Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Imagination Station

Image above: Artist Marianne Audrey Burrows painting Reclamation at the Imagination Station in Corktown. Photo taken by and courtesy of Stephen McGee.

Travis R. Wright has written some whacky stuff about art since becoming arts and culture editor of the Metro Times a couple of years back. (Take his Mark Dancey review. What's with the royal plural, dude? For rock'n'roll softcore erotica? Puhleeze!) His literature pieces are much more palatable, as they should be given that's more his area of expertise. But while I think the prose is still too flatulent (when will alternative-press guys in particular stop trying to channel Lester Bangs?), his story on Imagination Station in this week's Metro Times hit on something rather significant in the visual art scene in Detroit right now, even if it was more of a profile piece than a critical assessment.

To quickly recap, Imagination Station is a collaborative project working on rehabbing a couple of blighted Corktown structures that sit in the shadow of America's top model of ruin porn, the Michigan Central Train Station. It brings together artists, community activists, and new media mavens. It's another one of the ground-up efforts that these days I'm calling the art of the commons, which seem to characterize some of the most interesting cultural production in Detroit. (Click here to see my post on the topic from a couple of weeks back.)

Simply put, the art of the commons exposes the limits of proprietary rights, in both things and ideas, that have ruled cultural production since the early days of what Benedict Anderson calls print-capitalism. (As Marshall McLuhan famously observed, the printed book was the first capitalist commodity. It also created the autonomous artist and the notion of intellectual property.)

The proprietary concept got its first major challenge with deconstruction and the idea of the death of the author. In art, it emerged with postmodernist image appropriation in the work of people like Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman. (Or as Rosalind Krauss once put it in an especially vitriolic exchange with Donald Kuspit that took place @ the DIA, those artists who practiced "guerrilla pastiche" as opposed to the neo-Romantic hacks, like Julian Schnabel and David Salle, he was defending.)

Once deconstructed, proprietary cultural production's exposed flank opened the door for remixing and other forms of collaboration. Imagination Station is another example to add to the list, all the more so for the fact that many of the participants aren't "artists." (What does that term mean anymore, anyway? As opposed to some, I'm not troubled that Marianne Audrey Burrows might not be the most technically proficient painter. John Cage wasn't a steller pianist but what did that matter when it came to appreciating 4 minutes, 33 seconds or any other of his compositions? Similarly, aesthetics in the traditional sense isn't really what this project is about. And the fact that Jerry Paffendorf is selling virtual parcels of land so minuscule as to make any idea of return on investment completely absurd only reinforces my point about the breakdown in Detroit of the regime of property, to use Michael Hardt and Tony Negri's phrase.) (Click here for a critique of Hardt and Negri by David Harvey that ran in the November 2009 issue of Artforum along with Michael Hardt's reply.)

Of course, the forces of the dark side aren't going without a fight. That's why record companies are suing 14-year olds for sharing music P2P. But just like the pope trying to fend off the Reformation with Latin manuscripts and church frescoes, the current intellectual property regime won't be able to control the proliferation of the binary digit and all it has wrought (for better or worse), including collaborative projects like Imagination Station. Welcome to it. You don't have to believe that Imagination Station is a postindustrial equivalent of the Sistine Chapel to see it as a prime example of how local cultural producers are responding to Detroit's post-postmodern condition.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Welcome Leon Johnson to the D

Had an opportunity to meet Leon Johnson (pictured left) @ a little soiree Michael Stone Richards had last night.
This fall, Johnson will be taking over as Chair of the Fine Arts Dept @ College for Creative Studies.

Johnson is sometimes described as a "convergence artist." He brings together a wide range of mediums, which he calls "delivery systems," in realizing his creative projects.

He's coming to the Motor City via the University of Maine where he's currently Associate for Critical Engagement in the interdisciplinary studio program. That's a welcome addition to CCS in my book as I've found students there generally in need of bulking up on their intellectual chops. (Keep your sketchbooks in your backpacks kids and listen up!)

Originally from South Africa, Johnson has an MFA in intermedia from University of Oregon. He's exhibited and published internationally and he's also received a Pollock/Krasner Foundation award. All in all, he seems like a pretty cool guy.

