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Work from Mexico @ Flint Institute of Arts

Installation image of FIA exterior

The Flint Institute of Arts is not an enormous museum, but it delivers a big experience. One of the wonders of the FIA is how they manage to do so much in a relatively small space. The museum boasts a dozen galleries featuring a spectrum of objects from across the ages and around the world; notable contemporary glass and ceramics galleries; a showcase-lined corridor devoted to decorative arts; a theater and a sculpture court; and a small gallery between the obligatory gift shop and cafe that sells work made by students from the adjacent art school. At the very back of the building is the Sheppy Dog Library (named for philanthropist Dr. Alan Klein’s golden retriever), a warm, welcoming reading room stocked with reference books and comfy chairs in which to peruse them.

Installation, From Earth To Sky: Ancient Art of the Americas

Of course, there’s generous space given over to large headliner exhibitions, but there’s also a tiny media arts gallery — a “black box” theater designed to show video works. And just in front of the library is the FIA’s graphics gallery, a dark-walled room with subdued lighting, just big enough to comfortably showcase a dozen or so prints or drawings. All three of these spaces are currently hosting art created by Mexican artists, featuring work that spans two millennia. In the main galleries is the exhibit From Earth To Sky: Ancient Art of the Americas, showcasing ceramic figures and objects from the collection of a Texas oil magnate. The graphics room offers Mexicanidad, a portfolio of twelve prints created by El Taller de Gráfica Popular, a progressive-minded, Mexico City-based printmaking collective founded in 1937. And in the Security Credit Union Media Arts Gallery, they’re showing Pocha Dream, an eleven-and-a-half minute excerpt from the Dream Machine Archive, a “psychodynamic audio and video tool” designed by artist Natalia Rocafuerte to help immigrant women interpret their dreams. (Rocafuerte grew up around the Mexico/Texas border, and became a naturalized US citizen in 2019.)

Ted Weiner was a second-generation oil man who threw himself and a chunk of his fortune into art collecting in the 1950s. He acquired an impressive array of modernist works, as well as a large collection of indigenous Mexican sculptures, which were experiencing a vogue at the time. He was noted for his “catholicity of taste” — which could be taken as a backhanded compliment. But Weiner’s collection of pre-Hispanic ceramics was of such quality that when his daughter offered the complete set to the FIA after his death, the museum (after doing due diligence) gladly accepted it.

Jalisco, Ancestor Pair, ca. 200 BCE – 200 CE Ceramic

Many of the pieces on display here are smallish terracotta figures or vessels from the Nayarit, Jalisco, and Colima regions of western Mexico, created to be buried along with deceased members of elite families, in underground tombs beneath a family’s home. The tombs were accessible by shafts, and often contained the remains of several of a family’s ancestors. To modern eyes, the figures depicted by the sculptures might seem enviably relaxed and relatable: seated on stools, sitting arm-in-arm, smoking, or leaning back with legs spread as if lounging on the beach. But the elaborate jewelry, scarifications, tattoos, headwear, and other features on these figures indicate prestige and authority handed down through ancestral bloodlines. Male-and-female couples sitting side by side are thought to represent the ancestral progenitors from whom a family’s elite status flowed. Some figures have abstracted features to emphasize rank over individual likenesses. Elsewhere in the exhibit, other walks of life are represented; most dramatic are the shaman warriors, dressed in cylindrical armor and outsized helmets, and brandishing clubs. Everyday activities such as playing ball, preparing food and medicines, and giving birth are depicted as well.

Colima,  Dog, ca. 200 BCE – 200 CE Ceramic

Dogs were a favorite subject of these sculptures, and ceramic canines were common in the tombs. They’re undeniably cute; one small dog on display here is flopped with its legs splayed out, and another boasts a rotund belly, toothy grin, and even an anatomically correct backside that will charm any dog person. For ancient Mexicans, these dogs held spiritual significance as well; they may have acted as guides for the deceased into the underworld, valued companions in death as they were in life. The chubby “Colima Dog” has since become iconic of the region, and its image has been adopted by contemporary Mexican artists such as Guillermo Ríos Alcalá, whose monumental version of a pair of the dogs dances over a traffic circle in Colima, part of an ongoing process of re-establishing connections to pre-Hispanic culture.

