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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

Shapeshifters @ Cranbrook Museum of Art

Frank Stella, Takt-i-Sulayman Variation I (Protractor Series) 1969, acrylic and fluorescent acrylic on canvas

It has always seemed to me that the most magical thing about art objects in a gallery is that they exist at the same time and place, in the same now, no matter when they were created. An archaic vase, a classical Greek sculpture and a minimalist painting can rest side by side, in a kind of eternal conversation that illuminates how humans think and perceive, and what they value over time.  This thought re-occurred to me with some force as I walked into the main gallery of the Cranbrook Art Museum last week, to see Shapeshifters, an eclectic exhibit that draws from the museum’s collection of over 6000 artworks. It covers a broad range of modern and contemporary artists and esthetic philosophies, all in lively conversation with each other and with us. Much of the work on display is by international artists with big reputations, but voices and visions of many younger, less established, artists have also found their way into Shapeshifters. Often these artists are from the Detroit area, many of them graduates of Cranbrook Art Academy’s M.F.A program; to my mind they provide the most interesting pieces in a wide-ranging survey of artists’ methods and mindsets.

The entry gallery of the museum announces the ambitious nature of the exhibit with a forceful collection of minimalist and post-minimalist artists. Paintings and sculptures by art historical heavyweights like Donald Judd and Frank Stella ring the gallery.  These self-referential abstract objects and images  hark back to a brief moment in art history, 1960’s and 1970’s, when  the methods and formal objectives of contemporary art seemed clear. These confident–and also mostly white, male–artists seemed to say they had found the endpoint of modernism, after which no further progress was possible–or necessary. Even Agnes Martin, whose (usually) much smaller pieces seem more interior and meditative, is represented in Shapeshifters by a large canvas, Untitled (1974) that shows her to be a member in good standing of the minimalist club.

Ato Ribeiro, Home Away From Home 2, 2017, repurposed wood, glue

Ato Ribeiro, Detail

But even as these monumental, even grandiose, pieces stake their claim to dominance in this room and  in art history, the show’s curator Laura Mott, slyly introduces an artist who says, quietly, “yes, but…”

Ato Ribeiro, a 2017 graduate of Cranbrook’s print program, has created a wood assemblage that superficially resembles many of the pieces in the main gallery, but suggests alternative cultural references that speak to more private, idiosyncratic aims. Home Away from Home 2 is a pieced quilt of a sort, made of discarded wood, re-cycled and re-assembled into an elaborate composition that references hieroglyphs, Kente cloth, traditional African symbols, and signals a turning away from minimalist generalities and toward more particularized personal references.

Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Dupp Dup, 2016, plaster, burlap, sisal rope wood

This insistence by young artists on private processes and meanings continues in the next gallery, with the awkward yet elegant and slightly comic Dupp Dup by Ebitenyefa Baralaye. A 2016 M.F.A.  graduate of the ceramics program at Cranbrook, Baralaye has re-purposed the process of ceramic casting in a literally heartfelt way. The shape of the plaster cast is reminiscent of a human heart, signifying both a physical state of being and an emotional state of desiring. Its implied weightiness is animated and supported by a spindly wooden tripod.   In the adjoining gallery, Sonya Clark’s scratchy ziggurat of a headpiece, assembled from hair curlers, is both humble and regal. Clark re-imagines these everyday materials using processes familiar to her from her background in fiber art; the result is both surprising and satisfying.

Sonya Clark, Curled, 1998, metal hair curlers, thread, wire

Two of Detroit’s art eminences occupy the middle gallery and are hung in proximity with two other artists who reinnforce and illuminate their importance as masters of their craft and figures of note in Detroit’s contemporary art scene. Allie McGhee’s folded and draped Window (2019) easily holds its own next to the much larger–and very lovely–Preface for Chris by Joan Mitchell, with which it is paired. McGhee is scheduled for an upcoming solo exhibition in the fall of 2021, and Windows provides a tantalizing foretaste of what we can expect and hope for. Carole Harris, whose work impresses me more each time I see it, is represented by In a Silent Way (2017).  Harris is a textile virtuoso. Her work occupies the surprisingly capacious space between expressive quilting and painterly abstraction, and somehow manages to be more than the sum of the two mediums.   The way in which she exercises complete control of flat or felted or lacy textures, of staccato stitched lines, of carefully dyed and rusted colors, adds a tactile element to her work against which the nearby untitled painting by Jose Joya struggles to compete.

