I recently wrote my first review as Detroit correspondent for Chicago’s New Art Examiner. The May/June issue, which has just been published, focuses on exhibits of work by women artists, including Looking Forward, Looking Back by Howardena Pindell at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Nina Chanel Abney’s Royal Flush at the Chicago Cultural Center. Rebecca Memoli, who reviews Royal Flush, concentrates her comments on Abney’s latest large, graphic works, which struck me as being very Stuart-Davis-like. My preference is for her earlier, more expressionistic paintings, but Memoli’s essay is a good introduction to Abney’s work. Pindell’s exhibit, reviewed byAniko Berman, is on view until May 20, and it’s well worth a visit.
I want to thank NAE Managing Editor Tom Mullaney and Editor in Chief Michel Segard for giving me this opportunity to get the word out on exciting contemporary art being shown in Detroit and environs. You can read my review of Shaina Kasztelan and Heidi Barlow’s D3PR3$$10N N4P at Hatch Hamtramck here.
The mother/child relationship over time, through sickness, care and–finally–death, forms the emotional core of Kathyrose Pizzo’s moving solo exhibit After A Thousand Mornings, now on view through March 25th at Hatch Gallery in Hamtramck. Multiple sclerosis, her mother’s diagnosis, has given the artist a front row seat at this most mysterious and universal human rite of passage, and she has clearly thought long and deeply about the experience of her mother’s decline and her part in it. She observes in herself the shifting emotional dynamics of care and conflict, love and resentment, grief and recovery, rendering them in physical space through the patient assemblage of sticks and strings.
The artworks are binary in nature, with wooden constructs that seem to either support or confine cloud-shaped gray pillows. The softness of the cloth clouds, juxtaposed with the hardness of the provisionally composed structures, shifts in meaning from piece to piece, the cloud in one artwork seeming to refer to the artist, in another, to her mother. Sometimes the cloud is imprisoned by the scaffolding and at others it seems to float above and away. Throughout, the two elements circle and collide, metaphors for a kind of emotional dialog between these intimately connected human beings.
Caught eloquently captures the dilemma of the cared-for and the caregiver, mutually trapped by circumstance. A wire net that mimics the failing synapses of her mother’s brain confines both the cloud and the wooden support to the ground, metaphorically trapping both mother and daughter beneath the disease.
Pizzo is also interested in examining the end of life through the lens of social rituals in cultures past and present. She particularly acknowledges the influence of Joseph Campbell, a philosopher known for his work in comparative mythology and religion. She says of these rites, “Tributes to the departed are the events that make us human, that define the distance between us and the stars.”
This influence is most directly referenced in Departure. The artist has created a small scale replica of a funeral pyre, upon which a lovingly pillowed figure rests. Underneath, a chaotic and disordered pile of kindling mirrors the artist’s mental state.
Many of the works in After a Thousand Mornings refer to the passage of time and convey a sense of waiting. Wall pieces such as Calypso and Episode 1: The Ladder are improvised and complex structures created by the artist using aluminum tape, which is then partially stripped away as the composition emerges. The title work of the show takes on the theme of time’s passage most directly, with 30 tiny wooden scaffolds topped by cotton clouds and arranged in a grid –a kind of calendar–quietly and elegantly filling one wall of the gallery.
The incremental passage of time that forms the rhythm of life and death is the ultimate theme of After A Thousand Mornings. The artworks are a physical manifestation of this process, small moments turning into large ones, one moment adding to another, making up a life and bringing us inevitably to its end. Kathyrose Pizzo has found meaning here: “Personally witnessing both how disease can bring forth greater understanding of the human condition and the unavoidable destiny of all life is central to my work.”
For more information about Hatch Gallery and After a Thousand Mornings, go here.
In Girlfriend Material, multimedia artist, writer and thinker Sarah Rose Sharp examines the reductive archetypes that provide a distorting lens through which women are often viewed in American popular culture. She has gathered a small universe of cartoon females and set them up to play with and against each other, teasing out from these one-dimensional characters some three-dimensional thoughts on women and their place in the world.
