Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality @ Cranbrook Art Museum

Landlord Colors artists and curators: Left to Right: Elizabet Cervino, Reynier Leyva Novo, Laura Mott, Ryan Myers-Johnson, Billy Mark (in the back), Taylor Aldridge, Sterling Toles (in the back), Elizabeth Youngblood (in the front/cape), Susana Pilar, Cornelius Harris.  Photo by Sarah Blanchette

In “Landlord Colors,” Laura Mott, innovative Senior Curator of Contemporary Art and Design of the Cranbrook Museum of Art, has assembled an ambitious project that takes a look at not only some Detroit art since the 1967 “Uprising,” aka “Detroit Riots,” but situates Detroit’s art production in an international context of art scenes in similar political and economic straits. Focusing on four additional art moments– including Italy’s art provera movement of the 1960-80s; South Korea’s Dansaekhwa painting movement; Cuban art post-Soviet Union collapse, and art in Greece’s after its 2009 economic crisis– with similar political and economic crisis, Mott has, with passionate commitment curated an intellectually engaging and thoroughly researched exhibition. Focusing on the materiality of artistic production, Mott, rather than through an aesthetic lens, has abided by the principle of seeing art as cultural documents and explored them accordingly. Thus, she sees the artist’s choice of artistic materials as a complex expression of sociopolitical dynamics. To echo Marshall McLuhan the material is the meaning.

Punctuating the Cranbrook Art Museum in seemingly random order, the installation is neither chronologically nor thematically arranged but rather it seems organized by visual impact. There are stunning works throughout the exhibition, that, while they invite comparison, regardless of context, are completely remarkable in their inventive use of unusual or unique materials. One almost need not heed the didactic panels that articulate Mott’s theme as it reveals itself in every work.

Gordon Newton, “Diamond Follow,”1975, 112” x 59” x 39,” Canvas, paint, polymer resin, synthetic fabric on wood. Photo by Julie Fracker

Almost as homage to Cass Corridor artist Gordon Newton who recently passed, the first object encountered at the entrance to the exhibit, is one of his large plywood abstract drawing/reliefs. “Diamond Follow” is composed of a plywood panel, one of the most rudimentary and readily available building materials, mounted on an easel and vigorously incised, cut, gouged, punctured with a circular saw and auto-body grinder and dabbed with paint and resin and collaged with canvas and fabric. Newton was singular in his aggressive manipulation and wrangling of just about any material into a platform for an expressive image. Back-in-the-day, a nightly visit to the Cass Corridor’s Bronx Bar was de rigueur where intense conversations about art and politics often took place. On one occasion Gordie, artist Jim Chatelain and poet Dennis Teichman were having a beer there and discussing art making and Gordie expressed with much force, “Anything goes, any material, just no stories, no telling stories!” By which I always thought he meant no narrative in visual art, only the intensely focused image, fraught with emotional information, whether abstraction or figure, regardless of material. Interestingly he avoided conversational storytelling as well and only seemed to be interested in explorational and energetic exchange. That interpretation seems to hold up in most of his work.

Hong Chong-Hyun,” Untitled 72-(A),” 1972, Barbed wire on panel, 45” x 94.5.” Photo by Julie Fracker

Equally edgy and dramatic is Korean artist, Ha Chong-Hyun’s, “Untitiled 72-(A)-1,” 1972, which sees rows of barbed wire stretched across a large, flat gray panel. Minimal in effect, it is an emotionally dark, flat field that expresses no exit from Korea’s war torn moment. Like Newton’s plywood, it thrives on an inventive and semiotic play on (the cruelty) of a simple material.

Two Cuban works express a similar political anxiety, both of which reference desire and peril of escape from oppressive social and political circumstances. Commissioned for Landlord Colors, Reynier Leyva Novo’s “Untitled (Immigrants), 2019, is a huge, colorful tapestry, 16’x16,’ woven of the clothing worn by Cuban immigrants, in Cuba by “paid workers,” during their passage to the United States. The epic rag seems at once celebratory of their escape to freedom and a memorial to the loss of their homeland. As material expression of their Cuban cultural homeland of which they were apart and lost, no material could be more expressive than the clothes off of their bodies.

Installation shot with Reynier Leyva Novo, “Untitled (immigrants),” 2019, clothing, 192”x 192” Commission for Landlord Colors Photo by Paul-David Rearick

Cuban artist Yoan Capote’s astonishing mixed media painting “Island (see-escape),” 2010, is 12’x 32,’ is composed of oil paint and some 500,000 large fishhooks that quite literally suggest the dangerous journey in attempting escape across the hundred miles of the Straits of Florida, from Cuba to the United States.

