Category Archives: exhibitions

Kegham Tazian, A Journey Through Art

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Detroit artist Kegham Tazian in his studio, September 2018

Sculptures spill out over the lawn of Kegham Tazian’s neat suburban home as if the restless creative impulse inside can’t be contained.  Tazian, a trim and cordial man with salt-and-pepper hair, meets me at the door, and ushers me into an interior where hundreds of sculptures and paintings are neatly displayed, evidence of nearly 60 years well spent as a prolific and productive artist in Detroit.  Like architects Eliel Saarinan and Albert Kahn and sculptor Corrado Parducci, he is an immigrant creative who has found a home in the city, nurtured by its energy and sheltered by its community.

Tazian’s story begins in Turkey, where his family was part of a persecuted Armenian minority.  His mother, displaced during the troubled times of World War I that culminated in the Armenian genocide, was taken to Beirut, Lebanon as a child to study in a Catholic convent.  During a lull in the unrest, her family moved her back to Turkey, but after her marriage and the birth of her 5 children – of which Kegham was the youngest at 1 year old–the entire family relocated to Lebanon with the support of the French government. Tazian’s father died when he was 4, and his mother carried on raising the family alone. Their first years in Lebanon were difficult.  “My mom is my hero,“ Tazian says. “She couldn’t read or write, but she spoke 4 languages… She never asked for any help.” Tazian recalls, “[when] I was 7 years old, along with my 3 brothers and my mom, we would walk some 8-10 miles one way to pick potatoes and onions.”

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Metamorphosis, 2009, steel and fiberglass,  60″ x 84″ x 24, Farmington Hills City Hall

Tazian developed an early ambition to become an artist, even though he had very little exposure to the arts. “My background was completely zero in art. There were no classes in elementary school or high school. I went to two different high schools, and none of them had art, but in my mind I always planned to be an artist.”

“The only person [who encouraged me] was my 5th grade English teacher, Olivia Balian,” he says. “She really opened the doors of art for me.  She said, ‘Those students who are interested in art can stay behind after school and I will show you how to paint and draw.’ Somehow [that] changed my life– she gave me that spark.”

When one of Tazian’s older brothers started a successful button-making business, giving the family some stability and making study abroad financially feasible, Tazian came to the U.S. to study at St. Francis College in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Tazian humorously recalls his lack of preparation: “When I came there … to an art school, I had no idea what an art school [was]!”  Somehow, in spite of this, he earned a bachelors degrees in art and a masters in art education, and then managed to get admitted to Wayne State University in Detroit, where he went on to receive an MFA in sculpture in 1966. For the next 47 years, he taught art at Oakland Community College’s Orchard Ridge Campus in Farmington Hills, while maintaining an active studio practice, showing his work regularly in galleries around the country and fulfilling numerous commissions for public art in the Detroit area.

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Mechanical Juggler, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 36″ x 48″

Kegham Tazian is a kind of magpie artist, always on the sharp-eyed lookout for materials that spark his creative impulse. Ruined styrofoam from a job site, a cow bone, a battered oil pan, a discarded circuit board – all of these apparently un-prepossessing materials have found their way into his work.   He collects and combines objects he finds in the environment and enters into a dialog with them to create a finished painting or sculpture.  “I’m open minded …If I see something in nature, then that becomes part of my art work… More than anything else I’m curious about how I can express myself, in what medium.”  He continues, “I never know from one day to the next what I’ll do. It all happens in that moment. One of the luxuries I’ve had is teaching – a steady income – so I never [had to] weigh doing something the public likes so I can make my car payments or house payments.”

Asked about his creative influences, Tazian takes a panoramic view. “When it comes to… the idea of uniqueness, I always say, I’m indebted to the first person, man or woman, who did something in a cave.”  He is dismissive of the idea of the artist as a solitary, heroic figure.  “To me, it’s all work,” he says. “We’re all walking that same road, just maybe in a slightly different way… the idea of originality – I don’t really believe in it…all you’re doing is making a variation on what others who have preceded you have done.  So you put your own stamp on it.”

