Detroit Art Review

Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Drawing: Detroit @ David Klein Gallery

Tylonn J. Sawyer, Black Man on a Horse: Bayard, 2024, charcoal, pastel and glitter on paper,72” x 88.5” All Photos courtesy of David Klein Gallery

The  21 artists whose work is on view at David Klein Gallery right now can tell you—and show you–that drawing has its own special kind of magic.  “Nothing up my sleeve here,” these creatives seem to say as they produce, with a flourish, images conjured from imagination and a few rudimentary materials. As individual as a fingerprint, each artist’s contribution defines, and sometimes expands, our understanding of what a drawing can be and do.

Tylonn J. Sawyer’s life-size equestrian figure  Black Man on a Horse: Bayard, anchors the exhibition and is very much front and center.  The image depicts civil rights hero Bayard Rustin astride a barely controlled horse that may leap off the wall at any moment. The charcoal on paper drawing invites comparison to Kehinde Wiley’s Officer of the Hussars (2007) at the Detroit Institute of Art but switches out that painting’s pretty fussiness for austere formal and emotional rigor on themes of Black history and identity. The addition of a field of black glitter at the lower portion of the composition adds a mythic edge.

Cydney Camp, Friendly Place, 2024, graphite on paper, 36” x 36

Many of the portrait drawings in the exhibition are life-size or larger. Kim McCarty’s faces of young women, Charles Edward Williams’s handsome swimmers, Cydney Camp’s Friendly Place and Whitfield Lovell’s Spell #16 demand our attention with their scale and skill.  Panning out from the close-up view, Robert Schefman and Joel Daniel Phillips include drawings of single figures that place their subjects within a specific time and place for added context.

Marianna Olague, Head Over Heels, 2024, graphite, gouache and colored pencil on paper, 30” x 22”

Several of the large figurative portraits depend upon unorthodox points of view to capture our interest.  Conrad Egyir’s recessive figures turn away even as he uses the tools of their creation, arranged on shallow ledges below the images, to draw us in. Kelly Reemtsen, as usual, focuses on the implied social status of her fashionable ladies and the subtle menace of their sharp tools.  Marianna Olague literally turns self-portraiture on its head with a drawing of sneaker-clad feet seen from below, as if she is taking a selfie while lying on her back.

Cayce Zavaglia, Raphaella Blue Cross-Stitch, 2021, ink and hand embroidery on Arches paper, 15” x 11”.

A number of the most impressive still-life drawings depend upon their large scale for impact. Jessica Rohrer’s breathtakingly intricate Red Coleus invites close looking; it irresistibly draws the viewer into a close inspection of the minute red and purple leaves within the magnified whole.  Armin Mersmann’s imposing—and decomposing—giant pear is another spectacular example of how scale can be employed to capture our attention.

Mary-Ann Monforton, Red Chair, 2023, watercolor and pencil on paper, 11” x 8.5”

But large formats don’t entirely dominate. Shea Burke’s sweetly intimate watercolors and Cayce Zavaglia’s embroidery on paper, Raphaella Blue Cross-Stitch, ably make the point that a drawing needn’t be large to be impactful.  Maryann Monforton’s quirky colored pencil drawings invite us into her cozy, art-filled home, where her friendly, funny chairs and snack-laden plates offer hospitality on paper. Willie Wayne Smith’s improvised interior, Boomerang, suggests a situational mystery and raises more questions than it answers. Jack Craig’s finely detailed pencil drawings appear at first to be abstractions, but upon close inspection turn out to accurately reflect his three-dimensional freeform bronze constructions.

Willie Wayne Smith, Boomerang, 2019, charcoal on paper, 24” x 18”

Though the exhibition belongs (mostly) to the figurative realists, a few very welcome abstract drawings make the curatorial cut.  Neha Vedpathak’s light and air-filled Untitled Drawings #1, #2 and #3, with their delicate but insistent marks in metallic dust, charcoal powder, graphite and acrylic, seem to levitate just in front of the paper.  In contrast, Susan Goethel Campbell’s dark, pierced and stained Night Garden builds upon the themes of her recent solo show at the gallery with moody intensity.  Benjamin Pritchard’s paper and ink collage, Night Shapes, is a special visual treat. The dreamlike architecture of geometric shapes and symbols is both weighty and weightless, simple yet enigmatic. Are there more of these beauties lurking somewhere in his studio?  I hope so.