Allie McGhee, Window, 2019, acrylic, enamel, vinyl

Carole Harris, In a Silent Way, 2017, quilt with rusted textiles

In the next gallery, photography –and related technologies–has its day as a means to revelation. The prosaic, descriptive reality of everyday photography gives way to the deeper truth of artists’ personal and subjective experience. A particularly beautiful example of this is Kottie Gaydos’s Unfixed, Fold #3, a dreamy, undulating field of deep blue in which a minimalist strategy yields a deeply romantic and poetic image. Matthew Angelo Harrison’s low-resolution replicas of African artifacts by way of his homemade 3-d printers are familiar to most of the Detroit art public by now, but they remain impressive, resonant in their expression of the African American diaspora’s sense of cultural loss from the trauma of enslavement.

Kottie Gaydos, Unfixed, Fold #3, 2016, archival pigment print, artist frame with unfixed cyanotype

The wan ironies of Andy Warhol’s Polaroids and Rosenquist’s lithographs are interesting as historical artifacts, but pale beside Kara Thompson’s polemical silhouettes and the robust immediacy of Maya Stovall’s dancers, doing their thing in the parking lot of a Detroit convenience store. Her video, Liquor Store Theatre, Vol. 4, No. 7, records the bemused reaction of bystanders along with the precise and angular movements of the black-clad performers.

Maya Stoval, Liquor Store Theatre, Vo. 4, #7, 2017, video still

The back gallery of Shapeshifters is devoted, appropriately for an exhibit about transformation and adaptation, to a short feature film entitled Upright: Detroit.  Set in the ruins of the historic Michigan Theater, the film records a kind of initiation. Performers arrive, one by one, dressed in ordinary street clothes.  Here, they are ritually transformed, with assistance from members of the Ruth Ellis Center for LGBTQ+ youth, into other-worldly beings by way of Nick Cave’s iconic Soundsuits. In the subsequent procession, initiates are accompanied by a choir of singers from Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theater. With this performance, Shapeshifters brings us full circle, from the exuberant hubris of the minimalists to the joyous communality of the performers in Upright: Detroit, a thought-provoking journey from the general to the personal in search of our universal humanity.

Artist in Shapeshifters: Richard Anuszkiewicz, Jo Baer, Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Romare Bearden, McArthur Binion, Susan Goethel Campbell, Anthony Caro, Nick Cave, Nicole Cherubini, Sonya Clark, Liz Cohen, Conrad Egyir, Beverly Fishman, Kottie Gaydos, Sam Gilliam, Kara Güt, Carole Harris, Matthew Angelo Harrison, José Joya, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Allie McGhee, Marilyn Minter, Brittany Nelson, Kenneth Noland, Marianna Olague, Robert Rauschenberg, Ato Ribeiro, James Rosenquist, Beau Sinchai, Julian Stanczak, Frank Stella, Maya Stovall, Toshiko Takaezu, Carl Toth, Kara Walker, Andy Warhol, and Richard Yarde, among others.

The museum is open with some restrictions.  For more information, go to: https://cranbrookartmuseum.org/plan-your-visit/

Sarah Rose Sharp @ UM Institute of the Humanities Gallery

Map of the Interior: Sarah Rose Sharp’s “Results or Roses” at UM Institute of the Humanities Gallery

Sarah Rose Sharp, Hand of Fate, 2019, screen print by Too x Nail, fabric, embroidery thread, charms, beads, etc., 11.5” x 6” x 2.5

During these Covid times, visual artists’ exhibitions have migrated to online locations, with mixed results. For some whose work is photographic or text-based in nature, the effect is hardly noticeable.  But for artists making very tactile or three-dimensional work, like the artworks in Detroit artist Sarah Rose Sharp’s Results or Roses at UM Institute of the Humanities Gallery, much is lost in translation.  I felt some guilty delight when the gallery curator, Amanda Krugliak, consented to open the gallery (now temporarily closed to the public during the pandemic) for my visit.

Sharp employs traditional needlework and sewing techniques to create a diaristic map of her interior life. The intimately scaled artworks illustrate several different trains of the artist’s thought and share the walls of the gallery and an adjacent vitrine, providing a virtual tour of the artist’s memories, observations and preoccupations. The overarching intention of the work seems to be located somewhere in the psychic territory between nostalgia and satire.

Sarah Rose Sharp, Immigrant Song, 2020, tablecloth by Rose Blaug, rice bag, embroidery thread, sequins, patches, beads, fake flowers, plastic table covering, etc., 24.75 x 24.75”

The modestly-sized but obsessively decorated wall hangings, flags, throw pillows–and some three dimensional assemblages too strange to name–add up to an untamed fantasia of tat and glitz. Sharp combines an improbable array of materials in her free-hand, free-associational compositions, some vintage, some newly minted. Found objects, beads, applique and embroidery seem to boil over the surfaces, threatening to encase the fabric ground entirely. Immigrant Song, perhaps the signature piece of the show, is a demented version of the Statue of Liberty, her single, oversized eye gazing out at the world and radiating energy. The surface is sequin-encrusted, and free-hand needlework decoration vies with store-bought embroidery patches for control of the surface. The fabric base for the artwork is part of a tablecloth that belonged to the artist’s great grandmother, which the artist cherishes as a meaningful collaboration with a woman she never met. Sharp has a real gift for the creative manipulation of materials, but is clearly more interested in their expressive potential  than with conforming to any conventional notion of craft.

Sarah Rose Sharp, Target, 2020, fabric, arrow, handkerchief, t-shirt salvage, beads, sequins etc., 10” x 7.5”, arrow 29”

A native of California, Sharp devotes a number of her works for Results or Roses to both critiquing and humorously celebrating the Hollywoodized cultural signifiers of the West.  In several pieces, she chooses mass market images of a heroic–and often imaginary–past: mustangs and buffalo, limitless deserts, child cowboys and cowgirls. In her flag-and–arrow assemblage Target, she deftly memorializes the near-demise of both Native Americans and buffalo herds, victims of America’s manifest destiny. In Native Daughter, Sharp makes a flag by embellishing a souvenir California handkerchief with appliqued and embroidered images that symbolize features of the state that may no longer exist.  Jupiter Rising conjures an improbably limitless landscape of mountains, horses running free, a child cowboy and a pickup truck with a mysterious figure (Cowboy Jupiter?) presiding. From this work, it appears Sharp is still engaged in the unresolved process of  locating her stance toward her childhood between appreciation and censure.

Sarah Rose Sharp, Detroit Patchwork IV, 2020, fabric, wool salvage, hem binding, corset wire, 32.5” x 15”

Sharp’s textiles referencing her more recent home, Detroit, are more straightforward appreciations of the substance of the city.  She pieces together fabrics that describe architectural features, the voids and recent architectural additions, metaphorical renditions of the urban landscape as it stitches itself back together. Detroit Patchwork III is particularly evocative of the highways that span the city, while the fabrics she has chosen reference the ethnic diversity of its many neighborhoods. Detroit Patchwork IV may be the most formally satisfying of the series, a jubilant combination of oranges, browns and blacks that is slightly reminiscent of work by African American textile artist Carole Harris.

With each piece Sharp engages in an ongoing search for a legible reality from found bits and pieces of her life, past and present. Her question:  are the symbols and images we get from mass media legitimate signifiers of some larger reality, or do the small, observed details painstakingly stitched together each day deserve equal weight in our construction of our own history and identity?

UM Institute of the Humanities Gallery 

This review is re-printed with permission from Pulp, the Ann Arbor District Library’s online culture magazine.

Ruben and Isabel Toledo: “Labor of Love” @ the Detroit Institute of Arts

Ruben Toledo, “Broomstick Librarian Shirtwaist Dresses,” 2008, Designed by Isabel Toledo, Painted by Ruben Toledo, image by DIA – William Palmer.

