Category Archives: Gallery Exhibition

Re: Formation Revisited

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The Garden of Watery Lead by Michael Nagara

The sprawling multimedia, multi-artist show Re: Formation which recently closed in Toledo has moved to a smaller venue in Gallery 117 at the Ann Arbor Art Center where an edited version will be on view from now until October 8.   Toledo’s Re: Formation was overwhelming in size and scope. Installation and video dominated the cavernous former department store,  contributing to an  immersive experience that viscerally conveyed artists’ current outrage over racism, war, environmental degradation and urban decay.

The rage, the politics, the anger at injustice and environmental ruin  remain in this new iteration  but in a lower, more thoughtful key. Smaller work which was somewhat eclipsed by larger and noisier art in Toledo now gets some well deserved attention.

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Behind the Clouds by Sharon Que

 

Moving an exhibit from one very large venue  to another smaller one presents unique challenges for Gallery Project’s curators Rocco DePietro and Gloria Pritschett.

Pritschett explains, “In downsizing the exhibit for Ann Arbor, I look for the core of the work, so that the artist’s essential intent stays intact and can at least be glimpsed… we want to downsize the installation without giving the sense that we just lopped off a part of it.” 

“ It’s a challenge, but a fun challenge,” adds DePietro.

Pritschett continues, “In reassembling the exhibition in a much smaller space, the work is tightly placed, so the specifics of relationships among the works is more crucial. No one piece has a place apart to sprawl on its own as it could in Toledo.   I really enjoy the challenge in the patient work of positioning and repositioning individual works and groups of works, until they cohere visually and conceptually and relate to each other comfortably and meaningfully. For example, the group of Mark Hereld, Endi Poskovic, Tohru Kanayama and Barry Whittaker, and the interactive works Yusuf Lateef, John Anderson and Anthony Fontana, each in some way expresses formation and reformation as a process.  Placing them was really satisfying”

“After spending a month with the exhibit in Toledo, we discovered new relationships among various pieces — themes, shapes, colors, concepts — that we exploited in installing the exhibit.  For example, the interplay of blacks and reds, strong concept works, and the iconic water towers in Flint,” says DePietro.

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Boom Series by Boris Rasin

Pieces with an environmental theme,  such as Jessica Tenbusch’s Veil and  Mark Hereld’s white-on-white Becoming@42Mx are often necessarily scaled to the size of the natural objects they contain, and this new, smaller space allows them to shine. Tenbusch’s work, which  frequently includes taxidermy such as preserved frogs, snakes and the like, can be seen and appreciated for its meticulously detailed and finely produced craftsmanship.

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Becoming @ 42Mx by Mark Hereld

Paintings  which were a bit overwhelmed in the large, dim Toledo space come into their own here. John and Sandy: Voices for Social Justice, a large painted allegory (notice the small winged figure of Governor Rick Snyder in the upper left hand corner) by Ken Milito is impressive, and Michael Nagara’s Garden of Watery Lead  seems at home in this smaller scale and more brightly lit gallery.

Equally successful in both Toledo and Ann Arbor is John James Anderson’s photo series 189 Hydrants, which documents, hydrant by hydrant, Washington D.C.’s  decaying infrastructure. His Omikuji also stands up well to the move.  Based on a Japanese cultural custom meant to end  a curse, gallery visitors are encouraged to participate in a ceremonial exorcism  to end police killings.

“In the wake of the recent deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling,  I took a moment to consider the thousands of other lives lost in recent years during an encounter with the police,” says Anderson.

He adds, “While the circumstances behind each are different, in sum, it is as though there was a great curse within our culture that causes these issues to persist.

In this improvised and sobering ritual, the name of a young man of color who has died at the hands of the police is printed on a strip of paper along with the Kanji for “end curse” and tied to the wooden structure in the gallery.

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Opening reception at Gallery 117, Ann Arbor ArtCenter, with Omikuji by John Jacob Anderson’s Omikuji at center right.