Benjamin Pritchard, Night Shapes, 2021, ink and collage on Arches paper, 42” x 39”

Perhaps the most physically imposing—and formally complex—piece in “Drawing: Detroit, A Line Goes for a Walk” is Emmy Bright’s Big Drawing which combines printmaking, sculpture, conceptual art and assemblage. It is all—and none—of the above. Bright, an artist in residence in print media at Cranbrook Academy of Art, repeats a single line printed on paper many times, then attaches the papers end-to-end to form a bale (A bunch? A bundle?) that hangs on a metal peg on the gallery wall.

The art and craft of drawing represents a core competency for most artists and certainly of the artists in this exhibition. “Drawing: Detroit” offers gallery visitors an eclectic mix of works on paper that combine impressive technical mastery with considerable conceptual interest.  These artworks on paper, made by some of the city’s most accomplished practitioners, will be on view until March 15, 2024.

Emmy Bright, Big Drawing, 2023, polystyrene grommets, acrylic, steel peg, variable dimensions.

Exhibition: Drawing: Detroit, at the  David Klein Gallery  On view through March 15, 2024.

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Revolutionary Times @ FIA

The Flint Institute of Arts Presents Revolutionary Times by Detroit Artist Mario Moore

There’s a black-and-white video clip on YouTube of an early TV quiz show where a panel of celebrities tries to guess the identity of a mystery guest. In the clip, the guest is a frail-looking old man who turns out to be the last living witness to the shooting of Abraham Lincoln. The show aired in 1956. My father was born in 1947; he just turned 77, and his life overlaps that of someone who saw the Lincoln assassination. I remember being struck by that thought when I first saw the video, by the idea that the days of chattel slavery and civil war, which can seem like the stuff of textbooks, ancient history (and which some would like us to conveniently regard as such), were actually as close as the span of just two lifetimes. I thought of that video again as I looked at Mario Moore’s current exhibition at the Flint Institute of Arts, Revolutionary Times (running now through April 14), in which the painter repeatedly collapses the distance between the past and the present.

Mario Moore, Installation images, 2022, oil on linen

It’s been quite a year so far for Mario Moore. In addition to the Flint show, the Cranbrook Art Museum is currently featuring a show Moore co-curated called Skilled Labor: Black Realism in Detroit, in which Moore joins several other local painters who work in a range of realist approaches (on view through March 3). Moore’s art is both highly skilled and labor intensive. He works at a level of realism that must be a bit like playing trumpet or violin, where the promise of perfection makes every flub the more obvious. Moore, however, rarely misses a note. While his backgrounds are more loosely painted to suggest depth, his subjects are meticulously rendered, and yet they aren’t fossilized by overly-fussy technique. They breathe, and radiate warmth even when their demeanors are cool, which is often. When they meet the viewers gaze, theres life in their eyes.

Mario Moore, The Drum Rolls On, 2021, oil on linen

Revolutionary Times comprises three bodies of work: one relates to the Civil War, particularly the Black troops who were armed to fight for the Union; another references the Underground Railroad and Detroit’s unique part in its history; and the third, a room of mostly portraits, comments on the fur trade in Detroit while honoring members of Moore’s family and circle of friends. Throughout the show, Moore juxtaposes images of “then and now,” sometimes placing 19th century figures in modern landscapes, or casting friends in the roles of historical personages, or inserting himself into portraits of family members. Each work dissolves the barriers between the historical and the contemporary. At the start of the exhibition the viewer is greeted by The Drum Rolls On, an image of a barefoot Black child, eyes forward and resolute, the sticks in his hands poised to strike up a march on the snare drum slung around his neck. Around him the landscape is in flames, yet he is unharmed and unperturbed. He’s an allegorical figure, though not a timeless one; the shiny calculator watch on his wrist tells us that the time is now.

