Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

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With Eyes Wide Opened @ Cranbrook Museum of Art

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, Sculpture Court and Mixing Chamber, installation, photo: PD Rearick

With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art since 1932 has just opened at the Cranbrook Museum of Art in Bloomfield Hills, to great acclaim and national attention. Covered by the New York Times Magazine with a spiffy video tour and ample media attention both local and national, it’s a hydra-headed beast of a show with many sponsors but no single curator. Objects and images from every period of the Academy’s history compete for space and attention, with no fewer than ten dueling accounts threaded throughout the museum’s seven galleries.

The organizers seem to have had difficulty settling on a single narrative for this exhaustive survey of the Academy’s history–and no wonder. The tapestries, sculptures, paintings, prints, photographs, product prototypes and mass-produced products tell a kaleidoscopic story of the many creative minds whose vision and creativity have emanated from the school over time.

The history of this premier American art institution is told through objects in only piecemeal fashion in the physical exhibit; the accompanying printed volume, a 624-page doorstop of a book, contains a more complete narrative of the school’s history, along with one-page profiles of many (though not all) of the artists and designers represented in the show.

Untitled (Aluchair) by Christopher Schanck (MFA, 3D Design 2011), 2019, aluminum foil, resin Collection Cranbrook Art Museum

At the entrance to the main gallery, visitors can watch American Look. Commissioned in 1958 by Chevrolet, this cold war artifact celebrates many of the post-World War II designed amenities that were newly available to middle class consumers of a certain limited demographic.  Throughout the celebratory video, the “American-ness” of the consumer lifestyle is promoted relentlessly. Even though the uncritical materialism may seem cringe-worthy to a modern viewer, the optimism and can-do mentality expressed in the video amply show why the period beginning in 1950 is often called the American Century. The film provides a good starting point for With Eyes Opened, which takes us on a visual tour not only of the mid-century American esthetic, but also, by implication, through a consideration of how those perceptions and values have grown and changed over time to include contemporary preoccupations with equity, diversity and sustainability.

Model 1601 Stacking Chair by Don Albinson (Cranbrook Academy of Art Sculpture, 1940-1941), 1965, aluminum, nylon, molded plastic. Photo PD Rearick

The video serves as an introduction to one of the more successful elements of the exhibit, which celebrates the modern chair. Designers like Charles and Ray Kaiser Eames and Don Albinson  were uniquely successful at conceptualizing and producing practical, relatively inexpensive and attractive mass production chairs, many instantly recognizable today as fixtures of modern life in home and office.  The chair as a concept unifies this display;  in addition to the mass produced chairs there are a number of hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind examples such as Chris Schank’s Alufoil  Chair and Terence Main’s  Queen Anne, Queen Anne doubled chair. Here, as throughout the exhibit, the organizers have decided to mix the mass-produced and the hand-crafted, without comparing or contrasting the purposes and philosophies involved.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, Sculpture Court, installation. Photo: DAR

The physical and esthetic center of the exhibition, which brings the concept of design and art to a satisfying apotheosis of the handmade and the mass-produced, comes in the Mixing Chamber. There,  the room-sized mural of black and white figures by Cleon Peterson suggests the sensibility of a 21st century Egon Schiele. Tortured, semi-nude bodies surround the wittily conceived bench by Vivian Beer, whose automotive-painted red drape on the slipper shape is at once modern and baroque.

Untitled (Asthma, High Blood Pressure) by Beverly Fishman (Artist-in-Residence, Dept. of Painting 1992-2019) 2018, urethane paint on wood. Photo: PD Rearick

In the adjacent North Gallery, 34 paintings, works on paper and photographs hang floor to ceiling, with abstraction as the ostensible unifying theme. The hanging of contemporary art salon style is a fraught strategy that calls for sensitively selected and carefully coordinated curation and enough space around each piece to allow the work to breathe.  Here the disparate artworks compete visually, like guests at a crowded cocktail party shouting to be heard.  Beverly Fishman’s brightly colored, sharp-edged geometric polygons (almost) hold their own, and McArthur Binion manages to succeed simply by installing a painting, DNA: Study (Lake St. Clair), too large to share the space with other artwork. As worthy as each piece in the gallery may be, a little editing would have been welcome.

