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Per(Sister) and Free Your Mind @ MSU Broad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Nanette Carter & Contemporaries @ N’Namdi

The work of Nanette Carter is joined by Al Loving, Sam Gilliam, and Gregory Coates at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

A Survey, Thirty Years of work by Nanette Carter, Install Image courtesy of DAR

The new exhibition at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art centers on the artwork of Nanette Carter and three of her contemporaries. All the work is based on various ways to approach the depth and variety of abstraction. The exhibition surveys thirty years of work going back to 1983 when N’Namdi first exhibited the work of Nanette Carter. The video below gives the reader an in-depth explanation of her artwork where she talks about using oil paint on mylar and then cutting up and arranging forms, shapes, color, and line to express a unique composition.  Here, she takes the viewer through her process that begins with a small drawing.

Nanette Carter, Bouquet for Loving #17, Oils on Mylar, 57 x 50″ 2011

Carter has developed a painting style that consists of abstract designs and effects superimposed on top of each other in ways that emphasize chance but often reflect a theme as in the artwork Bouquet For Loving #17.  Carter does not precisely follow a particular tradition, and that’s evident in each of her works, which are stand-alone concepts to which she brings materials such as fabric into her oil paint on mylar world.

Nanette Carter, Aqueous #49, Oil Collage on Mylar, 46 x 53″ 2008

An example is a work Aqueous #49 where Carter elegantly composes a circular composition using her mylar collage on an expansive surface of textures based on an organic color palette. The random placement of patterned designs within the paintings, along with their slightly free-form outlines, establishes Carter’s desire to work both inside and outside the conventions of her genre.

Nanette Carter earned her B.A. at Oberlin College where she majored in Art and Art History.

Al Loving, Red Hook #1, Mixed Media on Board, 38 x 28″

Born in Detroit in 1935, Al Loving studied painting at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. After graduation, he relocated to New York where he found himself among a social group that included artists Robert Duran and Sam Gillian. In 1969, Loving famously became the first Black artist to have a one-person show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In the work Red Hook, Loving showcases his traditional spiral shapes creating a more organic abstraction.  A kind of shaped canvas relief on the wall, the mixed media piece draws primary colors together in a collage-type construction. His work became known for using geometric shapes and shaped canvases where he was drawn to corrugated cardboard and rag paper.

 

Sam Gilliam, In The Fog, Relief, hand-sewn, acrylic on hand-made paper, 36 x 48″, 2010

The color field painter is recognized for representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2017.  Gilliam was born in 1933 in Tupelo, Mississippi, and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. The Black painter and lyrical abstractionist artist are associated with the Washington Color School, a group of Washington, D.C.-area artists who developed abstract art from color field painting in the 1950s and 1960s.

His works have also been described as belonging to abstract expressionism and often a more lyrical abstraction. He works on stretched, draped, and wrapped canvas and adds sculptural 3D elements. He is recognized as the first artist to introduce the idea of a draped, painted canvas hanging without stretcher bars around 1965, and this was a major contribution to the Color Field School.

Gilliam has worked with polypropylene, computer-generated imaging, metallic and iridescent acrylics, handmade paper, aluminum, steel, plywood, and plastic in his more recent work.  Sam Gilliam earned a B.A. and his M.A. at the University of Louisville.

 

Gregory Coates, I Made It, Mixed Media on Wood, 48 x 45″

Gregory Coates was born in Washington D.C. in 1961 and grew up in the northeast part of the district. He is a Black artist known for working in the realm of social abstraction. In this exhibition, the work I Made It is a composition of concentric circles of various sizes on an orange-red background.

Gregory Coates attended the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., from 1980-1982 and later the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1990.

George N’Namdi founded G. R. N’Namdi Galleries in 1982 in Detroit, Michigan. It is one of the oldest commercial galleries in the United States and features works of contemporary abstract artists. The gallery has established its reputation as the leader in educating and inspiring new and seasoned collectors.  They have worked hard at building art collections around Metro Detroit and beyond. Works from the gallery are featured in some of the most prominent public and private collections worldwide.

Nanette Carter & Contemporaries @ N’Namdi is on display through December 31, 2021

 

 

2021 All Media Exhibition @ Detroit Artist Market

Detroit Artist Market: All Media Exhibition, 2021, All images courtesy of DAR

The Detroit Artist Market has been mounting this All Media Biennial Exhibition for many years and getting a wide range of work based on the juror and their particular persuasion.  This exhibition’s juror, Valerie Mercer, DIA curator of African American Art, has significant experience in this market between her time at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Artists Market. She says, “The 2021 All Media Exhibition reveals how Detroit artists kept busy during the surge of the pandemic. They created artworks that expressed, through varied artistic approaches, the importance of hope, survival, love, humanity, identity, beauty, community, nature, and culture for their and our lives.”

The exhibition includes nearly seventy artists reflecting a large variety of media. Here are works of art that might give the reader a feel for the variety of work in the exhibition.