 

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Yusuf Lateef in an encounter with Saganaw photographer Mary E. Foster

The single most memorable work in Re:Formation remains The Reconditioning, an experiential performance and personal encounter designed and executed by Toledo artist Yusuf Lateef in collaboration with Chris Rogers,  Kevin Gilmore, Daren Mac and James Dickerson.  Lateef was initially apprehensive about reproducing The Reconditioning for an Ann Arbor audience after a previous cathartic experience with audiences at Re:Formation in Toledo.  He was afraid he would be “reproducing this thing that wasn’t a personal and individual experience.”  The placement of the installation at the entrance of the exhibit made him feel as if he and his fellow performers were in danger of becoming objects in an art show.  But The Reconditioning, once again, found an audience of eager participants willing to engage the artists/performers on the subject of race and connection.  Lateef, encouraged by recent experience, plans to refine and simplify these encounters in the future.

“It took time to get out of my own way,” he says.

For more information about Ann Arbor Art Center go here

Artists exhibiting in Re:Formation are: Heather Accurso, Hiba Ali, John James Anderson, Michael Arrigo, Siobhan Arnold, Nick Azzaro, Darryl Baird, Barchael (Barry Whittaker and Mike Bernhardt), Morgan Barrie, Carolyn Barritt, Beehive Design Collective (Meg Lemieur), Mark Bleshenski, Jada Bowden, Seder Burns, Ruth Crowe, Dana DePew, Rocco DePietro, Desiree Duell, Dianne Farris, Susan Fecteau, Anthony Fontana, Mark Hereld, Dan Hernandez, Stephanie Howells, Tim Ide, Doug Kampfer, Tohru Kanayama, Yusuf Lateef, K.A. Letts, Kate Levy, Julianne Lindsey, Jeremy Link, Melanie Manos, Shanna Merola, Ken Milito, Michael Nagara, Jefferson Nelson, Endi Poskovic, Gloria Pritschet, Sharon Que, Raizup Collective (Antonio Cosme), Boris Rasin, Roger Rayle, Jesse Richard, Arturo Rodriguez, Gary Setzer, Meagan Shein, Anna Schaap, Sheida Soleimani, Brian Spolans, Jessica Tenbusch, Alex Tsocanos, Ellen Wilt, Robin Wilt, and Viktor Witkowski.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Beautiful Pig

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Artist Ben Schonberger  and retired Detroit Police Sergeant Marty Gaynor make an odd couple. Schonberger is a photographer, a curator and  a connoisseur of masculine archetypes.  Gaynor  is a matter-of -fact man of action cheerfully going about his work,  seemingly untroubled (although occasionally irritated) by the subtleties and complexities of his job.

The art exhibit Beautiful Pig is a collaboration between the two men and is on view until September 8 at River House Arts in Toledo. In creating this archive and accompanying book with materials provided by Gaynor,  Schonberger says,  “I embarked on an image-making process alongside Marty to see if I could understand the realities of identity, spirituality, and empathy.” This carefully curated collection contains many years’ worth of Gaynor’s Polaroids of police co-workers, suspects and crime scenes. There are meticulously mounted notes, police paper work and official forms documenting the day-to-day interactions between the police and the (mostly black) citizens of Detroit.

“Beautiful Pig is not just a story about police work in Detroit during the late twentieth century, but about the whole world of policing,” 

Barbara Tannenbaum,  Curator of Photography, Cleveland Museum of Art bp perp

Throughout the exhibit there is an unavoidable dissonance  between the high ideals expressed in the Police Code of Ethics and the brutal facts on the ground of everyday police work.  In the ongoing fight against crime in Detroit, it is clear that respect for  individual rights is the first casualty. The requirements of police activity are at war with empathy and respect.  Many of the images in the archive are shocking in their raw depiction of violence on the street.

Schonberger strives to find common ground with his subject, both as a man and a  fellow Jew. He has photographed Gaynor with a prayer shawl over his uniform, next to a neon Star of David, and has added the Hebrew word for gold (also in neon) as a tribute to Gaynor’s post-retirement job as a pawnbroker. He even puts himself in Gaynor’s shoes-literally- posing in a t-shirt  with a gun and police style cap.

