Copying and Invention in East Asia @ UMMA 

Imperial winter dragon robe, China, early 19th century, embroidered silk. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Elizabeth Henshaw Gasper Brown in memory of Horace, William and Helen Lou, 1989/1.34

In Western visual culture, copying is sometimes freighted with duplicitous or subversive undertones.  Marcel Duchamp’s notorious LHOOQ, a defaced poster of the Mona Lisa, is hardly flattering to the original, after all.  But drawing mostly from the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s permanent collection, the exhibition Copies and Invention in East Asia showcases the many ways the artists of China, Korea, and Japan actively copied and referenced pre-existing visual motifs across borders and across time.

There are over a hundred works on view which snugly fill the UMMA’s spacious Taubman Gallery, mostly gleaned from the past (the oldest artifacts coming from Han Dynasty China, about two millennia ago), though there are a smattering of 20th century and contemporary works on view.  The chronological and geographical scope of this exhibit is ambitiously large, so the show is compartmentalized thematically; there’s a section on literati painting, for example, and another on the auspicious animal symbols that recur.

Seifû Yohei III, White teapot and sencha pitcher with stamped dragonfly designs, circa 1893-1914, porcelain with clear glaze. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Bequest of Margaret Watson Parker, 1954/1.512 and 503

A set of ceramic bowls by the celebrated artist Seifu Yohi III are a case-study for how Japanese art imitated and synthesized the visual cultures of the territories conquered by imperial Japan.  Yohi intently studied pottery from China’s Ming and Song Dynasties (of which there are some examples on view), and his artistic output is one of respectful mimicry.   Employed by the imperial household, his work, characterized by its fine, milky-white glaze, reflected the interest Japanese patrons had in Chinese art.

Yamamoto Baiitsu, Blossoming Prunus Branch, after Wang Mien, 1847, hanging scroll, ink on paper. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. C.D. Carter, 1970/2.156

Copying at its most literal is demonstrated by the Japanese landscape painters who replicated their original Chinese models, right down to the signatures of the original artists, though their intentions were never deceptive.  An elegant ink painting of a wispy tree branch by 19th century Japanese artist Yamamoto Baiitsu is an example, its architype being a 14th century work by Chinese artist Wang Mian.  And an impressively large hanging scroll demonstrates how even within China itself, artists would directly copy preexisting Chinese paintings.  Wu Wei’s Travelers on a Mountain Pass (painted, incidentally, at exactly the same time Leonardo was dabbing away on the Mona Lisa) is a tribute to a painting by the 10th century artist Li Cheng, though Wu’s painting is more abstract, retaining a definitive personal style.  This is also a painting that advances the case for seeing art in person; cinematic in scale, this work practically engulfs the viewer, an effect that would get lost in translation if reproduced in a book.

XU ZHEN ® Eternity-Aphrodite of Knidos, Tang Dynasty Sitting Buddha, 2014, glass fiber-reinforced concrete, marble grains, sandstone grains, mineral pigments, steel. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York ©Xu Zhen

For me, the most visually compelling works are the several contemporary sculptures on view.  South Korean artist Chul Hyun Ahn’s deceptively simple light sculpture Two Circles, placed right at the show’s entrance for maximum impact, comprises two colored circular florescent lights positioned concentrically between two mirrors, framed and mounted on the wall; stand directly in front of Two Circles, and the illusion is that you’re staring into an infinity of circles eternally receding into the distance.  Chul Hyun Ahn’s sculptures are abstract references to Zen Buddhist ink paintings, characterized by a reductive though elegant simplicity.  Approaching copying with a wry sense of humor, sculptor Zu Zhen created a literal mash-up of two iconic images in Eastern and Western visual culture: a seated Tang Dynasty statue of Buddha seems to sprout (where its head should be) an upside-down reproduction of the Aphrodite of Knossos.

Copies and Invention in East Asia, to its immense credit, takes a comparatively niche topic and makes it interesting, accessible, and visually punchy.  It’s a diverse show, ranging in scope from 2000+ year old Chinese burial objects to a set of countertop Buddhist stupas fresh off the 3D printer.  It’s a show that playfully gives tangible expression to the Japanese literary critic Hideo Kobayashi’s assertion that “Copying is the mother of creation.”

