Saturday, January 29, 2011

Playing catch up, pt. 3

The last post on shows I didn't get to write about before they closed. In this case, I fudged the opening sentence because of late-breaking news, which I added because it helps make my point.

Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit
10 September - 30 December 2010
Yona Friedman, Ville Spatial, 2010. On view with the exhibition "Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism" at MOCAD. (Photo by Corine Vermeulen, courtesy of MOCAD.)
In early January of this year, Dennis Scholl, VP/arts and Miami program director of the Knight Foundation, posted a list of his "Top 8 for 2011," which included a nod to the curatorial chops of MOCAD Director and Chief Curator Luis Croquer. There's no better evidence for Scholl's opinion than the exhibition that ran at the museum this past fall "Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism." The exhibition was quite simply the best that MOCAD has yet done -- the work raised central issues in the consideration of the Motor City's current zeitgeist, and the installation took complete command of the museum's quirky spaces.

"Spatial City" drew its inspiration from the ideas of visionary French architect Yona Friedman, whose 1958 manifesto Mobile Architecture defined a user-centric model of the built environment adaptable to the ever-changing needs of what would come to be known as postmodern society. Mobile architecture, as Friedman envisioned it, would tread lightly on the earth, going with the flows of an emerging global cultural economy. The exhibition featured 45 works in all media drawn from a roster of international artists spanning several generations, many of whom had never before shown in the US.

The show was originally conceived by Nicholas Frank of the Institute of Visual Arts (INOVA) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Five additional participating curators, two from the Midwest (including Croquer) and three from France, collaborated to assemble the exhibition, each of whom adapted it, including specific artworks and local installation, to their particular venues. The work in "Spatial City" didn't necessarily expand upon Friedman's basic tenets so much as explore disjunctures and differences in the eddies and tides of various social, cultural, and political currents that define the condition of postmodernity, the basic drift of which Friedman had identified more than 50 years ago.

Friedman's installation in the first gallery near the museum entrance, Ville Spatial (2010), consisted of a loose network of triangulated mesh suspended from the ceiling upon which container volumes were placed at various intervals. The volumes suggested a topography both functional and aesthetic, where life support systems could be organized around the flexible needs of a diversity of occupants. The openness of the supporting grid would allow links and nodes to be established and changed as dictated, but still provide for ample natural light to fall on the ground below, enabling, for example, a cultivated landscape or a myriad of other uses. The contingent nature of the environmental plan offered opportunities for reconfiguration and thus evolution in contrast to what might be called "the embedded city" of traditional architectural convention, the inflexible conglomeration of massive edifices that in Detroit, for instance, now stands abandoned after their purpose has been seemingly served.

Sarah Morris, Midtown, 1998, color video.

The phantom metropolis of latter-day Detroit was brought into relief by the video installation of Sarah Morris, an artist born in the UK who divides her time between London and New York. Midtown (1998) offered a dramatic contrast to the broad, nearly empty boulevards of what was once called "The Paris of the Midwest"; in it the urban spaces of midtown Manhattan are shown pulsing with activity -- congestion on the streets and sidewalks, beehives of activity in office towers, flows of media images circulating above, all set to a soundtrack that vamps but never resolves. It's the yang to Detroit's yin.

Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006-2007 (excerpt), color video.

Perhaps most poignant was the video by Chinese artist Cao Fei, Whose Utopia (2006-2007). The segment "My Future Is Not a Dream" is based on a popular Chinese song that has become an anthem of the younger generation of workers who are migrating from the rural interior to the special economic zones (SEZs) in search of work and upward mobility. The city of Shenzhen, for example, in less than 30 years has gone from a sleepy coastal fishing village to a teeming metropolis with an official population of just under 10 million and informal estimates, factoring in temporary workers, much higher. The video portrays individual dancers and musicians performing amid rows of sewing machines, parts assembly lines, warehouse fulfillment centers, and other spaces that have sprung up as China has become the global factory of late capitalism. The great migrations of a previous century, of course, were crucial to the emergence of Detroit as the engine of modernity. In China, the process has been raised to the nth power. (There's the old saying, "the bigger they are, the harder they fall," and there's some speculation that the inherent contradictions of the Chinese political economy will in time signal the end of the modern world-system as it has functioned for nearly 500 years. See economist Li Minqi's The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy.)

There were so many other works that could be similarly examined in this fecund exhibition. Just to remark on a couple: Ukrainian-born Kristina Solomoukha's Shedding Identity (identite permutable) (2005-6) consisting of mirror-clad boxes set on low horizontal planes, referencing the minimalist glass-curtain edifices of the International Style, upon on which images of skyscrapers, highways, landscapes, and commodities were projected, revealing the illusions of permanence of the built environment, which as all in Detroit are painfully aware, are in fact contingent. Korean artist June Bum Park's III Crossing (2002) video depicts a bird's eye city view with people and vehicles moving to the rhythms established by a giant pair of hands, a comment on the literally top-down influence of urban planning, which channels supposed free movement into predetermined patterns. 

Installation view, Kristina Solomoukha, Shedding Identity (indentit√© permutable), 2005-2006. On view with the exhibition "Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism" at MOCAD.  (Courtesy of Frac Pays de la Loire. Photo by Corine Vermeulen.)

June Bum Park, III Crossing, 2002 (fragment), color video.

With this show, his first truly "big concept" large-scale exhibition, Croquer was obviously swinging for the bleachers. He knocked it out of the park.

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Sincere thanks to the students in my CCS MFA program second-year seminar whose responses to the exhibition "Spatial City" informed this blog post, especially Troy Baker and Lei Zhjang.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Michigan Artists XXXVII @ Anton Art Center

Installation view: Michigan Annual XXXV, Anton Art Center, 2009. (All images here and below courtesy of the artists and Anton Art Center. All works below completed in the last two years.)

I juried the Michigan Annual XXXVII exhibition at the Anton Art Center in downtown Mount Clemens. The show opens this Friday, January 28, from 6 to 9 pm. Awards will be given out at 7:30 pm.

I have to say it was a challenge. There were 177 pieces submitted and I had to get it down to 38. There was a lot of good stuff that unfortunately I couldn't accept due to space, especially because I felt I had to respect what I consider to be one of the great things about these kinds of shows, which is that they are on some level about community. There are people who might only have this one chance to get their stuff shown each year or people who don't do the "professional" thing for whatever reason. There are also those who are either just getting started or who picked up artmaking late in life and so again aren't in it necessarily for fame and fortune (at least not yet).

That noted, I believe that the show is pretty interesting. As the press release says:
What really makes this event special is the level of diversity - ranging from established artists to those who are self taught, teens to seniors, traditional to contemporary works. This exhibition highlights exceptional pieces created in all media including ceramics, drawing, fibers, painting, photography, sculpture and more.
I also have a history with the Art Center. When I first got out of art school in the mid-1970s and moved back home to the East Side for a brief stint with the folks, the Michigan Annual was the first show I submitted to. I had both of my pieces accepted so it's where I officially got my start.

You'll recognize some of the names, but there are many you won't. Some real suprises for me -- Daren Dundee, a retired probation officer who fetishizes Happy Meal trinkets in 24K gold, and Ryan El-Yafouri, a teen-aged skateboarder whose low-brow illustrations are totally good to go. If he isn't given a full ride to CCS or some other art school, I'll eat my Chuck Taylors.

Daren Dundee, Golden Memories. (Happy Meal toys in 24K gold paint.)

Ryan El-Yafouri, Robo-Barf. (Acrylic & pen on skateboard.)
Another wacky thing. The show was written up in The Italian Tribune, a dual-language newspaper that's been published in metro Detroit for 102 years. My maternal grandfather and namesake Vincenzo Amato was the opera critic in the 1930s and also sold ads. (My Mom remembers going around with him after church on Sundays to collect from late payers. A pipefitter by trade, he died in 1946 likely of asbestos poisoning. My wife Sue still has his opera clothes, including spats, in her cedar closet.)

Hope you can make it out to the opening or at least check out the show, which closes February 25. Below are a few more images, in no particular order, just to give you an idea of what you'll see:

Corrie Baldauf, The tomato juice was pink; the radish juice was burgundy. (Ink & graphite on cradled wood panel.)

Darcy Scott, After the Storm II. (Watercolor on paper.)

Dolores Slowinski, Threadlines Sketchbook: 10+9+11. (Thread on paper.)

Jack O. Summers, Detroit Rust 2. (Digital archival print.)
Bill Murko, Hell's Angel. (Oil on canvas.)
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29 JANUARY UPDATE: Here's a video shot by Jenny Callans, director of the Anton Art Center, showing the selected pieces installed.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Playing catch up, pt. 2

Another show I wanted to write about, but didn't get to before it closed. In this case, I wish I had taken better notes.
In Your Dreams: 500 Years of Imaginary Prints
Detroit Institute of Art
8 September 2010 - 2 January 2011

Giovanni Batista Piranesi, The Drawbridge from the series The Imaginary Prisons, 1761, etching. (Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)
One of my favorite quotes from Paul Klee is his statement that, "Art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible." I couldn't help but think that this is what artists have always done as I walked through the exhibition "In Your Dreams," handsomely installed in the Schwartz Graphic Arts Gallery of the DIA. The exhibition of 135 or so works was drawn entirely from the museum's vast graphic arts collection and it was yet another example of how the department's curators, and in this case department head Nancy Sojka, have in recent times been coming up with creative ways to make use of the trove of stuff they have on hand, marrying existing materials to interesting concepts that not only have viewer appeal but educational and aesthetic value as well.

