Detroit Art Review

Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Kwame Brathwaite @ Detroit Institute of Arts

Kwame Brathwaite, Installation image courtesy of DAR

On October 8, the Detroit Institute of Arts opened its doors to Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite.  The exhibit features over forty black-and-white and color photographs from the New York-born photographer known for his activism just as much as his eye behind the camera.

The first thing you have to do is understand the premise in which, “Black is Beautiful ” was created.  The civil rights movement; a collective endeavor by black Americans to eliminate racial discrimination had started in the late 1940s.  Black Americans wanted equal entry in the same economical, educational, housing spaces as their white counterparts. Remember, we’re talking about a time period in which black Americans didn’t even use the same water fountains and bathrooms.  But by the early 1960s, there was an energy shift within Black America.  There was a new aggressiveness and intentionality bubbling outside the scope of the Civil Rights movement.  There were activists that felt the quest for integration was sacrificing self-acceptance.

This is where Kwame Brathwaite enters the picture. On a cold Harlem night in 1962, he hosted a fashion show featuring audacious models with afros and natural hairstyles.  They were a visual protest to western beauty standards. The women (known as the Grandassa Models) would go on to be Brathwaite’s muse and kick start the “Black is Beautiful” movement. The movement ran simultaneously with the “Black Power” movement and opened the door for self-awareness, self-empowerment, and pinched some of the insecurities among black people.

Kwame Brathwaite, Photoshoot at a public school for one of the AJASS-associated modeling groups that emulated the Grandassa Models and began to embrace natural hairstyles. Harlem, ca. 1966; from Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019)

“I really felt it was important to bring in a photographer that could speak to the black experience.  ……What this exhibition really stresses is the work he did with the Grandassa Models.  You can see large-scale photographs that were involved in the fashion shows that he organized in the 1960s, one actually came to Detroit in 1963,” says Nancy Barr, Curator of Photography for the DIA.

Upon entering the gallery a selection of large 5×5 portraits draws first draws the viewer’s attention.  The brown-hued complexion on the portrait of model Ethel Parks is rich in energy. Her expression is a bit cunning and her presence feels life-like as her eyes seem to look back at you no matter what angle you’re viewing her portrait. The background is red, her hair is covered, and there is a sharp light fall-off at the edge of Park’s face which punctuates the energy in her appearance. This is the most dramatic lighting Brathwaite uses in this series of portraits.

Kwame Brathwaite, Model Ethel Parks at AJASS Studios, ca. 1965

Kwame Brathwaite, Sikolo Brathwaite, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem, ca. 1968

The two portraits of model Sikolo Brathwaite are subtle but confident. She wears a headpiece designed by artist Carolee Prince in front of a bronze background and a full picked-out afro in the other. The two portraits truly epitomize Brathwaite’s message and his definition of beauty. Sikolo Brathwaite doesn’t have makeup in either photograph, and her expression is powerfully stoic as the light wraps her face leaving the shadow to curve the contours of her jawbone.

In the middle of the exhibition space, the DIA also has a display of the actual dresses that Kwame styled for his models. The “Black is Beautiful” movement wasn’t just about hairstyles, but also African-centered ancestral clothing as opposed to standard American fashion. Seeing the actual clothing there along with the photographs of the models synchronizes and punctuates the collection as a whole. It breathes life into the viewing experience outside of the frames. The apparel was inspired by what was worn in cities like Accra, Lagos, and Nairobi.

Kwame Brathwaite, Sikolo Brathwaite wearing a beaded headpiece by Carolee Prince, ca. 1967

Brathwaite’s documentary work of the “Buy Black” movement from the 1960s is the second theme explored in this collection.  The “Buy Black” movement was a branch of black activist Marcus Garvey’s tree of black nationalism in which blacks were encouraged to buy goods and services from one another to build their own economic empowerment. It’s clear that Brathwaite is acting as a messenger journalist.   “This exhibition hits on a lot of points in regard to black femininity,  black culture, black history, and social activism.  Kwame really believed his photography was a tool for social activism and he really needed to record the things that were going on,” Barr says.

