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

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.

Ryan Standfest @ WSU Art Department Gallery

Ryan Standfest: THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE at the Wayne State University Art Department Gallery

Installation view with view of “Factory Heads” All Photo images by PD Rearick

Aside from the subversively compelling and diverse mix of genres and styles of his art making, the dominant feature of Ryan Standfest’s exhibition is his irreverent, comic graphic sensibility. Whether in dark comic video, social and political satire comic, joke books, painterly advertisements, agitprop theater, or comix strips, everything is subject to its scrutiny. In one of his remarkable “writings” found on his website he narrates the story of his boyhood adventure in a church parsonage storage shed, where he’d wandered, existential 9-year-old boy style, to experience an epiphany of the aesthetic value of comic books. There in the dark shed, in his prepubescent glory, sitting upon a stack of 15 years’ worth of discarded Detroit Free Press newspapers, dating back to 1968, he discovered and proceeded to search for, cut out and scrapbook, the “Dick Tracy” comic strips. The narrative itself is an arch-comic book style self-discovery! Most importantly it is where Standfest began to savor the essence of pulp paper culture and revel in its wanton working class virtues as well as create a method for art making. The rest is his story.

Ryan Standfest, “The Captain of Industry,” gesso, graphite, ink, enamel on cardboard, 34 ¾” x 42 ¼”,2018

The title of the Standfest’s exhibit at the Wayne State University Art Department Gallery “THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE,” is typical ominous and foreboding language that you might find in a comic strip. Both physical and psychic displacement are the basic tropes of comic strips. In the small, but explosive, little boxes filled with minimal little drawings of “the comic section,” all sorts of mishaps, mysteries, surprises and aporia occur and– whether its Dick Tracy, Beetle Bailey, or Pogo—the comic strip world turns on the displacement of logic and the predictable; expecting Utopia and disappointingly ending in Dystopic visual gag of some kind. Standfest is all about language and his title here has it all: past tense, present tense, future tense; ironic surprise. Part of the issue of looking at his work is precisely unraveling the ball of time and space it encompasses. The exhibition itself proceeds a bit like a comic strip, going from inscrutable painting to painting, with only the barest of word play, letting the audience figure it out for themselves.

Standfest’s overall oeuvre is then one of bewildering sense of time and space, of nostalgia for promised future and the agony of a defeated utopia. His prime invention in this exhibition are the cardboard panels that seem to be 2-D “point-of-purchase” display cases of Standfest’s “Rotland MFG. Co., Detroit, Mi.,” and function almost as heraldic banners that parody the language of advertisements where things are either promised, promoting a bright future, or liquidated, suggesting collapse.  They suggest a time after World War l, when “Developers” were building Detroit and offering a utopian future for everyone.  Standfest’s “The Captains of Industry” painting is an ironic image composed of crisscrossed smoke stacks and canons (the mix of war and industrial culture can’t be missed) and filled with little token statuettes of, probably, Henry Ford, like the Catholic Dashboard statues of Jesus and Mary that people used to put on their car dashboards to protect them from evil. (There must have been a spiritual side to Ford.) There’s thirteen heraldic-like paintings and each, like heraldic coats of arm crests, celebrate moments (victories or defeats) of social and economic organization. “Unearthed Streetcar Rail” celebrates an ironic discovery of an already existing railroad system, made by workers when excavating Woodward Avenue for the new Q-Line and serves as reminder of the redundancy of Detroit’s city planning.  His painting “Vintage Union Handbooks,” ironically promotes the hand book as memorabilia of an institution (labor unions) that saved workers from abject abuse. Libraries, decommissioned schools and factories, dream houses, cheap land are all victims or promises of  utopia.

Ryan Standfest, “Welcome to Fordlandia,” Gesso, charcoal, enamel, and varnish on cardboard, 49 ½ x 31”, 2018

Complementing “The Captains of Industry” painting is Henry Ford’s experimental factory town in Brazil, Fordlandia, “celebrated” by a derelict looking banner painting suggesting the failure of Ford’s colonizing enterprise to build a Michigan style rubber factory in the Amazon jungle.

All of the banner paintings employ the graphic style of early 20thcentury Futurists and Russian constructivists, with their explosive, geometrical angularity, always suggesting machines and speed, such as the Italian and Russian designers Fortunato Depero and Gustav Klutsis; a mix of Industrial Capitalism and Bolshevik revolution, perhaps implying they were both failures. The image on the eroding Fordlandia banner seems to be a throne for Henry, the king of industry, himself.

