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Romare Bearden: Abstractions @ UMMA

An installation view of “Romare Bearden: Abstractions,” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through May 15.

“Romare Bearden: Abstractions” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through May 15 tackles work the African-American artist produced between 1952 and 1964, what some scholars call Bearden’s “forgotten decade.” That characterization is intriguing since he exhibited and won commissions during those years. But the pieces he was showing at the time – abstract oils and watercolors, as well as highly stylized figurative works — have since been elbowed aside by the blistering originality of Bearden’s Cubist-inflected collages and photomontages depicting everyday Black life.

For contrast and context, a number of those are also on display in this exhibition. But there’s no disputing the collages are what won the Charlotte, North Carolina native his place in art history. Indeed, in its 1988 obituary, the New York Times called Bearden “the nation’s foremost collagist.”

“Abstractions,” organized by the American Federation of Arts and SUNY’s Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, considers the artist’s formative period in Paris and New York, one that ultimately led to an epiphany about what his art was supposed to do. Bottom line? In an era defined by the Civil Rights struggle, Bearden and many other Black artists felt abstraction was too pure, too apolitical, too far-removed from the demands of the age. So he put it down and turned his energy elsewhere.

“I felt,” Bearden said, “that the Negro was becoming too much of an abstraction, rather than the reality that art can give a subject.” He realized he had to “establish a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic.” That led to the collages – and co-founding Harlem’s Spiral arts collective, whose members tried to work out the responsibility of the Black artist in an era of political and racial upheaval.

Romare Bearden, The Blues Has Got Me, 1944; Watercolor and ink on paper 29 x 35 ½ inches, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, GA, Permanent Collection, Gift of Dr. Walter O. Evans and Mrs. Linda J. Evans©, Romare Bearden Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Courtesy American Federation of Arts

American culture is the richer for Bearden’s shift into collages, but there’s no denying much of his earlier work is gorgeous. Particularly striking are four or five small, stylized water colors, all painted in exquisite tones, that straddle the line between the literal and the abstract. “The Blues Has Got Me” from 1944, for example, is a portrait of two musicians jamming, though only one instrument, a fiddle or violin, is recognizable. The painting is a pleasing mash-up of competing colors and colliding triangles that form legs, chairs and a table. It’s bursting with energy, and frankly fun to examine.

In tone and feel, however, it could hardly be more different from 1962’s “River Mist,” one of Bearden’s later oil abstracts that’s a dreamy, almost geologic study in blue water tones and soft terra cotta. Long versed in watercolor, Bearden had struggled through much of the 1950s with oils. But when he and his wife Nanette moved from Harlem to a downtown loft on Canal Street, where Bearden spent the rest of his life, the artist began experimenting with much larger-scale works and developed his signature approach to abstract art.

Romare Bearden, River Mist, ca. 1962; Oil on unprimed linen, and oil, casein, and colored pencil on canvas, cut, torn, and mounted on painted board 54 ¼ x 40 7/8 inches, Romare Bearden Foundation, Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York© Romare Bearden Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Courtesy American Federation of Arts

During this period, he also started studying with a Chinese master, identified only as a Mr. Wu on Bayard Street, in the techniques of Chinese calligraphy and ink-wash painting. That influence is especially visible in “Eastern Gate” from 1961, a diaphanous exercise in shades of pinkish beige crisscrossed by what appear to be fragments of calligraphy.

Romare Bearden, Eastern Gate, ca. 1961; Oil on canvas 55 7/8 x 44 inches, Romare Bearden Foundation, Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York©, Romare Bearden Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Courtesy American Federation of Arts

Romare Howard Bearden was born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina, but his parents moved to Harlem when he was very small. His father was a pianist, while his mother was a political activist, and the two created a rich, intellectually vibrant household for a young person to grow up in. The Bearden apartment became a favorite stopping-off point for poet Langston Hughes and other members of the Harlem Renaissance.

