InterStates of Mind @ MSU Broad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Car Design in the Motor City @ DIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

GT, Ford Motor Company, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

Luminous Visions and Path to Paradise @ Toledo Museum of Art

Phillip K. Smith III, Flat Torus 4. Photograph by Lance Gerber Studio

This year, the Toledo Museum of Art added to its permanent collection Flat Torus 4, an ethereal light installation by multimedia artist Phillip K. Smith III.  This work is the visual anchor of the exhibit Luminous Visions. Concurrent with this single-gallery show is a sprawling retrospective of the stained glass art of Judith Schaechter.  As different as these two exhibits are in form and content, they both directly engage with centuries of art history, they both take luminosity as their subject, and they’re both visually mesmerizing.  As such, these two separate shows compliment each other like the varied notes of a musical chord.

The centerpiece of Luminous Visions is Flat Torus 4, a series of wall-mounted concentric rings which, with the aid of computer software and LED lights, moodily project diffused light into the gallery space.  It’s an instillation which recalls the atmospheric light sculptures of Dan Flavin.  Flat Torus 4 is tactfully placed in conversation with an ensemble of other works from the TMA’s collection which literally or metaphorically take light as their subject.  These include a 19th Century painting by Sanford Robinson Gifford of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, beautifully illuminated by a rising sun.  And a 15th Century sculpture of a seated Buddha speaks to the metaphorical and spiritual associations of enlightenment and illumination.  The works in this exhibit span nearly 700 years, but Flat Torus 4 is the undisputed star of the show; its soft light bathes the whole room in its shifting colors which slowly and satisfyingly cycle over the course of 40 minutes.  This micro-show is an interesting and visually satisfying vignette, and it seems like great starting point for what could be a larger exhibition addressing light and illumination in art across the TMA’s collection.

Phillip K. Smith III, Flat Torus 4. Photograph by Lance Gerber Studio

In contrast to the stately serenity of Luminous Visions, the glass works on view in the traveling show Path to Paradise are loud, irreverent, uncomfortable, and often violent. Yet they’re also undeniably beautiful and cathartic.  Glass artist Judith Schaechter takes her inspiration in equal parts from Northern Renaissance art and the aesthetics of Mad magazine.  Through January 3, the TMA is showcasing forty of her works, supplemented with original sketchbooks brimming with preparatory drawings which offer behind-the-scenes access into Schaechter’s creative process.  Path to Paradise is her first survey exhibition, and given the impressive scale and scope of her body of work, it seems like one that’s long overdue.

The Battle of Carnival and Lent, 2010-2011. Stained-glass panel, 56 x 56 in. Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY; Marion Stratton Gould Fund, Rosemary B. and James C. MacKenzie Fund, Joseph T. Simon Fund, R. T. Miller Fund and Bequest of Clara Trowbridge Wolfard by exchange, and funds from deaccessioning.

Beached Whale, 2018. Stained-glass panel, 27 x 40 in. Courtesy Claire Oliver Gallery, Harlem, and the artist.

Schaechter manages to take a medium that reached its apex in the Gothic era and masterfully translate it into a 21st Century vocabulary. By applying a technique of layering glass which results in subtle gradients and shading, she lends her work a contemporary illustrative quality that you wouldn’t see in a 12th Century rose window.  It’s a tedious process—each work takes months to complete– but much like the Old Masters of the Northern Renaissance, Schaechter delights in the details.

This show presents her earliest works in conversation with some of her most recent, surveying the trajectory of her career.  Among these include The Flood, a triptych which thrust Schaechter into the national spotlight when it was displayed at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery when the artist was 29 years old. The figures that populate her fabricated worlds often seem caricatured, but she demonstrates an impressive ability to switch back and forth between cartoonish imagery and lucid realism, even within the same work.  New or old, all her works are rendered with astonishing detail.  In My One Desire, the background is teeming with plants, animals, and dazzling kaleidoscopic bursts of geometric patterns that snugly fill every bit of negative space, recalling a Renaissance tapestry. The work’s theme of a dying unicorn also situates this work in the tradition of Renaissance art, though the story here remains characteristically enigmatic. This horror vacui recurs frequently in her work. In A Play About Snakes, we encounter an elaborate pattern of twisting, writhing snakes that mimic the ornamental patterns found in medieval illuminated manuscripts– the Cross Page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, perhaps.  Regardless of the subject matter, all her works teem with ebullient detail; no wonder she describes herself as a “militant ornamentalist.”

