Winter @ Cranbrook Art Museum: Craft Takes a Bow

Untitled II (for Ashgebat) by Christy Matson, 2016-2019, hand-woven cotton, linen, wool, indigo dye and acrylic on stretched canvas.

Contemporary craft is having a moment. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently placed ceramics by George Ohr next to Van Gogh’s Starry Night in their re-installed galleries. Taking a Thread for a Walk, an exhibit that celebrates weaving and fiber art in all its forms, both ancient and modern, will be on view there until April, 2020. Meanwhile, over at the Whitney, there’s a comprehensive survey of modern and contemporary American craft from 1950-2019, called Making/Knowing: Craft in Art.

Members of the Cranbrook arts community might be forgiven for asking what took so long; since its founding in 1922, Cranbrook has been a champion for American craft traditions. The museum seems to be taking a victory lap for its prescience right now:  4 exhibits on view through March carry the vision of craft as art forward while also looking back at important moments of its history, in Detroit and beyond.

Wireworks by Ruth Adler Schnee, 1950, ink on white dreamspun batiste

Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living

A major retrospective (her first) of eminent Detroit textile and interior designer Ruth Adler Schnee occupies the museum’s front gallery. Adler Schnee’s family fled Nazi German in 1939, settling in Detroit, where she attended Cass Technical High School. After earning a degree in design at the Rhode Island School of Design, Adler Schnee returned to Detroit to study architecture with Eliel Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, graduating in 1946. She faced obstacles as a woman to a career in the male-dominated field of architecture, but immediately found success in textile design. Her memorable modernist cotton prints are on display and will be immediately familiar to anyone who feels an affinity for the recently resurgent interest in midcentury modern design.

Ruth Adler Schnee made it her mission to democratize good design for the post-war mass American market. “We are living in a democracy. Our designs for living must have social implications,” she states in her Cranbrook master’s thesis.    She worked extensively as an interior designer and textile designer with architects like Minoru Yamasaki, Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen, as well as operating (for 30 years with her husband Eddie) Adler Schnee Associates, a retail design business in Detroit. She also worked with American car companies; for an amusing look at their symbiotic relationship and a historic overview of the importance of Detroit as a driver of design in the 50’s and 60’s you can view American Look, a 1958 promotional film sponsored by Chevrolet.

At 96, Adler Schnee continues to be a relevant force in textile design today through adaptation of her classic printed textile designs into woven fabrics and carpet design. Examples of both are on display in the gallery.

Designs Worth Repeating, Woven Textiles by Ruth Adler Schnee. Woven fabrics based on Adler Schnee’s mid-century modern prints, re-introduced for the 21st century.

Christy Matson: Crossings

Contemporary L.A. fiber artist Christy Matson is a multi-disciplinary shape shifter whose work occupies an esthetic space at the intersection of painting, weaving and collage.  Employing digital technology and a jacquard loom, Matson expands the formal parameters of weaving. She creates tapestries that incorporate organic curving lines and shapes unavailable via more traditional techniques and employs novel fibers and pigments added to traditional yarns and threads. The results are fiber artworks that have been aptly described as “painterly.”

Crossings, a solo exhibit of her work currently on view at the museum, consists of two large tapestries realized as a commission for the U.S. Embassy in Ashgebat, Turkmenistan, as well as several smaller, more intimate pieces that allow a welcome closer look at Matson’s technical means.

Matson has an expressed interest in the symbolism and the technical realization of traditional Turkmen textiles, as well as a kinship with the women who make them. The traditional costumes of Turkmenistan are deeply symbolic and incorporate imagery specific to the gender, social position and age of the wearer. Varieties of technical decoration in local costume, such as patchwork and embroidery, make a richly colorful and tactile pastiche that relates formally to Matson’s work.  The rugs for which the region is justly famous are woven by women from a variety of fibers dyed with a combination of synthetic and natural dyes, another point of correspondence with the artist.

Untitled I (for Ashgebat) by Christy Matson, 2016-2019, hand-woven cotton, linen, wool, indigo dye and arcylic on stretched canvas.

The two colossal tapestries that anchor the exhibition incorporate abstract pattern and stylized images of plants using long narrow woven panels joined two by two.  Untitled 1 (for Ashgebat) consists of stripes and floral motifs that are repeated and occasionally reversed and tilted to yield a roughly symmetrical counterpoint. A central stylized blossom anchors the composition.  Untitled II (for Ashgebat) flirts with the illusion of pictorial space.  The hazy vertical stripes on the left suggest grasslands, while the same lines reversed and repeated on the right suggest the fringe of a rug.  The stylized seed heads and blossoms on each panel create a satisfying rhythm without precisely repeating themselves.