Harold Allen, Laocoon, Acrylic on Canvas, 2020

The painting Laocoon by Harold Allen jumps out at the viewer with this abstract expressionistic non-objective action painting that piles these five-inch brush strokes up on top of each other, working from dark tones in the background to bright primary colors in the foreground. He says, “What I want is for the viewer to have is the concept that the shapes and color have a narrative sense about the interaction, activity, and relationship with each other.” Harold Allen earned his BFA from the College of Creative Studies and an MFA from Wayne State University.

Ian Matchett, Jazz, Oil on Canvas, 2021

The painter Ian Matchett captured the sizeable realistic oil portrait from a low angle, as his subject sits on a porch edge with a Covid mask hanging off his ear. The painting Jazz was selected Best in Show and sends a message that figure painting still has some life left in this century-old mainstay of expression.  He says in his statement, “I use a mixture of processes to compose my paintings including reference images, sketches, and when possible collaboration with the subjects. When depicting living people, I prioritize meeting with the subjects of my paintings. We discuss what drives their work, what keeps them going, what I see, what they want to share, and ultimately how I could build all of this into a painting.” Matchett is a graduate of UofM in fine art and social studies, which he continues as a part-time social organizer living and working in Detroit. Most of his work focuses on the connections and continuities between revolutionary movements of the past and present.

Ann Smith, America the Beautiful, Steel, Paper Mash, Wood, Bark, Paint products, 2020

The sculpture located on a base, Ann Smith’s America The Beautiful, is a large free-standing organic plant-like work constructed on a steel armature, shaped with paper mâché and painted colorfully with paint products. She says, “These sculptural accretions are visual artifacts of the thoughts and experiences of one contemporary organism, and investigate my place in the system.” Ann Smith has an art studio in the 333 Midland studio in Highland Park where she is one of twenty-five resident artists, collectively known for their BIG shows. Ann Smith is a graduate of the College for Creative Studies.

Nolan Young, Untitled Relief, Encaustic, Mixed Media, 2021

This young artist, Nolan Young, presents a relief that reminds this writer of Cass Corridor’s work from the 1970s.  It could be described as “Newton-esque.” He says in his statement, “Reconstruction through destruction is a key element to my work.  I use found objects, often discarded and forgotten objects to represent observations I have made about post-industrial Detroit. As a product of this environment, I cut and vandalize these objects to create scenes in which the events of deconstruction is a process for Reconstruction.”

Donita Simpson, Portrait of Carl Wilson, Photograph, 2017

The image Portrait of Carl Wilson demonstrates the photographic quality in this well-known Detroit photographer, Donita Simpson. Best known for her portrait of Gilda Snowden (2014), she has captured the larger-than-life quality in her image of the famous abstract Detroit artist. In the Portrait of Carl Wilson, Simpson frames her subject surrounded by contemporary art, just right off-center, capturing this relaxed expression of Mr. Wilson. For years, Simpson has been documenting Detroit artists in their work and where they live. Donita Simpson earned her BFA and MFA from Wayne State University.

Woodbridge Estates, Acrylic on Panel, 2021

This small oil painting, Woodbridge Estates, is representative of the urban landscape painting by the artist Bryant Tillman. Streets, parked cars, neighborhoods, and low light casting high contrast shadows across these subjects with a fluid palette of paint. Bryant Tillman was a 2013 Kresge Visual Arts Fellow.  https://www.kresgeartsindetroit.org/portfolio-posts/bryant-tillman  The Detroit artist has painted in the City of Detroit for thirty-five years and has given his audiences his indelible style of impressionism, exemplified by the painting of a Honda Accord with his own shadow cast on the car’s body.  Bryant Tillman was awarded the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, New York, NY, in 2017.

Participating Artists:

Jide Aje, Harold Allen, Zoe Beaudry, Robert Beras, Boisali Biswas, Davariz Broaden, Marguerite Carlton, Chris Charron, Sherell Chillik, Winnie Chrzanowski, Glenn Corey, Amelia Currier, Valarie Davis, Edmund Dorsey, Artina Dozier, Laurel Dugan, Jan Filarski, Anne Furnaris, Myles Gallagher, Bill Gemmell, Alex Gilford, Dae Jona Gordon, Albert Gordon, Jabrion Graham, Margaret Griggs, Talese Harris, Steven Hauptman, Carol Jackson, Naigael Johnson, Dawnice Kerchaert, Rosemary Lee, Brant MacLean, Lilly Marinelli, Ian Matchett, David McLemore, David Mikesell, Timothy O’Neill, Bruce Peterson, Marcia Polenberg, Shirley Reasor, Laura Reed, Philip Ross, Angelo Sherman, Donita Simpson, Cameron Singletary, Ann Smith, Nicolena Stubbs, Rosemary Summers, Ron Teachworth, Roger Tertocha, Bryant Tillman, Vasundhara Tolia, Kimberly Tosolt, Alan Vidali, Bryan Wilson, Marsha Wright, Nolan Young, Lori Zurvalec.

Detroit Artist Market: All Media Exhibition, 2021

Detroit Artist Market: All Media Exhibition, through September 11, 2021

 

Design Highlights and American Perspectives @ GRAM

Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection, installation photo.