Since his retirement from teaching in 2014, Tazian has, if anything, increased his creative output.  He is currently preparing for a solo show of his recent work at Detroit’s highly respected Galerie Camille, from October 3 – 10.  Among the planned 40 artworks on display will be new limestone and bronze sculptures, multi-media paintings and computer-aided works on paper, evidence – if any were still needed – of the artist’s continuing curiosity and restless energy.

For more information about the exhibit Kegham Tazian: A Journey Through Art go here

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The artist with a detail of his  1994 bronze “125th Anniversary Sculpture” at Farmington City Hall, 2018

 

 

 

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Pretty Queer

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Untitled by Colton Clifford

Pretty Queer,  a provocative summer exhibit at River House Arts, closed on August 5 but  lingers in the memory  as a thoughtful echo of one of contemporary art’s most vexed and vexing preoccupations. The artists in Pretty Queer want us to know that gender identity and gender normativity are far more thorny and ambiguous subjects than we thought, and there are as many shades of sexuality as there are humans to express them.

Over the last fifty years, the issue of alternative gender and sexual identity has taken the foreground in public discussion of how people love, present themselves and interact with the broader culture. The spectrum represented by the initials LGBTQ has fractured, with distinctions increasingly finely sliced and diced, atomized and reconstituted. Pretty Queer is an effort to quantify and enumerate some of these distinctions as they exist now,  in this historical moment.

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Untitled by Troy Hoffman

Pretty Queer’s premise is anchored in the exhibit by a work of the late David Wojnarowicz, an art polemicist who is enjoying a moment in the art world now that contemporary concerns with gender identity have caught up with his pioneering AIDS activism. The serigraph, Fire and Water (1990), projects a sense of dislocation and peril, multiple images of a confrontational pugilist overlaid by a grinning red devil. (Wojnarowicz is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum, David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Up at Night.)

The works in Pretty Queer are characterized by a desire to act out and a countervailing compulsion to conceal which might be a core of the queer aesthetic, described by academic sex researcher Iain Morland as “the sensory interrelation of pleasure and shame.”  A number of the works in the show address the artists’ compulsion to show themselves as they are, accompanied by a pervasive sense of discomfort in this self-exposure.

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Pink Planter by Zachariah Szabo

Troy Hoffman has nailed this ambivalence with two digital prints. The first is a small, lush close-up of what appears to be a bed of roses, the centers of which turn out to be human anuses. It’s comic, pretty and deeply disturbing. It’s unclear to me what he means by his other entry, a digital collage of a sado-masochistic dog mask on a female human, overlaid by fragmented black and white images of policemen, but it’s one of those images that, once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it.

Fiber artist John Paul Morabito has taken a more reticent approach. His woven pieces Frottage 052 and 049, are woven tapestries that at first appear to be elegantly minimalist until (upon close inspection) ghostly images of genitals become visible.

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Boys Wear Blue by Robert Fitzgerald

Several of the artists in Pretty Queer have chosen kitsch imagery and objects to describe their response to received gender norms. Robert Fitzgerald’s Boys wear Blue is an example: A set of three deceptively demure boxes contain reproductions of 18th century china  figurines in the act of “performing” masculinity and femininity within the confines of a box (could his meaning be any more transparent?) By adding a small mirror in each box, the artist invites the viewer to place him/her/their self in relationship to given norms of gender behavior. Atop and outside the top box, a china figurine rests, his back turned in a gesture of rejection.

Across the room, Zachariah Szabo returns to the subject of kitsch as a received view of norms, turning the concept on its head with  irony and humor.  The ultra-adorable china figurine in Pink Planter seems to say “ You want cute?  I’ll give you cute!” It calls to mind pieces by Jeff Koons (Balloon Dog, anyone?) but with a sharper satirical edge. Colton Clifford’s digital print of two identical, stereo-typically feminine figures surrounded by flowers and formally arranged and constrained within an under-scale dollhouse continues and amplifies the critique on received gender norms.