 

Textures of Detroit @ Kreft Center Gallery

Installation Kreft Gallery, Textures of Detroit, 2019

Installation , Textures of Detroit, Kreft Gallery, 2019

Textures of Detroit is an exhibition of work that revolves around the theme of visual and tactile textures of Detroit.  It’s an intimate, multimedia show of six seasoned and accomplished contemporary Detroit artists (Peter Bernal, Matt Corbin, Roy Feldman, Carol Harris, Carl Wilson, and Ann Smith), whose sometimes rugged and gritty work is almost a foil to the chic polish of Concordia University’s Kreft Center Gallery.

The exhibition opens with a fine salvo of woodblock prints and linocuts by Kresge fellow Carl Wilson, who last year enjoyed a show at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. It’s not hard at all to imagine these as still frames from noir film; they seem like storyboarded images or concept art for black-and-white cinema, evocative of soulful and morose saxophone riffs.  In one graphic-novel style image, we see a line of beleaguered workers trundling toward the beginning of their shifts at some industrial job.    In another an elderly woman sits alone in a dark room illuminated by a solitary hanging bulb, and nurses a glass of indeterminate substance.

There are several textile works on view by textile artist Carole Harris, who creates fiber art that seems almost painterly, and, at times, even sculptural.  Her color palate is rusty and industrial; it’s no surprise to learn she draws inspiration from aging architectural structures.  Move in close, and her arrangements of patchwork abstractions reveal a dizzying network of swirling stitch-work that recalls the pirouetting clouds of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.  Her works subtly reference the time-worn textures of urban Detroit, and they exude an undeniable beauty.

Roy Feldman, “Untitled,” Silver Halide print on Kodak Endura paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

A quintet of photographs by Roy Feldman, a Detroit-based photographer and Emmy-Award winning filmmaker, presents a set of images of multi-layered urban interiors, each characterized by disorienting reflections which lend the set an air of magic-realism, an effect the photographer here achieves by capturing images of people taken ether reflected in mirrors or viewed through windows, a device which misleadingly lends the images the initial appearance of being double-exposed. In one instance, we see the side of a cropped face of a woman applying eyeliner; she holds out a small, circular mirror which reflects her eye as it seems to gaze back directly at us, though seemingly disembodied like a hovering object from a painting by Rene Magritte.

Roy Feldman, “Untitled,” Silver Halide print on Kodak Endura paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ann Smith and Mark Corbin both create sculptures from found objects and detritus, though their respective styles are certainly distinct, Corbin’s works rhyming more with the unrefined assemblage-style works of Detroit’s Tyre Guyton (of the Heidelberg Project), and Ann Smith’s works clearly more fussily worked and refined; the curvaceous metallic wisps of her Squash Blossom are a sort of cursive in 3D.   Together, along with the fiber works of Carole Harris, this ensemble presents Detroit texture in the most literal sense.

Carol Harris, In the Spirit, 69 x 71″ textile, 1992

Like the Copies and Invention show on view at the UMMA, Textures of Detroit takes a relatively niche point of departure and delivers an immensely satisfying result. It’s eclectic, for sure, but these multimedia works seem to come together not just through their application of tactile and visual texture, but also through the understated affection they seem to exhibit for the Motor City, its textures, and its people.

 

Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes @ the Broad

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Between 1964 and 1985, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil were variously ruled under dictatorships and military juntas, all of which received tacit support from the United States.  Truth is murky under repressive regimes, as evidenced by the difficulty in pinpointing the actual number of people that were killed or “disappeared” (a sinister verb that acquired notoriety under Argentina’s General Jorge Videla who famously applied the word to describe dissidents “neither dead or alive”), though estimates are that in Argentina alone, approximately 30,000 people were killed in state-sponsored violence.  In South America, the Cold War was always raging hot. Until January, the Broad Art Museum highlights the experimental art produced by South American dissident artists who, at great personal risk, harnessed the visual arts to speak truth to power.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes comprises a diverse array of multimedia work by sixteen South American artists (and two artist collectives) who “lived on the margins,” all united in their use of art as self-assertion and resistance.  Given the censorious nature of the regimes in which these artists lived and worked, most of the art on view necessarily approaches the subject matter metaphorically and indirectly, though the human body, intact or broken, recurs both as subject and, in some wince-inducing instances, the medium.

