Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes @ the Broad

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Between 1964 and 1985, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil were variously ruled under dictatorships and military juntas, all of which received tacit support from the United States.  Truth is murky under repressive regimes, as evidenced by the difficulty in pinpointing the actual number of people that were killed or “disappeared” (a sinister verb that acquired notoriety under Argentina’s General Jorge Videla who famously applied the word to describe dissidents “neither dead or alive”), though estimates are that in Argentina alone, approximately 30,000 people were killed in state-sponsored violence.  In South America, the Cold War was always raging hot. Until January, the Broad Art Museum highlights the experimental art produced by South American dissident artists who, at great personal risk, harnessed the visual arts to speak truth to power.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes comprises a diverse array of multimedia work by sixteen South American artists (and two artist collectives) who “lived on the margins,” all united in their use of art as self-assertion and resistance.  Given the censorious nature of the regimes in which these artists lived and worked, most of the art on view necessarily approaches the subject matter metaphorically and indirectly, though the human body, intact or broken, recurs both as subject and, in some wince-inducing instances, the medium.

Much of this art is performance documented through photography or video, the transient nature of performance being perhaps a suitably discrete way to make a resonant statement in a climate of censorship.  A triptych of photographs documents Chilean performance artist Lotty Rosenfeld’s artistic intervention for which she altered the partition lines on a mile of road with white tape, transforming each straight line into a cross, or, alternatively, each “minus” into a “plus.”  For Rosenfeld, disrupting traffic law was a metaphorical act intended to subtly undermine law in a more general sense under Augusto Pinochet.

Another series of photographs documents performance artist Elias Adasme, who posed in various urban settings alongside a map of Chile (in some instances, a map is painted or projected directly onto his body).  In one performance, the artist’s seemingly lifeless body suspends upside-down from a road sign, Adasme’s pose bringing to mind a battered body in a torture cell. As a sort of coda to his performances, Adasme installed photographs of his performances in public spaces and documented the length of time they remained on view before police confiscated them.  Depending on where they were placed, this could range from as little as 30 minutes or as long as a month.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Silhouettes often recur in the show as a symbol for the “disappeared,” and a confrontationally large photograph by Edwardo Gil fills an entire gallery wall, showing Argentinian police arriving on the scene of a public artistic intervention for which artists collaborated with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (the “Mothers of the Disappeared”) and pasted silhouettes on the exteriors of government buildings throughout in Buenos Aires.  The featureless figures stand as surrogates memorializing just a few of the 30,000 people who disappeared under the Videla regime.  Similarly, Argentine artist Fernando Bedoya also applies the silhouette in his drawings, for which he builds human-like figures using letters which spell out the names of various individuals who were abducted or imprisoned.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

A commanding series of seven expressionistic paintings by Brazilian artist Victor Gerhard portrays specific incidents of violence that occurred in Brazil under the country’s veritable litany of Military dictators; Gerhard’s combination of paint with newspaper collage and text recalls some of the politically-charged works of Robert Rauschenberg, who also mined newspapers for content.  A second work by Gerhard also addresses news (specifically, state-sponsored propaganda); a one-channel video in stop-motion animation shows a picture of a woman being force-fed images culled from various newspapers.  The work was the artist’s response to a series of laws which authorized the censorship of the press, and serves as a metaphor for the public’s involuntary consumption of state media with which the Brazilian government force-fed the population.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Any discussion about the Cold War in South America must invariably include the United States, and one gallery wall is filled with a timeline briefly summarizing the rise of each respective dictatorship and the political entanglements which led the United States (largely through the actions of the Central Intelligence Agency) to support these regimes, which, as violent as they were, nonetheless were viewed by Washington as preferable to their leftist and Communist opposition counterparts.  The wall-text also explains Operation Condor, the sordid American-backed alliance between a half-dozen South American regimes which collaborated across borders and shared information and recources to eliminate any opposition.  Actions under Operation Condor included the notorious Argentine “Death Flights” and the assassination of exiled Chilean opposition leader Orlando Letelier by a car bomb on American soil in Washington D.C., very possibly with the approval of the CIA.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Given the weighty subject matter of The Edge of Things: Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes, one might think that this exhibition would be drearily depressing. But the tone of the show, to me at least, seemed ultimately optimistic, showcasing the inventive ways artists continued to create art despite the censorious and restrictive conditions in which they worked, and demonstrating that dictators and death squads ultimately couldn’t crush the triumphant spirit of resistance.

