I recently wrote an article about the Detroit art scene for Chicago’s New Art Examiner, focusing on three organizations/projects that seemed to me to exemplify important features of Detroit and its artists right now. 1XRun, Playground Detroit and the North End neighborhood’s American Riad project demonstrate the entrepreneurial creativity, DIY energy, and artistic/social inclusiveness that I see in the city. I’m sorry I couldn’t write about more of the Detroit’s great galleries and projects, but that would take a book, not a magazine article. To read what I wrote, go here
I just wrote a review of Detroit artist Allie McGhee’s exhibit Cosmic Images 2000 for AADL Pulp. His work will be on view in Ann Arbor at the Rotunda Gallery, Building 18 of U of M’s North Campus Research Center through August 31. You can check it out here.
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.
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
Newly arrived from the suburbs, Wasserman Projects art gallery is what I hope the future art spaces of Detroit will look like-clean, well lit, and elegant (and open more than once a week for 3 hours!) The museum-quality treatment that Esther Shevel-Gerz’s Space Between Time receives from the gallery convinced me that I needed to look more carefully at her work than I would otherwise be inclined to, since I’m not a great fan of conceptual art generally.
Esther Shevel-Gerz employs a visual idiom that I would call high academic. She combines video, art photography and text to convey her recurring themes: the fugitive nature of memory, the inexorable passage of time and inevitable loss. Although they are a little forbidding at first approach, her art works are actually fairly straightforward (with one exception which I will get to later). They are a kind of institutional art, each one having been installed originally for a specific museum, school or cultural institution. Shelev-Gertz’s works are related very closely to the sites for which they are conceived and often incorporate the people who work at or attend that institution. You, as the viewer, are called upon to imagine them installed in that setting in order to appreciate them fully.
The most accessible and appealing work, to my mind, was created for the Municipal Library of Vancouver and is entitled The Open Page. It is a suite of high resolution, large-format photos of antique rare books selected by the librarians from the locked stacks of their library. Each one is tenderly held in the disembodied hands of its keeper. The reverent love of the librarians for these beautiful objects is palpable.
The most conceptually challenging work, Inseparable Angels, is a quasi-installation. A video with audio, two black and white photographs, two color photos, a clock that runs both forward and back, and accompanying text are displayed along a back wall of the gallery. All of this was originally installed in the upper story of a house at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. In Inseparable Angels Shevel-Gerz imagines a home for Walter Benjamin, a prominent philosopher who committed suicide in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis. The video records a 15 minute trip from Weimar to Auschwitz. The taxi driver recounts various “sights” along the way, all of which appear only in his memory, as they no longer exist in fact. The 2 adjacent color photos represent sites where now-absent places once stood.
The accompanying text refers to his journal, Angelus Novus. This was also the title of a Paul Klee painting of the same name (which Benjamin owned). In spite of its sweet appearance, this angel was far from benign. For Benjamin this was the angel of history:
“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
The work that may resonate most with a Detroit audience though, is Describing Labor, created for the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach, Florida. A split screen video shows interviews with the museum personnel, each of whom has chosen an artwork that shows people engaging in manual labor. The interviews create a peculiar kind of double vision; mind workers talking about manual workers as if they are anthropologists talking about a concept of labor that exists now only as a kind of historical artifact. In a nearby vitrine, the point is driven home even more clearly. Hammers have been cast into clear glass, useful tools no longer having a use.
In the end, to my surprise, I found I liked Esther Shevel-Gerz quite a lot. Her cool, conceptual approach allowed me to thoughtfully contemplate themes that are always in the back of the mind but rarely get our full attention. Her work is also a reminder of the importance of institutions such as museums and libraries. They are repositories of our collective memory that allow us to recall what we might otherwise forget. And she introduced me to Walter Benjamin, who I am coming to know better as I read his essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (more of a page turner than you might think from the title.) So…thank you Wasserman Projects!
Space Between Time is on view until July 9. The gallery, located at 3434 Russell Street, is open Wednesday-Saturday. Parking is available on site. For more information go to http://wassermanprojects.com/
The non-profit artists’ collective and gallery Hatch Art has purchased Dmytro Szylak’s Hamtramck Disneyland, an extensive outdoor installation of handmade folk art along with the two homes located on the property. Szylak, a Ukrainian immigrant and former GM autoworker, created the work beginning in 1992. It was completed in 1999. He died in 2015 at 92, leaving uncertain prospects for the property and its art.
For a time inheritance disputes left the future uncertain, but recently the homes – and the art – were put on the market with the expressed preference of the seller (although not the requirement) that the work remain intact. To the relief of many, Hatch Art has stepped in to purchase and preserve Hamtramck Disneyland.
Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski calls Hamtramck Disneyland “a work of a premiere Hamtamck artist,” a “tourist destination worldwide,” a “neighborhood institution” and an expression of the immigrant and working-class experience in Hamtramck. “There is no alternative but preservation,” she adds.
Scott Collins, president of Hatch Arts’ board of directors, said his group purchased the property after obtaining a private loan. He said they plan to open the houses to tenants this summer, and start restoring and sprucing up the backyard artwork.
One goal is restoring the electric lights around the installation that haven’t worked for years. “We are going to make a lot of extra efforts to preserve the art,” Collins said. “It’s been a landmark in the city for a long time. It’s a great example of Hamtramck history, immigrant history and the independent arts scene.”
