From its beginning in a gallery's walk-in closet that founder Jef Bourgeau says he rented for $1 a year, the Museum of New Art in Pontiac has been less a place than a concept. It's fitting, then, that MONA would host a series of artist exchanges between Detroit and its neighboring metropolis. Changing Cities: Chicago, curated by Chicago gallerist Paul Klein, is the first installment of the exchange.
Although traces of Chicago's rich 20th century art history, particularly the lowbrow imagists of the 1960s, are evident, this exhibition won't conflate geography and style. The conceptual side of the artwork also calls into question the relationship between meaning and logic in art.
Only Sandra Perlow and Bernard Williams show a debt to the imagists. In Perlow's paintings, amorphous blobs and geometric shapes navigate a neon universe in psychedelic reds, yellows, oranges and blues like alien cartoons. The paintings have the immediate impact of pop art, but without the structured imagery of Warhol or Lichtenstein. Instead, they keep company with pop's grimy younger brothers imagists such as Jim Nutt, Carroll Dunham and even later artists like Martin Kippenberger. Here, the referent is gone, as is pop's capacity to distill culture into pure image, but the work is still an irreverent response to "high art." Perlow's jittery, juvenile abstraction is a story between shapes.
Williams' three paintings, all on thrift-store baby blankets, are close in style and sensibility to teenage urban graffiti. In the most elaborate painting, "Iron Nigga," an African-American face in profile (a recurring subject) is propped on an Indy car, orbited by images, such as a matador or a military symbol, and phrases like "Iron Nigga" and "Meat Market." Where Perlow implies narrative, Williams deters it. Any impact originates solely in the loaded imagery, which, in 2007, is no longer shocking. The paintings point vaguely toward race and class issues, but without direction, the gesture founders. What results is art that makes a lot of noise without saying much.
Todd Pavlisko's self-portrait photographs seem like analogues to Williams' paintings. Pavlisko, young, with a shaved head, piercings and a pale complexion, is shown from the shoulders up in a suit and tie. Like Williams, Pavlisko represents himself through conflicting symbols that parse the subject into a politicized text. The banality of the images Pavlisko's polite gaze, the subtlety of the photographs defuses the statement, and recalls photographer Francesca Woodman's claim that she photographed herself because she was available.
Peter Stanfield's wall sculptures are more arcane than the surrounding works. His gleaming steel and glass constructions resemble strange medical tools from a doctor's secret stash, but without any clues as to what they would be used for. The interest lies in the typed narrative elements inset in each sculpture. The friction between the sterile physical objects some with red and blue vitrines or lights and the narratives infuses the objects with an identity that doesn't belong and casts a shadow of suffocated life. The effect is subtle and easily overwhelmed by Stanfield's technical prowess, but the artwork is disquieting, and this impression resides with the viewer for a while.
Diana Guerrero-Maciá's fabric panels play with the structure of language with open-ended words and phrases, such as "Sitting in limbo," "Words are not signs, they are years" and "Rough groove," that are cut from fabric and sewn into clever, colorful designs for the 20-something crowd. Likewise, Dan Ramirez's faux-modernist paintings trick the eye into believing sandpaper is paint and acrylic is collaged materials. In both cases, the works are casual they don't linger in the mind but captivate while they can.
The same effect is heightened in Cody Hudson's "Choking on a Rainbow," a wall installation of 13 paintings and panels and two skateboard decks. The pieces, painted in brown, orange and turquoise and arranged symmetrically on a gallery wall, are a DIY shrine. The work, however, displays a logic only known to Hudson.
If Changing Cities: Chicago has any unifying theme, it may be this rupture of meaning and logic, the Mad Libs approach to cultural production. The principle that art must have meaning still exists in the work at MONA, but meaning is no longer one with logic. Perhaps the most elegant expression of this comes from Michael Pajon's hand-colored etchings done in the style of 18th and 19th century portraits. The small, antiqued portraits immortalize seafarers, businessmen, circus performers and families, all gentrified, all with animal heads. As we remember; as it should be.
Changing Cities: Chicago runs through June 9 at the Museum of New Art, 7 N. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-210-7560.
Natalie Haddad is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org