From Camelot to Kent State: Pop Art, 1960-1975 @ Detroit Institute of Arts

From Camelot to Kent State: Pop Art, 1960-1975, Detroit Institute of Art, Installation Image, Courtesy of DAR

Pop Art emerged in the mid to late 1950s and at its most potent was a high art version of what was being done in the low art pages of MAD magazine, being sold on newsstands at the same time. Its works were a challenge to and a satirical critique of cultural hierarchies, using the popular visual vocabulary of advertising, cinema, comic books and the superabundance of mass-produced banality. It was a reflexive attitude employing bland surfaces to disrupt culture with ironic precision. It was a movement that embraced emergent means of mechanical reproduction to comment on the Capitalist dream machine powered by the post-World War II assembly line.

But as the exhibition “From Camelot to Kent State: Pop Art, 1960-1975” at the Detroit Institute of Arts explores, a larger political project emerged from those artists associated with Pop Art to dismantle the machinery of Modernity as war and social injustice chipped away at the later half of the 20th century.

Works by a remarkable roster of artists including Jim Dine, Audrey Flack, Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Marisol, Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, May Stevens and Wayne Thiebaud fill out the exhibition, but there are a core group of works by Corita Kent, Claes Oldenburg, Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and Andy Warhol that serve as conceptual highlights to the Postmodern thrust of the Pop Art agenda.

Corita Kent, “Enriched Bread” (1965), screen print printed in color on wove paper, 29 ¾ x 36 3/8 inches, All images and artwork courtesy of  the Detroit Institute of Arts 

The Heart

 Enriched Bread (1965) by Corita Kent (1918-1986) is a screen print composed with three horizontal bands of the trinity of primary colors (plus white) so often employed in the rigorous Modernist projects of the Bauhaus and De Stijl. But as it happens, these are also the colors that designer Drew Miller chose in 1921 to adorn the packaging for that all-American lunch staple Wonder Bread. As the story goes, when the vice president of the Taggart Baking Company found himself in a state of “wonder” at the sight of hundreds of red, yellow and blue balloons being released at the International Balloon Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, an idea for sliced bread packaging was born.

“WONDER” appears in large bold red letters below “ENRICHED BREAD” in blue. Further below, in white script on a strip of blue, is the following:

“Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say this hope lies in a nation; others in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, received, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works everyday negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. As a result, there shines forth fleetingly the ever threatened truth that each and every man, on the foundation of his own sufferings and joys, builds for all.”

This text was the closing to Albert Camus’ lecture Create Dangerously, delivered December 14, 1957 at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, four days after accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature. Camus, the most optimistic of Existentialist thinkers, was pointing the way toward a more constructive future a mere three years prior to his death at the age of 46 in an automobile accident.

Below this, on a strip of red, is “helps build strong bodies 12 ways” and “STANDARD LARGE LOAF” and “no preservatives added”.

At the bottom of the composition is an empty band of pure yellow.

The text in Enriched Bread is not professionally set: letters appear hand-cut, handwritten and hand-painted. Nor are the stacked bands of primary colors presented with Modernism’s clean straight edges. The handmade character of the printed image, bold when viewed at a distance, envelops the viewer in an intimate and heartfelt space upon closer reading.

Wonder Bread had the distinction of being part of a government-sponsored initiative during World War II rationing. Known as the “Quiet Miracle,” loaves were enriched with vitamins that had long gone missing due to the industrialization of bread production. There is a little miracle achieved with this print, which feels like a beating heart in the middle of the exhibition. Corita Kent was an American Roman Catholic religious sister who returned to secular life in 1968. She referenced Wonder Bread packaging in a number of works as a means to add enrichment to the image itself, reclaiming the mass marketed industrialized products of Modernity as a vehicle for intimate and meaningful conversation. What she accomplished with the transformation of her source material through critical recontextualizing, is a transformation of essence that calls to mind the Transubstantiation of the Eucharistic elements. This is not a cynical undermining of production line goods, but a kind of hopeful artistic alchemy that reasserts the humane by way of wonder.

Claes Oldenburg, “Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar” (1970), offset photo-lithograph printed in color ink, 29 x 20 inches.

The Store

There are three iterations of a Good Humor brand ice cream bar on display in the exhibition, by Claes Oldenburg: Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar (1970) is an offset photo-lithograph from a colored pencil drawing, Alphabet/Good Humor—Cloth Study (1972-1973), a small standing cloth and wood sculpture, and Alphabet/Good Humor (1975), a cast resin and polyurethane enamel sculpture  on a bronze base. All three pieces present the ubiquitous ice cream bar, a bite taken out of its upper left corner, as a neat slab of puffy and stubby letters, the alphabet from A to Z, pressed together. On both the lithograph and the enameled sculpture, there is a single drip at the base. In the print, the bite manifests as a letter “A” oozing a thick white cream that cascades over the letter “G.” It should be noted that the letter “O” is situated in the middle of the bar, and appears as a donut with a pinched center made all the more suggestive by the Caucasian flesh coloring chosen by Oldenburg. This implied eroticism mingling with the absurd is present throughout much of Oldenburg’s work as he takes the desire for commodified objects to a new level, locating their latent seductiveness. This began with his artist studio/storefront The Store, which he opened in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1961, and stocked with painted plaster replicas of candy bars, pastries and undergarments among other things. The sloppy application of enamel on each object satirized the heavy-handed masculine impulses of action painting as a  mere advertisement of heavy breathing in the American consumerist landscape.

