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.
This is the first essay in an ongoing series about Detroit artists, curators and gallerists, with an emphasis on the city’s emerging art ecosystem.
The Detroit art scene right now is a funny place, a multi-venue stage for unorthodox performance, experimental installation and a playground for talented art newcomers, recently minted BFAs, and self-taught makers and doers. Art venues emerge, move and close at a disorienting pace, and the skills of a treasure hunter are required to keep track of them all, but constant throughout this ever-changing and evolving art ecosystem are a few artists whose instantly identifiable work shows up regularly all around Detroit.
Alexander Buzzalini, painter, printmaker and installation artist, is one of these itinerant and ubiquitous makers. I’ve seen his work in prestigious galleries like N’namdi Center for Contemporary Art and Wasserman Projects and in less exalted settings like Bumbo’s Bar and Public Pool. In spite of his use of a wide variety of formats and materials, Buzzalini’s work is always identifiable and relatable, with its comic wild west subject matter, saturated color and gestural pizzazz.
I was curious about the source of Buzzalini’s inspiration and motivation, how he gets along in Detroit and why he stays, when other millennial artists might decamp for Brooklyn or L.A. So I contacted him in search of some insights about what it’s like to live and make art right now in Detroit. We arranged to meet at Outer Limits, a venerable Hamtramck dive bar near his studio. When I arrived on a still-chilly April afternoon, I immediately noticed the bar’s proudly retro décor, which clearly hadn’t seen an update since the Carter administration. The bartender and I exchanged a few pleasantries until Buzzalini walked in a few minutes later, bearded and paint spattered, clearly just off work. We ordered our beers and dug right in, in classic Hamtramck fashion, to talk about art.
As it turns out, Buzzalini is a local boy, born and raised in Pontiac, MI, just north of Detroit. He moved to the city in 2012 to attend Wayne State University, where he studied printmaking with Stanley Rosenthal and Pam Delaura. After he got his BFA (summa cum laude), he saw no reason to leave. “I basically just stayed here,” he says. He has found a group of like-minded artists and writers like Steve Hughes and John Charnota, printmaker Ryan Stanfest and designer Jack Craig. Together, they produce publications, organize exhibits and generally bounce ideas off each other for their mutual benefit.
I asked him how he became interested in painting American frontier western themes. “The western has such a deep tradition in American culture,” he replied, adding, ”it’s also that internationally the western is seen as a purely American genre.” The American movie western represents an archetype of what an American is, but Buzzalini is well aware that vintage movie westerns are a reductive and simplistic representation of American manhood. Over time, he said, “I really started looking and paying attention to [these] things, and pointing to that façade. But I liked the idea of [examining] what is real and what is not real.” He went on:
I like to tell the story that when I was 12 or 13, I was in Colorado hiking through the mountains with my uncle and my cousin, and he says, “Stop , wait, look at that rock!”
“What?” And I say, “Yeah that’s a rock.”
And he says, “No, come here, look.” And he poked it, and it’s just a fake rock made of chicken wire and plaster from some John Wayne movie, left here after all this time.”
The anecdote gets to the heart of Buzzalini’s work, questioning received notions of masculinity, nationality and identity.
The images in Buzzalini’s painting are clearly theatrical and satirical. He subverts the manly images he paints. The cowboy boots are red and pointy, his guns droop, and even the cow skulls are wearing lipstick. “That’s my approach to dealing with what is masculinity… today, using the historical references to the western, where male roles are so prominent … I’m taking that example and making fun of it, [to] tell young people today, including myself, what it means to be masculine is just fabricated by Hollywood… I think people are beginning to be interested in ideas about questioning their identities and where those identities came from and [realizing that] they are fabricated by these larger corporate things.”
Buzzalini’s cowboy paintings are quick and loose, with gestural, almost cartoonish, brush strokes, “I tend to work quick, and on multiple things at once, because I have a hard time sitting and working on one painting and waiting for it to dry. I like [to make] quick paintings… they’re kind of like drawings, and [the speed creates] a good kind of pressure.” He continues, “It’s drippy and sometimes… I use certain mediums, mix it with paint and add water… part of it is I like the drips. It adds fluidity, gives immediacy, and from the physical aspect of the actual painting I can make one continuous brush stroke. I work fast, it’s gestural, it’s the way I’ve always painted except when I was forced not to, (and then it didn’t turn out too good.”)