   Schonberger clearly feels great empathy  for his collaborator and for  the difficulty of police work with its moral ambiguity, routine drudgery and occasional violence.  In the end though, I had the feeling that the gulf separating these two men was unbridgeable. Or to quote artist and writer Anouk Kruithof, Beautiful Pig is “a loaded puzzle that cannot be resolved.”

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Beautiful Pig is also available in book form. It was shortlisted for the Anamorphosis Prize in 2015.  For more information about River House Arts go here.

 

 

Echos in Ypsi

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Fascia by Riva Jewell-Vitale

Ypsilanti is the next Brooklyn!

Okay…maybe not, but there is definitely something going on in the town we,  here in Michigan, affectionately know as “Hipsilanti.”

After years of suffering by comparison to nearby Ann Arbor’s more affluent economy, Ypsilanti shows signs of becoming  a magnet for area creatives. Cheap work space and the presence of a particularly vibrant studio arts department at Eastern Michigan University are making the logic of locating an arts practice in Ypsi inescapable for many. Look no further for confirmation of this than the terrific work from Ypsi Alloy Studios,  on view now until August 28 at 22 North, a newish art gallery on Huron Street in Ypsi’s downtown.

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Portal by Cathy Jacobs

 Echos is the inaugural exhibition for this talented collective  of artists and makers, many of them graduates of Eastern Michigan University’s art program. 22 North’s exhibit space is thoughtfully renovated, with the rich patina of vintage plaster walls still visible behind pristine white gallery panels that show off these uniformly excellent and well-conceived artworks. Objects on display range from an industrial strength rocking chair by Rob Todd to  ethereal layered weavings by Cathy Jacobs. The exhibit is notable for the variety of approaches and processes demonstrated in the production of artworks.

I particularly liked the aluminum, white gold and thread piece Broken Flag by Aaron Patrick Decker, as well as the felted wool and burl Invasive by Ilana Houten and Stripped/Burned by Lauren Mieczko and Molly Doak.  And as ever, I remain a fan of the death-in-nature sensibility of Jessica Tenbusch’s delicate metal, wood  and bone pieces.

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Rocking Chair by Robb Todd

My hands-down favorite piece, however, was the grave and comic Fascia by Riva Jewell Vitale. This collection of found fragments from the back yard of the artist treats us to a kind of implied storytelling through the  curation of objects. Each shard and scrap seems both ancient and recognizably contemporary.  The careful arrangement of these bits of detritus hint at the unobserved, untold and unknowable everyday history of things and people.

Fascia is also typical of a trend that I  notice in art being made right now. Artists are collecting and curating existing objects and images rather than creating them.  It is as if there is already so much rich material in our world that we no longer need to produce fresh content. And judging from the satisfyingly complex and poignant emotional effect of Fascia, maybe that’s true.

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Broken Flag by Aaron Patrick Decker

Ypsilanti’s downtown is clearly on the upswing. Many of the gallery’s  adjacent storefronts have been purchased and are under renovation according to 22 North gallerist Maggie Spencer.  A number of new restaurants and retail stores (and an ice cream shop!) have opened recently.  There is ample parking and an active First Fridays program, the next one of which is scheduled for September 2.

22 North, like many other arts spaces in the Detroit metro area, is open during limited hours during weekdays and on weekends, or by appointment.  Find out more about the gallery’s exhibits and events (it’s also an active music venue)  here.

Or call:  501.454.6513

Artists in Echos: Kenzie Lynn, Aaron Patrick Decker, Cathy Jacobs, Riva Jewell-Vitale, Ilana Houten, Jessica Tenbusch, Meagan Shein, Lauren Mleczko, Molly Doak, Alexa Borromeo, Elize Jakabson, Lorraine Kolasa, Rob Todd

Are you an Ypsi artist?  What do you think about the art scene there right now?  I’d be interested to hear what you think.

 

 

 

Re: Formation Part 1

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Radical Series 1-6 by Dan Hernandez

When Rocco DePietro and Gloria Pritschett of Gallery Project began planning for the  comprehensive dual site art exhibit Re: Formation, now on view through August 31, 2016 in Toledo’s One Erie Center, they  felt as if “something had shifted” since last year’s exhibit Wish List in the same location.