The Good Humor Bar was for Oldenberg, another in a collection of objects that symbolized commodity fetishism. There is a concern for economics running throughout his work. He has made use of the Good Humor Bar in many other works, dating as far back to 1963 with Soft Fur Good Humors, adorned with fake tiger and leopard skin. Then there is the 1965 Proposed Colossal Monument for Park Avenue, New York: Good Humor Bar, in which the enormous, slumped ice cream on a stick blocks traffic in the wealthiest of boulevards. In the 1971 print System of Iconography—Plug, Mouse, Good Humor, Lipstick, Switches, the ice cream bar sits alongside other iterations of the reimagined cultural commodity including his Geometric Mouse, a Constructivist variant on Mickey.

Claes Oldenburg, “Alphabet/Good Humor” (1975), cast resin plated with polyurethane enamel; bronze and wood,, 36 x 19 1/8 x 10  inches.

Alphabet/Good Humor is a uniquely absurd American object. It is both erotic and un-erotic, as its softness and fleshiness remains only a hardened illusion. There is the suggestion of this matrix for the English language eating itself or being eaten as letters pile up, crowding one another out in a suffocating orgy. It sells itself as something other than what it is. It is frozen in a state of forever melting away.

The Machine

Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was co-founder of the British proto-Pop project The Independent Group (1952-55), along with artist Richard Hamilton. He considered himself an “engineering artist,” approaching the act of image-making as industrial production. As early as 1954, the thematic thrust of Paolozzi’s prints involved the merging of machine and body, charting an assembly line wired with the human nervous system. In 1962 Paolozzi embraced the hitherto commercial process of screen printing to produce increasingly complex print imagery reflecting his concerns for humanity in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Included in the exhibition is Paolozzi’s ambitious portfolio of 12 screen prints from 1964, As Is When, which when first exhibited in 1965 was lauded by critics as “the first masterpiece in the medium.” Despite this acclaim, there were curators and print specialists who thought Paolozzi’s new print work was insufficiently handmade, as he had made use of appropriated imagery that was photographically reproduced. Unlike photography, which has long embraced a necessary technical progression, printmaking and printmakers have wrestled with issues of purity (hand-printing vs. machine printing), even though its very foundation was built upon notions of mass production and dissemination. Although Paolozzi’s embrace of commercial reproduction techniques placed him at odds with the fine art print establishment, As Is When did much to dismantle the hierarchy between “fine” and “applied” arts.

But the process by which As Is When was manufactured is necessarily a reflection of Paolozzi’s greater project. Repetition, seriality, mass production—terms that can describe printing but could also describe the media atmosphere from which the artist deconstructed and reconstructed imagery. In these prints we are presented with a dizzying mosaic of shifting information in the form of abstract patterns and the occasional incursion of representational elements. Each image contains fragments of text that develop a complex relationship between language and image. They are impossibly dense, but insistently engaging.

Drawn from the life and writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), As Is When is an attempt by Paolozzi to represent the Austrian philosopher’s fragmentary construction of the experience of reality as a schism between language and the visible world. The complexity of Wittgenstein’s system of thinking, referenced from his text Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), posits the facts of Modernity as being what that are at any given moment. Stable meaning is illusory, merely a fragile geometry. As soon as Paolozzi’s images construct themselves, they break down. They are both stable and unstable

Eduardo Paolozzi, From the “As Is When” portfolio: “Experience” (1965), screen print printed in color ink on wove paper , 38 x 26 inches.

Eduardo Paolozzi, From the “As Is When” portfolio: “Reality” (1965), screen print printed in color ink on wove paper , 38 x 26 inches.

Appropriated from printed advertisements, technical manuals and newspapers, each of the twelve 38 x 26 inch prints presents a series of complex and abstract mappings in which the boldly colored and contrasted patterns keep the viewer in a state of perpetual collating, reorganizing that which appears to be already organized. As with Wittgenstein, Paolozzi begins with a logical structure only to lead his viewer to ever more perplexing states of irresolution. We are left with pure experience as Paolozzi reshuffles his text and image deck, disrupting the progression of narrative by jumbling meaning and creating new juxtapositions. This interest in appropriating material and then remixing and reengineering it is akin to the “cut-up technique” a collage approach to literary construction whereby a written text is cut up at random and rearranged to create a new text.

The new media landscape that Paolozzi was responding to, in which meaning was increasingly susceptible to dissolution, was chipping away at society’s ability to feel. Paolozzi’s close friend, the British novelist J.G. Ballard (1930-2009), described this in the preface to the 1974 French edition of his 1973 novel Crash, which concerns the sexual fetishization of automobile accidents as a metaphor for technological alienation and the death of feeling:

“The marriage of reason and nightmare which has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermo-nuclear weapons systems and soft-drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great tin leitmotifs of the 20thcentury—sex and paranoia. Despite McLuhan’s delight in high-speed information mosaics we are still reminded of Freud’s profound pessimism in Civilisation and Its Discontents. Voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings—these diseases of the psyche have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect.”

Richard Hamilton, “Kent State, 1970” (1970), screen print printed in color on wove paper , 53 x 67 1/2 inches, courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Kent State, 1970(1970), a screen print by British artist Richard Hamilton included in the exhibition, hints at this inability to feel: the print was produced using a photograph of a television news broadcast on the killing of four unarmed students demonstrating the Vietnam War on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio on May 4, 1970. Then President Nixon had suggested that the murdered students were to blame for their own deaths and various national polls indicated that the public supported this view. Hamilton, in strong opposition to the Vietnam War, produced his 13-color print in an edition of 5,000 so that “art could help to keep the shame in our minds; the wide distribution of a large edition print might be the strongest indictment I could make.”

The Factory

If Paolozzi commented on the machine, Andy Warhol wanted to become the machine.

Whereas Oldenburg had a Store that humanized the trivial object, Warhol had a Factory that magnified its triviality. The cultural numbness alluded to in Hamilton’s blurred television image of a murdered student at Kent State, finds it’s fullest expression in the works produced by Warhol known as the Disaster series, in which death is the great American commodity.

Andy Warhol, from the series “Electric Chairs” (1971), portfolio of ten screen prints , 35 x 47 ½ inches, lent by Marc Schwartz & Emily Camiener

Andy Warhol, from the series “Electric Chairs” (1971), portfolio of ten screen prints , 35 x 47 ½ inches, lent by Marc Schwartz & Emily Camiener

Appropriating a press-release photograph of an electric chair used in the electrocution of convicted Cold War spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953, at the Sing-Sing Penitentiary in New York State, Andy Warhol produced a number of paintings and prints of the chair from 1963-1967. A later variant in the form of ten screen prints each measuring 35 x 47 ½ inches and titled Electric Chairs (1971), is the non plus ultra of Pop Art’s darker vision in the exhibition.

Much like Paolozzi, in the 1960’s Andy Warhol repurposed the commercial method of screen printing, allowing for image repetition and the means to manipulate the “decay” of the picture. In addition to his iconic celebrity works, from 1962 to 1967 Warhol focused on reproducing images of suicides, car crashes, accidental deaths, race riots and the aforementioned electric chair. Taken from black and white photographs appearing in newspapers and tabloids of the day, the image quality was intentionally degraded, pointing toward Roland Barthes’ sentiment that the photographic image inherently speaks to the catastrophe of death. In these Disasterworks, as they’ve come to be known, Warhol is ultimately a black humorist. Beginning with his painting 129 Die In Jet (Plane Crash) from 1962 (his first “death” work), there was an ironic fatality present in all of Warhol’s output from this period. An inevitability of decay and death possesses subsequent works as well as a fundamental absurdity in repetition, scale, and use of color, all exhibited in the most deadpan manner. Warhol achieved a glib portrayal of the American zeitgeist in the 1960’s with this series. In Foot and Tire (1963-1964), depicting an absurdly outsized truck tire with a human foot beneath it, Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times (1963), Five Deaths Seventeen Times in Black and White (1963), and his numerous Electric Chair works, he revealed our cultural morbidity against the backdrop of an unstable era. His repeated reproduction of the already cheap newspaper printing quality is intentionally haphazard.

Andy Warhol, from the series “Electric Chairs” (1971), portfolio of ten screen prints , 35 x 47 ½ inches, lent by Marc Schwartz & Emily Camiener

When the image of the electric chair is enlarged and degraded, repeated ten times, each iteration given a palette of garish and vibrating color, there is an absurd banality on display in this work that strikes the distanced pose of the black humorist. Nothing is being clearly satirized. Instead the simple vulgarity of our cultural penchant for “death gawking” is put on display, to be neatly hung on a fashionable gallery wall, or perhaps in a living room not far from the television set.

Warhol’s Electric Chairs are intended to silence the room, to suck the air from it. We sit, we stare, we grow numb. And yet not far off in the exhibition space nourishment is close at hand in the form of Corita Kent’s Enriched Bread. Now would be a good time to revisit that work.

From Camelot to Kent State: Pop Art 1960-1975, on view at The Detroit Institute of Arts through August 25, 2019

Diverse and Highly Wide-Ranging Work @ Wasserman Projects

 

Installation Image, Wasserman Projects, 2019, Image courtesy of DAR

The Wasserman Projects gallery opened a multi-faceted set of exhibitions on January 25, 2019 that is eclectically diverse. The work is divided into a solo show by Esther Shalev-Gerz, an exhibition that premiered at the Swedish History Museum, a group show, Portray, that includes fourteen artists from a variety of geographical locations that draws on previous artists represented by the gallery and includes new artists from Detroit, New York City and beyond.  In addition, there is a retrospective by the American-Israeli artist Felice Pazner Malkin, introduced up front and continues in the rear gallery with representational works of art.  The exhibition also leverages the space at Wasserman which has more square footage than any major gallery in the Detroit Metro area, providing the viewer with a feeling that elevates the work to a near museum-like ambiance.

“Part of Wasserman Projects’ mission is to provide a platform for artists to show their work and to connect with the creative community in Detroit. For our upcoming season, we have the opportunity to present several artists with whom we’ve previously collaborated, like Esther Shalev-Gerz, Ken Aptekar, and Matthew Hansel, among others, creating a continuity of experience and support,” said Alison Wong, Director of Wasserman Projects. “And at the same time, we are excited to introduce new artists to our community to further enrich and explore timely and topical dialogues within contemporary practice”

Esther Shalev-Gerz, An Answer to Jorge Luis Borges’ Text – The Scandinavian Destingy, 40 Minute Video, 2016, Image Courtesy of DAR

The Esther Shalev-Gerz selections from The Gold Room, are unique in that the artist invited five  individuals who recently found refuge in Sweden to speak to the personal importance of an object they brought with them when they migrated. The exhibition requires the viewer to slow down and understand the process where a golden square floats over the center of the screen.  The work is a combination of photo portraits and a video installation, and which depict some of the featured participants and objects with their faces obscured by a golden panel.