The smaller pieces in Crossings allow a closer look at Matson’s art practice. Particularly illuminating is her Overshot Variation 1 which incorporates bands of painted paper using the overshot technique often employed in Jacquard weaving.

Overshot Variation I by Christy Matson, 2018, deadstock overseen linen, acrylic and spray paint on paper, Einband Icelandic wood

In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969

For artists who dream of an idyllic creative space where collaboration, mutual support and disciplinary cross-pollination are the rule, the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts represents a dream come true. The 90 pieces that fill, and threaten to overflow, the museum’s middle galleries recount the history of this important creative community from 1950-1969 for the first time.  The objects in the exhibit range from textiles to printmaking, ceramics, metalwork and painting, and even to jewelry making and glass art. By discarding ideas regarding the primacy of fine art versus craft, the members of Haystack approached a non-hierarchical egalitarian ideal. Many of the artists represented in the exhibit also had ties to the Cranbrook arts community during a particularly fertile period for craftspeople who lived and worked and created in this uniquely supportive creative environment.

Video still, from Dance of the Looney Spoons, by Stan VanDerBeek with Johanna VanDerBeek, 1959-1965, 16 mm black and white film transferred to video with sound, 5:20 minutes (Haystack)

Silver Road Runner by Stan VanDerBeek, 1954, assorted metal silverware (Haysta

 

Ancient People by Hodaka Yoshida, 1956, relief print on paper (Haystack)

For the Record: Artists on Vinyl

In the lower level gallery, you can experience the unexpected pleasure of 50 designs for vinyl records–some vintage, some recent– by a who’s who of artists comfortable working at the intersection of design and fine art:  Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Banksy, Shephard Fairey and Keith Haring, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Motherwell, to name only a few. The square parameters of the vinyl record cover seem to have offered the perfect creative space for artists to create bite-size versions of their more ambitious works. It’s worth a trip down the stairs just to see Jean Dubuffet’s painting Promenade a deux from the museum’s collection, installed next to his lithograph Musical Experiences.

Promenade a deux by Jean Dubuffet, 1974, vinyl on canvas, matt Cryla varnish

The exhibits at Cranbrook right now, particularly the Ruth Adler Schnee retrospective, demonstrate some of the diverse ways in which craft and design have historically influenced America’s aspirational culture. The built environment of the country, though, has changed–is changing.  As the past gives way to the future, the times will require creatives that bring the same level of creativity seen here to new challenges like technological innovation and environmental change.

Winter at Cranbrook Art Museum: Craft Takes a Bow  through March 15, 2020

 

Labyrinths: Shiva Ahmadi @ Elaine L. Jacob Gallery

Installation view: Shiva Ahmad opening Photos courtesy of Elaine J. Jacobs Gallery

Shiva Ahmadi @ Elaine L. Jacob Gallery –  Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan

There was a palpable groundswell of pride and affection for Iranian artist Shiva Ahmadi from the audience when Grace Serra, curator of Wayne State University Art Collection, introduced her at her recent talk during the opening of her exhibition, “Labyrinths,” at the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery. Indeed, during her talk she reciprocated the feeling, referencing the faculty of Wayne State University’s art department and Cranbrook Academy of Arts, where she received an MFA in drawing (2003) and MFA in painting (2005) respectively. She honored faculty members who trained and nurtured her there. She remembered the late Professor Stanley Rosenthal’s energetic support who aided her in getting from Tehran, Iran to Detroit (enduring the United States own 9/11 nightmare) and into the WSU Degree program. The legends of Wayne’s art department faculty showed up to celebrate Ahmadi. John Hegerty was there with hugs. Jeffrey Abt leaned over and whispered “Shiva was a marvelous student.” Marilyn Zimmerman sang praises from the audience. Dora Apel exclaimed, “Her work is wonderful.” As an artist, she appeared strong and resolute and as a human being filled with gratitude for what Wayne’s art department had done for her. It was a proud moment for Wayne State University.