We normally think of industry as the machinery of the production for making a particular thing, like the steel industry, or, especially in Detroit, the auto industry, but entering the current exhibition, “A Labor of Love,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, we are greeted by a magnificent image of twisted swirls of colors and pleats of seven dresses. This very energetic image was composed and painted by Ruben Toledo of his wife, Isabel Toledo’s dress designs for Anne Klein, one of the leaders in the Fashion Industry. It’s not a huge leap of the imagination to go from car design, with its annual turnover and retooling for the latest, sexiest, avatars of human desire, to the fashion industry and its latest adjustments of hem and neckline and introduction of the latest color to elaborate on the human body. That’s just what this famous New York husband and wife team of artist and designer did in “Labor of Love,” their investigative interventions in the encyclopedic collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Ruben and Isabel Toledo, “The Choreography of Labor,” 2018 Remaining images by DIA Eric Wheeler

Situated in the DIA’s Special Exhibitions galleries, the main thrust of their installation is an exploration of Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry Murals,” the heart and soul of the museum and, art lovers might say, Detroit itself. In her exploration of the collection, Isabel Toledo saw the connection in Rivera’s fresco murals between the fashion and auto industry immediately and brought them together in a large collage (Image #2) that depicts a flowing dance of her dress designs across silkscreened representation of Rivera’s painting of the factory with workers depicted engaged in car production. The darkened gallery, filled with sculpted manikins wearing formal gowns of various cultural origin, suggests a grand promenade celebrating immigration and integration of world cultures to Detroit.

Installation image of Special Exhibitions Gallery with Isabel Toledo’s first sewing machine in foreground.

There is a haunting tableau composed of Isabel Toledo’s first sewing machine wrapped in black taffeta, with ghostly gowns floating in the air above, with a quote on the wall from Isabel that offers the idea of the fashion industry and (by proximity) the auto industry, as a metaphor for the generational influence of migration and change, of death and rebirth: “The combination of ideas, time and imagination can all be triggered by fashion and how people dress, undress, expose, or cover their bodies, fashion offers the perpetual next—the never ending now, the reinvention of inventions.” It is a twist on Darwinian Evolution that goes back to LeCorbusier’s use of it to explain the evolution of design. (Incidentally Isabel’s sewing machine, in looking like a little animal, echoes Rivera’s drawing of an V-8 engine block that looks like a dog).

Diego Rivera drawing from DIA Collection

Throughout the exhibition the female body is explored as the medium of exchange for cultural expression and happily this exhibition gives us the opportunity of seeing four of Rivera’s breathtaking Detroit Industry preparatory cartoons, two of which are female figures representing the seed and fruit of the female body. Because of their fragile paper the cartoons are not displayed often.

Much of the “Labor of Love” exhibition becomes a treasure hunt. Spread throughout the museum are nine Isabel Toledo’s playful, sexy, even downright erotic designs for female adornment which are in response to particular themes and moments of the history of art arranged in the chronological galleries. It is intriguing to ferret out the connections to the specific art or gallery theme. A map is provided but, even for a seasoned museum visitor, it’s a joy to walk through the museum, with chance encounters of things that catch your eye, trying to find Isabel’s interventions. It is a clever way to break the museum’s “ideology” and cast a completely different agenda on its organization, and get the public into the galleries.

Isabel Toledo, “Synthetic Cloud,” 2018, Nylon

There are many intriguingly inventive responses and fashion interventions by the Toledos including Isabel Toledo’s design for Michele Obama’s inauguration outfit found in the American Colonial house and interesting twists on the shenanigans of the surrealists, and to Alison Saar’s “Blood/Sweat/Tears” sculpture, but the most engaging is “Synthetic Cloud.” Installed in the “minimalist” gallery and inspired, it appears mostly by Robert Irwin’s diaphanous acrylic disc, “Untitled, “ but as well by the hard-edged paintings and sculpture of Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, Eva Hesse and Ellsworth Kelly.  Above Irwin’s chimerical disc, the most mysterious piece of art in the museum, hang eleven multicolored, nylon, tulle tutus that float like a formation of clouds high above our heads. Layer upon layer of pastel underskirts support the dancing figures that also support the rigid wire bodices of the imaginary ballerinas. Somehow echoing Irwin’s ineffable image of light and shadow, Toledo’s fantastic ballerina clouds are worth the trek.