Installation Image, Susan Silas, Felice Pazner Malkin, Esther Shalev-Gerz, Wasserman Projects, 2019, image courtesy of DAR

As you move into the large open space and start to take in the Portray exhibition, it is hard not to notice the marble sculpture Aging Venus, where  Susan Silas photographed herself over the course of a decade and created a 3D scan of her changing body, which served as the basis for the sculpture.  She says, “As a child, my bedroom was covered with reproductions of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, torn from an art book in my parents’ library. It seems to me that at an early age, two of the core values that would inform me throughout my life and career had already established themselves—a love of beauty and love for the female heroine at the center of meaning. Later there were ample quotations from writings and rock and roll lyrics added to the walls. For me, image-making and writing remain intertwined.”

I have not experienced such a pristine marble full-figured self-portrait juxtaposed to a large screen video where the artist sings 1960 TV theme songs into a mirror, creating a double image of herself.  These theme songs include “Happy Trails” from the Roy Rogers Show, and other themes from The Mickey Mouse Club, Star Trek, Superman, Yogi Bear, and Bat Masterson, to name a few.  It does occur to me how that might be perceived based on one’s childhood experience and how that carries an emotional nostalgia for those of a certain age. As in our experience with all art, we bring our own individual experience to the moment.

Susan Silas titles the sculpture A Study for Aging Venus, and in reading her history of this work, one finds out just how much technology was used in its creation and her plans for a larger sculpture.

She says, “The body scan for Aging Venus has generated a set of 2D photographic studies and a set of photographic portraits, created by shooting stills within the 3D space. The object file was used to create a 3D model that stands 11 inches tall which will become an edition. The large-scale sculpture will be cut by a high performance robotized 3D scanner that cuts stone with laser technology. The stone will be Carrara marble chosen from a quarry in Italy and the carving will be done in Italy as well. After the cutting is complete, a traditionally trained sculptor will help me finish and polish the marble. The sculpture will stand roughly seven feet tall from head to foot.”

Susan Silas is a Hungarian-American national living and working in Brooklyn, NY.  She earned her MFA at the California Institute of the Arts.

Continuing with the female figure is the work of Bruno Walpoth, where the artist carves life-sized human figures from blocks of wood and finishes the sculptures with acrylic paint. He repeatedly covers and sands down the surfaces to mask evidence of the wood grain and achieve a translucent, skin-like appearance. The Italian sculptor is the son and grandson of wood-carvers, who grew up in a town known for its centuries-old carving tradition. He traces his inspiration even further back, to the deeply human portraits of early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. Within the context of figurative sculpture, it’s interesting and refreshing to see an artist reach back and create something so totally new, a metaphor for all visual art being made today.

Bruno Walpoth, Sara, Wood, Paint, 26 x 21 x 11″, 2015 (foreground) Adnan Charara, Masquerade, Acrylic and Oil paint, 60 x 60″ (background) Image Courtesy of DAR

In the background and nearby is the work of Adnan Charara, a Lebanese-American artist from Dearborn, Michigan who has lived and worked in the U.S. since 1982. His collage-like oil painting, Masquerade , assembles classical imagery that strikes a compositional balance using shape, line and color that draws the viewer into his imaginary figure. Adnan bought the historic Astro building in midtown in 2011 and developed it into a multifunctional space, including the Gallerie Camille, gift shop, two store-fronts and his sprawling subdivided studio.In his statement he says, “In general, my art should be viewed as a visual representation of the human condition. The realization of my thoughts and emotions through the creation of my art is a way for me to express my inner self. In turn, I understand that my inner self is merely a particular manifestation of the human condition that connects everybody, and so it may be said that by expressing my inner self and revealing personal truths, I am attempting to reveal truths about us all.”

Donald Dietz, Untitled, From a series Everything Changes, Digital Pigment print, 28.5 x 38″, 2018 Image Courtesy of Wasserman Projects

I was drawn to the photographic image by local photographer Donald Dietz, because it seems to transcend the bulk of conventional photographic work in a multitude of ways.  The translucent field of color seems to seep through the backdrop of this kneeling figure and the painting. The composition is based on this large space with objects that feel like drawings as bookends at the very bottom of the frame. It’s as if Dietz is holding up two images like a sandwich and creating a third image.  He says in his statement, “I love finding something that I think would make an interesting photograph and then doing what needs to be done to translate what I saw into the image I imagined it could be. I hope my work leads people to look at things they see every day, and take for granted, in new ways.”

Ryan Standfest, Factory Head No. 1, Archival Inkjet on paper, 30 x 30″ 2018 Image Courtesy of Wasserman Projects

Other than some prints at the Simone DeSousa gallery, a recent exhibition at Wayne State University ( THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE) was my introduction to the artist Ryan Standfest with a graphic arts approach to an Americanized Constructivist sensibility that seemed dominated by his Rotland MFG. Company motifs post World War I. These formal industrial constructions of paint, ink, and enamel on cardboard reminded me of the Russian Constructivism that rejected the idea of autonomous art. This photograph, Factory Head 1, came from that exhibition and is better explained in that review. For the Detroit Art Review, Glen Mannisto writes, “The diversity of Standfest’s art stretches to performance theater and is represented by an installation of three “masks,” called “Factory Heads,” that he employed in a performance at MOCAD with an accompanying musical composition of factory noise created by Chris Butterfield and Mike Williams. In a sense Standfest’s “Factory Heads” sculptures and performance, covers of Bolshevik agitprop theater, are again in the Russian Constructivist spirit modeled after machine-like factory architecture with smokestacks and are accompanied by a Standfest poem that delineates the abject evolution of the working class.”  He says in his statement, “My enthusiasm for obsolete print ephemera such as comic strips, tabloid newspapers, postcards, catalogs, manuals and advertisements, is intended to highlight the fugitive value of authoritative cultural currency as it advertises our vision of the ideal.”