Yoan Capote, “Island (see-escape),” 2010, Oil, nails, fish hooks, on jute on panel,106” x 384” x 4” Photo by Paul-David Rearick

One of the most seemingly traditional works in Landlord Colors is Cuban artist Diana Fonseca Quinones’ painting “Untitled,” seemingly a classic abstraction of energetic splotches, almost like a topographical map, of paint that in fact are chips or flakes of paint collected from derelict buildings in Havana, Cuba. Laura Mott’s description of the painting in her own energetically, exhaustive monograph sees Quinones’s project as a “portrait of the Cuban psyche itself” as well as a “record over the years of economic trial.”

Diana Fonseca Quinones, “Untitled,” from the Degradation series, 2017, Paint fragments on wood, 47.244” x 47.244.” Photo by Julie Fracker

There are sixty works spread across the museum floors and walls that explore the diversity of, mostly, non-traditional art materials, each with its own resultant form of reflection of troubled times. But Motts curatorial intervention went further and the day after the opening, a series of installations and performances, entitled “Material Detroit,” commenced: starting with Detroit poet Billy Mark’s surreal performance/installation of the raising up a flagpole of a symbolic Hoodie with twenty-five foot arms. Audience participation allowed for audience members to wear the hoodie as its arms were raised, like a parody of a military ritual, and were invited to talk about the emotional experience of wearing this emancipating hoodie. The performance will become a ritual celebration of healing and empowerment in Mark’s North end neighborhood as it will be performed daily for thirty-seven days.

Billy Marks, “Wind Participation Ritual,” (Hoodie performance), 858 Blaine Street, Unidentified participant and Billy Marks. Photo by Glen Mannisto

In the afternoon Havana-based, Afro-Cuban artist, and celebrated feminist, Susana Pilar, led a group of Detroit musicians in a magical performance at the site of the infamous Algiers Motel, 8301 Woodward Avenue, where multiple murders, with Detroit Police accusations, occurred and where the R&B group The Dramatics (“Me and Mrs. Jones”) were staying-out the Detroit uprising that night. Ceramicist and installation artist’s Anders Ruhwald’s “immersive” installation in “Unit 1: 3583 Dubois,” a charred black multi-room apartment with iconic anthropomorphic ceramic forms haunting the darkness, conjuring ghettoized nightmares was on the agenda.

The afternoon featured a visit to Olayami Dabls’ ever growing, Phoenix-like installations that adorn a building and surrounding lots on Grand River Avenue. Composed of a magnificent series of African inspired collaged murals, ceramic and mirror mosaics that celebrate Detroit’s African-American heritage, Dabl’s 19 installations, entitiled “Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust,” is quite simply a Detroit treasure. Dabls’ project probably illustrates the curatorial theme of artist’s material resourcefulness and invention as well as any of the artists in the entire exhibition. The inscrutable Elizabeth Youngblood, inaugurates Dabl’s new gallery space with a mercurial painting from her new series of metallic paint on mylar and paper, two textile hangings, a geometric abstract painting and a series of small black ceramic vessels. Letting the molten-like metallic paint find its sensuous resting form and the blackened clay its universal metaphoric being is Youngblood’s deft handed genius.

The day ended with a visit to still-one-more brilliant epic installation, “Bone black,” by Scott Hocking of a metaphorically messianic vision of abandoned boats, rescued by Hocking (an ongoing theme in Hocking’s work), ethereally floating in an abandoned crane warehouse on the Detroit River front.

Scott Hocking, “Bone Black,” Installation image at former Detroit crane factory with Elizabeth Youngblood, 2019. Photo by Glen Mannisto

Laura Mott, and co-curators Taylor Renee Aldridge and Ryan Myers-Johnson’s project is over-the-top outrageously, assertively and critically engaged in its obsession with Detroit’s and our fragile global history. There is a continuing schedule of amazing events into the Fall including: Kresge grant winning, hip-hop artist Sterling Toles will occupy Gordon Park (where the Detroit uprising started) in Detroit in a performance of his “Resurget Cinerbus,” a sound work based on Detroit’s Rebellion. Curator Taylor Renee Aldridge will lead a series of Discussions. Check out the website for a list of other Fall events.

From painting to sculpture to installations the Landlord Colors makes inescapable the palpable relationship between art and sociopolitical conditions and ultimately as political action. Laura Mott’s startling curatorial intervention has profound implications in further negotiations of art history. Not only did the uprising of Detroit’s black citizens against a calculous of racism create a pall of pain over the city but shows, as do all of the five sites she explored, that art in fact springs from the isolated provinces of the local and defines the global condition.

An exhaustive and beautifully produced exhibition catalogue, Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality, written by Laura Mott with essays and interviews by artists and curators accompanies the exhibition.

Artists in the exhibition:
Italy) Giovanni Anselmo, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Riccardo Dalisi, Lucio Fontana, Jannis Kounellis, Maria Lai, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini, Michelangelo Pistoletto (Korea) Ha Chong-Hyun, Kwon Young-Woo, Lee Ufan, Park Hyun-Ki, Park Seo-Bo, Yun Hyong-Keun (Cuba) Belkis Ayón, Tania Bruguera, Yoan Capote, Elizabet Cerviño, Julio Llópiz-Casal, Reynier Leyva Novo, Eduardo Ponjuán, Wilfredo Prieto, Diana Fonseca Quiñones, Ezequiel O. Suárez; (Greece) Andreas Angelidakis, Dora Economou, Andreas Lolis, Panos Papadopoulos, Zoë Paul, Socratis Socratous, Kostis Velonis; (Detroit, USA) Cay Bahnmiller, Kevin Beasley, James Lee Byars, Olayami Dabls, Brenda Goodman, Tyree Guyton, Carole Harris, Matthew Angelo Harrison, Patrick Hill, Scott Hocking, Addie Langford, Kylie Lockwood, Alvin Loving, Michael Luchs, Tiff Massey, Charles McGee, Allie McGhee, Jason Murphy, Gordon Newton, Chris Schanck, and Gilda Snowden.

Artists in “Material Detroit”:
(Installations) Dabls’ MBAD African Bead Museum, Jennifer Harge, Scott Hocking, Billy Mark, Anders Ruhwald, The Fringe Society, Elizabeth Youngblood. (Performances/Events) Big Red Wall Dance Company, Susana Pilar, Michelangelo Pistoletto (Third Paradise performance and a Detroit Rebirth Forum), Sterling Toles. The project culminates with the Landlord Colors Symposium at Cranbrook Art Museum in the fall.

Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality  – June 22-October 6, 2019
Cranbrook Art Museum     39221 Woodward Avenue, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

Elizabeth Youngblood @ Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

Elizabeth Youngblood :: New Knowns :: New Work @ Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

Elizabeth Youngblood at BBAC exhibition opening, photo courtesy of Stewart Shevin

Many years ago, Elizabeth Youngblood wrapped a tiny silver spoon in cotton swaddling. Perhaps it was exhibited in a show of her work but at the time I saw it in her studio at the vast complex now known as the Russell Industrial Center. Designed by Albert Kahn and John William Murray for J.W. Murray Mfg., his automotive sheet metal manufacturing company, the Russell Industrial Center now houses artist’s studios, small businesses and cottage industries and shops, but it was then known as “an apartment house for industry.” The irony of this tiny swaddled silver spoon having been created in an enormous automotive factory that stamped car bodies, did not escape me at the time. As a tiny conceptual sculpture, it was very moving to me. Youngblood’s mother had recently passed and we talked of her mother’s influence on her art, and I’ve often thought since then about the vulnerable swaddled teaspoon as an image of tenderness and delicate caring as well as protection against the monstrous, repetitive brutality of big industry.

Elizabeth Youngblood, “Obelisk with Window,” Paint, Mylar. 43”x 55,” 2018  –   Remaining images courtesy of  Glen Mannisto

The current Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center’s exhibition, “New Knowns :: New Work :: Elizabeth Youngblood,” is a collection of over twenty-five paintings, drawings and small sculptures. The paintings are silver paint on Mylar or paper; the sculptures are small drawings made with wire and the drawings are ink on paper. The silver paintings hark back to Youngblood’s swaddled teaspoon. Each work in the show seems to turn on the idea of swaddling or wrapping. Thick, creamy silver paint, strangely sensuous, is applied in a gesture of wrapping, as if an object is being contained, or protected by swaths of paint. The gestural swaths accumulate and become images that are abstracted, slightly askew shapes, some almost container-like, others abbreviated marks as if a beginning of something. They are forms that are on the verge of meaning, and in their gestural immediacy they deny machine reproduction, asserting the enigma of individual identity.

The shape of “Obelisk” suggests a container, something as small as a cup or as large as a nuclear power plant such as Fermi in SE Michigan which it resembles. Appearing almost logo like, its lack of symmetry proclaims its disconnect from the world of branding and independence from the commercial graphic world in which Youngblood has worked and knows well. Throughout “New Knowns::New Work,” Youngblood is always asserting the individual hand, that character of the eccentric hand. The wabi sabi of personal gesture, the imperfect and anti-engineered or anti-corporate.

Elizabeth Youngblood, “Yet Untitled,” Paint, Mylar, 44”x 54”, 2018

The larger paintings reveal that imperfection best. “Yet Untitled,” the perfect title, because it is a thing in process of becoming, with drips and vertical wrapping brush strokes, draping the illusion of becoming a vessel or a contained identity. The metallic paint seems almost primal and molten, pre-industrial and pre-corporate. To assert the connection with the very early swaddled teaspoon is “Swaddle 1,” which also is in the process of becoming and containing, with swathes of reflective paint articulating its form suggesting a tail of wrapping swaddle loosely hanging.

Many of the paintings suggest this sense of becoming or evolution, and even a sense of failure to become and an unraveling or failure of material. “Silver and Graphite 1,” beautiful in its chance patterns of curing and drying, is a composed of a mixture of graphite and metallic paint whose process of becoming has been arrested, the paint’s coagulating and dripping is remarkable in its incomplete state.

Elizabeth Youngblood, “Silver & Graphite 1,” Mixed Media, 55” x 45,” 2018

Both the “Wire Drawings” and ink drawings exhibit Youngblood’s considerable sensitivity and patient engagement, commitment and deliberate execution of line and form. The fragile wire drawings are coiled and anchored in a porcelain base and express a similar imperfection to the metallic paint paintings and are not machine coiled but seem scribbled and overlapping. While they might suggest figurative drawings, their intrigue is their specific wonky lack of balance. Yet each has a delicate presence and are read by their ever slight (animist?) difference. The same holds true for the ink drawings. Wrought like nerve endings, the inked lines almost quiver by proximity and some fail by some metaphorical disturbance of hand or mind and simply express the fragility of process.

Elizabeth Youngblood, “Six Wire Drawings,” Porcelain, wire, 2016

Some of the metallic paintings forgo the swaddling brushstrokes and simply allow the soft silvery glow of the molten-like paint to show itself by contrast. The beauty of a rough swatch of metallic paint bordered by a cloud of graphite and a line of chartreuse on the background of Mylar substrate is a wonderful invention by itself.

Elizabeth Youngblood, “+Graphite and Chartreuse,” Graphite, Mylar, 55” x 34.25,” 2019

The overall orbit of Youngblood’s “New Knowns :: New Works” describes her physical engagement with mark making, with being engaged, with touching materials and creating processes. In all of the works there is a palpable sense of her presence in the materials rather than with the spectacle. We read the visual results metaphorically but experience the work as a path, not a fully known, but “new known,” and realize that the process of seeing is a process and is continuous.

Elizabeth Youngblood, “Clare Gatto,” ink, paper, 20” x 15,” 2016

Elizabeth Youngblood, New Knowns :: New Works, Through June 6, 2019
Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

Dustin Cook @ Playground Detroit

Dustin Cook, Installation Playground Detroit, 2019, Courtesy of DAR

In a recent New York Times review of the exhibition “Lucio Fontana: On the Threshold” held at the Met Breuer in the Winter of 2019, critic Holland Cotter wrote of the Argentine-Italian Modernist “As for Fontana, he understood that his own most important contribution remained the “Holes” and “Cuts,” which both brutalized tradition and preserved it. He made abstraction look dangerous.”  At Playground Detroit, artist Dustin Cook, with a nod to Lucio Fontana, makes abstraction look funny.

In the one-person exhibition “TUMBLE,” Cook presents thirty new works on canvas that poke fun at tradition while also paying homage to it. This is a witty exhibition served up in a state of serious play.

Dustin Cook, “Lucio’s Skin”,  2019, Acrylic and cast plastic on canvas, 36 x 24 inches

Stabbing and Bandaging Fontana

Lucio’s Skin is a 36 x 24 inch canvas painted in acrylic to resemble a surface area of flesh stretched over a rectangular frame. Although there is an awareness that this is a painting and only a painting—the woven texture of the canvas emerges through the thin application of acrylic—its surface is mottled with skin blemishes that suggest otherwise. There are possible age spots, moles, warts or acne. At the right edge of the composition is a vertical zigzagging stack of six cuts made in the canvas, each sutured with a thick cast plastic, soft-pink Band-Aid. The piece is both about Fontana but also one-ups his cut canvases, what he called Taglior Cuts, calling forth issues of abstraction versus figuration, the fetishization of the painted surface, the cut as gestural mark and action for the unfastening of space, and image construction as an act of deconstruction. By allowing the canvas to appear as actual flesh, the addition of painted blemishes is a corollary to Fontana’s cuts as both initiate the disruption of surface. The placement of fake Band-Aids over the cuts is an act of satirizing Fontana’s concept of Spazialismoor Spatialism, in which he pursued “plastic emotions and emotions of colour projected upon space.” Cook takes the concept of “plastic emotions” literally and imposes his cast plastic bandages over what can now be seen as a wounded canvas, to both seal up the novel use of penetrated space that Fontana created and to reopen space by means of adding relief elements projecting outward from the surface of the canvas. The color of these plastic band-aids is in stark contrast with the color Cook has chosen to paint the skin. It is a darker beige and although it appears as flesh at first glance, aided by the blemishes, it more closely resembles the color of unpainted, unprimed raw canvas used in some of Fontana’s Tagli works. Canvas isLucio’s skin. Cook is therefore able to make canvas appear as flesh and flesh appear as canvas, while always speaking to painting.

The presence of Fontana hovers as there are five other works on view that take a similar stab at Spazialismo by way of incorporating a cast plastic knife, a safety pin, more of those soft pink Band-Aids and even the word OUCH into other wounded canvases. This is an exhibition in part concerned with the disruption of surfaces.

Dustin Cook, detail of “Lucio’s Skin”,2019, Acrylic and cast plastic on canvas, 36 x 24 inches

No Clemency for Greenberg

The story of Modernist painting is one of flatness as a defining virtue set down by the critic and aesthetician Clement Greenberg, who extolled the virtues of Mondrian as being a master of the flat by creating the flattest of flat pictures. For Greenberg and many Modernist painters, literal surface flatness and the depiction of flatness was an essential means to emphasize formal properties on the planar field. It was about self-consciously drawing attention to the artifice of the image and the nature of its construction through the use of autonomous forms in isolation for maximum clarity.

By affixing his simple cast plastic forms onto the surface of canvasses seemingly committed to their own flatness, Cook takes a humorous jab at the Greenbergian position. For although the plastic relief elements in his paintings remain independent, never overlapping one another, Cook utilizes them in a way that is both detached and integrated into the conversation of the picture. They act as both kitschy bauble and as comical grace note, but also direct our attention to the inherent absurdity of the flat painted image. In these sculpture-painting hybrids, Cook is able to have his cake and eat it too. These works are both smart and dumb at the same time: a simple gesture of sticking cast, toy-like plastic representational forms onto a flat, formally austere canvas creates a conversation both humorous and serious. Cook knows what he is doing.

Dustin Cook, “TUMBLE”, Installation Wall, All images courtesy of Playground Detroit

Within “TUMBLE” there is a wall installation of 21 canvases each measuring 12 x 9 inches, that amounts to a comedy set, comprised of visual jokes each with a setup and punchline, and callbacks between the jokes. The canvases are presented as three horizontal rows of seven, hung against a painted blue sky populated with summer day white clouds. The paintings appear to be mathematically suspended in the air, in a state of ordered levitation found in the paintings of the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte. It should be noted that Magritte was a painter of the deadpan joke, having utilized an unemotional, representational flatness to deliver visual gags with the straightest of faces. So too is Cook a painter of the deadpan gag.

Dustin Cook, “Clouds”, 2019, Acrylic and cast plastic on canvas, 12 x 9 inches

Dustin Cook, “Stone and Cloud”, 2019, Acrylic and cast plastic on canvas, 12 x 9 inches

Five of the 21 works reference Fontana, and they form a cross in the center of the group. There are two paintings, Cloud sand Stone and Cloud, that feel closer in spirit to Magritte as each confronts the artifice of representation. In Clouds, Cook depicts eight clouds in four pairs. Each pair depicts a painted cloud form on the blue sky of the canvas, alongside a cast plastic cloud. In Stone and Clouds, direct reference is made to the 1959 Magritte painting La Bataille del’Argonne (The Battle of the Argonne), in which a large cloud and a large floating stone confront one another in a sky at dawn before a waning crescent moon. Below is a landscape possibly depicting the Forest of Argonne in France, where during World War I fierce combat occurred between German and Allied forces. Cook simplifies and flattens Magritte’s setting down to an essential banding of color from earth to atmosphere, retains the waning crescent, and replaces the cloud and rock with cast plastic replicas, smaller and more ridiculous in scale than the source painting’s suspended behemoths. If Magritte’s painting reveled in oppositional dualities, so does Cook in his. As Magritte posited “Visible images conceal nothing.” Persistent clarity therefore reveals the contradictions inherent in perception. A plastic cloud and a plastic stone are just as absurd as the flat painted landscape they are floating within. Another, larger work in the exhibition, Window from 2018, references Magritte’s 1964 painting Le Soir qui tombeor Evening Falls II, but makes ingenious use of wood window blinds to fragment the image as Magritte had depicted the glass of his window, and the image itself, as shattered.

Dustin Cook, “Two Tulips in a Color Field”, 2019, Acrylic, clay and silicone on canvas, 36 x 42 inches

Two Tulips in a Color Field, a 36 x 42 inch composition with acrylic, clay and silicone on canvas, utilizes a Magritte-like approach to simultaneously obscure and reveal. The surface of the painting is comprised of two diffused, loosely painted horizontal rectangles of white and blue, one stacked atop the other, floated atop a larger area of blue. This is a clear nod to Mark Rothko (1903-1970), a pioneer of Color Field Painting, which grew out of Abstract Expressionism and was championed by Clement Greenberg as the way forward in painting. Large areas of flat, solid color are spread across a canvas as an attempt to merge figure and ground in a field that suggests an extension beyond the canvas. Color was intended to become the subject itself. In another wonderful, smartass gesture, Cook adheres two clumsily sculpted tulips right onto his approximation of a color field painting, thereby overturning Greenberg’s proposition. Their verticality suggests two standing figures that reduce the background to a landscape, an actual field. The choice of the tulip calls forth the tradition of the Dutch Still Life and its pursuit of the representational, although Cook’s stems and bulbs are considerably less believable than those employed in 17thcentury bedriegertje or “little deceptions,” which may indeed be his point—to draw attention to the artifice of both the representational and the abstract and place them on equal footing.

Dustin Cook, “Eat Like Andy”, 2019, Acrylic and cast plastic on canvas, 12 x 9 inches

Warhol Eating Warhol

Eat Like Andy, a 12 x 9 inch canvas included in the “cloud wall” group, presents a minimalist composition of seven horizontal bands: white, red, white, yellow, white, blue, white—the purity of the primary color palette as embraced by Modernism. Each color is isolated, painted without signs of the brush. This is flat, hard-edged, post-painterly painting, summoning mid-century abstraction. But then Cook sticks a hamburger right in the middle of the whole thing. A cast plastic, painted hamburger. The figure-ground juxtaposition is funny. One neat, the other a cheap representation of a greasy fast food item. The scale of the burger is such that it becomes an Eye of Providence surrounded by rays of Modernist glory. But it makes strange sense. The colors plus white, are the colors of the Burger King brand. Burger King (first known as Insta-Burger King) was founded in 1953—when Ellsworth Kelley was pushing the primary color palette in painting to a place of startling reduction. Fast food chains and Modernist art—two great American cultural projects embracing the limitless possibility the mid-century had to offer. Not only does Cook bring these two things together, but he adds a title that complicates the matter further. Eat Like Andy references the hashtag #EatLikeAndy that accompanied a 45-second clip of the late Andy Warhol eating a Burger King Whopper in a commercial that aired during the 2019 Super Bowl.

In 1982, Danish film director Jørgen Leth documented Warhol eating a hamburger for the project 66 scener fra Amerika (66 Scenes from America). The set-up was simple: a single, unedited take lasting four-and-a-half minutes. Leth allowed his camera to run as Warhol unpacked the burger, struggled to empty ketchup from a glass bottle, ate the burger, packed up the container and napkins into the bag, crumpled it up and cleared everything to one side, awkwardly sat staring for a lengthy amount of time before declaring to the camera “My name is Andy Warhol. I have just eaten a hamburger.”

Burger King managed to secure the rights to show a portion of this episode as an advertisement, although it was never meant to be an advertisement and the choice of consuming a Whopper was arbitrary. It was known by Leth that in 1982 Warhol charged $75,000 for a mere minutes of commercial acting work. Leth did not want to pay Warhol for his documentary, and so he provided him with three hamburgers to choose from: two without any brand packaging and one from Burger King. Warhol wanted to know why McDonald’s was not an option since it “has the best design.” But rather than prolonging the shoot to secure a Big Mac, he agreed to eat the Whopper. He made an aesthetic rather than a commercial decision at that point. Leth made his film and then packed up and returned to Denmark. The actual four-and-a-half minute clip is a perfectly absurd image not unlike Cook’s painting: a collision of the controlled albeit noticeably uncomfortable Pop Art icon turned brand struggling to eat a fast food hamburger in a highly controlled setting.  The image of the hamburger, as in Cook’s piece—a seed adorned lumpy bun, drooping slices of processed cheese, the meat patty, a pickle, ketchup—devoured by a master of image maintenance. And yet both are products of the postwar cultural factory in all its branded, consumerist glory.

The reemergence of the footage as an actual Burger King commercial, making Warhol’s ghost an advertisement for hamburgers during a football game, completes Warhol’s project. The postmodern serpent is devouring its own tail (tale). The consumer becomes the consumed as the artist is decontextualized and commodified himself. Warhol becomes the Whopper.

What does it mean, then, to Eat Like Andy? To eat and be eaten? To become a part of the art as life as art continuum, merging artifice and reality? Sticking a plastic hamburger on a Minimalist composition somehow makes sense in this light.

Dustin Cook, “Falling Piano”, 2019, Acrylic and cast plastic on canvas, 12 x 9 inches

Look Out for Falling Pianos

Cook is a relaxed strategist, a rigorous anecdotalist, and is a practitioner of self-reflexivity. With a background firmly rooted in graphic design, he brings the rigor of a designer’s eye to the situations he constructs. The precision Cook applies to his work serves to heighten the deadpan character of his images, making them funnier. The works in “TUMBLE” are immaculately told jokes whose well-honed surfaces and cast relief figures arranged in perfect relationship to their ground, serve to sharpen the delivery. Like all good comedy that stands the test of time, these are self-aware jokes intended to deconstruct themselves in the process of their telling.

Falling Piano is a little grace note, a time-honored comic trope: the black laquered grand piano falling seemingly from nowhere to crush the innocent who happens to be walking below it. A sign of wealth, the piano generally falls from the side of a city high-rise as it is being hoisted to a posh apartment. The street level victim is normally never of the same social stature as the owner of that murderous musical instrument. The scene is generally a death by accident, but it is also death by absurdly comic design. Cook presents the falling piano as a quiet, funny, small moment in the show, with a cast plastic black piano and comical lines representing its fall on a plain white painted canvas. It appears to be sliding off the canvas itself, ready to end up on the gallery floor. Crushing no one, except perchance an ant strolling beneath it, this little moment could be a metaphor for what Cook is doing throughout the exhibition: setting up a comic scenario predicated on tradition. Like that piano, he is dropping a thing on top of another thing to observe the comic results and unexpected meanings. Like Fontana’s Tagli and Magritte’s startling moments of clarity, Dustin Cook creates a series of “tumbles” in which he disarranges meaning with a clumsy fall and then makes a quick turn over backwards to gain a new perspective, to view the hidden implications of the situation that just unfolded.

“TUMBLE” remains on view at Playground Detroit through April 27, 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

 

David McMillan’s Chernobyl @ OUAG

“McMillan’s Chernobyl: An Intimation of the Way the World Would End,” at the Oakland University Art Gallery

David McMillian, Pripyat Rooftop, Inkjet Print, 23 x 30″, 1994

If you are a Detroiter, it is impossible not to find an uncanny similarity between the (de)evolution of the Ukraine city of Chernobyl after the nuclear disaster there in 1986, as photographed by Scottish born, Canadian photographer David McMillan, and the photos of demolished-by-neglect Detroit over the roughly same years. Both cities became subjects for photographers, both became, are, victims of romanticizing modern urban ruins. One was an economic disaster and the other a technological accident. Both have tour agencies that offer tours of the spectacle of the, seeming oxymoronic, modern industrial city ruins. Both have artists whose photos and sculptural works have been celebrated as significant contributions to contemporary culture and art. But most significantly, both have had profoundly detrimental effects on the people who lived there, and somehow it seems like the least significant.

David McMillan, Pripyat Rooftop, Inkjet Print, 23 x 30″ 2017.”