The teenaged Bearden ended up finishing high school in Pittsburgh while living with his grandparents, but after a stint at Boston University, he transferred to New York University, where he studied with the great satiric German artist George Grosz. After enlisting in the army during World War II, Bearden took advantage of the GI Bill and spent 1950 at the Sorbonne reading philosophy. While in the City of Lights he met writer Richard Wright as well Pablo Picasso, George Braque, and Constantin Brancusi – becoming good friends with the latter.

“Abstractions” is organized more or less chronologically, so you pass through galleries hung with large abstracts, and then round a corner and suddenly find yourself surrounded by the later collages. It’s a bracing, delightful shift in dynamism and excitement. Simply put, the collages – which often mix the beautiful and the bizarre – bristle with energy and veiled meaning.

Romare Bearden, Melon Season, 1967; Mixed media on canvas 56 ½ x 44 ½ inches, Collection Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University New York, Gift of Roy R. Neuberger, 1976.26.45 ©, Romare Bearden Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Courtesy American Federation of Arts

One of the most striking is the 1967 “Melon Season,” a startling collage of two African-American women, in which the Cubist influence is undeniable. The woman at left is austere and rather beautiful, her profile comprised of contrasting black squares. For her part, the woman on the right has a deformed face patched together with three or four different graphic elements, one eye a good inch above the other, giving her a slightly daft look. It’s a little shocking, frankly, yet it’s precisely that tension between composure and disturbance that gives this grave work its magnetism

You’ll find “Abstractions” on UMMA’s second floor, in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery 1. But before ascending the grand curved staircase, consider wandering the small exhibition, “You Are Here,” hung in the apse on the first floor of the original, neoclassical building. This show features pieces from the museum’s own collection that vault across centuries and genres. The superstar here is Kehinde Wiley’s 2008 “Saint Francis of Assisi,” based on Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert” from 1480. But all the works selected by Jennifer M. Friess, UMMA associate curator of photography, are compelling. And as she encourages us, by all means, do play with Harry Bertoia’s small, elegant sound sculpture. You won’t regret it.

An installation view of “You Are Here” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through May 7.

“Romare Bearden: Abstractions” is at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through May 15. “You Are Here” will be up through May 7.

 

Salon Redux @ David Klein Gallery

An installation view of “Salon Redux” at Detroit’s David Klein Gallery.

 “Salon Redux” at Detroit’s David Klein Gallery is a handsomely staged 28-person group show that includes almost any medium you can hang on a wall (and a couple that sit on the floor), and manages to be a refreshing antidote to lousy weather and other contemporary ills. But you’ll have to move quickly; “Salon Redux” is up only till Feb. 26.

The exhibition was inspired in part, says Christine Schefman, Klein director of contemporary art, by the strong positive reaction to an earlier “Salon” in 2019.  “That show had such great energy,” Schefman said, “so we decided to do it again — or ‘redux.’” She adds that it’s a spirited way to kick off the new year, and there’s no denying that.

Twenty-eight artists are represented in the salon-style group show.

Hanging works salon-style, of course, means creating a sort of wall collage, with pieces hung above and below one another in large groupings, rather than the standard approach with everything at eye level and in a single row. (The excellent wall arrangements in “Redux,” by the way, were done by preparator Craig Hejka.)

Three walls are taken up with these narrative groupings, and while they feature very different smallish works, there are a few commonalities linking them. In particular, each wall includes an irregularly-shaped color collage by Cranbrook grad Sylvain Malfroy-Camine, which in a couple cases almost resemble an artist’s old-fashioned wooden paint palette, with irregular splotches of color on a roughly circular background.

The most interesting of the three is “Diving Bell.” With its background of deep-sea blue, the work immediately calls up notions of water, while the spray of dark-blue, green, and yellow ovals covering it – all vertical — resemble nothing so much as bubbles rising to the surface. If you need a tranquil spot to rest your eyes for a minute, this would be a good choice.

Sylvain Malfroy-Camine, Diving Bell – 2021, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 23 1/2 x 26 1/2 inches.

Similarly balming in its way is Detroiter James Benjamin Franklin’s “Roam,” a gorgeous geometric color study of various shapes, with one large, off-balance dot – painted cerulean blue — that looks like it’s tiptoeing across the canvas toward escape. It’s a delightfully unstable element that defines the entire painting. Franklin’s use of colors is instructive as well. The tans, greens, and darker blues absorb light, while a silver streak and a semi-circle of lustrous black pop it right back at the viewer, compounding the visual texture.

Franklin, another Cranbrook MFA, is having a moment – in addition to “Salon Redux,” he’s got a solo show at Reyes Finn in Detroit with nine of his large-scale, abstract works, also up through Feb. 26, 2022.

As it happens, Cranbrook enjoys pride of place in this exhibition, claiming 11 of the 28 artists. In addition to Malfroy-Camine and Franklin, there’s Emmy Bright with her “NO, 4/4” – two black ceramic letters spelling out “NO” that hang from a hand-made brass chain. Bright, who co-heads the graduate school’s print media department, often plays with cryptic messaging that at its best toggles between the puckish and the almost-profound. Also well worth a look is Brooklyn artist Rosalind Tallmadge’s copper-hued “Cross Section X,” one of her remarkable layered constructions made of gold leaf and mica that read a bit like aerial views of scarred, metallic moonscapes.

Emmy Bright, NO, 4/4 – 2017, Ceramic, handmade brass chain, Letters 6 x 4 1/2 inches.

Among figurative paintings on display, Bakpak Durden’s “The Refrigerator” is a bit of an intriguing puzzler. Durden, whose website ID’s him as a “multi-disciplinary, queer, hyperrealistic artist based in Detroit,” has painted a fellow who’s facing away from us. He’s got long dreadlocks and is leaning on a refrigerator’s wide-open door, seemingly looking within for something good to eat. But there are possible clues to a more distressing narrative. Is the subject searching for last night’s leftover steak, or is his face, hidden from us, actually buried in the crook of his elbow that’s propped on the refrigerator door? Is he grabbing his dreads with one hand in an idle gesture, or is it a signal of despair? Adding mystery as well is the outline of a triangle, color orange and completely out of context, albeit fascinating, that’s got the young man within its snare. Meaning — who knows? The can of Café Bustelo coffee on the shelf to the right isn’t saying.

Bakpak Durden, The Refrigerator – 2020, Oil on wood panel, 24 x 24 inches.

On a lighter note, Ohioan Anthony Mastromatteo’s oil-on-gesso-board painting, “My & My & My & My & My & My & My Fight, Too” stars seven identical images of Wonder Woman, a repetition of the exact same cut-out cartoon panel “taped” in each case, one after the other, to a blank blue background. The DC comics super-heroine is sprinting towards us, her thoughts on Artemis, goddess of wild animals and the hunt. Given the me-too moment we’re living in, there seems little doubt some male abuser’s about to get his comeuppance, big-time and bruising. In any case, as a work of art, it’s an oddball, charming concept. (Mastromatteo has a nice touch for unsentimental whimsy. His online resume features a fly at the upper-left corner, casting a little shadow on the CV.)

Also lightening the mood are three stainless-steel, fanciful line sculptures by Los Angeles artist Brad Howe, each mounted five inches off the wall. Looking a bit like happy graphics or electronic circuitry, they’re painted in unlikely hues that, magically, all work splendidly together. In particular, “Bingo by the Sea”is a fizzy essay enlivened, like all three compositions in the show, by shadows on the wall beneath that echo the sculpture’s lines.

Brad Howe, Bingo by the Sea – 2021, Stainless steel and acrylic, 24 x 18 x 5 inches.

Worth seeking out as well are New Jersey artist Jessica Rohrer’s two photorealist aerial portraits of tidy, well-kept neighborhoods that look like they could be in Chicago or Detroit – engaging drone’s-eye portrayals of the American Dream that, along with an astringent color palette, feel remarkably fresh. There are also intriguing, minimalist sculptures with light by Detroiter Patrick Ethen and Toronto’s Matthew Hawtin, and in a show that otherwise eschews politics, Brooklynite Mary-Ann Monforton has crafted a sly put-down with “Mar-a-Lago.” It features a clunky dinner place-setting with concrete “silverware,” each piece plastered within an inch of its life in gold leaf — a puckish conceit with bite.