Click here to read an interview with him done a couple of years back. Also, we've agreed to meet for breakfast in the next few weeks, so I'll have my own contribution to post.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Spark" Goes Out Tomorrow

Saturday marks the end of "Spark," an interesting little show at Butter Projects in Royal Oak. Butter is the alter ego of the studio space of two recent Cranbrook grads, Kelly Frank and Alison Wong. When they're not using the rented storefront to make their own work, the pair intends to put on four shows a year. This is the second.

The concept behind "Spark" is simple. Kelly and Wong chose works by nine artists and then matched them up with another nine to respond. The basic idea has been done before, for example, the old "Artists Chose Artists" shows that used be mounted at Detroit Focus Gallery. (Typically when the Exhibition Committee ran out of other ideas.) This one has a little bit different spin in that the chosen artists actually created new works in response to specific preexisting ones.

The most logical move is for the respondent to play yang to the first artist's yin. And so it is in the pairing Julie Blackmon and Jef Borgeau (top image). Blackmon's piece, Rooster, is an exquisitely seamless PhotoShop image of a child standing in a corner holding a rooster. It's virtually impossible to tell where the editing has been done, save for the view through the window at the right of a UPS truck seen through the scrim of a curtain. Borgeau responds with a moody painting, filled with baroque lighting and visible brush strokes. Mystery remains in that the main action of the title Combing Her Hair takes place outside the frame. All you see are two pairs of feet and legs, one obviously standing behind the other.

Another example is the pairing of Adrian Hatfield and David Flaughter (middle image). Hatfield presents one of his signature resin paintings, this one flooded with a delectable orange that is built up in layers bedecked with flowers and glitter. The piece is all out maximalism, eye candy of the most alluring sort. Flaughter on the other hand barely inscribes the canvas with vectors of lines in pencil and ballpoint pen.

Other artists worked to integrate their response into the other work. Nate Morgan simply stuck an arrow into the wall next to Joe Neave's untitled watercolor of a kaleidoscopic arrangement of female nudes.

My favorite was the collaboration Anders Ruhwald and Robert Fanning (bottom image). Installed in a corner, Fanning wrote two poems that offered narratives (of sorts) for two earthenware floor vessels, each of which served as pedestals for balloons.

What I thought was most interesting about this show is the idea of collaboration and its relationship to artistic creativity. In the old "Artists Choose Artists" shows, each artist was essentially an individual voice, the pairing happenstance at best. In this case, the second artist was acknowledging the influence of the first and not taking it as competition but instead as a "spark" for aesthetic dialog.

Romantic art from Gericault on down into the present is at pains to demonstrate "originality," "authenticity," and other tropes of authorial power. The premise of this show assumes that art is a social thing, a network of human relationships of which specific works are the nodes. I much prefer the latter.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"The Detroiters" captures Motor City advertising, "Mad Men" style

PopMatters has posted my essay on the pulp fiction novel The Detroiters, which was published in 1958 (see cover image at right). The "friend" mentioned in the first paragraph is of course Nick Sousanis. The "mentor" mentioned midway through is gamemaster Fred Goodman, who helped put together the "Game Show" exhibition @ CAID a few years back. Nick gave me the book to write about when he was still in Detroit and running I didn't do anything with it then. But here it is now. Better late than never as they say.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Cutting Through the Clutter with Art

A welcome bit of news came recently with the announcement that the Public Art Project in Ferndale is getting back into action. The nonprofit organization manages the billboard space on the side of the building on Woodward Avenue at Maplehurst that houses Paul Kotula Projects and Lemberg Gallery. For nearly 20 years, the billboard has been a site for artists to engage the public sphere with their work. (Disclosure: I'm one of them, having had a billboard installed in 1997 under the auspices of the collaborative, culture industries inc.)

The renewed effort has been kicked off with gold code: Art (2010) by Vagner Mendonca Whitehead (image above). A Brazilian, the artist is based in Detroit and teaches new media at Oakland University. According to the artist's statement, gold code Art explores the interface between mass communication and art, cultural productions that were once considered diametrically opposed to one another. As if to foreground the residue of that opposition, the artist presents the word "art" spelled out on the one hand in American Sign Language (a visual form of communication for those who can't hear) and on the other Morse code (which is meant to be heard not seen). A third element is added at the bottom in the form of Braille, which is decoded by touch.