“We saw that a tipping point had been reached, and artists were beginning to speak out and push back,” said Pritschett.

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American Creed by Dana DePew

By  addressing some of the most pressing issues facing the region — environmental degradation, infrastructure failure, the crisis in social and racial justice– regional artists are expressing a new mood of activism that reflects their  unease with the status quo.  The artists of Re: Formation (over 50 of them) seem eager to address the current troubled state of the nation in the most direct terms.

“Our humanity is being tested” says Rocco DePietro,   “Unless we say something, we are all complicit.”

The cavernous space at One Erie Center in Toledo, with its two rose windows, filtered light  and massive pillars, resembles a cathedral, lacking only a cruciform floor plan to complete  the devotional effect of a sacred space.   There are “side chapels”  edging the exterior walls of the former department store in the form of display windows. Toledo artist Yusuf Lateef (in collaboration with Kevin Gilmore, Daren Mac and James Dickerson) has even supplied a confessional of sorts with his installation/performance called The Reconditioning. Individuals  at the opening on August 5, were  invited to sit in one-on-one booths facing young men of color, who made direct eye contact and recited a litany beginning, “I am not your enemy, I am your Brother.” The performance was powerful and left many in tears.

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Sakineh, Shirin by Sheida Soleimani

 

The artworks that benefit most from the enormous space and filtered daylight at One Erie Place are large, strongly graphic artworks, installations,  videos and performance. In Toledo artist Dan Hernandez’s Radical Series 1-6,  impressively scaled and domineering war machines rumble along the walls. Also large in size and impressive in impact are two soft sculptures of suffering Islamic women by Sheida Soleimani (Cranston, RI), with accompanying archival inkjet prints on the same subject.

Installations such as Detroit’s Julianne Lindsay and Elton Monroy Duran’s  Del Ray Project and Flint artist Desiree Duell’s  Bodies of Water address a theme which appropriately dominates the consciousness of Great Lakes regional artists: water, its availability, its contamination, its infrastructure.  There are too many to artworks addressing this theme to name them all, but I particularly liked 189 Hydrants by John James Anderson of Saline, MI.  These are small photographs of broken water hydrants arranged in a grid. It tells the story of crumbling infrastructure with matter-of-fact but devastating eloquence.  I was also struck by Detroit Raizup Collective’s video Water Shut-off During Ramadan, which is both  an artwork and a sociological case study of  citizens and city personnel working at cross-purposes despite the best intentions.

Some of the more intimate art works in Re: Formation seemed to me to be swamped by the larger, kinetic videos and installations.  They suffer, as well, from the relatively subdued lighting.  These quieter pieces are likely to enjoy a more compatible environment when the show is re-installed in the Ann Arbor Arbor Art Center’s 117 Gallery.  For now, installations, videos and large scale works in the Toledo location supply more than enough reasons to make the trip to Re:Formation.

Re: Formation contains multitudes and I am glad I will have the opportunity to write more about some of the works when they are installed in Ann Arbor’s Gallery 117 in September. For more information about hours and dates for Re: Formation in Toledo, go here

Have you seen the exhibit?  Did you have a favorite piece?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Beyond Words at WSG Gallery

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Midsummer, a collaboration by Barbara Brown and Howard White

Despite its prosaic title, Book+Paper Arts  packs plenty of charm and  interest into a tiny gem of an art exhibit on view from now to July 30 at WSG Gallery in Ann Arbor. The art books and some additional paper-based art works represented  are approachable, interactive, playful. Travel and globalization, the book as historical artifact and its position in relation to new media, and  the components and ordering of meaning within an artwork are just a few of the themes addressed.  The participating  artists are clearly in an ongoing creative dialog through “book shaped objects” in various configurations, each type with its conceptual strengths and limitations.

