Roy Feldman @ M Contemporary Art

Photographer Roy Feldman’s exhibition at M Contemporary Art: Truth & Grace In Hamtramck

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″ All images courtesy of M Contemporary Art.

Truth & Grace in Hamtramck was in the planning for a year and scheduled to open on March 20, 2020, at the M Contemporary Art in Ferndale, but the state order to “Stay at Home” by Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan made those plans impossible.  As a result, I asked the gallery owner, Melannie Chard, to allow me to view the images online and proceed with a review. I had viewed Feldman’s photographs over the years and seen several images in person, which gave me enough perspective to proceed in this peculiar and highly unusual endeavor: write a review from art viewed online.

In the image Untitled, where a woman applies mascara, four planes of focus are: the foreground, head, hands, eyeliner brush, followed by the reflection in the mirror, followed by the interior of the salon, followed by the houses across the street. The viewer is drawn into the center of the image where it is split in half near the eyelid, asymmetry that almost goes unnoticed. All of this feels conscious and unconscious as Feldman probes the variations from black to gray to white.

Roy Feldman, a Detroit-based photographer and Emmy award-winning filmmaker with many years of experience as a photojournalist, grew up in Detroit and earned his BFA from the College of Creative Studies and worked for several years as a commercial photographer. Feldman worked for the Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., the U.S. Department of Energy, the North American International Auto Show, the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation, and Big Boy Restaurants International (to mention a few) to earn a living, all the while he maintained his personal art of still photography.

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″

Photography, in general, has undergone a revolution over the past fifty years.  The digital revolution that began with the production of stand-alone cameras, then evolved to the high-quality camera in every smartphone, has had a tremendous effect on the commercial photographic industry.  It has put freelancers out of business, shifted imagery to large stock image corporations like Getty Images, Shutterstock and Adobe Stock, and in combination with the Internet delivery capacity, it gave their images access to clients worldwide.  Also, it instantly made every person with a smartphone a photographer.  I say this because it did not make everyone an artist. It is the gray matter which resides between ones ears, that creates the artist, not in any type of technology old or new.  As we trace that core concept from Daguerreotype, Eastman Kodak, Louis Lumiere, 35 mm Leica, Canon, and Nikon single-lens cameras, Hasselblad and the digital work that began at the AT&T Bell labs in1969, for capturing and creating an image based on pixels, the artists and their application has been the same since the mid-1840s. The capture of a photo image takes place in our hearts, our heads and our souls.

The work of Roy Feldman is a product of seeing and creating an image, no matter what the recording device. I purposely did not ask him about his process, nor these tools, whether digital or film, darkroom or computer because it doesn’t matter. Feldman said. “I wanted them to look like they could have been taken yesterday or 40 years ago. I really want to make it a piece of art. When you take a picture of something, you’re personally involved.”

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″

Historically there is a large body of black & white artwork by world-renowned photographers, mostly from the 20th century, that may put Feldman in context: Andre Kertesz, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Frank, to name only a few. Feldman’s image of a man at a bus stop reminds me of early Kertesz while in Paris, by approaching his subject from above and developing this high contrast crisscross composition, with white-glove action surrounded with the geometric shapes. Feldman works hard at bringing reflections into his images, as he does here with the circular tree grate reflection off the bus stop glass, reminding me of Otto Steinert’s  Pedestrian’s Foot (1950).

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″

The strength in Feldman’s composition here at this street fair is the formally centered and dominating woman sitting in the middle of a street, down very low with a wide-angle lens and the right amount of light that provides this kind of crisp focus on the subject and a backdrop of soft-focus using depth of field. In this one point perspective image, the evenness of light is seen on a cloudy day, with a small shadow cast from the concert-style chair, as this young woman views her smartphone. She reminds us of our own humanity.

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″

Here in this image of a woman walking in the rain we notice the format 2 x 2 provides the square frame.  Feldman’s lens gets wet, creating a spontaneous blur that he likes and keeps.  In addition, for this exhibition, he converts a color image to black and white that fits nicely into the other photos. The strength in the color image is the red coat and blue umbrella center stage, grabbing our attention on the woman holding the umbrella, perhaps on the way to her car.