Much of this art is performance documented through photography or video, the transient nature of performance being perhaps a suitably discrete way to make a resonant statement in a climate of censorship.  A triptych of photographs documents Chilean performance artist Lotty Rosenfeld’s artistic intervention for which she altered the partition lines on a mile of road with white tape, transforming each straight line into a cross, or, alternatively, each “minus” into a “plus.”  For Rosenfeld, disrupting traffic law was a metaphorical act intended to subtly undermine law in a more general sense under Augusto Pinochet.

Another series of photographs documents performance artist Elias Adasme, who posed in various urban settings alongside a map of Chile (in some instances, a map is painted or projected directly onto his body).  In one performance, the artist’s seemingly lifeless body suspends upside-down from a road sign, Adasme’s pose bringing to mind a battered body in a torture cell. As a sort of coda to his performances, Adasme installed photographs of his performances in public spaces and documented the length of time they remained on view before police confiscated them.  Depending on where they were placed, this could range from as little as 30 minutes or as long as a month.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Silhouettes often recur in the show as a symbol for the “disappeared,” and a confrontationally large photograph by Edwardo Gil fills an entire gallery wall, showing Argentinian police arriving on the scene of a public artistic intervention for which artists collaborated with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (the “Mothers of the Disappeared”) and pasted silhouettes on the exteriors of government buildings throughout in Buenos Aires.  The featureless figures stand as surrogates memorializing just a few of the 30,000 people who disappeared under the Videla regime.  Similarly, Argentine artist Fernando Bedoya also applies the silhouette in his drawings, for which he builds human-like figures using letters which spell out the names of various individuals who were abducted or imprisoned.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

A commanding series of seven expressionistic paintings by Brazilian artist Victor Gerhard portrays specific incidents of violence that occurred in Brazil under the country’s veritable litany of Military dictators; Gerhard’s combination of paint with newspaper collage and text recalls some of the politically-charged works of Robert Rauschenberg, who also mined newspapers for content.  A second work by Gerhard also addresses news (specifically, state-sponsored propaganda); a one-channel video in stop-motion animation shows a picture of a woman being force-fed images culled from various newspapers.  The work was the artist’s response to a series of laws which authorized the censorship of the press, and serves as a metaphor for the public’s involuntary consumption of state media with which the Brazilian government force-fed the population.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Any discussion about the Cold War in South America must invariably include the United States, and one gallery wall is filled with a timeline briefly summarizing the rise of each respective dictatorship and the political entanglements which led the United States (largely through the actions of the Central Intelligence Agency) to support these regimes, which, as violent as they were, nonetheless were viewed by Washington as preferable to their leftist and Communist opposition counterparts.  The wall-text also explains Operation Condor, the sordid American-backed alliance between a half-dozen South American regimes which collaborated across borders and shared information and recources to eliminate any opposition.  Actions under Operation Condor included the notorious Argentine “Death Flights” and the assassination of exiled Chilean opposition leader Orlando Letelier by a car bomb on American soil in Washington D.C., very possibly with the approval of the CIA.

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Given the weighty subject matter of The Edge of Things: Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes, one might think that this exhibition would be drearily depressing. But the tone of the show, to me at least, seemed ultimately optimistic, showcasing the inventive ways artists continued to create art despite the censorious and restrictive conditions in which they worked, and demonstrating that dictators and death squads ultimately couldn’t crush the triumphant spirit of resistance.

THE EDGE OF THINGS: DISSIDENT ART UNDER REPRESSIVE REGIMES   THE BROAD  JUNE 1, 2019 – JAN. 5, 2020

 

 

 

Life is a Highway & Everything is Rhythm @ Toledo Museum of Art

Claes Oldenburg, Profile Airflow, 1969. Cast polyurethane relief over lithograph. Collection of Flint Institute of Art

For those of us who grew up with the automobile as a ubiquitous part of life, the very prevalence of which (like oxygen) perhaps makes it go largely unregarded, it’s worth giving pause and considering the revolutionary, democratizing effect of the advent of the automobile, a cultural paradigm shift which literarily and figuratively reshaped the 20th Century American landscape.  The automobile takes center stage in the Toledo Art Museum’s exhibition Life is a Highway, the first U.S. exhibition to explore the automobile’s influence on visual culture, with specific attention to the Midwest.  This is not just a show about automobile-inspired art, but it manages to offer some commentary on both the celebrated advances of 20th Century technology and on the social and labor injustices that accompanied them.