THE EDGE OF THINGS: DISSIDENT ART UNDER REPRESSIVE REGIMES   THE BROAD  JUNE 1, 2019 – JAN. 5, 2020

 

 

 

Life is a Highway & Everything is Rhythm @ Toledo Museum of Art

Claes Oldenburg, Profile Airflow, 1969. Cast polyurethane relief over lithograph. Collection of Flint Institute of Art

For those of us who grew up with the automobile as a ubiquitous part of life, the very prevalence of which (like oxygen) perhaps makes it go largely unregarded, it’s worth giving pause and considering the revolutionary, democratizing effect of the advent of the automobile, a cultural paradigm shift which literarily and figuratively reshaped the 20th Century American landscape.  The automobile takes center stage in the Toledo Art Museum’s exhibition Life is a Highway, the first U.S. exhibition to explore the automobile’s influence on visual culture, with specific attention to the Midwest.  This is not just a show about automobile-inspired art, but it manages to offer some commentary on both the celebrated advances of 20th Century technology and on the social and labor injustices that accompanied them.

Robert Frank,Belle Isle, Detroit, 1955. Photograph. Collection of MFA Houston

Life is a Highway assembles over 150 works spanning a diverse array of media, though photography seems to dominate the gallery suite.  Road signs and traffic cones, in addition to offering playful ambiance, guide viewers through the show.  Arranged chronologically, the exhibition opens with images that suggest the optimistic spirit with which the automobile became an American symbol.  A lithograph by Thomas Hart Benton shows the Joad family (from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath), rendered in Benton’s characteristically folksy style, packing their belongings into the rickety-looking pickup truck which will transport them from the Oklahoma dust bowl to a better life (or so they think) in Edenic California.  But a looping video from Charlie Chaplin’s iconic film Modern Times suggests the cost on the human spirit of the age of the assembly-line and the automobile; Chaplin’s character must perform menial tasks on an implausibly fast assembly line, his body itself reduced to a mere machine.  And while the crisp paintings and photographs of Charles Sheeler celebrate the sublime grandeur of modern industrial temples (his ant’s-eye perspective reminiscent of the etchings of Piranesi’s views of Roman ruins), Arthur Siegel’s bird’s-eye view of a labor strike offers a different perspective, literally, on industrial progress.

Life is a Highway, Installation image, TMA 2019

After the Second World War, the automobile increasingly became both necessity and status symbol, and the American landscape changed to accommodate its omnipresence in American life. Robert Brown humorously approaches this with a painting of a cartoonified map of America in which every inch of earth has become occupied with shopping centers and parking lots.  In contrast, the photographic pencil drawings of Charles Kanwischer suggest that there really is an understated sublime beauty in the industrialized American landscape: the columns of his US 24 Road Project (presumably meant to support a bridge) here against a barren landscape seem like ruins from an ancient civilization, the Minoan palace of Knossos, perhaps. And Catherine Opie’s photographs of highway overpasses, rendered in elongated horizontal prints, are exquisite examples of 2D design, and one doesn’t even recognize these as roads at first, such is her ability to show the beauty in what we might consider the mundane.

But while the automobile became a symbol of freedom for many, the exhibition also turns its eye to the racial injustices painfully prevalent in automotive America.  Well into the 1960s, many restaurants and hotels refused service to people of color, necessitating the Green Book, a travel guide authored by Victor Hugo Green which listed establishments deemed safe for African Americans travelling in the Jim Crow South.  Several Green Booksare on display, alongside photographs from Jonathan Calm’s series Journey Through the South: Green Book, for which Calm traveled through the deep south, photographing locations from the Green Book as they appear today (some are now just vacant lots).  Among the establishments is the Lorraine Motel, which played host to, among others, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Dr. Martin Luther King the fateful night he was assassinated.