The focus in this photo is not the speaker but the Buy Black sign that sits in front and above a blurred attendee’s head at a rally. This was a constant in Brathwaite’s approach. 

Kwame Brathwaite, Charles Peaker speaking on 125th street. Peaker became the head of the African African Nationalist Pioneer Movement after its founder, Carlos Cooks, died. Harlen, ca. 1967

In the center of the photograph of a man at an earring counter, there is a “Buy Black” poster.  The viewer’s eyes are drawn right to it because the man’s hand is adjusting the earring rack right below the poster. Again, Brathwaite is very intentional with the messaging and this photograph is one of the most well-composed of the collection.

Brathwaite’s photograph of a dark skin black woman holding a child’s hand at the entrance of an African market pulls two of Brathwaite’s themes together. The woman is wearing a natural hairstyle as a Buy Black poster hangs from the doorway above her head.  There’s a poster on the window that says, “Garvey Day Sale” along with various African-inspired items in the window.

Kwame Brathwaite, African Market, Harlem, ca 1967

The third tier in Brathwaite’s exhibition is the photographs of Jazz greats and the Harlem nightlife.  Many of the photographs are great captures of musicians in their element such Miles Davis and Paul Chambers performing under the harsh glow of stage lights, drummer Max Roach playing the drums, and Abbey Lincoln singing like her life depends on it.

Kwame Braithwaite, Abbey Lincoln Singing at an AJASS event, Harlen, ca 1964

Kwame Braithwaite, Miles Davis and Paul Chambers, Randall’s Island Jazz Festival, ca 1958

What makes Brathwaite’s images of Harlem’s nightlife so energetic is the composition.  The way the man has his head supported by his hand as the smoke from his cigar trickles towards the top center of the frame is simply cool. Seeing nothing but the silhouette backs of the jazz quartet feels more intriguing than if the photograph was of them performing straight on. Even though the front row of faces is blurred in the photograph of the crowd at Randall’s Jazz Festival, the energy of the attendees in the far distance under the halo glow of the lights visually describes what that moment must have felt like.

Although the photographs of black women are the face of the “Black is Beautiful ” exhibition; the viewing experience is catapulted to a higher level because the images of black activism and entertainment tell more of the story of black life in the 1960s.  What’s also compelling is how those themes are still in existence in today’s racial climate.  The Black Lives Matter movement is relatable to both Black is Beautiful and the Buy Black movements.  Western beauty standards are still being defined and questioned today just as much today as they were in the 1960s.  Kwame Brathwaite’s portraiture craftsmanship and the way he finds the composition within his documentary photographs act as a time capsule and make “Black is Beautiful” a quintessential exhibition.

The Exhibition:  Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite at the Detroit Institute of Arts runs through January 16, 2022.


Yigal Ozeri @ Flint Institute of Arts

Brush with Reality: Yigal Ozeri at the Flint Institute of Arts

“Brush with Reality: Yigal Ozeri” at the Flint Institute of Arts through Jan. 2, is a career retrospective of the painter’s large-scale, striking portraits that read like photographs. It’s a handsome, accessible exhibition that makes for a good introduction to the FIA, if you’ve yet to visit, located in a polychrome modern building in Flint’s Cultural Center.

The temptation is to call the Israeli-born Ozeri’s work “photorealist,” but it’s a term the artist, who’s lived and worked in New York City for years, doesn’t apply to himself – never mind his admiration for the genre.

“Brush with Reality: Yigal Ozeri” at Flint Institute of Arts, All images by Michael H. Hodges

Ozeri, with works in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Israel Museum, among others, deliberately deviates from the photorealist playbook. “He said he wants to deconstruct photography,” says Tracee J. Glab, FIA curator of collections and exhibitions who organized the show.  “It all starts with the photographs,” she adds, mostly taken by the artist’s daughter, “but from there he then decides what parts he wants to make precise and hyper-realistic, and what parts more soft-focused and impressionist.” Additionally, Ozeri’s work stands out in another significant way – most photorealist painters focus on inanimate objects and symbols of modernity like cars, roadside diners, or California swimming pools. Few do people.