This is the seventh in a biennial gallery exhibit series, Beyond Words, curated by Barbara Brown, noted book artist and lecturer in book arts at the University of Michigan Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design.   She describes her  curatorial aims for this particularly varied selection of paper based artworks:

In previous show statements, I have put forth the assertion that the term ‘artist’s book’ often triggers much discussion, even bickering and irresolution amongst book artists, and the point has sometimes been made that at the very instant one uses that term, one must then be ready to define it and to defend the definition! There will probably never be a determination that everyone agrees on, but I like ‘book inspired art’ (or even BSO – book shaped object), and for me, that is a good beginning”.

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Memorial to Thylacines by Ted Ramsey

Travel, through time, through space,  is a recurring theme throughout this exhibit. The molded paper mini-installation entitled  Memorial to Thylacines and Our Slaughtered Michigan Wolves by Ted Ramsey describes his trip to Tasmania during which he encounters memories of  the  extinct Tasmanian Tiger, a species of carnivorous marsupial.

Norma Penchansky-Glasser, inspired  by a trip to Idaho, has created a varied and beautifully hand-crafted suite of books. A particular favorite of mine was Boise Aquarium, a tunnel book that features tiny silver fish swimming within a paper proscenium. (The tunnel book  was new to me, and several artists created these for the exhibit. This form had its origin in the 18th century as an easily portable souvenir for tourists.)

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Jack O. Summer’s Mapaloopsa,  in which he meticulously re-configures various maps into an invented  world atlas, humorously illustrates globalization and mass migration.  In one map, Dearborn meets Quebec, which has sidled up against Burma. We are sharing a smaller and smaller planet with new neighbors who make strange bedfellows.

The block book form receives special attention from several artists in this exhibition. These collections of wooden blocks lend themselves to the exploration of multi-sided meaning and the ordering and reordering activity it allows. In Blocks of Time by Ruth Bardenstein,  each constituent block side  contains ancient alphabets or astronomical images or clock components.   Alvey Jones’s  Encrypted Alphabet addresses the written word and constructed  meaning. One side of each block has a picture inscribed with  a written word that bears no obvious relation to the accompanying picture, leaving the viewer to puzzle out the implied relationship.

Books with digital components make an appearance here too, with Barbara Brown and Howard White’s Midsummer, a tunnel book with video.  The most conceptually complex artwork in the exhibit, to my mind, is  Algorhithms by Ian McLellen Davis and Meghan Leigh Forbes. This is a collection of pamphlet musical exercise books which can be played in any order with an accompanying “music box” of recorded fragments which can be activated by the listener (who then becomes the “player”). Added to all this are some  beautifully produced pamphlet books containing bits of Roland Barthes’ intriguing thoughts on music available for the taking (I took one).

I spent quite a bit of time in Book+Paper Arts without ever feeling I  had completely grasped all the formal and thematic intricacies of the exhibited works.  I only wish that more space within the gallery had been  devoted to the exhibit. I realize that in a commercial gallery space is money, but these pieces deserved more room than they got.  A few more inches around each piece (or even an additional wall) would have contributed a lot to my enjoyment of this museum-quality small show.

Artists in this show include: Ruth Bardenstein, Barbara Brown, Meghan Forbes, Alvey Jones, Ian McLellan Davis, Norma Penchansky-Glasser, Susan Skarsgard, Jack O. Summers, Ted Ramsay, Howard White.

For more information about WSG Gallery go here

 

Pictured clockwise from top: Encrypted  Alphabet by Alvey Jones, Alphabet Pop-Up by Susan Skarsgard, Blocks of Time by Ruth Bardenstein, Idaho by Norma Penchansky Glasser, Mapaloopsa by Jack O. Summers

 

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State of the Nation

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American Odyssey by Jim Aho

How do you describe a big, contradictory, many-faceted place like the United States of America?  That is what Real American, the juried group show on view from now until August 13 at the Ann Arbor Art Center aims to do. What you see in this country right now  depends on where you are standing and the juror, eminent Ann Arbor-based photojournalist Peter Baker, treats us to his personal view of not just  one America but several.