John Baeder, Stardust Motel, 1977. Oil on canvas. Collection of Yale University Art Gallery

Perhaps those who grew up during the pervasive automobile culture of the 50s and 60s, when cars had a Baroque lavishness entirely unburdened by any regard for efficiency, will find this exhibition especially resonant.   But one certainly doesn’t have to be an automotive know-it-all to appreciate Life is a Highway, which manages to be interdisciplinary in its scope, touching at once labor history, social (in)justice, economics, the environment, and so much more.

In addition to Life is a Highway, the TMA is concurrently exhibiting a vibrant show in its newly re-opened new-media gallery suite.  Everything is Rhythm is a multisensory show which explores intersections between music and the visual arts.  The show pairs fourteen paintings with corresponding works of music, which viewers can listen to by plugging in headphones (provided by the museum) into ports located at listening stations scattered throughout the gallery suite.  The exhibit gently challenges preconceptions of what an art exhibit ought to be, and in its tactful paring of image and sound manages to achieve an effect best described as cinematic.

In most cases, the pairings reflect a direct relationship between the composer and the painting. Harold Budd’s 1996 album Luxaserved as a musical tribute to some of his favorite artists, such as Anish Kapoor and Serge Poliakoff.  Here, his airy, meditative, and sinuous electronic composition Agnes Martin seems an apt musical interpretation of the British painter’s work, characteristically space and serene.   Composer Morton Friedman very much admired the paintings of Mark Rothko, and in 1971 even composed a moody and somber instrumental and vocal composition for the equally moody and somber Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.  For this exhibit, an untitled 1962 Rothko is paired with Friedman’s Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, a morose symphonic work which rhymes with the tragic emotion Rothko so ardently tried to convey in his art.

Hans Hofmann (American, 1880-1966), Night Spell, 1965, oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in. (182.9 x 152.4 cm), Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, Ohio), Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1970.50

Some pairings emerged as curatorial decisions, regardless of whether or not the respective artists and musicians were conscientiously responding to each other.  While admittedly quite subjective, the pairings seem to work quite well.  The soulful, improvisatory trumpet of Miles Davis is paired with Hans Hofmann’s abstract expressionist Night Spell, itselfthe product of improvisation and intuition.  And the myriad of rhythmic vertical lines in Julian Stanczaks And Then There Were Three, a spellbinding tour de force of the Op Art movement, seems the logical visual equivalent of the hypnotic repetition of Philip Glass’ Metomorphosis III, a solo piano work which, while repetitive, manages to be undeniably beautiful, much like ocean waves breaking on the shore.

Everything is Rhythm, Installation, TMA 2019

Everything is Rhythm is a delightful show.  It’s also a great introduction to abstract art for those who dislike abstract art.  After all, music is abstract insofar as it’s transient and ephemeral, and we can appreciate an instrumental work even if it’s not about anything in particular, but merely succeeds in evoking a certain mood.  Over a century ago, American artist James McNeil Whistler advanced the argument that the same ought to be true for the visual arts, and he began giving his increasingly abstract paintings musical titles (arrangementsand nocturnes).  Were he to magically time travel to the present day, he’d certainly view this exhibition approvingly.

Life is a Highway at the Toledo Museum of Art runs through September 15, 2019, and Everything is Rhythmis on view through February 23, 2020.

Stacey Steers “Night Hunter” @ K.OSS Contemporary Art Gallery

The actress Lillian Gish (1893-1993) was called the “First Lady of American Cinema,” as the earliest prominent female film star from 1912 to the 1920s. In screen performances that defined the role of women in silent cinema, Gish was the image of the archetypal suffering heroine that gained strength through trauma. It was the stuff of pure melodrama.

“Night Hunter”, Installation view at K.OSS Contemporary Art Gallery, All images: K.OSS Contemporary Art Gallery

Artist and filmmaker Stacey Steers resurrects Gish in the animated short film Night Hunter (2011), which was created from 4,000 collages on paper and shot on 35mm film. It can currently be viewed as the centerpiece of the exhibition “Night Hunter” at the K.OSS Contemporary Art Gallery, alongside a selection of the collages used in its making and a reconfiguration of excerpted scenes within two sculptural installations. Steers work in “Night Hunter” evokes the literature of dark fairy tales, gothic horror and doomed Victorian romance as shot through with the intuitive approach to narrative construction found in Surrealist art and cinema. Rich in seemingly-incongruous symbolism, the film and its component parts untether and collect the raw material of the subconscious within a psychologically complex space that turns the psyche inside out. Although Steers evokes the imagery of the past, she also works to actively deconstruct and subvert the meaning of that imagery.

