David Opdyke @ The University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities

Paved With Good Intentions

For Queens-based artist David Opdyke, the manipulation of scale as a means to transform great existential threats posed by the ceaseless appetites of late capitalism conjoined with the convulsions of American politics, into something more relatable–models that collapse overwhelming chaos into tragicomic vignettes–is an essential tool to remind his audience of its place in a complex narrative of global survival. In sculpture, installation, animation and drawing, Opdyke relies upon our innate sense of childlike wonder at a miniaturized world as it transforms the relationship we have with our own full scale world, teetering on the edge of collapse and brimming with grown-up trauma. With a vision that is both epic and intimate, balancing the sublime with the grotesque, he threads the marvelousness of the microcosmic with macrocosmic socio-political concerns. Having previously worked as a scenic painter and architectural model-maker for 20 years, tweaking perception to clarify the structure of the world seems a natural fit.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), 528 vintage postcards modified with gouache and ink, full installation view

“David Opdyke: Paved With Good Intentions,” on view at The University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities in Ann Arbor, where Opdyke is the 2019 Efroymson Emerging Artist in Residence, presents a selection of eight works, including a collection of animated shorts, a two-channel video, and most notably an ambitious site-specific installation comprised of 528 postcards, titled “This Land” which gathers many of the artist’s preoccupations into a single monumental statement.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of vintage postcard modified with gouache and ink

To start with one of the 528 postcards, at the top of which is a caption: “676: –FORD ROTUNDA AND ADMINISTRATION BUILDING AND FACTORY, DETROIT, MICH.” The card, from the mid-20thcentury was printed on a stock using a process that replicated the texture of linen. Its horizontal image appears at once photographic, but also painted, since it has been hand-tinted. Upon closer inspection, the character of its printednessemerges: the image breaks down into a fuzzy pattern, accentuated by transparent colors that bleed and overlap– a patch of grass seems to become a building and vice versa.

The subject of the card is a landscape containing the Ford Rotunda, a Streamline Moderne structure originally built for the 1934 “A Century of Progress International Exposition” World’s Fair in Chicago, to serve as a pavilion for the Ford Motor Company. It was later moved to Dearborn, Michigan on the outskirts of Detroit where it housed elaborate displays celebrating industrial progress, until it was destroyed in a fire in 1962.  Additionally, the original Ford Administration Building (destroyed in 1997) is shown, the River Rouge and in the distance Ford’s massive Rouge factory. All of this is seen from a bird’s eye view as a celebration of the way in which Ford transformed the landscape of Dearborn into an Industrial metropolis that promised a better future.

However, there is a hand-painted intervention within the image that is not quite right. There are large grey pipes horizontally slicing through the view; massive pipelines dwarfing the scale of the architecture in the postcard. A pipe slams into the Administration Building causing cracks in its limestone. A pipe penetrates the roof of the rotunda. There also appears to be a flood whose crashing waves are encroaching upon the Rotunda. Where are the pipes coming from? Where are they going? From where are the flood waters emerging?

The answers appear when perception is adjusted and one steps back and finds that this is a single postcard situated within a grid of 528 postcards, assembled as “This Land.” But as the sources of the pipelines and the flooding are revealed, many more questions emerge. Stepping even further back, the individual postcards coalesce into a view of the sublime. Remarkably, although each postcard is of a unique landscape in disparate US locations, Opdyke achieves the sort of geographic sleight-of-hand normally reserved for Hollywood cinema, in which far-flung locations are collapsed into a single unified setting. This single setting resembles a Hudson River School landscape, complete with mountains and valleys, snow-covered peaks, bodies of water, a blue sky. But before Woody Guthrie can be conjured, and his refrain of this land being made for you and me, the entire picture falls apart.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of installation

 

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of installation

The grid of cards collapses as the panorama is fractured. Cards slide down the surface of the wall, with some having dropped to the floor. You can read the reverse of some of these, with the handwritten sentiments of marveling travelers frozen in time. With the breaking apart of the whole comes the need to reexamine each card closer. What was once sublime is now complicated as the mural begins to resemble Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire” (1833-1836),  a cycle of five paintings that charts the rise and fall of human civilization: “The Savage State”, “The Arcadian or Pastoral Phase”, “The Consummation of Empire”, “Destruction” and finally “Desolation.”