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The New American Heritage by Shawn Quinlan

The America that gets the most attention in this sprawling exhibit is  loud, materialistic, individualistic, restless and consumerist. Many of the best works in this vein are photographs, perhaps reflecting Mr. Baker’s special area of expertise. Errol Daniel’s photograph of Florian Ayana Fauna shows a youth in surroundings meant to depict her (his?) highly idiosyncratic values. But this young Goth doesn’t seem happy about it.   Bored young men pose with energy drinks in front of an unlovely supermarket in Monster Energy, Tulsa, a large scale photograph by Dan Farnum. Corporate logos, junk food and cars are the stuff of worship in Contemporary Totem by Jonathan Frey.

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Contemporary Totem by Jonathan Frey

America as the land of the restless  gets some attention in Jaye Schlesinger’s beautifully painted gouaches. In Too Much Fun she captures the backside of a family car (no doubt a gas guzzler), covered in leisure equipment on a mission to have fun at all costs.

Perhaps the most perfect embodiment of  this view of America as the sum of its material parts is Shawn Quinlan’s The New American Heritage, which is also the  winner of the Best in Show Award. This is an outrageously garish but well crafted and carefully composed quilt that combines a classic American artform with pop imagery, cooking up a chaotic, patriotic, consumerist stew. A melancholy Bozo the Clown towers over the  diminutive figures of George Washington, Uncle Sam and Abraham Lincoln surrounded by well-known symbols of the nation. All hell seems to be breaking loose below.

And could any exhibit about America  right now not include the current spokesman for America First, Donald  Trump?  John Posa delivers a hilarious painterly take-down of the Donald, his rough and flaky face topped by a furry  coiffure, part toupee, part coonskin cap. In a similar satirical vein, Barbara Melnik Carson’s Armed American is a stern Lady Liberty who stands on guard, no longer welcoming but fully locked and loaded, ready to repel the invading hordes.

There is another America to be seen in Real American, lurking under the surface and often drowned out by the craziness and comedy of the dominant theme. This America  is a quieter land of big spaces and solitude. Seder Burns’ photo RV Camped for the Night on BLM Land in CO. is a lyrical picture of the unspoiled land that belongs to every American, claimed for a night by one traveler.

In this America, citizens love their country, sincerely if not uncritically.   In Conduct Becoming #24 , C.J. Breil  shows a  veteran, quietly heroic and proud of his and his family’s service in a prosaic American setting. In the large photo portrait Mitchelene Big Man, Crow Indian/Iraq Veteran by Melissa Lynn, a woman embraces her dual American identity, wearing her Native American regalia while holding an American flag.  And Tina Blondell has painted  Antimony as Nubia, in which a young African American  woman presents herself as a confident, larger-than-life superhero.

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Conduct Becoming #24 by C.J. Breil

A ghostly American flag  made of wire and string (Flag by Dietmar Krumrey) seems to say that America is more than its material parts, not just a place but an idea.  The flag is again a stand-in for the nation in American Odyssey by Jim Aho, worn and damaged and bullet pocked, but still recognizable.

It’s tempting to pick one America or the other.  Is it a nation defined by its materialism, its corporate logos, its crazy politics? Or is it a spacious spiritual  home for ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all?  Of course, this is a false distinction, or to put it another way, two sides of the same American silver dollar.  The same values that favor self expression also favor isolation and alienation.  The unbridled pursuit of prosperity can create a nightmarish culture where everything is monetized. The flip side of patriotism can be ugly bigotry.

Being American requires  constant balancing and rebalancing, defining and re-defining, in real time, of our shared values: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Real American is part of that ongoing conversation.

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Antimony as Nubia by Tina Blondell

For more about Ann Arbor Art Center’s 117 Gallery, go here.