Perhaps the most comprehensive and ambitious exploration of queer/gender issues is the large, mixed-media montage by Rowan Renee. Part memoir, part political polemic, the installation recounts a dispute over ownership of nude photographs of the artist with their then-partner and now-adversary, set against a backdrop of gender transition.  In a statement, Renee describes their method: “My labor-intensive process centers on the obsessive act of material transfiguration to recast a relationship I am ashamed of into the pleasure of artistic production.”

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Together But Separate (detail) by Rowan Renee

Pretty Queer,  in my opinion, does a good job of placing us within the discourse on gender and sexuality in 2018.  The question that comes to mind, though, is what will this discussion look like in 2028?  Or 3028? It seems clear that we are in the midst of an evolution that is headed for parts unknown, but one hopes it will get us to a future where equality and respect for difference prevail, when we can be content to merely call ourselves human.

For more information about Pretty Queer and Contemporary Art Toledo visit https://www.catoledo.org/pretty-queer . Artist/arts blogger Loraine Lynn has written a thoughtful review of Pretty Queer which you can access here 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Allie McGhee at Rotunda Gallery in Ann Arbor

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Cloud Nine (2009) by Allie McGhee

I just wrote a review of Detroit artist Allie McGhee’s exhibit Cosmic Images 2000  for AADL Pulp. His work will be on view in Ann Arbor at the Rotunda Gallery, Building 18 of U of M’s North Campus Research Center through August 31.  You can check it out here.

D3PR3$$10N N4P Review in New Art Examiner

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NO THNX by Shaina Kasztelan

I recently wrote my first review as Detroit correspondent for Chicago’s  New Art Examiner.   The May/June issue, which has just been published, focuses on exhibits of work by women artists, including Looking Forward, Looking Back by Howardena Pindell at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Nina Chanel Abney’s Royal Flush at the Chicago Cultural Center.  Rebecca Memoli, who reviews Royal Flush, concentrates her comments on Abney’s latest large, graphic works, which struck me as being very Stuart-Davis-like.  My preference is for her earlier, more expressionistic paintings, but Memoli’s essay is a good introduction to Abney’s work. Pindell’s exhibit, reviewed byAniko Berman, is on view until May 20, and it’s well worth a visit.

I want to thank NAE Managing Editor Tom Mullaney and Editor in Chief Michel Segard for giving me this opportunity to get the word out on exciting contemporary art being shown in Detroit and environs. You can read my review of Shaina Kasztelan and Heidi Barlow’s D3PR3$$10N N4P at Hatch Hamtramck here.

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Installation Detail, Heidi Barlow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking with Animals

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Reintroduction II (Grey Wolf) by Emily White

Animals. They share our beds, our homes, our back yards.  We love them, as friends and as dinner.  And in some ways our relationship with them reflects a confused and self-contradictory understanding of our place in nature, a place that is being reassessed in the early 21st century as we confront climate change, animal cruelty and mass extinction.

Our fraught  relationship with animals forms the premise of Thinking with Animals, a thoughtful collection of  exquisite artworks currently on view at River House Arts in Toledo. Artists Jessica Tenbusch and Morgan Barrie have curated this exceptionally beautiful show, and share the gallery walls with the work of fellow artists  Julie Bahn, Emily White and Breanne Sherwood.

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Artifacts/Ecofacts (detail) by Jessica Tenbusch

Jessica Tenbusch employs silver and bronze casts of natural objects such as animal bones, insect exoskeletons and bits of plants in dialog with highly refined manmade materials to create a series of lapidary landscapes displayed in a grid pattern.  The overall effect is one of beauty and order that invites close looking.  Each single component of her piece Artifacts/Ecofacts is a complete work of art but together they constitute a world of minute perception.