The next image the visitor encounters is a lithograph featuring the first of a number of artists Moore name-checks throughout the exhibit, David Bowser, the designer of several regimental flags carried by Black troops during the Civil War (a Moore recreation of one of Bowser’s flags hangs elsewhere in the gallery). Across the room is another artist, Moore’s contemporary Mark Thomas Gibson. He’s depicted lounging in front of a Moore-ified version of his large drawing of the battle of Antietam, a fight in which Black troops played a crucial role and which precipitated Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the battle scene, a Union soldier lies dead in one corner, his head blown off with such force that his hat still hovers above the stump of his neck. Gibson’s casual pose, sitting back in a chair with his feet up, mimics that of the collapsed soldier, suggesting that the soldier’s sacrifice then made Gibson’s freedom today possible. On another wall are several portraits based on Civil War-era photographs, now in full color and with the original subjects replaced by friends of Moore’s, all brandishing period swords and firearms. A spoken word recording about the arming of Black troops, Free State, plays in the first gallery as well, though without a chair or headphones, it’s hard to give the 25-minute recording the attention it deserves.

Mario Moore, Blackburn, Lucie, and Thornton Blackburn’s Arrival in Midnight, 2022, oil on linen

Entering the second part of the exhibition, the visitor meets two bathing suit-clad figures, a man and woman reclining on the shore of the Detroit River. They represent Lucia and Thornton Blackburn, an enslaved couple who fled Kentucky for Canada along the storied Underground Railroad. They eventually escaped to Windsor, depicted here by the apartment blocks and casinos of the city’s modern skyline, just as the Blackburns are portrayed by two friends of Moore’s, closing the gap between the two time periods. The Underground codename for Windsor was “Canaan”; Detroit was called “Midnight.” Between them runs the river, a fluid frontier that appears in the backgrounds of a number of the pictures in this gallery, most dramatically in Troubled Waters: Henry Bibb And/Or Mary Ann Shadd. In the painting, the titular abolitionists bob in precariously small boats on the rough waters of the strait, reaching out to one another yet separated by their differing views on tactics (Bibb welcomed white allies, Shadd felt Black people could free themselves without them). In the foreground between the two boats, her back turned to the viewer to reveal her elaborately embroidered robe, a Black woman looks on as if contemplating the dispute, inviting us to do the same. Moore’s handling of water is excellent, especially the range of color he brings to the river, from industrial grays to translucent greens to deep blues. Also in this gallery are three large-scale portraits of anti-slavery figures with Michigan connections: William Lambert, George deBaptiste, and Sojourner Truth. Each is drawn in silverpoint, evoking daguerreotype photographs, and each is embellished by gold threads — provided by Moore’s mother, the artist and educator Sabrina Nelson — that chart routes along the Underground Railroad, adding a thoughtful graphic element to the portraits.

Mario Moore, Troubled Waters: Henry Bibb and/or Mary Ann Shadd, 2022, oil on canvas

Detroit was founded 320-plus years ago as an outpost for the French fur trade, an industry that relied on the labor of enslaved Black people in order to thrive. The third gallery in the Flint exhibition depicts Moore’s friends and family dressed in fur, flipping the historical dynamic as well as celebrating a fashion statement that Moore has noticed is particular to Detroiters. His painting Expansion is a full-length portrait of local entrepreneur Cyndia Robinson, who stands framed in a doorway wearing black lingerie, as well as a fur jacket that once belonged to her mother. On either side of Robinson are historical paintings, like those still found in some libraries or schools, depicting the fur trade: white men with muskets receive furs delivered by Native American trappers, while an enslaved Black man shoulders a bundle of hides. On the opposite wall is the closest thing to an abstract image in the show, Moore’s striking bird’s-eye view portrait of Sheefy McFly, in which the rapper/artist/DJ, clad in an all-pink outfit and a brown fur coat, reclines in a small wooden boat. The vessel’s arrowhead shape, like a “you are here” pointer on a map, is sharpened by the field of dark cobalt water on which it floats. (If this painting hasn’t been used as an album cover yet, it’s something to consider!)