Although her work is often thematically dark, it can at times be playfully whimsical.  Specimens shows a grid of various imaginary creatures preserved in little jars as if on display in a natural history museum; they seem plucked from the world of Hieronymus Bosch…or perhaps Dr. Seuss.  And her improvisatory Exquisite Corpse is an homage to the silly party game of the same name which famously originated at the dinner parties thrown by Surrealism’s founder Andre Breton.

But much of Schaechter’s work is unsettling. We encounter many images of violence and death, a surprising number of which are actually sourced in Renaissance-era paintings and illustrations. Some of these works directly speak to recent and contemporary events.  Sister is a disquietingly calm work in which the pose assumed by its lifeless subject references the haunting Vietnam-era photograph of the “Napalm Girl.”  But within the work, this young girl inhabits indeterminate space, and Sister (much like Picasso’s Guernica) comes across as a universal statement against wartime atrocity which could apply to any time and any place.  And in Emigration Policy, we see a dog drowning as it desperately tries to catch up with a departing ship (or was it thrown overboard?).  The violence in her work is never gratuitous, but rather serves to encourage empathy and compassion on the part of the viewer.

The Floor, 2006. Stained-glass panel, 36 x 34 in. Collection of Claire Oliver

The subject matter of Schaechter’s work runs the gamut between agony and ecstasy, and is Shakespearian in its scope.  As to the question of why her work is often so uncomfortable, Schaechter responds on her website with a passage excerpted from James Poniewozik essay The Art of Unhappiness: “What we forget…is that happiness is more than pleasure sans pain.  The things that bring us the greatest joy carry the greatest potential for disappointment.  Today, surrounded by promises of easy happiness, we need someone to tell us that it is O.K. not to be happy, that sadness makes happiness deeper.”  Bearing this in mind, as uncomfortable as many of her works might make us, it seems that the body of her work is– in the final analysis—ultimately life-affirming in its unashamed embrace of the totality of the human experience.

The Path to Paradise: An Interview with Artist Judith Schaechter

Toledo Museum of Art  –  The Path to Paradise: Judith Schaechter’s Stained-Glass Art   —  Jan. 3, 2021 | Levis Gallery

Visual Citizenship @ MSU Broad Museum

Visual Citizenship, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

The exhibition Visual Citizenship, on view at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum through December 26, is a considered show that comprises politically-charged prints and photographs that snugly fill the museum’s trapezoidal Collections Gallery.  Its title comes from scholar, author, and filmmaker Ariella Azoulay, who argues that image-viewing is an active civic engagement, and Visual Citizenship explores the implied moral, ethical, and civic questions and obligations presented when a viewer confronts images, particularly images of injustice. The show is thoughtful, timely, and visually satisfying, and it includes artists whose names carry some real weight in the art-world, such as Kathe Kollwitz, William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, and others.

The advents of photography and printing democratized the image to a degree unparalleled until the age of the internet.  They’re both relatively inexpensive media, and they don’t rely on moneyed and powerful patrons.  Furthermore, photos and prints are easily reproduceable, and together they helped introduce a new visual language of civic and political discourse.

Francisco Goya wasn’t the first artist to harness printmaking to document social and political injustice, but he’s certainly among the most famous.  His series of just over 80 prints which comprise his Disasters of War relay in first-person perspective and with unrelenting honesty the gritty and violent events that transpired when Napoleon’s army invaded Spain.  The show’s informational panels aptly compare Goya’s etchings to the photographs captured by a modern-day war correspondent.  On view is an etching from his Disasters, showing hangmen leading prisoners to a makeshift scaffold where several dead bodies already swing.  There are also several etchings from his satirical Follies series.  These images, never published in Goya’s lifetime, are freighted with dark and surreal imagery that seems to anticipate by a hundred years the style of the early 20th century symbolists.  Goya’s work is rarely pleasant, but it’s a welcome foil to much of the fawningly polite Napoleonic propaganda produced by the likes of Jacques Louis David or Antoine-Jean Gros.