Robert Frank,Belle Isle, Detroit, 1955. Photograph. Collection of MFA Houston

Life is a Highway assembles over 150 works spanning a diverse array of media, though photography seems to dominate the gallery suite.  Road signs and traffic cones, in addition to offering playful ambiance, guide viewers through the show.  Arranged chronologically, the exhibition opens with images that suggest the optimistic spirit with which the automobile became an American symbol.  A lithograph by Thomas Hart Benton shows the Joad family (from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath), rendered in Benton’s characteristically folksy style, packing their belongings into the rickety-looking pickup truck which will transport them from the Oklahoma dust bowl to a better life (or so they think) in Edenic California.  But a looping video from Charlie Chaplin’s iconic film Modern Times suggests the cost on the human spirit of the age of the assembly-line and the automobile; Chaplin’s character must perform menial tasks on an implausibly fast assembly line, his body itself reduced to a mere machine.  And while the crisp paintings and photographs of Charles Sheeler celebrate the sublime grandeur of modern industrial temples (his ant’s-eye perspective reminiscent of the etchings of Piranesi’s views of Roman ruins), Arthur Siegel’s bird’s-eye view of a labor strike offers a different perspective, literally, on industrial progress.

Life is a Highway, Installation image, TMA 2019

After the Second World War, the automobile increasingly became both necessity and status symbol, and the American landscape changed to accommodate its omnipresence in American life. Robert Brown humorously approaches this with a painting of a cartoonified map of America in which every inch of earth has become occupied with shopping centers and parking lots.  In contrast, the photographic pencil drawings of Charles Kanwischer suggest that there really is an understated sublime beauty in the industrialized American landscape: the columns of his US 24 Road Project (presumably meant to support a bridge) here against a barren landscape seem like ruins from an ancient civilization, the Minoan palace of Knossos, perhaps. And Catherine Opie’s photographs of highway overpasses, rendered in elongated horizontal prints, are exquisite examples of 2D design, and one doesn’t even recognize these as roads at first, such is her ability to show the beauty in what we might consider the mundane.

But while the automobile became a symbol of freedom for many, the exhibition also turns its eye to the racial injustices painfully prevalent in automotive America.  Well into the 1960s, many restaurants and hotels refused service to people of color, necessitating the Green Book, a travel guide authored by Victor Hugo Green which listed establishments deemed safe for African Americans travelling in the Jim Crow South.  Several Green Booksare on display, alongside photographs from Jonathan Calm’s series Journey Through the South: Green Book, for which Calm traveled through the deep south, photographing locations from the Green Book as they appear today (some are now just vacant lots).  Among the establishments is the Lorraine Motel, which played host to, among others, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Dr. Martin Luther King the fateful night he was assassinated.

John Baeder, Stardust Motel, 1977. Oil on canvas. Collection of Yale University Art Gallery

Perhaps those who grew up during the pervasive automobile culture of the 50s and 60s, when cars had a Baroque lavishness entirely unburdened by any regard for efficiency, will find this exhibition especially resonant.   But one certainly doesn’t have to be an automotive know-it-all to appreciate Life is a Highway, which manages to be interdisciplinary in its scope, touching at once labor history, social (in)justice, economics, the environment, and so much more.

In addition to Life is a Highway, the TMA is concurrently exhibiting a vibrant show in its newly re-opened new-media gallery suite.  Everything is Rhythm is a multisensory show which explores intersections between music and the visual arts.  The show pairs fourteen paintings with corresponding works of music, which viewers can listen to by plugging in headphones (provided by the museum) into ports located at listening stations scattered throughout the gallery suite.  The exhibit gently challenges preconceptions of what an art exhibit ought to be, and in its tactful paring of image and sound manages to achieve an effect best described as cinematic.

In most cases, the pairings reflect a direct relationship between the composer and the painting. Harold Budd’s 1996 album Luxaserved as a musical tribute to some of his favorite artists, such as Anish Kapoor and Serge Poliakoff.  Here, his airy, meditative, and sinuous electronic composition Agnes Martin seems an apt musical interpretation of the British painter’s work, characteristically space and serene.   Composer Morton Friedman very much admired the paintings of Mark Rothko, and in 1971 even composed a moody and somber instrumental and vocal composition for the equally moody and somber Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.  For this exhibit, an untitled 1962 Rothko is paired with Friedman’s Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, a morose symphonic work which rhymes with the tragic emotion Rothko so ardently tried to convey in his art.

Hans Hofmann (American, 1880-1966), Night Spell, 1965, oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in. (182.9 x 152.4 cm), Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, Ohio), Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1970.50

Some pairings emerged as curatorial decisions, regardless of whether or not the respective artists and musicians were conscientiously responding to each other.  While admittedly quite subjective, the pairings seem to work quite well.  The soulful, improvisatory trumpet of Miles Davis is paired with Hans Hofmann’s abstract expressionist Night Spell, itselfthe product of improvisation and intuition.  And the myriad of rhythmic vertical lines in Julian Stanczaks And Then There Were Three, a spellbinding tour de force of the Op Art movement, seems the logical visual equivalent of the hypnotic repetition of Philip Glass’ Metomorphosis III, a solo piano work which, while repetitive, manages to be undeniably beautiful, much like ocean waves breaking on the shore.

Everything is Rhythm, Installation, TMA 2019

Everything is Rhythm is a delightful show.  It’s also a great introduction to abstract art for those who dislike abstract art.  After all, music is abstract insofar as it’s transient and ephemeral, and we can appreciate an instrumental work even if it’s not about anything in particular, but merely succeeds in evoking a certain mood.  Over a century ago, American artist James McNeil Whistler advanced the argument that the same ought to be true for the visual arts, and he began giving his increasingly abstract paintings musical titles (arrangementsand nocturnes).  Were he to magically time travel to the present day, he’d certainly view this exhibition approvingly.

Life is a Highway at the Toledo Museum of Art runs through September 15, 2019, and Everything is Rhythmis on view through February 23, 2020.

A Brief History of Art in Space and Nature Morte @ Broad MSU

William Anders, Earthrise, 1968. Courtesy NASA.

A Brief History of Art in Space is a rewarding exhibit at the Broad, East Lansing, occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the auspicious moment when the Eagle, the Apollo 11 lander module, successfully made touchdown on the surface of the moon.  Though the Apollo space missions were for space exploration, their influence resonated in profound and unexpected ways back on earth.  This exhibit is small, but the works included (such as the famous 1968 Earthrise photograph captured by William Anders) are freighted with real significance, and, in their ability to make us pause and think about the cosmos and our place in it, they certainly verge into the realm of the sublime.

The exhibit comprises mostly NASA photography, though two headphones also allow viewers the chance to listen to the soundtrack of the Voyager Golden Record which was launched into space aboard Voyager I in the playfully optimistic hope that, should advanced life forms ever intercept the spacecraft, they could treat themselves to a sort of musical soundtrack of humanity (while NASA didn’t include an actual record player aboard the Voyager, it did thoughtfully provide an illustrative guide for how to make one).

Golden Record and Disc, 1977. Courtesy NASA.

Anders’ Earthrise is the star of this little show.  Taken while Apollo 8 was in lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968, the image juxtaposes the barren gray of the Moon’s pox-marked surface with the vibrant blues, greens, and whites of the distant earth.  Lauded in Life magazine’s 100 Photos that Changed the World, the image helped garner substantial support for the environmental movement.   There are other lesser-known photographs from other Apollo missions on view, an image of an astronauts boot-print in the moon’s dust, for example– an image charged with symbolism.  These photographs, while originally taken for scientific purposes, are presented here for their merits as works of art rather than simply documentation.

In addition to photography from the Apollo missions, the exhibit also highlights works of art that are in space, and it turns out there’s a small handful of art-objects either in orbit or making interstellar journeys.  The best known is certainly the famous Pioneer Plaque designed jointly by Carl Sagan, Linda Salzman Sagan, and Mike Drake, attached to the exterior of Pioneer 10.  In addition to a planetary map locating earth, the plaque also includes images of a nude male and female, each of which betray the influence of idealized classical Greek sculpture and Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Any extraterrestrial that actually views this plaque will see a comparatively air-brushed and tactfully censored portrayal of humanity and likely wonder why the female of the species lacks any genitalia.  It’s subtle unintentional commentary on reality vs. art.