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″

One of the hallmarks of many photographers I have mentioned before is the “moment in time” concept.  There was a time when people would debate calling a photograph art, and this concept would be used in an attempt to differentiate photography from painting or drawing. This artistic prejudice has faded over the years and is now a thing of the past, but more importantly, does it really matter?  I think not. The image that catches a young girl about to jump out the window of a parked van, probably being used as a clubhouse, not so different from Robert Capra’s Death of a Loyalist Soldier (1936), both weighing heavily on a moment in time.  The young girl is looking directly into Feldman’s camera, wondering if she has gotten caught in her escapade, while soft tree leaves in the foreground frame the subject like a 1970’s Kaufman & Broad illustration of their tract homes. (I used to paint those on illustration board for Detroit architect David Hamburg)

What ties the exhibition together is more than the format or dominance of black & white photography. It’s the honesty and humanity of Feldman’s work. He searches out the world of Hamtramck, a separate city with borders inside the City of Detroit, once a working-class Catholic Polish community and now the gateway to more than fifty nationalities. The elderly wooden homes are packed together like sardines, and the artists that live in and around them, live on the edges of life, eking out an existence and a celebration of truthful nomads.

In his statement, “My current ongoing series is devoted to creating an aesthetic event, where there is no political agenda, no documentation, with no intent to describe a subject or place.  If my picture is easily summed up in a sentence, I feel I will have failed. I’d rather it be described as “well you really have to see it.”

Let’s hope that at some point in time, people will be able to do just that.

Photographer Roy Feldman’s exhibition at M Contemporary Art: Truth & Grace In Hamtramck

 

 

Alternative Testimony @ David Klein Gallery

Install Image, Alternative Testimony, Image Courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Alternative Testimony, a group show at David Klein Gallery that is part chemistry experiment, part art historical tour of photographic processes, features the work of four artists who have slipped the tether  binding conventional photography  to representation. They proceed to spin the medium off into new and unexplored territory where the resulting abstract images challenge established notions about the function and purpose of photography.

Untitled: 3/23/2016, 8:15 a.m., by Cyrus Karimipour, archival pigment print, 44” x 44” (ed.1/5, 2 ap) All photos are courtesy of David Klein Gallery

Cyrus Karimipour’s hazy pastel vistas are barely-there evocations of images recorded by trail cameras. He placed them on his remote Michigan property, where they documented trespassers over the course of several years.  At first, he viewed the hikers as unwelcome interlopers, but Karimipour came to accept them as a part of the natural wildlife on his land and as a resource for his work.   “I used to dread finding people on the cameras, but now I rely on their presence,“ he says.

Karimipour combines contact printing, a photographic technique popular in the 1890’s, with contemporary inkjet materials to create a kind of process art. His method depends on the serendipitous interaction of built-up pigment on low adhesion film, which is then applied to a more absorptive surface. The pigment immediately dries and bonds the films to each other. The effect, which is evident in Untitled, 03/23/2016, 8:15 a.m.  is somewhat map-adjacent, like traditional Asian charts that render the view in forced perspective from a high, almost aerial, angle.  Much of the visual incident in each picture  comes from the bubble-like spherical puddles distributed throughout the composition.  The ghostly result is a little reminiscent of video static, through which, occasionally, one can detect trees, humans and the like, purely coincidental remnants of the artist’s time-based exploration of the landscape.

On the opposite gallery wall from Karimipour, dimensional collages by Aspen Mays document her long and complicated relationship with the weather–specifically, her recollections of Hurricane Hugo. The category 4 storm devastated her hometown of Charleston SC in 1989 and provided the inspiration for her Hugo Series.  Many of the elements in these assemblages recall her youthful memories of the storm, although the artist freely admits they may be genuine recollections or merely media images that have infiltrated her reminiscence. She recalls with particular interest the ritualistic taping of windows in preparation for the storm, an activity that she describes as more shamanistic than practical.

Hugo 23, by Aspen Mays, 2019, gelatin silverprint, photo gram, blue sintra, 26.5” x 22.5”, unique

Hugo 20, by Aspen Mays, 2019, gelatin silverprint, photogram, grey sintra, 26.5” x 22.5”, unique

In the artworks themselves, grids and x-es of masking tape, starburst shapes and free-form fragments generate exuberant architectonic compositions.  The layered gelatin prints of photograms on rag paper, cut up and reassembled on colorful sintra backing, are curiously cheerful and appealingly tactile. Mays describes the colors as derived from the alert codes used on weather maps to indicate violent weather patterns, but her palette projects a child-like optimism at odds with apprehensions of disaster.

With her cyanotype prints, west coast-based photographer Meghann Riepenhoff engages directly with the natural environment and, in particular, with the dynamic temporal features of her watery surroundings– rain, snow and ice, wind and waves. Cyanotype, a photographic process that will be familiar to many from childhood craft projects, is the fairly primitive technique that the artist employs to brilliant effect in her program to directly record fugitive natural phenomena.  She says, “Each cyanotype is like a fingerprint of a place, a hyper-literal, sometimes three-dimensional photographic record of specific cumulative circumstances.” Her cyanotype Ecotone #163 exemplifies the specificity of her vision: it is a physical record of snow, rain and melting ice on a draped construction barrier in front of a New York City gallery. The rich shades of blue in these visual records of natural phenomena develop over 48 hours and continue to respond over time to local conditions.

Ecotone #163 (parking space in front of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York City, 3/14/17, snow rain, melting ice draped on construction barrier), by Meghann Riepenhoff, dynamic cyanotype, 19” x 24”, unique

Ecotone #287 (Pier 4 beach, Brooklyn, New York, 12/17/17, melting snow under shelf ice), by Meghann Riepenhoff, dynamic cyanotype, 19” x 24”, unique

Of the four artists in Alternative Testimony,  Brittany Nelson seems to be the most militantly committed to discarding  photography’s traditional preoccupation with the surface appearance of things and places. Instead, she engages in an experimental exploration of the medium’s chemical essence.

The two (very large) works by Nelson in Alternative Testimony depend for their visual charge on arcane and caustic 19th  century processes. Mordencage 5 employs a hybrid procedure that starts with the eponymous mordencage, a translucent veiling, draping effect caused by the chemical reaction of acid with the silver content of gelatin paper.  The resulting (very small) print has been digitally enlarged to highlight the diaphanous striations.

Mordencage 5 – 2020, by Brittany Nelson, c-print, 72” x 72”, (ed.1, 2 ap)

It is a little ironic that the only image in Alternative Testimony that can be described as a standard landscape has been produced by Nelson, who most categorically denies the relevance of the pictorial in contemporary photography.  The scene, though, is hardly mundane–in fact it is other-worldly in the most literal sense–a 4 ft. x 6 ft. bromoil print of a Martian landscape from the NASA archives, the largest of its kind ever produced. (bromoil, popular in the early 20th century, is created when a silver gelatin print is bleached and then soaked in water and coated with oil-based ink.)

Tracks 2 – 2019, by Brittany Nelson, bromoil print, 48” x 72”, unique

Each of the four artists in Alternative Testimony can claim a unique art practice, but what they share is unfettered curiosity and a willingness to experiment with alternative photographic processes in unique ways—in combination with contemporary tools— to achieve their formal goals. By avoiding the merely representational, they have found a new and deeper reality at the intersection of science and art, observation and expression.

The Alternative Testimony at the Midtown  David Klein Gallery will be up through March 28, 2020

Michigan’s Great Lakes: Jeff Gaydash Photography @ DIA

Installation View: Michigan’s Great Lakes: Photographs by Jeff Gaydash, Installation photograph by Olivia Gilmore, 2020

Michigan’s Great Lakes: Photographs by Jeff Gaydash at the Detroit Institute of the Arts on view at the de Salle Gallery from November 16, 2019, to May 3, 2020, presents nearly a decade of Gaydash’s work. A succinct retrospective, the exhibition documents his excursions to the Laurentian pools of the upper mid-east region of North America and their contiguous landscapes. His photographs, pristine, black and white prints, depict both natural and man-made phenomena in and around the largest aggregate of freshwater lakes on Earth, by total area. They possess a certain duality; a romanticism found in early landscape photographs of the late-nineteenth-century by photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, synthesized with the industrial photographs of the mid-twentieth-century by photographers such as Charles Sheeler and Margaret Bourke-White. Gaydash simultaneously elevates the natural while he depicts a landscape peppered with man-made structure and industry. Something particular about what Charles Baudelaire once said of beauty stands out in this dichotomy of forms:

              “Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quality is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions.” (Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, Painter of Modern Life (Penguin Book Ltd 2010),p.494

An ethereal softness of the natural—the water, land, and trees—juxtaposed with the temporal structures of the age—lighthouses, defunct concrete slabs, and active refineries— make for beautiful images. Perhaps beauty is, “always and inevitably of a double composition,” as Baudelaire theorized. To qualify: Baudelaire’s opinions in mid-nineteenth century France were at times utterly erroneous, but that is another story and this theory of beauty as something dual-natured is worthy of examination.