Morgan Barrie’s two large photo collages riff humorously on the well known Netherlandish Unicorn in Captivity  tapestry owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She adapts the decorative plants from the original tapestry by introducing  plants native to the upper Midwest, such as purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans and joe pye weed, digitally collaged on a dark background. nature-9-dogIn the center of the composition formerly occupied by the mythical unicorn are life-size domestic companion animals, the dog  and the cat, surrounded by what appears to be modern storm fencing of the type available at Lowe’s or Home Depot. The dog in Tapestry is a handsome boxer and, as it happens, her own family dog . Though chained, he seems to be comfortable in his confinement, while the feral-looking cat in Captivity lurks within the fence, scheming to  escape.

Fiber artist Breanne Sherwood is clearly in love with the substance of nature. She shows a particular  affinity for the decorative qualities of bird plumage in Relics of Santiam, embellishing  disembodied avian wings with carefully embroidered and appliqued threads and tulle. They retain their anatomical identity but the delicacy of the artist’s handling imparts reverence to these relics of departed creatures. Sherwood’s more ambitiously scaled One Yard, One Bird applies human organization and emotional tenderness to a fatal event.

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One Yard, One Bird by Breanne Sherwood

The intimidatingly-sized and accomplished paintings of wild animals native to North America  in Emily White’s two artworks Reintroduction II (Grey Wolf) and Velvet (a truly disturbing  life-size rendering of a moose shedding the velvet  skin of its antlers)  dominate the gallery.  They  look as if they could easily grace the walls of a natural history museum.  The landscapes in which the animals stand are surrounded by highly finished birch plywood, framing the wilderness in civilization. Easily missed in the paintings are the artist’s sly additions of human technology into the natural environment.

Julie Bahn’s work is the most directly political of the group.  She addresses human consumption of animals for food  and consumerism in One Hundred Twenty Eight Days of Protein.  A silver plate is piled high with the broken bones of consumed animals, embellished and be-dazzled by Swarovski crystals, ready to be re-cycled and re-consumed as art.  Her soft sculpture Hug Me, is a tantalizing visual enigma. The large vinyl fish with strangely human eyes hangs limply from the gallery ceiling, a glittering tag around its neck, inviting us to engage with it as a fellow creature, not just as dinner.

Artists, always the shock troops of changing cultural attitudes, are thinking hard about the way forward in our relationship with nature, and in the process creating art that resonates, questions and inspires with its beauty. The work in Thinking With Animals ably addresses the complexity and ambivalence of our evolving thoughts about animals, humans and our place in the environment.  

For more about Thinking with Animals and River House Arts, go here .  If you’d like to read more about animals and art, go here.

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One Hundred and Twenty Eight Days of Protein by Julie Bahn

Geometrix

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Untitled Series by James Benjamin Franklin

It’s that time of year–gray, dreary, damp and dark–when gallery hopping feels like a chore. But the art is out there and it must be seen, polar vortex notwithstanding. An encounter with Geometrix at Galerie Camille until February 24, can make the effort seem worthwhile, and might just get you through the worst of winter, 2018.

In their art practice,  Clark Goeman, Franklin Jonas and James Benjamin Franklin take the manipulation of geometry as a point of departure.  It’s hardly a new concept, but the work by these three results in remarkably divergent bodies of work and proves once again that a universe is possible within the limits of a simple premise.

Clark Goeman delivers a series of well crafted and carefully conceived objects in various media that suggest energy under pressure. Two large, aggressively corporate sculptures occupy the interior of Galerie Camille and vibrate with silent presence. The Death Star-like Black Matter is solid, monumental and threatening, while the more open and lyrical Icosahedron describes the same geometric shape in wood, minus the menace.

Goeman shows off his considerable skills in both clay manipulation and ceramic glazes with a series of fairly small, clenched objects that suggest projectiles.  These weaponized artworks look vaguely dangerous, like hand grenades or land mines, and their metallic-glazed surfaces reinforce the impression. They seem as if they could explode at any moment, projecting peril far out of proportion to their size. If I saw one lying unattended on a bus seat, I might consider calling Homeland Security.

