“God is in the details,” architect-legend Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (designer of the residential complex at Lafayette Park in Detroit) used to say. Janet Hamrick may not have found God but she did find inspiration several years ago in the Beaux Arts details adorning the cast-iron and limestone buildings of lower Manhattan. Incorporating motifs of leaves and other foliage into her work marked her blooming as a mature artist, and she has used them ever since.
Hamrick’s latest show deserves the Mies seal of approval. Using the sparest of means, she has created some of her most sophisticated work yet. Two or three colors, a few pencil lines and a limited repertoire of leaf-like forms produce a wide range of compositional effects. The new work has its beginning in the artist’s observations of the delicate play of shadow and light on leaves on the ground. Naturalistic impression gives way to pure art, though, as each painting engages a highly focused visual field.
A good example is Wandering Gray Day Shade. The steel-wool gray dappled across the wood-panel surface can be read as a fleeting moment of shadow. Patterns of greenish gray oil pigment draw the eye across the picture plane, twisting positive and negative space with lines that contain color or exclude it, letting the background show through. It takes a second look to realize that the greenish gray is actually two closely related colors. In some places the colors are separated by the contours of the leaf motif, in others they are brushed over to virtually eliminate the meeting point, making tonal variation solely a matter of optical sensation. Perception is thus absorbed from the world outside the painting into the one inside it.
Among the reasons for seeing this show is that it features some of Hamrick’s recent watercolors. Untitled May 2 is composed of washes of translucent blue and subtle solid gray patterns. The work particularly demonstrates the artist’s command of an unforgiving medium. And it’s every bit as good as the Hamrick now hanging in the show of recent acquisitions in the Graphic Arts Gallery at the DIA.
In the 1970s, a generation of feminists (including Miriam Shapiro, Joyce Kozloff and Valerie Jaudon) took up pattern, decoration and other so-called craft techniques to challenge the authority of the Western patriarchal artistic canon. Hamrick takes that tradition in new directions. She transcends the “dark side” of America’s current white-boy power with a response that is sweetness and light.
Janet Hamrick: New Paintings is at Lemberg Gallery, 23241 Woodward Ave. in Ferndale until Apr. 17.
Several senses at once are brought into play with the installation, “Alpha Omega Alpha,” by a group of artists who call themselves Dialoguistas (CCS grads Graciela Bustos and Fendando Calderon plus Bertha Cohen).
“Alpha Omega Alpha,” uses the entire space of CCS Center Galleries’ main room, which has been darkened for the duration of the exhibit.
The visual centerpiece is a large field of ashes (about 20 feet by 17 feet) on the floor in the middle of the room, with four rows of knee-high stacks of coiled burnt newsprint set on top. The field is dramatically lit from above. Hidden in the surrounding darkness, audio speakers play a sound track of voices chattering in an unintelligible language. The smell of charred paper permeates the atmosphere.
“Alpha Omega Alpha” is compelling in the ways it defies predominant forms of economic and symbolic exchange. The installation is a unique site-specific event: the materials from which it is made are so unstable that to move it even slightly would destroy it. It could be reconstructed in another place and time, but it can’t be shipped off to another location like some product. Its physical condition resists commodification.
What’s more, the language heard over the speaker system was invented by the artists as a kind of anti-Esperanto, not subject to the manipulations of media disinformation. This refusal to engage in “spin” was made clear on the show’s opening night when the artists, dressed in black from head to toe and with mouths taped shut, sat motionless on a bench in front of the installation for the entire reception.
One of the installation’s important details is that the burnt-coil stacks are made from hundreds of copies of The New York Times. According to the artists, the nation’s journal of record just happened to burn in such a way as to achieve the effect they desired. Still, it’s somehow fitting that the paper that led the way in helping the Bush Administration make its now-debunked case for the existence of weapons of mass destruction (through the reporting of Judith Miller, who didn’t check the facts fed to her by the her source, Ahmed Chalabi) would itself be used toward ends not originally intended. In “Alpha Omega Alpha,” all the news that’s supposedly fit to print is put to arguably more enduring use — reduced to carbon to be returned to the earth and nourish growth anew.
Alpha Omega Alpha, an installation by Dialoguistas (Graciela Bustos, Fendando Calderon and Bertha Cohen), runs until May 1 at Center Galleries, 301 Frederick Douglass on the CCS campus in Detroit’s Cultural Center.Vince Carducci has written about art and culture for Art in America, PopMatters.com and many other publications. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org