Last month the work of 13 local artists came together in Femmes Detroit, an exhibition of varied media at Ceres Gallery in New York’s Chelsea District. Detroit-based artist Rose E. DeSloover hung her solo show, Kryptonite, in the adjoining space. An overwhelming number of former Motown artists, currently living in New York, hoofed it to the opening receptions to show the love. One week and one block away, local art dealer and gallery owner George N’Namdi debuted his first New York gallery. With these events comes the question: Does Detroit have an increasing presence on the New York art scene?
Although it may seem as such with our growing awareness of recent shows from the D in NYC, we would be myopic to think so. Artists such as Detroit veteran Charles McGee can recount an artistic exchange throughout the years that reflects a consistent dialogue. For a long time now relationships have been established between our community and the East Coast art center.
N’Namdi has been planning to open a Manhattan gallery for a long time. He opened his first gallery in Harmonie Park in the 1980s, before moving to Birmingham and then, more recently, back to Detroit with a gallery on East Forest. He shows a majority of New York-based artists, and hopes to better reach his clientele by having a location at 526 W. 26th St., Suite 316, as well as through his galleries in Detroit and Chicago.
“I want the gallery to become a major player in the art world. And I think you need a New York connection to really do that,” says N’Namdi. “You can’t do it from Chicago, you can’t do it from San Francisco, you have to be in New York. Fortunately, we’re able to do it.”
N’Namdi says he hopes to do more catalogs and national advertising for his shows. Many of N’Namdi’s artists are abstract painters, such as Ed Clark and Al Loving, reaching their 60s and 70s, who are getting hot in a retrospective kind of way, and N’Namdi wants to be in the center of the buzz.
“There’s a movement taking place, people want to go back to the abstract painting,” says N’Namdi. “We’ve been doing that all along, but if you’re not in New York, you’ll be missed; abstraction — we want to be a leader in that.”
DeSloover, who lives in Detroit, has been a member of the cooperative Ceres Gallery for several years. When the opportunity came along to curate an exhibition in the gallery’s new space (it recently moved to Chelsea from Soho), she drafted Sue Carman Vian to help assemble a show representative of female Detroit artists. I was invited to exhibit and hang the show; I did so with curiosity and pleasure. It was the first time the Ceres hosted a guest exhibit of solely out-of-state artists in the gallery’s long history, and the organizers hope to take the show on the road.
Naturally, as I hung the exhibit, I began to question Detroit’s identity in the context of New York. In Detroit, people say they are from the city even if they have never lived in Detroit proper. Many metro Detroiters want to be identified with D-town without the inconveniences of actually living there. Over time this has become an expected and accepted phenomenon that reinforces Detroit’s reputation as an unsuitable place to live.
The fading, dramatized “murder-capital-racial-warfare” reputation, however, also lends an air of mystery to its residents. Toughened Detroiters have a similar “take no shit” attitude to that of the New Yorker, which differs from the surrounding Midwest. It is this perception that makes the inner-city artist intriguing.
Thankfully, there are many artists still living in (and moving back to) the city despite the many (rapidly vanishing) disadvantages.
New York, on the other hand, is a city of lots of people from everywhere. Immigrants have made the Big Apple the art center that it is. In turn the city makes them who they are.
Multimedia artist Matthew Barney did not make a name for himself by remaining in his hometown of Boise, Idaho (though he did return there to film the first installment of his highly acclaimed Cremaster Cycle, which debuted in full at the Guggenheim last year). Nor did former-Detroiter-turned-arts-superstar Mike Kelley, who long ago moved to California.
Artist Nia Mora graduated from Cass Tech in 2002 and immediately moved to Brooklyn. She says she went to New York to “expand [her] horizons and get a broader perspective,” but perceives her move as a means for bringing that perspective back to Detroit.
Isaac Moreno is another Detroit-gone-Brooklyn artist with drive and vision. He invited Mora to participate in a recent exhibit at 4731 Gallery titled The Art of War. Purporting to be “a showcase of Detroit and New York artists that have collaborated to create a universal voice and new vision for all people,” this effort represents the attitude and commitment needed to create a substantial Detroit role in the art world. Detroit can have an impact in New York only after it has an impact back home.
“I think Detroit’s a good place to be from as a dealer and an artist,” says N’Namdi, because it “offers you a certain energy that assists you out in the world. In New York City you can’t be a community artist and receive recognition the way you can here.”
Moreno sees the pluses and minuses, saying, “in New York you can reinvent yourself” but “Detroit will categorize you in a minute.”
Responsibility for Detroit’s identity — or lack thereof — in the art world rests here. Generally, artists from places unknown for the arts are not taken as seriously regardless of the strength of their work. Once a city takes art seriously, the rest of the world can begin to. The Mattress Factory and the Andy Warhol Museum are enough to seduce a visit to Pittsburgh. Even Kansas City is getting its cultural shtick together. Detroit needs to create its own hype and give outsiders a reason to travel here for our visual arts. If more career artists aren’t financially and publicly supported at home then Detroit and Detroiters will remain unknown for art.
Michigan’s Cool Cities Initiative can move us in the right direction; hopefully the initiative’s enthusiasm for the arts will continue to spread locally as a stabilizing and encouraging force. Though on the surface Detroit has not made a lasting and significant impact in NYC’s arts scene, it is making good time on the home front.Phaedra Robinson is an artist and curator. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org