Pioneer Plaque, 1972. Courtesy NASA.

Also on view is a photograph from the Apollo 15 lunar mission, during which the astronauts movingly deposited a small abstract sculpture onto the moon’s surface along with a plaque containing the names of 14 American and Russian astronauts who had lost their lives on various missions.  It was never an official part of the mission, so the sculpture, an intentionally genderless figure in a spacesuit, had to be smuggled aboard surreptitiously.

Apollo 15 crew, Untitled, 1971. Courtesy NASA.

Adjacent to the Vitrine gallery, the Broad’s Collection Gallery currently features an eclectic arrangement of photography which addresses the camera’s ability to capture a moment in time, in effect stopping the world, at least on a photographic print. The show, Nature Morte (“dead nature,” a French term generally reserved for still-life painting), takes its starting point from Susan Sontang’s observation that there’s a curious language of violence we employ to talk about photography, as when we “shoot” a picture.

Diane Arbus, Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, 1962. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, purchase.

The photography spans from the mid 19thcentury to the present day, and includes works by such blue-chip photographers as Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus.  Some of these works address the premise of the show quite directly.  Arthur Leipzig’s Divers, East River, captures several youths mid-flight as they leap successively into New York City’s East River. The image, which initially reads like a stop-motion image of a single diver, bears an arresting resemblance to the experimental photography of Eadweard Muybridge.

Arthur Leipzig, Divers, East River, 1948, printed later. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, purchase.

The most literal example of Nature Morte in the show is likely Jersey Crows, an ensemble of photos by Kiki Smith which portray some disorienting close-ups of what appear to be dead birds—actually strikingly realistic bronze sculptures.  Other works address the show’s theme much more tangentially.  Edward Watson’s Two Shells is an elegant but disorienting image of one shell nestled inside a second shell so as to appear to be a single form.  Presented in this unfamiliar way, the organic forms seem more like an abstract sculpture by Barbara Hepworth.

A Brief History of Art in Space and Nature Morte were, of course, conceived as separate shows, but there are some moments where we might find some incidental overlap.  Looking at Anders’ Earthrise, one can’t help but interpret it as precisely the opposite of Nature Morte, which is what lent the image such potency.  Taken during the height of the Cold War, when the phrase “Mutual Assured Destruction” had entered common political discourse and when schoolchildren were learning to “duck and cover,” the image helped humanity pause and come to grips with the fragility of the planet and the need to preserve it, lest the earth itself become the consummate example of Nature Morte.

East Lansing, Michigan State University, Broad Museum – NATURE MORTE, through August 11, 2019.

Decade at the Center: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions @ GRAM 

The Grand Rapids Art Museum Showcases Five Years of Acquisitions

Adonna Khare (American, b. 1980) Elephant Whirlpool, 2014, carbon pencil on paper, 96 x 72 inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Museum Purchase, with funds from Bill and Marilyn Crawford and the Artist, 2014.10 copyright: Adonna Khare

In 2007, the Grand Rapids Art Museum opened the doors to its newly-completed, ultra-modern exhibition space in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids.  Rounding out a year of celebratory programming commemorating the GRAM’s first decade in its new location, the show A Decade at the Center: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions brought together over a hundred works acquired by the museum over the past five years.  It was an eclectic but strong ensemble of works spanning a diverse array of media across both the fine and applied arts.

As an introspective exhibition which took the GRAM’s collection itself as its subject matter, A Decade at the Center was necessarily a bit of a mish-mash—these works came from all over the world, and were created by artists ranging from Rembrandt to the Apple Design Team.  But the explanatory wall-text curated and structured the experience, lending insight into what exactly goes into building an art collection, helpfully addressing questions like “How does a collection grow,” “who decides what’s acquired?” and “how permanent is a permanent collection?”

