Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Last chance to see: "Figuration" & Lynne Avadenka @ Lemberg Gallery

Ed Fraga, She Bore His Child, Then She Bore Witness, 2010, oil on canvas stretched over birch panel. (Photo: Tim Thayer. This and all other images courtesy of the artists and Lemberg Gallery.)
A pair of pretty nice shows are closing this Saturday, February 26, at Lemberg Gallery in Ferndale. The first, "Figuration," is a group show of gallery regulars, which as title says explores various musings on the human form. It's mostly of a postmodern bent, with irony and ennui generally ruling the day. Cranbrook fiber department artist-in-residence Mark Newport continues his deconstruction of masculinity with a series hand-knitted costumes for an anti-superhero action figure named Inaction Man. A couple of recent Cranbrook grads similarly mix up lowbrow culture references with artworld savoir faire. G. Bradley Rhodes presents two intricately constructed collages that draw on the lexicon of retro and vernacular illustration while Heather Blackwell paints portraits of "beat" young hipsters in the now venerable tradition of "bad" painting.

A note of sincerity is sounded by my fellow Kresge Fellow Ed Fraga whose 2010 painting She Bore His Child, Then She Bore Witness is the star of the show. The painting, imbued with enigma as Fraga's work always is, conjures up a scene of psychological abjection. (The trauma, as Julia Kristeva notes in Powers of Horror, associated with "the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be," in other words, birth and the separation from the mother in the expulsion from the sanctuary of the womb). On the left a narrow ladder leads up from the ground to a hut about to be engulfed in flames. Issuing from the doorway is what appears to be a dialog balloon whose text is obliterated, an image of repressed memories or, following Kristeva, the inability to articulate a distinct identity. On the right a female body is shown truncated at the waist, genitalia clearly rendered with the legs dissipating from modeled flesh to roughly sketched in contour. In the place where the abdomen should be, a boy's head is grafted. It's an uncanny and compelling image.

G. Bradley Rhodes, The Research Assistant, 2010, acrylic and graphite on paper collaged on canvas.
Heather Blackwell, Molly, 2010, oil on canvas.

The Project Room features four new works by fellow Kresge Fellow Lynne Avadenka inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes. Each contains a particular passage, "One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever." Each piece incorporates a variety of graphic arts techniques from brush calligraphy to letterpress typefonts and dingbats to the electric typewriter, the latter of which is used to create snaking lines of run-together letters that delineate relationships of figure and ground. The works use traditional woodblock printing to map out larger areas of space, with the grain of the matrix recorded in fine detail. Individual sheets are collaged onto cloth-covered boards, which are fashioned together into screens that are unfolded to stand on their own. The horizontal format is inspired by Japanese landscape screens and according to the artist play on the notion that the objects reveal as they conceal.

One might be tempted to interpret the work as somehow engaging in a kind of eco-consciousness, but I think Avadenka is gesturing toward something more profound. Her work has always been on some level about art's role in sustaining a relationship to loss, of acknowledging that while our individual existence is contingent and fleeting, the cosmos is more enduring and yet also more mysterious. This idea can be seen as well in language, which preexists our entry into the world and continues on presumably long after we have left it. What's more, one of the lessons of semiotics is that signification is a continual process of deferral, of the sign substituting for the thing to which it refers, revealing and concealing, setting up an endless chain of possible and occluded meanings that has no clear-cut beginning or end. This deferral is further evidenced in Avadenka's new art by her disinclination to designate which view of the screen is the front and which is the back. Signifier and signified are continually at play in this work as it always is in the best art.

Lynne Avadenka, Comes And Goes III, 2010 (one side), relief printing, lithograph, typewriting on mixed media. (Avadenka  photos: R.H. Hemsleigh.)
Lynne Avadenka, Comes and Goes III (the other side).
Lynne Avadenka, Comes and Goes VI, 2010 (one side), relief and letterpress printing, typewriting on mixed media.
Lynne Avadenka, Comes and Goes VI (the other side).

"Figuration" and Lynne Avadenka, Project Room, are on view at Lemberg Gallery until Saturday, February 26. Call 248 591 6623 for information.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Michael Hall on Art & Design

Received these two videos from Mike Hall of his conversations with John Sauve, whose program Art & Design runs on public access TV. Hall, for those of you who don't know, was sculptor-in-residence at Cranbrook Academy of Art prior to Heather McGill. He's also an authority on folk and regional art, among other things, and along with his spouse Pat Glascock he has an amazing collection of salt-and-pepper shakers. (Click here to read my 2004 Metro Times article on the S &Ps and here to read my review of Hall's 2004 retrospective at the Scarab Club.) In these two videos Hall talks about his personal background and his artwork. I hope that John will have Mike on again to talk about his other interests. These videos are important documentation of the thought process of one of the smartest guys in the Detroit or any other artworld.

Michael Hall from john w sauve on Vimeo.

Michael Hall from john w sauve on Vimeo.

Friday, February 18, 2011

James Adley at 80

James Adley, Violet Gate, 2007. Acrylic on paper (Image courtesy of the artist.)

On Friday, February 18, the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center is presenting an exhibition of recent work by former Michigan State University art professor James Adley. The show includes works on canvas and paper completed over the past four years. My colleague at College for Creative Studies, Foundations Department Chair Robert Schefman, and I curated the show. While it takes up the entire Robinson Gallery, it represents just a taste of Adley's work from this period and the merest sliver of his substantial oeuvre, a small fraction of which has ever been seen outside his studio. (Full disclosure: Schefman and I are both MSU BFAs, and Adley was the main professor under which I did my undergrad work. Schefman studied sculpture and though we were there at around the same time I didn't know him then.)

Large, gestural abstractions, Adley's paintings are the kind you don't see too much of anymore, and the kind you never saw a lot of in Detroit, produced locally at least. (The exceptions are Aris Koutroulis, whose constructions of raw canvas held together with pigment always seemed a little contrived, and Ellen Phelan, whose brief encounter with splashy large-scale, shaped canvases in the mid-1980s is still the best work she's ever done to my eye -- lucky the Kresge Foundation, which owns some.) There's a direct line from Adley to the heroic age of postwar American abstraction, aesthetically and biographically. A student of Clyfford Still's, Adley needs about 180 square feet of painting field to really get cooking and happily this show includes a couple of paintings on that scale. In particular is Red Passage (2007), an arc of pigment over a field of rose-stained canvas that starts as an inky blot on the left and skitters across the picture plane, transmuting into shades of red along the way.

The show is filled out with several series of smaller canvases and works on paper where the artist explores gestural motifs that isolate elements, which in earlier work used to get submerged in encrustations of paint applied with trowels, squeegees, push brooms, rakes, and whatever else the artist had lying around the studio that could be pressed into service as a mark-making implement. As a counterpoint, the BBAC show includes a painting from 1973 where the picture plane is filled with alternating vertical bands of white and blue upon which a pattern reminiscent of musical notation unfurls.
James Adley, 2010.

It was only in laying out the show at the BBAC that it hit me why that older painting seemed so familiar. The chair of the art department at MSU had it in his office when I went there as a junior, beret in hand, to beg for money after I lost my entire term's materials budget in a drug deal gone sour. As it turns out, I ended up getting double the allotment I had stupidly lost, though I can't say I recommend it as a way to finance your art.

Adley has been in failing health over the last couple of years and it's likely that this may be the last new work we see from him. But like a lot of late work by great artists (I'm thinking in particular of Beethhoven's String Quartets, William S. Burroughs's triology Cities of the Red Night, Place of the Dead Roads, and The Western Lands, and Picasso's final paintings), Adley's new work isn't a summation or recapitulation but the record of another step in an ongoing journey to open new doors of perception, tempered perhaps with the knowledge that time is running out.

"James Adley at 80: Recent Paintings, Works on Paper" opens at the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center Friday, February 18, from 6 - 8 pm. The exhibition runs until March 18. Call 248 644 0866 for information.

Friday, February 4, 2011


The Brooklyn Rail has published my review of Joseph Bernard's two-part exhibition BASEDONATRUESTORY! The exhibition took place last fall at the Art Gallery of the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts and Center Galleries at College for Creative Studies. If you're not hip the to Rail, you are really missing something. It started coming out in October 2000, not long after I moved to Brooklyn to go the New School. The list of contributors associated with the publication is quite amazing, some of the top people in American arts and letters, all of whom work for the love of ideas. When I lived in Brooklyn I always wanted to contribute, as I knew one of the film editors, but could never seem to find the occasion. Yet now that I'm in the D, I've had a couple of opportunities to play. It's cool. Also, this spring the Rail's publishing arm, Black Square Editions, will be issuing fellow Kresge Fellow Lynn Crawford's new novel, an excerpt from which she read at the DIA during the literary event I curated there last October. But back to Joe....

Bernard's recent work is in my opinion the best he has ever done. He's really focused in on a format that provides coherence to the work but he's mixing up imagery, techniques, and mediums with a mastery that has opened up seemingly endless horizons of creative possibility. The Rail only published one image. So I put a few more below to give a better sense of what the recent work is about. (All works acrylic, ink, and objects on wood panel. Images courtesy of the artist.) For more on Joseph Bernard, go to his website.

Angola, 2009
Alterpiece, 2009
Nine Very Deep Drums, 2009
Chief, 2009
Still, Still Moving, 2010
Scattered Ashes, 2010
Death Chant, 2010