The result is a collection of canvases of remarkable depth and technical skill. Over half the gallery space is given to the artist’s trademark portraits of pretty young women in landscapes – more on that in a moment — with the rest drawn from a series of urban New York scenes.

Among the latter, the 2018 “Untitled; Cristal” features a somber, young African-American woman in a full fur coat in the middle of a Manhattan avenue, staring straight at the viewer — typical of much of Ozeri’s portraiture. It’s part of the composition’s power that it both conveys a strong sense of the subject’s character, as well the impression that New York City on either side of her is hurtling at you full blast.

Yigal Ozeri, Untitled; Cristal, 2018, oil on canvas, Collection of the Artist, NJ.

The painting is curator Glab’s favorite among the New York series. “With the distortions on either side of her,” she says, “it really captures what it’s like to be in New York City, overwhelmed.”

One of the most hyper-realist treatments is “Lizzie in the Park.” Take a good look at the cascade of blond and brown hair falling out from her black hood. You read precisely how it would feel to the touch. It’s a minor detail in its way, and yet the one that totally makes the painting – and one you can hardly take your eyes off. By contrast, the snowy, woodsy background behind her is all low depth of field. Was that the nature of the actual photograph, or has the artist softened things to make the subject pop? You decide.

Yigal Ozeri, Lizzie in the Park, 2010, oil on paper, Collection of Wayne F. Yakes, MD.

But not all of Ozeri’s portraits come with such a sharp focus. With “Untitled; Olya” from 2015, the young woman on a wind-swept beach is rendered in soft focus, which in this case adds a certain urgency. And if you look closely, the remarkable brushwork almost creates three dimensions out of two. It’s a gorgeous image, yet one that calls to mind the inevitable questions of 2021 – in this case, whether it’s entirely seemly to stage an exhibition of pretty young women painted by a man born in 1958.

Yigal Ozeri, Untitled; Olya (detail), 2015. Oil on canvas, 54 x 80 in. Collection of Louis K. and Susan P. Meisel.

It’s an issue Glab freely admits she pondered. “I definitely questioned that as a woman and feminist,” she says. “I asked Ozeri – why women? And his answer was that he felt he was depicting their power.” Additionally, he told her all the models are paid, and while Ozeri picks the locations, from city streets to the Costa Rican jungle, the models (occasionally men) choose how they want to be depicted – whether lying in shallow water in a stunning red dress as with 2012’s “Untitled; Territory,” or in a harvested field in “Untitled; COVID Wheat Field” from last year.

“I liked that answer,” Glab said. And she’s also solicited feedback from visitors, none of whom have had any complaints. Glab thinks this is in part because while the gaze is indisputably male, it’s neither exploitative nor condescending. These women, gorgeous though they all may be, are presented as individuals with force and power and not as pin-ups. Their direct stares challenge us to imagine they were anything but knowing and willing participants in this process.

Breaking the mold in part because of its strong emotions is the aforementioned “Untitled; COVID Wheat Field.” A young black man in a sweater and face mask has collapsed, seemingly ecstatic, in an autumnal field. Under a glowering sky, he radiates unexpected delight and joy – a contrast to Ozeri’s mostly sober, enigmatic women. Indeed, while the season around him is all wrong, the subject personifies the giddy rapture so many of us felt early this summer when liberty seemed at hand before the Delta variant really started to bite.

Yigal Ozeri, Untitled; COVID Wheat Field, 2020. Oil on canvas. Doron Sebbag Art Collection, ORS Ltd., Tel Aviv.

Included within the New York series, though completely out of place geographically, is a portrait of a cheerful guy in a lavishly decked out Israeli candy store in 2019’s “Untitled; A Tel Aviv Story” – and his American analogue running  a candy-packed, Manhattan kiosk in “Untitled: A New York Story,” also from 2019. But for those who adore the gritty romance of the Big Apple, Ozeri’s nighttime painting of a New York intersection is particularly persuasive, with car headlights providing visual drama. It’s chock full of banal details from New York street life – the cars, the recently painted bike lane, the construction cones and the construction worker, the jaywalker, and the receding parade of eight-story buildings with lighted windows here and there marching toward the vanishing point. It’s enough to make the impressionable fall in love with New York all over again.

