Detroit Art Review

Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft @ BBAC

Installation image, Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft @ BBAC

If there ever was a bright line of distinction between what we call contemporary fine art and what is now considered to be craft, that line has long ago been crossed and obliterated.  The mixed bag of artifacts on display in the exhibition at Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center from May 6 to June 2 illustrates this, with a range of objects and images that contrast the useful with the expressive, the carefully crafted with the emotionally contingent.  “Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft” takes us on a tour of the increasingly porous borders between objects that can claim to be fine art, but qualify as craft only because they refer tangentially to traditional crafts and finely handmade objects that are intended for utilitarian purposes.

Wall Vessel V, Constance Compton Pappas, unfired clay, cedar

 

Balanced, Constance Compton Pappas, cedar, plaster, clay

The objects in the exhibition fall roughly into two categories. Works by artists such as Constance Compton Pappas, Dylan Strzynski, Sandra Cardew and Sharon Harper privilege the expressive properties of the materials and push them to the limits of their identity. Often there is a toy-like mood to this work.  Any pretense to utility is deeply submerged beneath the artists’ emotionally poignant themes. Pappas’s wall-mounted, naturally irregular wooden shelves support clay objects that only refer to vessels, and certainly were never intended to function.  They are signs for cups and the considerable pleasure to be derived from them rests upon their rough, stony texture contrasted with the irregularities of the wooden support. Elsewhere in the gallery, Pappas uses the abstract shapes of 3 cast plaster houses, again placed on a raw wood pedestal in a stack, entitled Balanced, that implies a state of wonky precarity.  Dylan Strzynski’s playful, barn-red house model, Attic, made of wood, sticks and wire, suggests a kind of Baba Yaga cottage on legs, poised to jump off its pedestal in pursuit of the viewer. Sandra Cardew’s Boy with Broom continues the preoccupation with play. The subdued color and rough fabric of the golem-child is both a little funny and a little ominous. Sharon Harper’s Pink Trailer makes an interesting kind of mini-installation by hanging a 2-dimensional photo landscape on the wall behind a diminutive clay trailer, suggesting the possibility of travel through wide open spaces.

Attic, Dylan Strzynski, wood, paint, sticks, wire, string

 

Sandra Cardew, Boy with Broom, mixed media assemblage

Danielle Bodine’s wall installation, Celestial Dance, offers a floating population of tiny woven wire and paper elements that might claim to be plankton or might be satellites.  Whatever they are, their yellow starlike shapes weightlessly orbit a larger, spiky planetary body, and cast lively shadows on the wall. The basketry techniques that Bodine has employed for nearly 20 years allow her complete freedom to invent these minute entities in three dimensions.

Sharon Harper, Pink Trailer, low fire clay, photograph

The fiber artist Carole Harris, who has several works in the show, continues to be in a class by herself. From her beginnings as a more conventional quilter, Harris has traveled far and wide, taking inspiration from Asia, Africa and beyond. Her carefully composed, expressively dyed and stitched formal abstractions are emotionally resonant and reliably satisfying. The artist employs a mix of fabrics and papers, along with hand-stitching and applique, with the easy virtuosity of long practice.

Danielle Bodine, Celestial Dance, mulberry and recycled papers cast on Malaysian baskets, removed, stitched, painted, stamped, waxed linen coiled objects, plastic tubes, beads,

Carol Harris, Yesterdays, quilted collage

Russ Orlando’s pebbly pastel ceramic urn-on-a-table, Finding #171, is covered by contrasting buttons and frogs wired to the substrate. The vessel evokes a friendly presence: it wants to know and be known.

Two artists in “Many Voices,” Lynn Avadenka and Karen Baldner, are masters in the craft bookmaking/printing, whose work perfectly balances function and form, though to different ends. Baldner’s snaky, wiggly rice paper centipede of a book, Letting Go, shows how exquisite technique can pair with creative expressiveness to yield an original effect. The restrained elegance of Lynne Avadenka’s handmade screen Comes and Goes III demonstrates that utility and esthetic pleasure need not be mutually exclusive.