Portray includes paintings, photography, sculpture, works on paper, and mixed-media installations by Ken Aptekar (New York/Paris), Adnan Charara (Detroit), Donald Dietz (Detroit), Matthew Hansel (New York), Robert Raphael (New York), Michael Scoggins (New York), Esterio Segura (Cuba), Susan Silas (New York), William Irving Singer (Detroit), Ryan Standfest (Detroit), Koen Vanmechelen (Belgium), Jamie Vasta (Oakland, CA), Bruno Walpoth (Italy), and Hirosuke Yabe (Japan).

Wasserman Projects was conceived by Michigan-native Gary Wasserman and opened its doors in a former firehouse in Detroit’s historic Eastern Market, one of the oldest and largest year-round markets in the U.S., in fall 2015. Wasserman Projects is guided by a spirit of collaboration, recognizing that artist projects are best realized and most meaningful when they engage a broad range of cultural organizers, community leaders, and the dynamic and diverse populations of Detroit. The organization works with artists from across disciplines and around the world, presenting exhibitions and performances that will spark a discourse on art, but also cultural, social, or political issues, which are particularly active and timely in Detroit.

Wasserman Projects three Concurrent Exhibitions run through March 23, 2019

 

Rosen & Binion @ Cranbrook Art Museum

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped and McArthur Binion: Binion/Saarinen, opens at the Cranbrook Art Museum

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped (installation view), 2017. Photo by Gary Zvonkovic. Courtesy the artist and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

McArthur Binion, Binion/Saarinen: I, 2018, oil paint stick and paper on board, Courtesy Modern Ancient Brown

Two Cranbrook MFA graduates, Annabeth Rosen (81) and McArthur Binion (73), have returned to the Cranbrook campus at the Cranbrook Art Museum (CAM) as seasoned artists with exhibitions that provide a platform to exemplify their accomplishments. The exhibition opened November 17th, 2018 and runs to March 10, 2019, easily utilizing the spacious galleries, especially the Annabeth Rosen exhibit, which is nothing less than mammoth in its scope.

I’ve written about McArthur Binion before and seen his work representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2017, so when this exhibition first came to my attention, I assumed Binion would be my focus.  But the exhibition of his work here at CAM is modest in comparison to the work of Rosen in both the Main and the Larson galleries.  Her work is the artist’s first major museum survey that archives more than twenty years of work. A critically acclaimed pioneer in the field of ceramics, Rosen brings a deep knowledge of the material’s history and processes to the realm of contemporary art.

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped (installation view), 2018. Photo by Detroit Art Review.

Rosen’s work is curated by Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston’s senior curator, Valerie Oliver, and surveys two decades of her ceramic additive work that has a derivative aspect found in abstract expressionistic art. Her studies at Cranbrook under Artist in Resident Jun Kaneko encouraged her to experiment with non-functional forms and separate her work from the traditional role of ceramics as functional craft. Much of Rosen’s work is assembled with already-fired broken parts which have been reassembled, re-glazed, and ultimately re-fired, adding wet clay to the process.

Rosen says, “I work with a hammer and chisel, and I think of the fired pieces as being as fluid and malleable as wet clay.”

Annabeth Rosen, Fired and glazed ceramic, Bundle, and rubber ties.

The ceramic work is divided up into categories: Mash Ups, Bundles, Mounds and Drawings.  Some of the Mounds are bound together by wire, and others are smaller shapes (Bundles) that have been bound using rubber that might be made from a bicycle inner tube. Rosen began vertically stacking these bundles of ceramic and mounting them on a steel frame set on four wheels.  Rosen has developed an acute interest in non-functional ceramic forms as abstract expressionistic sculpture along with painterly compositions of paint on paper.

Annabeth Rosen, Paint on paper, 2014

It would be impossible to ignore the works on paper as a major force that directly relates to the ceramic work.  These compositions that are constructed with a gestural stroke are both studies and stand-alone work that underpins a philosophical and conceptual driven force behind her sense of creation.  The process in the drawing and ceramic work reveals her hand is symbiotic, where one influences the other.  Rosen seems to muster strength in her drawings as inspiration and influence for the ceramic sculpture work that follows. All the drawings, which could easily be considered paintings, are created without the consideration of color and this seems to this viewer to place the emphasis on the compositional creation of line, movement, shape and space. All the work, ceramic and on paper, is a bi-product of her internal meditations and illustrates a unique utilization and application of materials, techniques and concepts.

Annabeth Rosen, Installation view, Fired and glazed ceramic, and steel baling wire.

Annabeth Rosen studied at Alfred University (BFA) and the Cranbrook Academy of Art (MFA), and has gone on to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Art Institute of Chicago. Since 1997 she holds the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair at the University of California, Davis.

 

McArthur Binion, Binion/Saarinen: I, 2 – 2018, oil paint stick and paper on board, Courtesy Modern Ancient Brown

In Cranbrook Art Museum’s North Gallery, the Chicago-based artist McArthur Binion says that he had a note pinned to his wall for decades that read “Binion/Saarinen”,obviously something that came from his graduate studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art during the early 1970s. This idea is obviously generated from literally living on the campus and being surrounded by the Finnish architecture of Eliel Saarinen who immigrated to America in 1923 after the completion of the Chicago Tribune building in 1922 and who went on to be a visiting professor at the University of Michigan before developing the entire Cranbrook campus for George Booth. Perhaps it was the grids inherent in these architectural structures that made a deep impression on Binion, a Mississippi-born African American who developed his own visual language-based graphic elements, particularly circles and grids.