“Salon Redux” will be at the David Klein Gallery in Detroit through Feb. 26.

 

 

 

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi @ DIA

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800 at the Detroit Institute of the Arts

Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1523-1525, oil on canvas, photo DIA

If you are suffering from the cold gray February doldrums and you’re looking for a short vacation from wintry isolation, the Detroit Institute of Art has a solution for you. “By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800” offers a tightly focused survey of masterpieces by women artists, some famous and others less so, in a warm and inviting setting. The exhibition spotlights compelling stories and transcendent artworks of the anomalous female Italian art stars who managed to make remarkable art—and conduct successful careers–in an age when few women had access to the knowledge and tools to make art at all.

In a series of adjoining galleries, visitors are expertly guided by the organizers from the Detroit Institute of Art and the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art on a three century-long tour of women artists who were significant and highly successful in their time. Some of the most famous surviving examples of their work are on view, as well as some fascinating additions.   The exhibition tells each artist’s surprisingly varied life story:  how each managed to conduct a successful arts career in a cultural environment that did not welcome women.

The Artist’s Sister in the Garb of a Nun by Sofonisba Anguissola, 1551, Oil on canvas, photo DIA.

Sofonisba Anguissola, a singular international talent

The exhibition starts off with a bang. Sofonisba Anguissola’s striking portrait of her sister Elena dressed as a nun hangs in solitary splendor on its own wall at the exhibition’s entrance.  Painted when Anguissola was only 16, this emotionally resonant white on white likeness foreshadows her future prominence as an internationally known portrait painter.

Unlike most of the artists in “By Her Hand,” Anguissola was not the daughter of a professional artist.   Her noble Cremonese father, Amilcore Anguissola, was an enlightened proponent of education for women. He arranged for all six of his daughters, of which Sofonisba was the eldest, to receive instruction in Latin, music and painting. Already a local art celebrity at a young age, she was known for painting a large number of self-portraits which served as calling cards advertising her skills. She was sufficiently celebrated in her twenties to be invited to join the Spanish court of Philip II in Madrid, where she later painted the portrait of Infante Don Fernando in 1573 which is now on view in the gallery. Unfortunately, not many of her paintings survive; most of the artworks from her Spanish residency were lost in a 17th century fire.

Fede Galizia, Orsola Maddelena Caccia, Diana Scultori, Lavinia Fontana enter the family business.

Each of the four artists who share the gallery adjoining the entrance found her own path to success in the cultural environment of her day. As was usual at the time, Fede Galizia, Orsola Maddelena Caccia, Lavinia Fontana and Diana Scultori all gained access to the art world through connection with their artist fathers, but from there their stories widely diverge.

Glass Tazza with Peaches, Jasmine Flowers and Apples by Fede Galizia, 1607, oil on panel, photo DIA

Fede Galizia (1578- c.1630), the daughter of a well-known painter of miniatures, chose to concentrate on portraits and religious scenes, but was particularly admired as a pioneer in the new genre of still life.  The very beautiful, modestly sized Glass Tazza with Peaches, Jasmine Flowers and Apples featured in this exhibit is typical of her work. In it, a centrally positioned bowl of vibrantly colored fruit almost invites the viewer to reach out for a delicious taste.

Vases of Flowers on a Table by Orsola Maddelena Caccia, 1615-25, oil on canvas, photo K.A. Letts

Perhaps the most interesting life story of the four is that of Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596–1676).  Her father Guglielmo Caccia, a Mannerist painter, founded the Ursuline Convent at Moncalvo to shelter his six daughters from the political turbulence of the region. Caccia later became abbess there and encouraged the nuns to make art as a means to support the convent. She herself painted religious scenes as well as spiritually symbolic still life compositions. (Coincidentally three of Caccia’s paintings, which are vanishingly rare outside the region of their production, were recently donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they now are on display in the newly reinstalled European painting galleries.)