Untitled by Rebecca Ripple (Artist-in-Residence, Dept. of Sculpture, 2017-present) 2016, plastic, aluminum brass, photocopy, pencil, hair, champagne foil. Photo: K.A. Letts

In the Sculpture Court, through the Mixing Chamber ‘s other doorway, Nick Cave’s exuberant  SoundSuit (2012) holds the floor, with a recessive companion, Flamer, by Mark Newport, hanging on the adjacent wall.  Duane Hanson’s provocatively banal figure lounges nearby, unimpressed. Other strong work in the sculpture court includes several fiber pieces which seem to have wandered in, perhaps to provide space between the large and diverse 3-dimensional works–not a bad idea as it turns out. The white-on-white tapestry Montana 30, by Colombian artist Olga de Amaral, made up of small squares of white painted canvas relieved with touches of red, is especially welcome here. Sculptures by artists of the past such as Marshall Fredericks and Carl Milles share the space, more or less peacefully, with artworks by younger artists like Tyanna Buie and Kate Clark. Toward the back of the gallery, James Surl’s spiky mobile floats in its own private galaxy, next to a terrific assemblage by Rebecca Ripple that radiates an ad hoc starburst of Miro-esque energy.

Auburndale Site, Detroit MI (#4) by Object Orange, 2006, archival color photograph, 1/25 Cranbrook Museum of Art. Photo: K.A. Letts

In a small side gallery near the elevators, three photographs by the art collective Object Orange deliver a moment of surreal surprise. From 2005-2007, these (anonymous) Cranbrook graduates undertook a conceptual project called Detroit, Demolition, Disneyland which involved painting–in “Tiggerific” Orange– derelict structures in the city as a form of both public performance and protest. The photographs, brilliant orange structures against bleak gray backgrounds, are arresting, unexpected and a bit melancholy.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, Object Islands, installation, Photo: PD Rearick

The Wainger Gallery, last stop on the main floor galleries, features a clever installation of “object islands,” table height circular plinths that subtly guide the viewer through a broad array of fairly small- scale ceramics, metal objects and product design prototypes. Many of the objects in this gallery are one-of-a-kind art objects in a variety of media, often in unusual combinations, such as Iris Eichenberg’s untitled brooch made of porcelain, silver and linen.

With Eyes Opened takes on a lighter tone in the museum’s lower level gallery with The Menagerie, a whimsical collection of figures and objects inspired by the natural world, from Marshall Frederick’s chunky Two Bears to Stephen Malinowski’s photograph Cafeteria, a surreal bison-in-a-dining room.  The playful theme of The Menagerie is echoed nearby with a small collection of toy and playground designs that, while welcome, seem like an afterthought.

In the adjacent hall gallery, prints and posters highlight Cranbrook’s influential graphic design program. Installed next to printed media that feature collage, photomontage and progressive typography, several unique works hint at the endless formal potential of paper as a medium.  Elizabeth Youngblood’s elegant, silvery process drawing is tucked into a corner near Laurence Barker’s more exuberant hand-made paper piece.  Layers from the Disemboweled Series by Winifred Lutz takes the medium into the realm of expressionism.

Yet Untitled by Elizabeth Youngblood (MFA Design, 1975) 2018, paint, mylar. Photo: Glenn Mannisto

And last–but not least–some of Cranbrook Academy’s most recent graduates inhabit the lower level deSalle Gallery with distinction. Many of these young artists currently live and work in Detroit and continue the Academy’s tradition of excellence in both craft and conception. The growing diversity of the school is on display here, pointing to a more inclusive future, now enabled by the recent $30 million gift from Dan and Jennifer Gilbert to support student diversity.  Ricky Weaver’s gray and white photo-apparitions emanate spirituality, across from Ebitenyefa Baralaye’s Portrait II, a comic-sinister stoneware head.  Around the corner, Marianna Olague’s painting El Pleno Dia seems to emit its own light.  The emerging artists in this gallery demonstrate the continuing influence of the Academy’s alumni on the Detroit art scene and beyond.

With Eyes Opened is multi-faceted, rich and a little chaotic, more of a class reunion than a retrospective.  What comes through loud and clear in this exhaustive–and sometimes exhausting–survey, though, is the Academy’s continued vitality and its ongoing relevance to any discussion of the 21st century designed environment. And really, that’s enough.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, deSalle Gallery, installation, Photo: P.D. Rearick.

Eyes Wide Open at Cranbrook Museum of Art through September 19, 2021

Art + Labor & The Long Goodbye @ MSU Broad

24/7: Art + Labor Around the Clock installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Aaron Word/MSU Broad.

