Detroit's been described in many ways, and here's a new one:The city has an "atmosphere of departure," according to Eva Bracke, who owns a gallery in the heart of Berlin's most popular contemporary art district.
She's not talking about a sense of panic floating in the air, spurring Detroiters to pack their bags. She's referring to our community's unconventional state of mind.
"It's really fresh. It's like Berlin a few years ago, before it turned into an art metropolis. Anything is possible and that's exciting."
In fact, Bracke's been so intrigued by our mind-set, she's wanted to collaborate for a while now. "You get more information about the art scenes of New York, Los Angeles, Miami," she writes, via e-mail. "But whenever I saw works at art fairs and exhibitions, I found Detroit art very interesting."
Jef Bourgeau's proposal came to her at the right time. The Museum of New Art's Moving Walls exhibit showcases work by the emerging talents in Bracke's stable alongside that of a dozen Detroiters. As part of Bourgeau's Changing Cities project, the art will then ship to Bracke's gallery in November for an exhibit.
Bracke is devoted to a daring, defiant young set. In Moving Walls, Olivia Berckemeyer makes a portrait of Vladamir Putin and his dog in pastel, wine and beer; and Christoph Dettmeier blows up polystyrene castles to the tune of Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)." Rooms are filled with dashed-off drawings and paintings, including a lazy general slumped in a rocking chair, Vikings rushing ashore, a drunken crony with cherry-stained cheeks and a sadistic butcher hacking off a pound from a pint-sized bombshell. In Franziska Hufnagel's series of acrylics on paper, a Guantanamo Bay detainee haunts the background of a watercolor of Madonna and child. Andrew Gilbert's installation "The Fourth of July was the Beginning of the End of the British Empire" features a British soldier with a bayonet, and a cabbage for a head.
In the video "Tortenschlacht" (pie fight), shot by young Belarusian wit Alexej Koschkarow, bourgeois buffoonery reigns, recalling art by satirist George Grosz and filmmaker Luis Buñuel. At a cocktail party, elegant Europeans slouch around smoking, barely holding their cigarettes, by tables lined with desserts. A Muzak version of Tina Turner's "Private Dancer" is the soundtrack. Out of nowhere, boom, pie in someone's face, followed by a splatter of cream across a dress like a Pollock painting. The hip crowd turns into a bunch of junior high kids in a cafeteria. Time brakes to slow motion, and people duck, bend and twirl as if dancing an improvisational ballet. Then the camera pans out to reveal an audience in jeans and jackets, casually standing behind a velvet rope, amused by the Yves Klein-style performance piece.
"Tortenschlacht" is about role-playing in life and in art. At a party, spectators are also performers, scanning each other and getting sized up, talking in symbols and codes. In this instance, even the gallery-goers safely behind the velvet rope take part as entertainers, unknowingly caught on camera by the artist.
The art in Moving Walls is constantly shifting from one style to the next, with several dozen works in at least four galleries, but in some way or another, the Germans and Detroiters explore issues concerning identity, whether personal or national. Mary Fortuna's puppets deal with a crisis of their own. Her hand-stitched cast looks part animal, part mythological creature, dangling between physical and spiritual worlds without a landscape to inhabit, no place to call home.
Detroiter Cyrus Karimpour grapples at being a photographer during the shift from darkroom to digital age. The artist snaps a digital image of a crowd of figures who have been cut out from film negatives. The antiquated format has been relegated to the position of subject, a passive role rather than an active one.
At first glance, it seems as if Kelly Frank is focused on, as she says, "the pathetic and unspectatcular," but her charged images are replete with self-reflection. For "Immunity Idol," a night shot in the woods, she leaves footprints in the snow as if she's signing a painting. In "Call," she draws concentric curved lines like crop circles in the snow, alluding again to the idea of authorship. Perhaps Frank's considering her responsibility as a creator, asking for a response while answering a "calling" by following her passion.
History and the influence of place are also key issues affecting Detroit's contemporary artists as they discover their creative identities. You can't help but feel intensely what Marla Karimpour's paintings mean to her. She's satisfying an urge to step into her own landscapes and experience a life other than her own. Her gorgeous Midwestern scenes are photo snapshots reproduced as oil paintings — momentary glimpses that she spends a lot of time carefully playing out.
Local artist Jacque Liu's series not only symbolizes the indelible mark that architecture makes on our collective psyche as Detroiters, but also serves as a poetic visual metaphor for memory. The artist draws a block or grid on paper and then veils it with a sheet of Mylar, retracing only the outline of the original shape, or some variation, on the top layer. Looking at his drawings is like recalling a memory: Although certain details recede, a sharp impression remains.
There's definitive synergy going on in this show. Kelly Frank says she was even a little surprised how strong a relationship she developed with the Berlin artists when they visited for the opening. Mary Fortuna agrees. "We hung out a lot, and took them to Fort Wayne, Eastern Market, to CityFest and the Heidelberg Project. They were in awe. We felt kind of guilty," she adds, "We didn't take them to any museums." Everyone's excited about reconnecting in Berlin in November.
The whole thing began last year as a quickie swap with Chicago art consultant Paul Klein, just to get work from our region out of city limits. But Changing Cities has turned into a full-fledged international cultural exchange program. In fact, right before this article went to print, Bourgeau reported that Daimler Financial intends to sponsor the Detroiters' visit to Germany, paying for their flights overseas, the cost of shipping and more. Company President Klaus Entenmann has embraced the idea.
Bourgeau says, "Klaus and his wife Katherine even threw a wonderful Fourth of July picnic at their house for all the participating artists. Klaus did all the cooking like a TV chef, intense and fantastic."
Talk about a departure.
Moving Walls, part of the Changing Cities project, runs through Aug. 9, at Museum of New Art, 7 N. Saginaw, Pontiac; 248-210-7560.Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org