When asked about what media interest him most now, given his background in printmaking and the numerous installation pieces he has exhibited recently, Buzzalini still pledges his allegiance to painting. “[I’m interested mostly in] painting, [even though] the last show I did was a two person show with John Charnota … at Public Pool. It was called 100 Beavers and I did do a couple of wood block prints for that, and a series of silkscreens…that involved doing this installation of a beaver dam on the back wall with all these sticks that were cut outs. …The beaver show was kind of a leap and speaks to [my aim for] a [high] level of productivity … it was a lot of work, and [I was] speaking of productivity as a way of projecting self-worth–that we’re not lazy.” He admitted this might be a particularly midwestern way of thinking about art, in terms of productivity and hard work.
We talked briefly about his current project, some funky, gloppy plaster lamps he made and recently showed at Butter Projects. He says, “I’ve been working on a series of lamps using plaster, inspired by work I did assisting Jack Craig–It’s very strange, weird design–and I thought, “I want to try this!” His description describes nicely how the cross pollination of ideas occurs right now in Detroit.
Our discussion circled around, inevitably, to why he stays in Detroit, what still excites him about it and his future plans. His answer returned to the openness of Detroit’s artist community, the ease of artistic exchange, the wealth of places to show work, and of course, the cheap rents.
“Rents are going up–It’s not as cheap as when I moved here, when you could pay $400 a month for a 1000 square foot flat — now it’s more like $900, he says. “I recently purchased a house. I stay here because the community’s been really good, and it’s growing, not stagnant, and new people are constantly moving in. It’s easy to have a show, even at your house, and get enough people to make it worth your while to set it up. The community’s tight like that. Mostly a lot of my friends are Cranbrook graduates and a small group of people from University of Michigan have started to move in. The community’s close so there’s also the exchange of social gatherings and something [that] has to do with the walkability of the town. That’s what’s keeping me here, stuff like that.”
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.
Animals. They share our beds, our homes, our back yards. We love them, as friends and as dinner. And in some ways our relationship with them reflects a confused and self-contradictory understanding of our place in nature, a place that is being reassessed in the early 21st century as we confront climate change, animal cruelty and mass extinction.
Our fraught relationship with animals forms the premise of Thinking with Animals, a thoughtful collection of exquisite artworks currently on view at River House Arts in Toledo. Artists Jessica Tenbusch and Morgan Barrie have curated this exceptionally beautiful show, and share the gallery walls with the work of fellow artists Julie Bahn, Emily White and Breanne Sherwood.
Jessica Tenbusch employs silver and bronze casts of natural objects such as animal bones, insect exoskeletons and bits of plants in dialog with highly refined manmade materials to create a series of lapidary landscapes displayed in a grid pattern. The overall effect is one of beauty and order that invites close looking. Each single component of her piece Artifacts/Ecofacts is a complete work of art but together they constitute a world of minute perception.
Morgan Barrie’s two large photo collages riff humorously on the well known Netherlandish Unicorn in Captivity tapestry owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She adapts the decorative plants from the original tapestry by introducing plants native to the upper Midwest, such as purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans and joe pye weed, digitally collaged on a dark background. In the center of the composition formerly occupied by the mythical unicorn are life-size domestic companion animals, the dog and the cat, surrounded by what appears to be modern storm fencing of the type available at Lowe’s or Home Depot. The dog in Tapestry is a handsome boxer and, as it happens, her own family dog . Though chained, he seems to be comfortable in his confinement, while the feral-looking cat in Captivity lurks within the fence, scheming to escape.
Fiber artist Breanne Sherwood is clearly in love with the substance of nature. She shows a particular affinity for the decorative qualities of bird plumage in Relics of Santiam, embellishing disembodied avian wings with carefully embroidered and appliqued threads and tulle. They retain their anatomical identity but the delicacy of the artist’s handling imparts reverence to these relics of departed creatures. Sherwood’s more ambitiously scaled One Yard, One Bird applies human organization and emotional tenderness to a fatal event.
The intimidatingly-sized and accomplished paintings of wild animals native to North America in Emily White’s two artworks Reintroduction II (Grey Wolf) and Velvet (a truly disturbing life-size rendering of a moose shedding the velvet skin of its antlers) dominate the gallery. They look as if they could easily grace the walls of a natural history museum. The landscapes in which the animals stand are surrounded by highly finished birch plywood, framing the wilderness in civilization. Easily missed in the paintings are the artist’s sly additions of human technology into the natural environment.