At the Opening: Professor John Hegerty and Shiva Ahmadi

Shiva Ahmadi was born in Tehran, Iran in 1975, just before the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah and the Iraq-Iran war that wreaked bloody mayhem on both countries for years and still continues. An estimated million people were slaughtered. As a child, Ahmadi witnessed and lived through that bloodshed. It’s the prime mover of her current body of work.

Shiva Ahmadi, “The Wall,”2016, Watercolor and ink on paper, 40” X 60”

In a mix of water color, ink, acrylic, and video, Ahmadi’s “Labyrinths” engages a meditation on the dynamics of capricious power, mindless loyalty, blood and oil economics and war. Inspired by the tradition of miniature paintings of Persia, stunningly drawn, large scale watercolor and ink drawings establish an index of characters—animal and human figures— set in a haunting landscape. Ahmadi’s tableaux usually situated in walled or gardenlike landscapes, insulated interiors, controlled by an often-empty throne. The large watercolors, “The Knot,” “Mesh,” and “The Wall,” 2016, establish and illustrate the cosmology of Ahmadi’s world. And she can draw. Always beguilingly lyrical, her faceless figures (parody of Islamic aniconism?) float aimlessly, in her magical but existential emptiness, waiting.

In these remarkably executed watercolors, a captivating choreography of Ahmadi’s characters pay mindless fealty to elaborately decorated thrones (Persian history), signifying 2500 years of history. Ahmadi’s primate-like, docile minions carry out the job of salaaming the throne and among other things, seem to be processing uranium for operating nuclear reactors, and like graceful automatons, juggle beautiful bubbles into bombs. In “Minaret,” (2017) four interconnected minarets, towers used to call the faithful to prayer, are represented as nuclear towers for nuclear energy and bombs. Like the Persian miniatures, Ahmadi’s palette of colors is composed of rich earth tones punctuated by a background of transparent watercolor wash. They are elegant yet they are drawn with purpose as if from memory.

Shiva Ahmadi, “Minaret,” 2017, Watercolor on paper, 20.5” x 29.5 “

If Islamic miniatures are the main inspiration for Ahmadi’s iconography, the modern cartoon seems to have also played its part. In conversation Shiva alluded to her youthful preoccupation of watching cartoons. While most Persian miniatures are densely packed with a precisely drawn geometry of figures and architectural spaces, Ahmadi’s open spaced compositions read, cartoon-like, as sites of movement and action, suggesting metaphoric narratives. Some of the loose gestural watercolor figures resemble cartoon characters but the brush work comes straight out of abstract expressionism. The tableaux in “Green Painting” and “Burning Car,” employing aggressive brushwork of globs of paint, read as horrific attacks on the home and individual lives and the bloody gore, as if painted with human viscera itself, the nightmare of revolution. One cannot ultimately help but read them as a kind of personal exorcism of the nightmare Ahmadi has witnessed. Some of the works, like “Burning Car,” read as Biblical representations of hell itself with demonic human figures in combat rending others into bloody gore.

Shiva Ahmadi, “Burning Car,” 2019 Acrylic and Watercolor on Aquaboard, 36” x 46 “

Ahmadi has also translated pressure cookers, used in many terrorist attacks as bombs (including the 2013 Boston Marathon that killed three and maimed hundreds), into sculptures, filled with nails and adorned with intaglio hand-etching with Arabic script and Islamic decoration, becoming satires on sanctity Islamic culture. The brutal irony of the text that is etched on them is that it is what Muslims pray before they die.

Shiva Ahmadi, “Pressure Cooker #4,” 2016, Etching on Aluminum Pressure cooker 10 x 19.5 x 12 inches

Two videos animate Ahmadi’s drawings into mesmerizing narratives that critique the nature of political and religious power. “Lotus,” commissioned by the Asian Society Museum, proposes what would happen if the Buddha, a surrogate for God, loses his enlightenment, signified by the flight of the word for God or Allah in Farsi, snatched by a dove, leaving the throne Godless. Leaving the servile devotees without a spiritual center, the landscape is thrown into total chaos, populated by Ahmadi’s now meaningless, randomly dispersed figures and objects. The implications of Lotus are global.

Shiva Ahmadi, “Lotus,” 2013, Watercolor, ink and acrylic on Aquaboard, 60” X 120”

“Ascend,” is an animation that tells the recent, internationally read, news story of the life of a Syrian child refuge whose body was washed up on the shore of Turkish coast, after his family attempted to flee war torn Syria, hoping for a safer life in Europe and eventually Vancouver, Canada. The video is painfully lyrical, composed of Ahmadi’s animal figures frolicking together with bubbling toys which ultimately leads to the young boy’s drowned body washed ashore.