The various elements and the way they communicate or don't, depending on your ability to understand them, invokes what communications theorists call reception theory. Basically, the critics of the mass culture/high culture divide (which included Clement Greenberg, Dwight McDonald, and Harold Rosenberg in America and the Frankfurt School, most notably Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Europe) saw mass media as permeated with the power of encoding, primarily for the benefit of the ruling class. (The conventional understanding of the time was expressed in Harold Laswell's equation: "Who says what to whom in what channel to what effect?," which only acknowledged the production side.) From that perspective, art represented true culture, that which constituted respite from the ersatz swill of the dreaded "culture industry."

But reception theory, emerging as part of the postmodern turn in the 1970s, factored in a middle ground, negotiation, which allowed for another kind of human agency: the ability to redirect dominant communications toward one's own ends. (In literature this is known as "reader response.") This position has been used by popular culture scholars, like Dick Hebdige and Angela McRobbie, to explore how punks, for example, appropriated safety pins as jewelry and steel-toed work boots as fashion footwear. Another example would the hip-hop appropriations of preppy styles.

For Whitehead, the process of encoding and decoding is slippery, continually done and undone, illumination for some, mystery for others. Art is as much imbued with these characteristics as any other form of communication. No better, no worse (as much as some artists may hate to hear that).

According to Darlene Carroll of the Lemberg Gallery, the Public Art Project is accepting proposals for additional artist's billboards. A set of criteria for proposals has been developed in part to make sure they comply with City of Ferndale signage regulations and also to help ensure that artists have the capacity to actually complete the project. The group is also working on funding to repair the physical site and even pay stipends. (That would be good as my project cost $800 out-of-pocket and I used every one of my then suit-guy connections to bring it in as cheaply as I could.) The current installation is supported in part by a grant from the Ferndale Community Arts program.

The billboard has a great history. At least six Kresge Arts in Detroit fellows, Harmut Austen, Lynne Avadenka, Susan Goethel Campbell, Lynn Crawford, Ed Fraga, and me, have done one. It's been featured in Dennis Nawrocki's book Art in Detroit Public Places and the catalog for the MassMOCA exhibition, "Billboard: Art on the Road: 30 Years of Artists Billboards." Whitehead's addition is a good one. Here's to many more.

Vagner Mendonca Whitehead's gold code: Art will be on view at the Public Art Project, Woodward Avenue at Maplehurst in Ferndale until September. Call 248 591 6623 for information.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Through African Eyes" from a Different Perspective

After the perceived bashing he gave the Detroit Institute of Art's remodeling in 2007, New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Holland Cotter was pretty much Public Enemy #1 among the local cultural community. (Although I thought the review was fairly balanced and that those who didn't were thin skinned.) Cotter redeemed himself with what amounted to a rave review of the Detroit Institutes of Arts exhibition "Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to the Present," published on the front page of the Times Weekend Arts section on the eve of the opening. In his conclusion, Cotter notes:
Who would have imagined, even just a few years ago, that such histories and energies could have been found in art that most of us never knew existed? Enough to say that if you get a thrill from seeing things you’ve never seen and thinking thoughts you’ve never thought, Detroit is a good place to be these days.
While I appreciate the kudos as much as anyone, I wonder where Cotter has been?

In 1984 (of all years), the Museum of Modern Art created a furor with its exhibition looking at things through the other end of the telescope, "'Primitivism' in 20th-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern," which made a stop at the DIA. The show was savaged by both art historians, among them Hal Foster, Thomas McEvilley, and Lucy Lippard, and anthropologists such as James Clifford. The philosopher turned art critic Arthur C. Danto (a Detroiter and Wayne State alum) also weighed in at the time against the show's concept in The Nation.

The groundwork for this critique was set a decade previous by the poststructuralist thinking emanating out of France, which had begun to be translated into English in the 1970s. Mining similar philosophical sources, postcolonialism provided another set of tools, in particular Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism as well the legacy of African writing, dating back into the 1950s, of authors such as Aime Cesaire, Franz Fanon, and Albert Memmi. Published not long after the dust-up over the MOMA show had sort of settled, Clifford's important book The Predicament of Culture: 20th-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art features on its cover a mirror-image photograph of a male performer wearing a "white man" costume as part of a 1982 Igbo masquerade in southwest Nigeria. (See cover picture detail above.)

I couldn't help but think of all this as I walked through "From African Eyes" the other day.

First, I kept going back to something that came up during a job talk for the Africanist art history search at Wayne State last year. We had listened to an excellent presentation on East African architecture but I kept wondering what made it art history as opposed to say visual anthropology. My colleague at CCS, Michael Stone Richards, apparently had the same thought and beat to me to the punch in posing the question. I don't think it was adequately answered but I think the uncertainty characterizes what goes on in the disciplines these days and is embodied in this show.

To be sure, the installation of "Through African Eyes" could have just as easily been found in a natural history museum. For the most part, the works were installed often in groups in vitrines set against the walls, which were painted in earth tones. Most of the wall labels and the narration of the acoustic guide mainly addressed questions of social context rather than aesthetics. Interestingly, I also recalled the installation of craft in the contemporary galleries of the museum, as if craft artists were similarly "close to the earth," working manually as opposed to photographers, who for the most part still find themselves kept in the basement, regardless of time period.

I was further reminded of another comment MSR made as part of the aforementioned encounter, to wit that "art is an 18-century German philosophical concept whose usefulness may have run its course." (Detroit graphic designer Ed Fella made a similar observation years back in a bumper sticker riffing off the DIA's then slogan: "Art is an ethnocentric cultural construct that you don't gotta have.") Many theorists, again Danto, Regis Debray, and others working in the area now known as visual culture studies, see us as being in a period after the end of art. Indeed, Esther Pasztory in her 2005 book Thinking with Things: Toward a New Vision of Art notes that only a very small amount of what human creativity has produced around the globe and across the millennia is technically "art."

That doesn't make the show less interesting or valid. In fact, that we now may be living under "the regime of the visual" as opposed to "the regime of art," to use Debray's terminology, isn't necessarily a bad thing.

More intriguing perhaps is to think about what else might be going on with this show.

One thing that struck me as odd was that the primary voice on the acoustic guide was that of DIA Director Graham Beal. With his mellifluous British-accented voice, straight out of Masterpiece Theater, Beale was a somewhat incongruous guide to 500 years of colonial exploitation and indigenous resistance as represented in the objects on display.

This led me to another Brit, the sociologist John B. Thompson, whose work on ideology is useful in this regard. One of the primary ways that ideology filters information is through dissimulation, in particular using displacement to move thinking from the present situation to the safely distant, physical and chronological. In the here and now, in Detroit and elsewhere in America, we're shredding the social fabric, rolling back the progress made by the hard-earned efforts of decades of social movements, and clawing back the wealth distributed to the broader levels of society, but in the there and then, we're sorry and, hey, we feel your pain. Our bad! And by the way, don't forget to exit through the gift shop.

Friday, July 16, 2010

MOCAD Meditations

The trio of solo shows, curated by MOCAD Director and Chief Curator Luis Croquer and closing next week, represent key themes of contemporary art, specifically identity, environment, and what has been termed interventionism. While the work of each artist is distinctive, they make sense when viewed together, especially in the context of Detroit in its post-postmodern manifestation.

Latoya Ruby Frazier mines a creative lode that has become quite familiar in the reverberations of second-wave feminism's declaration that the personal is political, which artists exploring questions of class, ethnicity, and gender have extended into the realm of aesthetics since the 1970s. Frazier hits all three in a series of black-and-white photographs and color digital videos. As with a lot of work in this vein, Frazier is at pains to examine her origins, particularly in her case in two generations of direct maternal forebears. Those images are affecting, but more interesting are the ones that short-circuit the expected. These include the photographs, such as Me and Mom's Boyfriend Mr. Art (2005, top above), that foreground the absence of the father who would provide the other half of identity's equation. (As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari put it in Anti-Oedipus the holy trinity of Western patriarchal order: "Daddy, Mommy, Me.") The other significant image in this regard is Huxtables, Mom, and Me (2008), which shows the artist wearing a t-shirt of the TV family whose "buppy" perfection papered over rising economic inequality, especially for African Americans, in the Reagan Era, the decade in which the artist was born.

The Belgian artist Jef Geys presents a project based on Detroit that to the casual observer might seem more apropos of a natural history museum. Woodward Avenue (2010) maps the collecting of botanical specimens along the city's central thoroughfare from near its base in Cadillac Square in downtown Detroit to its termination 30 miles to the north in Pontiac. The project is documented in framed Google maps and photographs of each collection site (middle, above) as well as in examples of the dried plants and their scientific descriptions. Woodward Avenue continues an earlier project done in Bolivia involving indigenous populations and their use of medicinal herbs. In Detroit, the encroachments of plant life into paved areas are considered weeds, yet some turn out to be edible or medicinal instead of being noxious. The installation includes films from the Bolivian project that connect the two sites in terms of parallel local knowledge of fauna but also sustainability when seen in light of Detroit Summer and other urban agriculture projects. (Also, identifying natural stores of indigenous medicinal plants could come in handy when the American healthcare system finally totally collapses.)

Detroit's own Design 99 (artist Mitch Cope and architect Gina Reichert) are represented by elements of their ongoing community-engagement work, which at MOCAD is titled Too Much of a Good Thing. The central element is The Neighborhood Machine (2010), a Bobcat tractor painted in horizontal color stripes to match their Power House community-reclamation/art object on Detroit's East Side. In true urban pioneer fashion, Design 99 uses bricolage techniques to capitalize on resources at hand. The castoff is a time-honored element of Detroit art, but in this case it isn't incorporated into works meant for purely aesthetic contemplation. Instead, it functions in a more matter-of-fact way in retrieved use value: found glass jars that are used to hold hardware, scrap wood painted and formed into Razzle Dazzle sculptures (bottom, above) intended to discourage vandalism, and found shopping cart pieces formed into a container for garden tools.

What holds all of this work together for me is the sense of a vision of the post-Apocalyptic landscape of America in decline, the void in the shredded social fabric of the ruined welfare-capitalist state, the final death throes of modernity of which Detroit stands -- as it has for at least the last three-and-a-half decades -- as Ground Zero. In this wreckage, we're all cast adrift, making do as best we can. Each of these artists proposes individual ways of doing that.

Photographs courtesy of MOCAD. Photo credits: Latoya Ruby Frazier: courtesy of Higher Pictures; Jef Geys: courtesy of the artist; Design 99: courtesy of the artists, photo by Corine Vermeulen.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Wordage" @ DAM

Over the last couple of years, the Detroit Artists Market has served up a consistently solid schedule of curated group shows. The one that's on view right now, "Wordage" curated by Jack O. Summers, is a really good one even when considered in light of the high standard DAM has set.

"Wordage" features 25 artists whose work engages text in one way or another. And there isn't a bad piece in the lot. Also on view in the Elements Gallery is Ryan Asplund, whose works on paper take their cue from medieval illuminated manuscript and thus fit right in.

In fact, working from Asplund and on through the rest of the show you get a compendium of the evolution of literacy (as a broad cultural phenomenon replacing primordial orality, to use Walter Ong's dialectic), from the handmade manuscript character to mass-reproduced print to its eventual deconstruction in the hypertext of the digital age.

Before anyone in America heard of Jacques Derrida, deconstruction was being practiced literally as it were by William S. Burroughs in his "cut-up" method. Christine Monhollen mines that lode while at the same time paying homage to late artist Paul Schwarz, whose geometrically faceted black-and-white paintings her pieces resemble. The visuality of text becomes primary; what's being "said" less so. (As Marshall McLuhan asserts, the written word is an extension of the eye, replacing the ear as the primary information-gathering organ. And the "content" of one medium is another medium, in the case of print it's the written word which in turn captured speech.)

The binary digit has effectively eliminated the difference between text and image (and sound for that matter) and several artists use the capabilities of various desktop publishing programs to different ends. Andrea Eis seamlessly mixes text and image with the assistance of PhotoShop, though she's been at it since way before the days of digital convergence. Israel Davis draws a line across the ages from the present back to the emergence of writing in Mesopotamia, using screen printing to transfer images onto clay tablets.

The written word becomes content for the painters in the group. In the case of Jaye Schlesinger it's rendered transparently in photorealistic images of street signs, shopping bags, and other environments. The word stands alone sandwiched in between other images in a multi-panel, expressionistic work by Lynn Galbraith that's installed high on a wall near the front windows. Dick Goody is more playful, using the word to almost but not quite illuminate the quotidian.

As this is Detroit, there are a number of works using words as part of complex assemblages made from scavenged and otherwise mashed-up components. Julie Renfro continues her delirious meditations on the sublime and the tacky with a fake-jewel encrusted miniature shrine to self-help. Catherine Peet performs similar feats with a somewhat larger work that evokes a church altarpiece. Loralei R. Byatt is more of a minimalist, using just a few castoffs to embellish an oversize photographic self-portrait.

More conceptual approaches are taken by Ryan Standfest, who in one piece uses an iPod projection of a striptease to reference what feminists term "scopophilia" (the love of looking that encodes images with the male as beholder and female as beholden), and Stephen William Schudlich, whose Blight extends his investigation of the ruin as rune, with deliquescent Detroit as Exhibit A.

If a theme can be said to run through "Wordage," it's a resistance to the media bombardment of the spectacle society in which we live, a hyperactive world in which we are fed more and more stuff that seems to mean less and less. Each artist in his or her own way asks us to slow down and consider what's in front of us. It's more than a welcome respite.

"Wordage" continues at Detroit Artists Market, 4179 Woodward Ave. at Forrest, until July 24. Call 313 832 8540 for information. Photo credit: Above, "Wordage" installation view by Jack O. Summers.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Art of the commons

Two recent arts-related news items got me to thinking about something interesting in terms of Detroit as a field of cultural production. The first is the continuing controversy over the Packard Plant Banksy mural and the second is the "Consumed" column by Rob Walker in The New York Times Sunday Magazine on Design 99's work currently on view at MOCAD.

Banksy issue concerns ownership of the mural, which was taken from the Packard Plant by the good folks at Gallery 555 and put on view there. The owners of the long-idled and seriously dilapidated factory are claiming that the artwork is part of the property and thus owned by the group headed up by land speculator Romel Casab. Potentially valued at $100,000, the mural is one of several artworks by the noted graffiti artist reportedly located in the city. It's more than a little ironic that the most recent twist is a claim by the City of Detroit upon the owners to step up to demolishing the eyesore/death trap, which has caused some back-pedaling on the claim as the cost of taking down the building far exceeds the value the speculators would gain by owning and likely flipping the art. (Listen to Craig Fahle's piece on it.)

Rob Walker's piece opines on Mitch Cope and Gina Reichart's
Razzle Dazzle Security Systems, which uses brightly painted scrap lumber installed in abandoned building doorways and windows to discourage vandalism. Several times during the article, Walker uses the phrase "abandoned property" and then notes the sculptures' potential for ameliorating such condition.

It's this idea of property and its contested nature in art that brings these two items together. Last November, the Museum of New Art in Pontiac held a panel discussion on sculpture in Detroit. I gave
a presentation on what I called "the art of the commons," which I believe a number of artists working in Detroit embody. This art, exemplified by the Heidelberg Project, and also by such things as Object Orange and perhaps most stunningly by Scott Hocking's Herculean performance/installation Ziggurat. What this work does I argue is expose the limits of property relations and open up the possibility of the commons as described, for one example, by Tony Negri and Michael Hardt in their book Commonwealth. (In my review of it for PopMatters I do express serious reservations about the book as a whole, but the idea of the commons as it relates to culture, that is, the legacy which we all share as human beings and then also in terms of the resources upon which we all depend, is important.)

Our culture has essentially made art a private thing, something to be owned by individuals, first the creator (in what are known as moral rights) and then collectors (either in physical form or as intellectual property). At best, we lock it up in institutions (i.e., museums) that frame it in very particular ways in part to make it safe for consumption by "the masses." We use the term public art to describe another kind of activity, also typically circumscribed by an institutional frame and its gatekeepers. The art of the commons on the other hand is just out there. Take it as you will or leave it. It's up really to you.

One of the great things about Detroit is that as long as you have the will and the capacity, you can virtually do what you want. That's because there's no one to stop you. There's some real liberation in that as the artists mentioned above demonstrate.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Robert Frank: Detroit Experiences @ the DIA

So I'm playing catch up here. But with the show coming down & the Independence Day weekend upon us, it seems like a good time to reflect on one of the best exhibitions in Detroit so far this year, Detroit Experiences, Robert Frank: 1955,@ the DIA.

Anyone familiar with photographic history or with Beat culture knows Frank's masterpiece
The Americans, published in the US in 1959 with a preface by Jack Kerouac. In 2009, the National Gallery of Art mounted a 50th-anniversary exhibition of the photos collected in the book, which traveled, fittingly enough, to San Francisco and New York.

Taking a cue from that, DIA Associate Curator Nancy Barr rifled through the DIA's own substantial photography collection and came up with a trove of images taken as part of the original project, all done during the Detroit leg of Frank's road trip sponsored by a Guggenheim Fellowship. She selected more than 60 drawn from a pool of some 1500 in the collection and, in a curatorial move of pure inspiration, installed them in the galleries behind the south wall of Diego Rivera's magnificent Detroit Industry (1932-33) murals. The exhibition includes the Detroit images contained in The Americans plus many that have never been seen before in public.

I saw the show several times, in part because I took all of my CCS classes there as part of the required coursework. As a result, there are many ways I could riff on this exhibition and I'll touch on a couple.

First, is the art history part. In the catalog, Barr notes that Frank was motivated to take up the project due to the influence of Walker Evans, whose book American Photographs (1938) is a direct predecessor. She also references Charles Sheeler, who in 1927 was commissioned by the NW Ayer ad agency to photograph the Rouge Plant for its client the Ford Motor Company. Then there's Rivera, of course.

Frank's project is almost the mirror image of Evans. For one thing, Evans was working on commission from the Farm Security Administration and other government sponsors to capture a particular view of America, namely, of the impoverished rural communities in need of welfare-state intervention during the Great Depression. Frank had unprecedented free reign to photograph at will in the Rouge Plant and elsewhere, courtesy of the Guggenheim Foundation.

The reversal is also reflected in content: where Evans was "praising" the deserving poor, Frank was at pains to register his idea of the underbelly of the American Dream. Evans's pictures were taken with an 8x10 view camera, which required conscientious set up and resulted in razor-sharp images, capturing "reality" in detail. Frank, on the other hand, worked almost surreptitiously, using a lightweight 35mm camera to shoot on the fly. His photographs are often blurry, poorly lit, and gritty in the density of their grain.

Comparing Frank's images with those of Sheeler, we can see another dialectic at play. In Sheeler's photographs, technology is the hero, ruling over the natural landscape with the productive might of a Prometheus unbound but ultimately for the good of humankind. With Frank, technology is also the master but instead of helping us enjoy the fruits of material abundance, it lords over us, alienating us from one another and from our natural selves. (This is essentially what Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno are getting at when in Dialectic of Enlightenment they state in one of their key passages: "Myth becomes Enlightenment; Enlightment is a myth.")

Second, is the issue of content. As part of the project, Frank endeavored to capture specific iconic images: American flags, automobiles, workers, and cowboys among the most prominent. Frank was essentially on the lookout for key images of American ideology as represented in its visual culture. The flag, of course, is the logo of Team America ("Fuck Yeah!"), and an early image in the series from 1955 presents one in the form of a plastic inflatable pillow perched above a Detroit bar flanked by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Cars are abundant in the photographs and they certainly represent a central aspect of American culture, specifically mobility, at a time when Detroit was ground zero for that idea, both in terms of producing the physical means to freely move from place to place and in providing the economic means for the average worker to do so.

In writing about his subject, Frank, as noted in the catalog, says, "America is an interesting country, but there is a lot here that I do not like and that I would never accept." The workers in the Rouge Plant provide the images to express some of that disaffection. There are many photographs framing workers as literally trapped within the maw of industrial capitalism, lost in the machinery to which they are bound by wage labor. In others, the division of labor between those who work and those watch workers work is represented in the physical barriers erected between management and also consumers who tour the plant for their leisure.

The alienation of the individual in modernity is a trope that goes back to the beginnings of Romanticism, carries through the avant-garde, and remains with us in a highly degraded state in the form of lifestyle consumption. At the time Frank took these photographs there was something called the "other-directed" critique that was being mounted against the perceived ills of mass conformity as embodied in "the lonely crowd," "the organization man," "the status seekers," etc. The Beats and their progeny -- the hippies, the punks, and now vegans, DIYers, etc. -- reacted against this "square" culture with reveries of their own individual hipness. We all know where that -- what sociologist Robert Bellah calls "expressive individualism" -- has gotten us. And these days we might be tempted to look back on those times with fondness.

To be sure, one of things I noticed quite often as I hung around the galleries were viewers who ironically used the images as objects of nostalgia. I think it's good to keep in mind Frank's original intention but to also acknowledge a certain amount of elitism at play. The people captured in those images literally made America and even with all the troubles then it wasn't an entirely bad place to be, especially when you consider what's become of us.