Karen Baldner, Letting Go, piano hinge binding with horsehair, mixed media print transfers

 

Lynne Avadenka, Comes and Goes III, unique folding screen, relief printing, letter press, typewriting, book board, Tyvek

Among the objects in this collection, Colin Tury’s handsome, minimalist metal LT Chair hews closest to traditional ideas of craft, as does Cory Robinson’s smoothly crafted side table, which looks as if it belongs in a hip, mid-century bachelor’s lair.

Colin Tury, LT Chair, aluminum, steel

 

Cory Robinson, Canberra Table, American black walnut

In this time and place, and as illustrated by the artists in “Many Voices,” the categorization of an object as “art” or “craft” has become less and less useful. Historically, crafts based on highly technical knowledge—ceramics, fiber glass and the like –have been assigned a lesser status because of their identity as objects of utility.  It is undeniable too that many of these crafts were practiced by women, which devalued them in the estimation of collectors and galleries. Fortunately, those preconceptions are receding into the past, as artists progress toward a future that is more open to new forms and voices, new materials and subjects.

The artists in “Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft” are: Kathrine Allen Coleman, Lynne Avadenka, Karen Baldner, Danielle Bodine, Sandra Cardew, Candace Compton Pappas, Nathan Grubich, Christine Hagedorn, Sharon Harper, Carole Harris, Amanda St. Hillaire, Sherry Moore, Russ Orlando, Cory Robinson, Dylan Strzynski, Colin Tury.

Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center runs until June 2, 2022.

 

 

Karinna Sanchez Klocko : “Memories” @ Image Works

The exhibition space at Image Works is small but highly visible – the display windows on Michigan Avenue, which stay lit all night long.

It may be one of the smallest gallery spaces in the Detroit area. It’s virtually a pop-up. But the art by Karinna Sanchez Klocko hanging in the display windows at Image Works, a fine-art photo-printing shop in Dearborn, is both punchy and well worth a look. With “Memories,” the artist – a young graphic designer living in Commerce – takes a nostalgic look back at her childhood in Monterrey, Mexico, creating digital vignettes that, in the words of the artist’s statement, “capture the memories and dreams of the moment.”  “Memories” will be up through May 27.

Karinna Sanches Klocko creates her vividly colored, untitled canvases on the computer.

What you find at Image Works is a handful of sunny, color-drenched interiors, all accented with sprays of tropical flowers. The mood is cheerfully nostalgic, not syrupy. The domestic subjects – among others, a hallway leading to a front door, a bureau partly covered by a floral tablecloth, and a kitchen corner with fruit hanging in baskets next to an old “Trimline” wall phone – are unremarkable in themselves, but radiate light and comfort and “home.” The point of view is highly personal, as if the artist were, indeed, trying to reassemble scenes once commonplace, but now far in the past and scattered.

The artist’s digital creations take an affectionate look back at her Mexican childhood.

 There’s a specificity to the images that’s engaging. The kitchen counter is guarded by a tiny, metal turtle. Flower pots on the bureau have highly particular designs that feel rooted in reality. So too with the blue, patterned-tile floor leading to the front door. These are digitally created designs, of course, not photographs. But there’s a distinct Kodachrome quality to Klocko’s color palette – a radiant spectrum that if not unique to Latin America, certainly typifies much of the art that’s blossomed in warmer and sunnier lands south of the Rio Grande.

Image Works owner Chris Bennett, who moved to Detroit from Portland, Oregon, five years ago, says he first got to know Klocko when she came in as a customer. A lot of artists, he says, bring work to him for digital reproduction. In Klocko’s case, Bennett liked what he saw, and invited the Michigan State graduate to do a show.

It may seem counterintuitive, but maintaining a gallery in a photo shop has long been Bennett’s habit and ambition. “I love exhibiting artists’ work,” he said, “and it’s a great way to build community as well. It adds another element.”

Bennett moved to the present Michigan Avenue location last July from his old shop in Dearborn. While he doesn’t have as much gallery space here as before, he’s got dynamite display windows fronting a major thoroughfare that seem design-made for his intentions: “I wanted to do large-scale pieces that could easily be seen from the road,” he said, “that would attract people’s attention without causing accidents.”

In another civic-minded gesture, Bennett leaves the window lights on all night long – offering a bright dash of color that’s bound to surprise west-bound drivers in the wee hours.

 Albert Kahn: Innovation & Influence @ Detroit Historical Museum

An installation shot of the Albert Kahn exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum. (Michael G. Smith)

An outstanding new exhibition on Detroit’s most-famous architect, “Albert Kahn: Innovation & Influence on 20thCentury Architecture,” is up at the Detroit Historical Museum through July 3. Organized by the new nonprofit Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation, with a mission to “honor, educate and preserve,” the show aims to broaden knowledge and capitalize on the recent uptick in the industrial architect’s reputation nationwide.

This is a handsome exhibition with a number of salient virtues — not too big, not too small, enlivened by smart, concise text, cool graphic design, and striking Lego replicas of some of the architect’s most famous buildings.

What’s not to like?

Start with the Lego structures. The eight-foot-tall model of the Fisher Building at the center of the gallery is a total scene-stealer. Made up of 120,000 pieces, the 300-pound behemoth is the work of local Lego-master James Garrett, who specializes in models of Detroit’s pre-war architecture. Other replicas on display include the Russell Industrial Center (originally the Murray Body Corporation) and Capitol Park’s Griswold Building, long empty but now renovated into luxury apartments and rechristened “The Albert” in honor of its designer.

The show does a superb job laying out Kahn’s early life, and his arrival in Detroit as an impoverished Jewish immigrant when he was about 12. From there on, of course – once he lands his apprenticeship with Mason & Rice, a highly significant downtown firm – the youngster scaled the professional ladder quickly and with astonishing ease. Among other things, Kahn from an early age was a remarkably gifted freehand sketch artist (credit his teacher – Detroit artist Julius Melchers), and the show contains several of his drawings from European travels.

Albert Kahn, seated at left, in the offices of Mason & Rice when he was about 19. (Albert Kahn Associates)

 For those who don’t know Kahn’s work well, there are also some marvelous surprises here — not least the fact that the Fisher Building, as we know it, is only one-third of a massive complex with a central tower that got scotched once the stock market crashed in 1929.

 The exhibition also lays out the Kahn firm’s astonishing work in the late 1920s and early 30s building over 500 plants and factories across the Soviet Union, an effort that industrialized what had been a backward, agrarian economy. Want to know why the USSR didn’t collapse when the Nazis invaded in 1941-42? The answer has a lot to do with the armaments that rolled off the production lines of Kahn-built factories like the vast Stalingrad Tractor Plant.

 The exhibition also explores the architect’s relationship with Henry Ford, Kahn’s most-important client from 1908 on, when he began to design the Highland Park Model-T plant. It also discusses his relationship with the automaker once the latter’s Dearborn Independent newspaper launched a weekly series of anti-Semitic screeds in 1920, “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.” (Despite this, Ford clearly liked and admired Kahn, calling him “one of the best men I ever knew” on the architect’s death in 1942.)

Kahn’s revolutionary, reinforced concrete factories for Ford, with their lack of ornamentation, huge windows, and geometric-grid facades, established the standard for modern industry worldwide in the early 20th century. They also, as the section titled “Kahn’s Influence on Modernism” details, had a seismic impact on young architectural rebels in Europe desperate for a new, “pure” architecture, which they found in Kahn’s stripped-down Ford plants. Both Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier cited the Highland Park complex in writings that laid out the tenets of early architectural modernism.

All in all, this is a show anyone proud of Detroit’s architectural heritage will not want to miss. Indeed, Albert himself would be proud.

One of Kahn’s crowning achievements – the Fisher Building arcade and lobby. (Michael G. Smith)

 Karinna Sanchez Klocko: “Memories” at Image Works in Dearborn will be up through May 27.