There’s a host of Standfest’s heraldic-like paintings and images to unpack and sort through and they accumulate into a mapping of Detroit and Michigan’s industrial production and the havoc it rained on the city. There’s even a black painting of the outline of the mitten of the state of Michigan belching out a plume of oily smoke from Detroit, its catastrophic epicenter, and featuring locations of all of the products, from cars to copper, of the state.

Ryan Standfest, “A Child’s Picture Map,” gesso, acrylic, wood, oil, chalk, collage and mixed media on Arches, 47 ½ “x 47,” 2018

Standfest’s black humor, about which he writes on his website, is employed in a B&W digital video, “THE DIRT EATER,” which sees a broken Chaplinesqe character, Mister Ricky, played by himself, sitting down in a gloomy basement at a T.V. tray to eat a plate of dirt. Photos of Gramps, who was laid low by alcohol and tobacco, punctuate Mr. Ricky’s dinner of dirt, meanwhile Grammy sits by the old radio upstairs listening to Irving Berlin’s chestnut, “I Want to Go Back to Michigan,” a song about nostalgia for farm life in Michigan. The dirt that Mister Ricky eats is from Gramp’s garden behind the garage. While “The Dirt Eater” is a painfully humorous satire on the working-class nostalgia, it is a not a misrepresentation and is realistic in its portrayal of the dark, melancholia of the lives of the burned-out working family.

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 by 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.

Ryan Standfest, “Factory Head No.1,” archival inkjet on Epson, 32 ½ x 32 ½,” 2018

The quandary that we are left with in sorting out Standfest’s vision is the ultimate one that we are always left with: what to do with Modernism. Standfest’s comic satire of the machine age that left a wake of psychologically and physically maimed humans and a derelict social order was, at the same time, an emancipation from the tyranny of an old aristocratic ownership production and design. Standfest engages the Beckettian dilemma with a robustness which propels his excavations along with digging for and exposing another ironic gag.

Standfest is ruthlessly hilarious in his Dick Tracy-like comic strip satire of Adolf Loos’ famous critique “Ornament and Crime,” that helped define modernism, of how ornamentation in design is a crime against humanity. Standfest turns the scales, puts his detective Wolfe (Standfest’s version of Dick Tracy) on the case to expose the “villainous operation known as “International Style,” a crime wave of bare, spare, impersonal, and highly abstract architecture forced upon the innocent dwellers of the city by a group of European thugs.”  Humorously dark critiques of the festishization of modernist design and designers, including of LeCorbusier and Mies van der Rohe abound, as well the opposite, fetishization of worker’s clothing and lifestyle that fill out and balance Standfest’s salient humor.

Ryan Standfest, “Unearthed Streetcar Rail,” gesso, graphite, ink, enamel on cardboard, 36” x 20,” 2018

Ryan Standfest: THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE –  at the Wayne State University Art Department Gallery  – through December 7, 2018. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Punk Rock Graphics 1976 – 1986 @ Cranbrook  Art Museum

Installation Image, Cranbrook Art Museum, Punk Rock Graphics 1976 – 1986, 2018

Punk Rock is a music genre that developed in the mid-1970s in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. Rooted in 1960s garage rock, punk rock bands rejected perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock by typically producing short or fast-paced songs, with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics. Punk Rock embraces a “do it yourself” ethic; many bands self-produce recordings and distributes them through independent record labels and other informal channels.  Accompanying the music is byproduct: a distinct style of graphic art.

Installation Image, Cranbrook Art Museum, Punk Rock Graphics 1976 – 1986, 2018

Although I was there during this time, and in the early throws of raising a family, I was not drawn to the anti-establishment, but rather seduce by the  music of Motown, Detroit Jazz, and the 60’s music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Sting and Bob Dylan. Punk Rock was a distraction for this writer and as an observer, I missed the graphic art side of the cultural phenomenon. If that resonates, no matter what your age, this exhibition opens up a trove of information and design that can take you on a journey and easily introduce you to a culture defined, in part, by its graphic design.

The Cranbrook Art Museum opened a large and sprawling exhibition of Punk Rock Art Graphics (600 pieces), Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976 -1986, 0n June 15, 2018.

The exhibition features several hundred posters, flyers, fanzines, handbills, record sleeves, badges, clothing and other graphic materials from the New York collector Andrew Krivine.  In addition Robert St. Mary, a local author and music historian, helped to curate the Detroit portions of the exhibition at the request of Cranbrook Art Museum. St. Mary was asked to contribute his knowledge of the Detroit punk scene as an extension of a project he is working on as a recipient of the 2017 Knight Foundation Arts Award. In his 2015 book, “The Orbit Anthology,” St. Mary focused mainly on the punk scene at Bookies, known as the original punk nightclub in Detroit. Most people know about the famous London, New York City and Los Angeles bands, but St. Mary points out that the origins of punk are really right here in Detroit.

