During the winter of 2022, The Detroit Institute of the Arts organized a tightly focused but comprehensive survey of masterpieces by women artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. “By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800” spotlights compelling stories and transcendent artworks by the anomalous female Italian art stars who managed to make remarkable art—and conduct successful careers–in an age when few women had access to the knowledge and tools to make art at all. You can read my review of the exhibition–which closes on May 29– here.
Category Archives: Museum Exhibitions
Subscribers to this blog might think that I’ve taken the summer off from writing about art in the Great Lakes region. But I haven’t, I swear!
I’ve written about experimental printmaker Takeshi Takahara, Ann Arbor painter Sarah Innes, Detroit artists Lester Johnson and the late Gilda Snowden, and about Detroit’s public art, past and present.
I just neglected to include links on this blog–so… sorry, I’ll try to do better going forward.
In its September edition, New Art Examiner will be printing my review of Landlord Colors at Cranbrook Museum of Art. I will be sure to alert you.
The World To Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene
I just wrote a review of this beautiful and devastating exhibit, now on view at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. It makes a powerful case for action on climate change, but will we respond? To read the full review, go here
Shakespeare’s Characters: Playing the Part
Few playwrights–fewer than I can count on two hands–can match William Shakepeare’s popularity over time. Four hundred years after his death, he is universally revered, frequently performed and freely adapted. The compact exhibit Shakespeare’s Characters: Playing the Part, on display now through January 8 in Gallery 6 of the Toledo Museum of Art, celebrates the playwright’s continuing relevance to literature, visual art and theater.
Using paintings, prints and artifacts from the museum’s collection as well as a few pieces from private collectors and from the Blade Rare Book Room of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, Mellon Fellow Christina Larson has curated a fascinating exhibit that traces the path of Shakespeare’s plays through time and taste. She explains:
“We saw this [the 400th anniversary] as a great opportunity to honor the Bard with an exhibition. The focus on Shakespeare’s characters came about after I had looked at Shakespeare-related artwork on view and in storage. This seemed like the unifying theme and one that would likely grasp the attention of the public …Overall, the exhibition is about inspiration and influence. Shakespeare’s characters were greatly influenced by mythology and medieval tales, while his plays and sonnets have influenced visual artists and musicians”
Since she was limited in her curatorial choices to works available in the Toledo area, for Playing the Part Larson has occasionally been forced to draw comparisons between artworks and plays which are not among Shakespeare’s best or most frequently produced. The never popular–and possibly never produced– Troilus and Cressida is represented, rather tangentially, by a beautiful Greek calyx krater attributed to the Rycroft Painter. But Shakespeare’s popular and frequently performed Hamlet seems to have been a great favorite as a subject among visual artists of the 18th and 19th century and is amply represented here. Ophelia in particular was a literary figure of great interest, the pure female victim being a favorite trope of the time, and is seen in this exhibit most memorably in Arthur Hughes’s large portrait of the doomed heroine. This lushly painted canvas, the curator’s favorite in the exhibit, is restrained and moody and loaded with late Victorian symbolism if you know what to look for. This is a major work by the pre-Raphaelite artist and one of the most famous in the museum’s collection. Delacroix’s small lithograph of Ophelia, from a series of 13 he created, treats the same subject in a more theatrical vein, and an etching by Eduard Manet of the actor Philibert Rauviere as Hamlet shows that interest in Shakespeare’s plays was not limited to the English.
Because Playing the Part is a temporary exhibit, the curator was able to include work that, because of its delicacy, age or condition could not be installed in the museum’s more permanently displayed collection.
“Much of the exhibition features prints and photographs. Due to conservation concerns around lighting, this artwork cannot be on permanent view, so an exhibition is the perfect opportunity to feature the artwork for a shorter duration of time,” Larson says.
Photographs by George Platt Lynes (1907-1955), of actors in a production of A Midsummer’s Night ‘s Dream are a particularly good example of rare artworks on limited view. Lynes, a photographer of the 1930’s and 40’s, was noted for his theatrical and fashion photography as well as male nude photographs now in the collection of the Kinsey Institute. Another lovely and more contemporary example of rare book art is Ronald King’s unbound, handwritten text with drawings, of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra (1979).
Shakespeare’s plays enjoyed renewed popularity across all classes in 18th century Britain as can be seen in the many volumes reprinting and illustrating his plays in this exhibit. For both the social elite and the newly prosperous English middle class of the time, the vogue for reprinted editions of his works illustrated their emerging patriotic and egalitarian ideals as the British Empire became a global power. The Boydell Shakespeare Folio, 5 engravings from which are represented in this exhibit, was emblematic of the veritable Shakespeare industry that developed during this period.
Of the many delights in this eclectic show, my personal favorite is Iago’s Mirror (2009) by African American artist Fred Wilson. This sinister, opaque-yet-reflective baroque mirror of Murano glass is a (literal) reflection on blackness with all its moral, spiritual and racial implications, and shows that Shakespeare’s timeless story of jealousy, villainy and death in Venice remains resonant for contemporary artists and audiences.