Albert Kahn: Innovation & Influence on 20th Century Architecture will be at the Detroit Historical Museum until July 3.

Maya Stovall @ Reyes / Finn

Maya Stovall offers videos of dance on sidewalks and neon objects to vividly juxtapose art and humanity.

Maya Stovall, Installation image, Sail, Reyes / Finn, 2022

On April 16th, 2022, the Reyes / Finn gallery opened an exhibition of artwork, Sail, as a continuation of Maya Stovall’s extraordinary conceptual artwork that permeates her being. The accumulation of Liquor Store Theater, 1526, Theorem no. 2, The Public Library, LUXRazon/Reason, and now Sail, reveals a visual artist who uses her conceptual art to communicate her social grievances…her data-driven observations, her hatred for human rights abuses and the sins of human slavery. Not in my recent experience has an artist’s work been so simple yet created by such a complex, thoughtful and complicated artist.

Stovall employs a mix of anthropological observation and urban intervention to create what she considers performance and ethnography.  I was first introduced to her work at the Whitney Biennial in 2017 when I saw her row of videos, each screen playing one of the Liquor Store Theater episodes. I realized she was an artist from Detroit whose work was selected by the curator, Christopher Lew, to be part of the Whitney Biennial 2017, and I included her work in my review. At the time I did not understand the meaning of her work, but in time, with more exposure to the work and her writing, I have come to understand that the Liquor Store Theater contrasts dance performance in the store parking lot (or on the sidewalk) to the everyday activity that is intricately braided with significant socioeconomic distress. Through dance, interviews, and many conversations, Stovall reviews the dismal demographics in the McDougall-Hunt (Detroit) neighborhood, including the median annual income of $13,500 and an unemployment rate of 40%. All of this as the Arab liquor store ownership draws $400,000 per year in profits.

Maya Stovall, 1526 neon, LUX at White Columns, NYC, 2018

Leading up to Sail was the 1526 series of neon dates that included a citation next to a wall-mounted neon sculpture that reads simply ‘1526’. At White Column in 2020, the gallery mounted LUX, Maya Stovall’s first solo exhibition in New York City.  LUX comprised 16 wall-mounted neon sculptures from the artist’s ongoing series.  The number is of great personal significance to Stovall, since it marks the year of the first rebellion of enslaved people, which took place in North America’s first European settler colony. Each hangs in chronological order.

Initiated in 2018, the 1526 series emerged from Stovall’s extensive research into historical archives. From tens of thousands of pages of research, the artists developed a series of dates, from 1526 to 2019, that reflect, in the artist’s words, “critical moments in U.S. history.” Each sculpture, a year expressed as numerals inscribed in neon is accompanied by a postcard that visitors were free to take. The postcard expands upon the significance of each particular date or historical ‘moment’.

Maya Stovall, Installation image, A____that defies gravity, Image courtesy of Reyes / Finn, Detroit, 2022

Maya Stovall’s most recent work proceeds further away from the obvious where her conceptual thinking moves to Minimalism by creating these vertical neon bars of color.  The apparent context is the work of Dan Flavin, an American artist and pioneer of Minimalism, who is known for his seminal installations of light fixtures. His illuminated sculptures offer a rigorous formal and conceptual investigation of space and light in which the artist arranged commercial fluorescent bulbs into differing geometric compositions.  If conceptual art aims to present an idea, the work takes precedence over traditional aesthetics.

In the new exhibition Sail at Reyes / Finn, Stovall creates enlightenment through a minimal arrangement of vertical neon bars with subtle color changes. One can assume that like all of her work, she seeks to draw the viewer into these elegant compositions of neon light with research, discovery and the creation of a better world for those in need.

Maya Stovall, Installation image A_____that defies gravity, Image courtesy of Reyes / Finn, Detroit, 2022.

By design, each elegant, linear composition in the A____that defies gravity series evades direct recognition and simultaneously provokes many algorithmic and structural associations.