He says, “My work begins at the crossroads—at the intersection of bebop improvisation and Abstract Expressionism”, and at times he has described his work as rural Modernist.Binion uses oil stick, crayon and, more recently, laser-printed images to create his lushly textured and colored geometrically patterned works. The work in the Cranbrook exhibition is produced on board with small photo printed images as a background field for this tightly knit grid produced with hard pressed oil paint stick. These carefully measured grids and hand-done hatchings cover tiny images that usually have some personal meaning to the artist. In the past, the work often incorporated biographical documents, such as copies of his birth certificate or pages from his address book.

McArthur Binion, Binion/Saarinen: 2018, oil paint stick and paper on board, Courtesy Modern Ancient Brown

These new paintings use autobiographical photo imagery of both Saarinen and himself in their early thirties as a background for his delicate squared-off grid that could be easily described as minimalist abstraction from a distance.  Upon close examination, this personal element attempts to bond the two together, at least from Binion’s perspective.  In addition, the gallery space includes painting, drawings and furniture by Eliel Saarinen.

McArthur Binion’s paintings are largely symbolic and achieve an expressive resonance that defies the reductive materialism of minimalism. They are formed out of an unlikely confluence of influences, including such Modernist masters as  Piet Mondrian, and Wifredo Lam, as well as his own southern African-American heritage, reflected in his mother’s quilts and West African textiles. Persistence and discipline fortifies Binion’s practice and his succinct, richly personal compositions.

His work is included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

Binion/Saarinen: A McArthur Binion Project is organized by Cranbrook Art Museum and curated by Laura Mott, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art and Design.

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped and McArthur Binion: Binion/Saarinen, at the Cranbrook Art Museum runs through March 10, 2019.

 

 

 

 

W.C. Bevan @ Greenroom Gallery

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” partial installation view, All images – Ryan Standfest

Entering into the space of the new Greenroom Gallery for its second exhibition, “Contrast”, a collection of 24 black and white painted, printed and drawn works by W.C. Bevan, muralist, graffiti artist, printmaker and painter, one comes upon a seamless environment in which wall surface and the individual works presented on it, augment one another to resemble a brightly-lit cave covered with symbols and representations both prehistoric and futurist, of our time and outside of our time, vague and precise. There is a timeless music issuing forth from this chamber.

BLACK & WHITE

W.C. Bevan states that black and white is his “preferred mode of transport.” It’s usage suggest basic black ink on white paper, the foundation of a D.I.Y. print aesthetic cultivated in an underground Punk culture of fast and cheap photocopied zines, handbills and posters. But economic necessity also gives way to meaningful form, as high contrast lends itself to the graphically impactful, the immediate read from whatever distance. Color can carry with it nuance, emotional shading, a reading that depends upon one’s preconceived connection to a color. Whereas the simple combination of black plus white has no hidden agenda up its sleeve.

However, there is the presence of grey. When Bevan utilizes a can of black spray paint to adorn the walls of his exhibition space, he makes skilled use of the resulting overspray as a gradient, softening the image. He likens this to the mis-registration of a printed image, in which a layer of color slips outside of its intended target, accidentally lending further dimension. Indeed, there are also an abundant number of drips allowed to remain, unedited, that keep the space active, reminding the viewer of the performance required to manufacture marks.

Bevan’s methodology is a balancing act between exerting control and embracing chance. Upon an initial encounter with a space, a wall, a surface, a scenario must be devised in reaction to circumstance. Visual anchors are established using large scale icons. Connective threads between these anchors take the form of repeated visual motifs, adornments that form a flowing space to be read. Entering the Greenroom Gallery space, flashes of prehistoric cave art abound. As with the Paeolithic paintings found in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave, Bevan’s spray-painted marks respond to the various openings, contours and edges of the wall’s surface, making use of spatial shifts as an opportunity to animate his shapes and lines.

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” installation detail, acrylic spray paint on wall, 2018

These adornments comprise a lexicon, assembled from typographic symbols. Bevan’s walls have a strong hieroglyphic character, suggesting black and white pictographic texts. It is no surprise then, that his practice of black and white mural painting began with the 2015 project “True Meridian,” which adorns a large wall on the former Eastern Market location of the letterpress shop Salt & Cedar, on the East Fisher Service Drive. Proprietor Megan O’Connell and Bevan had envisioned the mural as a black and white “cathedral of type” in response to the idea of letterpress. The resulting image retained its ecclesiastical architectonics, but letterforms gave way to a dizzying pattern of abbreviated characters.

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” installation detail, acrylic spray paint on wall, 2018

Growing up in Cleveland, surrounded by examples of opulent turn of the 20thcentury architecture, much of Bevan’s wall-marking practice has been defined by a relationship with architectural ornamentation; the decorative repetitions that activate the façade of a building through the rhythmic accretion of detail. This visual language is on view in “Contrast.”  The Classical ornamental device known as “egg and dart,” which consists of an egg-shaped object alternating with another element shaped like an arrow or a dart, is echoed in the spray-painted embellishments on Bevan’s walls.

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” installation detail, acrylic spray paint on wall with “Untitled” drawings and “Tire Poem” print, 2018

TIRES

The “contrast” of the title is not just black and white, but also the organic and the inorganic. One prominent text adorning a wall states “BIOILLOGICAL TIMES” (a kind of subtitle to the show) as a reminder of the uneasy relationship between the natural and the industrial.