Yigal Ozeri, Untitled; New York, 2020. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Artist, NJ.


“Brush with Reality: Yigal Ozeri” will be up at the Flint Institute of Arts, which is free on Saturdays, through Jan. 2.



Patrick Earl Hammie and Charles Mintz @ Crooked Tree Arts Center

Lustron Stories, Installation image, Crooked Tree Arts Center

The Crooked Tree Arts Center, situated in a forested neighborhood on 6th street in Traverse City, MI, is just far enough removed from the city center that it serves as an oasis from the heavily trafficked streets of the town’s perennially congested main drag. But this relatively hidden gallery space offers first-rate programming worth the five-minute walk from Front Street, where all the action is. Crooked Tree currently hosts two exhibitions: an ensemble of large-scale paintings by Patrick Earl Hammie, and a body of photographs by Charles Mintz. Both shows combine technical finesse with layers of considered and understated social commentary.

This is a busy month for Illinois-based Patrick Earl Hammie; concurrent with this show in Traverse City, he also has work featured in the newly-opened Men of Change exhibit at Detroit’s Wright Museum (a show organized by the Smithsonian Institution), and a solo exhibition about to open at the Freeport Museum in Illinois.  At the Crooked Tree, Hammie presents a selection of large paintings (and a few smaller studies) that are deeply personal but also engage in discourse with broader social issues.

In Untimely Ripp’d, Hammie presents viewers with a confrontationally large painting of a mother delivering a baby by cesarean section. Discussing the work at the show’s opening, Hammie notes that, historically, paintings of medical procedures typically present the operating room as an emphatically male-dominated space– The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, for example, or Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.  Subverting this convention, Hammie peoples this space entirely with women. Further challenging art-historical norms, the large scale of the work serves as a direct response to the imposingly large paintings of the Romantic era, so often accompanied by hyper-masculine bravado and saber-rattling.

Patrick Earl Hammie, Untimely ripp’d (Work Cited: Fadhley, Salim [2014]. “Cesarean section photography.” Wikiversity Journal of Medicine), 2017, oil on linen, 96 x 70 in.

Hammie’s portrait of his mother (C.R.H.) is an affectionate tribute. Painted while she was recovering from a stroke, here she confronts us with a determined and resolute expression, ardently refusing to let her stroke get the best of her faculties.  Step in close, and it’s easy to detect Hammie’s interest in Expressionism. He applies paint thickly, and you could count the brush strokes if you cared to. But his scrubbed-in brushwork never compromises the clarity of his subjects (if this seems a little paradoxical, perhaps zoom in on some o fRembrandt’s later paintings, and marvel at his uncanny ability to capture a lucid likeness through the loosest brushwork).


Patrick Earl Hammie, C.R.H., 2017, oil on linen, 80 x 68 in

Several smaller paintings in this ensemble come from the artist’s Oedipus series, an exploratory body of work over ten years in the making. Oedipus’ name means “swollen foot,” and Hammie’s expressive, close-up renderings of feet were informed by references to historical and personal associations. Feet can evoke the means by which enslaved individuals escaped and trekked toward freedom for example; alternatively, feet could suggest the manacles and restraints that kept the enslaved in bondage. But the series also obliquely references the artist’s father, who lost several toes as the result of diabetes, and who was reduced to a comatose state as the result of surgical complications, leaving Hammie (young at the time) with the difficult decision of whether or not to prolong his father’s life, and under what conditions. Like the rest of his work, these paintings combine technical excellence with conceptual depth.

Patrick Earl Hammie, Study for Oedipus, 2017, charcoal on linen, 68 x 68 in.

Concurrent with this exhibition, the Crooked Tree Arts Center is also showing a body of photography by Charles Mintz, who here explores the American dream of home-ownership.  Mintz is an Ohio-based photographer whose series Every Place I’ve Ever Lived (a body of work that addresses the housing foreclosure crisis) is featured in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Lustron Stories, on view at the Crooked Tree, is an extension of Mintz’s interest in photographing working-class domestic spaces.