A millennial feminist, Sharp is aware that a multiplicity of roles are available to women but she also knows that female complexity and nuance are routinely flattened out and simplified in the popular imagination, the more easily to be consumed and digested. And with the election of a known sexual predator and his cast of sexist cronies to the incoming U.S. administration, it looks as if Sharp’s observations are well calibrated to remain relevant for the foreseeable future.
“This show is a continuation of themes and ideas I’ve worked on for a very long time, but it’s been very much influenced by the recent climate surrounding the presidential election…we must really hate women for someone like Donald Trump to even have a chance, ” says Sharp in a recent Detroit Metro Times interview.
The artworks and installations in Girlfriend Material seem to say that a woman can be a bitch or a doormat, a sexpot or a smart girl, a princess or a goddess, as long as she doesn’t exhibit the complexity of a real woman. Modern society likes its female role models bite-size.
Sharp has elected to use only pop figures such as Wonder Woman, Betty Boop, Princess Leia, Lucy and Lisa Simpson in Girlfriend Material. She has limited her materials to mass marketed objects such as Pez dispensers, key chains, novelty fabrics and the like, altering and collaging them together to create imaginative games and transactional installations. While many of the artworks are playful, there is an unmistakable undercurrent of frustration in this work, and an underlying question about how a woman’s life is defined by herself and by others.
Miss Overachiever, represented here by a manikin wearing a girl scout/Lisa Simpson beret and a comically over-loaded merit badge sash, is the good girl, the nerdy smart girl who gets all A’s, but is judged by the surrounding culture in terms that value appearance and popularity over achievement. Or as Sharp says in her statement “Where is the line between smart and too-smart-for-your-own-good?”
The Betting Pool, a circular “game” with no start and no end, continues the theme of cultural stasis. The glassy surface features bodiless characters in kiddie cars bumping and shuffling against each other, their movement controlled by an unseen motivator that flies overhead. Who “wins” is determined not by the players but by gallery visitors who bet on the character they “like” the best.
The sexy but infantilized Betty Boop in A Sucker for Jewelry illustrates yet another kind of game that women are sometimes called upon to play with mixed success. Her 1930’s persona has been lovingly updated with tattoos and bondage gear. (Sharp found the keychain figures in an alley and has not altered them.) Why objects like this even exist is a mystery to the artist–and to us–but she suspects that Betty Boop’s child-like head on her sexpot body still has plenty of cultural resonance. “I didn’t make this stuff up,” she says, laughing.
It didn’t escape my attention that many of the artworks in Girlfriend Material had a monetary component. While Sharp may be complaining about the paucity of complex roles available to women, she seems also to imply that any choice a woman makes is likely to be poorly compensated. Women still earn only 80 cents on the dollar in 2015 as compared to men, and women in the arts are not doing any better (and possibly worse). To cite a common art world benchmark, in 2015 only 8% of the contemporary art for sale at auction was by women. It should be no surprise, then, that Princess Leia is crowdfunding her rescue at 25 cents a pop and Lucy is willing to empathize for a nickel. It’s the going rate.
In Double Wedding Ring, Sharp finally attempts to synthesize all of the oversimplified traits displayed by her characters into a more complex picture. The kaleidoscopic collection of images in the quilt, meeting and circling each other, insists that a woman can be sweet and bitchy, strong, smart and sexy and quite a few other things if the surrounding society will only give her a shot. And in other corners of the culture, especially in film and television, there seems to be some movement toward more complex female characters. Television shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls and movies like In A World (directed by Lake Bell) and the recently released Certain Women (directed by Kelly Reichardt) are carving out cultural space for actual women telling actual stories. Comedians like Amy Schumer and Samantha Bee bring humor to the public discussion of feminism.
So there’s hope, even if recent political events might indicate otherwise. It should be noted that all of the films and television shows I listed above are written and/or directed by women. Maybe by the time women reach wage parity with men (in 2152 at current rates!) we can look forward to equal rights in gender roles too.
Girlfriend Material is on view at Public Pool, in Hamtramck until December 17, 2016. For more information go here