Jeff Gaydash, Rockport Ruins Rockport, Michigan, Lake Huron, 2012 Carbon Pigment Print – 30”x74”

In “Rockport Ruins,” fog emanates from Lake Huron, both the water and the mist from a decrepit collection of what appears to be lumber, iron, and concrete to the right of the frame. Rockport was a limestone quarry, now it is a state recreation area. The pine trees on the distant shore of the harbor are hazy along the horizon line. The wooden stumps jut-out of the water like jagged teeth—sharp and uninviting; the remnants of industry sharply contrast against the placid waterscape.

Jeff Gaydash, Belle Isle Bridge Detroit, Michigan, The Detroit River, 2011 Carbon Pigment Print – 36”x36”

Both the water and the sky in, “Belle Isle Bridge,” have an otherworldly smoothness due to the slow-shutter speed Gaydash often utilizes in his process. When the shutter of the camera is open for a longer duration, the resulting image displays the passing of time represented in the slight blur. In addition, we see the grandeur of the Douglas MacArthur Bridge that connects Detroit to Belle Isle. Built in 1923, Gaydash’s chosen title evinces a sort of longing for the bridge’s original name as well as a time passed. The cantilevered concrete arched bridge feels as if it continues infinitely into what the vanishing point of the image.

Jeff Gaydash, Zug Island Detroit, Michigan, The Detroit River, 2010 Carbon Pigment Print – 36”x36”

In “Zug Island,” possibly the most striking photograph in the exhibition, the looming U.S. Steel refinery’s silhouette at night contrasts to the feat of human technology exemplified in “Belle Isle Bridge.” An industrial skyline is mirrored, albeit nebulously, in the eerily still Detroit River. If not for the reflection, the viewer might overlook the monochromatic flames which emanate from the plant, lapping at the thick murky air. Whether Gaydash intended to document an environmental issue or not, is perhaps beside the point; the photograph has a narrative of its own. Zug Island is nestled amongst multiple plants and refineries in the 48217 zip code of Southwest Detroit, known for being the most polluted in Michigan.

Jeff Gaydash, Solitude Metro Beach, Michigan, Lake St Clair, 2010 Carbon Pigment Print – 36”x36”

“Stranded,” feels antithetical to “Zug Island,” the tight framing of the tree branches in the tide of Lake Erie, in southwestern Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park, are a far cry from the industrial landscape. It exudes a sense of serenity and solitude, one discordant with the representation in the former photograph.  In this unfettered depiction of nature, the water and sky are a bright, silky grey, and blend together seamlessly. There is no horizon line, and if there were, it would be turned on its side. What the viewer thinks they see (an environment untouched by humanity) and what the reality is, is suddenly called into question.

The strength of Jeff Gaydash’s work lies in the cohesive, uninterrupted flow of the sublime landscape. His technically precise and masterfully printed images perfectly highlight the unique geographical feature that is the Great Lakes. Perhaps as viewers, we know not whether to celebrate the man-made as innovative or to critically examine our collective footprint in late industrialism. A similar ambivalence was captured in both the early and late landscape photographs of the modern era, as utopian images of the natural world gave way to the feats of human ingenuity, and eventually bled into more exasperating photographs of industry and environmental degradation. As viewers, we are invited to delve into this ambivalent, yet meditative space created by Gaydash. It is this with this paradox that we must contend. The exhibition, Michigan’s Great Lakes: Photographs by Jeff Gaydash does not heed a didactic warning of ecological doom, but rather is a nod—a poignant, cogent reminder—that the Great Lakes are a powerful yet vulnerable resource within a delicate ecosystem of which humans are a part.

Michigan’s Great Lakes: Photographs by Jeff Gaydash at the Detroit Institute of the Arts through May 3, 2020

Art Basel Miami @ Detroit Art Review

Miami Art week, the mammoth fine art fair comprised of Art Basel Miami Beach plus twenty satellite fairs, events and parties, salted around the city like raisins in a fruitcake,  has just ended.   It was an all-you-can see buffet of contemporary art, much of it excellent. It’s impossible to see it all without developing a serious case of esthetic indigestion. But my project to see the art coming from the Great Lakes region, and Detroit in particular, made the task more manageable.