The recurring motif of the exhibition is the automobile tire. It appears in a series of oversized visual anchors, in a smaller series of screen prints with poems scrawled in black oilstick, as piles in smaller acrylic paintings on canvas, and deconstructed as tread marks that reframe and elaborate a new, more playful architecture within the exhibition space.

W.C. Bevan, “Tires”, acrylic on canvas, 22 x 17.5 inches, 2018

In the series of small acrylic paintings depicting tire piles, the subject becomes a surrogate for bodies—slumped, disposed of. Bevan speaks of the tire as a thing that has gone places, that has been worn down while carrying us places, therefore having a history itself. The very idea of the tread has multiple meanings: to walk along, to press down onto the ground, to crush or flatten. In “Contrast,” tires themselves have been crushed and flattened, having carried themselves too far. The piles he depicts morph into less recognizable heaps and mounds, as they go treadless. Throughout the exhibition space, there is an unraveling of the tire, a peeling away of the tread—unspooled to become architectural pattern.

W.C. Bevan, “Wall Peeps”, acrylic on canvas, each 15.5 x 12.5 inches, 2018

Ultimately, the tire is not the subject. In fact, the tires are not just tires. For Bevan, the urban experience of the discarded tire, tossed into a field, piled, stacked, becomes an absurd totem. A deflated tragicomic sign of what has passed. Bevan’s tires are droopy, flaccid, out of shape. Having spent some time painting commercial signs populated by “hamburgers, liquor bottles and tires” for quick cash, Bevan has spoken of a fondness for hand-painted tire shop signage around the city of Detroit, that often represents the tire and or wheel as something misshapen. Unmoored by the refined craft of a trained artist, there is an clumsy earnestness to most of these signs with their straightforward deformation of what Bevan calls “the thing that keeps America moving.”

STREET

On screen printed works each titled “Tire Poem,” Bevan scrawls variant texts with a black oil stick, at the sides of each repeated, centrally printed tire image. The texts have a touch of the street to them, rough fragments drifting into the image nudging them toward something resembling a hand-painted sign:

LONG HISTORIC PIANO SONG

PIRATES MADE OF YOGA

GREAT FOR WALKIN’ MAN I’LL TELL YA

SUDAFED NAIL BED

MMAMA ALWAYS SAID LIFEE ISS GOOD THHEN YOUREEBORN A RAT

YOU’RE A PONYTAIL WOW

W.C. Bevan, “Tire Poem”, screen print with oil stick, 28 x 22 inches, 2018

The majority of the work in “Contrast” makes use of vernacular visual street language.  In conversation, Bevan points out a series of paintings depicting tires by the artist Art Green, who was a member of the Chicago-based Hairy Who—a group of artists producing work in the late 1960s to early 1970s that was a potent mélange of high and low tendencies culled from comic books, Art Brut, commercial advertising and popular illustration, resulting in fragmented and highly fluid, often sexually-charged work that was a deliriously absurd response to the times it was made in. Similarly, Bevan’s work constructs a “Rustbelt Absurd” with its own pictorial elasticity, erasing notions of high and low with a language both refined and unrefined, and a practice that bridges the street and the studio with mural painting and graffiti, printmaking and painting.

W.C. Bevan, “Hamtramck Memory Drawing”, acrylic on paper, 22.5 x 15 inches, 2018

There is a portrait, seemingly out of place in the exhibition, titled “Hamtramck Memory Drawing,” of a man, possibly of Eastern European extraction, partially cropped. Possibly working class. Possibly from the Poletown neighborhood Bevan has lived in since March of 2018. The drawing, executed with sprayed acrylic on paper, is a soft grey. It feels distant and contrasts with much of the hard-edged graphic work in the exhibition. In its quietness, it asserts itself as a reminder of the human dimension of Bevan’s work, the psychological lifeblood of a black and white Rustbelt vision, placing the everyday of the studio into the street, and vice versa, while summoning the abundant wall-painted symbols as dispatches from a landscape tread upon.

“Contrast: Black and White works by W.C. Bevan”
November 30, 2018-February 1, 2019
Greenroom Gallery Detroit
located within Emerson’s Haberdashery, 1234 Washington Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226
Gallery Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10-6pm
Closing reception on Feb. 1, 2019, 6-9pm

 

Charles White @ MoMA, NYC

Charles White: A Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY

Charles White (American, 1918–1979). General Moses (Harriet Tubman). 1965. Ink on paper, 47 × 68″ (119.4 × 172.7 cm). Private collection. © The Charles White Archives. Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

If there’s a fearsome female gaze that can make Manet’s icy Olympia seem coy and puerile by comparison, it’s that of the determined Harriet Tubman, rendered in ink by Charles White during the height of the Civil Rights movement.  Famous for liberating hundreds of slaves during the Civil War, here she becomes a contemporary symbol for racial equality, and could, with little imagination, plausibly be seen among those marching on the front lines across Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  She’s emblematic of White’s work, which unfailingly depicted black America with strength, regality, and dignity.

Born in 1918 on Chicago’s South Side, African-American artist Charles White began his career inauspiciously as a sign painter; he would later become one of the most accomplished draftsmen of his generation.  His style had extraordinary reach, ranging from the gently abstracted figures that peopled his WPA mural paintings of the late 1930s to his tight and refined graphite and ink drawings of the 1960s.  Charles White: A Retrospectiveis a muscular show that snugly fills half of the MoMA’s third floor with over 100 drawings, paintings, and other ephemera.  White’s first major show in 30 years, this traveling exhibition champions the enduring appeal of figurative drawing, and his socially-conscious subject matter keeps his work uncannily relevant.

