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Wayne Thiebaud @ Toledo Museum of Art

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings @TMA

Wayne Thiebaud, Boston Cremes, 1962. Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 in. Crocker Art Museum Purchase, 1964.22. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

 

Prior to the Toledo Museum of Art’s exhibition Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints and Drawings, all my knowledge of the artist came from a handful of images from 20th Century art history books, which mostly featured his paintings of slices of cake behind glass which, like the repetitive Campbell’s Soup cans of Andy Warhol, offered subtle commentary on postwar commercialism and mass-production. But here we’re exposed to the full breadth of his artistic career, which also encompassed still life painting, portraiture, landscapes, cityscapes, and more, and all in a broad array of media. While Thiebaud may have initially made his mark as a staple of Pop-art, this exhibition reveals that his work is surprisingly diverse and rooted in art-historical tradition, and that he had an uncanny ability to translate centuries-old genres into the artistic vocabulary of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Born in 1920, Wayne Thiebaud’s panoramic career has taken many trajectories, and it isn’t over yet.  When he was just sixteen, he took a job at Walt Disney Studios, working as an animator for Pinocchio and a variety of film shorts.  During the Second World War he joined the airforce intending to become a pilot, but was transferred to the Special Services Department where he worked as a map, mural, and poster designer.  After the war, he both studied and taught at Sacramento City College, and fell under the influence of the New York School of postwar abstract expressionists, such as Pollock, Kline, and DeKooning, whose gestural abstract style he  conscientiously began to quote in his own work, as in his very abstract painting The Sea Rolls In (on view in this exhibition). But Thiebaud ultimately  preferred representational art, and in his serialized paintings of frosting-rich plates of cake, he found a way to synthesize the gestural impasto of DeKooning with the illustrative nature of traditional still-life painting.

Filling the entirety of the TMA’s spacious Levis Gallery (and even spilling over into a large adjacent gallery) are chronologically arranged works which span the breadth of Thiebaud’s career, some on view for the first time.  Trucker’s Supper, a work in the TMA’s permanent collection, sets the tone of much of the subsequent work on view; a plate with a slab of roast beef and some french fries inhabits a stark-white indeterminate background space, all the paint rendered in rich imposto (an effect which mostly gets lost in translation when these works are reproduced in books or online).  Thiebaud was a figurative and illustrative artist, but if you step in close, you’ll see passages of brushwork that reveal his admiration for his abstract expressionist counterparts. While his paintings are certainly not hyperrealistic, in applying the paint so thickly some of his paintings of cakes become almost sculptural, and the paint mimics the texture of frosting with a surprising realism bordering on trompe l’oeil trickery.

Wayne Thiebaud, Pies, Pies, Pies, 1961. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Philip L. Ehlert in memory of Dorothy Evelyn Ehlert, 1974.12. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

After firmly (and perhaps unwittingly) establishing his reputation as the painter of cakes and pies, Thiebaud explored figure painting so as not to be defined by a single subject. Like his still lifes, his figures generally inhabit empty white spaces, recalling the portraits of Manet, who often placed his figures against grey, uninhabited space (as he did with his portrait of the French journalist Antonin Proust, a work in the TMA’s collection just a few galleries away).

Wayne Thiebaud, Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book, 1965–1969. Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Thiebaud, 1969.21. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Thiebaud was largely unsatisfied with his early attempts at portraiture, however, and in the 1960s he turned toward landscapes and cityscapes, genres he would continue to explore in subsequent decades.  But his treatment of the subject is joyously whimsical.  Thiebaud’s improbably vertical cityscapes and landscapes heave and buckle in a visual parody of the streets of San Francisco and the mountainous terrain surrounding the San Fernando Valley.  Some of these stylized landscapes feature parabola-shaped hills, and seem like playful, almost cartoon-like caricatures of the land (in the 1940s, Thiebaud indeed worked for a while as a cartoonist).

Wayne Thiebaud, Street and Shadow, 1982–1983/1996. Oil on linen, 35 3/4 x 23 3/4 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1996.3. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Wayne Thiebaud, Park Place, 1995. Color etching hand-worked with watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, graphite, and pastel, 29 9/16 x 20 3/4 in. (sheet/image). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.50. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

A generous selection of prints and drawings makes the point that Thiebaud was also a consummate draftsman.  He was interested in printmaking for the entirety of his career, and in Delights (a series of seventeen aquatints), Thiebaud applied the visual textures of hatching and cross-hatching to replicate in a different media the tactile textures we find in all his previous still lifes.  Featuring reductive, scribbled-in  illustrations of cakes, pies, and ice-cream cones, these small prints have the stylized polish we might expect of a New Yorker cartoon (a publication for which Thiebaud illustrated many covers, and subscribers to the magazine will have recently seen his painting Double Scoop grace the August 17, 2020 issue).

Wayne Thiebaud, Dark Chocolates, n.d. Etching hand-worked with colored pencil, 8 7/8 x 10 1/4 in. (plate), 14 3/8 x 15 1/4 in. (sheet). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.36. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Wayne Thiebaud, Cake Window, from Delights series, 1964. Etching, 4 15/16 x 5 7/8 in. (plate), 12 3/4 x 10 3/4 in. (sheet). Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist’s family, 1995.9.1.13. © 2020 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The show concludes in an adjacent gallery space which showcases some of his recent work, which is largely a continued exploration of earlier themes and genres.  But here we also find an ensemble of paintings that feature clowns, a new subject in his work.  Stylistically, these subtly parallel his paintings of cake and pies, and much as Thiebaud used paint to replicate the thick frosting on a cake, here it replicates impastoed clown makeup.

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is a diverse and sprawling exhibition, which is exactly the sort of retrospective the artist deserves given the breadth and depth of his oeuvre.  While Thiebaud developed a distinctly recognizable style of his own, he was never bound to a specific theme or genre, and this exhibition triumphantly gives the lie to any notion that Thiebaud was simply the Pop-era painter of cakes and pies.

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is on view at the TMA until May 2, 2021

WSU 2020 Art Faculty – Virtual Exhibition

The James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History, Wayne State University, presents the 2020 WSU Faculty Exhibition, a virtual exhibition that opened November 19, 2020.

The Art Department Faculty Exhibition at Wayne State University began as an installation in the Community Arts Gallery but quickly became virtual in mid-November 2020 to conform with university Covid-19 requirements. Faculty members from the department who advance the study and practice of art history, design and fine art come together to reflect the university’s full spectrum of area disciplines.  Click on this link, and you’ll find these images above are links to each faculty member’s work here: https://www.waynestategalleries.org/2020-faculty-exhibition-2

Adrian Hatfield, If this isn’t nice, what is?, 2019 oil and acrylic on canvas 48” x 36”

The painting and sculpture of Adrian Hatfield remind this writer of the term magical realism, more often referred to in literature, but that may apply here.  The term magical realism was introduced by Franz Roh, a German art critic in 1925. When Roh coined the term, he meant it to create an art category that strayed from the strict guidelines of realism, which Hatfield’s collage-like work conveys. Hatfield’s work recombines art historical imagery from the industrial revolution and the Romantic era with imagery from current and environmental concerns. In the work, he creates a black & white drawn universe, juxtaposed to these full colored floating dimensional shapes and landscape, part of a dualism that plays with the viewer’s process.

In his statement, he says, “As I explore this dualistic theme through the remodeling of art-historical and scientific imagery, the resultant pieces are mournful, unnerving, and yet oddly hopeful.”  Adrian Clark Hatfield earned his B.F.A. from Ohio State University and his M.F.A. from Ohio University.   https://www.adrianhatfield.com/

Margi Weir, Caution Guardrail, 2020 India ink, Sumi ink, watercolor

Patterns are a large dominating part of Margi Weir’s oeuvre, as illustrated here in this work, Caution Guard Rail, 2020. She uses this technique she describes as Snap Line when she dips cotton twine into thinned acrylic paint or ink and snaps a taut line onto a supporting surface. The spray from the line often begins the process for the composition. Weir’s body of work is expansive and includes paintings, drawings, prints, and installations. The paintings and prints are dominated by a highly developed geometric and colorful pattern. There is a theme reflected somewhere in the pattern, often in the border, where she stitches together multiple symbols to make them visually appealing.