Panoramic installation view of gallery

Isabel and Ruben Toledo: Labor of Love, Detroit Institute of Arts    –  Through July 7, 2019

 

Detroit Group Exhibition @ Oakland University Art Gallery

The Oakland University Art Gallery (OUAG) has opened an exhibition, Who Were They Then, on October 20, 2018, that puts together visual artists with ties in and around Detroit. Five artists working in different media create a biographical sketch of their work spanning back to what they might consider as early beginnings.

Morgan Barrie, Pest 1, 40 x 50″ digital archival print, 2018

Morgan Barrie photo collages are landscapes that usually include an animal, as in the example Pest 1, a 40 x 50-inch digital archive print, in which the artist places an animal on a pedestal and surrounds the subject with flowering plants native to the Midwest.  The formal arrangement and centered fox, with a solid background and this array of plants carefully placed, would seem to be an application in composition, shape, and color. Needless to say, all of these elements are brought into a digital environment, carefully placed, where the light varies slightly.  There are five of these vertical compositions, each with an animal at the center: a dog, a fawn and a cat.    Her work in Re: Formation, at 600 Jefferson Avenue, Toledo, Ohio where she places a female figure in the landscape with floating Plasticene bags in Future Seasons, suggests an interest in environmental issues. In fact, she has created a body of work dominated by these bags set against clean water and open sky as subjects.

She says in her statement, “I view landscapes as teeming with millions of constantly changing factors…I like to have sections of the frame that are overwhelming to capture that idea.  All my work is a way to have a dialogue with my fear and confusion as I try to understand the way we as humans relate to the rest of the natural world, or rather don’t relate to it.”

Morgan Barrie earned her Bachelor of Arts in photography from Columbia College Chicago and her M.F.A in Photography from Eastern Michigan University.

Mel Rosas, Rooftop III, 6.5 x 9.75″, lithograph, 1981

 

Mel Rosas, Professor of Painting and Drawing at Wayne State University takes us way back to his lithograph Rooftop III, 1981 as a starting point for his magical realism in a landscape. There are few artists from Detroit who have had a long and successful career being represented in New York City by a major gallery.  For Mel Rosas, it was 1991 when he began his relationship with Davison Contemporary then located on 724 Fifth Avenue, and in 2014 moved to Chelsea on West 26th street.

These images over the years have shared common components.  The apparent elements are his use of a flat picture plane facing the viewer, and always an opening to space beyond, whether it’s the ocean, a sky, a room or just around a corner.  The settings are Latin American culture and ethnic identity, an influence that may come from his father’s homeland of Panama. The symbolism included on his street walls is often of graffiti, old movie posters, religious iconography, traffic signs and automobiles from the 1950s. Occasionally the figure of a man in a white suit appears in his work, as in Searching for the Romantic, where he places himself in the painting. In visual art, as in literature, it’s hard to get beyond oneself.

Mel Rosas, Gentrification, 36 x 36″ Oil on Panel, 2016

In Gentrification, Mel Rosas gives us the iconography of a Latin urban landscape with suggestions of construction and rebirth. Traditionally, he places his focus on composition, color and space with extraordinary detail to texture in this one-perspective rendition of a street scene.  Most who are friends of the artist know he has always added two numerals indicating his age at the time he executed the work.

He says in a statement, “I have developed an interest in Latin American Literature, both realism (Bolano) and magic realism (Borges, Marquez). I am fortunate to have traveled through several Latin American countries; my research is an ongoing investigation addressing questions of place, culture, and ethnic identity.”

Mel Rosas earned his Master of Fine Arts from Tyler School of Art, Temple University, and he has been a recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Grant, Charles H. Gershenson Distinguished Faculty Award, and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, New York, NY, 2009.

Bryant Hillman, Honda Accord, 16 x 20″, Acrylic on Canvas, 2014

Bryant Tillman is a Detroit artist who has been painting Detroit expressionistic landscapes for over thirty-five years.  In this exhibition, he presents ten works of art, fluid representational compositions of cars, people and buildings.  These high-contrast acrylic works are probably executed in a short time, from start to finish before the acrylic dries. In his painting, Honda Accord, he paints in his shadow as he takes his image during low light.  Back in the studio, the “moment in time” gets rendered with a loose, painterly brush stroke with surfaces that grab the viewer’s attention.

