Copying and Invention in East Asia @ UMMA 

Imperial winter dragon robe, China, early 19th century, embroidered silk. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Elizabeth Henshaw Gasper Brown in memory of Horace, William and Helen Lou, 1989/1.34

In Western visual culture, copying is sometimes freighted with duplicitous or subversive undertones.  Marcel Duchamp’s notorious LHOOQ, a defaced poster of the Mona Lisa, is hardly flattering to the original, after all.  But drawing mostly from the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s permanent collection, the exhibition Copies and Invention in East Asia showcases the many ways the artists of China, Korea, and Japan actively copied and referenced pre-existing visual motifs across borders and across time.

There are over a hundred works on view which snugly fill the UMMA’s spacious Taubman Gallery, mostly gleaned from the past (the oldest artifacts coming from Han Dynasty China, about two millennia ago), though there are a smattering of 20th century and contemporary works on view.  The chronological and geographical scope of this exhibit is ambitiously large, so the show is compartmentalized thematically; there’s a section on literati painting, for example, and another on the auspicious animal symbols that recur.

Seifû Yohei III, White teapot and sencha pitcher with stamped dragonfly designs, circa 1893-1914, porcelain with clear glaze. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Bequest of Margaret Watson Parker, 1954/1.512 and 503

A set of ceramic bowls by the celebrated artist Seifu Yohi III are a case-study for how Japanese art imitated and synthesized the visual cultures of the territories conquered by imperial Japan.  Yohi intently studied pottery from China’s Ming and Song Dynasties (of which there are some examples on view), and his artistic output is one of respectful mimicry.   Employed by the imperial household, his work, characterized by its fine, milky-white glaze, reflected the interest Japanese patrons had in Chinese art.

Yamamoto Baiitsu, Blossoming Prunus Branch, after Wang Mien, 1847, hanging scroll, ink on paper. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. C.D. Carter, 1970/2.156

Copying at its most literal is demonstrated by the Japanese landscape painters who replicated their original Chinese models, right down to the signatures of the original artists, though their intentions were never deceptive.  An elegant ink painting of a wispy tree branch by 19th century Japanese artist Yamamoto Baiitsu is an example, its architype being a 14th century work by Chinese artist Wang Mian.  And an impressively large hanging scroll demonstrates how even within China itself, artists would directly copy preexisting Chinese paintings.  Wu Wei’s Travelers on a Mountain Pass (painted, incidentally, at exactly the same time Leonardo was dabbing away on the Mona Lisa) is a tribute to a painting by the 10th century artist Li Cheng, though Wu’s painting is more abstract, retaining a definitive personal style.  This is also a painting that advances the case for seeing art in person; cinematic in scale, this work practically engulfs the viewer, an effect that would get lost in translation if reproduced in a book.

XU ZHEN ® Eternity-Aphrodite of Knidos, Tang Dynasty Sitting Buddha, 2014, glass fiber-reinforced concrete, marble grains, sandstone grains, mineral pigments, steel. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York ©Xu Zhen

For me, the most visually compelling works are the several contemporary sculptures on view.  South Korean artist Chul Hyun Ahn’s deceptively simple light sculpture Two Circles, placed right at the show’s entrance for maximum impact, comprises two colored circular florescent lights positioned concentrically between two mirrors, framed and mounted on the wall; stand directly in front of Two Circles, and the illusion is that you’re staring into an infinity of circles eternally receding into the distance.  Chul Hyun Ahn’s sculptures are abstract references to Zen Buddhist ink paintings, characterized by a reductive though elegant simplicity.  Approaching copying with a wry sense of humor, sculptor Zu Zhen created a literal mash-up of two iconic images in Eastern and Western visual culture: a seated Tang Dynasty statue of Buddha seems to sprout (where its head should be) an upside-down reproduction of the Aphrodite of Knossos.

Copies and Invention in East Asia, to its immense credit, takes a comparatively niche topic and makes it interesting, accessible, and visually punchy.  It’s a diverse show, ranging in scope from 2000+ year old Chinese burial objects to a set of countertop Buddhist stupas fresh off the 3D printer.  It’s a show that playfully gives tangible expression to the Japanese literary critic Hideo Kobayashi’s assertion that “Copying is the mother of creation.”