A string of fairs located in lavish oversize tents, Scope, Pulse, Untitled, Context and Art Miami, were lined up along the beach and interspersed with large public art works exposed to the sun and air.   Art Miami, at 30, which predates Art Basel and is the oldest and one of the most respected  fairs,  is where I found David Klein Gallery’s booth. This year, the gallery showcased a  collection of Detroit artists who will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention, as well as a couple of talented newcomers.

David Klein Booth at Art Miami, Photo by K.A. Letts 2019

Gallerist David Klein told me that the gallery opened its first booth at Art Miami 11 years ago, during the height of the Great Recession, and that they’ve been coming every year since.  The booth was anchored by Kelly Reemtsen’s monumental Rise Up.The warm Miami air seemed to billow the voluminous taffeta skirt of her genteel but assertive debutante, and the light in the heavy white  impasto surrounding the figure felt a little different on the beach in Miami than it had when I saw the piece in Detroit.

Rosalind Tallmadge and Marianna Olague, two recent graduates of Cranbrook Art Academy, were represented by David Klein in Miami this year. Klein described Cranbrook as “…a great resource for us. Rosalind we met when she was in the painting program [there] and Marianna Olague is also a very recent Cranbrook grad.” Artworks by the two seemed to respond to the ambient Florida sunshine, though in different ways.  Tallmadge’s formal mica, glass bead and metal leaf-encrusted artworks, which seem more the product of geology than of art, shimmered, while Marianna Olague’s self-contained and pensive young women occupied a pictorial space suffused with the warm light of her native El Paso.

Marianna Olague, Here Lies Toro, 2019, David Klein Gallery, Art Miami, 2019

Mario Moore, The Visit, 2019, David Klein Gallery, Art Miami, photo courtesy David Klein Gallery

David Klein Gallery has routinely shown the work of African American artists, but suddenly at Art Basel Miami Beach 2019, there was a notable increase in artists of color prominently displayed throughout all the fairs. Mario Moore’s large single-subject portraits were exactly on trend.  The self-possessed, casually dressed inhabitants in Moore’s paintings, situated comfortably in their everyday  environments, projected confidence and understated dignity.

The highest concentration of Detroit representation was at NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance), which bodes well for the future of the art scene in Detroit.  This fair shows work by up-and-coming galleries and artists (and famously provides a hunting ground for more established galleries hoping to poach promising young artists.) Held in the Ice Palace Studios, Nada’s relaxed atmosphere, with some artworks scattered around the grounds and hammocks and picnic blankets provided for physically exhausted and/or visually overstimulated fairgoers, was a welcome change from the more aggressively commercial fairs.

Detroit was represented in the main exhibitors’ section by Simone DeSousa Gallery and Reyes/Finn. And in the NADA Projects section–a sort of junior NADA–I encountered Detroit Presents, a collection of Islamic prayer rug-inspired collages by Anthony Giannini presented by Detroit Art Week.

This was the second year that that Simone DeSousa has represented artists at NADA. She chose to exhibit the work of two Detroit-based creatives, Veha Nedpathak and Iris Eichenberg. NedPathak’s richly colored, freeform process-derived paper tapestries, created by her self-invented ritualistic practice, contrasted nicely with Eichenberg’s light absorbing, idiosyncratic black objects.

Neha Vedpathak, So many stars in the sky some for me and some for them, 2018, Simone DeSousa Gallery, NADA (photo courtesy of Simone DeSousa Gallery)

Iris Eichenberg, Untitled, Simone DeSousa Gallery, NADA, photo by K.A. Letts

When I asked DeSousa about her plans for future art fairs, she pointed out that there is considerable expense involved in participating, but the Nada fair makes the most sense for the gallery, and so far it has proved to be a good showcase for the artists and for her. It’s likely that she will to present artists from her gallery there in future.

A more conceptual vibe prevailed at Reyes/Finn, where the frosty glow of Detroit-born Maya Stovall’s hermetic neon signs referred to year dates significant to the artist and referenced coincident meaningful cultural touchstones. These gnomic objects, though compelling in themselves, represent only a small portion of Stovall’s work in performance, installation and video. Co-exhibitor Nick Doyle celebrated common man-made objects raised to monumental scale–a giant wall outlet, a huge, discarded coffee cup–rendered in denim-blue, a color both common and cool.