The artist says, “In the work, the concept is considered after theory and after abstraction, such that the concept, object, subject, thing, etc., is able to defy gravity itself.”

The Sail concept becomes a metaphor for reaching out to where place, space and time are complex constructs requiring critical and conflicting analysis. Such an analysis is reflected across the artist’s work. In relentlessly searching out contradictions to both investigate and impose within her work, the paradox of abstraction becomes stunning, sensual and compelling amidst the density of the concept, and the creation of Sail is the result.

Maya Stovall is a conceptual artist and anthropologist whose practice spans objects, performance, text and video. She earned her Ph.D. in Anthropology, Wayne State University, MBA, University Of Chicago Booth School of Business and BBA, Howard University.

Maya Stovall, Image of the artist, Reyes / Finn,

She is currently an Assistant Professor in Liberal Studies at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly), Pomona.

Maya Stovall: Sail at Reyes / Finn, April 16th – May 28, 2022

Asymmetry @ Library Street Collective

Asymmetry, installation at Library Street Collective All images: Library Street Collective

 Asymmetry, a two-person exhibition of work by Robert Moreland and Jacqueline Surdell on view at Library Street Collective until May 4, 2022, continues the gallery’s program of pairing the work of two artists in a provocative dialog.  Zenax, the recent show of Beverly Fishman and California painter Gary Lang could have been described as a more-or-less harmonious conversation; Asymmetry is something more along the lines of a very civil argument.

Untitled Yellow Square, by Robert Moreland, 2022, canvas on wooden panel with acrylic paint, tacks and leather hinges.

The exhibition demonstrates that the tenets of Constructivism–that materials and methods of construction generate the meaning and physical presence of art objects–retain their relevance well into the 21st century.   This philosophical habit of mind underpins the work of both Moreland and Surdell, but as one might expect of a line of aesthetic thought that is over 100 years old, their common starting point has diverged, resulting in endpoints that are quite far from each other in appearance and intent.

Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Robert Moreland dropped out of high school in his sophomore year and later began to teach himself about art by hanging out with friends at the margins of art school, talking to the professors and attending the occasional lecture. He worked with a woodworker for a time, where he learned the craftsmanship that is still a salient feature of his art practice.  Moreland moved to L.A. some years ago and credits the anonymity and openness of the city as a creative catalyst for his recent work.

Moreland prizes the labor of making art as a meditative act, and gravitates to the routine, everyday nature of fabrication.  The artist proceeds with deliberation when creating a piece, a working habit which he credits to his art conservator mother who, he says, showed him how to “slow down and take my time.” The artist uses hundreds of tacks—invisible on the face of the constructs–to secure the cloth on the underlying wooden components. Leather hinges connect the constituent pieces of each artwork. Taken together, these components and physical processes define his highly personal, almost ritualistic art practice.

Untitled Blue Rectangle IV, by Robert Moreland, 2021, canvas on wooden panel with acrylic paint, tacks and leather hinges.

 

Untitled Blue Rectangle IV, by Robert Moreland, 2021, side installation view.

The artist describes himself as more of a builder than a painter. These paintings or sculptures (Moreland resists referring to them as one or the other) operate as activators of the space around and in front of them. His artworks in Asymmetry, each listed as “Untitled” beside an austere description of their physical shape and color, are painted with stripes or squares of an intense single hue that follows the contours of each piece. The canvas components are stretched over rigid rectilinear –and occasionally columnar–wooden structures, which are then assembled into folded and buckled shapes that call to mind the vintage toy Jacob’s ladder, or perhaps reference industrial shapes like tank treads or conveyor belts. The 5 precisely constructed pieces installed in the gallery look as if they could fold or open or climb down the wall, implying movement event though they are static.

More defined by what they do not offer rather than by what they do, Moreland’s constructions are rigorous and demanding, their expressive content confined within narrow formal boundaries that refuse referentiality, gesture and imagery. In this, he follows in the footsteps of a well-established philosophy of aesthetics practiced by mid-century minimalists like Ellsworth Kelly and Donald Judd, artists Moreland professes to admire.