Spinario, State 1, by Diana Scultori 1581, engraving on laid paper, photo DIA

The engraver Diana Scultori (1547–1612), learned her craft from her father and used her expertise to promote the fortunes of her architect husband, Francesco da Volterra, during their long and productive professional lives in Rome. Lacking a strong foundation in drawing, and like many other engravers, Scultori often used other artists’ work as the basis for her prints. Most of the drawings for her engravings came from her husband, her father, or an artist with whom she was acquainted. She was well known during her life as a savvy businesswoman who promoted the interests of her family through the acquisition of the Papal Privilege, a kind of license that allowed her to make and market her own work.

Of the four painters in this gallery, Lavinia Fontana, (1552-1614) was probably the most famous during her lifetime. She had the good luck to be born in Bologna, where attitudes toward women in the professions, including art, were unusually enlightened. She was trained by her father Prospero Fontana and had a highly successful career as a portraitist, as well as a painter of mythological and religious subjects. Her meticulously observed and psychologically penetrating Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani shows why the artist was greatly admired by her contemporaries.

Giovanna Garzoni and Elisabetta Sirani

A Hedgehog in a Landscape by Giovanna Garzoni, 1643-1651, bodycolor on vellum, photo DIA

The sensitively rendered still life paintings of Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), are a highlight of this exhibition; they reward the viewer’s attention with a palpable sense of connection to the artist and her world. Garzoni, who never married, was essentially an itinerant painter who created work for wealthy patrons in Venice, Naples, Florence and Rome. The accuracy and intimacy of Garzoni’s gaze is particularly evident in her wonderfully realized Hedgehog in a Landscape. Each quill of the little creature is lovingly depicted; his soft undercoat is in delightful contrast to his pointy claws and twitchy nose and the chestnuts in the foreground look good enough to eat.

Portia Wounding Her Thigh by Elisabetta Sirani,1664, Oil on canvas. Photo DIA

On the opposite wall of the gallery from Garzoni’s artworks, we find the prolific Bolognese painter Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665). Throughout her short but intense career, Sirani painted a wide range of subjects, from portraits to allegories to religious themes.  Not only was she the source of a remarkably abundant body of work, Sirani founded a painting school for aspiring woman artists. Her painting in this exhibition, Portia Wounding Her Thigh, is remarkable for a number of reasons.  In addition to the rarity of the theme, the veiled eroticism of the subject’s exposed thigh and her dreamy facial expression make this composition startlingly complex on a psychological level. To a modern eye, Sirani’s choice of self-cutting as a mark of female agency may seem fraught, but there is no denying that this is a major painting by a woman artist from the Baroque period.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1615–1617, Oil on canvas, photo DIA

The central placement of Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous painting Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, one of the gems in the DIA’s permanent collection, leaves no doubt that she is the star of this show. The subject of the virtuous Judith triumphing over the villainous Holofernes was a favorite of Renaissance and Baroque painters, but Gentileschi (1593-1652/53) tells the story here with remarkable energy and immediacy. The cinematic play of light and shadow across the face and arm of Judith and the powerful dynamism of the two women united in murderous sisterhood makes this painting unique.

In acknowledgment of Gentileschi’s well-deserved status as the quintessential female painter of the Baroque era, the museum has produced an informative and insightful video that puts her in art historical context and provides welcome detail for understanding of Gentileschi’s life and times.

Penitent Magdalene by Caterina de Julianis, 1717, Polychrome wax, painted paper, glass, tempera on paper, and other materials.

The final gallery in the exhibition, which features work by women artists from the eighteenth century, suffers from a puzzling sense of decline in the energy and scale in the work. Or possibly the bravura visual fireworks of the paintings by Elisabetta Sirani, Giovanna Garzoni and Artemisia Gentileschi in the previous gallery are simply a hard act to follow. Of some interest is the lone 3-dimensional piece in the show, Penitent Magdalene by Caterina de Julianis (1670-1743). The diorama, which is part of the DIA’s permanent collection, contains a small female wax figurine in a wooded environment, surrounded by animals and symbolic elements. The exhibition ends as it began, with a single painting, a  restrained self-portrait of the Florentine artist Anna Bacherini Piattoli (1720-1788), currently on loan from the Uffizi.