Aside from the current relevance of her subject matter, the attraction of Ahmadi’s painting is quite simply the combination of the elegance and deftness of her drawing and the masterful handling of paint and watercolor on the paper. Her work gains traction by the apt appropriation of Islamic iconography, turning it on its head and reversing its message. Ahmadi is a testimony to the significant role artists can play, but don’t often enough, in giving shape to our political dialogue.

Elaine L. Jacob Gallery Wayne State University
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LABYRINTHS: Shiva Ahmadi
Dates: January 16 through March 20, 2020
Gallery Hours: Wednesdays through Fridays, 1-5PM

Timothy van Laar @ Simone DeSousa

Timothy van Laar, Installation image, Simone DeSousa Gallery, 2020 All images are courtesy of the Simone DeSousa Gallery

Simone DeSousa Gallery presents Timothy van Laar in a solo exhibition titled Always Sometimes Never. Van Laar is a multi-media artist working primarily in painting, collage, installation and drawing. He has exhibited his work in over 250 solo and group exhibitions in the US and abroad. His work is included in collections such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, The Illinois State Museum, The Minneapolis Institute of Art and Herman Miller. Van Laar is also a distinguished scholar and art critic, co-authoring three books and has written numerous art reviews and catalog essays.

Van Laar’s new paintings are displayed alongside selected works from the 1980’s and the 1990’s. The new pieces originate in the ruptured signs and spaces of collage, referencing various utopian ideas- Eden, comfort, new worlds, prediction. The older works emphasize and give context to the broad, consistent issues of his work and show a long term commitment to paintings that embrace their materiality, rummage through cultural history and merge anxiety with pleasure.

It’s an education to view an artist’s older work in tandem with the newer because it illustrates the creative journey. Van Laar’s earlier work is pure abstract expressionism. Aggressive swirls, dabs and chunks of paint arranged in enough of a composition to keep the paint from dripping off the canvas. Ferociously applied paint using various tools are revealed by their residual marks and strokes. Muddy earth and grey tones lending a melancholy flavor.

Timothy van Laar, Natural History (Blossfeldt) XII, oil and wax on canvas 20×16″ 1996

Timothy van Laar, Natural History (Blossfeldt) VIII, oil and wax on canvas 20×16″ 1996

In the newer pieces, the work is cleaner with their subjects floating in a negative space, bound by palette and theme like electrons in an atom. The same artist’s hand appears in the application of thick paint in a dab and swirl motion, leaving tactile globs that strongly contrast with the blended smooth renderings of their neighboring objects.

I was immediately taken with New World. Identifying the mushroom with its lingering cloud set off mental alarms. I’m pleased that cloud seems to be merely an embarrassing expulsion of nuclear flatulence versus an Armageddon style eruption. Let’s hope we get off that easy. A tender component is an assortment of colored circles occupying the grid. This is an interesting device that not only contributes to the overall composition, it affords a bit of cheer to the narrative. This color scheme phenomenon appears regularly in this artist’s work and has carried through a few conceptual evolutions. An older, smaller work The Book of Landscape, (Ansel Adams), van Laar seems to be inviting the viewer to paint the mountains with these suggested colors as in a paint-by-numbers kit. I liked this work so much it made its debut in my IG feed when it was freshly conceived.

Timothy van Laar, New World, oil on canvas 36×48″ 2019

Timothy van Laar, The Book of Landscape (Ansel Adams), oil on canvas 16×20″ 2017

In Eden, van Laar chose to paint his hummingbird in a loose and expressive manner. Without the benefit of detail, and far from scale size, it effectively communicates this bird’s delicate loveliness. In the upper left corner is the provided color sampler presented in a Matisse cut-out style. A small Escher-like object rounds out the subjects. This is a very calming piece — a pleasure to New World’s anxious tone.

Timothy van Laar, Eden, oil on canvas 36×48″, 2019

In the tech-comm realm where everyone seems to be shouting, this exhibition has as much to say as anyone about our global fears, but van Laar discusses his point of view quietly and beautifully. If you want to get someone’s attention, whisper.

 

Ryan Standfest @ Simone DeSousa – EDITION

Simone DeSousa EDITION presents I went to work but I did not get there, a special feature of new works by Ryan Standfest.

