented the lives of those worst hit by the Great Depression.  “There’s no way like the American way,” a billboard loudly proclaims in a photograph by Arthur Rothstein, though the blighted buildings in the background brutally undercut this cheerful sentiment.  While some of these photographs don’t directly reference the automobile itself, they collectively push against the utopic, concurrent visions of Futurama.  

Arthur Rothstein, Sign, Birmingham, Alabama, 1937, printed 1987. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase

Dorothea Lange, Gas station. Kern County, California, 1939, printed 1987. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase.

This exhibit gives prominence to an ensemble of eight large photographs by Brazilian artist Clarissa Tossin, whose conceptual project When Two Places Look Alike addresses the overtly colonialist nature of Fordlandia.  Many of the American-style homes built for the workers in Fordlandia still stand, and Tossin’s photographs wittily draw visual parallels between the architecture of Fordlandia’s homes with those of Alberta, Michigan, also a company town established by Ford in the 1930s.

Clarissa Tossin, When two places look alike, 2012. Courtesy the artist, Luisa Strina Gallery São Paulo, and Commonwealth Council, Los Angeles.

Given Lansing’s prominence in the automotive industry, it seems fitting that this show localizes much of its content.  A generous portion of the exhibit explores the social impact of I-496, the expressway which serves as a main artery Eastward and Westward through Lansing, and the construction of which displaced a mostly African-American population from their homes.  A massive enlargement of an aerial photograph shows a stretch of these houses prior to the construction of the expressway, hinting at the many lives that it would seriously interrupt.

While much of this show examines the automobile’s influence through a jaundiced eye, it certainly refrains from being drearily pessimistic.  There’s a whole ensemble of photographs highlighting the phenomena of the roadside attraction.  And some works celebrate the visual potential of the materiality of the automobile itself, such as Chakaia Booker’s rubber sculptures that playfully flaunt the aesthetic potential of used tires, which she manages to cut, sculpt, twist, and manipulate into forms that look almost organic.

InterStates of mind offers a considered and thoughtful re-assessment of the automotive industry’s impact on society.  Though this exhibit is certainly informative (expect to find yourself reading your way through large parts of this exhibit), it’s also visually rewarding, offering visitors a veritable cornucopia of works which snugly make the most of the Broad’s exhibition space.  While these works certainly aren’t disparaging of the automobile’s influence on culture, they collectively approach the subject with an honest ambivalence, and the early 20th Century visions and promises of a technology-driven American utopia, in retrospect, ultimately seem to ring hollow.

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

 

Video courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum
InterStates of Mind is currently on view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, and runs through August 2021.  The exhibition is free, but to ensure a safe experience timed tickets must be ordered in advance.

Car Design in the Motor City @ DIA

Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950 – 2020 at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Installation: counterclockwise, Firebird III, General Motors, 1958; 300C, Chrysler Corporation, 1957; Le Sabre, General Motors, 1951

As a visitor arriving at the Farnsworth Street entrance of the Detroit Institute of Arts to take in “Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950 – 2020,” you’ve just begun your journey. After entering the Farnsworth doors of the South Wing of the building, one begins a colorful and eye-catching hike across the width of the museum. The tour passes through the hallowed halls and treasure laden galleries of the Institute until reaching the North Wing and the now deinstalled modern/contemporary galleries and the exhibition entrance. There, a wide doorway (definitely not a columned portal) leads into the first show-stopping gallery of “Detroit Style.” Unlike any other gallery in the DIA, arrayed before you is a breathtaking trio of sleek, shiny automobiles seemingly floating on an expansive white vinyl plinth: a silvery gray Firebird III (General Motors, 1958), a pristine white 300C (Chrysler Corporation, 1957), and a lush misty blue Le Sabre (General Motors,1951). Their elegantly understated hues allow the clean lines, crisp edges and creases, wings, fins, and upswept taillights to protrude and project into space. After all, as a curator once wittily claimed, “Automobiles are hollow, rolling sculptures.”

This, the first and largest gallery, focuses on the 1950s in an exhibition that unfolds chronologically decade by decade. Organized and overseen by DIA curator Benjamin Colman, twelve cars in all are displayed, four from each of the Big Three manufacturers. (And, tactfully, a different car graces three distinct covers of the indispensable catalog–in red, silver, or blue, your choice.) Each of the sequential galleries showcases one or more concept and/or production vehicles. In addition to automobiles, the show offers design drawings, archival photos, paintings, a sculpture, and short videos in which designers discuss their works. (Access the videos at end of this text.)

In the opening gallery, for instance, devoted to the 1950s and presenting the cars described above, a drawing by Art Miller, Rendering of Automobile Interior (1952), features a cutaway view of a gleaming red and black interior and the startling sight beyond the opposite window of a tiny, low flying jet zooming by in the distance, an apt reflection of the influence of aircraft forms on auto design then as well as of the au courant lingo of the 50s: “The Forward Look.”

Installation: foreground, Corvette Stingray Racer, General Motors, 1959; background, Edward Ruscha, Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, oil on canvas, 1963

In one of the subsequent galleries addressing the 1960s, a Corvette Stingray Racer (General Motors,1959) is backgrounded by Edward Ruscha’s Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963). Sharp, crisp lines exaggerating length and emphasizing edges and creases earmark both objects. The iconic red, white, and blue gas station, defined by thrusting diagonals that recede into infinity, is silhouetted against a dark sky with criss crossing searchlights that highlight both the glowing filling station and silvery Stingray in the foreground.

Installation: left, Mustang, Ford Motor Company, 1967; right, Plymouth Barracuda, Chrysler Corporation, 1970; middle, John Chamberlain, Coo Wha Zee, painted steel, 1962

Moving further along into the 60s, two so-called pony cars, the Mustang ((Ford, 1967) and Plymouth Barracuda (Chrysler, 1970), enter the scene. Viewed head on, as here, these sporty, youthful, and spirited vehicles present contrasting hues, one gutsy black, the other flaming red, each with a broad, mouthy grille suggestive of a tense, one-on-one confrontation. Nestled between them is John Chamberlain’s brawny black and white sculpture, Coo Wah Zee (1963). Fabricated from discarded car parts bent and contorted into a tall, rough-edged abstraction, it is, as the title intimates, one “crazy” sculpture. Two drawings, the rakishly tilted 71 Barracuda Front End Facelift Concept (1968) by Donald Hood and Howard Payne’s smoldering Ford Mustang(1965)–a ripe orange body profiled on red paper–attest to the visceral appeal of these feisty, automative rivals.

Donald Hood, ’71 Barracuda Front End Facelift Concept, mixed media on vellum, 1968

 

Howard Payne, Ford Mustang, Prismacolor and gouache on red charcoal paper, 1965

Just beyond midpoint in the exhibition, rather like a palate refresher, the 4-door, aerodynamic Probe IV (Ford, 1983) comes into view. Its soft, pristine white hue, integrated forms, rounded corners, quiet, whispering demeanor, and four wheel covers minimizing the presence of tires and implicit speed, denote what one commentator described as a “wind cheating supercar.”  Accompanying its calm presence are a number of fluid, ovoid renderings by Howard “Buck” Mook, Maurice Chandler, Taru Lahti, and Ken Okuyama (c. 1982 -1991).

GT, Ford Motor Company, 2017

 

Kristin Baker, The Unfair Advantage, acrylic on PVC on board, 2003

The final gallery, sparely installed, is home to just two works: an electric blue, sinuous, teardrop shaped GT (Ford, 2017) and Kristin Baker’s large scale, mixed media composition The Unfair Advantage (2003). The swept-back lines of the low-slung GT, a reinterpretation of a racing car legend of 1966, telegraph power, speed, machismo. Baker, alternatively, presents a cautionary work, an updated Futurist scene (landscape, raceway?) that evokes jagged, colorful forms whizzing by AND, as a counterpoint, the blurred, roiling smoke and fire indicative of a catastrophic crash. Nothing like ending the show with a bang!

Videos, accessible here,  provide perspective on how Detroit’s iconic vehicles are created with this interview series featuring car designers Ralph Gilles, Emeline King, Craig Metros, and Ed Welburn.  The four designers share their insights on favorite cars, the use of materials, and the collaboration between designers and engineers.

“Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950 – 2020” is on display at the DIA through June 27, 2021. Keep in mind that to view the exhibition you will need to reserve in advance a specific day and time for your visit.

Tom Livo @ Image Works

Paintings by Tom Livo, Installation shot, All images courtesy of Image Works

Like many cultural institutions in the era of Covid-19, art galleries are struggling with economic pain that goes along with the physical peril of the pandemic. So it’s a pleasure to find an art venue that is both showing interesting work and managing to keep the lights on.  Image Works is the brainchild of photographer Chris Bennett, a recent arrival to the Detroit area from Portland, Oregon. While the back portion of Image Works is dedicated to Bennett’s day job as a provider of fine art and photographic printing, the front features a small but pristine gallery where the paintings of Tom Livo are on display until November 27.