COVID-19 had a dramatic impact on how we work; even as we return to normalcy, it remains unclear if the workplace will ever fully return to how things were in pre-pandemic years.  An intimate, single-gallery exhibit at the MSU Broad offers an ensemble of works which explore labor as depicted in art, with a particular focus placed on the ambiguity between domestic vs. work spaces. Anyone who has worked from home this past year will immediately relate to the contents of 24/7: Art + Labor Around the Clock.

This is a show which brings together an eclectic ensemble of photography and works on paper which span just over a hundred years.  Together, these works speak to the notion of work beyond the boundaries of the 9 to 5 workday. COVID forced many of us to work from home, but for many people in certain lines of work this was historically the normative experience.  A trio of anonymous photographs shows workers in telecommunications, textile, and agriculture, all industries which once were performed principally in domestic settings (telephone operators once had switchboards in their homes, for example, so they could be on call day and night).

The Hidden World Collection, (Picture of women working at a telephone switchboard). MSU purchase, Eli and Edythe Broad Fund for the Acquisition of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Two works approach this theme with tongue-in-cheek humor.  In a wry parody of the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, Krithika Varagur and Eric Macomber give us Good Night Zoom; its imagery, color palette, and style echoes that of the original classic, but now our beloved rabbit protagonist is wishing goodnight to the things which have become fixtures of our pandemic-era lives (“Goodnight screens,” for example).  Also approaching the subject with humor is the animated film El Empleo (The Employee) by Santiago Grasso and Patricio Plaza, in which there’s no boundary between work and domestic spaces, and humans are paid to perform the roles of functional, inanimate objects.  The redundant, joyless lives of the film’s characters echo the pulverizing tedium of the fictional worlds envisioned in the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett.

El Empleo (The Employee), Santiago Grasso and Patricio Plaza, 2008.

Some of these works are visually mesmerizing, such as Michael Kenna’s moody, backlit photographs of Dearborn’s Ford Rouge Complex, which manage to turn the factory into something that verges on the sublime and the surreal.  Together, these images seem to suggest that this complex is a living, breathing behemoth that never truly shuts down.

Michael Kenna, The Rouge, Study #1, 1992. MSU purchase, partially funded by an anonymous donor.

Jenny Kendler: The Long Goodbye installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Concurrent with (but unrelated to) 24/7: Art + Work Around the Clock, a second gallery space explores the human impact on the planet’s biodiversity.  The Long Goodbye is a considered ensemble of sculptural work by multimedia artist Jenny Kendler, who tactfully integrates the media she uses with the message she delivers. Although inhabiting a comparatively small space, the visual impact of this exhibit is striking.

Nearly filling the length of one of the gallery walls is Whale Bells, a collaborative project by Kendler and glass artist Andrew Bearnot.  This is an ensemble of two dozen functional glass bells.  The ropes for each bell incorporate traditional sailor’s knots, and the clappers are actual fossilized ear bones from Miocene-epoch rorqual whales, the ancestors of today’s humpback.  Kendler makes the point that 5-20 million years ago, these now-extinct whales, equipped with the ability to create music, were once very likely the most culturally advanced entities on earth. Here, the bones that once allowed these whales to perceive sound are now employed as the literal instruments which project sound. The environmental commentary here is understated, but the installation invites us to consider that today’s humpback whale was once an endangered species before it became the center of one of the first international environmental campaigns (Save the Whales) in the 1970s.  Through this installation’s use of sound, we’re also reminded that in recent years noise pollution caused by human commercial activity in the ocean (tand he oil industry in particular) has had a detrimental effect on whales’ migration patterns and mating activity.

Jenny Kendler: The Long Goodbye installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

The literal centerpiece of this exhibition space is Amber Archive, a circular table on which are displayed approximately 130 fragments from different plant and animal species which are vulnerable to extinction as the direct result of human activity.  Each specimen is individually encased in a glowing orb of amber resin.  These include (among many other things) fragments of bird feathers, whale baleen, and snakeskin.  This installation is visually striking, but it also serves as a sort of DNA time-capsule, not unlike the world’s seed-vaults which aim to preserve and protect Earth’s biodiversity.

Jenny Kendler: The Long Goodbye installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Each of these two exhibits nicely supplement the Broad’s current lead exhibitions.  Interstates of Mind, with its focus on Michigan’s automotive industry, certainly parallels much of the content of Art + Labor, particularly Michael Kenna’s photographic series on the Rouge automotive plant.  And Kendler’s work certainly underscores Seeds of Resistance in her emphasis on preserving biodiversity.  Taken together, this quartet of exhibitions prompts us to consider the relationship between industry and the environment, and how our commercial pursuits have lasting ecological consequences.

24/7: Art + Work Around the Clock is on view through August 22.

The Long Goodbye is one view through June 27, 2021 at the East Lansing Broad Museum.

Modern American Printmaking @ DIA

Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking @ the Detroit Institute of Arts

Installation image, Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking, at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking brings together over 75 works of art, from multiple collections, to celebrate and emphasize Blackburn’s unrelenting dedication to a collaborative artistic community and the accessibility of art making to all. The exhibition chronicles Blackburn’s life through visuals and text. Placards strategically placed throughout the exhibit offer breaks between the works and section the pieces based on relevant themes. They also provide visitors a storyline through the exhibit, rather than overwhelming them with a large haphazard grouping of works. At the onset, viewers learn about Blackburn’s beginnings. He was born the child of Jamaican immigrants in Harlem, New York just as the Harlem Renaissance was beginning. New York was also still experiencing the transitional period of the Great Migration, which together brought an influx of Black people who relocated to New York from many other areas of the country.

African American artist Charles Alston was part of the movement to New York from the south.  He played a crucial role in educating Blackburn as a teen and encouraging his interest in art and activism. Similar to Alston, a number of other artists played a role in Blackburn’s artistic development and he, in turn, maintained those values and continually aided other artists throughout the remainder of his life. Blackburn’s establishment of The Printmaking Workshop in 1947 changed the trajectory of many artists’ lives by creating a community and offering a space for artists of various skill levels to learn from each other, experiment, and perfect their technique.

Charles Alston, Young Boy, Charcoal, 1937

The exhibition ebbs and flows through multiple spaces, leading the viewer through a journey and introducing new artists and artistic techniques with every turn. Within the first gallery space is a very distinct 1949 Charles White lithograph, “John Brown”. True to his aesthetic and the conceptual nature of many of his lithographs, the rendering of the solo figure in the work depicts White’s graphic style, brilliant use of light and shadow, and poignant subject matter. John Brown was an American abolitionist leader from the nineteenth century who dedicated his life to ending slavery. Brown’s legacy is two-fold. Within many Black and abolitionist communities, he is thought of as a martyr because of his participation in the assault on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where he sacrificed his life. However, he is often criticized as well because of his use of violence within his abolitionist tactics. White’s piece was printed by Blackburn and honors Brown by including the seriousness, determination, and visionary nature that’s applauded as part of his legacy. White and Blackburn maintained a relationship as friends throughout their careers and Blackburn printed many of White’s works.

Charles White, John Brown, Lithograph, 1949

A great majority of the works in the exhibition were printed on paper through linocut, woodcut, and lithograph processes, yet Faith Ringgold’s 1984 “Death of Apartheid #2” was made by intaglio printing with a relief roll on canvas. From the beginning of her career, Ringgold  addressed social issues, often centering on overt and underlying racism. The abstraction in this work makes it particularly interesting because Ringgold’s most well-known works are predominantly figurative. The print also stands out visually because of the simplicity of the curvilinear aspects, the red color choice, and the layering technique used. Nonetheless, the commonality of interests in activism throughout the developed printmaking community was pronounced within many of the artists’ work, including Blackburn’s.

Faith Ringgold, Death of Apartheid #2, Intaglio with relief roll on canvas, 1984

Although small in scale, one work that is prominent within the context of the exhibition is Blackburn’s “Refugees (aka People in a Boat)”. Blackburn printed the work during his late teen years, already displaying his craftsmanship and interest in commentary around complex social issues. The work portrays a group of individuals in a small boat navigating calm water, yet it is subject to multiple interpretive possibilities. The ripples surrounding the paddle boat hint at movement and the simplified landscape offers information regarding the distance between the group and the shore. Their previous location and destination are left as mysteries to the viewer.  Blackburn gives visitors an idea of subject matter and social relevance with the title, leaving the context and more conceptual understandings in the hands of the audience.

Robert Blackburn, Refugees (aka People in a Boat), Lithograph, 1938

Just ten years later, Blackburn’s work experienced a shift to more abstracted forms, which remained a focus throughout the rest of his career. With his friend and teacher, Ronald Joseph, Blackburn began creating vibrant, abstract gouache paintings based on still lifes consisting of everyday objects. As he continued, Blackburn’s works became more abstracted. Many Black artists made a similar decision around the same time, contradicting the expectation of Black artists to concentrate their work solely on addressing social and cultural issues. Joseph and Blackburn instead experimented with the power and visual language of shape, color, and line.