Mario Moore, Troubled Waters: Henry Bibb and/or Mary Ann Shadd, 2022, oil on canvas

Bookending the exhibition is a stunning group portrait of five women: Moore’s wife Danielle Eliska, his sister, mother, and his two grandmothers, arranged in a pyramid-shaped composition with Eliska’s profile at its peak. The women exude supreme strength and confidence. Arrayed around a table in a snowy forest environment, they look anything but cold; in fact they glow with a warm, golden light in defiance of their icy surroundings. Moore’s love and admiration for these women he calls Pillars of the Frontier in the paintings title is palpable. His mother Sabrina Nelson holds a pencil poised over her open sketchbook, recalling the poised drumsticks held by the child at the show’s beginning. She locks eyes with the viewer — really with her son, the painter painting her, as if to create his portrait in return, keeping the dialogue between generations alive.

Mario Moore, Pillars International Detroit Playa: Sheefy, 2022, oil on linen Mario Moore, Pillars of the Frontier, 2024, oil on linen

The Flint Institute of Arts Presents Revolutionary Times by Detroit Artist Mario Moore on view until March 3, 2024.

DIA opens a new exhibition: Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971

Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898 -1971 features nearly 200 historical items – including photographs, film clips, costumes, props, and posters.

Installation image at the entrance to the exhibit. Image courtesy of DAR. All other images courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) opened a new exhibition, Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971, a landmark exhibition exploring the profoundly influential yet often overlooked history and impact of Blacks in American film from cinema’s infancy, as the Hollywood industry matured and the years following the Civil Rights Movement. The exhibition, originally organized by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, will also include a new, unique film series in partnership with the Detroit Film Theatre.

“We are honored to present Regeneration, a powerful, inspiring, and important exhibition that examines the rich and often untold history of Blacks in American cinema,” said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons. “The exhibition explores the critical roles played by pioneering Black actors, filmmakers, and advocates to shape and influence U.S. cinema and culture in the face of enduring racism and discrimination.”

Dancers Performing the Cake Walk, 1887. Gelatin Silver Print. Culver Pictures. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Photographs & Print Division. The New York Public Library.

The exhibition opens with early cinema and explores moments of progress as other forms emerged in the early 1900s despite the prevalence of racism that permeated the culture. Many Black artists appeared in blackface and played roles subservient to their skills and interests. Performers like Bert Williams and Sam Lucas found work on stage that did not represent their full humanity in the roles cast would depend on adapting to racist tropes. The exhibition includes Newsreels.  Home movies, excerpts from narrative films, documentaries, and a selection of fully restored, rarely-seen films amplify African American contributions to the history of cinema in the United States.

Excerpt from Something Good, Negro Kiss, 1898, Director Nicholas Selig, the National Library of Norway.

“This critically important presentation chronicles much of what we know on-screen but shares so much more of what happened off-screen,” said Elliot Wilhelm, DIA Curator of Film. “Our community will learn how each generation of these pioneering actors and filmmakers paved the way for the following generation to succeed and how they served as symbols and advocates for social justice in and beyond Hollywood. The museum’s beautiful Detroit Film Theatre will help further share this history with a wide-ranging film series that ties together the exhibition and Detroit’s cinema history.”

Lime Kiln Club Field Day, Excerpt for the film, Museum of Modern Art. 1913. American black-and-white silent film produced by the Biograph Company and Klaw and Erlanger.

This archival assembly of one of the oldest surviving silent-era films featuring an all-black cast was created by the Museum of Modern Art in New York after seven unedited film reels were discovered in its collection. Based on a popular collection of stories, Lime Kiln Club Field Day features Black stage performer Bert Williams, actor Abbie Mitchell, and hat designer Odessa Warren Grey; many cast members were recruited from the popular Harlem Musical Darktown Follies.

Among the artifact highlights on view, Regeneration presents home movie excerpts of legendary artists such as Josephine Baker and the Nicholas Brothers; excerpts of films featuring Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, Cicely Tyson, and many others.

Installation image, Opening room to the exhibition. Detroit Institute of Arts. 2024

The famous contemporary Artist Kara Walker presents the viewer with The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, created using cut paper and adhesive on the wall, which stretches out 35 feet long. Her well-known silhouettes recall and interpret the trauma of slavery, restating historical memory and forcing the viewers to bear witness to her world of racial oppression and suffering on pre-Civil War plantations. The curators from the Academy of Motion Pictures in the image above are, starting from the left: Doris Berger, Co-Curator of Regeneration; Jacqueline Stewart, Director and President of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures; and Rhea Combs, Co-Curator of Regeneration. The first exhibition of Regeneration opened in Los Angeles as part of its parent institute, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Image from Up From Slavery, An Autobiography, Booker T. Washington. 1901.

Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington is the 1901 autobiography of the American educator Booker T. Washington (1856–1915). The book describes his experience of working to rise up from being enslaved as a child during the Civil War to help Black people and other persecuted people of color learn helpful, marketable skills and work to pull themselves, as a race, up by the bootstraps. He reflects on the generosity of teachers and philanthropists who helped educate Black and Native Americans and describes his efforts to instill manners, breeding, health, and dignity into students. Washington explained that integrating practical subjects is partly designed to “reassure the White community of the usefulness of educating Black people.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Life Among the Lowly, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852. Published by John P. Jewett and Company.

One of many artifacts in the exhibition is the famous book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe, which is said to have “helped lay the groundwork for the American Civil War.”  Stowe sent a copy of the book to Charles Dickens, who wrote her in response: “I have read your book with the deepest interest and sympathy, and admire, more than I can express to you, both the generous feeling which inspired it, and the admirable power with which it is executed.” Some modern scholars criticized the novel for condescending racist descriptions of the black characters’ appearances, speech, and behavior, as well as the passive nature of Uncle Tom in accepting his fate.

Movie Poster, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, Epoch Producing Co. 1915.

The film made in 1905, The Birth of a Nation, is a landmark silent epic film directed by D.W. Griffith. Its plot, part fiction, and part history chronicles the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth and the relationship between two families in the Civil War.  The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is portrayed as a heroic force necessary to preserve American values, protect white women, and maintain white supremacy. The story that many recall is that Birth of a Nation was the first motion picture to be screened inside the White House, viewed there by President Woodrow Wilson, his family, and members of his cabinet.

Installation image, Early Movie Posters

The exhibition Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971, now at the Detroit Institute of Arts, came from Los Angeles and was organized by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in 2022 to help people fully understand how people of color participated in the motion picture industry from the very start.

Seeing this exhibition is the perfect experience for the people of Detroit to take their family to the DIA (at no cost to those living in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties) to view the chronology of events as they unfolded despite the challenges of reconstruction and the everlasting racism that permeated the culture for a century. The DIA is the first stop; in an attempt to educate people across the country with truth, facts, and evidence, this exhibition is bound to make an impression. It is critical today, more than ever, that we embrace our history. In current events across the country, there are plans to erase black history forever. At last count, 44 states have started debating whether to introduce bills that would limit what schools can teach about race, American history, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

One of the most articulate writers on this topic is James Baldwin, who writes, “It is the utmost importance that a black child sees on the screen someone who looks like him or her. Our children have suffered from the lack of identifiable images for as long as they were born. History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

Museum Hours – Tuesdays – Thursday- 9:00am – 4:00pm
Friday – 9:00am – 9:00pm
Saturday – Sunday – 10:00am – 5:00pm

The DIA exhibition Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 February 4 – June 23, 2024.

Nostalgia & Outrage @ OUAG

Mary Fortuna and Adrian Hatfield @ Oakland University Art Gallery January 19-March 24, 2024

Nostalgia and Outrage, Installation, Oakland University Art Gallery. All photos by K.A. Letts.

Nostalgia and Outrage, an exhibition of artworks by fiber artist Mary Fortuna and multi-media collagist Adrian Hatfield, opened on January 19 at Oakland University Art Gallery in spite of Michigan’s typically lousy winter weather.  The paintings, textiles, toys, mobiles and dioramas on display address death, mass extinction, disaster (both personal and societal) and general apocalypse–doomsday themes that might seem gratuitously gloomy for this dark time of year. But instead, this lively–even cheerful—exhibition reminded me of the well-known aphorism: “The situation is hopeless but not serious.”

Mary Fortuna, Protection Flag, 2023, linen, cotton applique, embroidery.