To get a tour of this unique site-based installation you can go here
In the cities of the Rust Belt, arts writing is distinguished by how much of it there isn’t. The upper mid-west is thought of -when it’s thought of at all-by the art establishment on the coasts as a cultural backwater. But we all know that there are many, many artists living and making and showing their art here. Much of the work is good, some of it great. But because regional arts writing is so scarce, artists often don’t get the attention their work deserves. Artists with ambitions to acquire a broad audience are forced to decamp for New York or L.A. (or at least Chicago) to get a viewing.
The Rust Belt’s woeful shortage of thoughtful arts writing is the result of a number of unfortunate historical facts and technological trends. The financial hardships of mainline news media have forced them to re-organize as online platforms with unsteady revenue streams. Legacy newspapers like the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press, and the Ann Arbor News, never enthusiastic commentators on the visual arts of the region in any case, have eliminated staff writers who covered the cultural scene. In some cases these writers have been replaced by unpaid or poorly paid online stringers. Often they haven’t been replaced at all. In this critical vacuum, the arts ecosystem in the northern mid-west lacks the intellectual oxygen that allows it to breathe and grow. And most importantly for artists, without arts writers to provide context for the art consuming public, there is no consensus – or even discussion – on the relative importance, interest or value of various artists and approaches to art.
But there’s no reason this has to be the story of Rust Belt art commentary going forward. There are a few online and/or print arts magazines such as Hyperallergic, Flashart, Art in America and Artfixdaily that write occasionally about art news here in Southeast Michigan.
More importantly there are now a few fairly new blogs and websites that cover artists and the arts in Detroit and environs. Herewith a list:
http://essayd.org/– long form essays on outstanding Detroit artists (soon to be published in book form)
When I originally published TAA-95 a year and a half ago, I expected this blog to serve as a way for the artists participating in the Toledo Area Artists 95 exhibit at the Toledo Art Museum to keep in touch and to spread news on their art exhibits, projects, professional accomplishments and the like. It turns out that I vastly over-estimated the appetite of my TAA artist friends for self promotion! Either because they are way too modest or just don’t have an appetite for verbal self-expression, very few posts have been forth-coming. I find I am writing about regional artists and art issues pretty much on my own. That’s not a bad thing, just different from what I intended at the outset.
On the other hand, I find that the more I express my opinion and share information about art events in Southeast Michigan and Northeast Ohio, the more I enjoy it. Recently, with a bit of (perhaps ill-considered) encouragement from talented arts writer and Kresge Fellow Sarah Rose Sharp, I’ve started to cover regional art news in more detail. I’m not writing because I’m a great writer (though I hope to improve over time) but because I don’t think there is enough coverage of visual artists and the arts in our region.
To reflect the more personal nature of this blog going forward, I will be making some changes in its format. Soon the domain name will change from taae95artists.wordpress.com to rustbeltarts.com, and I’ll be tweaking the home page appearance. Other than that, those of you following the blog won’t notice much difference (except I will be posting even more frequently). I still hope to hear from the artists in last year’s Toledo Art Museum exhibit whenever they have something to report, but in future I will be the sole author on this blog.
It doesn’t seem possible, but time flies and Hatch Hamtramck has been around now for ten years. In celebration, the non-profit studio and gallery has organized its tenth annual juried exhibit Hatchback 10. This comprehensive exhibit, juried by Detroit art personality James Dozier, features 55 Hatch artists and is on display through April 30.
A celebratory 10th Anniversary Party will be held 6-10 on Saturday, April 30 in the Gallery. The event is free and open to the public.
Hatch is the brainchild of Hatch president Christopher Schneider and Erik Tungate, Hamtramck’s former Director of Community & Economic Development. They saw a need for an artist community that would promote Hamtramck in a positive way, where artists could pool their resources to challenge each other and reach out to the greater community.
United by the shared mission of Education, Expression and Exhibition, the group rapidly gained followers and supporters. Regular meetings were held in community centers, local businesses and artists’ studios. In 2007, Hatch achieved 501[c]3 nonprofit status and developed a full calendar of events. Within its first year of existence, Hatch founded the Detroit chapter of Dr. Sketchy’s Anti Art School, represented Hamtramck artists at 2 art fairs, and hosted concerts, critiques, educational workshops and more.
Hatch purchased the old police station at 3456 Evaline from the City of Hamtramck in 2008. For the next four years, renovations were made, concurrent with fundraising and maintaining a full events schedule. A new roof and central heating system were made possible through grants and crowd sourcing campaigns. Volunteers put in countless hours to help convert the former police station into a space for making and exhibiting art.
Hatch Gallery officially opened in April 2012. Upstairs, studios became available for rent in July and were at full occupancy by the year’s end. Classroom space was finished in March 2013.
I was honored last week to participate in an exhibition and silent auction in honor of Detroit’s 314th birthday.
All the works in the exhibit related to the city’s early history as a French colony; participating artists were asked to create artworks relating to legends of old Detroit. The legend of the Nain Rouge and the tale of the Loup Garou were two favorites among many others that the artists chose for their commissioned works. My own picture “At Askin Point” relates to the tale of La Chasse Gallerie (The Wild Aerial Hunt).
Like many other arts-related events in Detroit, this was a one-night affair held at the Jam Handy, a former historic movie studio turned events venue. In addition to the art exhibit and auction, the “Fest d’Anniversare” featured a lecture by Amy Elliot Bragg, author of Hidden History of Detroit, on the early history of the city, beer by Brew Detroit and cash bar, a strolling dinner of French-inspired cuisine created by Upriver Local and music by DJ Erno.
The event was a collaboration of the Detroit Drunken Historical Society and Corktown Studios. To see pictures of the event: