Corine Vermeulen @ David Klein Gallery

Corine Vermuelen, Installation image, 2019, courtesy of DAR

Photography is front and center in the exhibition, by the Dutch artist Corine Vermeulen at the David Klein Gallery’s contemporary art gallery on Washington Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan.  The exhibition is a collection of two separate bodies of work, one more grounded in her previous work depicting street portraits.  In this new figurative-based work, Nachtwerk, mostly shot at night, the figurative images are integrated in what might be called surreal elements.

In a statement, the artist says, ” I am intervening retrospectively in my own image making, doing something different with the images of the past.  This occurs during a time of ‘revival’ in Detroit when different processes are deployed over the same terrain, interfering with the historical round.”

Corine Vermeulen, 00:25, August 14, 2018- 2018, Pigment print, 40 x 30 inches, Edition 1 of 5

Corine Vermeulen, 12:17, August 20, 2018- 2018, Pigment print, 26 2/3 x 20 inches, Edition 1 of 5

Corine Vermeulen, ISON (Belle Isle)- 2018, Pigment print, 42 x 42 inches, Edition 1 of 5

The second body of work, Kodak and the Comet,  the photography is comprised of large colorful abstract images. The idea of creating an abstract photographic image has been around dating back to artists experimenting with contact sheet photography, and more recently been executed by Frances Seward, Alexander Jacques, Ola Kolehmainen, and Graham Crumb, but these artists were capturing abstraction in natural environments where they are looking at their subject through the lens and taking an exposure.

What is different in these Vermeulen abstracts is that she is taking her existing film negatives (2.25 x 2.25”) and applying chemicals that move and distort the layers of color within the existing emulsion. (Spoiler alert: Not all images are created using digital technology.) This is why you see the numerals along the edges that help differentiate one negative from the next, something only found at the edges of the film. The end result could be achieved by trial and error, selecting a more desirable image, perhaps overlapping a negative or reworking the negative chemically until the required results are obtained. She may then possibly scan her negative and move into the digital printing process. To gain the size and scale of these prints, the artist needs to use a large digital printer where the photographic paper comes on a roll, and these kinds of sizes are obtainable. Vermeulen uses her existing color negatives as the vehicle to produce her lush and beautiful colorful abstractions.

Corine Vermeulen, Q2 (Gratiot)- 2018, Pigment print, 42 x 42 inches, Edition 1 of 5

These organic manifestations of shape and color are manipulations of existing negatives, exposed slightly in the backgrounds be it landscape or cityscapes. Vermeulen has taught herself what drops of chemicals create certain colors in the emulsion.  Regardless of how the work is created, it is an appealing type of abstract expressionism on its own.

Corine Vermelulen, 209P/LINEAR (Belle Isle)- 2019 Pigment print 84 1/2 x 98 inches Edition of 5

Many of the images are 42 x 42 inches, but in the large 209/LINEAR (Belle Isle) image, the square is divided up into nine related negatives creating an 84 x 98-inch image against the back wall of the gallery illustrating the factor of scale as it demonstrates the possibilities. These images are organic and poetic both in shape, form and color.

Corine Vermeulen is a photographer who set up her studio practice in Detroit in 2006 shortly after earning her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and was selected as a Kresge Artist in 2009.  She is known for her long-term, immersive projects portraying resilient urban communities amid reinvention. Her photographs have been featured in The New York Times, Brooklyn Rail, Time Magazine, The Guardian and The Fader, among others. She has had numerous solo and group exhibitions at national and international venues, including a solo exhibition at The Detroit Institute of Arts: The Walk-In Portrait Studio (2015), and group exhibitions Constant as the Sun at MOCA Cleveland (2017), and This Land at Pier 24 in San Francisco (2018).

 

Lester Johnson @ David Klein Gallery

Lester Johnson, Three Women II. Oil on Canvas, 60 x 50, 1973

Established in 1990 as a gallery in Birmingham, Michigan, David Klein opened with both contemporary exhibitions and a specialty in Post War American Art. On his 25th anniversary in September of 2015, he began a second location in downtown Detroit devoted to contemporary art and continued with his Birmingham space dedicated to his thirty-two Post War American artists.  The American artist Lester Johnson’s work has been part of Klein’s compendium from early on and Klein recently opened an exhibition of his artwork March 16, 2019.

Lester Johnson was born January 27, 1919, in Minneapolis and after high school began an apprenticeship at the Cosmopolitan Art Company where he learned to copy calendar landscapes.  Determined to be an artist he studied at the Minneapolis School of Art, then transferred to the Chicago Art Institute. Johnson left for New York City.  After living in a variety of locations and studios, he established a studio space on the Bowery and ended up sharing a studio with Phillip Perlstein on 10th street. He eventually accepted an offer by Jack Tworkov to teach at Yale where he was able to work as an artist and raise a family in Milford, CT.

Lester Johnson(right) with Willem DeKooning, 1971

Perhaps no decade in the history of American art continues to generate quite so much debate as the 1950s, when the United States, and in particular New York City, supplanted Europe as the primary focus of international attention. The success of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline represented a kind of cultural coming of age in America at precisely the moment when the country’s military and economic fortunes seemed brightest. As a figurative expressionist and member of the Second Generation of the New York School, painter Lester Johnson remained dedicated to the human figure as means of declaration through the many stylistic changes of his body of work. In his formative years Lester Johnson was in the thick of the zeitgeist. It’s what informs the passion, energy, and enduring power of those early primitive works. There was angst and reckless risk taking. There was something demonic in the frenzied execution of the early heads and figures. Taking from the Abstract Expressionists he painted from the shoulder in broad, messy, drippy strokes as if Lester was striving to find the essence of universal man.

In a 2004 review Hilton Kramer approached the work as “…some painters have made it a fundamental tenet of their art to resist the templates of their own facility. Rather than aiming for ease of expression they deliberately cultivate certain obstacles to it, either through distortion in draftsmanship or by creating a facture that eschews suavity in favor of a distressed painterly surface. Figurative painters who came of age in the heyday of Abstract Expressionist aesthetic were especially likely to play a role in this effort to undermine the effects of facility.”

In New York, Johnson exhibited at the Martha Jackson Gallery, Zabriskie Gallery, and James Goodman Gallery as well as having been included in group shows at the Guggenheim, The Whitney, Museum of Modern Art, and Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lester Johnson, Classic Figure #2, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 49″ 1965

David Klein is a member of the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) a non-profit membership organization of the nation’s leading galleries in the fine arts. Founded in 1962, ADAA seeks to promote the highest standards of connoisseurship, scholarship and ethical practice within the profession. ADAA members deal primarily in paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, and photographs from the Renaissance to the present day. Each ADAA member is an experienced and knowledgeable dealer in their field. ADAA has nearly 180 member galleries in 29 U.S. cities.

Lester Johnson: A Centennial Exhibition, at David Klein Birmingham,  runs through April 27, 2019

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

Mary Ann Aitken @ Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

Installation Image, Mary Ann Aitken, Indomitable Spirit, BBAC, All Images Courtesy of DAR, except Maureen Aitken.

The exhibition of work by Mary Ann Aitken, Indomitable Spirit, opened at the BBAC in the Robinson Gallery on March 8, 2019, providing many viewers with a first time look at the Detroit artist who painted her expressionistic landscapes and still life work during the 1980s from her studio in the Cary Building in downtown Detroit at Gratiot and Broadway.

“It is a privilege to showcase a small sample of Mary Ann Aitken’s work.  The exhibit demonstrates the rawness and emotional underpinnings of a lifelong artist and an art therapist.” Annie VanGelderen, BBAC president and CEO said for this review, “As you examine the deliberate and urgent paint strokes, one can feel the energy and need that Mary Ann had to document a moment of her time.”

Aitken was born in Detroit in 1960 and attended Wayne State University where she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts and maintained her art practice in Detroit, exhibiting locally, until she moved to New York City in 1989. Her second master’s degree in Art Therapy provided her employment at the Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn where she assisted her patients through their medical struggles using the art process. Aitken shared her talent through art therapy in the decades that followed and continued to exhibit her work around the Detroit Metro area. She passed away after a long, four-year battle with cancer in Brooklyn in 2012. Her close friend, Detroit artist, Ed Fraga, recipient of the 2009 Kresge Arts fellowship for visual arts, has shepherded her work in and around Detroit since her passing and acted as liaison for a joint exhibition at Trinosophes and What Pipeline in 2013.

Fraga says,  “Mary Ann had a keen eye for illuminating scenes of Detroit and everyday objects in her studio through her unique palette and style of painting. She dared to paint floral images on the daily newspaper, testing the boundaries of permanence, and now 35 years later as the paper has yellowed the paint still remains.”

Mary Ann Aitken, Untitled (Broadway), Oil on Masonite, 1985-89

There is something in this work that draws this painter to the way Aitken handles the spontaneous use of paint while capturing a strong composition.  This aerial looks down on Broadway in a way that speaks to an intuitive approach to the use of space that dominates her sensibility. She blocks in the expanse without concern about representation, exposes the brush marks and, in this work, plays with the strength in a parallelogram and the use of black line.