Julie Bahn’s work is the most directly political of the group. She addresses human consumption of animals for food and consumerism in One Hundred Twenty Eight Days of Protein. A silver plate is piled high with the broken bones of consumed animals, embellished and be-dazzled by Swarovski crystals, ready to be re-cycled and re-consumed as art. Her soft sculpture Hug Me, is a tantalizing visual enigma. The large vinyl fish with strangely human eyes hangs limply from the gallery ceiling, a glittering tag around its neck, inviting us to engage with it as a fellow creature, not just as dinner.
Artists, always the shock troops of changing cultural attitudes, are thinking hard about the way forward in our relationship with nature, and in the process creating art that resonates, questions and inspires with its beauty. The work in Thinking With Animals ably addresses the complexity and ambivalence of our evolving thoughts about animals, humans and our place in the environment.
I just completed a review of Detroit artist/gallerist Adnan Charara’s terrific new show at North Campus Research Center’s Rotunda Gallery in Ann Arbor. To read the full review in AADL Pulp, go here
In Otherworlds, a 2-man exhibit of paintings and prints by painter-digital collagist Dan Hernandez and master draftsman-printmaker Craig Fisher, is on display now through September 30 at 20 North Gallery in downtown Toledo. These two Toledo art visionaries allow imagination to take them—and us—to places that seem at once familiar and uncanny. The source materials for each artist, along with differences in technique and material, result in two very different, but complementary, bodies of work.
Craig Fisher, who works as a designer of business-to-business learning tools in addition to his prolific artistic output, works within the confines of traditional fine art printmaking. For this exhibit, he has created worlds that incorporate recognizable elements in improbable ways, transforming and recombining features from renaissance landscapes, natural history illustration, classical architectural drawings and more, into intriguing and often surreal scenarios.
The print Astronomie Nova illustrates Fisher’s method: He juxtaposes an aerial view of a gothic church ruin with a schematic drawing of a complex geometric form, setting up a complex tension between physical environment and the unseen— but just as real– universe. One of his most satisfying pieces, Tower of Babble combines an over-scale rotary phone in the foreground with a period illustration of the tower itself in the background, Communication technology-related superstructures surround and top it and it’s difficult to tell if the tower is being built or destroyed.
Sometimes less is more, and Fisher’s strengths as a draftsman can occasionally result in over-elaborate and confusing compositions. But it’s hard to argue with or second-guess the artist’s commitment to his vision and his single-minded pursuit of it.
Dan Hernandez, currently an Associate Professor of Art at University of Toledo, creates paintings where saints and angels mix freely with computer gaming figures. Elements of Persian miniatures, Renaissance urban landscapes and Chinese pavilions collide and morph into a persuasively imagined and often beautiful world. This oddly convincing pastiche of styles and periods is the product of Hernandez’ youthful gaming hobby and his studies in art history, which included a trip to Italy as a college student, where he was captivated by the ancient frescos of Pompeii.
Hernandez maintains a large archive of online images, from haloed renaissance saints to invading space ships, which he repeats and re-combines imaginatively in his world-building endeavors. He uses photo transfers of these seemingly incompatible images to create realities that have internal consistency and project a mood that is both comic and mysterious. In The Annunciation, he has imagined a funny and improbable street rumble between the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel in a medieval Italian town. In another artwork, The Massacre at Intelari Chapel, a battle between computer gaming figures and renaissance-era characters rages across the bottom of the composition, while above, three levels of coins similar to those in a computer game imply ample rewards for the victors, and saints look on from the heavens while consulting a Super Mario map.
In Otherworlds provides a provocative look at imaginative visual storytelling by two talented Toledo artists and is well worth a visit. 20 North Art Director Condessa Croninger comments, “Despite the dramatic differences in media, visual style and subject matter, the works of these two distinguished area artists juxtapose like themes of science & technology with spirituality, as well as the combination of old and new media, to explore the metaphysical concept of the ‘otherworld’—the varying layers of existence between humankind’s experience of the “real” world and the world of belief. This combination creates an intriguing, thought-provoking and unquestionably beautiful exhibit.”
Gallery hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays from noon to 4p.m. Patrons also have extended opportunities to enjoy the exhibition during after-gallery hours at Venue, 20 North Gallery’s cocktail lounge, which is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 4:30 to 9 p.m. (This review is re-posted from the August 15th edition of the Toledo City Paper.)
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
“Interactive” is quite a buzzword in the art world these days, but what does it really mean? The term suggests an expectation of physical contact between gallery visitor and artwork. It also subtly implies that the mere act of contemplating a work of art isn’t enough to reach the public in this age of the internet and ever-shortening attention spans.
Andrei Rabodzeenko, though, is confident in the power of visual art to engage his audience. It is on this cerebral level that his work invites interaction.
The freestanding painted figures in Projections grab your attention and demand a response. Rabodzeenko’s life-size, slickly painted portraits of his friends (and himself) define the boundaries of the space within which gallery visitors must circle and observe. There is an intentional roughness to the way the cut-outs are sited, provisionally propped up on wooden supports and sandbagged in place as if they were scenery in a theater. Arranged in an informal installation throughout Toledo’s River House Gallery, these flat wooden portraits seem to imply some kind of in-the-round theatrical performance of obscure significance.
Radzeenko, born in Kyrgyzstan but now living and working in Chicago, is first and foremost an accomplished painter, an art chameleon who can paint in any style. He mixes visual idioms for maximum effect, frequently combining several within one artwork. In Projections, he seamlessly moves from virtuosic tromp l’oeil illusionism to flat advertising illustration to religious icon painting. Whether they are engaging in some activity, or merely pausing on their way, the figures often look directly at you. The artist offers no explanation for the choice of personal emblem (an out-size ginkgo leaf? A backpack of musical symbols?) or activity. These are clearly portraits of real people, but in the absence of information about them you must invent your own narrative, as is the artist’s intent:
Our identities are an amalgam of ever-shifting and overlapping projections-we create projections of ourselves, our alter egos, and launch them into the world. At the same time, the world projects its interpretations of us onto us.
Some figures are more mysteriously resonant than others. The black-suited self portrait in the middle of the gallery is especially successful. The roughness of the O.S.B. ground and the square piercing of the subject’s shirt add interest to the accomplished painting. The direct and slightly sad gaze of the figure is reminiscent of the mood in Rembrandt’s self-portraits.
I also liked the portraits of two men digging up (or burying?) treasure. The man on the right is focused on someone or something that is invisible, and raises his hand in warning (or greeting?) The kneeling figure on the left looks delighted at the cut-out blaze emanating from the treasure box before him.
Projections also includes a series of painted hangings which ring the gallery’s outside walls. Translucent outlines of male and female figures float weightlessly across the picture plane, intersecting but not interacting, platonic shadows of idealized humans. They are well executed but lack the specificity and bite of the three-dimensional work.
Rabodzeenko’s continuing confidence in the power of visual art to move us is evident in Projections. His accomplished portrait figures invite visual engagement and convey an air of mystery that will linger in the minds of his audience long after they have left the gallery.
Projections: An Interactive Portrait Project by Andrei Rabodzeenko, is on view at River House Gallery in Toledo, Ohio, until January 7, 2017. For more information about gallery hours go here.
You Are Here, a comprehensive survey of recent work by well over 45 Detroit artists on display throughout the Carr Center in Detroit through December 17, aims to take a snapshot of where the city stands at this inflexion point of both local and national change.
Curator Anna Schaap says, “Work in this show will explore location, time/place, Detroit’s future, urban development, ideas of identity, … gentrification, creative and empathetic ingenuity, and whole-brain thinking/making.” In media ranging from painting to photography to printmaking and especially to installation, artists provide a guided tour of the changing psychic and physical contours of Detroit.
Progress in Paradise, a small installation by Julianne Lindsey and Elton Monroy Duran is one of the most pointed–and poignant –illustrations of the fugitive nature of Detroit’s built environment in You Are Here. On a simple desk furnished with pens and paper (and with a toy wrecking ball on the side) visitors are invited to describe a place in Detroit that exists now only in memory. There are, needless to say, plenty of examples, the Carr Center soon to be among them.
The modestly funded non-profit cultural organization now located in the historic Harmonie Building can no longer afford its increasingly attractive commercial location. They will vacate the premises in April of 2017, possibly moving to a city-owned property in another part of Detroit. The building and the area surrounding it will be redeveloped into the Paradise Valley Cultural and Entertainment District, “a commercially driven entertainment district of retail, restaurants and nightlife reflecting the spirit of Detroit’s once thriving center of African-American economic and cultural life.”
Sophie Eisner’s installation, in a notably beautiful but decrepit staircase, enlists the Harmonie building itself as a component in her meditation on the city’s substance. Idiosyncratic art objects of unknown provenance are thoughtfully placed, and visually incorporate architectural elements of the stair and landing, creating complex cross-currents of past elegance and present squalor.
The city’s architecture isn’t the only element in flux and on view. People too, make up the city, and there are numerous references to the diversity that characterizes Detroit. The African-American population, with its triumphs and discontents, gets its due in works like Prism Works’ YDNA and Fuck the Police by Monique Gamble. Brian Day’s Boys on Mother’s Day strikes a more cheerful and hopeful note.
Parisa Ghaderi ‘s installation The Sheer Presence, with its photographs on voile, creates a ghostly family portrait, at once monumental and intimate. Sunita Gupta, a highly accomplished painter of the domestic environment, employs meticulous pattern painting and well drawn but hazy female figures in a meditative exploration of culture and ethnic identity.
Bits and pieces of the city find their way into artworks and installations describing Detroit as it is now. Anna Kell has carefully painted tromp l’oeil lace patterns onto found mattresses. Fishing For Small Gods, by Jak Vista and Bill Bedell, an installation that takes up much of the third floor of the building, features tree branches, stumps and the occasional cross stuck in dirt, conjuring up a desolate forest floor.
At the Carr Center, we see Detroit right now, a city that will necessarily be different tomorrow and the day after that. Technology, politics, demography and economics will all have their say in ways that can’t yet be quantified. The artworks in You Are Here are a glimpse of this singular moment in the life of Detroit.
Artists in You Are Here: Celeste Roe, Eric Zurawski, Archana Aneja, Brian Spolans, Geno Harris, Dominique Chastenetnde Gery, Parisa Ghaderi, Sophie Eisner, John Neely, Anna Kell, Katina Bitsicas, Morgan Barrie, Jenna Kempinski, K.A. Letts, Donn Perez, Jennifer Glance, Tamar Boyadjian, Molly Diana, The Sien Collective, Donna Shipman, Dawud Shabazz, E. Ingrid Tietz, Darren Pollard, Renee Rials, Neil Allen Flowers, Michael Ross, Kristin Adamczyk, Monique Gamble, Patrick Ethen, Doug Cannell, Jennifer Brown, Seder Burns, Desiree Duell, Jack Vista, Bill Bedell, Sunita Gupta, Jon DeBoer, Benjamin Forrest, Julianne Lindsey, Elton Monroy Duran, Brian Day, Fatima Sow, Prism Views, Kelsey Shultis, Wall of 100 Makers, Mint Artist Guild
For more information on the Carr Center go here.
The sprawling multimedia, multi-artist show Re: Formation which recently closed in Toledo has moved to a smaller venue in Gallery 117 at the Ann Arbor Art Center where an edited version will be on view from now until October 8. Toledo’s Re: Formation was overwhelming in size and scope. Installation and video dominated the cavernous former department store, contributing to an immersive experience that viscerally conveyed artists’ current outrage over racism, war, environmental degradation and urban decay.
The rage, the politics, the anger at injustice and environmental ruin remain in this new iteration but in a lower, more thoughtful key. Smaller work which was somewhat eclipsed by larger and noisier art in Toledo now gets some well deserved attention.
Moving an exhibit from one very large venue to another smaller one presents unique challenges for Gallery Project’s curators Rocco DePietro and Gloria Pritschett.
Pritschett explains, “In downsizing the exhibit for Ann Arbor, I look for the core of the work, so that the artist’s essential intent stays intact and can at least be glimpsed… we want to downsize the installation without giving the sense that we just lopped off a part of it.”
“ It’s a challenge, but a fun challenge,” adds DePietro.