Stacey Steers: Single Collage, 22 x 18 x 1 inches, 2011

The exhibition “Night Hunter” calls forth many slivers of the ornately imagined past, beginning with The Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton from a screenplay by James Agee. Set in West Virginia in the 1930s, that film stars Robert Mitchum as the misogynistic serial killer and self-appointed preacher Reverend Harry Powell, who attempts to hunt and kill a boy and a girl escaping his clutches along the Ohio River. He is a snake who enters the garden. There are numerous elements in the “Night Hunter” exhibition that converse with Laughton’s film, which is a highly stylized, expressionistic work photographed with the distortions and excessive play of shadows that haunt the dreams of children. The sets of the film appear as dimly lit dollhouses in the void, swallowed up by an ever present gloaming. Its action unfolds in an unreality— a studio lot rendition of night teeming with reminders of the natural, bestial world on the verge of devouring innocence. Lillian Gish even appears in The Night of the Hunter, as an older, wiser, gun-toting woman who keeps the Reverend at bay.

Stacey Steers: Single Collage, 22 x 18 x 1 inches, 2011

Steers’ film Night Hunter has as its setting, a house in the dark woods, where a youthful Lillian Gish, reanimated in footage excised from silent dramas such as Broken Blossoms (1919), True Heart Susie (1919) and Way Down East (1920), all directed by D.W. Griffith, and The Wind (1928) directed by Victor Sjösström. In this last film, the final silent performance of Gish, she plays a heroine who suffers at the hands of male brutality until she commits murder. Steer’s narrative thoroughly resonates with the history of Gish’s screen characters. In her Surrealist fairy tale, we are presented with the trappings of a haunted house rife with phantasmal stirrings. At the start, Gish, alone in the house, is sewing and cooking. Lace curtains part to reveal the starry night outside. Pots boil over. Death‘s-head hawkmoths are flitting about. The moodily detailed score by composer Larry Polansky establishes a space that is at once airy and yet also oppressive, with a mixture of sounds that conjure restless spirits within walls on the verge of talking. This is a scene of the domestic mundane laced with gothic horror. There is a raven clutching a writhing green earthworm within its beak. Oversized eggs bleed, the weeds penetrate up through the floorboards, a storm of moths flutter from the open drawer of a desk. Our heroine is writing a letter: “Strange things happening, mother.”

Stacey Steers: Single Collage, 22 x 18 x 1 inches, 2011

And soon, there is a snake: the intrusion of the phallic in the form of a venomous Copperhead. It is here that Steers relies upon the silent film archetype of the heroine in peril, as the snake threatens and the environment grows increasingly stifled. But there is a reversal, as one form of nature vies for dominance over another. In an echo of Camille Paglia’s feminist reading of Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963), the force of feminine nature emerges as an act of reclamation in the face of the domestic as Lillian Gish flees the house to seek refuge within the dark of the surrounding forest. Night Hunter ends on a note of release.

The film harkens back to Surrealist works in its construction. The resuscitation of silent film footage incorporated into a new narrative recalls the film work of assemblage artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), whose experimental “found film” Rose Hobart (1936) was constructed from shuffled and reworked scenes from the 1931 “B” movie East of Borneo. Cornell would fixate upon repeated gestures and expressions of the actress Rose Hobart throughout the film in a manner that traps the actress under the male gaze. Alternately, Steers liberates the image of Gish as an active participant in her narrative.

Stacey Steers: Single Collage, 22 x 18 x 1 inches, 2011

Steer’s Night Hunteralso gestures toward Max Ernst’s 1934 collage novel/comic book Une Semaine de Bonté  (A Week of Kindness), in which the Surrealist artist set about cutting up and reorganizing a plethora of print images culled from Victorian novels, encyclopedias and natural science journals. For Ernst and many other Surrealists, this intuitive act of arriving at new meanings through the intuitive suturing of inert images rescued from the cultural dustbin was an act of liberating that which had been previously repressed in source material. Steer’s work is similarly concerned with the use of collage and montage as an act of deconstruction and reconstitution. The exhibition itself is conceived to reflect this process as the viewing of the complete 16-minute film of Night Hunter is supplemented by twenty of the collages used in its production. But rather than ossifying the experience of the film, the collages enlarge upon the space of the narrative. The film itself is manufactured from material that is fragmented and then reassembled. To then take the film and break it down into moments framed  and placed behind glass, sometimes in shadow boxes with mixed media adornments, is to create auxiliary incidents that reshuffle the memory of what has just been seen.