Duro es el paso! (The way is hard!), from The Disasters of War, 1810-14. Etching and aquatint, 9 1/2 x 12 7/8 inches. MSU purchase, funded by the MSU Development Fund 64.76

Perhaps the most arresting and uncomfortable ensemble of images in the show is the Erased Lynchings series by conceptual artist Ken Gonzales-Day.  Gonzales-Day scanned images from actual postcards spanning from 1870 to 1940, all of which depicted photographs of the lynching of Lantin Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.  He then digitally erased the victims, leaving only the spectators, who now become the subject of the image.  The series addresses the role that bystanders and spectators play during social and political atrocities, and also the erasure of uncomfortable moments from our national narrative.

Erased Lynchings, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Lynching of Frank MacManus, Minneapolis, MN, 1882, from Erased Lynchings 2006-2019.  Archival inkjet print on rag paper mounted on cardstock, 6 x 4 ½ inches. MSU purchase, funded by the Nellie M. Loomis Endowment in memory of Martha Jane Loomis, 2019.17.1-5

A generous selection of photographs of significant political marches, rallies, and protests highlights the role that documentary photography played in making people aware of the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps something easily taken for granted now that anyone with a smartphone and a social media account is a potential lay-photojournalist.  These images include an ensemble by Leonard Freed, a photojournalist whose seminal work Black in White America (1968) documented the Civil Rights Movement with sensitivity and empathy, emphasizing the humanity of his subjects rather than the acts of violence and brutality they endured—the reverse of what Susan Sontag referred to in On Photography as the “atrocity exhibition,” which have a danger of becoming counterproductive to their cause.  Here, a selection of Freed’s photographs variously document a civil rights protest in Brooklyn, the historic 1963 March on Washington, and the 20th Anniversary March on Washington in 1983.

1963, Washington D.C., USA (March on Washington, 8-28-’63), 1963. Photograph  11 x 14 inches.   Courtesy Special Collections, MSU Libraries, Michigan State University

Finally, a quartet of engravings by William Hogarth adds some levity to the exhibit, as Hogarth’s wry, satirical works always tend to do.  His characteristically tongue-in-cheek series Humours of an Election, based on an actual 1754 Oxfordshire election, implicates both the Whigs and the Tories in trying to hijack the election through any means necessary.   Hogarth’s humorous approach to political critique is about as far from Goya’s nightmarish visions as one could possibly get, though both artists certainly shared a jaundiced perception of those in political power.

Four Prints of an Election: Plate II, Canvassing for Votes, 1757. Hand-colored engraving, 15 3/4 x 21 1/4 inches. MSU purchase 64.16

Visual Citizenship is a rewarding show, and each vignette of photographs or prints could easily be the starting point for a subsequent exhibition.  It’s certainly relevant and timely, and not just because this happens to be an election year. After all, in the age of social media, the smartphone, and the viral video, images have become the primary way we gather news and process information, which certainly seems to underscore Ariella Azoulay’s original point that image-viewing is a civic act.

MSU Broad – Visual Citizenship, on view at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum through December 26, 2020

 

 

Familiar @ David Klein Gallery

Mario Moore Curates a Group exhibition at the David Klein Gallery

Familiar Installation, Jason Patterson (L) , Mario Moore (C), Senghor Reid (R) All images courtesy of David Klein Gallery except noted.

The historical moment in which we find ourselves, a moment when a pandemic and racial unrest crash into the political upheaval of a presidential campaign, seems to demand that artists respond  somehow with starkly political work that addresses our collective  pain.  And many artists have responded with polemic art, to great effect.

But there is a more intimate, personal and equally valid response to make at this juncture in our history. That is the road that Detroit artist and curator Mario Moore has chosen to follow.  For this  group exhibition Familiar, at David Klein Gallery until October 24th, Moore has chosen five other like-minded artists to join him in meditations on memory, work, and family–most particularly mothers–in Black American history. These artists have taken the cultural moment into account, but they produce art that acknowledges the zeitgeist while operating on a deeper, more enduring level.

Mario Moore has become a visual historian of Black experience through his intimate portraits of the people that inhabit his world. His recent project, The Work of Several Lifetimes, emphasizes the importance of  essential workers,  often unseen and under-appreciated. In his paintings, he brings the figures that inhabit the background into the foreground, and in so doing makes an argument for the dignity of labor in all its forms.