She says in her statement, “In one body of my work, I use a computer (a non-traditional painter’s tool) to repeat images that I stitch together visually in order to make an appealing pattern, often resulting in tapestry-like, spatially flattened compositions.  This references pre-Renaissance and/or non-western methods of pictorial organization, for storytelling purposes, that were used in textiles, ceramics, and architectural decoration.  This particular use of juxtaposed images, stacked and repeated, is a unique addition to the visual language of painting in the 21st century.”

Ms. Weir earned her MFA in painting from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA); her MA in painting from New Mexico State University. She also holds a BFA in painting from San Francisco Art Institute and BA in art history from Wheaton College.   https://margiweir.weebly.com/

Millee Tibbs, Transfrontalier, 2018 Gelatin Silver Print + Custom Frame

To describe Millee Tibbs’s work as landscape photography would not be complete, although she is using a camera and capturing images of mountainous terrain. Instead, that would be the starting point for various manipulations; whether it be the entire shape of the image or the overlay of a second geometric shape on the terrain, there is an astute variety in how these images are presented.  The artwork derives from Tibbs’s interest in photography’s ubiquity and the tension inherent in manipulating reality. Sometimes it is in the overlay of a geometric shape on the mountainside; other times it includes the shape of the image, mat, and frame. It’s as if the mountain terrain becomes the backdrop for an artist interested in what I might call a shaped canvas work: Frank Stella, 1965; Ellsworth Kelly, 1970, or Elizabeth Murray, 2006.

She says in her statement, “My work has evolved into an investigation of idealized landscape imagery – the kind that is easily consumable and often commodified. I am fascinated with the landscape genre and its language, the aesthetic imposed onto the land through photographic framing, and the historical rhetoric inherent in these images that justified Manifest Destiny and conquest through what is left out—namely inhabitants.”

Millee Tibbs earned her B.A. from Vassar College and her M.F.A. from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)    https://www.milleetibbs.com/

Sheryl Oring, “I Wish to Say” Video, 5:13 minutes

The video work of Sherl Oring investigates social issues through projects that incorporate on-camera interviews that examine public opinion. In “I Wish to Say”, Oring sets up a portable office where woman in secretarial costume interview individuals at large about the state-0f-affairs in the U.S. and documents their comments using a typewriter, intending to main a postcard to the White House.  To date, nearly 4000 postcards were mailed.

Having worked in educational television, it is important to say the standards and caliber of production in these short videos are of the highest quality: the recording of imagery and audio and the direction and editing of these videos are highly produced.  The “I Wish to Say” project has a companion book from the University of  Chicago Press, Activating Democracy, a result of helping people from across the United States voice their political concerns.

From the Public Art Review, “Sheryl Oring’s multiyear, ongoing I Wish to Say project—in which she sets up a desk with a typewriter and invites people to dictate a letter to the President or a presidential candidate, which she types and sends—is a catalyst for a deeper look at artists’ intersection with public policy.”

Sheryl A. Oring earned her B.S. in Journalism at the University of Colorado and her M.F.A. from the University of California.  http://www.sheryloring.org/

Works by the following full and part-time faculty are featured in the exhibition: Maria Bologna, Kiley Brandt, Betty Brownlee, Allana Clarke, Pamela DeLaura, Jessika Edgar, Laura Foxman, David Stephan Graves, Richard Haley, Adrian Hatfield, Margaret Hull, Lauren Kalman, Deborah Kingery, Ruth Koelewyn, Brian Kritzman, Claas Kuhnen, Evan Larson-Voltz, Heather Macali, Katie MacDonald, Heather Mawson, Judith A. Moldenhauer, Carole Morisseau, Sheryl Oring, Kathyrose Pizzo, Tom Pyrzewski, Kyle Sharkey, Rebekah Sweda, Andrea Thurston-Shaine, Millee Tibbs, Maureen Vachon, Margi Weir, and Golsa Yaghoobi.