Playing the Part establishes without a doubt that William Shakespeare found his genius while rummaging around in the cultural closet of western civilization. The enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s art comes, not from the conceptual novelty of its premises but from the originality of its execution. He could make a threadbare story feel fresh, the unbelievable seem inevitable, the fanciful seem irresistible. His greatness still resonates with visual artists and has inspired them in turn to create works of genius.
In addition to the works on display in this exhibit, Christina Larson and the staff at the Toledo Museum of Art have assembled a packed schedule of related programming, from lectures to film to musical and theatrical performances. And there’s even a Spotify playlist of Shakespeare’s sonnets and music inspired by Shakespeare. For related museum programs go here
Hot Spot in the Glass City
Blown, cast, cut, colored or clear, opaque or translucent, artworks made from glass have a seductive quality that is hard to resist. Hot Spot: Contemporary Glass from Private Collections, marks the tenth anniversary of the Toledo Museum of Art’s Glass Pavilion. The exhibit, on view now through September 18, includes more than 80 works, many of which are promised gifts to the museum.
Glass, in industry and in art, has a particularly symbiotic relationship with Toledo. When Edward Drummond Libbey moved his family-owned business, New England Glass Works, from Massachusetts to Ohio in 1888, he brought the technical expertise that would make Toledo a center for manufactured glass, first as tableware and then as a producer of electric lights, automobile parts and building materials. Libbey was also one of the co-founders in 1901 of the Toledo Museum of Art and its most important benefactor. Along with initial funds donated for building the museum, Libbey remained a major donor until his death in 1925, after which Florence Scott Libbey continued to give generously to the museum. In 1962, The museum allowed a glass studio to be built in a garage on the museum grounds and with expert advice from glass makers at Libbey-Owens-Ford, the studio glass movement was born. In 1969, the Toledo Museum of Art became the first museum ever to create a glass studio to train artists in the use of glass as a medium. In 2006, the Glass Pavilion, housing the glass studio and the museum’s extensive glass collection, was built.
From my walk through Hot Spot, it became clear to me that glass is a protean medium, hard to pin down or to quantify. Some pieces are very focused on the impressive craft involved (Mantidi Cruising by Emanuel Toffalo), others are more conceptual in ambition (Point of View by Christopher Ries). One of the great challenges in the installation is to create a sense of logic and organization from objects disparate in color, translucency, method, and most of all, in intent. The curator has here chosen to group the artworks by category for clarification (Built Environment, Natural World, Human Figure and the like) but it seemed to me that the objects could have just as easily been organized by color, type of glass technique employed or source of the piece (I found I liked the works collected by Margy and Scott Trumbull the most).
The general effect of the exhibit is a bit diffuse. The space itself has a kind of unfocused quality due to the wall-less, all-window architecture and the variously translucent or transparent qualities of much of the work. I seemed to be looking through things rather than at them much of the time. But in spite of these distractions, I liked some of the individual pieces very much. In particular I was delighted to find a large piece by Steffen Dam, my favorite glass artist of all time. His hybrid blown and hot-worked glass compositions are a magical evocation of the natural world, at once matter-of -fact and ethereal. I also liked Light In by Ann Wolff, a cast glass piece which seemed to illustrate a body in motion over time.
Some of the pieces were a bit too decorative to please and gave off a whiff of art fair whimsy, but on the whole this is an impressive survey of fine art in a medium much beloved in the Glass City.
For more information about the exhibit go here
The Return of Nancy Mitchnick
Nearly the first thing that you will hear about the painter Nancy Mitchnick, who has recently returned to her native Detroit to live, is that she was a member of the influential Cass Corridor Group back in the day. This diverse group of artists from the 70’s showed their work in Detroit Institute of Art’s 1980 exhibition Kick Out The Jams at a time when civic art museums (and the DIA in particular) were more open to supporting regional artists. The show looms large in the history of art in Detroit as a touchstone of particular significance.
But it seems to me not so interesting that Mitchnick started out here, but that she has come back, bringing with her 40 years of experience on the coasts, both east (New York, Boston) and west (Los Angeles) as an artist and painter. In her current solo show at MOCAD, Nancy Mitchnick: Uncalibrated, it’s clear that she has something to say about her past and present home town and ample technical means with which to say it.
Most artists who paint or photograph the city are preoccupied with Detroit’s decrepit commercial architecture. Buildings like Michigan Central Depot and the Packard Plant come in for quite a bit of this attention as stand-ins for the decay of the city. As such, much of this work has become a visual cliche sometimes referred to as “ruin porn”. By contrast, Mitchnick’s pictures are highly personal and grounded in her particular mode of expression as well as in the particularity of her subjects.
Mitchnick grew up in Detroit, and many if the paintings in this show are portraits of the domestic architecture of her former neighborhood, including her childhood home on Buffalo Street. The houses she paints are of frame construction and vulnerable to destruction by fire and neglect. In these pictures they are shown in their entirety, squared off frontally, and many urban features such as signage and utility lines are edited out. In consequence the paintings are both rural and urban in tone, a perfect distillation of many Detroit neighborhoods now.