Mexicanidad, Installation view

The concept of Mexicanidad (essentially, “Mexican-ness”) links the ancient works in the main gallery with modern ones in the FIA’s print gallery via the post-revolutionary nationalist movement by that name. Most often associated with the mural projects of “Los Tres Grandes” — Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera — the Mexicanidad movement had an important printmaking aspect as well, rooted in the social commentary of predecessors such as José Guadalupe Posada. While the “Big Three” educated the people on progressive issues with large-scale public wall paintings, the printmaking collective El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) took the opposite tack: creating small, accessible, and affordable artworks, though still with powerful leftist political messaging. The portfolio displayed here, simply titled “Mexican People,” comprises a dozen lithographs produced in 1946 by TGP for the purpose of promoting Mexican products in the United States. 

Alberto Beltrán, The Sugar Mill, 1946 Lithograph


Alfredo Zalce, Lumber Workers, ca. 1945 Lithograph

American ex-pat artist Pablo O’Higgins (FKA Paul Higgins before becoming an assistant to Diego Rivera) contributes two prints, one of a man and child stacking bricks, and another of an older woman selling her wares at market. O’Higgins employs heavy, sinuous lines that lend his subjects both muscularity and grace. Alberto Beltrán’s image of a man feeding sugar cane into a donkey-driven mill is as elegant as it is diagrammatic, concisely describing the process in a masterfully composed image. Alfredo Zalce’s litho of a lumber operation is similarly beautiful, the arc of a precariously balanced worker’s saw echoing that of reddish logs, splayed like fingers and bobbing in blue-green water. Francisco Mora depicts a silver miner, hunched and approaching the viewer in a claustrophobic tunnel, but not alone — his companions are visible laboring in the background. Though the prints in the “Mexican People” portfolio were intended for a US audience, they nevertheless evince the TGP’s populist concerns; for a campaign promoting export products, the images here pointedly privilege the laborers, their tools and their environments over the products themselves (in much the way Rivera emphasizes the auto manufacturing process over actual cars in his Detroit Industry murals).

Natalia Rocafuerte Pocha Dream, 2021 Lithograph

Inspired by Jungian analysis, which posits that dreams are the way the unconscious communicates with the conscious mind, artist Natalia Rocafuerte set up a hotline, complete with ads featuring cheesy late-night infomercial style graphics, encouraging immigrant women from Detroit and South Texas to call in and answer a survey about their dreams. From these reports, Rocafuerte created short films interpreting the dreams, done in a chaotic, disjointed video collage technique that echoes dream logic: overlapping images, snippets of random advertisements and social media videos, computer games, songs and other pop ephemera.

Natalia Rocafuerte Dream of Emma and Tony, 2021 Lithograph

The eleven-and-a-half minute clip featured at FIA is entitled Pocha Dream, a reference to a (somewhat joking) slang term for Mexicans who’ve lost their Spanish, and perhaps their culture — who have “changed color,” like a rotting fruit (so explains the robotic voiceover that opens the video). The clip includes Dream of Emma and Tony, a short that got Rocafuerte named Best Michigan Filmmaker at 2021’s Ann Arbor Film Festival. In Emma and Tony, Rocafuerte recounts a dream encounter with her normally reclusive (and deaf and blind) grandmother. As she talks, home movies of the older woman are intercut with a face-constructing computer program from the Sims game, as if Rocafuerte’s mind was casting about trying to build a memory of her Abuela. Nostalgic TV ad jingles and graphics from news programs occasionally interrupt the story. The scene somehow segues to an elevated train, traveling first through a Chicago-esque cityscape, then into the desert of west Texas. Along for the ride are an annoying white tourist, and SnapChat denizen and self-described “ladies man” Tony Johns, who hoots and drops inane life advice. Obnoxious as Johns seems, Rocafuerte finds herself admiring his self-confidence. The desert gives way to a meadow just before the dream abruptly ends.

Aside from noting their common origins from Mexican artists, it might be a bit fraught to suggest there are common threads running between 2,000-year-old clay figurines, 78-year-old lithographs, and a Covid-era short film. Suffice to say that the artworks in each exhibit address, and dignify, the quotidian concerns of the artists and their subjects. Those concerns may be personal or political, practical or spiritual, and sometimes all of the above.

From Earth To Sky: Ancient Art of the Americas –   On view now through August 25

Mexicanidad  – On view now through September 8

Dream Machine Archive: Pocha Dream  –On view now through July 31

Stan Natchez @ BBAC

Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center presents Stan Natchez, Brenda Kobs Russell, and Maria Balogna

Stan Natchez, BBAC, Install 3.2023

The BBAC opened its three galleries with new visual art exhibitions on March 10, 2023, presenting work by a Native American painter, Stan Natchez, a printmaker, Brenda Kobs Russell, and drawings by Maria Balogna.

Stan Natchez was born and raised in Los Angeles. Still, the indigenous artist now lives in New Mexico and brings his exhibit, Indian Without Reservation, to the BBAC with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts Midwest. By taking the philosophies and techniques of both modern life and the traditional Native American heritage, Natchez achieves a complex harmony in his work by using a distinctive Neo-Pop style. He says in his statement, “I paint the life I live, and so every painting, in some way, is a self-portrait. My art is about the way I respond. And that is my experience…my experience is my art…and art is my life.”

Stan Natchez, Monopoly, 58 x 58″ Mixed Media

Natchez talks about his influences, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein, combined with artifacts from the Native American culture. They would be found in Monopoly, where he uses the popular board game as a compositional structure to combine the various corporate logos with Native figures and designs. (I know this writer has worked hard at eliminating the word Indian from my vocabulary to represent Native Americans, yet I find it ironic to see this in the title of this exhibition.)

Stan Natchez employs art appropriation in most of his work throughout the exhibition, where he uses pre-existing objects or images as an artistic strategy, intentionally borrowing, copying, and image transfer is a practice that is traced back to Cubism, Dada, and, more recently, Pop Art.

Stan Natchez, Medicine Crow Living in Two Worlds, 48 x 36″ Mixed Media

Medicine Crow comes from a warrior of the Crow tribe. He was a “reservation chief,” concerned with helping the Crow tribe “learn to live in the ways of the white man” as soon and as efficiently as possible. The subject for this painting is taken from an original black-and-white photograph. The crow symbolism represents messages from dreams or the sub-conscience, and the object he holds is a group of feathers attached to a wooden handle and is used in a variety of ceremonies. Natchez brings the three primary colors across the face to draw attention to the reservation chief.

Stan Natchez, Traveling Through Time, 48 x 66″, Mixed Media

Natchez travels across time, mixing the images of Picasso, Matisse, Marilyn Monroe, Piet Mondrian, and a section of the painting Guernica juxtaposed with several Crow tribal leaders. He is mixing famous western images with Native American icons across time, creating a grid that compares and contrasts. By doing this, he places his people on par with world-recognizable images.

Stan Natchez, Guernica to Wounded Knee, 48 x 66″ Mixed Media

Part of this painting includes features of Guernica, the large 1937 oil painting by artist Pablo Picasso. Natchez spans time with imagery from events at Wounded Knee. It is one of his best-known works, regarded by many as the most moving and powerful anti-war painting in history. The painting here was made earlier in 2012 and then was sold and duplicated at a later date.

Stan Natchez earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern Colorado and his M.F.A. at Arizona State University. In addition to being a nationally known artist, Natchez has distinguished himself as a teacher, dancer, editorial advisor, and legal advocate for the Native American community.


Brenda Kobs Russell: Familiar Rhythms

Brenda Kobs Russell, Sequence, Etching Collage

Brenda Kobs Russell is a locally based artist whose work reflects an ongoing investigation connecting her inner life to natural phenomena. Given her time in school, you could look to the abstract influences of Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, or Paul Klee. During the 1920s, geometric abstraction manifested itself as the underlying principle of the Art Deco style, which propagated the broad use of geometric forms to influence abstraction. For example, Sequence is an etching with touches of white gouache, making it a monoprint that has been popular among printmakers recently.

She says, “As a whole, my work serves as a record, mapping an interior investigation of my surroundings and a practice of abstracting the familiar. I am interested in the congruities between organic cycles of transformation and artistic process, particularly how an image evolves through the erosion of an etching plate and is further translated by ink into paper.”