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of installation

 

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of installation

As with the ironic intervention seen in the depiction of the Ford Rotunda, ruin and destruction has been embellished upon most of the other postcards depicting an idealized American landscape. Aside from occasional moments of calm, on an almost biblical scale there is famine, flood, fire and pestilence. Dark grey maelstroms and tornado funnels abound, frogs rain down, locusts swarm, forests burn, crops freeze, and lightning bolts emerge from black clouds that conjure visions of the English Romantic painter John Martin (1789-1854). But this is no mere visitation by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as Opdyke reminds us that humanity is perfectly capable of delivering its own end times, daily.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of vintage postcard modified with gouache and ink

There is fracking and oil pumping and water diversion… endless pipes serve to carve up and bleed the dying landscape before us. What was once idealized in these postcards: industry, agriculture, transportation, glorious infrastructure projects advertised as the youthful ambitions of a country building itself by way of engineering the land, has soured. A dream of opportunity for constructing a utopia has morphed into the ruinous late capitalist agenda of monstrous development at any cost. Excessive waterfront high rises have been erected, massive walls are built, as human behavior results not in an organized response to tackle its own mistakes head-on, but instead leads to ineffectual political infighting and ever more chaos in the form of panic, cults, and tribal division.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of vintage postcard modified with gouache and ink

And then there are the B-Movie monsters populating this postcard landscape: giant insects, sea creatures and omnivorous plant life. Mutant spawns that could be the result of unchecked capitalism reengineering nature. B-movie horror and disaster scenarios have always been a stand-in for human irresponsibility and the monstrosities on display here are no exception. There a moments that seem to nod toward “It Came from Beneath the Sea” (1955) with a set of Ray Harryhausen tentacles overtaking a riverboat on the Mississippi. There are crumbling edifices and cataclysmic cracks  that could have been manufactured on a studio backlot for a film such as “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956). Roadways and bridges clogged with motorists attempting to escape certain doom recall the mass hysteria of Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” (2005).

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of vintage postcard modified with gouache and ink

Opdyke is establishing an allegorical narrative of ironic critique by repurposing and rupturing romantic, idealized panoramas of the past. There is a kinship with contemporaries such as Walton Ford and Alexis Rockman, who both conflate scientific illustration and heroic history painting into large scale Quasi-Romantic works ironically embedded with destabilizing minutiae. Along with Ford and Rockman, these are images that compress past, present and future into a single tragicomic narrative. That Opdyke sets all of these hand-embellished catastrophes against the miniature hand-tinted backdrop of the vintage postcard as a contemporary gesture, makes perfect sense. These are souvenirs of place, and by extension of historical memory and the subsequent abandonment of the past. They represent an ideal once embraced and long-since discarded. The postcard was once a way to communicate “I’ve seen this. I was here.” It was a forerunner to Instagram as a means to place ourselves into the world and report back home as a way of confirming our feats of travel and locating ourselves within a larger narrative of collective experience.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), installation view

Most of those who attended the opening of “Paved With Good Intentions,” crowded before “This Land” while taking iPhone photos of select views. Were they seeking out places they had been? Places where they were from? Documenting specific horrors that amused? Rarely did I see any of the viewers backing up to read the entire piece in its state of faux sublimity. All were pushed in, investigating at the closest possible viewing distance. Locating themselves in the details. Opdyke’s use of the postcard acts as a time machine for what has, is and will be seen. It is a way to implicate the viewer within the continuum of this catastrophic narrative in the Instagram era by way of asking us “You see this, don’t you?” Yes, we do.

David Opdyke @ The University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities  Through February 27, 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

Art in the Age of the Internet @ UMMA

University of Michigan Museum of Art brings the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art exhibition to its audience.

Penelope Umbrico, 33,930,694 Suns from Flickr (Partial) 9/05/17, 2006-ongoing, chromogenic machine prints. Courtesy of the artist. ©Penelope Umbrico.