It should be noted that most of the paintings are quite large, giving the impression that you are physically standing in front of the house. So in case you think you are getting an accurate impression of this work by looking at it online, think again. You will only be able to fully appreciate these artworks by standing in the same room with them.
Mitchnick’s many years of working as an artist on the coasts are evident in the ambitious scale of the paintings and in her assured brush work and accomplished composition. Two predominantly pink paintings hung side by side (Good Neighbors) made me think of Diebenkorn’s abstractions with their large fields of pastel color and implied grid. And the infringement of the natural world on Detroit’s decaying built environment put me in mind of some landscapes by Alex Katz. She describes the inevitable effects of time and nature on everything human and human-made; the effect is elegaic.
It is worthwhile when you visit MOCAD to look at the vitrine installed in the center of the gallery. It contains a number of sketches and photographs used by the artist to research her paintings. There can hardly be a clearer contrast between the relative strengths of two media than in a comparison of the photo of a burned out house and the corresponding painting Big Burn.The black and white photo is cool,stark and feels archival, while the painting is nostalgic, emotional, and captures the fleeting moment in time. Also in the vitrine is an enlightening picture related to the large painting Nancy and Mimi from Another Planet, in which painter and her mother are depicted as classical Roman caryatids, separated by insurmountable distance and backed by two miniature versions of Mitchnick’s paintings.
Mitchnick’s perspective as a painter is different from that of many artists who have been in the city throughout its troubles. Painting as an artistic mode of expression is not so favored here in Detroit, photography, collage, installation and assemblage being preferred for their more immediate incorporation of the substance of the city. Perhaps it is distrust for the lyrical qualities of painting that seems to be at odds with the surrounding environment, or maybe it’s uneasiness with the necessity for every painting to express not only the issues of the moment, but also to address its place in art history and to make a case for its inclusion in that history going forward. In any case, Mitchnick seems to have no trouble with that and this alone makes her a valuable addition to the visual arts scene in Detroit.
One of the most thrilling things in this show to my mind as a working artist, is Mitchnick’s willingness to take risks in her art as exemplified by two new paintings at the entrance to the show, Night Heron and White Front. In these two unresolved paintings, the artist seems to be fearlessly headed in a more expressionistic direction. In Night Heron, she begins to incorporate objects (totems?) like snakes, vegetables, objects and the like, superimposed on a formalized version of a house. Also included is a rather awkwardly drawn, almost life-size female figure cribbed from an Indian miniature. Mitchnick is wrestling with some very interesting countervailing forces within these paintings, and her future course is unclear but intriguing.
As the city of Detroit shifts and stirs beneath our feet, we need artists of brilliance to visually record and comment on this moment in the city’s history. Nancy Mitchnick is uniquely suited to be foremost among those. Her particular devotion to the medium of painting and her status as a master artist will go some way in rounding out visual culture in Detroit. Nancy Mitchnick: Uncalibrated will be on view at MOCAD from now through July 31, 2016. For more information go here
Beauty is Strange…
…and this strangeness differentiates it from prettiness, which is no ordinary thing.” Fred Tomaselli 2008
In Keep Looking: Fred Tomaselli’s Birds, now on exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art, the artworks first soothe and attract, then disquiet and disturb. This show is part of a series featuring bird-related imagery which is held biennially in conjunction with a prominent yearly convention of birders in the Toledo area. While this is as good a pretext as any for bringing this work to the rust belt, it doesn’t begin to describe the importance and interest of this artist.
I have been a fan of Fred Tomaselli’s paintings for years, and looked forward to this golden opportunity to see them in person without buying a plane ticket (thanks TMA!) This show includes 5 paintings, a tapestry and a few assorted works on paper, all installed in Gallery 6 of the museum’s contemporary art wing.
The first thing you respond to in looking at a Tomaselli painting is its sheer obsessive and hallucinatory beauty. The paintings feature layers of meticulously collaged images covered in resin and then over-painted. The black backgrounds evoke night skies and acid trips. Though it isn’t mentioned in the accompanying museum text, it’s clear that Tomaselli is no stranger to altered states.
I loved all these paintings, but my favorite was Bird Battle (1997). The subdued palette and obsessive repetition of cutout birds with human eyes and (actual) hemp leaves put me in mind of some outsider visionary art. From a distance the painting delivers a pleasurable punch of decorative pattern. But as you draw near you see that this is a savage battle of all against all. Birds attack each other in the air and in the trees, with many lying newly dead on the ground. Tomaselli has distilled in one image all the beauty and all the cruelty of nature. In other pieces in this show, birds attack each other (Bird Mob), eat insects (Starling) and steal fruit (Migrant Fruit Thugs) but because the paintings are so intricately gorgeous you can’t look away. You must keep looking.
Keep Looking: Fred Tomaselli’s Birds is on exhibit until August 7. To see this must-see work and to get more information about hours and directions to the Toledo Museum of Art go here