When viewing these individual, static collage works, plucked from the moving continuum, one can appreciate the skill with which Steers approaches the visual texture of her film. When the celluloid images advance, there is that poetic, jostling motion of handmade animation, the meaningful delays and lapses that reinforce the simultaneous decay and reanimation of time. In a frozen state, each image yields the detail of their source material: the engraved, etched, and half-toned language of print alongside the grain of silent film stock with hand-colored additions.

Stacey Steers: Shadow Box, mixed media, 11 x 13 x 3 inches, 2011

The very notion of reshuffling time, abandoning the linearity of the narrative, allows for a different sort of immersion in the world Steers has created. Here too, one can glance back at a Surrealist predecessor: Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s silent film experiment in non-linear cinematic narration Un Chien Andalou(An Andalousian Dog(1927) with its shocking eyeball sliced open by a straight razor serving as a powerful symbol for the Surrealist intent in slicing open the image. But whereas Buñuel and Dalí leaned heavily on Freudian theory and the repeated victimization of their heroine in the film, Steers empowers her heroine. And that she does so after swallowing the same death’s-head hawkmoth glimpsed in Un Chien Andalou, should not be overlooked.

Stacey Steers: Night Hunter House, wood, Nixplay screens and mixed media, 60 x 36 x 36 inches, 2011

Included in the exhibition are two sculptures, Night Hunter House and Cottage that go further to represent the central film project in an alternative light. The house is a Victorian model measuring 60 x 36 x 36 inches, painted entirely in matte black, with windows that reward the viewer access to the interiors of ten rooms, each with a small video screen playing loops of selected scenes from the film, each with furnishings that echo the animated narrative. The dim lighting of the rooms and the scale of each video loop, fortifies the intimate domestic space viewed on the larger screen. It also reshuffles the narrative once again, as the observer glances from window to window catching a fragment here and there, the gaze drifting to the miniature objects found within. We make ourselves small and burrow back into this house, whose very architecture is the symbol for so many stories relating to the ghostly, the horrific and the romantic.

Stacey Steers: Cottage, wood, Nixplay screens and mixed media, 19 x 13 x 11 inches, 2011

With Cottage, a 19 x 13 x 11 inch construction similarly painted matte black and presenting a single screen video loop within, and with “House,” Steers revels in the relationship between narrative and architecture. In these miniature, darkened spaces, she has fashioned pitch black galleries within the larger white cube. They are temporal dream spaces for us to project ourselves into, collecting her flickering images to take back into the light of day as fragmented memories that will later rejoin into an altogether different narrative upon reflection.

The exhibition “Night Hunter” by Stacey Steers is on view at K.OSS Contemporary Art from May 24th through July 13th, 2019.

 

A Brief History of Art in Space and Nature Morte @ Broad MSU

William Anders, Earthrise, 1968. Courtesy NASA.

A Brief History of Art in Space is a rewarding exhibit at the Broad, East Lansing, occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the auspicious moment when the Eagle, the Apollo 11 lander module, successfully made touchdown on the surface of the moon.  Though the Apollo space missions were for space exploration, their influence resonated in profound and unexpected ways back on earth.  This exhibit is small, but the works included (such as the famous 1968 Earthrise photograph captured by William Anders) are freighted with real significance, and, in their ability to make us pause and think about the cosmos and our place in it, they certainly verge into the realm of the sublime.

The exhibit comprises mostly NASA photography, though two headphones also allow viewers the chance to listen to the soundtrack of the Voyager Golden Record which was launched into space aboard Voyager I in the playfully optimistic hope that, should advanced life forms ever intercept the spacecraft, they could treat themselves to a sort of musical soundtrack of humanity (while NASA didn’t include an actual record player aboard the Voyager, it did thoughtfully provide an illustrative guide for how to make one).