Fortuna and Hatfield approach their art in ways that simultaneously diverge from and resonate with each other.  In the slim but informative catalog that accompanies the show, gallery director Dick Goody teases out insights from the artists on their motives and methods. “We both have a sense of humor and we’re both anxious or pissed off about the state of the world. We share environmental concerns,” says Fortuna. Hatfield adds that the two also use storytelling or narrative as a hook and often reference archetypal characters in their work. In the interview, Hatfield and Fortuna trace recurring themes in their art to childhood experiences. Echoes of each artist’s early obsessions linger in their current art practice and lend an air of playfulness to many of the artworks.

Adrian Hatfield, Teamwork makes the dream work, 2022, oil and acrylic on canvas.

Mary Fortuna

Fortuna remembers that as a child she expected to become “a nun, a cook or a nurse.” She grew up mostly in the company of her older sister Mady and describes this pivotal relationship as one based on creativity and invention. “We spent hours together drawing, making up stories, sharing books, dressing up, making dolls and puppets and paper dolls and comic books. We wrote little plays and made up songs,” she says.

Mary Fortuna, Button Skull Mask, 2021, wool felt, buttons, embroidery.

Fortuna’s medium of choice is fiber and she is adept at manipulating the formal properties of fabric, beads and thread to produce a variety of appealing objects and images. She uses the submerged cultural references of stitched objects—toys, flags, masks–with the fluid ease of long practice to reveal hidden meaning. The emotional resonances of her carefully embroidered vintage linens, the creepy effect of her masks and hoods and the humor  of her idiosyncratic insect dolls and baby devils show her to be not only a master of her medium,  but also a virtuosic and subtle storyteller.

Mary Fortuna, Let it Be, 2018, embroidery on vintage textile.

These talents come together with particular force in Fortuna’s heartfelt grouping of embroidered vintage textiles that memorialize her recently deceased brother and sister. The artist remembers her brother Jon as a protector, an inventive playmate and a companion on innumerable camping trips; she has embroidered the two of them on vintage cloth with a tent in the background, together in memory.  Fortuna commemorates the special bond she shared with her sister Mady in an embroidered image of the two children from a photo taken on the occasion of Fortuna’s First Communion. As is typical of much of her work, he identifies these images as ex votos, calling them “offerings to the universe on Mady’s behalf.”

Mary Fortuna, Nageena, 2015, leather, fur, horsehair

The varied objects produced by Fortuna for this show are so uniformly well-conceived and executed that it would be hard to pick a favorite. But I was particularly drawn to Nageena,  a soft sculpture that combines the charm of a doll that a child might play with and the subversive menace of a voodoo fetish. Typical of much of her work, Nageena combines cozy approachability with a slightly sinister subtext.

Adrian Hatfield

Hatfield, whose parents were scientists, remembers his rather specific childhood ambition to become “a vertebrate paleontologist or marine biologist.” Many of the images he incorporates into his paintings and installations come from early memories of comic book characters juxtaposed with figures from historical art sources.

Adrian Hatfield, Manifest Destiny: there ain’t no party like a Donner Party, 2020, oil and acrylic on canvas.

The scenes he creates are more assembled than painted, with elements of art history, vintage illustration and pop culture reproduced using photographic silkscreens and overlaid on large format canvases. Nineteenth-century Romantic landscape painting is referenced in the compositions by skillfully painted clouds, trees, and mountains rendered in acid pastels not found in nature.

Adrian Hatfield, Plotting happiness and flinging empty bottles, 2023, oil and acrylic on canvas.

Hatfield seems to have a particular fondness for the absurdist icon Alfred E. Neuman of Mad Magazine fame, whose face appears in several of the paintings in the exhibition. (Actually an earlier iteration of the famous nitwit which more closely resembles Hatfield’s version appeared in an 1895 ad for Atmore’s Mince Meat and Genuine English Plum Pudding. But I digress.) His gap-tooth visage sets a tone of absurdist catastrophe, undercutting and perhaps trivializing the ostensibly tragic themes. Disasters of all kinds and descriptions figure in the pictures, from the Donner Party to snakes attacking a man stuck in a barrel. The oversized face looking out idiotically from behind the picture plane seems to imply that the human race deserves its sad and silly fate.