In the roomful of Livo’s images  now at Image Works, the artist explores childhood memories, translating family snapshots into painterly compositions that recapture and give significance to  fleeting recollections of times past. Born in Garden City, Michigan in the 60’s, the CCS graduate describes his method: “I revisited family albums, shuffling through stacks of old Polaroids and snapshots, choosing which to paint. The people and situations come alive again, reigniting fond, half memories and themes that, I suppose, resonate universally.”

Tom Livo, Walking My Gargoyle, Oil on Board, 12×12″, 2019

Two bodies of the artist’s work are represented in the gallery, each quite different from the other in scale, palette, composition and mood. By comparing and contrasting them, we can find a way into the artist’s mind and discover both his ambivalence and his affection for family, friends and his own childhood.

One side of the gallery is packed, salon style, with small, usually colorful, paintings of figures, many of them children. Derived from photographs of long-ago holidays and parties, the kids are routinely costumed and mugging for the camera. The compositions emphasize the outsize personalities of the subjects; often the children are disguised as monsters.  The pictured adults are lumpy, unglamorous, almost as monstrous as their costumed offspring, but unembarrassed by their own imperfections. They boldly make eye contact with the viewer: while they know they are being watched, they are also watching us.

Tom Livo, The Hair Curlers, Oil on Board, 12×12″, 2019

Because the pieces in this collection are intimate in scale, the virtuosity of Livo’s brushwork surges to the fore–these small works are beautifully painted. Backgrounds are either (mostly) flat white or minimally detailed. The general effect of these paintings, while subtly menacing, is cheerful, even gleeful.

By contrast, the big monochrome paintings that make up the rest of the artworks in this exhibit are too chilly to be nostalgic. They are arms length recollections, replete with ambiguous meaning and emotion.   The painting She’s Not There, is an exercise in mid-tone gray that recalls the low resolution, low contrast images of pre-color television. An elderly woman (the artist’s grandmother, as it happens) stands in a featureless room, next to a television that is as much an enigmatic presence as she is. The blank face of the turned-off set is echoed in the glare of the woman’s glasses, obscuring her eyes, and implying, it seems, the diminished presence of old age.  The two companion figures, tv and woman, are relatively small within the blank expanse of the modest interior, a device the painter employs again in his painting N’Octover. In the picture, a young man reclines, apparently asleep in an armchair. The table lamp, centrally located, seems more sentient than the man. Here, the emptiness of the room suggests a barren psychic landscape where the inhabitants’ interior lives are unknown and unknowable.

Tom Livo, She’s Not There, Oil on Canvas, 64×48″, 2020

Livo explores a different compositional strategy in his portrait of a young, bespectacled girl. Her gray face fills the picture, like a woman in a particularly joyless Alex Katz painting, and we are hard pressed to penetrate the smooth surface of her skin to find the soul within.  The artist’s lens zooms back out for his most engaging black and white painting, The Riviera. Unlike She’s Not There and N’Octover, The Riviera  is set outdoors, in a neighborhood very much like the one outside the gallery walls of Image Works. A tidy brick ranch home with a lush yard provides the background for a sporty muscle car in the driveway. The two men in the picture seem relaxed and satisfied with their lot, comfortable at a time when the American Dream seemed like an entitlement. Today, the neighborhood remains, but the sense of ease has gone.

Tom Livo, The Riviera, oil on canvas, 48” x 60”, 2020

Livo’s paintings memorialize a time and place to which he can’t return, and it isn’t clear from the mood of the paintings if he even really wants to.   Instead they provide a frame of reference for the present, to help us remember when things were different, if not better.   The world we live in today is more consumer driven, more atomized, more diverse and less secure than ever. The past will remain forever out of reach, but with these paintings, Livo seems to be saying that, just sometimes, it’s a joyful and useful exercise to remind ourselves what those days, those people, those places–and we–were like.

Tom Livo, Polish Karen, oil on canvas, 48” x 48” 2020

During the pandemic, Image Works, located at 3726 Monroe St., Dearborn MI 48124, is open by appointment: call 313-768-5020 or email info@imageworksfineart.com