Wayne State University,  2020 Faculty Exhibition, a virtual exhibition opened November 19, 2020, and runs through January 8, 2021.

 

 

Jaume Plensa Sculpture @ UMMA

Jaume Plensa, 2018, polyester resin and marble dust, 24.5’ h x 9’ x 10’. Gift of J.Ira and Nicki Harris. Photo: Patrick Young, Image Works

 

We knew this would happen.

After a certain amount of hand-wringing and wheel-spinning at the beginning of the pandemic, museums and galleries have begun to come up with increasingly creative ways to engage the public’s interest in art,  both in person and digitally.

The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) has just installed a major new sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa on the museum grounds, where it can be seen all day and all night. (Plensa may be best known to the region’s art-loving  public as the creator of the Crown Fountain, the interactive video sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park.)

Behind the Walls  was on view for the Frieze Sculpture Festival in May 2019 at Rockefeller Center in New York City, but since its purchase and recent installation in November 2020, will be permanently on display outside UMMA. The pure whiteness of the young girl’s head, with her disembodied hands shielding her face, references classical marble sculpture, but its colossal size and slightly distorted perspective bring it into the twenty-first century.

Curriculum/Collection @ UMMA

Hemlock Canyons, Mike Irolla, 2001, hemlock, 25” x 16” x 16” photo: UMMA

Wormwood Vase, David Nish, 1997, wormy ash, 4 1/2” x 4” x 4” photo: UMMA

And if you are lucky enough to have a university i.d. (UMMA is currently closed to the general public during the pandemic) and can get inside the museum, an inventive new and ongoing program called Curriculum/Collection has recently launched. The project integrates art objects from the museum’s collection into the study of university subjects as diverse as philosophy, design and architecture, and as seemingly improbable as health care, data science and social work.  For this project, which will run from October 2020 through June 2021, Andrew W. Mellon Curator David Choberka has enlisted 7 classes from throughout the university to integrate artworks into their course of study to–as he says–“explore the infinite value of art in shaping our understanding of …well, everything.” In addition to the art objects on display in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery I, the Curriculum/Collection has a robust and constantly changing online presence, with plentiful video and textual content to amplify and clarify the explorations of the subject matter through art. Online material will be updated and expanded throughout the year as the classes progress.

Field Notes II, Larry Cressman, 2009, raspberry twigs, polymer, pins, 32 5/8 x 32 ½ “ photo: UMMA

 

Some areas of study are more obviously related to the visual arts than others. For her undergraduate art and design class, Florilegium: Creating a Plant Compendium,  Penny Stamps School of Art and Design lecturer Cathy Barry has chosen a variety of works by artists who engage in the forms, life processes and cultural meaning of plants. Three of the pieces Barry has selected show how artists can enlist natural systems in creating artworks that meaningfully connect human and natural forces.  For his elegant turned-wood vase Hemlock Canyons, Michigan artist Mike Irolla leaves residual bark on the surface to suggest natural rock formations referenced in the title, and employs fire as the finishing element, adding texture and color the surface. Nearby, Wormwood Vase by David Nish, can be described as a work of art collaboratively created by an insect and a human. In contrast, a delicate assemblage by Larry Cressman implies the careful labor of a natural historian, collecting and cataloging slender twigs in a serene post-minimalist composition that hums with nature’s quiet buzz.   There is clearly a lot of material for the students to work with here, in addition to their field work and their own studio practice.  The final product of all this thought and reflection will be a book-form summation of their studies based on the florilegium, a compendium of plant illustrations popular among the British landed gentry in the 18th century.