The virtuosic and often transcendent work that comprises “By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800” will be on view at the DIA until May 29, 2022. This expertly curated and enlightening exhibition tells the story of women artists who were eminent and highly successful in their time but were often rendered posthumously obscure through misattribution of their work to more famous male artists and other forms of art historical neglect. Shows like this are an important corrective to previous critical malpractice.

While the exhibition’s press release lists the Detroit Institute of Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum as the organizers of “By Her Hand,” it would be a shame not to acknowledge the contributions of the co-curators of this expertly researched and beautifully installed show by name: Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, former Head of European Art Department & Elizabeth and Allan Sheldon Curator of European Paintings at the DIA (and now Curator of Italian and Spanish Paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)  and Doctor Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art at the Wadsworth Atheneum.

 

Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition @ The Dennos

Installation image. All photos courtesy of the Dennos Museum Center

Visiting the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City is an experience unique to Northern Michigan. Situated at the base of Old Mission Peninsula, since 1991 the Dennos served as a multipurpose art and science museum, and it houses one of the finest collections of Inuit art you’ll ever see. In 2018 it underwent a major expansion, and an impressively large suite of chic gallery spaces now allows the Dennos to show off much more of its permanent collection, and it really does have some good holdings. The museum has even just been awarded status as a Smithsonian affiliate. But while the focus of the museum is on the art within, the floor-to-ceiling windows of many of its exterior galleries offer visitors a commanding view of the pleasantly forested campus of Northwestern Michigan College.  Through May 29, this emphatically northern space is the appropriate home to the annual Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition.

The show amply fills the museum’s spacious temporary exhibition space. It presents multimedia work by artists from 37 Michigan counties, including the entirety of the Upper Peninsula and much of the Lower Peninsula’s Northwest.  Submissions were open to anyone, providing that the work was created during 2021.  Juried by Vera Ingrid Grant, a curator and writer based in Ann Arbor and whose accomplishments include fellowships at Harvard and Columbia universities, the 90 works on view represent highlights from the show’s nearly 400 submissions.

Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City Installation image.

Any juried show is destined to be varied in scope and media, and these works are certainly diverse– there are 83 artists represented, after all. Painting, sculpture, photography, and illustration join forces with quilting, fabric art, wood art, and pottery, blurring boundaries between fine art, folk art, and handcraft. Nevertheless, some themes do emerge, such as our shared experience of Covid-19, here directly addressed in about half a dozen works. Several works offer social commentary on timely subjects like media saturation and information overload.

Many of these works take the landscapes, waterscapes, and textures of Northern Michigan itself as their subject. Ample views of Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan’s sand-dunes firmly locate this show in Northern Michigan. Thomas Guback’s Northport Sailboat Race is a photograph that beautifully transposes the lucid diamond-tipped ripples of Lake Michigan’s waters into black and white, applying some of Ansel Adams’ magic to demonstrate that color isn’t necessary to give the viewer an arresting image. And Lynn Stephenson’s tightly rendered pencil drawing of a row of weathered, neglected dock pilings captures a sight common at any marina on Lake Michigan’s shoreline; Stephenson renders the texture of the mostly rotted wood and the ripples of the water with impressively photographic, illustrative detail.

Lynn Stephenson, Still Standing [detail]. 2021, Colored pencil on Paper.

Other artists engaged Northern Michigan’s geography in more playfully abstract terms.  Susan Yamasaki’s Hieroglyphs applies perpendicular, geometric sections of birch bark and mixed media to create what could pass as Northern Michigan’s answer to Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. And the Best of Show award went to Kevin Summers, a multimedia artist whose Michigan Shoreline is a conceptual installation comprising driftwood, electronic fans, and sound.

Susan Yamasaki, Hieroglyphs. 2021, Birchbark and mixed media on birch panel.

 

Kevin Summers, Michigan Shoreline. 2021, Driftwood, fans, and electronics.

Certain to be a highlight among visitors is the mural-sized bead tapestry by Marie Wohadlo, 10:23. Gently backlit, this work comprises nearly a million individual luminous glass beads. It’s a work that invites viewers to play the same game as one might play with a pointillist work by Seurat. Step up close, and the individual beads create a pixelated, abstract void. Step back, and they materialize into a photographic rendering of two distant faces. The planning and execution of a work on this scale is impressive, even allowing for photographic and technological assistance.

