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.


  1. I'm really glad to see that you reviewed this show, which I thought was one of the best MOCAD has had in a long time. Less space, and more meaning to the residents of Detroit. Like you said, the show screams, hey look at the people that live here, really look (identity), really think about how we inhabit this place that many love/hate, and then it was well wrapped up by Design 99's artist talk.

    I just had to comment that my feelings towards Design 99 have always shifted when I first became aware of their efforts. First I really wanted to have a show in their store when it was in Hamtramck, just like Laith Karmo and Corine. Then my attitude shifted to being content to just be in their presence when they put the neighborhood project into the DIA, where I was thinking that their project was falling short of really bridging the two things, the DIA's patrons as part of an institution and the neighborhood that they live in (which I am also their real-life neighbor), but at the same time as being critical, their installation was so inspiring to me in a very tangible sense, each day I came in, I read a book, I talked with people that came in about their excitement about the changes they see in Detroit or what they've personally experienced about the combination of 'green' techniques and art and otherwise I was tinkering with making mockups when no one was around. Best job ever, it felt as if the installation was really made for me. I got paid, I got work done, I was inspired. I don't think it really hit me until I was at their artist talk that ended in a pool party with a bunch of Dutch people that I finally shed all the pretension that I had about the 'success' of their projects, since at the DIA what seemed to be the most successful were tacking up children's drawings of their neighborhood and letting people use a pin to show where they're visiting from (which the DIA should seriously think about adopting, it made people so giddy and yet really was a powerful research tool for the museum to think about its visitors and vice versa).


  2. They continue to work a hard line that is first and foremost for themselves, they are artists, they are making art. They are not trying to be an institution, nor guerrilla art. Their work is messy, their tools sometimes involve navigating land rights or some kind of rights of some kind of another, their medium is as much about bringing people in as it is pastel colored mis-tints, and in the end the whole neighborhood is just like what I deal with in paintings, at some point you just have to keep experimenting with the uncontrollable and see what you can come up with, and each time you come back to it, it's different, and that's why it's exciting but also hard. And I really respect Mitch and Gina for seeming to face things that most people try to avoid, like confrontations with scrappers, which is a huge shift from one of my first encounters with them which I thought was a little uncomfortable.

    I sat with an audience listening to them talk about their project in brightmoore, I asked them if they thought it was sustainable, and what more they can do and even might have thrown in there the question of, is it what they really want? is it really that successful? They responded with, "well, what can you do for the neighborhood? what are your ideas? why can't you be the one that the torch is passed on to?"


  3. I'm excited now thinking about work I'd like to make and I need to still personally thank them for this feeling that I'm one of their peers or one of their followers, whenever I decide to, I can choose to test out these waters that they boldly went into too. (for the most sake it started for their own happiness and well-being, not to be community developers)

    When I imagine what people will say about Detroit 20 years from now, I think that there won't be a single 'movement', 'style', or artist that will exemplify the good times, I think a cultural anthropologist will say that Detroit although it didn't produce any of the most memorable works of art or artists to be added to the canon, it was said to be one of the best places and times for artists to be around each other and make their work. City planners will scratch their head to how they can recreate such a haven for artists that built upon as little as you can imagine and worked towards being happy.

    (btw part of what I was disappointed not to see come to fruition at the DIA was the creation of the 'skills bank' that sounded so promising, those Dutch people that were visiting that also put on the Pool party did in fact fulfill that part of the project and even visited my house when I wasn't there to ask my housemates what skills the people that lived here had and to invite them to a pool party. I was quite surprised to see that of 50 names, maybe 10+ were self-described artists)

  4. Wow, Thanks for that thoughtful post. You've obviously thought a lot about the work. Also, the generosity you display in your openness to someone else's vision is something more artists should emulate. Post back soon & often. This kind of dialog is what I hope this blog will help bring about.

  5. I'm also interested in your comment about Detroit being a good place to make art even though it might not get into the "canon." Could you expand on that?

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  8. Oh geez I just re-read my reply I sounded drunk. In a nutshell I wanted to say that Detroit does not appear to have a specific school of thought, a popular movement that started in Detroit nor a single
    style. Detroit would go down in history rather as a prolific time for artists. The only common threads i've seen involve certain mediums. Resin, found objects, abandoned houses covered in mistints of house paint... Perhaps photographs of abandoned buildings... But these are accessible anywhere and seem to define more of the older generation of artists from the Cass corridor or Tyree Guyton's Heidelburg projects. Perhaps a 'movement' that could be said to be growing are the arts focusing on urban farming, but i'd separate that as coming from a new interdisciplinary group of farmers, not artists. Urban farming inspired more art, not the other way around.

    I would attribute the diversity of methods to primarily cheap space, a little bit to the lack of 'red tape' for realizing projects, but also to the ease of choosing how social we want to be. Want to lose yourself in a cause or event? You can find your niche or non-profit, usually out of necessity, how else does one navigate Detroit without having networks? But you can also hole yourself up and plug away on your work. No competitive art market means less competition and since Detroit lost so much of it's population, there's enough space for all of us to have a quiet place to think. I also think it's interesting that many of the people I know that went on unemployment began to take up working on art seriously with a renewed vigor of someone who was about to have a solo show in a month.

    I believe that Detroit doesn't produce the kind of artists that want to do something that no one else has ever done before nor create personality types that try to lead others to see things they way they do (that's more of the businesses, not the visual arts, the more diversity, the merrier we feel), there's more of a sense of 'do what you can with what you have'. The environment is conducive to people that just want to be left alone to do what they like to do and this city has less obstacles to starting your own gallery, acquiring a space for a self-made residency or solo show or performance. It's always very open and ready, and seeing how productive others are with 'so little to work with' it really is an inspirational time to think about our own work in relation to what other people feel so free to do. If a city with a bunch of optimistic artists is enough to make it into the canon, then I just misjudge what 'the canon' can encompass.

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