The Alchemist’s Dream, a three-person exhibit of work by metalsmith Tom Muir, ceramicist Tom Marino …and me, K.A. Letts, will open tomorrow night at 20 North Gallery in Toledo. The exhibit will be on view until December 24.
I’m delighted to be showing my work alongside these two distinguished and very talented artists. For more information about our work, gallery location and hours, go here
My photographer friend, Chuck Mintz will be exhibiting his photographs of the Lustron Houses–and the people who live in them–at the Crooked Tree Art Center in Traverse City until November 13. The Lustron houses were pre-fabricated, enameled steel houses developed in the post-World War II era in the U.S. in response to the shortage of homes for returning G.I.s. There are still some around. Chuck has focused on the current inhabitants and the changes they have made over the years.
Chuck will be making an online presentation October 22 between 10 and 11 a.m. EDT. For more information go here.
And bonus! Crooked Tree Art Center is selling copies of his book, Lustron Stories. Might be time to make a trip Up North.
Well, here we are in the “summer of uncertain vibes.” It’s not the summer we were hoping for, with masks discarded and indoor dining routine. The pandemic has decided it isn’t quite finished with us yet, but there’s still art out there to see in Detroit.
The folks at David Klein Gallery are taking a glass-half-full attitude to our current predicament, with a colorful and energetic exhibit of work by seven resolutely upbeat artists. Best Times might relieve your Covid anxiety, at least temporarily. The show is on view until August 28, and you can read my full review here.
The next issue of New Art Examiner has just gone to press. This time around, I wrote three reviews of Detroit artists. Justin Marshall and Rachel Pontious, both painters, are fairly young and their work, to me, showed signs of the trauma they have endured during the pandemic. Carole Harris, a more established artist, seems to have sailed through the past year, producing a body of work that shows that, at this point, she can really do no wrong. You can read my review of her solo show at Hill Gallery here.
You can read my review of Rachel Pontious’s solo show Mise en Abyme at Playground Detroit here.
You can read my review of Justin Marshall’s solo show The End at Public Pool here.
Installation at Cranbrook Museum of Art, Mixing Chamber in foreground
With Eyes Opened surveys the history of Cranbrook Academy since its official founding in 1932. With more than 250 works representing the various programs of study at the school, the exhibition is a huge, somewhat disorganized, survey that’s full of treasures. To read the official account you can go here. I wrote a review of the show for Detroit Art Review which you can read here.
I recently wrote a review of the exhibit Beyond Words, at WSG Gallery, for Ann Arbor’s online culture magazine Pulp. The eighth in a series of group shows featuring book art by Great Lakes regional artists, Beyond Words was curated by Barbara Brown. To read more, go here
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
“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.
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.
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.
The Detroit art scene is in the midst of changes. Over the last year or two, shiny new galleries like Wasserman Projects, David Klein and Gallerie Camille have established themselves in downtown and midtown, with regular hours and regular shows. But for those of us who like to hunt for art in less established–and less gentrified–corners of the city, there are still new discoveries to be made.The Factory at 333 Midland in Highland Park is one of them.
This rambling, 23,000-square-foot industrial complex, formerly the Lewis Manufacturing and Stamping plant, was recently purchased by New Zealand-born sculptor Robert Onnes and provides studios for himself and 17 other artists. The space is still in the process of being upgraded–they are raising money to put in heat this winter– but that hasn’t stopped them from putting on an ambitious group show that is installed throughout the main building and its nearby, newly-opened exhibit gallery. Big Sculpture@The Factory includes work by over 50 artists and displays more than 200 sculptures and installations, both large and small. It is open on weekends only until October 22. Music, food, drink, and scheduled artist talks are thrown in for good measure. On the day I attended there were plenty of visitors taking it all in.
Artists in Big Sculpture range from emerging to eminent, with a few of my favorites represented by some of their most ambitious work. Mega Bat, by Tim Pewe, has a wingspan of over 17 feet, and hovers overhead in the studio of the owner, Robert Onnes, who makes visually massive but lightweight formalized figurative sculptures. His Kiwi, a birdlike shape that rests outside the building in an open courtyard with other large scale sculptures, elegantly references his land of origin.
Some of the smaller works in Big Sculpture are displayed in a room adjacent to the main studio, and include the delicate, toy-like yet slightly sinister assemblages of Catherine Peet. Wall sconces made of old metal toy trucks by Alvaro Jurado light the hallway. One of my favorite pieces in the show, Hell in a Handbasket by Sandra Osip, leans up against a wall nearby. A collection of tiny houses made from scraps of demolished Detroit homes is piled high in a wheelbarrow, stacked and ready to be discarded like so many of the city’s derelict structures. It’s both playful and sad.
It’s impossible to describe all of the imaginatively conceived and well-made works in Big Sculpture. In spite of the rough surroundings, the overall mood of the exhibit is light-hearted and inventive. There were plenty of visual puns like Melancholy Hammer by Adnan Charara and Chris Zagacki’s Hook, Line and Sinker. Single Digit, by Rick Cronn, literally gives us the finger.
The new exhibit space in the smaller building adjacent to the main structure houses yet another trove of excellent work; Inuit Spirit by Tom Phardel and Beings Connected by Charles McGee were standouts. A newly constructed balcony wraps around the periphery of the gallery. It provides a more intimate venue for smaller works like Architectural Exploration by Leah Waldo, one of a series of block-like objects of cast glass, steel and low-fire soft brick. Also notable are the felt and wood constructions of Susan Aaron-Taylor. I particularly liked Fears, which shows a mouse-like creature trapped in a ribbed structure. Ann Smith, one of the artists I met during my visit, told me that other exhibits will be scheduled in the new gallery space, though there is no published schedule yet.
Hook, Line and Sinker by Chris Zagacki
Fears by Susan Aaron-Taylor
Bird Clown Listening to the Messenger by Catherine Peet
Beings Connected by Charles McGee
Architectural Exploration by Leah Waldo
Single Digit by Rick Cronn
There’s still time to see Big Sculpture! The exhibit is on view until October 22 and by appointment. For more information and to check on scheduled events, go here.
Artists exhibiting in Big Sculpture: Susan Aaron-Taylor, Anita Bates, Richard Bennett, Peter Bernal, Robert Bielat, Betty Brownlee, Coco Bruner, Scott Campbell, Doug Cannell, Cruz Castillo, Hannah Chalew, Adnan Charara, Christina Cioffari, Leslie Cislo, Rick Cronn, Joe Culver, Olayami Dabis, Pam Day, Sergio De Giusti, Todd Erickson, Mark Esse, Eric Froh, Sean Hages, Al Hebert, Alvaro Jurado, Ray Katz, Dawnice Kerchaert, Eno Laget &Jerome Brown, Terry Lee Dill, Jay Lefkowitz, Lindsay McCosh, Charles McGee, Steve Mealy, Robert Mirek, Carlos Nielbock, Israel and Erik Nordin, Robert Onnes, Sandra Osip, Catherine Peet, Tim Pewe, Scott Pfaffman, Tom Phardel, Kathy Rose Pizzo, Sharon Que, Hayden Richer, zmichael Ross, John Sauve, Robert Sestok, Richard Skelton, Ann Smith, Jeanette Strezinski, Lois Teicher, Kathy Toth, Eric Troffkin, Leah Waldo, Graem Whyte, Albert Young, Chris Zagacki.
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. Andthere’s even a Spotify playlist of Shakespeare’s sonnets and music inspired by Shakespeare. For related museum programs go here