Not one but not two either (blue), by Jacqueline Surdell, 2022, braided cotton cord, steel, 108” x 51” x 11.” Photo: Library Street Collective.

In emotional temperature and methodological expressiveness, the work of Jacqueline Surdell could hardly offer a stronger contrast to Moreland’s recessive artworks. Exuberant and improvisational, her three free-form tapestries made from thick ropes and lines nearly dance off the wall. They nod to the warp and weft of traditional fiber works, but with these hefty woven pieces, Surdell has achieved a kind of painterly freedom in execution that is both novel and exhilarating. In overall shape she allows some scope to the effect of gravity, with elements of the artworks seeming to sink downward, referencing natural forms like bird nests or insect cases. Clotted knots and twisty braids surround circular portals, while individual cords escape and crawl across the floor.

As a native Chicagoan, Surdell feels related to the environment, history, and blue-collar work ethic of the city, with childhood memories of her grandmother’s plein air landscape painting adding yet another level of complexity. The physical act of creating the works, which weigh an average of 150 pounds, demands considerable physical strength that the artist, a self-described recovering athlete, has in abundance.  She often uses her own body as a shuttle, weaving pounds of rope together as she unifies figure and ground.

Earth Licker, by Jacqueline Surdell, 2022, Braided cotton cord, nylon cord, steel, 120” x 120” x 16.” Photo: Library Street Collective

Not one but not two either (blue-detail)

The palette of Surdell’s work is determined by the native color of commercially available nylon and cotton lines.  The repetitive, almost beaded effect of row upon row of knots in Earth Licker suggests a ceremonial process like the traditional craft of some imaginary future tribe. The woven elements frame and celebrate the implied portal.  In the other two pieces, Not one but not two either (blue) and Not one but not two either (red), triangular imagery points to the open spaces, setting up a bilateral conversation between a circular void and pointing chevron. Her process is open-ended and spontaneous, yet the results seem inevitable.

Fiber art, a medium long devalued because of its association with women’s work, seems–at last–to be coming into prominence as a medium. Here in Detroit, recent shows of woven work by distinguished international textile artist Olga de Amaral at the Cranbrook Art Museum, as well as exhibitions by Detroit artists Carole Harris, Boisali Biswas and Jeanne Bieri, seem to indicate that fiber art has entered a new era of acceptance as a major medium of expression. Surdell’s work is a welcome addition to this burgeoning contemporary art practice.

In this age of pluralism and inclusivity, these contrasting bodies of work by Robert Moreland and Jacqueline Surdell in Asymmetry represent two valid ways of making and thinking about art among many. Moreland’s artworks depend upon an established minimalist esthetic that retains considerable currency in contemporary art, even as Surdell’s tapestries set off for unknown territory. The choice is not either/or, but both/and.

Asymmetry, a two-person exhibition of work by Robert Moreland and Jacqueline Surdell on view at Library Street Collective until May 4, 2022

Kahlo Without Borders @ MSU Broad

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Everything changed for Frida Kahlo during a fateful bus ride through Mexico City in 1925.  A few blocks from her school, where the 17-year-old Frida was a senior and exhibited precocious intelligence, the bus rounded a corner and collided with an oncoming trolley, severely injuring dozens of passengers. The wooden bus blew apart, leaving Frida with catastrophic injuries, including a steel rod that pierced through much of her body. She was pulled from the wreckage covered in gold dust, likely from a passenger who was an artist. She survived, defying the initial pessimistic assessment of the doctors at the Red Cross hospital. But much of the rest of her life was spent bedridden in hospitals in Mexico and the United States, where she underwent 32 surgeries. To pass the time, Frida began to paint.

Kahlo Without Borders at the MSU Broad explores Kahlo’s support network of friends and family, with a particular focus on the doctors she befriended during her many extended hospital stays. The exhibition is conceived as an intimate journey through a family scrapbook or photo album, and on view (for the first time, in some cases) are candid family photographs, letters, and even hospital records from the Kahlo family archives. This is an intimate and interdisciplinary show which traverses the boundary between the visual arts and the medical field, much like Frida Kahlo’s paintings.