Untitled (Paint Cans), Tyree Guyton, 1989, paint cans, wooden crate, American flag, rearview mirror, ceramic figure. Photo: K.A. Letts

Hopeless Gifts to Material Culture, Ryan McGinness, ca. 2000-2008, silkscreen on skateboard. Photo: K.A. Letts

Another particularly interesting collection of objects and images by artists with ties to southeast Michigan will support Introduction to Community Organization, Management and Policy/Evaluation  Practice. Course leader Larry M. Gant, who holds professorships in both the School of Social Work and at the Penny  Stamps School of Art and Design, premises the idea for this course on his view that conventional social work focuses too narrowly on quantifiable socio-economic assets and deficits, while neglecting intangible social capital, such as community based art. Selected artworks include an assemblage by Tyree Guyton, whose Heidelberg Project has famously waxed and waned in Detroit for over 30 years. In a nearby case, a hipster skateboard by Ryan McGinness features cryptic hieroglyphics of urban signage and graffiti. A mask-like assemblage entitled Michigan Worker, by George Garcia, succinctly expresses both drudgery and endurance, and is typical of Detroit artists that use the found detritus of the city as raw material for their art practice.  These artworks make the case for a more nuanced appreciation of visual culture within the context of urban communities, and it will be interesting to watch this class progress and what  conclusions can be teased from the materials provided.

Michigan Worker, George Vargas, 1985,welding goggles, metal, hanging belts, rusty bottle cap, pulleys, chains, padlock mounted on plywood, 20 7/8” x 10 3/8” x 2 9/16” Photo K.A. Letts.

Nociceptor-Heart Sutra, Susan Crowell, 2009, white stoneware, industrial ceramic pigment, 9” x 18” x 9” Photo: UMMA. Class: Perspectives on Health and Health Care.

The direction that the other five classes will take in their exploration of their selected artworks remains to be discovered, as Curriculum/Collection is in its early stages. The museum will provide supporting information on the progress of each class on the museum website, updated throughout the academic year. I, for one, am interested in finding out how art and philosophy, architecture and neural networks, data science, political protest and health science will cross-pollinate and enrich each other. An occasional virtual visit  to Curriculum/Collection to see how the U of M students are doing might be just the thing to get us through this dark pandemic winter.

 

Winter in Ann Arbor, Khaled al-Saa’i, 2002, natural ink, tempera and gouache on paper, 14 1/16” x 8 5/16” Photo: UMMA. Class: Data Science and Predictive Analytics

A Taste of the Desert, A.R. Penck, 1983, drypoint on Arches vellum paper, 29” 5/8” x 41 7/8” Photo: UMMA. Class: Art and Resistance: Global Response to Oppression.

 

 

Visual Citizenship @ MSU Broad Museum

Visual Citizenship, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

The exhibition Visual Citizenship, on view at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum through December 26, is a considered show that comprises politically-charged prints and photographs that snugly fill the museum’s trapezoidal Collections Gallery.  Its title comes from scholar, author, and filmmaker Ariella Azoulay, who argues that image-viewing is an active civic engagement, and Visual Citizenship explores the implied moral, ethical, and civic questions and obligations presented when a viewer confronts images, particularly images of injustice. The show is thoughtful, timely, and visually satisfying, and it includes artists whose names carry some real weight in the art-world, such as Kathe Kollwitz, William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, and others.

The advents of photography and printing democratized the image to a degree unparalleled until the age of the internet.  They’re both relatively inexpensive media, and they don’t rely on moneyed and powerful patrons.  Furthermore, photos and prints are easily reproduceable, and together they helped introduce a new visual language of civic and political discourse.