“McMillan’s Chernobyl: An Intimation of the Way the World Would End,” currently at Oakland University Art Gallery, is the result of McMillan’s twenty-two sojourns to Chernobyl since 1994 to photograph the heart wrenching changes over two decades in the radioactive urban landscape. It amounts to lifetime commitment.  His photographs range from capturing the rapidity of nature’s (time is nature) eroding effects on the built landscape, the infrastructure that structures everyday life and the forgotten, forlorn artifacts of everyday life itself. From his first picture of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor from a rooftop in the nearby city of Prypiat one can sense absence and desolation. A complete city with proud looking apartment buildings and roads and landscaping but not a person or automobile evident, not a clothesline with a drying towel visible. A forced abandonment. Another photo taken from the same rooftop twenty-three years later palpably reveals the built world, having lain fallow for over thirty years, being swallowed and digested by nature.

David McMillan, Hotel Room, Inkjet Print, 23 x 30, 1996.

McMillan’s are not romantic landscapes photos that aestheticize the ruins but revelational: he photographs the same site periodically to show change.  At least eight sites in the exhibition were photographed periodically to show the invasive dynamics of nature. Aside from the photo of Chernobyl from the rooftop, dramatic changes can be seen in a number of intimate spaces. In 1996 he photographed a hotel room with an elm sapling growing in the middle of the room surrounded by small plants including a couple of ferns. Eight years later he photographed it again, revealing multiple saplings thriving in the small room. Photographed again nine year later, the sapling has become a full-fledged tree with large roots reaching out across the room. Meanwhile the atmosphere (fluctuating hot and freezing, humid and dry air) has stripped the walls of paint and plaster, leaving the room an inhospitable ruin.

David McMillan, Portrait of Lenin, Inkjet Print, 25 x32, 1997.

McMillan isn’t without appreciation for the beauty of the derelict ruin and the well composed image. “Portrait of Lenin” is a beautifully decomposing school room with gorgeous scabs of paint peeling off the wall, children’s chairs upended and strewn around the room, one chair supporting a broken, abandoned doll, all watched over by a portrait of Soviet Russia’s famed leader Vladimir Lenin that sits on the floor, leaning against the wall. A subtle slant of light illuminates the room and particularly Lenin’s eye and a dark doorway in the back corner of the room balances the image.

David McMillan, Photo Studio, Inkjet Print 30 x 38″, 2016.

There are a number of interior photographs, especially in the kindergarten rooms, that in their fragmented, disintegrating state, appear as constructed collages and, pardon the painting model, even abstract paintings. In a recent visit, he photographed a “Photo Studio, 2016” with a ream of moss covered photo paper, strewn and evolving toward becoming dirt. “Floor with Slippers, 2006,” while beautiful with its toxic looking pigments and randomly dispersed shoes, has the terrifying intimation of the wearers of those various shoes having been vaporized. While they might suggest a romantic indulgence with ruins, McMillan is much more interested in exploring the processes and results of decay, its inevitability everywhere.

David McMillian, Floor with Slipper, Inkjet Print, 38 x 48″ 2006.

Yet we must abide by McMillan’s visual essay here and realize that there is a persistent optimism throughout. Everywhere we look there is a process of rebirth. McMillan focuses his camera on the ironic dispersal of berries, all kinds of fruits of bushes, as a counterpoint to decay. Rose hips (the fruit of rose bushes), blackberries, rowanberries, Mountain Ash berries, Wolfeberries, all photographed as if in competition with the chaos and the democracy of entropy.

Ironies and wry surprises abound everywhere you go in in McMillan’s Chernobyl. Photographed in 2006, “Trees and Fence” sees a galvanized fence enmeshed in a thicket of tree branches and shrubs making the fence a visual redundancy.  “Blue Slide, 2009” reveals a children’s playground slide in the middle of an overgrown area, its graceful arc mimicking the desperate new growth of neighboring trees preventing any kind of play.

McMillan’s quiet, somber meditation on the phenomenon of nuclear disaster in Chernobyl is then always close to emotional grief as well as a bemused recognition of the dynamic resolution that is nature. It seems that in the course of twenty-two visits he himself evolved toward this passive acceptance and understanding of decay and rebirth. The baroque image “Geometry Classroom, 2015” with its wire models of geometric forms and it images of famed mathematicians, such as Sophie Germain and Johannes Kepler, framed by a lyrical geometric bookcase, is the arch commentary on human endeavor. Amidst the best laid plans of geometricians, the corrosive power of time has turned the geometry classroom into a geometric molecular nightmare.

David McMillan, Geometry Classroom, Inkjet Print, 28 x 42″ 2015.

Curated by Oakland University professor of art history, Claude Baillargeon, in conjunction with the publication of McMillan’s monographGrowth and Decay: Prypiat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Steidl, 2018).

“McMillan’s Chernobyl” will run through March 31, 2019 at Oakland University Art Gallery