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Image and the Photographic Allusion @ OUAG

Oakland University Art Gallery presents: Image and the Photographic Allusion

Installation image OUAG: Image and the Photographic Allusion, 2022

The Oakland University Art Gallery opened a photographic exhibition on January 13, 2022, that will run through April 3, 2022. The curator of this exhibition is Dick Goody, Professor of Art in Oakland University’s Department of Art and Art History. Goody also serves as director of the Oakland University Art Gallery.

In a statement, he says, “Photography is thriving, but in a different way than before. We used to preserve our treasured paper snapshots in photo albums, but today, smartphone images have become digital ephemera. Incalculable numbers of them are taken only to be forgotten. Photography exhibitions like this give us pause to reconsider the aesthetic grandeur of a printed-out, permanent, archivable image. In no way a conceptual concern, these rarified images are nothing if not transcendental.”

Louis-Jacques Mand’e. Boulevard du Temple, 1838, Daguerreotype, 5 x 6.5”

Photography, when its end result is called a photo, a picture, or a pic, gives meaning to an image, real or abstract. The types are amateur, commercial, journalistic, scientific, and artistic with too many to name.  Today, it finds its application into every part of human life. It was invented in France in 1829 when an artist and a chemist named Louis Daguerre obtained a camera obscura for his work on theatrical scene painting. Daguerre was put into contact with Nicéphore Niépce, who had already managed to record an image from a camera obscura using the process he invented: the early photographic process employing an iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapor. Daguerre got stuck with the process in his name, Daguerreotypes – that gave the early photographers the ability to preserve an image and their collective history. From these early images using glass and paper, the process eventually found its way to film and now to digital cameras containing an array of electronic photodetectors, all with the same intent: capturing light and forming an image.

Pieter Hugo – After Siqueiros, Oaxaca de Juárez, 2018 archival pigment print, 47 x 63 inches

Pieter Hugo’s work is dominated by images of the human figure and their condition. His work is informed by a self-taught approach to photography after beginning his career by starting out working in the Film Industry. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Pieter started taking photographs at the age of twelve when his father bought him a camera. He gained an impressive reputation and an enviable following for his documentary photography and his striking fashion images. Choosing to focus on marginalized or unusual groups of people, Hugo has published many books and has been exhibited worldwide. The South African artist currently lives in Cape Town.

He says in a statement, “While working in Mexico I was particularly looking at muralist paintings. This image was constructed using a group of garbage collectors who moonlight as a theatre troupe at the market where they work. I showed them a reference to a tableau from Alfredo Siqueiros and asked them to recreate it. I love the junction between premeditation and accident.”

Markus Brunetti – Wells, Cathedral Church of St. Andrews, 2015–16 archival pigment print, 59 x 70.8125 inches

Markus Brunetti’s work, Wells- Cathedral Church of St. Andrews, is part of a series titled Façades, which features a technically precise image of European religious buildings’ exteriors, primarily from the 14th century. This work reminds this writer of a time when cameras were fitted with architectural lenses that were adjusted when getting a perfectly flat image of a building. Using today’s technology, Brunetti depicts the facades of the building in a highly exact hyper-realistic manner by combining scores of individual frames into a single image.

He says in a statement, “The builders and architects that built the churches had to be patient. Most of them never saw the finished result of their endeavors, as it would take decades or sometimes hundreds of years to complete the building. I try to work on this series with the same spirit and patience they must have had when starting to work on those new historical monuments.”

Raïssa Venables – Sukkah, 2020 archival pigment print, 54 x 44 inches

The Sukkah image by Raissa Venables is a large-scale photograph that requires numerous photographs stitched together to form the illusion of movement without a human presence. The illusion of movement is created from the use of multiple vanishing points. Assumptions of reality are disrupted, creating a realm where inanimate objects seem alive. The result is both an architectural puzzle and a landscape of the mind. It is a kind of interior environment that makes the viewer ask questions.

In her statement, she says, “At first glance, they may seem to be realistic images or even entrances into existing places. My photographs are experiential visions of our environments, whether they are interior or exterior, mundane or opulent. Rather than reveal visible details captured by my camera, I delete what I perceive to be distractions.”