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Experts Only (left) and Icosahedron (right) by Clark Goeman

“The perfection of geometry fascinates me,” says Franklin Jonas. That may well be, but it appears to me that the true fascination of this work lies in its manipulation of color and pattern within the bounds of the constructed shapes. In The Star Project, Jonas applies saturated hues that might be ripped from a Pantone Formula Color Guide in tightly rendered stripes that follow the contours of the five-pointed figures. Idiosyncratic, insistent, pugnaciously decorative color combinations move restlessly around, intersected and interrupted by flat white shapes that violate their  integrity, setting up a rhythmic counterpoint. With their buzzy optical vibration, The Star Project  suggests the visual equivalent of techno music.

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The Star Project (Detail) by Franklin Jonas

The Embryo Series projects  a more serene effect with its ovoid outer shapes repeated adroitly within each of the 4 artworks.   Jonas describes his color choices in The Embryo Series as referencing a “mathematical color algorithm.” He claims that “the information contained in each circle accurately predicts the color scheme of the other three.” Fortunately, it’s not necessary to understand this rather abstruse technical explanation to appreciate the visual charms of Jonas’s work.

James Benjamin Franklin  takes his geometry with a playful grain of salt. Ten fairly small, eccentric shapes rest on a gallery shelf,  leaning against the wall on their spindly legs. These lively, vaguely anthropomorphic  figures in flat, waxy crayon colors line up like a class of restless toddlers ready for an outing.  Franklin’s ingratiating  pictograms add an element of humor and sly charm while remaining inscrutable.  They are deceptively simple, childlike but knowing.   Two larger pieces round out Franklin’s installation. A large refrigerator-shaped slab of yellow (with a handle!) made me want to open it and search for treats inside.  To its right rests a red …thing, that might be a web or a window,  alternately barring the way or inviting us through.

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Untitled works by James Benjamin Franklin

If the gray of winter and the icy damp of Detroit’s streets is beginning to get to you and a trip to someplace warm isn’t in the cards, Galerie Camille and Geometrix offers an alternate destination.  A whiff of danger, a pop of color and some smart fun can help to pass the time, and pretty soon spring will be just around the corner. I hope.

For more information, visit galeriecamille.com

 

6B by Deborah Baker

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Cryptic, 35″ x 40″, 6b pencil on  paper

Chicago artist Deborah Baker, whose large pencil drawings are on view now at Firecat Projects until December 16, 2017, once again demonstrates that the artist’s most creative tool rests between her ears.  Baker rejects all currently fashionable media such as video, performance and photography. Even within the constraints of conventional drawing, she avoids decorative or descriptive color and perspectival reality. Through this systematic refusal, she achieves complete freedom within a form of expression that is strongly graphic and psychologically resonant.

Baker can be understood to be a sort of free-associational sign painter, a dealer in archetypes collected and added to the page, where they  set up visual harmonics within the composition. The large drawings in 6B are based upon her previous small, black and white embroidered pieces, several of which are in the show. She chose to make her drawings on large sheets of brown kraft paper in order to create larger scale works for 6B.

Baker describes her process:
I always start with a word or title.  That word evokes images for me …I also always begin with the border or frame first…I do few or no preparatory drawings… sometimes a small thumbnail sketch to get the layout, no marking…though I do fold the fabric to orient the space.

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Tied, 17″ x 17″, embroidered linen

Her previous work with embroidery affects Baker’s compositional choices in the more recent large drawings.  There is a kind of steady rhythm to the fabric pieces. Each constituent image is spaced out over the surface of the artwork, creating the impression that the composition must be “read” rather than seen. The patterned border surrounding each embroidery resembles decorative craftwork from the Victorian age, though the images within are more reminiscent of ethnic or folk images, or designs from tattoo art.

In the large drawings, the decorative designs that Baker uses to define the outer limits of her small embroidered compositions begin to resemble theatre prosceniums, and the compositions become performances. This is especially evident in the drawings Connect and 12 Dancing Princesses (which even includes a suggestion of an audience in the lower portion of the drawing.) She takes a metaphorical step back in Center, which once again recalls Victorian embroidery.

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12 Dancing Princesses, 35″ x 40″ 6B pencil on paper

A recurring theme in Baker’s work is the mystery of the long-term loving relationship.  It can be no accident that the couples seen in the embroidered Link and Tied, and in the drawing Union are skeletal. “Until death do us part” is not just a metaphor here. In Cryptic, the image of the silhouetted couple facing each other refers both to a famous optical illusion and to the opaque black box of long term commitment as visualized in an all-seeing pyramid. In Hope vs. Hope, love and conflict co-exist.

It’s been said that editing is the only art, and Deborah Baker’s deceptively simple drawings prove it. These large pictures of dancers, hearts and grinning skeletons appear at first blush to be simple, naïve and almost childlike, but upon closer examination are nothing of the kind. The artist has created a complex visual language that allows her complete freedom of expression within the limited means she employs.

For information about Firecat Projects and 6B go here

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Union, 35″ x 35″, 6B pencil on paper

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Wonderland

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Installation by Kirsten Lund

Wonderland, a frisky selection of imaginative objects and inventive pictures by six of the region’s more talented art players, is on view now through December 2, 2017,  at the Walter E. Terhune Gallery in Perrysburg, Ohio.  The show’s curator is Brian Carpenter of Contemporary Art Toledo.  Wonderland is a kind of artist-created play space for adults who appreciate paradox, irony, humor and originality. Each artist  is a skilled practitioner  of his/her self-invented game and we are invited to play along.

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Avatar/Game Piece by Sarah Rose Sharp

The terms of engagement are established as we enter the gallery. A set of six small game pieces rests on a pedestal, each invented by one of Wonderland’s artists, for a game as yet to be invented. These diminutive avatars range from an intricately carved figure on horseback to a desultory lump of styrofoam.  Though there are, as yet, no rules, no board, no start and no finish, some serious play is clearly  about to commence.

Heather Accurso describes herself as “dedicated to the visual language of drawing,” and her draftsmanship is indeed a strong suit, but she has added assemblage to the mix. Handmade miniatures in  shadowbox settings now enrich and enlarge her drawn and recurring themes.

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Paramedic by Heather Accurso

In Paramedic, we find a dense composition that combines a narrative of catastrophe with angelic presence. Her masterfully drawn cherub provides the central image in a tiny diorama of disaster. Closer inspection reveals more depth and breadth, as the signs of injury and of medical intervention create a disturbing but intriguing hallucinatory tale of death and ascension.

Adrian Hatfield is an accomplished collagist, cutting and pasting his way to idiosyncratic personal meanings that are more than the sum of their parts. In the diptych Adaptive Radiation and The Morning After  he  samples and recombines images from art historical sources into baroque scenarios  that may suggest the lush before and melancholy after of a one-night stand, or an idyllic Edenic state followed by  imagery of environmental spoilage and degradation.

Andrew Kreiger’s small, meticulously constructed and toy-like artworks–or art-like toy works?– draw upon his skills as a maker, as well as his considerable talents as a painter. His opening box construction Van Dyke, Detroit, Facing North/South/East treats us to a miniature panorama of  Detroit’s lost pastoral history.

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Van Dyke, Detroit, Facing North/South/East by Andrew Kreiger

In Momento Mori #1, Sarah Rose Sharp takes us on a virtual walk through the woods, where we discover a blanket upon which a skeleton rests, partly obscured by leaves and  by intimations of surrounding trees.  The effect is both macabre and lyrical.

Michael McGillis’s contribution to Wonderland is a single, improbably cut-up and re-assembled combination easy chair and  chintz-patterned bulldozer. Phantom Limb is a comic yet poignant  stand-in for an amputee, gamely holding itself upright in spite of the insult to its structural integrity.