Russell is an art educator, having taught students across a wide range of ages and abilities in private schools, art centers, and as a lecturer on the faculties of Oakland University and Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, University of Michigan. She earned her B.F.A. at Michigan State University (1983) and her M.F.A. at Cranbrook Academy of Art (1985).


Maria Balogna: by His stripes

Maria Balogna, Darkness to Light III, Ink on Paper

“The Cost. The Wounds. The Enormity. Symbolic themes run throughout this collection of small drawings that outwardly express the salvific work of The Suffering Servant [ reference: Isaiah 53 ].” The abstract drawings of Maria Balogna contain undertones of Christianity without the weight of literary imagery.

The exhibitions will run through April 20, 2023.

The BBAC is open to the public. Masks are strongly recommended.

EXHIBITION GALLERY HOURS: Monday-Thursday 9 am-5 pm, Friday & Saturday, 9am-4 pm

Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century @ DIA

Exhibition view of Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century. All Images: Ashley CookPrintmaking in the Twenty-First Century at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century @ Detroit Institute of Arts

On view at the Detroit Institute of Arts is an exhibition that focuses on printmaking with over 60 works by local, national and international artists. Clare Rogan, who is the Curator of Prints & Drawings at the DIA, unpacks the magic of printmaking through placards that explain some of the most widely used processes and their history dating back to 700 AD in China. Since the first moment that ink was applied to a carved plate and pressed onto paper, it became evident that this new technology would change the trajectory of creative expression forever. Printmaking, unlike drawing or painting, allowed for the production of multiples, which gave artists a chance to produce more and reach a broader audience while still remaining true to their vision. Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century presents a plethora of practices including woodcuts, aquatints, linocuts, screenprints, lithographs, intaglios, relief collagraphs, letterpresses, monoprints, etchings, drypoints, spitbites, photo etchings and engravings. While the featured artists draw inspiration from a lineage over 1300 years old, the works in this exhibition span from the year 2000 until now.

The Schwarz Galleries of Print and Drawing is where you can find this show. Depending on which door you enter, you will receive the body of work differently, however all guests will walk away having witnessed the breadth of concerns these printmakers have addressed. Experimentation is particularly evident in works like Shadows II by William Kentridge, Arise by Fred Wilson, Aerial #3 by Susan Goethel Campbell and Untitled by Tara Donovan. Each of these pieces participate in conversations of abstraction through investigations of material and process. Visually, experimentation by printmakers seems to have furthered aesthetic potential and often achieved deeply mystical outcomes. Many times the printmaker’s multi-step process of creating is mysterious; the informative literature throughout the show satisfies the curiosity a fascinated viewer may have.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Aerial #3, Monoprint printed in brown and black ink with hand punching on kozo paper, 2010

Kota Ezawa, X3D, Color aquatint on paper, edition 3/35, 2009.

 For those who prefer representation, this show also has what you’re looking for. While experimentation is still evident in pieces like Watermark by Nicole Eisenmen and X3D by Kota Ezawa, there is as much concern for producing a legible illustration as there is for exploring the different ways to do so. There are also impressively complex representations of birds in Dying Words by Walton Ford and bugs in The Bestiary of Museum Visitors Notable Bird Beaks of American Museum History Exhibition Paradise and Perdition Thorny Territory by Mark Dion. These two, however, utilize more traditional methods of printmaking to explore the possibilities of realism, which highlights yet another of printmaking’s many facets.

Further into the exhibition is On Press Project: Prints for Non-profits, organized by Detroit-based printshop Signal Return who invited local artists to produce posters for non-profits in the Detroit area. There are 24 linocut and letterpress posters that were made between 2018 and 2022 that bring awareness to organizations, including Detroit Hives, Black Family Development, Keep Growing Detroit, Freedom House, The Children’s Center, and Greening of Detroit. Amongst them are posters for Detroit Will Breathe, an activist group that represents and supports Detroit’s participation in the global Black Lives Matter movement. These simple yet powerful protest posters silently shout DEMOCRACY FOR ALL! and remind us of the essential role that printmaking has held in the realm of activism throughout time. Signal Return spent much of 2020 producing protest posters for Black Lives Matter activists free of charge, which have fueled the demonstrations in the streets. This gesture is not new; researching images of human rights marches throughout history, we see that mass-produced messages designed by artists and produced by printmakers have been critical.