The exhibition focused on a core area of the museum's holdings, prints created in the last 500 years basically in Europe and America. The show followed a path that didn't so much run counter as add a layer of complexity to the traditional reading of art history -- typified by Ernst Gombrich in books like The Story of Art and Art and Illusion and still taught in survey courses across the land -- that the evolution of art is one of the perfection of mimesis (i.e., the imitation of nature, or as Klee would have it, the visible simply reproduced) and then ultimately of art coming into its own reality as a material and expressive practice.

Albrecht Durer, Book of Revelation (The Four Riders of the Apocalypse), 1497-1498, woodcut (Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
"In Your Dreams" started with the Renaissance, the moment when, the traditional storyline goes, artists woke up from the deep representational sleep of the Middle Ages to rediscover the naturalism initially brought to fruition by the Greeks. Yet even from these beginnings of modern Western culture in quattrocento Italy, the evidence in this exhibition showed, artists were full-tilt engaged in the pursuit of "making-visible" as opposed to just reproducing it. In the case of religious art, theological concepts were given form, no matter how "down to earth" the manner of representation, in exercises whose purpose was to evoke the world of the inner spirit, something artists have practiced since their prehistoric origins as magicians and shamans. In the case of the retrieval of the techniques of perspective, the "rational" principles governing the cosmos were booted-strapped by the application of mathematical formulae to the two-dimensional surface, literally drawing three-dimensional space out of thin air. Indeed, the architectural fantasies of Giovanni Batista Piranesi, The Imaginary Prisons (1761), that were included in "In Your Dreams" are every bit as surreal as the work of Salvador Dali some two centuries later.

To give Gombrich his due, it was the technique of representing reality not the reflection of reality itself that he claimed artists perfected starting with the Renaissance, the total mastery of which later allowed them to explore the formal and expressive possibilities of making-visible. The making-visible of inner subjective being (what we now know as the realm of the psychological) becomes manifest, in standard histories, first with Rembrandt but only really comes into full flower in the waning moments of the 18th century and then into the early 19th with Romanticism. "In Your Dreams" offered some prime examples, such as Eugene Delacroix's Ghost of Maguerite Appearing to Faust (1828) and Francisco Goya's A Way of Flying (1816), the latter of which depicts human figures equipped with bat wings suspended against the dark abyss. There were also several prints by visionary poet-artist William Blake.

Some of the most imaginative dreamworlds are those of Symbolists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Formalist readings of art history often pause only briefly on this work, contemporaneous with Postimpressionism, Fauvism, and other more stylistically vanguard movements of early Modernism, in the march to art's ultimate liberation from mimesis and into pure abstraction in the 20th century, but here they were well represented. In particular, Odilon Redon's series "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (1888) and other lithographs featuring wild-eyed compositional mashups of human body parts, plants, animals, and environments, done around the same time as Sigmund Freud began developing psychoanalysis, showed Symbolism as a precursor to Dada and Surrealism, the latter movements of course also on view along with the prints of many other Modernist masters.

Perhaps the most imaginative curatorial decision was the inclusion of a recent woodblock relief print, Aerial #3 (2009), by my fellow Kresge Fellow Susan Goethel Campbell. A field of seemingly random white dots scattered across a blue background that registered the grain of the matrix, the image is actually made by perforating the substrate with a pattern derived from the artist's studies of the environment. Clean and beautiful, the print at once references nature and the digital technology now used to map its flows, which in the process of mediation separates us from it.

All in all, "In Your Dreams" was a terrific show. For those of you who missed it, you can only imagine what it was like.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Playing catch up, pt. 1

It's been quite a while since I've put up any new content. First it was the end of the school term, then it was the holidays, and then it was the beginning of the new school term. And somewhere in between it all I had to make a blood sacrifice (not to be confused with blood libel) to the sprawling pagan god soon to be formerly known as the Motor City and buy another car. Anyway, following are a few things from the end of last year that I wanted to take note of before they completely faded from memory.

Still & Present: Andrew Doak & Millee Tibbs
Elaine Jacob Gallery, Wayne State University
29 October - 17 December 2010

Andrew Doak, October Lunch, 2009, archival pigment print. (Courtesy of the artist.)