He says, “When we talk about punk, the primordial ooze of it is here,  with The Stooges and the MC-5”

Jamie Reid, Sex Pistols, God Save the Queen, Poster, Collection of Andrew Krivine, 1977

“That’s the arc of the show — from a black-and-white gritty feel to this explosion of color and pattern,” says Cranbrook Art Museum director Andrew Blauvelt. “The graphic language of punk was much broader and really paralleled what was happening — and was even ahead of — contemporary art in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Blauvelt says patrons will be quick to recognize the work of a featured artist who, in many ways, defined the visual representation of the punk rock movement. “What most people think of when they think of punk is the work of Jamie Reid,” says Blauvelt. “They may not know him by name but they would certainly know him by his work with the Sex Pistols.”

Installation, Punk Rock Memoirs 2018

 

While Too Fast to Live isn’t an exhibit based on musical history, it does present a chronological timeline tracing the evolution of the punk and new wave music genres overseas and in the U.S. via New York City. During this era, New York served as ground zero for a critical mass of counterculture musicians and artists who were forging an aesthetic that continues to be an influential force in contemporary design.

Robert L. Heimall -Design, Robert Mapplethorpe – Photographer, Patti Smith, Horses, Poster, 1975

 

In her debut album, Horses, 1975, Patti Smith became a fixture in the New York punk rock scene.  Critics have viewed the work as one of the most influential albums in the history of the punk rock movement.  Her three-cord rock was a simplistic cord structure, with rudimentary guitar work, and lyrics channeled by influences from William Blake to Arthur Rimbaud. Her performances often provided room for musical improvisation, and drew at times on Reggae, and jazz riffs. Horses mixed philosophical elements with traditional rock elements. Her early biography bleeds over into the life of Robert Mapplethorpe, who took the black and white image for the cover, as the two live together for a short time in lower Manhattan.

Smith says, “Horses was a conscious attempt to make a record that would make a certain type of person not feel alone. People who were like me, different … I wasn’t targeting the whole world. I wasn’t trying to make a hit record.”

The B-52’s, American rock group, 1979

Go-Go”s, American all women rock group, Poster, 1981

The design of punk graphics ran concurrent to postmodern art practices of the times by raiding popular culture, scavenging history, subverting messages, and transgressing aesthetic rules. Punk fed the alternative music scene that would emerge in the late 1990’s as well as today’s do-it-yourself cultures that blur and erase the lines between professionals and amateurs.  Punk’s trangressive spirit emboldened people from all walks of life to reimage themselves as creative agents and active participants in a culture driven by music, art, and design.

The legacy of punk has permeated modern culture and society, and its visual vocabulary infuses much contemporary art, while the punk spirit resonates in particular with the anti-elitist, DIY ethos of today’s young, blogging artists and musicians.  Too Fast to Live…, recalls the anarchic spirit of authenticity and amateurism, the volatile and ambiguous celebration of negativity, and the creativity that was punk.

Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976-1986” and the related Shepard Fairey. Salad Days,1989-1999 run June 16-October 7, 2018.

Cranbrook Art Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susan Goethel Campbell @ David Klein Gallery

Susan Goethel Campbell: Faulty Vision, David Klein Gallery

Installation image of front gallery.   All images courtesy of David Klein Gallery 2017

Susan Goethel Campbell’s installation “Faulty Vision” currently showing at the David Klein Gallery has all of the ingredients of the mise-en-scene of a surreal film. Like a Japanese garden it is challengingly eye-opening while meditative. In keeping with Campbell’s engagement with both architectural and “natural” space, “Faulty Vision” is designed as a response to the Beaux-Arts architecture of the Klein Gallery itself. The Grand Entrance, to use Beaux-Arts terminology, of the gallery, entering off of Washington Boulevard, Detroit’s premier Beaux-Art avenue, is activated by Campbell’s large, atmospheric black and white dune-scape photos seamlessly embedded into the walls; her uncanny, actual sized, cast earth and grass column echoes the classical Doric column next to it; magically engineered grassy, target-like images float in the middle of the gallery space; and black and white photos of planet-like orbs float around the space, all suggesting a strange landscape indeed. Each of the objects and images has evolved from the trajectory of recent related, but separate, projects that collectively comprise Campbell’s hybrid artistic practice. It is an elegant albeit enigmatic installation to contemplate.