The significant presence of applied arts and design resonated nicely with Grand Rapids’ historic contribution to 20thcentury furniture manufacturing—the city is famously home to such design powerhouses as Hermon Miller and Steelcase.  Among the acquisitions on view included examples of design that fudge the porous boundary between functionality and art. A zany bench and table set designed by the Danish-born Nanna Ditzel seemed more like sculpture than interior design, as did the radiating  Metal Spokes Wall Clock by George Nelson and Associates, which helped define the American interior aesthetic of the 1950s.  While most of these examples of applied design pointed to the recent past, a set of dinner cutlery by Iraqi-born megastar architect Zaha Hadid seemed decidedly from the future—no surprise given the other-worldly appearance of her architectural output, which includes Michigan’s very own Broad Art Museum in Lansing.

Also on view were examples of design which illustrated the rapidly changing shape and form of technological devices, including an original Walkman cassette player, an early handheld Kodak camera, and a rotary telephone.   There’s even a first-generation iPod Shuffle, which, though not even fifteen years old, is a relic rendered just as archaic as the Walkman by the ubiquitous iPhone.  Given the rapidity of technological change, one can’t help but reflect that fifteen years from now the iPhone itself may very well be added to this pantheon of the obsolete.

William E. Gundelfinger (1900–1976) KM ‘Flatwork Ironern’ Iron, Model no 444, 1939. Chromium-plated steel, Bakelite. Made by Knapp-Monarch Co., 5 x 7 3/8 x 7 3/4 inches. Photo by Shane Culpepper, Tulsa OK.

 

 

Some of the more traditional works on view also had regional significance, like the paintings of Carl Hoerman, Matthias Altan, and Reynold Weidenaar, the latter of whom was featured in a massive retrospective here in 2015, occasioned by the centennial of his birth.  All three artists lived and worked in West Michigan, and their work, which took Michigan’s landscape as its subject matter, reflects their affection for the natural beauty of the state.

Mathias J. Alten (American, 1871–1938) The Gravel Pit, 1909. Oil on canvas, 22 x 28 inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Gift of the Estate of Peter M. Wege, in memory of Peter and Louise Wege, 2016.14

Historically, the strong suite of the GRAM’s permanent collection has always been its holdings of European and American art post-1800, and many works have been added to this number. These include offerings by such recognizable names as William Blake, Audubon, Picasso, Marsden Hartley, Emil Nolde, Warhol, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Calder, de Kooning, Dubuffet, Chuck Close, Kara Walker, and Louise Bourgeois.  Among the oldest works acquired include a pair of 15thcentury engravings by Martin Schongaur and a small nude figure study by Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669). Nude Man Seated on the Ground with One Leg Extended, 1646. Etching on paper, 3.88 x 6.63 inches. Grand Raids Art Museum. Gift of Margaret Goebel, 2017.27.

 

Kara Walker (American, b. 1969), Boo-hoo, 2000, linocut, 40 x 20 ½ inches. Promised Gift of Martin and Enid Packard © Kara Walker and Parkett Publishers, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

While European and American works make up the majority of the GRAM’s new acquisitions, there’s nevertheless a robust international presence, and these works hail from all six inhabited continents.  These include a large, reflective, geometric glass sculpture by Monir Farmanfarmaian, the Iranian superstar artist who enjoyed a handsome retrospective in this same gallery suite last summer.  Inspired by Sufi geometry, her composite sculpture throws reflected light across the floor of the gallery space like a stationary disco ball, and echoes the geometric tessellations of an untitled pen and ink drawing, also by Farmanfarmaian, included elsewhere in the show.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (Iranian, b. 1924) Untitled, 1980, ink and pen on paper, 18 x 25 inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Gift of the Artist and Haines Gallery, 2018.12 ©Monir Farmanfarmaian

This exhibition serves as a veritable who’s who in art and design– all the more impressive given that it comprised just five years’ worth of acquisitions and promised gifts.  Furthermore, in addition to established masters, the show included works by emerging talent, such as Elephant Whirlpoola massive graphite drawing by Addona Kharre, who in 2012 was the winner of Art Prize, the city’s celebrated annual art festival.  Recent Gifts and Acquisitions is an exhibition that will live on in perpetuity as these works join the 6,000 other artifacts that form the museum’s permanent collection, ever on rotating view in the GRAM’s gallery spaces. 

Grand Rapids Museum of Art