Golden Record and Disc, 1977. Courtesy NASA.

Anders’ Earthrise is the star of this little show.  Taken while Apollo 8 was in lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968, the image juxtaposes the barren gray of the Moon’s pox-marked surface with the vibrant blues, greens, and whites of the distant earth.  Lauded in Life magazine’s 100 Photos that Changed the World, the image helped garner substantial support for the environmental movement.   There are other lesser-known photographs from other Apollo missions on view, an image of an astronauts boot-print in the moon’s dust, for example– an image charged with symbolism.  These photographs, while originally taken for scientific purposes, are presented here for their merits as works of art rather than simply documentation.

In addition to photography from the Apollo missions, the exhibit also highlights works of art that are in space, and it turns out there’s a small handful of art-objects either in orbit or making interstellar journeys.  The best known is certainly the famous Pioneer Plaque designed jointly by Carl Sagan, Linda Salzman Sagan, and Mike Drake, attached to the exterior of Pioneer 10.  In addition to a planetary map locating earth, the plaque also includes images of a nude male and female, each of which betray the influence of idealized classical Greek sculpture and Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Any extraterrestrial that actually views this plaque will see a comparatively air-brushed and tactfully censored portrayal of humanity and likely wonder why the female of the species lacks any genitalia.  It’s subtle unintentional commentary on reality vs. art.

Pioneer Plaque, 1972. Courtesy NASA.

Also on view is a photograph from the Apollo 15 lunar mission, during which the astronauts movingly deposited a small abstract sculpture onto the moon’s surface along with a plaque containing the names of 14 American and Russian astronauts who had lost their lives on various missions.  It was never an official part of the mission, so the sculpture, an intentionally genderless figure in a spacesuit, had to be smuggled aboard surreptitiously.

Apollo 15 crew, Untitled, 1971. Courtesy NASA.

Adjacent to the Vitrine gallery, the Broad’s Collection Gallery currently features an eclectic arrangement of photography which addresses the camera’s ability to capture a moment in time, in effect stopping the world, at least on a photographic print. The show, Nature Morte (“dead nature,” a French term generally reserved for still-life painting), takes its starting point from Susan Sontang’s observation that there’s a curious language of violence we employ to talk about photography, as when we “shoot” a picture.

Diane Arbus, Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, 1962. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, purchase.

The photography spans from the mid 19thcentury to the present day, and includes works by such blue-chip photographers as Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus.  Some of these works address the premise of the show quite directly.  Arthur Leipzig’s Divers, East River, captures several youths mid-flight as they leap successively into New York City’s East River. The image, which initially reads like a stop-motion image of a single diver, bears an arresting resemblance to the experimental photography of Eadweard Muybridge.

Arthur Leipzig, Divers, East River, 1948, printed later. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, purchase.

The most literal example of Nature Morte in the show is likely Jersey Crows, an ensemble of photos by Kiki Smith which portray some disorienting close-ups of what appear to be dead birds—actually strikingly realistic bronze sculptures.  Other works address the show’s theme much more tangentially.  Edward Watson’s Two Shells is an elegant but disorienting image of one shell nestled inside a second shell so as to appear to be a single form.  Presented in this unfamiliar way, the organic forms seem more like an abstract sculpture by Barbara Hepworth.

A Brief History of Art in Space and Nature Morte were, of course, conceived as separate shows, but there are some moments where we might find some incidental overlap.  Looking at Anders’ Earthrise, one can’t help but interpret it as precisely the opposite of Nature Morte, which is what lent the image such potency.  Taken during the height of the Cold War, when the phrase “Mutual Assured Destruction” had entered common political discourse and when schoolchildren were learning to “duck and cover,” the image helped humanity pause and come to grips with the fragility of the planet and the need to preserve it, lest the earth itself become the consummate example of Nature Morte.

East Lansing, Michigan State University, Broad Museum – NATURE MORTE, through August 11, 2019.

Scott Hocking, Maritza Caneca, Jack Henry @ Wasserman Projects

Scott Hocking, Seventeen Shitty Mountains Installation image, 2019, Image Courtesy of DAR

Addressing the urban environment, Wasserman Projects has mounted three solo exhibitions that speak to the state of affairs where man-made structures exist in various forms of decay. Works by Detroit-based Artist Scott Hocking, Brazilian artist Maritza Caneca, and Brooklyn-based artist Jack Henry opened on April 26, 2019, with different mediums that find their subject matter in abandonment, ingenuity and rebirth. The exhibition required artist residencies weeks before the show opened where the work was collected and in some cases custom built into the generous expanse of the gallery space.

“To immerse oneself and fully own the beauty and power of seemingly ordinary objects and environments takes a certain kind of audacity. That is in part what has drawn me to each of our spring featured artists,” said Alison Wong, Director of Wasserman Projects. “Their ability to transform day-to-day experiences into narratives that address both personally and universally resonant subjects is so compelling. And as you engage in their work more deeply, you see at play the dichotomies of the natural and man-made, the contemporary and ancient, the funny and the grave—when those pieces come together in their hands, they produce something fresh, exciting, and real.”

Seventeen Shitty Mountains (No. 13), Concrete, steel, fluorescent pigment paint 46″ x 42″ x 37″ 2019 Image Courtesy of DAR

Scott Hocking, the Detroit-based artist, has been creating site-specific installations, using the city of Detroit as his laboratory to create works of art dating back to 2000. I first became aware of his work with the Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition Relics. The scope of his exhibitions inside abandoned buildings or outdoors in the elements, such as the Rustic SputnikTire Pyramid, or the Celestial Ship of the North, all demonstrate a wide range of locations and materials that speak to his expansive and inquisitive imagination.  Hocking delivers a formalist arrangement of three-dimensional artwork, primarily vacant interiors, to leverage an open stage as he creates collections of objects that propose deeper meanings reflective in a space that was part of a past. Hocking is documenting change, rebirth and transformation, causing the viewer to be held in awe, and as the artist transforms his found materials, reconstituted into a new form.  All the work is carefully photographed for exhibition and documentation of an image in the event the exterior space changes where new development clears the building or land.

This Wasserman installation features discarded concrete sewer pipes that Hocking collected from a now-defunct Detroit Water & Sewage Department building in Eastern Market transforming the cast concrete into colorful megaliths, some weighing as much as 15 tons.  Hocking, who has leveraged abandoned spaces in places like Port Austin, Michigan, New South Wales, Australia, and Lille, France, speaks to an artist who seeks new spaces for inspiration. A variety of motifs that reappear in his use of form are the pyramid, the oval and the circle: psychologically universal in their iconic existence for thousands of years, reminding this writer of the role the collective unconscious plays in creative expression.

Scott Hocking, Seventeen Shitty Mountains Installation, 2019, Courtesy of DAR

For the lack of a formal artist statement, and perhaps in a Hocking-ish way, he says in his bio, “Like my childhood experiences, I found myself hiking up to the railroad grade via desire paths, climbing through fence holes and busted open doorways, and into these once-bustling buildings of industry, now quiet and still. Cavernous is an accurate term to describe them, not just because of their interior size and space, but also because of their transformations into man-made caves: stalactites and stalagmites formed throughout these often cast concrete structures, as years of water permeated the roofs and floors. I found solace in the quietude and natural reclamation in these spaces. I craved it in my life and sought it out where I could find it. In these historic Detroit factories, built along the railroad over 100 years ago, and left for dead by the 1980s, I found my church-like experience. My freedom. My escape.”

Seventeen Shitty Mountains at Wasserman Projects is produced in collaboration with David Klein Gallery, which represents Scott Hocking, and Eastern Market Corporation. Hocking earned his BFA from the College for Creative Studies in 2000.

Jack Henry Untitled (Stacks), Concrete, found material, steel168″ x 4.75″ x 4.75″ ea. 2019 All images to follow courtesy of Wasserman Projects.

A combination of “core sample” sculptures and windows of detritus, Brooklyn-based artist Jack Henry uses resin and cement to bond various remains of discarded civilization and contextualized as new work, contrast with delicacy to the megaliths of Scott Hocking. The urban debris often on the interior cement perimeter to the rectangle is often thematic, be it branches, leaves, wiring or glass. These commonplace, post-industrial abstractions form the tension between the natural and industrial elements. The vertical stanchions constructed in plywood and plastic, then cast in cement result in colorful, chaotic and intricately-textured, supports, resembling geographic core samples from an urban landfill. These were created on-site to conform to the floor to ceiling height of the gallery.