Francisco Goya wasn’t the first artist to harness printmaking to document social and political injustice, but he’s certainly among the most famous.  His series of just over 80 prints which comprise his Disasters of War relay in first-person perspective and with unrelenting honesty the gritty and violent events that transpired when Napoleon’s army invaded Spain.  The show’s informational panels aptly compare Goya’s etchings to the photographs captured by a modern-day war correspondent.  On view is an etching from his Disasters, showing hangmen leading prisoners to a makeshift scaffold where several dead bodies already swing.  There are also several etchings from his satirical Follies series.  These images, never published in Goya’s lifetime, are freighted with dark and surreal imagery that seems to anticipate by a hundred years the style of the early 20th century symbolists.  Goya’s work is rarely pleasant, but it’s a welcome foil to much of the fawningly polite Napoleonic propaganda produced by the likes of Jacques Louis David or Antoine-Jean Gros.

Duro es el paso! (The way is hard!), from The Disasters of War, 1810-14. Etching and aquatint, 9 1/2 x 12 7/8 inches. MSU purchase, funded by the MSU Development Fund 64.76

Perhaps the most arresting and uncomfortable ensemble of images in the show is the Erased Lynchings series by conceptual artist Ken Gonzales-Day.  Gonzales-Day scanned images from actual postcards spanning from 1870 to 1940, all of which depicted photographs of the lynching of Lantin Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.  He then digitally erased the victims, leaving only the spectators, who now become the subject of the image.  The series addresses the role that bystanders and spectators play during social and political atrocities, and also the erasure of uncomfortable moments from our national narrative.

Erased Lynchings, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Lynching of Frank MacManus, Minneapolis, MN, 1882, from Erased Lynchings 2006-2019.  Archival inkjet print on rag paper mounted on cardstock, 6 x 4 ½ inches. MSU purchase, funded by the Nellie M. Loomis Endowment in memory of Martha Jane Loomis, 2019.17.1-5

A generous selection of photographs of significant political marches, rallies, and protests highlights the role that documentary photography played in making people aware of the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps something easily taken for granted now that anyone with a smartphone and a social media account is a potential lay-photojournalist.  These images include an ensemble by Leonard Freed, a photojournalist whose seminal work Black in White America (1968) documented the Civil Rights Movement with sensitivity and empathy, emphasizing the humanity of his subjects rather than the acts of violence and brutality they endured—the reverse of what Susan Sontag referred to in On Photography as the “atrocity exhibition,” which have a danger of becoming counterproductive to their cause.  Here, a selection of Freed’s photographs variously document a civil rights protest in Brooklyn, the historic 1963 March on Washington, and the 20th Anniversary March on Washington in 1983.

1963, Washington D.C., USA (March on Washington, 8-28-’63), 1963. Photograph  11 x 14 inches.   Courtesy Special Collections, MSU Libraries, Michigan State University

Finally, a quartet of engravings by William Hogarth adds some levity to the exhibit, as Hogarth’s wry, satirical works always tend to do.  His characteristically tongue-in-cheek series Humours of an Election, based on an actual 1754 Oxfordshire election, implicates both the Whigs and the Tories in trying to hijack the election through any means necessary.   Hogarth’s humorous approach to political critique is about as far from Goya’s nightmarish visions as one could possibly get, though both artists certainly shared a jaundiced perception of those in political power.

Four Prints of an Election: Plate II, Canvassing for Votes, 1757. Hand-colored engraving, 15 3/4 x 21 1/4 inches. MSU purchase 64.16

Visual Citizenship is a rewarding show, and each vignette of photographs or prints could easily be the starting point for a subsequent exhibition.  It’s certainly relevant and timely, and not just because this happens to be an election year. After all, in the age of social media, the smartphone, and the viral video, images have become the primary way we gather news and process information, which certainly seems to underscore Ariella Azoulay’s original point that image-viewing is a civic act.

MSU Broad – Visual Citizenship, on view at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum through December 26, 2020

 

 

Copying and Invention in East Asia @ UMMA 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Textures of Detroit @ Kreft Center Gallery

Installation Kreft Gallery, Textures of Detroit, 2019

Installation , Textures of Detroit, Kreft Gallery, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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