This show is a photographic exploration of Lustron houses and their enduring legacy. Manufactured in Columbus, OH, in the late 1940s by Lustron Corporation, these 1,100 square-foot prefabricated steel houses offered affordable housing to the working class. They utilized reductive spaces stripped bare of almost all decorative elements, and could be purchased for approximately $10,000.  About a third of these 2,500 homes are still extant, and most are still inhabited.

Charles Mintz, Mr. Kahle – Defiance, OH, 2014, inkjet print from scanned film, 30 x 39

It takes just a few images to get a sense of the Lustron aesthetic; after all, there wasn’t much variety and customization wasn’t an option.  They were made from steel and coated with enamel, rendering magnets the best device to personalize the interiors with pictures or other wall-hangings. They came in four colors, and much of the furniture was built in, like the ubiquitous recessed bookcase and mirror we see in several of the living rooms pictured here.

Though the houses themselves have a similar (if not exactly uniform) aesthetic, in this series Mintz manages to suggest the varied personalities and walks of life of their inhabitants. Each individual (or family) poses beside or within their home, surrounded by personal effects and belongings that speak to their personal stories.  Pat C, for example, sits in her living room (flanked by the ever-present Lustron bookshelf), surrounded by a myriad of collectibles, paintings, and photographs (some in black and white, and others in the sort of washed-out color characteristic of photographs from the 70s) that offer us glimpses of her multi-generational family history.

Charles Mintz, Pat C – Canton, OH, 2012, inkjet print from scanned film, 30 x 39 in.

Like much else from the postwar era, it’s difficult not to look back at Lustron homes without seeing them as remnants of a more optimistic time when anything factory-made and mass-produced, from Tupperware to TV Dinners, promised a forward-facing domestic utopia. It’s an optimism that, in retrospect, seems altogether naive. But the goal of universal home-ownership was (and remains) admirable and worth pursuing. Even Frank Lloyd Wright tried his hand at designing affordable housing, an ambition that gave rise to his Usonian homes; however, he was never able to translate his lofty and ideal design aesthetic into homes that were actually affordable for the broader public. So say what you will about the reductive design of Lustron homes; they were an innovative and largely successful approach to affordable housing, and arguably succeeded in accomplishing what Wright never did. But still, the series leaves one wondering, in the end, if perhaps America’s working class is deserving of something just a little more…

Charles Mintz, Clementine and Anita – Oak Park, MI, 2012, inkjet print from scanned film, 30 x 39

Forward and Lustron Stories are both on view at the Crooked Tree Arts Center in Traverse City, MI through November 13, 2021.

2021 Fall Exhibitions @ BBAC

The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center Opens this Fall with Two Female Artists

One of the most prestigious non-profit art centers in Oakland County, the BBAC curates exhibitions in their five spacious galleries, including professional artists and art students taking classes at the art center. These two new exhibitions: Leah Waldo: Memory Gate and Glenna Adkins: Modern Impressions,  provide some fresh and accommodating visual art approaches from both of these up-and-coming artists.

Leah Waldo, Installation image, BBAC 2021

The sculpture of Leah Waldo includes a large variety of materials like clay, glass, wood, and cement. The minimalist forms touch on an assortment of geometric shapes and forms.  The reoccurring vertical clay objects dominate many of the clay pieces. Waldo describes her work by saying, “I consider my work to be distilled landscapes – the essence of physical and emotional landscapes infused into an object. Each piece is a little pocket universe, a soft invitation for the viewer to simply inhabit the emotional space and the spirit of raw, pristine nature. Because of my intention, history, and instinct as a healer, the objects and experiences I create are healing spaces. These pieces are invitations to share intimate moments of my life.”

Waldo utilizes a method called glass casting, in which molds are made out of plaster and silica. The molds are then filled with casting rocks, which melt together in the kiln. Waldo likes to melt the rocks, so they just begin to fuse and clump together, a technique she arrived at by experimenting with different casting cycles.

Leah Waldo, Heartopener, Clay, Glass, & Steel

The oblong vertical form in Heartopener is constructed with low-fire terra cotta and as both cast and etched glass elements supported with fabricated steel.  This introspective and contemplative clay sculpture achieves a contrast of material juxtaposing the exterior self while the glass represents the interior self.