Marie Wohadlo, 10:23 [detail]. 2021, Glass bead tapestry.

Marie Wohadlo, 10:23 [detail]. 2021, Glass bead tapestry.

Shows like this have a leveling, democratizing effect on art. There’s nothing to differentiate the skilled amateurs from the seasoned professionals.  And in the absence of any descriptive didactic panels, viewers are left to interpret these works entirely on their own. Perhaps this is a good thing; too often I find myself relying on an exhibition’s expository text to do much of the thinking for me.  But here, viewers are given the opportunity to approach the work on their own terms, and the works on view are given the chance to speak for themselves.

The 2022 Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition runs through May 29, 2022. Views of the evergreens on the NMC campus are available all year round.

 

 

 

African Fashion & Shirley Woodson @ DIA

The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion & Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections on exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts

 

The New Black Vanguard Photography, installation image at the DIA, courtesy of DAR

For anyone laboring under the winter blues, two luminous new shows by Black artists at the Detroit Institute of Arts promise a quick, color-saturated cure — “Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections,” up through June 12, and “The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion,” which comes down April 17, 2022.

While the two exhibitions are very different – oil paintings by a Detroit artist vs. international high-fashion photos – they resemble one another in their fresh spirit and the undeniable sense that you’re witnessing something strong and new.

Take “The New Black Vanguard” first, a traveling show organized by Aperture, the photography nonprofit in New York City. This dazzling exhibition features the work of 15 emerging Black photographers from Africa and the African diaspora, working in places as disparate as Johannesburg, Harlem, Lagos, and London. Many of the images on display were drawn from fashion magazines, advertisements, museum collections, and social media.  In a nice localizing touch, there’s also a DIA-curated section in the last gallery, “New Gazes – Detroit,” which focuses on six metro-area Black photographers.

Many of the artists here are pushing boundaries, both aesthetic and cultural, with all their might, engaging topics as diverse as colorism, gender expression and alternate concepts of beauty. Nancy Barr, who heads the museum’s Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, calls the exhibition “inspiring,” and says she’s been gratified by “how easily visitors are connecting with the imagery and quotes from the photographers.” Given the punchiness and variety of pictures on display, that’s no surprise.

Dana Scruggs, Nyadhour, Elevated, Death Valley, California, 2018, photo print.

 Start with Dana Scruggs. This Chicago-born artist, whose work has appeared in GQ, ESPN magazine, and Rolling Stone, has finessed the fine art of highlighting the drama in very dark skin, playing with an almost Caravaggio-like chiaroscuro that gives her work remarkable tone and depth. The models in question, of course, are the sorts who in an earlier, more-colorist era, would likely have been shunned as “too Black.” But in Scruggs’ prints, their chiseled features and sculpted bodies pass beyond mere beauty into something more profound — an almost mythic presence, simultaneously universal and individual.

Her 2018 “Nyadhour, Elevated, Death Valley, California” is one of the most captivating images in a show full of them. The lean, striking American model Nyadhour Deng wears a one-piece black swimsuit that virtually disappears against her skin in the blinding desert glare. She appears to be one-third of the way into a cartwheel – both hands planted in the sand, and one leg starting its aerial rotation. The odd, arched pose is echoed by the sharp shadow beneath. Set against sun-baked dunes, the composition reads more like contemporary sculpture than a fashion shoot.

Daniel Obasi, from Lagos, Nigeria, also creates something monumental with his remarkable tableau, “Moments of Youth,” featuring four young men fashionably attired in tropical colors, and shot from below as they balance precariously on the prow of a wooden vessel. This being a fashion shoot (first published in the journal Primary Paper), the bare-chested man in front in the 1940s-style slacks has a green, gauzy fabric wrapped about his black-marble torso, but while setting up a cool visual contrast, it does nothing to lessen the photo’s heroic vibe.