Susan G. Campbell, “Dune No. 2,” 2017, Black and white digital print, 40” x 60”

Trained as a printmaker, it has become a method and process of her practice to see and think in multiple images and variations of those accumulations, as well to consider the processes of the “natural” world (germinating seeds and growth) and of the engineering processes of industrial manufacturing itself that compete with nature. For years now Campbell herself has become a kind of research and development factory, experimenting with organic materials such as seeds, plants, leaves, and even more ephemeral conditions like light, night sky and air itself. The overarching gesture then of “Faulty Vision” is to, it seems, if not challenge, then assay and respond to the symbolic permanence of that Beaux-Arts designed gallery space. Early in the twentieth century, Detroit and most American cities adopted a pared down version of Classical Greek and Roman architectural models, that have historically symbolized the enduring strength and permanence of European culture.

Susan G. Campbell, 4“ Ground no.6 (floor installation), 2017, 51”x51”

When closely examined the stunning earth work sculptures that are installed in the main gallery are all ironically modeled on what were once called “disposable” objects. Campbell’s column is made of hundreds of cast-earth and grass water bottles, grown in molds of the plastic bottles, to form a simulated, fluted Doric column. It is an over-the-top critique of the bombast of classicism and at the same-time beguilingly baroque.  Situated in the gallery’s windows facing Washington Blvd., as if window-displays of consumer goods, are stacks of cast-earth and grass cell phones modeled on the evolving i-Phone, 4, 5, and 6 series. (As in nature phones evolve too). And echoing larger engineered earthworks (such as center pivot watering circles in contemporary agribusiness) as in “Ground No.6 (floor installation),” suggesting also ancient Native American Mound-Builder’s “ruins,” as well as many ancient, rammed earth and mud constructions. All of the materials of Campbell’s sculptures are made of natural, decomposable materials and are serious parodies of the plastic and aluminum models.

At one point in a recent talk at the gallery, Campbell alluded to the earth work of artist James Turrell and fantasized an installation of an enormous field of her own cast-earth concentric rings. “I love multiple images of the same thing…like seeing a shelf of the same product in a grocery store.” Repeating any image, such as the cell phone shape or her concentric rings, is one of the basic tropes of modern art (Warhol) and architecture (Mies van der Rohe) and belongs in any discussion of printmaking as well as mechanical reproduction. Repetition seems to insure coherence and a sense of consistency and security, versus the chaos and uncertainty of the of fickleness of nature. Repetition also is the beginning of making a pattern that creates structure and strength.

Susan G. Campbell, “Dune No.1,” 2017, Black and white digital print, 40”x62”

In the smaller rear gallery, there is a large B&W photo of a sand dune with two human figures seeming to lean into a struggled walk across the horizon. In the grand scheme of things, of the world around them, with enormous emotional sky overhead and menacing mounds of sand dune and dune grass underfoot, they seem remarkably inconsequential and existentially without destination. In a sense this image is a key to the whole exhibition in projecting a heroic, man against nature, Romantically Sublime, vision, in contrast to the constructed space of the gallery. While this photographed landscape captures the same organic materials as her engineered works—earth and grass, such as in Ground No.6– it is chaotic and foreboding, the exact opposite of Campbell’s built organic world. Three other dune photos, with haunting fog and solitary figures, also suggest a counter to the controlled order of Campbell’s engineered pieces and create a narrative tension to the whole exhibition: nature versus the built world.

Susan G. Campbell, “Water Planet No. 5,” 2017, Digital print on polyester, spray paint 22 3/4 x 30 5/8″

A third group of images triangulate Campbell’s vision and offer a surreal contrast to the architectural and natural conditions of landscape or environment that determine the rest of Campbell’s projects. The “Water Planets” are a series of images of planet-like orbs pictured as composed of water, floating in a hauntingly empty space. “Water Planet No.5” has two truncated orbs, one eclipsed in shadow and one of water, situated in a matte gray ethereal space. Each “planet” exists in ultimate isolation and, one imagines, can virtually never touch another or conjoin with the other. The “Water Planets” are an uncanny and stunning invention and throw all of “Faulty Vision” into another realm of thought and are superior evidence of Campbell’s considered world.

In “Faulty Vision,” Campbell is responding to an architectural space with its own specific, highly evolved Classical ideology. The David Klein Gallery is not simply white walls upon which to hang her work. The Beaux-Arts history, of which the Klein gallery is a part, is virtually the result of the fantasy of authority and permanence that is western culture. It is the result of a weird evolution and Campbell’s fragile, water bottle, grass and dirt column, circles and i-Phones are a remarkable response to that history. There is an umbrella of ambiguity that protects the complicated equation of “Faulty Vision,” that allows for many readings and wonderings, and Campbell plays on that.

Susan Goethel Campbell: Faulty Vision, David Klein Gallery  Through December 16, 2017