Antonio Kahlo, Frida with cane, ca. 1950. Courtesy Cristina Kahlo and the Broad Art Museum

Kahlo was well-connected, and her social orbit encompassed many famous poets, artists, and writers. There are candid snapshots of Kahlo with muralist Diego Rivera, who Frida married, divorced, and re-married (theirs was an acrimonious relationship, but to the end they remained ardently supportive of each other’s career). We also see Kahlo with Leon Trotsky, a close family friend and, for a little while, Kahlo’s lover.

And, of course, we are introduced to a few of the doctors and nurses Frida Kahlo befriended, such as Leo Eloesser, Juan Farill, and Judith Ferrato. The letters and correspondence on view demonstrates the gratitude and affection Kahlo felt for these people. Kahlo featured Farill in her Self Portrait with the Portrait of Dr. Farill, and also gifted him a copy of the book The Complete Anatomy of A Man, which she accompanied with a note reading, “Dearest Dr. Farill. So you may laugh at the surrealist ‘Anatomy.’ Save it with Frida’s love.” Both the book and the note are on view.

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Particularly moving are the photographs of Kahlo in hospital beds. Several of these show her working on various paintings, triumphantly affirming life in the midst of tragedy. But other images speak to the very visceral and unglamourous reality of her extended hospital stays. Into the 1950s, she appears visibly frail and worn, as in a picture captured by Raúl Anaya a few months before her death.

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

For Kahlo enthusiasts, the highlight of the show will certainly be the small ensemble of her original drawings, which include a pencil rendering of the 1925 tram accident, a subject she never actually painted. Two of these drawings were made in response to her second miscarriage, which occurred in Detroit while she was accompanying Diego, who was occupied painting his murals at the Detroit Institute of Art. One of these drawings, The Dream, visually anticipates the painting she would later make of the incident, Henry Ford Hospital: 1932. In both the drawing and the painting, a crumpled and visibly broken Frida lies naked, bleeding, and uncovered on a spartan hospital bed.

Kahlo’s grandniece, photographer Cristina Kahlo (who helped organize the show), lends contemporary insight into Frida’s life with a series of photographs that explore her stay at the American British Cowdray Hospital in Mexico City. An ensemble of photographs by Cristina shows the varied artifices and prosthetics that intruded into Frida’s body and art, such as her prosthetic leg and one of the corsets she had to wear. An ardent Communist, Frida personalized this particular corset with a hammer and sickle. In a large lightbox (mimicking a microfilm reader) we see actual records of Frida’s vital signs during some of her surgeries. Looking at a still frame from a monitor showing Frida’s heartbeat, one immediately recalls the many times Frida portrayed her heart in her paintings. Here, we can see its literal rhythm. Cristina Kahlo also photographed Frida’s hospital gowns which, as she painted, she would use to wipe excess paint from her brushes. Here, Cristiana Kahlo offers these images as an “absent portrait” of the artist.

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

This exhibition is a must-see for Frida Kahlo fans. As for the uninitiated, this show might come across as visually thin, given the prevalence of letters and correspondence. But it’s certainly thematically compelling. Perhaps it’s cliche to say of Frida Kahlo that, phoenix-like, she harnessed personal tragedy as the source of life and beauty. Then again, Kahlo’s art certainly isn’t beautiful. But it’s always eloquently and gut-wrenchingly truthful, speaking to the pain we all inevitably face at one time or another. And as for Frida, the portrait that emerges between the lines suggests that in spite of everything she endured, she possessed an indefatigable fortitude, a zest for life, and a deep affection and gratitude for her support network. Whether or not you’re a fan of Frida Kahlo’s art, her spirit is inspiring, and Kahlo Without Borders serves as an affectionate and personal tribute.

Kahlo Without Borders installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Cristina Kahlo, Absent Portrait 1 (2016)

Kahlo Without Borders is on view at the MSU Broad through Aug. 7, 2022.

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