Adrian Hatfield, King of the Impossible, 2011, mixed media

On a more serious note, Hatfield references the Swamp Thing in his painting Plotting happiness and flinging empty bottles. The Swamp Thing was a comic book character that the artist remembers from his childhood, a scientist devastated by exposure to toxins that transform him into a creature composed of plant matter, who then becomes a tragic and heroic protector of the environment. Hatfield’s characteristic pastel underpainting is overlaid with black photographic depictions of a sinking ship and tire-filled toxic sludge from which the Swamp Thing emerges. The speech balloon in the upper center of the canvas remains empty. Could it be that in the face of disaster threatening human existence, we have no coherent response?

In a change of pace, Hatfield has created several dioramas in addition to his paintings. A notable example is his wall-mounted King of the Impossible which features a tiny half-figure—who might be the Invisible Man–on an elaborate decorative plinth overlooking a fantasy landscape, complete with a stegosaurus at one end of the scene and a tiny lambkin by a pool at the other. The rocky scene seems to float in mid-air, and the relationship of the figure above to the goings-on below is unclear, at least to me. Still, the whole thing is pretty entertaining.

The comic satire of Hatfield’s paintings moves us to both laughter and chagrin, while the emotional complexities of Mary Fortuna’s fabric creations gently and humorously remind us of our human connection. It’s clear that both artists have thought long and hard about where the human race has been and where it’s headed, and have come away with some serious reservations. But they also intuitively understand that it’s not the job of the artist to despair.  Nostalgia and Outrage, instead, offers us hope against all odds, a feast for the eyes and food for thought in this wintry season.

Mary Fortuna and Adrian Hatfield @ Oakland University Art Gallery until March 24, 2024.

Beyond Topography Exhibition @ Janice Charach Gallery

Beyond Topography is a 23-person group show of Michigan Artists at the Janice Charach Gallery

An installation shot of Beyond Topography, a group show up through Feb. 21 at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield. (Photos courtesy of Clinton Snider.)

 Painter, curator, and teacher Clinton Snider always found early depictions of the American wilderness transporting. Think of the first large room in the American wing on the second floor of the Detroit Institute of Arts, with its canvases crammed with mountains, gorges and other examples of glorious, untamed landscape. Snider acknowledges the current of Manifest Destiny running through many of these paintings, but notes that “at the same time, they’re deeply beautiful and spiritual.”

So when Natalie Balazovich, the director of West Bloomfield’s Janice Charach Gallery asked Snider to curate a show on landscape, he found himself thinking of those classic works, but at the same time, in his words, “reacting against them.” He knew he didn’t want a show of pretty views. His intent was always to bend the landscape paradigm, but still arrive at something with spirituality and force. The result is Beyond Topography, a 23-person group show of Michigan artists up through Feb. 21 that takes a broad view indeed of what constitutes a landscape.

Jim Nawara, Studio View – Powerline Shadows, Oil on panel, 34 x 44 inches.

Studio View – Powerline Shadows by Jim Nawara straddles both the traditional landscape and the unconventional approach Snider is reaching for. The use of color in this lush portrait is exhilarating. It gives the composition three-dimensionality but also amounts to a stirring essay in greens and greenish-blues.

Cutting through this Arcadia, however, are two parallel black lines a little like skid marks – the shadows of overhead power lines that stripe horizontally across tree trunks and bush alike. It’s a human intervention – a desecration, if you will — that on the one hand coarsens this image of perfect beauty, but on the other elevates Studio View above and beyond the merely pretty, landing it someplace immensely satisfying.

Mel Rosas, The Excursion, Oil on canvas, 48 x 72 inches.

In The Excursion, a peeling wall with a Spanish colonial look dominates the foreground, framing an arch that opens onto a sub-tropical landscape of fields and mountains that beckon like postcards from Eden. On our side of this magic threshold, all is every day and grimy. On the other side lies paradise, and the viewer can hardly resist its gravitational pull.  Rosas, who taught for years at Wayne State and says he grew up speaking English but dreaming in Spanish, has repeatedly traveled to Panama, where his father was born. The artist’s work nearly always involves these sorts of gritty, Latin urban vignettes, often pierced by a wormhole into a bucolic past that’s mostly lost or despoiled worldwide. These are visions both spiritual and deeply uncertain. Even within the imaginary logic of the specific painting, there’s no guarantee that the idyll beyond the door frame is accessible or even exists.

Andrew Krieger, Up North, Edenville, MI, Ceramic, 17 by 16.5 by 15 inches.