Maya Stovall, 1959 from 1526 (NASDAQ:FAANG) series, 2019, photo by K.A. Letts

Nick Doyle, Shutter, 2019, Reyes/Finn Gallery, NADA, photo by K.A. Letts

The street art esthetic that is so prevalent in Detroit was noticeably absent from the established fairs, with the exception of Scope, where I saw a pair of Chicago galleries, Vertical and Line Dot Editions, that carried the flag for that way of thinking and making.   The Mana Wynwood neighborhood is the place to see that esthetic expressed. A lot of the art is on the street, and it’s rude and risky.  Some of the most impressive work that I saw in this vein wasn’t in a fair at all, but at Mana Contemporary, where Miami’s indigenous art community has a home. There, I saw work that hasn’t (yet) made it into the mainstream unless you count a small piece by Karl Wirsum that I glimpsed in the back room at Corbett vs. Dempsey in their Art Basel Miami Beach exhibit. And Detroit/Brooklyn-based SaveArtSpace.org  engaged in its usual end run around the establishment, with three street-side bus stop ads featuring the work of Chris Pyrate, Brian Cattelle and Peat “EYEZ” Wolleager.

Keya Tama, Love Trap, Mana Contemporary, Wynwood neighborhood, photo by K.A. Letts

Peat “EYEZ” Walleager, EYE Want You by, SaveArtSpace.org, (photo courtesy of SaveArtSpace.org)

A visit to Miami Art Week is probably the most efficient way to take the pulse of the art scene now, in all its diversity and variety, even though you may come away troubled, as I did. I found that the art world is just another part of the real world, where the .1 percent, by virtue of its vast resources, decides how art is defined and commodified. And lingering in the distance like a thundercloud is climate change, a looming presence that’s hard to ignore while looking at art on a vulnerable beach.

Miami Art Basel, December 2019

 

 

Detroit Collects @ Detroit Institute of Arts

Salvador Salort-Pons, Director of the Detroit Institute of Art, at the media preview introducing Detroit Collects.

Detroit Collects: Selections of African-American Art from Private Collections

I knew the DIA was working on an exhibition of African American Art that was scheduled to open in mid-November, 2019. Still, I did not know anything about the curation process. This exhibition of sixty works of art with a range of media is on loan and is comprised of nineteen local Detroit collectors. In all my experience, just the concept was interesting, intriguing and unique.

At the media preview, from the moment DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons took the podium to introduce the exhibition, it was clear this project was personal.  He said,” When I became the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), it was immediately clear to me that the museum needed to acknowledge an extraordinary effort to connect with these communities of art lovers, tell their stories and show in our galleries the fruit of their long-standing passion.”

Not since I bought my first DIA poster in 1972 of a traveling Matisse Exhibition had I ever seen or heard of a museum taking this approach to curating from local collectors. That morning, Director Salort-Pons talked about how he and his wife Alex, after many years of living outside the city, quickly recognized the need to connect and acknowledge the art by recognizing artists living in a  city community that was 80% African American. He mentioned a memory he had of the gatherings of artists and writers called “tertulias” which used to take place in the local cafes of Spain in the late 19th and early 20th century that were the cultural  engines of the time. Over the past three years, along with his curator, Valerie J. Mercer, the General Motors curator for African American art since 2000, they began to support and execute a new vision, drawn from the many dinners, breakfast meetings and lunches to identify artists and collectors of African American art in Detroit.

“The DIA’s General Motors Center for African American Art is the first curatorial department dedicated to African American art in the U.S.,” said Salort-Pons. “This exhibition builds on our history of collecting and displaying African American art and creates a new opportunity for our visitors to see themselves reflected in the museum’s galleries.”

Robert S. Duncanson, Flight of the Eagle, Oil on Canvas, 1856

The artist Robert S. Duncanson was prevented from any kind of formal art training because of the institutional racism that existed in the 19th century. Yet, this forested landscape, Flight of the Eagle, completed in 1856, could be compared to the work of William Mason Brown or Frederic Edwin Church. At the center a soaring eagle, the U.S. National bird, has flown from its mate on the branch of a dead tree. Duncanson was born in Seneca County, New York, in 1821 to an African-American mother and Scottish-Canadian father, who sent his son to Canadian schools during his youth. In 1841 Duncanson and his mother moved to Mt. Healthy, Ohio, near Cincinnati. His biography says that in 1849, Duncanson established a studio in Detroit where he had been active as early as 1846. His artistic activities were favorably noted in both Cincinnati and Detroit, where he worked throughout his career supported by abolitionists who commissioned his work. For the Detroit Collects exhibition, this work is on loan from the collection of Walter O. and Linda Evans.