Leah Waldo lives and works in the Asheville, NC area and earned her degree from the College of Creative Studies.


Glenna Adkins, Installation image, BBAC, 2021

In the Robinson Gallery, Glenna Adkins introduces her work with an exhibition titled Modern Impressions and provides the viewer with a light palette of color and a moving arrangement of abstract shapes and forms. The artist makes her home in Cincinnati, where her longtime studio is located at the Pendleton Art Center.  These abstract expressionistic paintings could be viewed as aerial landscapes with deliberate contrast between large masses of color and fine lines.

Glenna Adkins, Lucere, Acrylic paint on canvas, graphite.

In the painting Lucere, the work takes on a straightforward landscape painting with a horizon along the bottom and a sky shape dominated by white and blue.  Here she lays down a base layer of acrylic paint using a palette knife and brushes, then comes over the top with graphic pencil and oil stick for detail. Glenna’s work has an attraction to designers looking to place a large abstract in a modern setting.

Glenna Adkins earned a Bachelor of Fine Art at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Art, and Architecture.

The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, founded in 1957, serves the Detroit region’s visual arts community. The mission is “to connect people of all ages and abilities with visual arts education, exhibition and other creative experiences. The BBAC does this by offering classes, exhibits, workshops and events to the public, and their exhibits are always free and open to the public.”

In addition to the two exhibitions reviewed here, the culinarian turned painter, Mary Wilson, has spent years painting with flavors in her own premier catering company. Mary has found her way from the flavor palate to the artistic palette with an eye for color and contrast. In keeping with having student exhibitions, there is an exhibition of work by the students of Fran Seikaly an artist working with oil, pastel and watercolor.

President and CEO Annie VanGelderen talks about this past year. “Courage has been needed in so many ways this past year! Whether it’s about venturing out, re-connecting with friends and loved ones, or exploring your talents, the BBAC has wonderful opportunities for creativity.”

The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center exhibitions opened October 1 and runs through November 4, 2021.





Shirley Woodson @ DAM

Shirley Woodson Celebrates Her Retrospective Exhibition at the Detroit Artist Market

Why Do I Delight, by Shirley Woodson, 2021, neon signage, photo courtesy of Detroit Artist Market

Shirley Woodson: Why Do I Delight, a solo show and retrospective exhibit honoring the work and life of 2021 Kresge Eminent Artist Shirley Woodson, opened on September 24 and will be on display at Detroit Artists Market until October 23. The thirteenth Detroit recipient of this honor by the Kresge Foundation, Woodson is an accomplished artist, a veteran educator, an avid collector; she has also been a mentor to countless young Detroit artists throughout her 60-year career. In addition to this exhibit and as part of a celebration of her many contributions to the cultural life of the city, she is the subject of a recently released monograph produced by the Kresge Foundation, entitled “A Palette for the People.”  She is also the recipient of a no-strings-attached $50,000 prize.

Why Do I Delight, Kresge Eminent Artist exhibit installation, 2021, at Detroit Artists Market, photo courtesy of Charlene Uresy

Woodson is a lifelong Detroiter.  Her family moved to the city in 1938 from Pulaski, Tennessee, searching for opportunities denied them in the Jim Crow South.   They prospered here and set down deep roots. Woodson says, “In those days, everyone wanted the same thing, I think, opportunity, opportunity.  We found it in Detroit and never looked back.”

In childhood, Woodson found her twin loves, art and education, and has devoted her life both to making art and to sharing it with young artists as an arts educator. Woodson graduated with an M.F.A. in painting from Wayne State University in 1958, followed in 1965 with an M.A. in education, which enabled her to pursue a career teaching art in the Detroit Public Schools, Highland Park Community College, and Eastern Michigan University. She later returned to the Detroit Public Schools as an administrator to supervise the art education program.  Peter Crow, who worked as an art teacher under Woodson’s leadership, describes her influence:

“If you want to say something about Shirley’s impact on art teaching in Detroit schools it would be that it was Shirley who set the high standard for art teaching in the city. She insisted on hiring qualified teachers and, if possible, teachers who were also artists. This was, I think, her philosophy. But it wasn’t necessarily new. She felt that she was carrying on a tradition of high standards in Detroit for the teaching of art, one that she knew as a student and when she was teaching.”