Andrew Krieger crushes the world of the diorama. He is the undisputed master of this three-dimensional genre so few artists risk, and one which Krieger inhabits with a pleasing mix of artistic brio and elementary-school goofiness. The artist, who’ s shown in Detroit at Popps Packing and the David Klein Gallery, as well as in Saginaw at the Marshall Fredericks Museum, creates visual narratives that usually involve a 3-D figure in front of a curved background screen. As you move around in front these constructions, changing depth and perspective conjure up an oddball sense of reality. Momentarily, the wooden or ceramic figure at the center of the story springs to life.

In the case of Up North, Edenville, MI, a hale fellow in a down parka and blocky sunglasses waves at the viewer. He’s framed by a shallow ceramic bowl painted in black and white with a surprisingly convincing wintry, wooded scene behind him. The ceramic sculpture of the waving gent in front, a blistering white that pops against its background, is at once funny and dead-on accurate in capturing the 21st-century, up-north Michigan male of the species.

Taurus Burns, To Be Black and White in a Colorblind World, Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches.

The concept of landscape gets pushed to its tight-focus extreme with this black-and-white portrait of a front porch and a man, seemingly grieving, who’s slumped over holding a gun in one hand. Behind him is one of those barred metal doors to prevent break-ins, the sort you see all over iffy neighborhoods. Burns, who’s half Black and half White, has recently produced a series of works examining the nature of this dual identity. With To Be Black and White in a Colorblind World, we’re given a portrait of regret or despair framed by the white metal railings on each side of the porch steps. Burns, who earlier this year had a solo show at Ferndale’s M Contemporary, locates at the exact center of the composition a man hunched over on porch steps, his forehead resting on forearms crossed over his knees. Organizationally, this symmetrically composed portrait resolves itself in a series of superimposed triangles comprised of legs, arms and shoulders — an almost Renaissance conceit in its painterly geometry.

Bakpak Durden, Hanging On, Framed archival print from original negative, 27 x 40 inches.

Who knew a photo of a workman’s winter jacket – the sort Carhartt sells – could be so luminous and affecting? Draped in early morning or late afternoon sunlight on a plywood panel in some indoor construction site, the jacket in Hanging On – a tannish sort of orange – positively glows, while the contrast with the rough plywood and half-erected wall nearby makes the humble overcoat read almost like an object of great beauty.

Durden, who also has the exquisite Renaissance-style painting Mimicry in the show, is something of an artistic polymath. In addition to painting and photography, the artist – with recent solo shows at Cranbrook, the University of Michigan, and Playground Detroit – has turned a remarkable number of walls across Detroit into striking murals. Indeed, it’s hard to spend much time in the city without seeing one.

Denise Fanning, A Soft Place to Land (Rest in Peace), Cotton, beeswax, grass, moss, found remnants of nature, sea grass cordage, 6 x 9 feet.

A Soft Spot to Land (Rest in Peace) by Denise Fanning, who taught for years at the College for Creative Studies but now lives in Mt. Pleasant, creates a peculiar and beautiful “landscape” out of 55 identical off-white square pillows and 55 “nests” or creations she’s delicately placed on each one. While the artist does a lot of studio work and has exhibited in galleries from Detroit to Berlin, lately she’s spent an increasing amount of time out of doors arranging and creating in nature itself – crafting ephemeral installations designed, like much of Scott Hocking’s work, to weather and disintegrate over time.

This pillow field is arranged in a 5 by 11′ grid. If you stand at the narrow end and look up the construction, it does a remarkable job of creating a sense of distance and topography, however orderly and symmetrical. The compositions that have alighted on the pillows are extraordinary miniatures in themselves – tiny essays in natural grace.

Other artists in the show include Mitchell Cope, John Charnota, Joel Dugan, Adrian Hatfield, Scott Hocking, Faina Lerman, Alex Martin, Anthony Maughan, Michael McGillis, Ivan Montoya, Lucille Nawara, Rebecca Reeder, Tylonn Sawyer, Clinton Snider, Millee Tibbs, Graem Whyte and Alison Wong.

 The group show Beyond Topography will be up through Feb. 21 at the Janice Charach Gallery.


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