Beauford Delaney, Greenwich Village, Oil on Canvas, 1945

Beauford Delaney was born December 30, 1901, in Knoxville, Tennessee where his parents were prominent and respected members of Knoxville’s African-American community. His father Samuel was both a barber and a Methodist minister, but he is remembered for his work with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. In his work, Greenwich Village, Delaney depicts the illuminated streets of New York City’s Greenwich Village where the artist settled in the mid-1930s. Having a studio in Greenwich Village, he became part of a gay bohemian circle of friends. He established himself as part of the NYC art scene, which included artists such as Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, and the young writer James Baldwin. For the Detroit Collects exhibition, this work is on loan from the collection of Mary Anne and Eugene A. Gargaro Jr.

Walter J. Williams Jr., Children at Play, Oil on Canvas, 1975

Children at Play, by Walter J. Williams Jr., is a touching figure painting that conveys the innocence of childhood while boys play without a worry in the world. The composition contrasts six figures with soft and translucent oil paint colors while they explore the simplest of abstract shapes. The idyllic and peaceful setting draws the viewer into a place where everyone would want their child to live and learn. Williams enrolled at the Brooklyn Museum Art School in 1951, where he was scholarly and was said to have paid close attention to his lessons. In the summer of 1953, he studied at the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine and participated in his first major group show, the Whitney’s 1953 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting. For the Detroit Collects exhibition, this work is on loan from the collection of Darnell and Shirley A. Kaigler.

Alvin Loving, untitled Triptych, Oil and Collage on Canvas, 1981

Al Loving was born in Detroit in 1935 and is one of the best known national artist whose work grew from his interest in the work of Josef Albers. Loving earned a BFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1963 and an MFA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  In 1969, Loving famously became the first African-American to have a one-person show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In the work Untitled Triptych, Loving’s abstraction knocks the viewer off their feet with this vast array of shape, line, color, and depth of space. I was familiar with much of Al Loving’s work, but not this magical triptych that keeps the viewer spellbound. For the Detroit Collects exhibition, this work is on loan from the collection of Roy and Maureen Roberts.

Martin Puryear, Reliqary, Gessoed Pine, 1980

Martin Puryear was born in 1941 in Washington, D.C., and began exploring traditional craft methods in his youth, making tools, boats, musical instruments and furniture. After receiving a B.A. in Fine Art from the Catholic University of America in 1963, Puryear spent two years as a Peace volunteer in Sierra Leone, where he learned local woodworking techniques. In the work Reliquary, one could see something spiritual as in a tombstone-like object made of pine planks with dovetail joints, but the field of holes covered in a translucent gesso coating suggests otherwise. Over his lifetime, this work has remained visibly complex, both organic and geometric, where he falls into both areas of Minimalism and Formalistic sculpture. Puryear earned his MFA from Yale and began teaching at Fisk University in Nashville and at the University of Maryland in College Park. In 1977, following a devastating fire in his Brooklyn studio, Puryear had a solo show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. For the Detroit Collects exhibition, this work is on loan from the collection of Gayle and Andrew Camden.

Aaron F. Henderson, Stomp It Down, Gouache, 2015

Aaron F. Henderson, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, has been an artist all his life. The self-proclaimed narrative artist has always loved to draw and paint. He works mainly in oils and gouache on canvas, linen and 100% cotton paper using bold, vibrant colors in his artwork that is showcased in exhibits, museums and corporations and private homes around the world. Henderson’s style has been influenced by such legendary artists as Elizabeth Catlett, William H. Johnson, Charles White and Jacob Lawrence. The woman in Stomp It Down is so beautifully and realistically rendered that she seems to emerge from the paper. The work is part of a series that visualizes the spirituals sung by enslaved people of African descent as an act of defiance and self-expression. The song called “Stomp It Down” refers to the injustices that will be eradicated once freedom is achieved. For the Detroit Collects exhibition, this work is on loan from the collection of David and Linda Whitaker.