The most mysterious and intriguing contribution to Wonderland is an installation, by Kirsten Lund, of fabric constructs which defy categorization. Lund’s process uses salvaged fabrics and each piece is limited to one individual pattern shape that is then combined and recombined into a range of symmetrical configurations.  They pleat, loop, drape, sag and lope across the wall, fantasy costume pieces for an obscure period drama.  They clearly reference the human body, but what body–or body part–they relate to remains a mystery.

The artists in Wonderland present us with work that is both serious and playful.  It can be thoughtful or silly, but never descends into whimsy.  The self-invented games they play are limited only by the structured creative process of each artist. For more information about the Walter E. Terhune Gallery go here.

From Bits and Pieces

When two artists show their work together, the urge to compare and contrast is almost irresistible.  “On the one hand this, and on the other hand that” becomes the template for evaluation and appreciation.  Artists Aviva Alter and Marzena Ziejka  invite this even more, because they do, in fact,  have quite a lot in common. Their 2-person show, From Bits and Pieces, is on exhibit at Firecat Projects, 2124 N. Damen Avenue, Chicago, until November 11, 2017.

Alter and Ziejka share their eastern european  heritage. Alter  is a second-generation American with German and Polish roots and Ziejka is a more recent arrival from Poland. The pair met several years ago at an art exhibition, got to know each other and became close friends.

As they began planning  From Bits and Pieces, both had recently lost a parent, a shared experience that each processed in her own unique way. Alter says, “For me, the death led me into artwork about the body, death, life, healing and decay.” Ziejka struggled to understand how her creation of an object could somehow stand for the longed-for and absent parent. Her father was constantly mending and tending, and Ziejka recognizes this impulse in her own art practice.  “Isn’t it a process of our lives? We are collecting, arranging and re-arranging things until we are lost in them or in the process or both.”

Both artists have strong backgrounds in traditional crafts, but neither is content to work within accepted traditions, and each seems compelled to push the boundaries of her craft and art. They are hunter-gatherers, (Alter in an urban setting and Ziejka in the country), collectors of inspiration from the detritus of civilization and nature.

Aviva Alter

Alter began her life as an artist in ceramics, working as a studio potter (and later director) at Lillstreet Street Art Center.  She grew and adapted along the way,  adding fiber and printmaking to her skill set, mixing and matching her various abilities to produce hybrid artworks that resist easy categorization.

She learned to crochet as part of the gloriously luxuriant Crochet Coral Reef Project and subsequently led the development of the Cambrian Reef  shown at the Chicago Cultural Center, the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum and the Smithsonian.

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Alter’s recent work, exhibited here, takes an ad hoc approach to art-making.  The technical requirements of a particular craft vocabulary have been jettisoned for an experimental, provisional process that yields smallish constructs that might be improvised cricket cages or handcrafted internal prosthetics. She describes her process: “[it] began with my obsession for gathering discarded bits of information, assembling and reassembling them to create an order of my own invention… focusing on processes that disguise the original function of the found objects, these forms become amalgamations of broken bits and pieces of my world.” The results are ephemeral-seeming objects that feature fragile, sheer and translucent materials held together by irregular stitching, tying and wrapping. Sticks, wire and found fragments form the armature, and are covered by gauze, string and metal mesh, overlaid by waxy color.

Marzena Ziejka

Marzena Ziejka has worked as a professional weaver of tapestry,  miniature painter, graphic designer and illustrator.  Born and raised in Tarnow Poland, she grew up on a farm and was attracted to the earthy qualities of farm materials: soil, unprimed canvass, horse hair and sticks. The natural materials she employs speak of her past, her absent father and exile from a lost place and time. She writes, ” I am from the land where soil, earth is not called ‘dirt’/Where it is called Mother-Earth, Mother-Breadwinner.”