Millee Tibbs, 3-2-87, 2005, archival digital prints. (Courtesy of the artist.)
The age of social networking and the digital imaging technology that has helped propagate its visual culture has provided ample opportunity for narcissistic self-reflection. Artists, of course, have been doing it for centuries in the form of the self portrait. Postmodern iterations, particularly in photography but in other mediums as well, have explored the constructed nature of the self in the highly mediated world in which we live, most notably in the body of work undertaken since the late 1970s by Cindy Sherman. This exhibition explored the issue of self-representation with more reflexivity (as opposed to pure self-indulgence) than one normally encounters in the average Facebook profile.

A recent Cranbrook grad, Andrew Doak revels in his corporeal self, as well as the sumptuous delights that help to sustain it, as if to exorcise the specter of its transient photographic presence. (All photographs are ghost images in that the ephemeral moments captured on film are records of the already-seen, a past present that no longer exists.) Interspersed between multiply-exposed images of the artist engaging in various eating rituals were a number of large-scale photographic tableaux inspired by the vanitas genre. Capturing every morsel of unfinished food and garnish in exacting detail, Doak's renditions upend the moralistic tone of traditional Protestant examples, instead projecting an unrepentant hedonism that at times borders on the obscene. (Which isn't to say that's bad.)

In another series Doak put himself in the place of the artist's model, reenacting academic set pieces of forest nymphs, odalisques, and the like. Doak's more corpulent physique, perfectly normal in the aesthetic historiography that these pictures play on, contrasts with newer conceptions of especially female body image as well as performing a kind of gender transgression. My favorite of this group, in part because I'm a big fan Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is Doak's self portrait as Noble Savage, which has him reposing shirtless on a blanket in a snow-covered field among copse of bare trees, contemplating a half-eaten pomegranate with other food scraps scattered around him. Indeed, Rousseau's Confessions is over the top, not unlike Doak's basic sensibility, and it was Rousseau's unleashing of expressive individualism in the 18th century that touched off the Romantic movement in Europe and whose reverberations have permeated self-reflective art ever since. It's the sometimes more grotesque exemplars of the tradition (Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst, anyone?) that Doak seems to be deconstructing.

Millee Tibbs, who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design where she got her MFA, investigates space and time as they pertain to the experience of the self. The Jacobs Gallery installation consisted of three separate series, each of which in its own way questioned the traditional trope of the self portrait as an entry into an artist's "authentic" persona.

The series "Self-Portraits" from mid decade are landscapes in which the artist's physical self is not visible. Having titles like "Self Portrait Behind a Rock" and "Self Portrait in the Fog," these black-and-white images toy with Hans Hoffman's famous dictum "I bring the landscape home in me" and also Jackson Pollock's more boastful claim "I am nature," that posit artistic expression and the object that embodies it as a manifest form of natural genius. A more recent series, "Do You Look Like Me," juxtaposes passport-size photos of acquaintances alongside the artist mimicking the poses, hairstyles (and in the case of male subjects facial hair), and dress.

Most intriguing was a series of digitally manipulated images, "This is a Picture of Me," that pair old family snapshots of the artist as a child with contemporary recreations. In each, Tibbs fashions her adult body into the awkward poses of her youthful self, setting it in the identical background and clad in replica attire, including a couple of birthday suits. The verisimilitude is enhanced with PhotoShopped red-eye, bad lighting, faded chroma, and other editing tricks. There are anomalies here and there -- the inexact match of patch pockets on a pair of jeans, the missing pattern and wrong color on a woolen skirt, but for the most part the effect is persuasive enough.

Taken together, the work of Doak and Tibbs exposes the myth of "genuine" authenticity that late-modern commodity culture applies to the individual through the new technologies such as social networking. But at the same time they point to a new authenticity (or might we call it "authenticity-ness"), one that accepts the social construction of self and embraces its symptoms. In these days of life lived on the screen, the fake, it seems, is real.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Public Pool on Model D TV

The webzine Model D posted this three-minute clip on the Hamtown art space Public Pool, featuring an interview with co-founder Steve Hughes. In the perennially beleaguered Detroit art world, there are always at any given time spaces that serve as facilitators of community, spots where the tribe gathers to reaffirm some semblance of identity and self-respect. Back in the days of Cass Corridor it was the Willis Gallery and before that the Red Door. After that it was spaces like the Michigan Gallery (which had the added benefit of possessing a rather robust pick-up bar scene, all the more active for being disguised under a layer of artsy hifalutin-ness), the Cement Space, AC,T, detroit contemporary/CAID, etc. Public Pool has all the requisites: four walls that maintain the proper level of authentic rawness, a keg (provided courtesy of the good folks @ Traffic Jam & Snug), and bit of entertainment, usually off-beat enough to again project an aura of vanguard cred. The show opening Saturday, January 15 riffs on the Detroit International Auto Show, featuring nine artists who address the effect cars have had on the landscape and our lives.