Robert Blackburn, Blue Things, Color Woodcut, 1963-1970

Mildred Thompson’s “The Third Mystery” is installed with no additional descriptive text. Assumptions can be made regarding Thompson’s intention and the meaning of the work, yet what’s most important is always the work itself. What makes the piece stunning and arresting is the centralized grayscale merging within abstracted forms, penetrated from multiple directions and entry points by Thompson’s signature linework.

Mildred Thompson, The Third Mystery, Intaglio, 1990

In keeping with the tradition of Blackburn’s desire to teach and make the process of creating accessible to all, brief definitions, descriptions, and examples of artistic techniques are included in the exhibition. Two small adjacent gallery spaces in the center of the exhibition examine woodcuts and etchings. The two separate spaces showcase works by members of Blackburn’s artists’ community as examples of each process.

Ed Clark, Yucatán Series, Etching, 1977

The exhibition culminates with a color lithograph bookending the show. It highlights the most significant aspect and the connecting thread of the exhibit, Robert Blackburn himself. The image of Blackburn printing from a lithographic stone was created by African American Detroit-born artist Ron Adams the year before Blackburn’s death. After Blackburn’s life of transforming the printmaking realm, investing in the careers of some of the most well-known artists of the last century, and ultimately proving the importance of artistic communities, Adams’s print is a perfect tribute, honoring Blackburn at the end of his life.

Ron Adams, Blackburn, color lithograph on tan paper, 2002

Of course, the exhibition features multiple incredibly brilliant works by Blackburn. Along with his innovation as a printmaker, an overarching theme of the exhibition is his unwavering dedication to the many artists who impacted his life and the lasting printmaking community they became. He wasn’t satisfied with receiving opportunities to create artwork for himself. He wanted printmaking to be available to all artists, at any skill level, and that’s exactly what he created through The Printmaking Workshop over seventy years ago

Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and curated by Deborah Cullen. It will remain on view at the DIA through Sunday, September 5, 2021.

New Work / New Year @ David Klein Gallery

Installation image, New Work, New Year, 2021

If it has been hard to survive 2020, that has been especially true for the art community. Artists have had to be concerned with their health, livelihood and families, endure a deadly virus and experience a tumultuous political environment that heightened the anxiety in everyone’s lives.  Art exhibitions struggled to even exist in 2020, while some opted to be exclusively virtual. The David Klein galleries have consistently staged openings, albeit with masks, social distancing and staggered appointments.

The David Klein Gallery’s Director of Contemporary Art, Christine Schefman, has started off the new year by looking back at 2020 with an exhibition statement about this new show. She says, “2020 was a year of uncertainty, but one thing we know that remained constant was artists making art. Maybe there was a pause at the beginning, but ultimately artists found the inspiration to keep moving forward. Whether they continued to explore an ongoing body of work or create something entirely new, their practice endured.”

In this exhibition of fifteen artists, the first two artists I will mention are Robert Schefman and Kelly Reemtsen, both clearly figurative painters with a depth of experience yet whose work is completely juxtaposed.

Schefman talks about choosing an illusionist narrative while avoiding the term photorealism, and he has worked hard at finding a story that uses the human form as his subject.  Over the years, his technique has been impeccable. He has made a point to find a theme, a secret or a mystery that dominates these large oil paintings, and he obviously devotes time to the color pallet and composition.  Reemtsen on the other hand, who has spent time on the west coast and is drawn to Wayne Thiebaud’s work, creates tension between a headless female figure in a pop art patterned dress grasping tradesmen tools; be it a saw, a shovel or an ax. Schefman’s oil paint is carefully and smoothly applied with photo accuracy. In contrast, Reemtsen’s oil paint is very thick and applied loosely at times with a palette knife to the background, while the dresses are always A-line designs cinched at the waist. Her work shouts out contemporary like Balthus, while Schefman’s work is soft and traditionally romantic like Vermeer. It is noted here that the figure has become popular as of late, but it is always a challenge to follow in the steps of DaVinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Ingres, Manet, Klimt, Sargent and Picasso, to name just a few.

Robert Schefman, Lola, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 40″, 2020

Robert Schefman’s last solo exhibition at the David Klein Gallery in November 2019 focused on a series of works exploring hidden secrets sent to him via social media with no names attached. He leaves that process during 2020 with Lola, an aerial view of a Formula 4 race car as a crew member changes a tire while a figure holds the umbrella protecting the driver from heat or approaching rainfall.  It fits nicely into his illusionistic narrative. The strength here is the point of view, the use of color and the construction of a compelling composition. Although it gleams with the craft of realism and the precise replication of photo imagery, it is likely the nostalgia of this moment in time draws the artist back to an earlier period in his life.