Clinton Snider, Greening of Detroit, Linocut, 202

This exhibition does not shy away from themes of colonization and the oppression of marginalized groups. It confidently moves on to explore more ways in which printmaking can be a functional approach to critiquing such realities while honoring and supporting those who are challenged with underrepresentation. Curated into the show is a series of printed medical-grade masks by world-renowned political artist Ai Weiwei. They were created in 2020 and sold to raise money for Covid-19 relief programs like Human Rights Watch, Refugees International, and Doctors without Borders. Sultana’s Dream is a large-scale imaginative series that depicts the array of achievements by women who live in a world free from the laws and wars of men. The purpose of these images is to illustrate a short novel by Bengali writer and women’s rights activist Rokeya Sakhamat Houssain.

Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei MASK, Screenprints on polypropylene masks, unlimited edition, 2020.

 Additionally, the beautiful life-size works of artist Dyani White Hawk represent the dentalium dresses worn by indigenous women of North America. Roger Shimomura addresses anti-Asian racism through his depiction of childhood memories as a boy living in Japanese internment camps during WWII. Robert Pruitt illustrates the complexities of Black identities through an image of a female basketball player with the Black Panther Party slogan “Black is Beautiful” on her jersey. Hernan Bas presents the male characters of Hardy Boys mystery novels with fairy wings to challenge gender norms and the disparagement of homosexuality. It would be safe to assume that nearly half of the works on display in this exhibition were done as a product of material experimentation with something to learn, while the other half were done as a product of support with something to say. The common thread is that they all require a curious urge to explore and an open mind to appreciate.

Exhibition view of Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century

Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts until April 9, 2023, accessible with the museum general admission pass.


Concerning Landscape @ Detroit Artists Market

An installation shot of Concerning Landscape at Detroit Artists Market, up through Feb. 18. Image courtesy of Michael Hodges.

Over the centuries, the venerable landscape painting has evolved far from the Dutch masters who first perfected the genre — a fact underlined by the heterogeneous work in Concerning Landscape, up through Feb. 18 at both the Detroit Artists Market and the new Brigitte Harris Cancer Pavilion at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute in Detroit.

Curator Megan Winkel has adopted a refreshingly ecumenical point of view in pulling this together. Works range from Ann Smith’s intriguingly peculiar sculptures with their bunched reeds and dangling root systems to Carla Anderson’s photographic prints of geologic forms, including lyrically striated rocks in a spring in Yellowstone County, Wyoming.

A fan of the grand view? Not to worry. Concerning Landscape also embraces figurative vistas, like Helen Gotlib’s meticulous intaglio print, West Lake Preserve II, or Bill Schahfer’s lush photo study, Lagoon Life.

Helen Gotlib, West Lake Preserve II, Intaglio print, carved birch panel, palladium leaf; 2021.  All Images courtesy of DAM

 “West Lake Preserve” places the viewer right in the tall weeds, looking up a small valley to a pond and woods, a highly satisfying view. The large print’s divided into eight separate panels, and with the exception of a little dull orange at the top, it’s mostly a duotone essay in sepia and black. The photographic print, Lagoon Life, by contrast, stars a white ibis posing beneath a jungle crush of palm trees that all loom, menacingly, over the elegant bird’s head.

Winkel comes at all this curation from an interesting vantage point. She’s the manager and curator for the Healing Arts Program at Henry Ford Health Systems in Detroit, tasked with buying art for the sprawling medical empire. “Curatorial projects for me are mostly big buildings now,” she said, “and thinking about all the ways people can experience art when they’re not seeking it out.” The landscape, she adds, has understandably long found a home in medical centers given its generally soothing visions of a natural world far beyond the reach of the artificial light of the hospital ward.

Landscape as an art subject, of course, has a long, respectable history. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed the genre, and the walls in upper-class homes were sometimes painted with pastoral views. But the status of the landscape plummeted in the Middle Ages, when religion elbowed every other art subject aside. Indeed, the natural world was reduced to a mere afterthought, and one with generally lousy perspective, to boot.