 

Textures of Detroit @ Kreft Center Gallery

Installation Kreft Gallery, Textures of Detroit, 2019

Installation , Textures of Detroit, Kreft Gallery, 2019

Textures of Detroit is an exhibition of work that revolves around the theme of visual and tactile textures of Detroit.  It’s an intimate, multimedia show of six seasoned and accomplished contemporary Detroit artists (Peter Bernal, Matt Corbin, Roy Feldman, Carol Harris, Carl Wilson, and Ann Smith), whose sometimes rugged and gritty work is almost a foil to the chic polish of Concordia University’s Kreft Center Gallery.

The exhibition opens with a fine salvo of woodblock prints and linocuts by Kresge fellow Carl Wilson, who last year enjoyed a show at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. It’s not hard at all to imagine these as still frames from noir film; they seem like storyboarded images or concept art for black-and-white cinema, evocative of soulful and morose saxophone riffs.  In one graphic-novel style image, we see a line of beleaguered workers trundling toward the beginning of their shifts at some industrial job.    In another an elderly woman sits alone in a dark room illuminated by a solitary hanging bulb, and nurses a glass of indeterminate substance.

There are several textile works on view by textile artist Carole Harris, who creates fiber art that seems almost painterly, and, at times, even sculptural.  Her color palate is rusty and industrial; it’s no surprise to learn she draws inspiration from aging architectural structures.  Move in close, and her arrangements of patchwork abstractions reveal a dizzying network of swirling stitch-work that recalls the pirouetting clouds of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.  Her works subtly reference the time-worn textures of urban Detroit, and they exude an undeniable beauty.

Roy Feldman, “Untitled,” Silver Halide print on Kodak Endura paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

A quintet of photographs by Roy Feldman, a Detroit-based photographer and Emmy-Award winning filmmaker, presents a set of images of multi-layered urban interiors, each characterized by disorienting reflections which lend the set an air of magic-realism, an effect the photographer here achieves by capturing images of people taken ether reflected in mirrors or viewed through windows, a device which misleadingly lends the images the initial appearance of being double-exposed. In one instance, we see the side of a cropped face of a woman applying eyeliner; she holds out a small, circular mirror which reflects her eye as it seems to gaze back directly at us, though seemingly disembodied like a hovering object from a painting by Rene Magritte.

Roy Feldman, “Untitled,” Silver Halide print on Kodak Endura paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ann Smith and Mark Corbin both create sculptures from found objects and detritus, though their respective styles are certainly distinct, Corbin’s works rhyming more with the unrefined assemblage-style works of Detroit’s Tyre Guyton (of the Heidelberg Project), and Ann Smith’s works clearly more fussily worked and refined; the curvaceous metallic wisps of her Squash Blossom are a sort of cursive in 3D.   Together, along with the fiber works of Carole Harris, this ensemble presents Detroit texture in the most literal sense.

Carol Harris, In the Spirit, 69 x 71″ textile, 1992

Like the Copies and Invention show on view at the UMMA, Textures of Detroit takes a relatively niche point of departure and delivers an immensely satisfying result. It’s eclectic, for sure, but these multimedia works seem to come together not just through their application of tactile and visual texture, but also through the understated affection they seem to exhibit for the Motor City, its textures, and its people.

 

SALON @ David Klein Gallery Detroit

 

“SALON” Gallery 1 Installation View. All photos are courtesy of David Klein Gallery.

At the David Klein Gallery, Detroit, the exhibition “SALON” ambitiously presents 90 works by 39 artists across a range of media, with sundry formal intentions in diverse dimensions, all the while accomplishing the near impossible task of curating a ruminative viewing experience in which a spirited dialogue between each work translates into an expansive conversation with its audience. “SALON” summons and breathes new life into old models of art viewership and cultural discourse that once placed an emphasis on wide-eyed pluralistic wonder.

“SALON” Foyer Wall Installation. 

The term salon originates as a social event that flourished during the Enlightenment. A crucial practice in “the age of conversation,” the salon collected persons of intellectual and cultural significance within the home of a well-to-do host to allow for an absorbing, investigative conversation on a wide-ranging set of issues. These were intended to be regularly recurring conversations around art, literature and politics to satisfy a hunger for knowledge while refining the tastes of all participants, mingled with a dose of amusement as egos politely debated for intellectual superiority. The salon also came to be identified with a series of academic art exhibitions beginning in 1667, at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Work chosen to be exhibited by a juried system, jostled for space in dense groupings that covered the wall from top to bottom. With the rise of public museums in the 18th century, a similar method of presentation was followed. Work that had once been displayed in private collections, often serving as the backdrop for salon conversations, and were ordered as closely grouped arrangements to juxtapose formal contrasts more immediately, was replicated in the new public displays.