Zanele Muholi – Phaphama, at Cassilhaus, North Carolina, 2016 archival pigment print, 43.375 x 30 inches

Zanele Muholi is a South African woman who uses photography to capture portraits of black, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, intersex people, including herself. Her images capture the realities of people she believes need to be heard. Her works in this exhibition are portraits of herself, where she intentionally darkens the exposure of her skin and compliments this with either her hair or the clothing she wears.

She says, “I wanted to use my own face so that people will always remember just how important our black faces are when confronted by them- for this black face to be recognized as belonging to a sensible, thinking being in their own right. The key question that I take to bed with me is: what is my responsibility as a living being – as a South African citizen reading continually about racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes in the mainstream media? This is what keeps me awake at night. You are worthy. You count. Nobody has the right to undermine you – because of your being, because of your race, because of your gender expression, because of your sexuality, because of all that you are.”

It is worth mentioning that many of these images are large prints (30 x 40-inch range), where scale plays a part in the art, and the printmaking is equal to the capture of the image. Most people don’t have or make prints, especially large prints, and when it is part of the creation it takes on an elevated meaning and presence. In addition, this exhibition is designed to give viewers an experience outside what is normally available to both students and the public alike and therefore differs in its audience and purpose. It is definitely worth a visit.

Artists represented: Mary Ellen Bartley, Peter Bialobrzeski, Markus Brunetti, Lucas Foglia, Cig Harvey, Jacqueline Hassink, Erik Madigan Heck, Pieter Hugo, Joshua Lutz, Michael Massaia, Jeffrey Milstein, Zanele Muholi, Christopher Payne, Toshio Shibata, and Raissa Venables.

The Oakland University Art Gallery presents Image And The Photographic Allusion, which runs through April 3, 2022

 

 

 

 

 

Salon Redux @ David Klein Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Northwest Michigan Regional Juried Exhibition @ The Dennos

Installation image. All photos courtesy of the Dennos Museum Center

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

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

Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City Installation image.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

African Fashion & Shirley Woodson @ DIA

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Per(Sister) and Free Your Mind @ MSU Broad

Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Zoe Kissel/MSU Broad. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The United States is home to the world’s most incarcerated population, with 2.2 million individuals held within its prison system. Over the past 40 years, the incarceration rate for women has increased by over 800%. Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States is a socially-driven exhibition that harnesses the arts to raise awareness of the particular challenges women face during and after incarceration, with attention given to exploring some of the underlying societal conditions that have helped drive forward incarceration rates in the first place.

This exhibit was arranged by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in Louisiana, and paired 30 current and formerly incarcerated women (referred throughout the exhibit as “PerSisters”) with artists who listened to their stories and translated their experiences into artistic form. At the time of the show’s creation, Louisiana was the incarceration capital of the world, with over 1,000 incarcerates per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 600 per 100,000 in Russia, and 118 per 100,000 in China. Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum now hosts this traveling exhibit. Underscoring the relevance of the show across state lines, the Broad complements the show with the adjacent exhibition Free Your Mind, which addresses incarceration specifically in Michigan.  Together, both shows encourage us to view these individuals with empathy and dignity.

Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Zoe Kissel/MSU Broad. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The works of art (ranging from photography, painting, site-specific installation, fabric art, sculpture, and even music) are eclectic, reflecting the individual experiences they represent. One wall prominently displays large black and white portraits of all 30 PerSisters featured in the exhibition, sympathetically photographed by Allison Beondé; visitors can hear these women in their own words at stations equipped with electronic devices and headphones, and printed excerpts from their interviews accompany many of works in the show, so their voices and faces are always present.

Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Zoe Kissel/MSU Broad. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Zoe Kissel/MSU Broad. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

While each work of art in Per(Sister) responds to an individual’s personal experience, many of these works also address broader issues regarding the prison system more generally. Epaul Julien’s portrait of Dolita Wilhike conscientiously recalls images of the iconic political activist Angela Davis. But in the background is a prominent American flag which, up close, is revealed to be a collage of historic images of enslaved African Americans, including the familiar schematic rendering of the notorious Brookes slave ship. We also see the script of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolishes slavery “except as punishment for a crime,” a constitutional loophole that effectively allows institutional slavery to persist in the form of the prison industrial complex. Artist Amy Elkins confronts the leasing of convicts for unpaid labor in the garment industry in particular with her site-specific wallpaper which mimics textile art, its floral imagery stitched together with the colors used for prisoners’ uniforms.

Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of the United States installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Zoe Kissel/MSU Broad. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

One of the most compelling stories in the exhibit is that of Bobbie Jean Johnson, imprisoned for 40 years for a murder she denied committing. She was released in 2018 with the help of the Innocence Project, which provided compelling evidence in support of Johnson’s testimony that her confession was coerced by an officer who was asphyxiating her with a plastic bag. Making the point that in the American justice system a confession is regarded as the “queen of criminal evidence,” artist Rontherin Ratliff created a large sculpture of a queen, which, in the game of chess, is the most powerful piece. But confessions are problematic, as several high-profile cases amply demonstrate– the now-exonerated “Central Park Five” come to mind.

Caption: Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana, installation view at the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University, 2019. Per(Sister) is a traveling exhibition developed by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Plenty of didactic text and informational graphic-illustrations guide viewers through the root causes of female incarceration, the impact of incarceration on mothers, the physical and mental impact of incarceration, and specific challenges women face upon re-entering society. Some specific issues addressed include the lack of access to proper healthcare, as many jails and prisons are not equipped to provide basic prenatal and postpartum care to female inmates. The show also addresses the impact of incarceration on families; nearly 80% of female incarcerates are mothers, the majority of whom are the sole caregivers to their children.

In an adjacent gallery space, the exhibition Free Your Mind complements Per(Sister) with a specific focus on incarceration in Michigan. While Michigan has fewer incarcerated individuals than other states, it leads the way in punitive sentencing, with its 33,000 inmates serving more time on average than those of any other state. This exhibition addresses four themes: the length of sentencing, the impact of incarceration on women, the impact of incarceration on youth, and the impact of COVID-19. All the works in this single-gallery space come from incarcerated individuals who have exhibited with the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan.

Even allowing that these works were created by individuals with no formal training in art, the technical skill in some of these works is, by all standards, astonishing.  Daniel Valentine’s pencil drawing of a hand holding a rose, The Scarlet Fancy, is rendered with such realism that it looks like a photograph, even when viewed from just a few inches.  Sarah Yien’s small charcoal drawing I Need to Breathe, showing a body struggling to break through some sort of translucent tarp, also seems photographic, but evokes the blurred photorealism we might expect from the paintings of Gerhard Richter.

Suffragette City is a deceptively playful and visually flamboyant approach to social criticism. In this colorful watercolor and pen & ink panorama which vaguely resembles the busy pages of a Where’s Waldo book, artist Rik McDonough populates a zany cityscape with humorous, thinly veiled allegories of the social and political forces behind mass incarceration. We see armies of pawns scurrying about a dystopian cityscape, and close inspection reveals that many of the buildings in this city are rows of books, all calculatedly chosen titles (Les Misérables, Animal Farm, and 1984, for example).

Incarceration rates among women in Michigan have risen over the past ten years even as the overall statewide prison population has decreased, and much of Free Your Mind features work by women artists. Samantha Bachynski’s Rose Trellis Dream Wedding Dress, a life-sized crocheted wedding dress, is particularly evocative. As quoted in the show, Bachynski movingly says of the dress, “It’s a beautiful piece of art and I’m so proud of it, but I know I’m not going to get to do the two things I wanted to in my life: get married or be a mom. So I want someone else to feel absolutely beautiful wearing it and experience what I’m not going to experience….It’s not a complete end. I still have a life in here. It’s not the life I wanted, but it’s the life I have made for myself.”

Samantha Bachynski, Rose Trellis Dream Wedding Dress, 2019. Courtesy of the Prison Creative Arts Project, University of Michigan.

Although these are both art shows, they’re information-heavy, and visitors should expect to read their way through much of these two exhibits. The accompanying booklet to Per(Sister) is a generous 126 pages long and is really an exhibition catalog replete with introductory essays, biographies of the participants, a brief timeline of the American prison system, and a glossary of terms. It’s perhaps cliche to describe an exhibition as thought-provoking, but the content of these shows really does have a way of getting inside one’s head, only to keep resurfacing as time passes. Together, Per(Sister) and Free Your Mind serve to amplify the voices of a population which, though sizable, remains largely invisible, and they emphatically make the point that individuals shouldn’t forfeit their humanity once they enter the carceral system.

Per(Sister) and Free Your Mind are both on view at the Michigan State University Broad Art Museum through December 12, 2021.

 

 

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