Mary Ann Aitken, Untitled, (Gratiot & Broadway), Oil on Masonite, 1985-89.

Here again, Aitken is working from an elevated point of view and flirts with a naïve impression, yet there is nothing primitive about this streetscape. This brown boulevard dominates the composition with aesthetically raw, textured layers of paint, while paying little attention to the rendering of the trees. Here, Aitken’s work moves more toward abstraction than expressionistic streetscape.

Mary Ann Aitken, Untitled, (Projector), Oil on Masonite, 1985-89

The Aitken exhibition demonstrates her interest in still life and ordinary objects as in The Projector that uses an object to paint an expressionistic abstraction with the focus on composition and the application of paint.  She is dividing the rectangle with an object, not worried about representation, or color, but with concern for shape, line, and space. Aitken is using the object to facilitate her abstraction.

Mary Ann Aitken, Untitled (flower pot) Oil, sand, mounted on canvas, 1985-2011

She does this again with her still life,  Untitled (flower pot),with an emphasis on black line and frame. In both these still-lifes her touch is heavy, with thick layers of paint that create these unmediated impressions of these objects, whether a projector or a potted flower. Aitken experimented with substrates for her oil painting, including canvas, wood, and Masonite.  An example would be the (flower pot) where she adds either pumice or sand to the thick black oil paint border. It is interesting that this painting is an example of where the artist returns to her 1980 motif and applies heavy paint to canvas. She is quoted as saying, “Art is a part of my life—it belongs to me. No one can take that away from me.”

Mary Ann Aitken, Untitled, (view from Cary Building fire escape), Oil on Canvas, 1985-89

Grabbing a view from the Cary Building using foreground, mid-ground, and background, the city becomes her grid-like painting for her sublime abstraction.   Having gone to Wayne State University and studied under Robert Wilbert, there is no question she was influenced by artists Nancy Mitchnick, Michael Lukes, and Gordon Newton, but this writer is a little tired of various entities trying to capitalize on the overly used term “Cass Corridor Artist.”  I say this because I graduated from the WSU graduate program in painting in 1971 and had a studio in Detroit, but I would never use that term to describe my work, and many artists would fit my profile.  I am sure Aitken was there and influenced by all of it in a positive way, but also remember that she left for New York City in 1989 in search of greener pastures, much like John Egner. Is it a coincidence they both return to Detroit, Aitken posthumously and respected,  and Egner with his Cass Corridor repute?

As part of the exhibition, Mary Ann Aitken’s sister, Maureen Aitken attended a talk at the BBAC where she read from her book, The Patron of Lost Girls, in first person stories about her resilience in the face of injustice growing up in Detroit where the recession hit hard on Midwest families.  She gives the name Megan in her story, as her sister’s name, representing Mary Ann, who provided the audience with a glimpse of family dynamics while traveling on the road and mentions her sister’s devotion to her artwork. Maureen Aitken teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota.

Mary Ann Aitken has had Posthumous solo shows at Cleopatra’s, Brooklyn; What Pipeline, Detroit; Trinosophes, Detroit; and Urban Institute of Contemporary Art, Grand Rapids, MI. Group exhibitions include Greene Naftali, NYC; Andrew Kreps, NYC (with Dylan Spaysky), Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland; Tomorrow Gallery, NYC; Marianne Boesky, NYC; Marlborough Chelsea, NYC; and PSM Gallery, Berlin. Her work is in the collections of Wayne State University, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Flint Institute of Arts, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

 

Mary Ann Aitken, Indomitable Spirit, at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center runs through April 18, 2019.

 

 

 

UNFURLED @ Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit  

MOCAD presents Unfurled: Supports/Surfaces 1966-1976

To enter “Unfurled: Supports/Surfaces 1966-1976” is to discover a wellspring brimming with treasures and pleasures for all seasons. Filling the four walls of a cavernous, big box space, objects large and small, modest and theatrical, plain and comely, are prosaically lined up in tight formation around the perimeter of the space. In the center, jaunty banners, dyed fishing nets (one multicolored, another shaped like a portal), scrims of patterned fabric, and lengths of rope (one red, one blue) hang and dangle from the rafters.