Robert Schefman earned a B.F.A. from Michigan State University and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa.

Kelly Reemtsen, Bits and Pieces, Oil on Panel, 36 x 36″, 2020

Kelly Reemtsen gives us her now-familiar depiction of a young woman in retro skirts carrying an ax, with her trademark being pictorially cropped at the head.  Although there have been large paintings in the past that include the female’s head, the work here, Bits and Pieces, is repeated both in composition and the thick, painterly impasto of oil paint.  Set against a white background, the viewer is forced into the tension between the dress pattern and the manly grasp of the color-coordinated ax. Perhaps an early interest in fashion found its way into her mindset, and the niche was oddly a new “post-feminist” expression. The other element that keeps repeating itself is the reoccurring geometric patterns, both on the dresses and in the backgrounds.

Kelly Reemtsen earned her undergraduate degree from Central Michigan University and pursues her graduate degree at California State University at Long Beach.

Cooper Holoweski, Late Stage, New Age Process, Mixed Media, 40 x 24″, 2020

In this exhibition, Cooper Holoweski’s Mixed Media pieces were new, fresh and fascinating. Based on a composition of photo illusions of objects, human parts and abstract forms, the work has an underlying grid that supports the vertical work on paper.  Although the work was a new experience, the name was familiar. I had written  about his video work at the Center Gallery, College of Creative Studies, in 2017.  What still fits from the review is his mention of tension, contradiction and counterbalance, elements present in this new mixed media collage imagery. These mixed media prints are highly technical in their creation, something described as New Age Process. Made on Homasote, a cellulose-based fiber wallboard, several gesso coats are applied, and Holoweski uses a laser engraver to obtain a variety of effects creating his archival inkjet print.

Cooper Holoweski earned a B.F.A from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Mark Sengbusch, Singin in the Rain, Acylic on Plywood, 25 x 31″, 2020

Mark Sengbusch’s work is an assemblage of pieces of colorfully painted shapes made from wood that are arranged on a grid with a solid colored background. From his biography, it appears as though the types of forms he uses have been influenced by the architecture he experienced in his travels to Europe and the Middle East. The feeling one gets relies on the pattern created by these new and unusual shapes in this work, Singin in the Rain, which is a combination of secondary color and repetition. These design elements’ craftsmanship extends to the surrounding border and frame, making it an integrated part of the work. He refers to asemic approaches to writing with no semantic content but rather symbolism that is open to subjective interpretations.

Mark Sengbusch earned his B.F.A. from the College for Creative Studies and his M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Ricky Weaver, My First Mind Tells Me, Archival pigment print, 30 x 45″, 2020

Ricky Weaver’s work employs magical realism to investigate the moment. She uses images of herself to capture a metaphysical sense of reality in her work.  In the work My First Mind Tells Me, she recreates a moment with multiples of the same person while shifting to composition and color aesthetics. The attraction here is bringing the viewer into her world and keeping them questioning where the reality lies. The theme that resonates throughout her work is the black female and her relationship with faith. Much of her work is black & white images, but My First Mind Tells Me is rendered in full color. Repeatedly, she investigates the possibilities of these moments and forces the viewer to imagine a variety of alternatives. It is refreshing to experience an artist so grounded in her beliefs that it transfers to her work.

Ricky Weaver earned her B.F.A. in Photography from Eastern Michigan University and an M.F.A. in photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Scott Hocking is well known for installations both in the gallery and on sites throughout the Detroit Metro region and beyond.  In answering what an artist did in 2020, he responds with a digital film, Kayaking Through the Quarantimes. He mentions in his statement, “Over the years, the experience of kayaking has developed into a full-blown obsession, a much-needed connection to nature and quietude, an art project in itself.”

 

The exhibition includes the work of: Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Susan Campbell, Matthew Hawtin, Scott Hocking, Cooper Holoweski, Kim McCarthy, Mario Moore, Marianna Olague, Jason Patterson, Kelly Reemtsen, Lauren Semivan, Mark Sengbusch, Robert Schefman, Rosalind Tallmadge and Ricky Weaver.

Hourly time slots are available with a maximum of 20 visitors per hour. Plan your visit to the gallery at www.exploretock.com/davidkleingallerydetroit For further information, please contact: Christine Schefman Director of Contemporary Art: christine@dkgallery.com

InterStates of Mind @ MSU Broad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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