Pritschett continues, “In reassembling the exhibition in a much smaller space, the work is tightly placed, so the specifics of relationships among the works is more crucial. No one piece has a place apart to sprawl on its own as it could in Toledo. I really enjoy the challenge in the patient work of positioning and repositioning individual works and groups of works, until they cohere visually and conceptually and relate to each other comfortably and meaningfully. For example, the group of Mark Hereld, Endi Poskovic, Tohru Kanayama and Barry Whittaker, and the interactive works Yusuf Lateef, John Anderson and Anthony Fontana, each in some way expresses formation and reformation as a process. Placing them was really satisfying”
“After spending a month with the exhibit in Toledo, we discovered new relationships among various pieces — themes, shapes, colors, concepts — that we exploited in installing the exhibit. For example, the interplay of blacks and reds, strong concept works, and the iconic water towers in Flint,” says DePietro.
Pieces with an environmental theme, such as Jessica Tenbusch’s Veil and Mark Hereld’s white-on-white Becoming@42Mx are often necessarily scaled to the size of the natural objects they contain, and this new, smaller space allows them to shine. Tenbusch’s work, which frequently includes taxidermy such as preserved frogs, snakes and the like, can be seen and appreciated for its meticulously detailed and finely produced craftsmanship.
Paintings which were a bit overwhelmed in the large, dim Toledo space come into their own here. John and Sandy: Voices for Social Justice, a large painted allegory (notice the small winged figure of Governor Rick Snyder in the upper left hand corner) by Ken Milito is impressive, and Michael Nagara’s Garden of Watery Lead seems at home in this smaller scale and more brightly lit gallery.
Equally successful in both Toledo and Ann Arbor is John James Anderson’s photo series 189 Hydrants, which documents, hydrant by hydrant, Washington D.C.’s decaying infrastructure. His Omikuji also stands up well to the move. Based on a Japanese cultural custom meant to end a curse, gallery visitors are encouraged to participate in a ceremonial exorcism to end police killings.
“In the wake of the recent deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, I took a moment to consider the thousands of other lives lost in recent years during an encounter with the police,” says Anderson.
He adds, “While the circumstances behind each are different, in sum, it is as though there was a great curse within our culture that causes these issues to persist.“
In this improvised and sobering ritual, the name of a young man of color who has died at the hands of the police is printed on a strip of paper along with the Kanji for “end curse” and tied to the wooden structure in the gallery.
The single most memorable work in Re:Formation remains The Reconditioning, an experiential performance and personal encounter designed and executed by Toledo artist Yusuf Lateef in collaboration with Chris Rogers, Kevin Gilmore, Daren Mac and James Dickerson. Lateef was initially apprehensive about reproducing The Reconditioning for an Ann Arbor audience after a previous cathartic experience with audiences at Re:Formation in Toledo. He was afraid he would be “reproducing this thing that wasn’t a personal and individual experience.” The placement of the installation at the entrance of the exhibit made him feel as if he and his fellow performers were in danger of becoming objects in an art show. But The Reconditioning, once again, found an audience of eager participants willing to engage the artists/performers on the subject of race and connection. Lateef, encouraged by recent experience, plans to refine and simplify these encounters in the future.
“It took time to get out of my own way,” he says.
For more information about Ann Arbor Art Center go here
Artists exhibiting in Re:Formation are: Heather Accurso, Hiba Ali, John James Anderson, Michael Arrigo, Siobhan Arnold, Nick Azzaro, Darryl Baird, Barchael (Barry Whittaker and Mike Bernhardt), Morgan Barrie, Carolyn Barritt, Beehive Design Collective (Meg Lemieur), Mark Bleshenski, Jada Bowden, Seder Burns, Ruth Crowe, Dana DePew, Rocco DePietro, Desiree Duell, Dianne Farris, Susan Fecteau, Anthony Fontana, Mark Hereld, Dan Hernandez, Stephanie Howells, Tim Ide, Doug Kampfer, Tohru Kanayama, Yusuf Lateef, K.A. Letts, Kate Levy, Julianne Lindsey, Jeremy Link, Melanie Manos, Shanna Merola, Ken Milito, Michael Nagara, Jefferson Nelson, Endi Poskovic, Gloria Pritschet, Sharon Que, Raizup Collective (Antonio Cosme), Boris Rasin, Roger Rayle, Jesse Richard, Arturo Rodriguez, Gary Setzer, Meagan Shein, Anna Schaap, Sheida Soleimani, Brian Spolans, Jessica Tenbusch, Alex Tsocanos, Ellen Wilt, Robin Wilt, and Viktor Witkowski.