Jack Henry, Utitled, (Wilderness), Gypsum cement, found material, steel, cast resin 32” x 24” 3” 2019

The contrast in found material and gypsum cement in Wilderness creates an abstraction that pays attention to composition as well as the juxtaposition of textures. Varying in size, Henry gathers commonplace materials and transforms them into multi-media works he calls “monuments” to post-industrial America.

Jack Henry Untitled (Fairview), 2019 Gypsum cement, found material, steel, cast resin 108″ x 72″ x 3″

In the publication, Beautiful / Decay, Ryan De La Hoz interviews Henry who says, “I appropriate discarded objects seen by the roadside to create monuments to post-industrial America. The selection process is focused on man-made objects and structures such as dilapidated houses, roadside memorials, tattered billboards, and other discarded materials. Each object is reinterpreted and presented as an artifact or a natural history museum model of something pulled from the contemporary landscape. The purpose is to evoke a sense of wonder from the banal byproducts of our failed but once successful modern society. Instead of merely pushing these man-made items into the peripheral of our everyday routine, I recreate the curiosities that happen when they depart from contact with people to move, decay, and harbor with other items to create monuments to cultural disaffection.”  The artist earned his BFA in sculpture from Florida Atlantic University and his MFA from the University of Maryland.

Maritza Caneca, VAZIO, Cusco, Peru, Pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper 31.5″ x 47.25″ 2017

 

Maritza Caneca, NIGHT POOL, Jerusalem, Israel, Pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper 40″ x 60″ 2016

The Brazilian artist Maritza Caneca began her career in still photography in the 1980s working alongside cinematographers, capturing fragments of film for a larger narrative and launched her attraction to abandoned swimming pools in 2012, beginning with a visit to her childhood ranch in Brazil to discover that after 35 years, the pool she loved as a child was in complete decline. What followed was her work in Cuba in 2014 where she was researching the abandonment of swimming pools in Cuba by order of Fidel Castro because of how they represented wealth and power. These events, coupled with her recent work in Budapest (known as the city of waters) to document their thermal baths – created a sensibility: An attraction to water pools, vacant of people, with light, form, color and the subtleties of the pattern. The empty pools are perhaps personally nostalgic, while the full pools become a vehicle for the illumination of an abstract composition.

Maritza Caneca, HEMINGWAY, Havana, Cuba, Pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper 40″ x 60″ 2014

When one surveys the body of photography, it is not uncommon to find a thread, be it particular objects, architecture, acts in nature, people of a rare type or periods in time, that dominate their attraction. For this exhibition at Wasserman Projects, Caneca’s work is found, whether driven by intuition or circumstance, working in the spaces around the man-made environments of water.

She says in her statement, “I have become obsessed with the nature of pools and the “ghosts” that once filled the spaces. I have gladly made the various shades of blue, the malleability of the water, and the artistry of the pool tiles my artistic tools. Conveying the nostalgic sensations that pools evoke became my motivation. I work from the perspective of an outsider attempting to gain, or regain, access to the coveted freedom pools offer; attempting to access the immersive sensations of weightlessness and calm so unique to a pool’s environment.”

Maritza Caneca, IMERSAO, HD Video, 58 min. 2016

These video screens take the camera immersed as part of moving underwater to a new dimension and reinforce her attraction to the waterscape of a full water pool. That is the conception of the video titled Imersao, which was shot in slow-motion to capture the feeling of a plenitude of submerging, like someone who drops their anchor in the world. Caneca’s pictures not only invite the memories but also the invitation to submerge in the silence of an immersion. Maritiz Caneca earned her Bachelor of Arts and Social Communication at the Faculdade da Cidade in 1982, and spent two years studying at Parque Lage Visual School of Arts.

While this exhibition presents three individual solo works of art, there is an obvious connection to urban decay and reinvention. Each artist in their own way approaches and encapsulates the nostalgia of material reused, reinvented, and celebrated.  It’s more than a discovery, rather a metaphor for our continuing engagement with art as an expression of urban environments from the past and present.

Scott Hocking, Maritza Caneca, Jack Henry at Wasserman Projects runs through June 29, 2019