It was clear from the enthusiasm and festive atmosphere at the grand opening last Wednesday night of the Susanne Hilberry Gallery that the new site is a much-needed addition to the Detroit art scene. There were genuine expressions of affection and celebration for Hilberry and her status in the art community, as well as awe for the gallery designed by Tamas von Staden, a young Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate.
The new space is a munificent occurrence of modernism on a Ferndale street that has always had a secret charm, but that only recently has begun to be mined by alert artists and businesses. Livernois in Ferndale was in a sense an industrial and professional extension of Detroit’s Avenue of Fashion, which had its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s. The Avenue of Fashion was the place where upscale fashion boutiques, sophisticated furniture- and interior-decorating studios and, most importantly, significant galleries thrived. Donald and Florence Morris made a huge impact on Detroit’s art scene with their Livernois gallery that showed the work of Milton Avery. Anna Werbe had an active presence there. Significantly, Hilberry’s choice of this location signals a return to a moment of Detroit’s cultural prosperity (without the actual return to Detroit). And it’s not by mere whim that Hilberry decided to make a recommitment to metro Detroit’s cultural landscape with a selection of works old and new by Richard Artschwager.
A New York artist whom she has represented for years, Artschwager offers a smart, and often humorous, piece-by-piece negotiation of the major “isms” of New York art in its heyday. In inaugurating the new gallery with his wide-ranging, imaginative and playful inventiveness, Hilberry is reasserting her own ongoing negotiation of the larger art scene that goes back to New York, the fountainhead of American modern art’s iconic and ironic consciousness. The latter is something that Detroit continues to need in order to put its own art production in perspective.
Artschwager traverses the sacred ground of minimalism with its stripped-down homage to modernist architectural aesthetics, as well as pop art’s serious whimsy. His signature is an inventive use of high-tech materials in his art, such as Formica or Celotex, that have gained campy or industrial associations from their lowbrow domestic use.
In War (pictured), Artschwager presents a simple arrangement of two stacked cubes or boxes, each laminated with photographs of the bare shoulders of a man and a woman. Both constructions are mounted on swivels that can be rotated independently, creating a primitive but impressive view of all sides of the figures. Randomly different parts of the heads meet and greet or repel one another in a flashing metaphor of monogamous engagement. The middle-aged faces of the couple exude vintage sexuality and a mature consciousness that are at once ferocious and painfully fragile. It’s a series that confronts representations of domesticity and the family with Artschwager’s own children figuring in prominently.
In another series, Artschwager uses acrylic and rubberized horsehair on Masonite to build dreamlike, archetypal images that seem to float ephemerally in our consciousness. Mounted high on the wall, Mermaid, an abstract cloudlike shape, slips between fantasy, illusion and inner projection. Like much of Artschwager’s work, the series explores the finite difference between what we think is there and what actually is, between psychic projection and reality.
Hilberry’s return to the cultural landscape is a shot in the arm for Detroit — and the iconic modernist space she has created for this move is unparalleled in the area. Its raw, unpainted plaster walls create deceptively simple planes and gallery vistas; the tile floor that was removed left a grid that echoes its modernist lines in the cement. And the seamless transition from the gallery interior to the exterior sculpture garden is punctuated by Joel Shapiro’s elegant dancing figures, all of which suggests a secular tabernacle of modernism, a place to celebrate Hilberry’s ongoing dialogue with art.
Richard Artschwager’s new work is at Susanne Hilberry Gallery (700 Livernois, Ferndale) through Nov. 2. Call 248-541-4700.E-mail Glen Mannisto at email@example.com