Mario Moore, I Continue to Dream, 2020, oil on linen,44” x 62”

The three paintings Moore has chosen for exploration in Familiar are based on a photograph he recently discovered, of a Detroit diner once owned by his family.  Moore was unfamiliar with this part of his family history and he set about learning more. Initially, he made a faithful black and white painting of the restaurant and its occupants, which included his grandmother and great grandparents. The two subsequent paintings are colored–literally–by the artist’s conversations with his grandmother, who described the place and people in more detail, thus combining archival images with familial oral history to recapture a past he never knew.

In contrast to Moore’s intimate storytelling, Illinois-born artist Jason Patterson’s images are arms-length and archetypal. He can convincingly claim to be an archivist and cultural historian of Black experience in addition to his considerable skills as a draftsman and craftsman.  For the diptych The Negro Mothers on display, part of his series New Americans: Our Mutual Improvement & Social Elevation, he has drawn from vintage photographs of Reconstruction era Black women in the Randolph Linsly Simpson Collection in Yale’s Beinecke Library. The resulting monumental pastels of upwardly mobile African American matriarchs of the 19th century stand their ground on varnished, sepia-toned raw canvas. Patterson has surrounded and embedded these towering images in elaborate, coffin-like pine boxes that foreshadow the frustration of Black aspirations during Jim Crow. To further press his point, Patterson has carved quotes from the Langston Hughes poem, The Negro Mother, into the pine boxes.

Beverly McIver, Turning 50, 2013, oil on canvas, 40” x 30”

Beverly McIver comes at her examination of family through intimacy.  Her medium-sized square compositions are dominated by the larger-than-life heads of her subjects, in this instance her father, her sister and herself.  The backgrounds are hazy, featureless fields of color, her lively brushwork is confined to the interiors of the painted faces. Compositional simplicity powers these modestly sized but impactful paintings. The portrait of her sister, Renee, is particularly interesting, her smiling face in the upper third of the picture offset by the flat whiteness of the cat in the foreground.  McIver’s self-portrait is equally satisfying; she gazes ruefully out of the picture plane, a party hat perched on her head as she contemplates turning 50. The elegant simplicity of McIver’s paintings is a pointed reminder that sometimes less really is more.

Senghor Reid, In Which We Serve, 2020, oil on canvas, 58” x 39 ½ “

Detroit artist Senghor Reid’s harshly daylit, everyday rooms can be interpreted as metaphors for his interior life. Each element in these crowded interiors–a book, food, a potted plant–is apparently mundane but exists simultaneously on a parallel symbolic plane.  Of particular interest among the three paintings Reid has contributed to the show is In Which We Serve which brings up, once again,  the importance of the black mother in the life of the family and in the context of the larger community.  Shirley Woodson Reid, a prominent Detroit arts educator and Senghor Reid’s mother, is the  authoritative primary figure. Her stern features occupy the center of the painting, both literally and figuratively, while arrayed before her are carefully selected objects that seem to suggest devotional offerings. Her importance, both to the artist and to the community, is acknowledged even within this modest domestic setting.

Photographer Ricky Weaver examines her ambivalence toward female identity from within.  Her two self-portraits, Breathing 1 and 2, show the artist in conflict with the camera’s lens, the unwilling protagonist in her own story.  Trapped by the camera’s eye, Weaver is locked in a futile struggle to escape her environment, her blurred image simultaneously there and not-there. She makes herself  both subject and object, the viewer and the observed. The theme of the cornered subject is repeated in Untitled (Sunday Morning) which features the artist’s daughter backed up against the fence in an otherwise idyllic environment.

Chris Watts’s single translucent abstraction, Invisible Mirror II, features cloudy veils of pigment on silk; it’s an outlier among the more figurative works in Familiar.  Its intrinsic merits aside, this seems an odd inclusion in an otherwise tightly organized collection of narrative work.

The temptation for artists to descend into the topical is powerful at this moment in history, when so much seems to be in contention. But the artists in Familiar seem well aware that there is a larger story to tell, and one that will continue regardless of current events. They know that their job is not just to advocate, but also to observe, report–to think–in broader and more abiding terms about the struggles that concern us all.

Familiar Installation, Ricky Weaver (L), Mario Moore (R)

Familiar, curated by Mario Moore, includes work by Moore, Beverly McIver, Jason Patterson, Senghor Reid, Chris Watts and Ricky Weaver.

David Klein Gallery is located at 1520 Washington Blvd, Detroit. Gallery Hours, Wednesday through Saturday 12 p.m.-5:30.