Grand Rapids is home to some of the Midwest’s finest contributions to applied art and design, particularly in the furniture industry, and the Grand Rapids Art Museum holds a muscular collection of applied arts, much of which comprises the exhibition Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection. This is a show which brings together work from 20th Century megastars, but also artists and designers who remain completely unknown. Filling the GRAM’s first-floor gallery suite, all these works stand as examples of how artists have sought to bring beauty into everyday life.

The works in this show represent a synthesis of decoration and function, and the distinction between the two is frequently blurred.  It’s a point emphatically made by the inclusion of a ceramic plate, some vases, and a set of cups designed by Picasso for Madoura Pottery in France, all adorned with whimsical vignettes rendered in the artist’s abstract style.

Some of these works explore design for its own sake. There are several lithographs in which Alexander Calder simply plays with basic abstract arrangements of shape, form, and color.  And an iridescent, blow-molded acrylic wall-hanging by Gisela Colon is similarly non-functional, but in its luminescence and simplicity speaks to the potentiality of design alone to capture the viewer’s interest even in the absence of conventional subject matter.

Ovoid Glo-Pod (Iridescent Lilac), Gisela Colon, 2016.  Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection, installation photo

But the overwhelming majority of works here exemplify functional design, ranging from furniture, cutlery, advertising, household appliances, and electronics. A display case housing personal electronic devices underscore the rapidity of the evolution of technological design.  An ensemble comprising several 1950s-era radios, an AM/FM Walkman, a cassette player, a TV, and some cameras is now collectively obsolete, rendered so by the advent of the smartphone.

Grand Rapids is famous in the Midwest for its contributions to furniture design, and visitors to the GRAM can count on several iconic examples of 20th-century furniture always being on display. These often articulate the point that, like technology, furniture design can also substantially shift and evolve over a relatively short time. Here, there are some pieces by Gustav Stickley, Ray Eames, and Charles Eames.  Certainly, the most visually striking pieces are the zainy, sculptural chairs produced by the Westnofa Workshop which manage to re-define the notion of what a chair even is.

Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection, installation photo.

Similarly blurring the distinction between the beautiful and the functional, a concurrent exhibition features 80 works on loan from the collection of the American Folk Art Museum. This large exhibit fills most of the GRAM’s spacious second-floor gallery suite. By its nature, folk art is eclectic and perhaps hard to define, but these works collectively make the point that folk art has the capacity to be punchy, pertinent, and socially engaged.

American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection, installation image courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum comprises a varied assortment of media, and amplifies voices that have been traditionally absent from museum spaces. One of the most moving examples is a ceramic vase by David Drake, an enslaved African American who created an estimated 40,000 works of pottery in his lifetime, invariably signing them “Dave” and often inscribing  witty rhyming couplets on their surfaces.  His signature features prominently on the side of the vase, asserting his personhood and creative agency in triumphant defiance of the dehumanizing institution of slavery.

David Drake (c.1800–c. 1870).Jug,1853.Alkaline-glazed stoneware,14 1/2 x 12 x 11 1/2 inches.CollectionAmerican Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Sally and Paul Hawkins, 1999.18.1.Photo by JohnParnell.

Harnessing an entirely different media, the Grover Cleveland Quilt similarly amplifies a disenfranchised voice, the patches of the quilt declaring its anonymous creator’s support for Grover Cleveland’s candidacy approximately forty years before the vote was extended to women. Created almost exactly a century later, Jessie Telfair’s Freedom Quilt is a monument to the hard-fought rights secured during the Civil Rights Movement.

Jessie B. Telfair (1913–1986)Freedom Quilt,1983.Cotton,with pencil,74 x 68inches.CollectionofAmerican Folk ArtMuseum, New York,Gift of Judith Alexander in loving memory of her sister, Rebecca Alexander, 2004.9.1.Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York.

Work by immigrants to America features prominently in the show. A visual centerpiece of the exhibit is Mariano Ariti’sArchitectural Palace, a model for a hypothetical museum celebrating human innovation. An Italian immigrant to the United States, he envisioned this colossal structure to stand in Washington D.C., and if realized, the building would have been as tall as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.  Its ambitious scale speaks to the artist’s optimistic vision of the nation’s capabilities.  

American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection, installation image courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Born to a family of immigrants in the Bronx, Ralph Fasanella’s Workers Holiday portrays the city’s working-class masses headed to Coney Island as a momentary escape from the daily grind, and indirectly speaks to his impassioned interest in worker’s rights.  Not incidentally, just a few feet away from Fasanella’s painting is an original wooden carousel horse, itself a form of handcrafted folk-art, from the merry-go-round at Coney Island amusement park.

This is an ambitious pair of exhibitions, given that they bring together an eclectic assortment of art and design which we might not conventionally think of as museum art.  As different in form and content as both of these exhibits are, together they bring together non-traditional media which assertively makes the point that visual culture isn’t simply the stuff of sterile and hushed museums and galleries, but that craft and design can frequently burst into real-world, real-life spaces.

Design Highlights from the Permanent Collection runs through August 14, 2021, and American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum runs through August 28, 2021.

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

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