Usually when I walk into a contemporary art gallery, I expect to see a clean white space with curatorially approved artworks tastefully displayed and carefully lit. So I found my visit to The Other Limits at Popps Packing last week a disorienting experience at first. The exhibit illustrates how the gallery model in Detroit is evolving to allow a more experimental approach to showing, thinking and talking about art. Popps Packing is a rough and intimate space, open at irregular hours. The lighting is ad hoc. Two big, friendly black dogs lounging on their beds in the gallery add a feeling of domesticity. The grand piano and what, at first, seem to be random objects strewn about, suggest a party about to begin or just concluded. On the day I visited, the back room of the gallery was occupied by several artists-in-residence from Germany, working furiously at their own projects. I could see I was in for a different kind of experience from what I had been conditioned to expect.
The gallery’s exhibit space is currently given over to the work of long-time friends and artists George Rahme and Chris McGraw. This is the latest in several exhibitions they have mounted together in the ten years since they graduated from Detroit’s College of Creative Studies. The two feel very close in their life circumstances and in their art. The pieces are conceived individually, but installed so as to resonate visually and thematically with each other. The result isn’t exactly collaboration but rather symbiosis.
Georg Rahme was on hand to talk to us, which made our visit feel more like a studio consult and less like a gallery exhibition. He described how his earlier work, a tumultuous phantasmagoria of painted figures collected from both pop and fine art sources, has given way to work that features a single central image. It appears at first to be an explosion, but is in reality a photographic image of sparking from a factory floor with the surrounding visuals carefully cut away. In this way he honors the past labor of Hamtramck’s factory workers with whom he shares a common Lebanese heritage. Rahme, like many Detroit artists, has a reverence for work, both in the productive labor of manufacturing/making and in his own creative process. This is evident in his choice of rich backing materials and in his appetite for intricate detail. He uses velvets, jacquard tapestry or reflective luxury fabrics as grounds for his pieces, these made especially meaningful by their provenance as gifts from individuals in the Hamtramck community. In spite of the explosive imagery, these pieces are devotional and meditative.
Chris MacGraw seems to feel markedly less commitment to the physical act of making art; he contents himself with gathering and curating found objects. He depends upon their innate poignancy and nostalgia status to engender meaning and emotion in the mind of the viewer. Two of his more successful efforts are provisionally assembled, slightly comic stand-ins for human figures, one of which could be a kind of homeless Mary Poppins, and the other a ghostly column of cloth and styrofoam. But an artist who depends for his inspiration on the collection and curation of found objects to create successful art needs a very high level of judgement and a keen understanding of the intrinsic emotional content of any given object, something McGraw achieves only in fits and starts.
A visit to Popp’s Packing is a reminder that in life and in art the only constant is change. What we know as the classic contemporary art gallery, part temple of culture, part gift shop, is only the most recent iteration of a type of cultural institution that stretches back to the late 17th century when the Paris Salon became the first central commercial gathering place for art and the public. There are some very successful examples of the more traditional art gallery in Detroit now (Wasserman Projects, Gallery Camille, Simone DeSousa being only three of many), but the Popps Packing model of exhibition seems to be a thoughtful response to conditions on the ground in Detroit and a useful addition. Maybe what we need most right now is a forum for charting the way forward as a creative community and an opportunity for artists to think out loud in dialog with the art-going public about the direction and content of their work.
For more about Popps Packing go here: