Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

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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.

Printmaking @ DIA

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

Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts All image courtesy of Ashly Cook.

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 participates 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. All images by Ashley Cook

 

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 Eisenman 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 which 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, 2021.

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 of 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, Screen prints 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. In contrast, the other half was 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.

 

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 https://flintarts.org/ for more information.

Todd Weinstein @ Janice Charach Gallery

Todd Weinstein’s Stories of Influence: In Search of One’s Own Voice is at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield, Michigan through Dec. 7.

Install image, Stories of Influence: In Search of One’s Own Voice is at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield, Michigan. 2022

Photographer Todd Weinstein’s Stories of Influence: In Search of One’s Own Voice is a high-concept show that employs a delightful gimmick – Weinstein pairs 68 of his photos with a corresponding image from one of his numerous mentors, teachers and friends, and then mats and frames the two together. It’s a career retrospective with punch, and will be up at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield’s Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit through Dec. 7, 2022.

A commercial and artistic shutterbug who grew up in Oak Park, Weinstein had a gift as a youngster for talking his way into jobs with great photographers, some of whose influence he honors with this exhibition. He got an early start after dropping out of the old School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (now the College for Creative Studies), and approaching legendary auto photographer Dick James to ask if he needed an assistant. “How about third-assistant?” James responded. No fool he, Weinstein grabbed the chance.

Like so many young artists in the 1970s, he ultimately left Detroit in the 1970s to make his way in New York’s hurly-burly, and, as it happens, thoroughly succeeded. Weinstein’s got a thriving photography and multi-visual practice, and lives in one of Brooklyn’s handsomest old rowhouse neighborhoods, Boerum Hill.

Among other virtues, Weinstein appears to have an admirable gift for gratitude. The idea of pairing one of his photos with that of an esteemed teacher, mentor or friend as a way of paying tribute struck him when he was in Paris several years ago. Weinstein brought it up with Charach director Natalie Balazovich, and she was immediately enthusiastic, finding it refreshing and new. “Todd’s essentially saying ‘This is why I’m where I’m at,” she said, “’because of these people.’” She added, “I like that the show dives into almost a taboo subject – sharing the things that pushed him to become who he is, and showcasing them.”

Todd Weinstein, Two Lady’s, New York City, NY, c. 1973; Mel Dixon, 19th Street Studio, New York City, NY, c. 1970.

A professional who helped Weinstein in his early New York days, when he was sleeping on a friend’s floor for eight months, was commercial photographer Mel Dixon. One of the first Black fashion photographers to go out on his own some 50 years ago, Dixon had a glittering background – he’d worked with photo greats Avedon and Hero. He offered Weinstein his first job in the big city, working in the studio on commercial and advertising projects.

“Mel gave me the chance,” Weinstein said. “We shot luggage, brides. All that kind of stuff.” He wasn’t really that interested in studio work, but it gave him the opportunity to earn a living while exploring other paths for his future.

The image Dixon contributed to the show is a black-and-white study of a girl. Her shoulders and face are completely dark, while her broad, white hat catches all the light in the frame. It’s elegant, high-class, high-fashion photography.

In his artist’s statement, Weinstein notes that in pairing images he relied on the structures of jazz – employing a sort of visual syncopation, as it were. You clearly see that in his rejoinder, the 1973 Two Lady’s, New York City, NY. It, too, is a fashion study — this time of two models facing away from us, one lithe and Black, the other short and white. Both are wearing headdresses that fall like curtains down to their shoulders. The white girl has a hand on the other’s back, which prompts her to twist her head around in apparent rapture.

Todd Weinstein, Brooklyn Bridge, New York, NY, c. 1980s; Bob Day, Manhattan Bridge, New York, NY, 1980.

Another significant mentor was painter and photographer Bob Day. The two went into business together on Manhattan’s East 17th Street half a century ago, “back when you could get a 6,000-square-foot studio for like $300 a month,” Weinstein said. Day’s 1980 image, Manhattan Bridge, NY, NY, is a powerfully compressed telephoto shot. Day frames the very top of the Manhattan Bridge, a lush blue-green, sharply etched essay in cross-bracing around a central gothic arch. Looming in the near distance – unrealistically large, thanks to the powerful lens — is a gray and gold Empire State Building seen through the bridge’s vertical suspension wires. It lends immensely satisfying balance to the drama of the bridge crown in both shape and color.

By contrast, Weinstein’s Brooklyn Bridge, NY, NY is grittier. A close shot of a taxicab takes up most of the frame, the vehicle’s “Off Duty” crown lit and glowing. The aesthetic is ordinary and everyday — even the Brooklyn Bridge rising in the distance looks a little dull. All the print’s visual power, which is considerable, comes from the illuminated “Off Duty” sign that, alone out of the entire shot, glows with a warm light, and whose shape echoes the tops of the two bridges.

Julian Teachworth, Untitled, 1997; Todd Weinstein, Little Ninja, Brooklyn, NY, 1973.

Not all of the images contributed by mentors are photos. In one, Weinstein pairs his picture of what looks like a collapsed, rainbow-striped mylar balloon on the street with painter Julian Teachworth’s amusing and gorgeous abstract of many colors, an untitled work from 1997. Here Weinstein riffs on the similarity in colors and the loopy geometry present in both. “I photographed all of Julian’s paintings,” Weinstein said. “He’s an incredible painter, mentor and spirit.”

There’s something undeniably spiritual about the twinned images by Weinstein and the great photographer of the Civil Rights movement, Dan Budnik. The latter’s photo, ‘Do-Right Rogers’ on the Selma to Montgomery March, March, 1965 is a classic of the genre, and one that Weinstein says he recalls from childhood. A skinny, African-American youngster marches down an endless dirt road, carrying a pole with a large American flag that’s unfurled in all its red, white and blue glory. The association of deep patriotism with individuals who still had to fight a for their rights is palpably moving.

Todd Weinstein, Mural, Detroit, 2019; Dan Budnik, ‘Do-Right Rogers’ on the Selma to Montgomery March, March 1965.

For his part, Weinstein gives us a black-and-white mural in Detroit on a brick wall honoring the late Daisy Elizabeth Elliott, a champion of Black rights who died in 2015. The quote next to her portrait, in which she cites her willingness to die in the fight for civil rights, is powerful and unexpected – a bit like this show.

Todd Weinstein, Cloud over Manhattan, New York, NY, 2008.

Stories of Influence: In Search of One’s Own Voice is at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield through Dec. 7.

Vincent van Gogh @ DIA 

The Detroit Institute of Arts presents Van Gogh in America

Installation image, Van Gogh in America, Detroit Institute of Arts, 2022

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) presents a landmark exhibition, Van Gogh in America, that features 74 works of art that opened on October 2, 2022, and will run through January 22, 2023. The DIA celebrates being the first museum in the country to purchase a painting by Vincent van Gogh in 1921. The work, Self-Portrait (1887), was purchased at a New York auction by Ralph Booth, then the President of the City of Detroit Art Commission. There are nine galleries of artwork, and the exhibition includes a section of Van Gogh’s contemporaries, including Paul  Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and Joseph Stella.

Self-Portrait, Oil on board mounted to wood, 13 x 10″ Detroit Institute of Arts, 1887

Van Gogh painted more than forty self-portraits and loved to scrutinize his features which, unlike those of the 17th century, might be considered disturbing or unattractive. That, in itself, could not be more introspective. Van Gogh could not find or pay for models, so he used his image reflected in a mirror to create an extensive collection of variations of himself: An indication of his introverted nature.

 

Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, 16 x 13″, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum, 1887

The director of the DIA, Salvador Salort-Pons, says, “One hundred years after the DIA made the bold decision to purchase a van Gogh painting, we are honored to present Van Gogh in America. This unique exhibition includes numerous works that are rarely on public view in the United States and tells the story – for the first time – of how Van Gogh took shape in the hearts and minds of Americans during the last century.”

The works of Van Gogh and his images are ubiquitous in the United States, the Western world, and beyond. There was the novel by Irving Stone, Lust for Life (1934), followed by Vincente Minnelli’s film adaptation, starring Kirk Douglas, which shaped the artist’s popularity. In the mid-1970s, Leonard Nimoy starred in a one-person play called Vincent that he’d adapted from the play Van Gogh by Phillip Stephens. That set the stage for the songs by Don McClean’s Vincent and  Starry, Starry Night, and numerous films and theater presentations like Loving Vincent, the world’s first hand-painted, animated feature film, in 2017. Recently there has been the Immersive Van Gogh, a light show based on his imagery, and I would be remiss if I did not mention the book cover of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages was printed from the image of the painting Starry, Starry Night. And these mentions are only a few of the different ways Van Gogh’s work has been used artistically in our culture.

For readers of this review, an easy way to explore the life of Vincent van Gogh is this video produced by the Van Gogh Museum.  It may set the stage.

Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum –   4:50 Minutes

When Van Gogh lived and worked in Paris for two years, he made friends with many artists who were part of the new impressionism that differed from the highly respected artists of the Hague School, sometimes known as the Barbizon School, working exclusively in the tradition of realism.

One of his favorite painters was the French artist Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875), who featured peasants and rural settings in the countryside. The common themes were waterways, seascapes with boats, windmills, and canals. Millet’s work may have lingered in his mind, but along came this small stroke of paint with variations of color that would come to dominate many of the spaces in his compositions. Clearly, Van Gogh wanted to use color for its expressive value rather than make faithful replicas of the images received by the eye in realism.

It took six years and a team of professionals to create this exhibition. Scheduled to open earlier in 2020, that opening was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This exhibition is part of the Bonnie Ann Larson Modern European Artist Series. The curatorial effort was led by Dr. Jill Shaw, Head of the James Duffy Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Rebecca A. Boylan and Thomas W. Sidlik of European Art, 1850–1970 at the DIA. In her statement, Dr. Shaw says, “Van Gogh in America examines the landmark moments and trajectory of the artist becoming fully integrated within the American collective imagination, even though he never set foot in the United States.”

Van Gogh’s Chair, Oil on Canvas, 36 x 28″, The National Gallery London, 1888.

The DIA exhibition of these 74 works of art opens with The Chair as a welcoming image to the show’s first gallery. Painted in December of 1888, when the relationship between Gauguin and Van Gogh had become strained, Van Gogh paints two chairs, the second being Gauguin’s, as his dream of sharing a studio with his close friend was rapidly disintegrating. Van Gogh’s simple chair sits empty, absent of its owner, and is an infinitely lonely image. It is an extraordinary instance of propelling a most familiar object beyond the realm of still life so that it comes to represent the artist himself.

The Bedroom, Oil on Canvas, 29 x 36″, Art Institute of Chicago, 1889.

Van Gogh painted this interior three times while he stayed in the Yellow House in Arles, France, as he was particularly pleased with the bedroom where he had a bed, a small table, and two chairs. This moment marked the first time the artist had a home of his own.

He wrote to his brother, Theo, “It amused me enormously doing this bare interior. With a simplicity à la Seurat. In flat tints, but coarsely brushed in full impasto, the walls pale lilac, the floor in a broken and faded red, the chairs and the bed chrome yellow, the pillows and the sheet very pale lemon green, the bedspread blood-red, the dressing-table orange, the washbasin blue, the window green. I had wished to express utter repose with all these very different tones.”

Portrait of Postman Roulin, 32 x 25”,  Oil on Canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1888.

Van Gogh painted Joseph Roulin and his family several times each, and the painting here is the second version painted in early August 1888. There were at least seven portraits of Roulin, as he befriended not only the man but his entire family. He found affordability in the work of the Roulin family, for which he made several images of each person. In exchange, Van Gogh gave the Roulins one painting for each family member. One cannot imagine how the strokes of color in his beard appealed to van Gogh and this relatively new application of oil paint. The painting was acquired in 1935 by Edsel and Eleanor Ford as a gift to the DIA.

Fishing Boats on the Beach at les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Oil on Canvas, 25 x 32, Van Gogh Museum.

It was in February of 1888 that Van Gogh was living in Arles and would take excursions to Provence and the village of Les Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer.  Van Gogh would have liked to have made this painting on the beach, but the fishermen would put out to sea every morning, so he would make his drawings early and finish the painting in his apartment studio. In doing so, he could control his choice of color to his liking, using primary color juxtaposed with secondary color in the boat composition.

Starry Night (Starry Night Over the Rhone), Oil on Canvas, 28 x 36″, Musee d’ Orsay, 1888.

The DIA takes the visitor out of the exhibition with Starry Night Over the Rhone, which is just what this review will do. Just a two-minute walk from the Yellow House, painted in 1988, the subject is the night light and its effects on the river Rhone. The view from the east turn in the river towards the western shore of rocks is where Arles was built. After spending his days in the sunny fields of flowers and crops, the idea of painting at night must have intrigued Van Gogh. Here the gas lights from the town are complemented by the formation of the stars. Van Gogh writes to his brother Theo, “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” As it turns out, The Starry Night is one of the most recognizable paintings in western art.

On March 17, 1901, 71 of Van Gogh’s paintings were displayed at a show in Paris, and his fame grew enormously. Van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Johanna, had collected as many of Van Gogh’s paintings as she could but discovered that many had been destroyed or lost as Van Gogh’s mother had thrown away crates full of his art. His mother lived long enough to see her son hailed as an artistic genius.

Today, Vincent van Gogh is considered one of the greatest artists in human history.

I would like to distinguish between experiencing all the places one sees the remnants of Van Gogh’s artwork versus observing the original artwork up close in the DIA. That is one of the purposes of the museum. Educators and researchers refer to this experience as being in the presence of a “primary source.” Primary sources are what remains from the past. Aside from human memory and the unrecorded passing down of information from generation to generation, experiencing original paintings are the only way current generations can hope to understand what an authentic Van Gogh painting looks and, more importantly, feels like. In my later years, and over time, I have seen Vincent van Gogh paintings in various museums, but I never saw 74 artworks in one place. From so much that was written about him, Vincent van Gogh was a fragile and sensitive man burdened with poor health. As an artist, he became an instant soul mate to many. He was dependent and vulnerable but always willing to make himself available to his audience.

Take advantage of this opportunity to spend quality time at the Detroit Institute of Arts and join family and friends to view this extraordinary exhibition Van Gogh in America.

Installation image Van Gogh in America, Detroit Institute of Arts

Van Gogh in America celebrates the DIA’s status as the first public museum in the United States to purchase a painting by Vincent van Gogh, his Self-Portrait (1887). On the 100th anniversary of its acquisition, experience 74 authentic Van Gogh works from around the world and discover the fascinating story of America’s introduction to this iconic artist in an exhibition only at the DIA.

A full-length, illustrated catalog with essays by the exhibition curator and Van Gogh scholars will accompany the exhibition. The Detroit Institute of Arts is the exclusive venue for this exhibition.

Tickets are $7-$29 for adults; discounted prices are for residents in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties. The DIA exhibition Van Gogh in America will run through January 22, 2022

 

 

 

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