In 1969, the United States Department of Defense harnessed groundbreaking technology to relay a message from a computer at UCLA to a computer at Stanford University; it simply read “Login,” but even that was enough to overload and crash the system.  For twenty more years, rudimentary Internet technology remained exclusively in the hands of scientists and government agencies until the creation of the World Wide Web in 1989, which radically democratized the Internet, making it accessible, comprehensible, and useable to anyone. It also irrevocably changed the way we experience the world.  Responding to the thirtieth anniversary of the World Wide Web, the University of Michigan is hosting “Art in the Age of the Internet,” a massive multimedia show which, like the Internet itself, is visually eclectic, immersive, and loud.

Three years in the making, this show first launched in 2018 at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, garnering substantial critical acclaim.  As one would expect given the subject, the show liberally makes use of video-art displayed on screens and monitors, but it also includes media ranging from painting, drawing, and photography to emerging technologies such as 3D printing.  The forty works that comprise the show are categorized in five sections: Networks of Circulation, Hybrid Bodies, Virtual Worlds, States of Surveillance, and Performing the Self.  Together they form an impressive ensemble of work by both emerging and established artists, including a few surprise-appearances by artists one might not immediately associate with the Internet, such as Cindy Sherman, but whose inclusion in the show makes perfect sense.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #463, 2007—08. Cindy Sherman, Chromogenic color print. Collection of John and Amy Phelan, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. © Cindy Sherman

Many works explore the increasingly reality-altering nature of the Web.  A large photograph of the perennially shape-shifting Cindy Sherman seems an apt metaphor for the way many of us might use social media to fabricate idealized narratives about our better selves via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat (pick your platform) at the expense of authenticity.  Commenting on this photograph of women at a social gathering of some kind, Sherman states that the image “was inspired by the idea of party photos seen so often where people, desperate to show off their status and connections, excitedly pose have their picture taken with larger-than-life-sized smiles and personalities.”  The photograph was taken in 2007, the infant years of social-media, but Sherman’s collective body of work, decades in the making,  prophetically anticipates the way many of us (including presidents and world leaders) painstakingly curate our own images, ideas, and personalities on social media as we present our digital personas to the digital world.

An entirely different commentary on the blurring of digital and actual realities comes from Harun Farocki’s two-channel video Serious Games IV: A Sun with No Shadow, which explores how the US military uses virtual reality technology to prepare soldiers for combat and to treat soldiers who experience post-traumatic stress disorder.  One screen shows soldiers interacting with the technology as another screen relays to us the same simulated combat scenarios the soldiers see.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Surface Tension”, 2007. ”Trackers”, La Gaïté Lyrique, Paris, 2011. Photo by: Maxime Dufour

The most compelling works in the exhibition are those that address government surveillance technologies; the disclosures in 2013 by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden lend these works considerable weight.  Rafael Lozanno-Hemmer’s Surface Tension is a deceptively playful interactive screen with an eyeball that follows viewers who come within a certain distance; one can’t resist the game of pacing back and forth in front of it, testing its speed and unerring accuracy.  But to work, this installation applies the same military camera used by American smart bombs to pinpoint targets during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The original iteration of this work was created in 1992, well before the creation of the NSA and the “surveillance state” as it exists today.

Trevor Paglen, “Autonomy Cube”, 2015. Plexiglas box with computer components. (MP# TP—95). Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. @ Trevor Paglen

With just under a billion users, more people access the Internet in China than in any other country, but users in China can’t access sites like Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, the New York Times, or thousands of other websites.  Addressing the Great Firewall of China, the country’s censorious implementation of Internet restrictions, artist and activist Xu Wenkai’s Gfwlist is a black, rectilinear monolith which, for the duration of the exhibition, will print out, in encrypted form, a lengthy sheet of  Web addresses blocked by the Chinese government.  In addition to raising awareness of the problem, the artist’s use of encryption suggests a potential way for activists to hack their way towards a solution.  On a similar note, American artist Trevor Paglen’s Autonomity Cube, straddling the boundary between sculpture, technology, and activism, is a functional Wi-fi hub that anonymizes user Internet activity and hides it from surveillance systems.  Though perhaps this work bends more toward pure technology than traditional art, it admittedly recalls some of the work of Bauhaus superstar Maholy Nagy.