“Unfurled: Supports/Surfaces, 1966-1976,” Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 2019 (All images courtesy of MOCAD and Ceysson & Benetiere; photography by Tim Johnson)

Nothing feels heavy or portentous; rather, an osmotic “lightness of being” builds as the eye and spirit bounce and rocket from object to object: a tall, naked stretcher listing against one wall, irregularly shaped fabrics and bedsheets rudely tacked to walls with nails or pushpins, constricting frames and stretched canvases nowhere in sight, a wooden pole tilted into a corner, dyed dishrags suspended from a drying rack, a crisscross arrangement of stubby logs skittering across the floor, and so on…

In a word, the art on view, in one way or another sheds de rigueur formalities of content and presentation. Fusty aesthetic tropes are deconstructed and dematerialized as bespoke ideals rip and split with invigorating impact. Such radical upheavals both in art and society at large in the mid-to-late 60s occurred not only among the loose federation of French artists who dubbed their experiments “Supports/Surfaces” but also among Arte Povera practitioners in Italy, the Mono-ha cohort in Japan, and the anti-form post-minimalists in the United States.

Of all the loose congeries of rebellious unfurlers the French cadre is perhaps the least well known, although the Mono-ha rebels also fly pretty much under the radar. Hence, the value and high voltage appeal of the “Supports/Surfaces” exhibition organized by MOCAD and curated by Wallace Whitney. Refreshingly, this survey brings to the fore fourteen countercultural artists of the far-flung 60s youthquake whose fertile experiments continue to inform the dynamics of contemporary art practice.

Louis Cane, “Cut-out Canvas,” 133 x 74 ½ in., Oil on canvas, 1974

One of the prime examples exhibited in this 2019 iteration of “Supports/Surfaces” is Louis Cane’s Cut-out Canvas of 1972. Here the color blocks of primary hues resemble an upright apparatus. The blue “legs” not only flank blocks of yellow and red, but also suggest overtones of anthropomorphic hoisting and supporting. Close up, one notes that the creases visible in the canvas reveal where the unstretched yardage is folded, unfolded, and subsequently refolded into a compact parcel for storage, transport, and reinstallation. In effect, a formal Mondrian has been nimbly informalized.

Patrick Saytour, “Deployed,” 157 ½ x 315 in., Fabric and PVC pipes, 1972

Patrick Saytour’s festive Deployed (1970), in contrast, exudes barely suppressed mobility and incipient celebration. It all but dares observers (a family, gaggle of friends, school tour group) to liberate the PVC poles, merrily dipping and swaying the brazen pink swags as they process through the museum. When not in motion Deployed, like a number of other works on displayis simply propped against the wall, and accommodatingly expands or shrinks in width depending on space available.

Louis Cane, “Wall/Floor,” 112 x 94 ½ x 84 ½ in., Oil on cut fabric, 1974

More delights, veering from transcendent to quotidian, await the spectator.  At a far remove from the entrance to the exhibition, a plush yellow installation by Cane beckons from an awkward corner.  As its title, Wall/Floor (1974) intimates, it radiates warmth from wall to floor, projecting its sun-splashed chroma across the viewer’s territory. The wall element, simply cut and left unhemmed, is almost invisibly framed by a matching length of dyed fabric, a sly play on a traditional frame. For the ultimate quotidian encounter, one discovers, in the corner opposite Cane’s luminous install, Noel Dolla’s cheeky Dyed Dishrags and Metal Drying Rack (1968). Distinction is conferred upon the humble ensemble by the realization that the process of drying kitchen rags on metal bars is not unlike hanging art on a wall.

Noel Dolla, “Dyed Dishrags and Metal Drying Rack,” 34 ½ x 25 x 11 ½ in., Dyed dishrags and metal structure, 1968

The iconic Grand Stretcher (1967) by Daniel Dezeuze, towering high above many other pieces in MOCAD’s central gallery, signals the structure/support dichotomy at the heart of the movement with terse, succinct economy. Stripped of its canvas, the bare, leaning stretcher, bereft of a painterly surface, nonetheless looms lofty and unbowed. Its stark grid, absolutely foundational to the age-old enterprise of painting, is both passe and grandiose.

Daniel Dezeuze, “Grand Stretcher,” 172 x 106 in., Wood stain on stretcher, 1967

Claude Viallat, “1970/056,” 85 ½ x 234 in., Methylene blue and acrylic on fabrics, 1970

Hanging nearby is Claude Viallat’s airborne 1970/056 from 1970. Bold in shape and broad in contour, its 19 ½ ft. width resembles the unfurled wingspan of a super-entity that is perhaps talismanic: Imagination Incarnate. Unstretched and unframed, its gusset of ruffly fabric at midpoint wittily violates the sacrosanct flatness of two dimensional art.  Shorn of the familiar trappings of pre-1970 aesthetic practice, Viallat’s 1970/056 epitomizes the unbridled freedom and irresistible laissez-faire of the art and artists in this spirited, revelatory exhibition.

“Unfurled: Supports/Surfaces 1966-1976” remains on view at MOCAD through April 21, 2019

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