 Artists in Real American: Jim  Aho (Huntington Woods, MI), Mark  Bleshinski (Bay City, MI),Tina  Blondell (Minneapolis, MN), C.J.  Breil (Ann Arbor, MI), Sarah Buddendeck (Ann Arbor, MI), Seder  Burns (Ann Arbor, MI), Barbara  Melnik Carson  (Ann Arbor, MI), Vanessa Compton (Greensboro, VT), Errol Daniels (East Amherst, NY), Keith  Downie (Muskegon, MI), Dan Farnum (Tulsa, OK), Kathie  Foley-Meyer (Los Angeles, CA), Heather  Freeman (Charlotte, NC), Jonathan  Frey (Lewisburg, PA), David  Gardner (San Francisco, CA), Sarah Hahn (Cleveland, OH), Amber  Harrison (Ann Arbor, MI), Christian Helser (Grand Rapids, MI), Dietmar Krumrey (Clare, MI), Melissa Lynn (Denver, CO), Astrid  Muller-Karger (Ann Arbor, MI), I.B.  Murphy (Marine on St. Croix, MN), John Posa (Ann Arbor, MI), Shawn Quinlan (Pittsburgh, PA), Jim Rehlin (Ann Arbor, MI), Jaye Schlesinger (Ann Arbor, MI), Geoffrey  Stein (New York, NY), Marilynn Thomas (Warren, MI), Seth  Trent (Chandler, AZ), Tamara Wasserman (Chicago, IL), Timothy Wells (Ypsilanti, MI), Chad  Yenney (Wenatchee, WA), Micah  Zavacky (Dayton, OH)

 

Re-imagining the Art Gallery

 

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Steel Skin 2016 by George Rahme

 

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.

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Installation by George Rahme and Chris McGraw

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. 

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objects curated by Chris McGraw

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:

Stars. Comets. Gravitational Waves.

Zeigler 50 Light Year Wide View, Star Birth and Death
50 Light Year Wide View, Star Birth and Death, by Eric Zeigler 44″ H x 91 W

In a week when human folly and violence are on full display, it can be  a relief to view our world through the wrong end of a telescope, reminding ourselves that we inhabit only a small and relatively unimportant corner of the cosmos.  Artist Eric Zeigler has made this possible and palatable in underlying, a handsomely curated collection of archival pigment prints from sources as diverse as the Hubble Space Telescope and Fermilab’s particle accelerator. The show, which is on view from now through July 30 at River House Gallery in Toledo, Ohio, is an exploration of images made possible by our ever increasing technological means of perception.

In underlying, Zeigler casts his photographer’s curious gaze over the universe, examining everything from a minute and rare instance of  subatomic neutrino interaction to a star’s birth and death. Since the artist must rely (mostly) on images gathered from public sources, the essence of his unique work lies in his editing choices, framing, print color and scale. He has captured a few images directly, such as his  Meteorite, a slice of which he has photographed.  But I’m aware even as I write this that I am making a false distinction, because like all photographers, Zeigler’s considerable talent is in his eye and mind, translated through the technological devices that capture visual information, no matter how rudimentary or advanced.

Zeigler describes his wonder at seeing for the first time in 2015 a clear image of Pluto, previously visible only as a “several pixel-wide blur”.   He marvels too, at how our perception of time is altered by the knowledge that many of the images coming through our telescopes are of objects many light years away which, in fact, no longer exist. And in Milky Seas, he shows that even in our own natural world there are mysteries yet to be solved.

Zeigler Neutrinon Interaction by Eric Zeigler 40" H x 36"W
Neutrino Interaction by Eric Zeigler 40″ H x 36″W

Since its widespread introduction in 1839, photography has put documentation of the visible world within reach of just about everyone. Now with technological advances, human perception has gone beyond what we can see and record with the naked eye. And it can be argued that these most recent advances in our ability to quantify the universe are simply a development and elaboration of inventions–the telescope and compound microscope– by Dutch scientists in late 16th and early 17th centuries, during a period in history when observation of the natural world held particular fascination. The  creation of lavish botanical encyclopædias recording discoveries in the Western Hemisphere and in  Asia, the beginning of scientific illustration and the classification of specimens and even the invention of still life genre painting  were all features of this seminal  period of humanist thought. Eric Zeigler’s  work can be understood as another step on a road  already well paved with discovery and invention.

The theme of underlying is, ultimately,  that mystery still surrounds us, both near and far. The natural world and the universe beyond it is full of marvels yet to be discovered. And we can take some comfort in the knowledge that the thrill of discovery so intrinsic to human nature is still available to us.