Monday, October 31, 2016

The Art of Detroit in the Abstract

Detroit artist Rick Vian was asked to curate a show at Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield. Rick asked if I would write something about the show for distribution at the gallery. Below is the essay I wrote for the exhibition whose title is "Detroit Abstraction." The show is on view until December 8.

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Jim Chatelain, And the Cries Behind the Door, 2015. (Oil on canvas. All images courtesy of the artists and Janice Charach Gallery.)
In his 1989 book, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor identifies two legacies that have come down from the Enlightenment: scientific positivism and expressive individualism. The first, Taylor notes, deals with the universal—objectivity, rationality, and what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.” The second deals with the particular—subjectivity, intuition, and generally embedded in a specific time and place.

In Western art, the division can be traced back to the Renaissance, to Leonardo di Vinci on the one hand, who thought of art as a branch of science, and Michelangelo Buonarroti on the other, who thought of art first and foremost as a means of artistic expression. Swiss art historian Heinrich Wolfflin in his 1915 The Principles of Art History traces the fault line in the distinction between linear and painterly, what he terms the “absolute” clarity of pictorial representation in the Renaissance and the “relative” clarity of the Baroque.

Tracing the lineage further in both the representational and abstract in Western art, one can continue to parse out the distinction, between, to name just a few examples, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism, Constructivism and Dada, De Stijl and Surrealism.

Since the days of the Cass Corridor, Detroit art has traditionally been placed on the side of expressive individualism, arguably a response to the failure of the apparatus of mechanical reproduction, and the mass-industrial technocracy that oversaw it, to continue delivering the goods to the city and its residents. (As Taylor notes, the emergence of Romanticism in the mid-eighteenth century, and its championing of expressive individualism, is the obverse dialectic to the positivism of radical Enlightenment and its embodiment in the First Industrial Revolution.) That spirit is certainly there in the work of certain artists of the Cass Corridor generation such as Gordon Newton, Michael Luchs, Bradley Jones, Brenda Goodman, and Nancy Mitchnick. And indeed, the term “urban expressionism” was evoked at the time in the major statement of that period, the Detroit Institute of Art’s 1980 exhibition, “Kick Out the Jams: Detroit's Cass Corridor, 1963-1977.” But also at work at the same time were artists, such as Georg Ettl, Aris Koutrolis, Shelden Iden, David Barr, and Stanley Dolega, who could just as easily be placed on the other side of the line.

This exhibition of 41 artists demonstrates the diversity of approaches to abstract art in Detroit, from some of the earlier artists of the Cass Corridor generation to several emerging in the present day.
Curtis Rhodes, Copan/Yaddo Eccentric Flint, n.d. (Charcoal, oil bar, watercolor, colored chalk.)
True to form, the painters are generally, in a word, painterly, from Cass Corridor-generation artists Brenda Goodman, Jim Chatelain, and Allie McGhee to inheritors of that tradition, Gilda Snowden, Anita Bates, Curtis Rhodes, Nancy Thayer, et. al.
Lois Teicher, Endless, 2016. (Aluminum.)
The sculptors go against the traditional expressionist grain—Ray Katz, John Piet, Douglas Semivan, and Lois Teicher, for example—embracing the Constructivist impulse, a function of the industrial materials and processes with which they work. (Though the same is not true for Cass Corridor original Robert Sestok, who takes industrial castoffs and fashions them into a range of expressive forms.) However, even in this instance it can be argued that the use of an industrial aesthetic is not to accept its conditions completely, but to subvert them by directing their techniques to non-utilitarian ends.

The sculpture of Todd Erickson, whose bronze castings of bent and twisted tree branches are tours-de-force of foundry art, might seem out of place in this exhibition. Yet they make the point that all art is essentially abstraction, even in its most representational forms, as a signifier of a thing and not the thing itself. (An artwork is, of course, at the same its own reality as a thing in and of itself.)
Todd Erickson, Hold Free River, 2013. (Cast bronze.)
Besides painting and sculpture, “Detroit Abstraction” presents work by artists working in other media, such as ceramics, fiber, and assemblage, further demonstrating the diversity of work being created in the abstract vein in Detroit.

In all, this survey of recent work is evidence that the practice of abstract art in Detroit continues to be alive and well.

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