Art in the Age of the Internet certainly doesn’t dispiritingly present the Internet as a negative phenomenon, inevitably ushering in a Big Brother State.  Today, anyone with an I-Phone is a potential news-reporter, and social media has been the impetus that has propelled movements ranging from the Arab Spring to #blm.  Driving the point home, a wall of monitors reminiscent of the electronic sculptures of Nam Jun Paik relays algorithmically-sourced footage from the Internet showing police brutality against people of color.  On the one hand, it champions the Internet as a medium that exposes and heightens awareness of the problem, though it also painfully suggests that things haven’t changed much during the interval between the pre-social-media days of Rodney King in 1991 and Tamir Rice in 2014.

A show like this could easily veer toward envisioning a bleakly Orwellian vision of the future. But Art in the Age of the Internet wisely refrains from suggesting that the Internet has been bad for humanity– to do so would be equivalent to railing against the printing press on the grounds that there’s been much bad literature.  After all, while the term “fake news” has only recently gained currency in modern political discourse, propelled largely by the ease with which (dis)information transmits over the Internet, readers can easily find rollickingly laughable gaffs without much difficulty in the Historiesof Herodotus and Pliny the Elder.   Rather, this exhibition dispassionately presents the Internet as an irrevocable facet of modern life, and, for better or for worse, the medium though which we increasingly look, learn, love, and live.

 

Art in the Age of the Internet is currently on exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through April 17, 2019

Bill Schwab @ Halsted Gallery

Detroit Photographer has a Survey Exhibition of Work at the Halsted Gallery

Installation, Bill Schwab talking at open, 2018

Photography celebrates its 180th anniversary in 2019. This art form has fascinated us from its early beginnings with its ability to record time and aide our memories of people, places and objects. Photographs are magical things, credited with the power to steal a person’s shadow and provide a mysterious interaction of silver and salt akin to alchemy. That was pre-digital era, of course.

If you are anywhere near my age (and studied art in the 1960s) you may have taken a class in photography in your college years. You may have purchased a Pentax, Cannon, or Nikon 35-millimeter single lens reflex (SLR) camera and exposed a series of rectangles that captured an image of your family, friends and possibly your pet. After loading the camera and recording images, you rolled your black-and-white Tri-X film back into its cannister, removed it in a darkroom under a mysterious red light, and developed the celluloid impressions, each producing a negative image. The negative was then placed into a photo enlarger which projected a lit image onto photo sensitive paper, usually Kodak or Afga, creating a sensation that when wiggled around in a developing solution, magically forms an image right before your eyes. Life’s moment became concentrated, condensed and captured in a split second of time.

Bill Schwab, Metropolitan, Gum over Platinum Print, Detroit 2012

The Halsted Gallery was the only photo gallery in the Detroit metro area back in the early 1970s and, as part of the gallery archive, there are letters from photographers whom Tom Halsted represented, including: Henri Cartier Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, and Imogen Cunningham to name only a few. In the year 2000, the Halsted Gallery had an opening for Bill Schwab, who was then a young and emerging photographer. The exhibit included small prints made from long exposures in the early morning fog of Belle Isle, Detroit. I bought his small, beautiful 36-page book and a limited-edition signed print.

Bill Schwab, House on Dearborn Street, 30 x 40″ Pigment Ink print, 2016

Fast forward to December 1, 2018, where the Halsted Gallery, now under the ownership of Wendy Halsted Beard, has reopened in a new location and mounted an exhibition, Relative Importance, of Bill Schwab’s photography that covers his work for the past two decades, including  his more recent digital, aerial and wet plate collodion photographs. As professional and artistic photography still exists in this world of “everyone is a photographer,” Bill Schwab has endured with a prodigious reputation that many admire and he rightly deserves. Just because we all have smart phone cameras doesn’t mean we can compose, acutely observe and most importantly understand light. Circumstantial light considers not only all the properties and behaviors of natural light, but also how that light interacts with the objects around (you), transforming those objects into light-shaping tools.

Bill Schwab, Van Road Stars, 30 x 40″, Pigment Ink print, 2017

The first digital camera was created by Steven Sasson of Eastman Kodak in 1975, but the first consumer products didn’t arrive until the late 1980s and early 1990s. It wasn’t until 2010 that digital cameras were integrated into smart phones and by 2003, digital cameras out-sold film cameras. According to Info Trends, 1.2 trillion photos were taken in 2017. The technological change has had a tremendous effect on photography and photographers, but that is not to say it hasn’t been a natural advancement of capturing an image. Schwab is a good example of how photographers have embraced the new technology and used its tools as leverage to produce new kinds work. The digital image Van Road Stars, is a good example of how the manipulation of light and exposure can produce a rather engaging image, in part due to scale and incredible detail.

Bill Schawb, Mack at Lennox, Pigmented Ink Print, Detroit, 2016

What makes this Mack at Lennox image interesting has nothing to do with the recording device, but rather the sensibility to light, color and thought. You end up asking yourself how odd is that? Was it an ice cream stand or a dairy shop?  But the cow has horns making it either a he, or a she. Formal in its composition, he makes the print large, 30 x 40 inches, which adds to its strength as a photograph. And then there is the light. Where is the light source coming from?  Did he set a light up high against the darkened sky? These considerations are what set an artist apart from your average snapshot taker..

Bill Schwab, Five Trees in a Field, Pigment Ink Print, Detroit, 2016

Bill Schwab was early to take an interest in drone technology, something that most professional photographers now consider a necessary tool.  He has a series called the Human Stain, largely made up of a decade of images taken of crumbling farm houses in rural areas, but this aerial image is of five trees with low light shadows and tractor trails that become the marks of visual artists with respect to placement and composition.  It provides the viewer with a different point of view of the landscape, something that painters have been doing for hundreds of years.

Bill Schwab, Tidal Flooding – Hofn, Silver Gelatin Print, Iceland, 2015

Photography captures reality in distinct ways that were rarely available to painters.  There once was debate over whether or not photography is fine art?  I am not sure when that got answered, but the answer is clear: yes and no. If you’re photographing a still life for a garden magazine or a car for a showroom brochure, it is commercial photography.  But when you are making abstractions, as Andre Kertesz or Ernst Haas did, or capturing precious moments in time based on light and composition as Henri Bresson did, it is fine art.  The difference might be analogous to the difference between illustration and painting, although in the case of Norman Rockwell, the debate drags on, at least in some critics’ minds.

Bill Schwab, Rouge Steel, Silver Gelatin Print, 1994

Beginning at an early age, Bill Schwab developed an interest in photography with his Kodak Brownie camera and a home darkroom kit he got from his father as a gift.  Like they say, give a person a fish and it’s a meal for that day, teach him how to fish, and it’s a lifetime of meals. Photography is Bill Schwab’s life, and great photography is about the depth of feeling, not the depth of field.

Bill Schwab earned his B.F.A in photography from Central Michigan University and worked for a short while in NYC assisting commercial photographer Alen MacWeeney before traveling the world as a commercial photographer.  He has taken students of photography on workshops to Iceland, founded the Northern Light Press and coordinates the Photostock Festival yearly each June, changing and influencing photographers in his path. He has published four books on his photography, and his work is part of many museum, corporate and personal collections.

Bill Schwab, Relative Importance, at the Halsted Gallery runs through   January 30, 2019

Ryan Standfest @ WSU Art Department Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The diversity of Standfest’s art stretches to performance theater and is represented by an installation of three “masks,” called “Factory Heads,” that he employed in a performance at MOCAD with an accompanying musical composition of factory noise by created by Chris Butterfield and Mike Williams. In a sense Standfest’s “Factory Heads” sculptures and performance, covers of Bolshevik agitprop theater, are again in the Russian Constructivist spirit modeled after machine-like factory architecture with smokestacks and are accompanied by a Standfest poem that delineates the abject evolution of the working class.

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

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

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

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

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