“In my work, unrequited yearning for progress collides with more complex realities in which failure undermines expectation and shifts centers of power in an absurd cycle of hyped aspiration and subsequent deflation. These polarities necessitate social critique with the question of who is allowed to access dreams of fulfillment and what that yields. I return to a very particular convoluted working class inclination toward longing undercut by repulsion: the need for upward mobility combined with a distrust of what that success gains access to.”

Standfest’s exhibition is multi-media including everything from relief prints, paint, tape and a metal lunch box. The craftsmanship is so stellar, it allows the viewer to proceed directly to the message. The humor, as well as the futility, shines through in tightly organized configurations. I appreciate the contrast of clean lines alongside the rough-cut collaged material.

Ryan Standfest, Factory Head No. 5 (TODAY I MADE NOTHING), archival inkjet on Epson 15×15″ framed, 2019 Image courtesy of the artist

Standfest’s cold industrial, almost a chilling Vonnegut Welcome to the Monkey House vibe, is suddenly broken with an old-timey sales pitch that produced an actual LOL from this viewer. FINAL DAYS! EVERYTHING MUST GO! The theme of this show contains both the depressing and the mundane. Current economic circumstances in “NO HELP WANTED” and a familiar “Today I Made Nothing” complete with Standfest’s headgear version of the Monkey House’s heavy collar of obedience and conformity, rendering the subject anonymous. As one who is capable of sitting in my studio ‘working’ when no visible change has been made to any of the pieces, I can spin the apparent inactivity into some kind of philosophical explanation that I’ve been contemplating the palette or the composition or ruminating over my entire concept: How to look busy without actually producing anything.

Ryan Standfest, Ryan Standfest,  Wide shot of the entire installation, 2020

THE WOUND OF THE WORKING CLASS! sits close to the center of the installation, enjoying a splash of pink, the only bright color in an otherwise muted palette. Hope? We don’t need no thought control.

Both van Laar and Standfest employ harsh narratives tempered with moments of sparkling humanity. They both explore current social, environment and economic themes. Muted but bright. Expressive yet controlled. The dichotomy of human existence.

Get ‘em while they’re hot!

Tim van Laar and Ryan Standfest at the Simone DeSousa Gallery runs through Feb 22, 2020

Nick Doyle @ Reyes / Finn

A series of works using denim constructions on the wall and mechanical miniature sculptures.

Nick Doyle, Reyes / Finn Gallery Installation, All images courtesy of DAR

On the coattails of Art Basel in Miami 2019, the Reyes / Finn gallery opens the new year with Nick Doyle’s work Paved Paradise. This conceptual revisit to pop art skillfully displays American iconography, both the denim works on the wall and moving miniature sculptures. Pop Art of the early 1960s was exemplified by an enlarged work on canvas of a Campbell’s soup can by the artist Andy Warhol and the term “pop art” was officially introduced in December 1962; the occasion was a “Symposium on Pop Art” organized by the Museum of Modern Art.

When the viewer enters the exhibition, acrylic on canvas is the first impression, but on closer examination, it’s cut and colored denim on board that realistically creates the illusion. There is the apparent cliché associated with denim, a kind of masculine Americana that embodies these objects. There is a mix of signage, painting of objects, and moving miniature sculptures that captivate the viewing audience.

Nick Doyle, The Time for Change is Now and No Vend, (diptych) Collaged Denim and Flashe on custom relief panel, 36 x 72 x 1.5″, 2019

He says in his statement, “My Practice is multidisciplinary and often employs sculpture, painting, mechanical motion, and video. I look to media, particularly film, television, and photography as a source of imagery. I think of visual media like a pop culture database full of narratives pertaining to the cultural moment. My interested lies in what these narratives have to say about us as a culture, and the permission these narratives allow us as individuals. I think of my work as part of the psychological landscape of media culture. The objects, videos and machines that I make hold the psychic energy of my experiences and life, and allow me a way to engage with a broader visual discussion. I use a lot of commonly found materials often found in local hardware stores. I recently started using a lot of denim.”

Nick Doyle, Executive Toy: Hit the Pavement, Denim, Steel, Brass, concrete, silica, bronze, and vintage Samsonite suitcase, 16.5 x 14 x 20″ 2019

In the Falling Man, the customized suitcase has a figure of a man suspended mid-background, and as the crank moves the windows downward, the illusion is created. This work has a sense of humor interjected described by the artist as a sense of darkness (jumping out a window) and lightness (it’s not a real person) that contribute to an emotional journey. Regardless of the artist’s intentions, the kinetic sculpture reflects a level of craftsmanship that is respectful, if not extraordinary.