He says in his statement, “Painting like a dead Frenchman, you tend to often think like one when selecting subject matter, locale, or method. Natural scenes and surroundings, like freshly manicured lawns and gardens or wildly verdant wooded areas, are not alien to Detroit.  Also, the impressionists often included subjects that are considered contemporary to that time…steamships and steam locomotives, for example. So I felt it only natural to include in my work an occasional late model car in my urban scenes.”

Selected as the Visual Arts Fellow in 2013 by Kresge Arts in Detroit, Tillman shows things as they are, and lets the viewer bring their experience to the work. With his use of long, low shadows of light and color, the viewer sees a more vibrant, fertile reality than what actually exists.  He puts a painterly face on the landscapes of Detroit.

Carole Harris, Time and Again, 43.5 x 37″, cotton, silk, linen, 2018

For this writer, what is interesting about the biographical sketch of Carole Harris is the earlier work, as in View from the Kitchen on Preston Street, from quilt/ fiber artist to abstractionist, as in Time and Again, 2018.  Having written about Harris’s work when exhibited at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art and recently in her exhibition, Repetition, Rhythm, and Vocab, with Allie McGee, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, you see a unique path to non-representational art. Here in the OUAG exhibition, you view the 1999 piece, cluttered with improvisational polygons, triangles, rectangles and squares to the 2018 work, Time and Again, that depends more on the subtlety of stitchery, layers upon layers of cloth and color, while establishing a more distinct composition working from a dark background to a light off-set foreground.  One can trace back to pre-Reconstruction in the South, where quilts were necessities, and female artists went unrecognized for their aesthetics, but Carole Harris had her beginnings in textile work in the mid-1960s and gradually evolved to a pure abstract narrative, with original gestures, layered textures and innovative compositional ideas.

She says in her statement, “As an art student in college, I remember seeing the work of Romare Bearden as one of the first artists I can remember who depicted African American imagery, which made an impact even though, and probably because, it was abstract.”

Carole Harris earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Wayne State University and was the recipient of the 2015 Kresge Visual Art Fellowship.

Clinton Snider, The Last Winter, 42 x 84″, Oil on Panel, 2013

A familiar artist in Detroit, Clinton Snider’se work in this OUAG exhibition stands by itself in a separate corner space. His expressive post-industrial landscapes vary in both size and shape, occasionally including a figure.  In this sizeable rectangular work, Last Winter, Snider creates an eerie light that sets a mood as a low sunset casting long shadows across the snow.  It almost feels apocalyptic.  Trimmed and truncated trees surrounded by old debris speaks to a time gone by in a once thriving era, perhaps Detroit, waiting to be repurposed. The architecture in Snider’s buildings are almost always pre-world war II, reflective of an older neighborhood, and sometimes nostalgic, as in Back Forty, where the extra wide angle image plays heavily into the composition with extended shadows from objects spread out across a lush lawn.

Not many visual artists collaborate, and one collaboration that includes Clinton Snider is with fellow artist Scott Hocking. Most notably, their installation, Relics, consists of some 400 identical square boxes of Detroit’s discarded found objects and rummage, that were connected and set up as a grid in the exhibition Artists Take on Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2001.

Snider says in a statement, “I think that simply growing up in and around a city with a post-industrial status like Detroit has had the greatest effect on my work over the years. It feels like walking through the texture and material substance of history. Still, within this crumbling of infrastructure and architecture, a spirit remained intact that manifests itself in creativity, innovation, and a tenacity of people, that changes one’s perspective on how society functions. “

Clinton Snider earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the College for Creative Studies and was represented by Susanne Hilberry gallery.

Who Were They Then was curated by Dick Goody, Professor of Art, Chair of Department of Art & Art History and Director of Oakland University Art Gallery. In recent years he has reached out to curate many new types of exhibitions that would include installations, conceptual work and leading types of experimentation by artists from all parts of the country and beyond. Here, Goody comes back to an exhibition of Detroit artists, largely made up of representational work (with the exception of Carole Harris) that survey the artists’ work over time, and in some way feels like he comes full circle.

Who Were They Then at Oakland University Art Gallery runs through November 18, 2018.

 

 

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