Things began to turn around in the Renaissance, particularly during Holland’s “Golden Age” in the late 16th and 17thcenturies, when an exquisite sensitivity to landscape and weather welled up in many studios, yielding in the best cases – van Ruisdael comes to mind — breathtakingly believable clouds and storm-tossed skies. Indeed, an online essay by the National Gallery of Art notes that “with their emphasis on atmosphere, Dutch landscapes might better be called ‘sky-scapes.’” (The Detroit Institute of Arts, by the way, has an outstanding collection of Golden Age Dutch paintings, well worth seeking out on your next visit.)

Catherine Peet, Looking Up from the Deep, Mixed media, 10” diameter.

The one piece in Concerning Landscape that gives van Ruisdael a run for his money is the vertiginous, gorgeous, Looking Up from the Deep by Catherine Peet, which you’ll find at the Henry Ford Cancer Pavilion gallery. This delicate sunrise or sunset-tinged cloudscape feels like it should be peering down at you from the dome of some state capitol, an impression strengthened by its circular frame.

Sharing some of the same warm tones but at the far abstract end of the spectrum is Carole Harris’ mixed-media Desert Flower. The 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow has constructed an overlapping stack of hand-made fiber sheets that read like thick, highly textured paper, in colors ranging from cocoa to an alarming red peeking out beneath all the others.

The simplicity of this particular conceit is striking, as is Harris’ ability to make real drama out of colors that only emerge as narrow strips visible beneath the warm brown sheet on top. That Desert Flower pushes the boundary of “landscape” goes without question – so, too, the fact that it kind of knocks the wind out of you.

Carole Harris, Desert Flower, Fiber, 2023

Russian transplant Olya Salimova, currently on a one-year BOLT Residency with the Chicago Artists Coalition, gives us something entirely different with her Body into Dill, one of the most original and daffy conceptions in the entire show. The centerpiece of this photograph is a rectangular garden space – disturbingly, about the size of a grave – that’s dug into the patchy lawn of some unpretentious backyard. Metal garden edging sunk in the turned-up dirt sketches a simple human shape, rather like police outlines of dead bodies on the sidewalk. Within that human-like enclosure, someone – Salimova? — has planted dill weed.

Its obvious imperfections are part of what makes this image so compelling. The yard clearly needs work, and the plantings in the “body” are scattered, newly dug and unsubstantial — apart from some vigorous leaf action filling up the head.

Olya Salimova, Body into Dill, Photography, 2021.

For those who enjoy a little disorientation in their photography – And when well done, who doesn’t? – Jon Setter’s collection of a half-dozen large prints, all up-close shots of building details, is a delight to behold. Each reads as an abstract design in 1920s Russian Constructivist mode. But in one case you’re looking at parallel diagonals on the late, lamented Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, and in another, the Detroit Free Press building downtown on West Lafayette.  As a group, these deliberately confusing framings are both mischievous and fun to examine.

Jon Setter, Purple and Gold with Shadow (Detroit Free Press), Archival pigment print, 2021.

 Finally, Scenic Overlook 2 by Sharon Que, an Ann Arbor sculptor who also does high-end violin restoration, might remind you of a minimalist diorama minus the glass case. On a simple wooden shelf, Que’s sacked two smaller pieces of wood topped by a chalky white boulder or peak – part of the fun is the uncertainty — next to which sits a big, black, bushy… something.

Let’s stipulate that the white form is, indeed, a mountaintop. Call the spiky black, roundish thing next to it a plant, and you’ve got a surprisingly convincing perspective study of a bush and a white peak far, far in the distance – never mind its actual proximity in the assemblage.

Is it weird? Is it oddly compelling? Yes and yes.

Sharon Que, Scenic Overlook 2, Wood, magnetite, paint; 2016.

Concerning Landscape at Detroit Artists Market, up through Feb. 18.

Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration @ Flint Institute of Arts

View of exhibition entrance with a large-scale digital print of St. George and the Dragon by Donato Giancola, oil on panel, 2010. All photos: Ashley Cook

The role that enchantment has played in the history of storytelling dates as far back as 2100 BC with The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is considered the point of emergence of the hero’s journey and various fantasy archetypes that we know so well today. The dragons, great floods, serpents and treks through the underworld are just some of the elements that have reliably appeared in scenes of imaginative tales told through time, so much so that the world-building efforts of fantasy writers have constructed an actual parallel universe complete with its own rules, landscapes, species and lessons. Since this first rendition of the dragon, writers and illustrators have contributed to further developing this place that conveniently mirrors our own to serve as a tool for catharsis, entertainment and morality. Enchantment: A History of Fantasy Illustration is the first ever full-scale exhibition to take a serious look at the expanse of this genre and its influence on the history of art, religion, popular culture, and subcultures, with a timeline of works spanning from as early as 1589 to as current as 2021.

Justin Gerard, Lair of the Sea Serpent, watercolor on paper, 2019.

 Two large galleries of the Flint Institute of Arts have been reserved for over 150 original works; the collection was curated by Jesse Kowalski of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts, where Enchantment was first shown. It is not surprising to learn that Kowalski has worked on a number of exhibitions that highlight illustration and fantastical subject matter. A text for this exhibition asserts that “the many facets of fantasy illustration have often been misunderstood or overlooked” and this observation seems to be one of the driving forces behind these curatorial efforts.

Hendrick Goltzius, Creation of the Four Elements, illustration, 1589.

 Guests who are familiar with the Henry and Hodges galleries of the museum may notice the walls were freshly painted to set the tone for the rich colors and dreamy compositions of the show. Appropriate to the setting, the styles in which most of these pieces were done employ classical techniques like oil painting, etching, watercolor, and pencil drawings, with the occasional works rendered digitally by the 21st-century artists of the group. One may even occasionally forget that they are looking at scenes from a world of mythical landscapes and not from our own classical kingdoms of the past, as there is so frequently a thematic and aesthetic overlap between the two. Artworks like A Deep Sea Idyll by Herbert James Draper, Garden of Hope by James Gurney, or Allegory by Omar Ryyan place terrestrial beings and elements into impossible realities with a conviction akin to the old masters, and this blurring of the boundaries between imagination and reality is what makes fantasy so powerful.

Herbert James Draper, A Deep Sea Idyll, oil on canvas, 1902.

 The show has the potential to please visitors of many ages and backgrounds. For those whose palates are less versed in the world of fantasy, the exhibition space becomes a place for learning, with many sources of in-depth information and insight to contextualize the surrounding works. Along with exhibition texts focused on some essential aspects of fantasy including storytelling, adventure and the play between good and evil, there are also information plaques about each individual artwork which note the background of the artist and their role in the lineage of fantasy illustration. Taking in this information may be as enjoyable as basking in the quality of the material application or the beautifully carved frames surrounding the art, but for the visitors who are fantasy connoisseurs, it could be particularly special to read that some of the artworks before them were made for productions as big as The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. In fact, almost all of the artworks included in the exhibition have played an important role in the history of fantasy illustration throughout time.

Gustave Doré, Little Red Riding Hood, antique woodcut on thick wove paper, 1880.

 What is interesting about this show is the breadth of work it covers, successfully linking old masters like Gustav Doré, Hendrick Goltzius, Arthur Rackham and Howard Pyle with emerging artists like Victo Ngai and Wayne Barlow. Despite all of the artworks being displayed in a traditional museum style, framed and hung on a wall, many of them were actually originally produced for films and books. There are comic book illustrators like Hal Foster with a drawing from the Prince Valiant series and Dan Dos Santos with the illustration of Red Rose made for Fables. Then we have pulp fiction illustrator Mark Zugs with The Princess of Mars, which was produced for the cover of Mars Trilogy, a compendium which contains original novels originally released in 1917-1919 by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Henry Clarence Pitz’s Dark Water then brings us back to the early 20th-century ink on paper renderings, predated by the oil painting The Other Side by Dean Cornwell, yet throughout this extensive lineage, a strange consistency has been handed down from generation to generation that allows for almost anyone who has been read a fairy tale to feel at least somewhat at home.

Wayne Barlow, Demon Minor, acrylic on illustration board, 2018.

Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration opened September 24, 2022 and is on view until January 8, 2023. Please visit for more information.

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