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Untitled/Working title Cocoon/Tree Bones #4, #5, #1, #2 by Marzena Ziejka

Through accretion and repetition, Ziejka arrives at a series of cocoon-like images. Her creative process is based on unorthodox weaving techniques using natural materials. She calls the sticks that she uses “tree bones” and the materials she employs inevitably create shapes arising from her means of production. It is a kind of nature-based constructivism. The resulting ovoid shapes look like empty mummy cases or  the discarded shells of transformed bodies. They project simultaneously a sense both  of ominous presence and poignant loss, as if the still-living are in dialog with the recently deceased. These artworks, while not closely resembling the more figurative work of her fellow countrywoman Magdalena Abakanowicz, convey the same pensive mood of alienation.

One of the great mysteries in art is how two artists who start with similar premises, materials and methods can end up with work that is uniquely and completely their own. It explains on some level how the individual creative impulse is the one great variable that any artist brings to her work, and that each of these artists has in abundance.

A Watcher’s Skin

 

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Watcher, hand embroidery on cotton bed sheet, 34″ x 40″ 2016-2017

Fiber artist Dayna Riemland is haunted by the ghosts of a past that is not her own. Born  into an exiled ethnic community in Canada, she internalized from an early age the sense of dislocation and loss experienced by her grandparents.

They were Russian Mennonites,  a persecuted ethnic German religious sect related to the Dutch-German Anabaptists. The group left West Prussia around 1789 and  settled in what is now Ukraine. They thrived in their adopted country, but history overtook them, and after experiencing escalating persecution as the Communist party gained ascendance, they were finally ejected during Stalin’s regime. Fleeing families scattered to regions throughout the world:  Germany, Mexico, Bolivia, Belize, and Canada, to name a few, but would never re-unite as a community.

In A Watcher’s Skin, now on view at River House Arts Gallery through November 11, 2017, Riemland, a young artist who has no direct memory of the dislocation and trauma of exile, vicariously re-experiences it as a dream-like story that is both seductive and disquieting. Her sense of her family’s loss of home represents a kind of solastalgia, a term that describes longing for a lost time or place one has never experienced directly and that may not even exist.

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My Seeing Skin, hand embroidery on gloves, 11″ x 14″ 2017

The seven artworks that Riemland has created for this exhibit are modest in size and make good use of the crafts of embroidery and needlepoint she learned from her grandmother in childhood. She explores how tradition and its associated formalities and motifs “can be combined with ghosts of a collective history that has become pre-occupied with the past.” She takes fabric remnants– vintage handkerchiefs, gloves, bed sheets and pillowcases (many taken from the household of her grandmother) and labors over their surface to create images that are resonant and uncanny. Riemland’s visual vocabulary, especially  her repeated use of the unblinking eye in My Seeing Skin and in Watcher, is reminiscent in mood to the nightmarish but captivating imagery from Pan’s Labyrinth, a film by Guillermo Del Toro.  Perhaps not coincidentally, that narrative also tells the story of a child navigating an imagined world at the periphery of adult reality. Riemland likewise seems both disoriented and enchanted by her exiled grandparents’ stories of a lost and distant time and place.

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An Inverse Tradition, hand embroidery on cotton pillow case, 14″ x 18″, 2017

Riemland describes the process of  embroidering as an “act that creates a devotional surface.” She begins her compositions with traditional floral and decorative motifs and moves to more fantastic imagery in the center. In Watcher, the largest piece in the show  and one which took her almost a year to complete, she begins with a frame of traditional roses and then moves inward to a many-eyed presence that seems to beckon us forward.

In An Inverse Tradition, Riemland inverts a female figure in ethnic costume, literally turning it on its head to make the familiar strange. The upside-down figure might be a visual metaphor for Riemland’s intimate yet distant experience of a vanished family history, one which can no longer be touched or experienced directly, but which haunts her and drives her creative process forward.

Dayna Riemland graduated from the  Maine College of Art with an MFA in Studio Art in 2017. She currently lives and works in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, Canada. This is her first solo show.