Nick Doyle, Rolling Stone, Collage Denim and Flashe on custom relief panel, 38.5 x 23.25 x 1.5″, 2019

Nick Doyle, 1-800-COLLECT, Collaged Denim on custom relief panel, 49 x 24 x 1.5″, 2019

The two images of a package of cigarettes and a wallphone are conceptually pop art subjects, both in that, they enhance the scale of the object and are nostalgic in their intent. And that is not to say it is problematic, rather a matter of fact. As Landscape and Figure painting continue as a productive genre, why not Pop Art?

Nick Doyle, Kwik-Stop dan Executive Toy: Send in the Clown, 2019

Doyle works across various platforms and media.  In work, Kwik-Stop and Executive Toy: Send in the Clown, 2019 is what I would describe as an installation piece because it creates an environment that includes a small car, gas pump, soda drink, and various suitcases. It also serves to illustrate that his thinking is non-linear or confined to one medium of expression. Growing up in Los Angeles amongst the media mecca of the world drenched in a land of fruits and nuts where the language is streamlined in pop culture, it seems to fit nicely within the creative work of Doyles’ experience. In an interview, he says, “In Los Angeles, wealth, glamour, and fame were commonly flaunted and in certain ways gave me a grotesquely warped sense of success. There is an entire landscape of shame to traverse when comparing oneself to the class and social hierarchies not only embedded in LA’s culture but pop culture as well.”

Nick Doyle, Running on Empty, Collaged Denim on custom relief panel, 30 x 30 x 1.5″, 2019

This large circular gas gage, Running on Empty, reminds me of the Jackson Browne song released with the same name, in 1977, before Doyle was born but written at the height of the Pop Art era.  Contrary to the title, Nick Doyle’s tank is full.

Nick Doyle was born in Los Angeles, 1983, and now works and lives in Brooklyn, New York.  He earned a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA in sculpture from Hunter College, NY.

Nick Doyle @ Reyes / Finn runs through February 22, 2020

Historic American Paintings @ OUAG

American Paintings from the Nancy and Sean Cotton Collection, 1850–1940 at Oakland University Art Gallery

Semour Joseph Guy, Interior with Children, Oil on Canvas 1883

Opening January 10th, 2020, at the Oakland University Art Gallery is a traveling exhibition from the Nancy and Sean Cotton collection of American painting that captures an impression of what kind of realism was prominent in the United States, drawn from European roots and expressed in traditional in oil painting. The exhibition is sectioned off in categories: Landscape, Seascape, Cityscape, Portraiture, Still Life and Family life. Influences such as the Hudson River school or the Ashcan school of art during the late 19th or early 20th century are apparent, while also reflect influence of some of the lesser-known artists of this period. All are beautifully executed with attention to composition, light and facility.

Included in the exhibit is Interior with Children, by Seymour Joseph Guy an American born in England who studied at the Royal Academy of London and emigrated to New York City, settling in Brooklyn Heights.  He worked out of his Manhattan studio on 10th Street where he came in contact with artists William Merritt Chase, Winslow Homer and Fredrick Church. Guy was known for his family portraits and included families of distinction, such as the Vanderbilt’s.

Frank Weston Benson, Three Children, Oil on Canvas, 1907

Frank Weston Benson was an American from Salem, Massachusetts, known for his realistic portraits.  Sometimes referred to as an American Impressionist, he studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and later traveled to Paris to study with Académie Julian.  Here in this painting, Three Children,1907, he is drawn to light from a window on the left, perhaps an influence of Vermeer, with two of the girls looking at the viewer while the third girl gazes out the window. The Detroit Club purchased Benson’s Figure in a Room, but at some time during the next several decades, the painting was replaced on the Club’s premises by an excellent forgery, which was inserted into the painting’s original frame.

Hamilton Hamilton, The Silver Rattle, Oil on Canvas, 1890

Hamilton Hamilton was born in Oxford, England, but emigrated to Buffalo, New York where he painted alongside Barbizon School Painters, and is best known for his landscape paintings of the American West. In the work, The Silver Rattle, 1890, he draws on natural light from a sitting room window with the gaze of the young girl in the middle of the composition. The reflected light on the subject’s faces and the hands of the young mother bring forward a particularly attractive element in this group portrait.

Robert Spear Dunning, A Fruit Picture, Oil on Canvas, 1887

What might have been called a dining-room still-life painting, this work by Robert Spear Dunning, A Fruit Picture, 1887, depicts a display of exotic fruits upon an opulent serving tray. The painting was created for the textile industrialist, Moses Pierce from Norwich, Connecticut.  During this time period, these fruits were considered luxury items in New England, due to the shipping conditions of bananas and such. Historically, it is noted that Pierce left his fortune to train teachers for the African-American schools of the South. During his lifetime, Dunning enjoyed a long and successful career with his chosen specialty, Still Life. A century after his death, the memory of his life and work has been obscured because of the inferior status that still life has historically occupied in the hierarchy of “important” types of painting.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, The Beach at Coney Island, Oil on Canvas, 1866

The son of a well-to-do ironworks owner, Sanford Gifford, grew up in Hudson, New York, and studied at Brown University.  Gifford traveled to Europe and was influenced by the tonality of the Barbizon school of landscape painting.  Like most Hudson River school artists, Gifford traveled extensively to find scenic landscapes to sketch and paint. He returned to New York and worked out of the 10th Street studio building for the rest of his life, spending time with Frederic Church and George Yewell. The single point perspective painting, The Beach at Coney Island, 1866, relies on space and reflection to grab the viewer. The Detroit Institute of Arts has Kaaterskill Falls, 1871, as part of their collection.

Francis A. Silva, Schooner “Progress” Wrecked on Coney Island on July, 4,1874, Oil on Canvas, 1875

Francis Augustus Silva began his career as a sign painter, and after serving in the American Civil War, he first exhibited his work at the National Academy of Design and the Brooklyn Art Association. Silva’s carefully constructed compositions are known for their sense of diminishing perspective. His paintings are equally known for their sense of tranquility and a poetic, almost nostalgic quality. The painting, Schooner “Progress” Wrecked at Coney Island, illustrates another phase in Silva’s development, a shift from the purely geographic to more narrative storytelling.

William John Patton McDowell, Qween Mary Coming to New York, Oil on Canvas, 1936

William John Patton McDowell, an American considered a  British Impressionist, was born in 1889 and spent most of his life on nautical themes.  He painted the Queen Mary multiple times and here depicts the boat arriving in New York City harbor with an array of tugs and onlookers.

John Martin Tracy, Lunch in the Field, Oil on Canvas, 1885

John Martin Tracy was a Mayflower descendant born in Rochester, Ohio, and his father was an abolitionist who was killed in an anti-slavery riot before the artist’s birth.  In this work, Lunch in a Field, the African American man depicted in a kneeling position, perhaps carrying lunch for the hunters, reflects the “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws as an expression of the artist’s dismay of the conditions. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution became law in 1865, and we see the work is dated 1885, reflecting artist’s disapproval. Tracy eventually enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts from 1867–1868 and studied in the progressive atelier of the French portrait master Carolus-Duran. Tracy’s full-length portrait of his wife was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1874, marking a stylistic transition from romantic landscapes to portraiture.

Edward Lamson Henry, Election Day 1844, Oil on Canvas, 1913

The artist Edward Lamson Henry worked in a Union transport ship during the Civil War and later established a studio in Greenwich Village.  In the work, Election Day, 1844, an African American child stands in the center of the painting as the world swirls around him.  The election-year of 1844 was consequential because James K. Polk became president and paved the way to the issues that involved slavery. Henry moved to New York City as a child and eventually began his study of art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He also moved into the 10th Street studio along with Winslow Homer in 1862.

Largely absent from the collection is the presence of lower-class working people and people of color: the men, women and children that powered the expanding American industrial complex.

This kind of exhibition is healthy for an audience to see, as we experience the fact that figure painting is well and alive today, and can serve a purpose in the expressionary work of today’s practicing artists.

American Paintings from the Nancy and Sean Cotton Collection, 1850–1940 is organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts and made possible by the Nancy and Sean Cotton Collection. This is one in a series of American art exhibitions created through a multi-year, multi-institutional partnership formed by the Detroit Institute of Arts as part of the Art Bridges + Terra Foundation Initiative. Generous support is provided by the Richard and Jane Manoogian Foundation.

American Paintings from the Nancy and Sean Cotton Collection, 1850–1940 at Oakland University Art Gallery through April 5, 2020.