“SALON” Gallery 2 Installation View.

Crowded together to view a salon exhibition, the public was at times overwhelmed by the tightly clustered variety of works, but also in a state of awe and wonder, delving into vigorous conversation. With the advent of the “white cube” display methodology with neutral walls, controlled lighting and the spatial isolation of individual works of art inducing a hushed distance among viewing patrons, the salon approach was no longer the de facto system. The white cube environment, the earliest known iteration being an 1883 exhibition at London’s Fine Art Society by American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), was initially intended as an innovation to eradicate distraction, disconnecting art from the world and imposing more rigorous viewing criteria upon the viewer: there is only one way to see the artwork, and it is thus. Subsequently, what was innovative has now become conventional, with institutions and galleries continually questioning how to liberate the viewing of art from the impulse of Modernist constraint.

“SALON” Gallery 1 North Wall Installation.

At David Klein, the use of the salon as both conversational gathering point and display methodology, stimulates an adventurous public viewing space. Rather than filling every wall from top to bottom and side to side, the work in the exhibition is broken down into intriguing groupings displayed on eight separate walls in the two gallery spaces. It would be a fool’s errand to extract a work or two from each group and create a “best of” series of highlights as the basis for an exhibition review. There is no star amongst the roster of artists here, culled from the gallery’s extensive exhibiting family. This is a group effort; each work assists the other as contrasts are amplified to deepen the conversation. Such collective resonance is where the true joy of “SALON” resides as hierarchies are erased. The graphic sits beside the painted. The drawn beside the photographic. The representational beside the abstract. The minimal beside the dense. The humorous beside the solemn. And so on and so forth. Such juxtapositions are the stuff of wildly active viewing. The exhibition hums with a vitality.

“SALON” Gallery 2 North Wall Installation

As a viewer moving from wall to wall, from conversation to conversation, one approaches the whole of each arrangement, marveling at the curatorial decisions resulting in unexpected formal juxtapositions. These configurations are the result of thoughtful installation on the macro level as well as care for content on the micro level. As one drills down into individual works, crowding in closer, examining each piece on its own terms, something occurs moving from one close inspection to another: the experience of the prior work lingers a bit more on the way to settling into the next. Like the exquisite sound design in a Robert Altman film, the voices overlap. On the north wall of gallery 2, the energetic collisions of Alisa Henriquez brush up against the hard-edged purity of Matthew Hawtin which finds a partnership with the carefully observed humanity of Mario Moore which is confronted by the mediated spectatorship of Jessica Rohrer which dissolves into the formal filigree of Janet Hamrick which simultaneously eases and bumps into the heightened temperature of Corine Vermeulen. There are many such moments throughout “SALON.”

“SALON” Gallery 1 South Wall Installation.

Realistically, “SALON” is an exhibition about availability. The works chosen are bite-sized morsels representative of a larger body of work by each artist, serving as distilled entrées into their concerns. Framed for ease of hanging and transportability, the majority of works priced at a modest level for a larger audience, such market concerns go hand-in-hand with the formal accessibility of the exhibition. Free of viewing images in isolation in support of a single voice, the communion on display in “SALON” is a liberating and welcoming experience. Rather than being instructed where to place one’s focus, there is a choice of attention. In an era in which digital platforms tailor our viewing habits with surgical precision, employing harvested algorithms to produce ever narrower windows on the world, it is good to be reminded of the virtues of pluralistic viewing. “SALON” is a social event that invigorates the necessity of wide-ranging cultural conversations, reinforcing a community of expression.

“SALON” Gallery 2 East Wall Installation.

“SALON” is Jamie Adams, Elise Ansel, Emmy Bright, Mitch Cope, Carlos Diaz, Joel Grothaus, Janet Hamrick, Matthew Hawtin, Alisa Henriquez, Patrick Hill, Scott Hocking, Cooper Holoweski, Trisha Holt, Cyrus Karimipour, Trevor King, Andrew Krieger, Stephen Magsig, Kim McCarty, Clara McClenon, Mario Moore, Carrie Moyer, Brittany Nelson, Marianna Olague, Judy Pfaff, Benjamin Pritchard, Kelly Reemtsen, Jessica Rohrer, Tylonn Sawyer, Robert Schefman, Julie Schenkelberg, Lauren Semivan, Clinton Snider, Rosalind Tallmadge, Corine Vermeulen, Liat Yossifor, and Elizabeth Youngblood.

“SALON” is on view at David Klein Gallery Detroit Until November 2.

 

 

 

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.