Daniel Obasi, Moments of Youth, Lagos, Nigeria, 2019, photo print

 Color, in this case, strong pink, plays a huge role in Tyler Mitchell’s 2019 “Untitled (Hijab Couture), New York,” resulting in an image that’s both puckish and breathtaking. Its young beauty is encased, as it were, from head to toe by a garment made of huge, pink flower petals that form a sort of impenetrable shell. For all the hauteur in the young woman’s eyes above her pink-pink lips, Mitchell – whose September 2018 Vogue cover shot of Beyoncé was a first, remarkably, for a Black photographer – has created an intimate, albeit intense, portrait. So too with his “Untitled (Hat), New York, 2018,” a gender-bending study of a young man with challenging eyes beneath a large, tilt-disc hat of the sort favored by British royalty.

(Visitors who enjoy “Black Vanguard’s” intensely colorful display might also want to walk through “Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite,” a black-and-white show of work from the 1960s that’s up at the museum through Jan. 16.)

Tyler Mitchell, Untitled (Hijab Couture), New York, 2019, photo print

For her part, Detroit artist Shirley Woodson, now in her mid-80s, has had quite a year. Last January, she was named the Kresge Foundation’s 2021 Eminent Artist, an honor that spotlights a lifetime of artistic achievement and community engagement, and comes with a $50,000 no-strings stipend. And earlier this fall, Detroit Artists Market hosted a career retrospective, “Shirley Woodson: Why Do I Delight,” which closed just before Halloween.

Now comes the artist’s first solo show at the DIA, “Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections,” with 11 brightly colored canvases guaranteed to staunch your seasonal affective disorder. As the title suggests, a river runs through almost all of these, Woodson’s testament to the spiritual and cultural significance of the Nile for Black Africans, both on the continent and in the diaspora.

Detroit artist Allie McGhee (whose solo show, “Banana Moon Horn,” is up at the Cranbrook Art Museum through March 20), calls Woodson’s richly textured style “a sort of bridge between abstract and Impressionism,” and there’s no denying her freely rendered, lush canvases pack a vibrance and hard-to-define emotional punch. Wielding vivid color, symbols and figures, Woodson creates bright, inscrutable canvases laden with totemic meaning. Interestingly, however, most of her female figures look out at the world with blank faces. The artist explains she doesn’t assign them features “because I think the viewer can become a part of the work using [their] own imagination.”

Shirley Woodson, Shield of the Nile Reflectins, installment image,

As it happens, Woodson – a longtime Detroit Public Schools art teacher with graduate degrees from Wayne State University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — has been working with the Nile for decades, seeing in the world’s longest river a metaphor for Africa and the African experience generally. With her 1984 “Shield of the Nile, No. 2,” a pair of women deeply immersed in water balance an oval shield between them. The two, apparently treading the rainbow-hued water, are also armed with arrows, suggesting a fierceness that calls to mind the legendary Amazons. Indeed, Woodson has said her figures were partly inspired in part by another mythic figure, Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt. But for all its possible symbolism, “Shield of the Nile” succeeds most extravagantly as a lavish color study whose warmth you can practically feel from across the room.

Shirley Woodson, Shield of the Nile, No. 2, Acrylic on canvas, 1984.

In “Flight with Mirror,” a 2014 work starring a determined-looking woman riding a horse through the waters, the artist has constructed a scene of seeming triumph, never mind the title,  that underlines women’s power and innate creativity long ignored by a male-dominated cultural elite. Interestingly, this woman, unlike so many of her figures, is fully equipped with facial features. If you’re tempted to see Woodson herself in the painting, go right ahead.

Her longtime friend and protégé, the late Gilda Snowden — quoted in the Kresge Foundation monograph “A Palette for the People: The Vibrant World of Shirley Woodson” – put it as well as anyone: “Shirley deftly unites color, myths, historical references with a little bit of magic into works that are glorious renditions of what life could be and should be.”

Shirley Woodson, Flight with Mirror, Acrylic on canvas, 2014.

The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion” will be at the Detroit Institute of Arts through April 17. “Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections” will come down June 12, 2022.

 

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