Arranged chronologically, the retrospective begins with his early paintings, produced when White was a freshly minted graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938. His early mural Five Great American Negros is an early tour de forcethat established several of the tropes that defined much of White’s subsequent career. Painted when he was just 21 for a fundraiser for Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center, the painting celebrates Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Sojourner Truth.   The mural’s heaving landscape and figural distortions rhyme with the regionalist paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, but, as ever, White’s work also spoke to contemporary social injustices.  He painted the mural in 1939, the same year that gospel singer Marian Anderson was refused permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution to perform at Constitution Hall because of her race, and her inclusion in the work freights the painting with timely relevance and political weight.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Five Great American Negroes. 1939. Oil on canvas, 60 x 155″ (152.4 x 393.7 cm). From the Collection of the Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.© The Charles White Archives/ Photo: Gregory R. Staley

Charles White believed that artists had a moral obligation to contribute to social discourse, and to this end his work aggressively addressed racial injustice and economic disparity in America.  In the 1940s and 50s White produced soulful and moving works like There were no Crops This Year, a Steinbeckian depiction of a visibly distraught husband and wife; an empty sack which the woman holds is the only prop in the drawing, but it’s enough to tell their story.  And his poignant and incriminating proto-cubist Headlinesdepicts a visibly distraught woman flanked by a veritable blizzard of news headlines that reveal instances of racial inequality in America.  His use of collage and text mirrors the synthetic cubist experiments of Picasso and Braque, but here White masterfully harnesses the vocabulary of cubism and channels it toward social protest.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Headlines. 1944. Ink, gouache, and newspaper on board, 20 x 16″ (50.8 x 40.6 cm). Collection of William M. and Elisabeth M. Landes. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo: Gregory R. Staley

But while his works frequently addressed racial and economic inequality, White managed to avoid producing an oeuvre drearily burdened by politics.  His brightly painted Gospel Singers radiates joy, and the strong, pitchfork-wielding woman in Our Land (White’s witty response to Grant Wood’s American Gothic) radiates confidence, determination, and, above all, dignity.  

Music also played a significant role in his output, and he produced affectionate drawings of gospel singers Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robertson, and Bessie Smith.  White created cover designs for a series of jazz albums by Vanguard Records, and in 1965 his illustration for Gould: Spirituals for Orchestra received a Grammy nomination for best album cover.  But the musical collaboration this show especially highlights is that of Charles White and Harry Bellefonte, whose recorded voice croons uninterruptedly throughout the exhibition space.  Bellefonte commissioned works by White, often including them on his television show, and White responded with several portraits of the singer, head thrown back, utterly abandoned in music.  Fittingly, because of the close relationship White had with so many musicians, the MoMA has thoughtfully assembled a Spotify playlist of music inspired by the show—there’s everything from old spirituals to gospel music and James Brown.

In the 60s and 70s, White’s work continued to address social justice and civil rights, but his style became increasingly crisp, a marked departure from his previous abstracted depictions of the figure.  It’s a stylistic shift made apparent in his 12-part series J’Accuse (“I accuse”), a series of confrontationally large ink drawings collectively named after Emile Zola’s open letter to the French government in which Zola famously defended Richard Dreyfus, a Jew wrongfully convicted of murder.  The series’ title equated American racial inequality with European Antisemitism, but the drawings themselves refrain from directly referencing any instances of injustice.  Rather, White gives viewers affectionate and sensitively rendered portraits of black Americans, often set against a stark white background, and allows for their innate dignity to speak for itself.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). J’Accuse #7. 1966. Charcoal on paper, 39 1/4 × 51 1/2″ (99.7 × 130.8 cm). Private collection. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

The final room in the retrospective includes several works from his acclaimed Wanted Posterseries, a cycle of 21 monochromatic oil-wash and lithograph works which emerged from White’s frustration at the slow pace of the implementation of civil rights in America.  Appropriating the imagery of old wanted posters for runaway slaves, all the works in this series mimic the texture of crumpled newsprint in arresting tompe l’oeil.  Barely-discernable stenciled-in words help the viewer navigate the meaning behind these ambiguous works; in one especially poignant image, a mother stands behind her son, both their faces registering utter sorrow; above her head hovers the form of an eagle and the word “sold.”

One of the final images viewers encounter is White’s iconic Black Pope. Closely resembling the Wanted Posterseries in its color and texture, the painting depicts a man wearing clothing reminiscent of priestly vestments, flashing what could be interpreted both as the peace symbol, or the sign Christ makes in icons while bestowing a blessing.  Barely discernable, “Chicago” is stenciled atop the image, and the figure wears a sandwich board which proclaims with calculated ambiguity: “NOW”– an all-encompassing call to action.

Installation view of the exhibition Charles White: A Retrospective.October 7, 2018–January 13, 2019. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Digital Image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Robert Gerhardt.

Charles White: A Retrospective is a massive show made even more impressive when we consider that the overwhelming majority of these works are fastidiously rendered figurative drawings—there are no easy shortcuts to quickly fill wall space.  Furthermore, while his drawings are impressively large, they always reward close inspection with their varied stippled and hatched-in textures.  Today, his work hangs in many of America’s great museums—the Metropolitan, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Smithsonian, to name a few. But his legacy isn’t just the art he created, but the many students who emerged under his shadow, such as Kerry James Martial, who stated that Charles White believed that one’s work “should be in the service of helping dignify people.”  His work did exactly that, and this retrospective triumphantly speaks to White’s unflagging and determined mission to portray black America with the dignity it deserved.

Charles White: A Retrospective, through January 13, 2019 at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, NY.