Speaking from the perspective of a former student, multi-disciplinary artist Elizabeth Youngblood remembers her first impression of Shirley Woodson in the classroom, “I remember her looking too close to our age, too young to be the teacher.  I also remember how much fun she brought.  Shirley believed in me making art before I did.”  Youngblood describes Woodson’s influence on many young Black artists as pivotal: “If she didn’t make a piece of art at all and only worked as an arts administrator who’s done everything for so long to make sure other people could make art, and kids could have some real-life idea that there are such people, artists, out there, that would be enough to celebrate Shirley Woodson.“

But of course, Shirley Woodson could and did–and does–make art. Even as she taught and mentored young artists, co-founded and led organizations like the National Conference of Artists, organized shows, ran galleries, and collected art, Woodson has maintained an active and productive studio practice. The current retrospective at Detroit Artists Market serves up a range of work the artist has created throughout her career, as well as some new artworks in a surprising variety of media.

Shirley Woodson, Beach Scene, 1966, collage, gouache, graphic on board, photo by K.A. Letts

An early work, Beach Scene, sets the table for themes and subjects Woodson has returned to over the course of her career.  Painted in 1966, the painting features shrouded female figures that face the viewer in the foreground, setting up a distant spatial relationship with the silhouetted presences on the faraway beach with a roiling sky overhead.  Compared to her later work, the palette is fairly monochrome, though specks of gold leaf give a welcome sparkle to the hazy surface. Adjacent to this rather subdued and small-scale piece, Dreams #3, from 1995, functions as a declaration of the artist’s intent to follow her own inclinations as a colorist and as a painter of signs and symbols.

Shirley Woodson, Dream #3, 1995, acrylic on canvas, photo by K.A. Letts

The curator of Why Do I Delight, Leslie Graves, has included a sizeable collection of oil pastels from the 1990’s in the exhibit, which seem to show the artist moving toward complete abstraction.  The perfunctorily rendered trees in these compositions barely nod at representation, focusing instead on flat circular planes and their relationship with each other. Woodson employs the premise of the tree forms to explore the interaction of the colors within the ovoid shapes.

Shirley Woodson, Green Vase Nocturnal for Toni Morrison, 2021, acrylic on canvas, photo by K.A. Letts

Three large paintings from 2021 show that Woodson is still actively exploring the parameters of her mature style, which is characterized by lush color, gestural brushwork and a flattened picture plane. Elements of the background and the foreground meet and mingle in a visual conversation. It’s only fair that Fauves like Henri Matisse and Raul Dufy come to mind when looking at these paintings, since they were among the first European avant-garde artists to make a study of African and Oceanic art.  Woodson returns the favor here, employing the visual syntax of European painters to suit her own–African American–purposes. Green Vase Nocturne for Toni Morrison is typical of this most recent work, a lyrical composition that suggests a twilight fish pool, the outline of a vase super-imposed and refracting wavey images, all surrounded by shadowy figures.

In a somewhat startling departure from her previous work, Woodson displays some new text-based artworks in Why Do I Delight, and in particular, has included a couple of neon pieces that bear witness to her lively interest in contemporary trends and her ongoing appetite for exploration. The wistful line “Why do I delight?” appears in glowing yellow,  taken from a poem that the artist wrote for her late husband Edsel Reid, while nearby, the words Being Pedestr-ian, in basic white, adorn the gallery wall and resonate with her wry humor, precisely describing what she is not.

Receiving the Kresge Eminent Artist award certainly marks a well-deserved honor in Shirley Woodson’s life, but based upon the work in her current solo show at Detroit Artists Market it is abundantly clear that her creative career is far from over. As she herself eloquently puts it: “The artist is always confronted with the next step.  You learn to see every step of the process as a question: What can I share with people? What do I still have to say?”

She adds, “I’m listening and waiting.”

Shirley Woodson, Blue Vase for Sarah Vaughn

Shirley Woodson Celebrates Her Retrospective Exhibition at the Detroit Artist Market through October 23, 2021

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