Hughie Lee-Smith, Girl Fleeing, Oil on Canvas, 1959

Hughie Lee-Smith was an African American artist and teacher whose surreal paintings often featured distant figures under vast skies and desolate urban settings. In 1958 Lee-Smith moved to New York City and taught at the Art Students League for 15 years.  Holland Cotter of the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Lee-Smith’s paintings usually have spare settings suggestive of theater stages or bleak urban or seaside landscapes. Walls stretch out under gray skies. Men and women, as lithe as dancers, seem frozen in place. Most are dressed in street clothes; some wear exotic masks. Children frequently appear, as do props reminiscent of circuses. The work has an air of mystery associated with the paintings of Giorgio and Edward Hopper.” In the painting Girl Fleeing, the young girl is escaping from the factory without explanation, reminiscent of the woman in Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” For the Detroit Collects exhibition, this work is on loan from the collection of Jerome Watson and Deborah Ford.

Sam Gilliam, Wave Composition, Acrylic, 1979

Sam Gilliam was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Louisville in 1955, served in the Army from 1956-58, returned to Louisville, and completed his MFA in 1961. Gilliam has dramatically influenced the direction of American Art. He is particularly known for his innovation in draping the canvas stained with a large variety of colors providing a multidimensional and sculptural quality to the work. The work Wave Composition was created in 1979 as a study for a large drape painting commissioned for the Detroit Receiving Hospital, where it has been on display since 1980. In 1972 Sam Gillian became the first African American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, and in 2017, his work was included in its prestigious Central Pavilion. Sam Gillian lives and works in Washington D.C. For the Detroit Collects exhibition, this work is on loan from the collection of Jerome Watson and Deborah Ford.

Richard Mayhew, Transition II, Acrylic on Canvas, 2013

Richard Mayhew, born April 3, 1924, is an Afro-Native American landscape painter and arts educator. His abstract, brightly colored landscapes are informed by his experiences as an African American/Native American musician. He studied at the Art Students League of New York and later attended the Brooklyn Museum Art School. In his work,Transition, his fluorescent depictions of the American countryside tackle ideas surrounding African-American identity, jazz music and Abstract Expressionism. “Landscape has no space, no identity,” he once said. His body of work is based on his extensive travels throughout the United States, and he was notably a member of the black painters’ collective “Spiral,” which included other members such as Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff.  For the Detroit Collects exhibition, this work is on loan from the collection of Lorna Thomas, M.D.

Mario Moore, Mom Says I’m Her Sun, Oil on Copper, 2015

The youngest artist in the Detroit Collects exhibition is Mario Moore with his painting Mom Says. Moore is a source of pride for the Detroit art community and is represented by the David Klein Gallery. His mother is Sabrina Nelson, a long-time studio teacher at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where Moore has been surrounded by the Detroit African American art community for most of his life. He earned his BFA from CCS and his MFA from Yale University and for a figurative artist there is an extraordinary quality about not only his technical ability but his choice of subjects. Recently Moore has spent his time as a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, depicting large-scale paintings of black men and women who work around the campus in blue-collar jobs. When I think about the work of Mario Moore, there is a message of social justice that reminds me of Kehinde Wiley, who addresses the issue of inequality in the selection of the figurative subjects in paintings of the past.  For the Detroit Collects exhibition, this work is on loan from the collection of David and Linda Whitaker.

The are many other institutions that have contributed to the development and exhibitions of artists with African American roots. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History was founded in 1965 to explore and celebrate African American Art, History, and Culture. The N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, under the ownership of George N’Namdi who has furthered the careers of prominent and emerging African American artists since 1981. The Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club co-founded by Harold Braggs and Henry Harper has been meeting since 2009, attracting artists, collectors, and art enthusiasts who discuss, sell, and purchase African American Art. The Detroit Artist Market played a pioneering role in curating exhibitions that furthered the work and careers of many African American Detroit artists.

Collectors in the exhibition include long-time supporters of the DIA, such as Maureen and Roy Roberts — a contemporary African American gallery bears their names in recognition of a generous contribution to the museum. Other collectors include Nettie Seabrooks, the first African American woman executive at General Motors and deputy mayor, chief of staff and COO of the City of Detroit during the administration of Mayor Dennis Archer; and Rhonda D. Welburn, practicing attorney and former board member of the DIA who serves on the board of many nonprofit and charitable organizations such as the DMC Foundation and the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.  Published in conjunction with Detroit Collects: Selections of African American Art from Private Collections is a 136 color catalog by Valerie J. Mercer.

Detroit Collects: Selections of African-American Art from Private Collections is free to all residents living in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties through March 15, 2020.