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
We live in a hyper-literate age of endless imagery and short attention spans.
We seldom pause–and really, when do we have time?–to consider the process by which we create meaning for ourselves from the constant interaction of words and pictures in books, magazines, on television and the web, on our phones.
In Text/Image, now on view until June 3 in Ann Arbor Art Center’s Gallery 117, Detroit-based artist/curator Jack O. Summers has thoughtfully collected for our consideration some artworks that refer to everyday objects whose meanings “are enhanced or subverted by the multi-dimensional interplay of text and images.” The exhibit concentrates on still imagery, leaving aside the more kinetic treatments of text and image interaction such as video and animation.
There are several artists represented in Text/Image who are well known in Detroit for their absurdist take on the news and pop culture, using the vocabulary of comics and newspaper to communicate their point of view. Ryan Standfest, gifted printmaker, founder of the Rotland Press and trickster artist, composes headlines for his imaginary tabloid newspaper the Modern Vulgarian (#1) that raise more questions than they answer and classified ads that go gleefully off the rails.
William Schudlich, illustrator and self-proclaimed “social zoologist” is clearly a kindred spirit. Schudlich’s images employ the visual vocabulary of disposable print media such as comic strips and have the look of early to mid-20th century comics. He approaches visual challenges, he says, “with a dark sense of humor whenever possible.” Tom Carey’s large relief prints, while ostensibly mining the same classic content as Schudlich and Standfest, project a more modern effect with their vivid colors and lively compositions. The small wooden mutoscopes (flipbooks in wooden boxes operated by pushbutton) created by Andy Malone also fit comfortably with the sensibilities of Schudlich and Standfest by appropriating of a vintage craft and re-purposing it to make a modern statement.
Two notable Detroit photographers, Christopher Schneider and Bruce Giffen, appear in Text/Image. In Schneider’s Underdog, the word “Hamtramck” printed on the young football player’s jersey adds context and pathos to the inward-looking figure, isolated as his teammate looks away toward the light and movement of the game. His fellow photographer Bruce Giffen, whose sharp and poetic eye is trained on Detroit at all times and in all seasons, juxtaposes text with context for special resonance in his photo Stay In School.
Taurus Burns, Dencel Deneau, Jaye Schlesinger and Amy Fell all engage in the reification of the ordinary, each one observing with care and archiving with skill the unglamorous objects and often unsightly minutiae of the urban landscape. Deneau’s small glass mosaics, in particular, are improbably lovely memorials to fleeting moments in the life of a city.
Moving from the grittily observational to the poetic, Scott Northrup’s gauzy collages are cinematic and nostalgia-soaked. Self-Portrait with Fruit by John Gutoskey is somehow both cheerful and sad, and recalls the innocence and the pain of a young boy growing up gay in the Midwest. Like Gutoskey’s quasi-installation, Believers by Catherine Peet hardly needs text to make its point, harking back to medieval altars of a pre-literate age.
Before the printing press and universal literacy, the visual impact of letters was as important as the narrative meaning. Randy Asplund creates contemporary works using the same methods as medieval illuminators; the pigments, grounds, text and image are all carefully chosen for their symbolic resonance, each re-enforcing the meaning of the other elements. Taking the opposite tack, Alvey Jones subverts the meaning of text in Language Text and Circuit Board. Each element of the artwork is designed to be unintelligible–the book is (literally) Greek to us, the circuit board holds its meaning in a code we are unable to penetrate.
Barbara Brown, eminent Ann Arbor book artist and curator of a yearly survey of all things art and book-related, entitled Beyond Words, here uses her collection of handmade building blocks, Metropolis, to think playfully about the way reordering words or letters can alter narrative.
Text/Image can be understood best as a survey featuring a cast of accomplished artists, any one of whom could fill the gallery with well-crafted and well-thought-out work. The art in this exhibit thoughtfully uses language and image together to address a variety of themes from autobiography to social commentary, and while curator Jack O. Summers has put together an interesting and beautiful exhibit, the subject is far from exhausted and possibly never can be.
For more information about Text/Image go here
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
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
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.”
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”.
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.)
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