This story won't leave the head. Years ago, at a gallery show in Chicago, an installation featured a large ramp made from a pile of books that almost filled the space. At the opening, after a few beers, a disgruntled young writer stomped out. A few seconds later he returned, stood in the doorway and yelled, "First write a book before you start fuckin' with 'em!"
At Marygrove College's gallery this month, an installation by Brooklyn-based artist Stephanie Dinkins uses books as material for her handsome yet empty installation. Dinkins is a Stony Brook University associate professor and this looks like the work of a new professor who hasn't had a good idea since her thesis. She also integrates video and digital imagery into her work, claiming she's examining "the ways that contemporary culture tends to conflate fact/fiction, need/desire, nature/technology." But it's is pretty standard stuff for anyone younger than Atari.
Through the gallery's elaborate metal gate, framed in front of the leaded windows, in an otherwise darkened space, there is a pile. A 4-foot-square loose stack of large, open books, topped with a layer of dark soil and crowned by an uprooted, gold-painted tree trunk, complete with twisted roots.
A projector buried in the pile sends an image to another pile a table stacked with hundreds more books, titles carefully turned away. The video loop appears to be a book on a stick being smashed to bits against a tree. It's hard to read, broken up against the irregular page ends and confused by a background of branches, but, if nothing else, the layered patterns are pretty.
Books and earth and a golden tree, a hill that could evoke Golgotha, or at least a secular grave these are potentially powerful elements, especially in this setting, a few floors above the chapel of a small Catholic college. The books fat scholarly tomes are desecrated by dirt or repurposed as a screen for newer media, their inherent value dismissed. A dead piece of wood is elevated, gilt.
Something should be happening here, but it's not. It's a tease. Ingredients alone don't make a meal. This is hors d'ourves, a decorative appetizer from a fantasy giant's fancy restaurant. A vocabulary needs to be used before it becomes a poem or manifesto or recipe. Whether the individual bits are read as hackneyed or iconic would depend on how they are used, but here they are just displayed.
This is the fourth manifestation of Stephanie Dinkins' "The End is the Beginning, But Lies Far Ahead." I'm guessing that what makes the installation "site-specific" would be the inconvenience of shipping the gold rocking chair from the last exhibit to this site.
In the second gallery's exhibit, entitled (re) collect, Rachel Reynolds' two paintings have an attractive, disrupted texture similar to Dinkins' projected video. Her overlaid images, smears and washes of subdued color, fragments of text and fragments of images may be crucial to a narrative of apparent destruction, or may merely be compositional devices in a field with a lot of nicely worked passages. "Displacement" is an example of the paintings I would love to see as props for the visionary painter of the future on TV's Heroes.
There is something happening here, even if it is not clear what it is, or if it's on the canvas, in the source material, or somewhere in the artist's head.
The centerpiece of the second room is Michael Richison's "Double Vestigial," a 10-foot-long concentration of plastic toys and industrial parts. They seem to have come together in a sort of accidental mating this piece of cowling happens to fit this storage unit, which matches up with something from Home Depot. The result is vaguely biological, robo-insectoid and vaguely like Tonka toys on steroids.
These materials are nothing. These are the things we buy and use and ignore and try to dispose of, only to find they are can't be recycled. The fun of their clever combination is completely free free of history, free of guilt, free of the need to search for portentous academic meaning. If McDonald's survives to Road Warrior days, this will be the toy in the postapocalyptic Happy Meal.
Both shows run through Feb. 1, at The Gallery at Marygrove College, Liberal Arts Building, 8425 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit; 313-927-1538.
Michael Bulka is a freelance writer who recently moved to Detroit from Chicago. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.