On a slushy January evening, dirty snow weighs down the empty shell of Detroit’s Eastern Market. Vanished are the wistful-yet-rotten wafts of fruit-gone-bad and the barking of bartering farmers.
Beyond an unassuming gray warehouse door, a different kind of life pulses.
Inside the new Severance gallery, several people work, eat, create and live — at all hours. On the night in question, the space is hosting a solo exhibition of local artist Scott Hullinger’s paintings, called Slide Show. Each of Hullinger’s canvases resembles some kind of slide under a microscope, displaying the most fundamental elements of life, with cells or invasive organisms squirming through arteries or reproducing themselves.
Hullinger plops the specimens — squares of thick, scarred acrylic or beeswax — onto flat surfaces of plywood or particle board, often wrapped in the stocks section of a newspaper. The paintings have titles such as “Breakout,” “Cells II” and “Colony.” The colors range from bright, popping hues to black and white to the musty brown of “Mother and Child,” which features a rough, almost wooden-looking “mother” cradling a baby “paramecium” in her arms. The two figures are tucked into the piece as if they’re peeking out from a knot in a tree. “Hatch” is two green single-celled creatures choking out smaller versions of themselves.
Hullinger calls his pieces “biological landscapes.”
“I have set microscopic images against a landscape of social and industrial themes,” he writes in the show’s artist’s statement. “Stock quotes symbolize a humanized parasitic relationship, while real parasites crawl across their surface. Industrial-like tubes slither and coil, acting as conduits for these organisms to access our human world.”
“Slide Show” is the third exhibition at Severance, which has been in existence for a little more than a year. It’s run by Josefine, who goes by that single name, the gallery’s director, and Matthew Martin, its founder.
The gallery got started unofficially in November 2002. Martin was living in the space and decided to host an exhibition of his work, a combination of photography, digital manipulation and drawing. About 50 people showed up. He didn’t sell anything, but the show fueled his longtime desire to run a gallery.
Getting the space ready was a job in itself. Martin spent a month throwing out trash — which filled the second floor — from a window into a dumpster, he said.
“It was kind of abandoned,” he said. “It was owned, but nobody was using it. Friends of mine started renting it and cleaning it out. They were artists — a painter, sculptor and a photographer.”
“Pretty soon, it was just me,” Martin said. “So I decided, ‘I’m going to create a space to exhibit work. … I had no idea what I was doing. I just opened up the doors. I threw up some artwork and said, ‘I’m having a gallery. I don’t care what happens.’”
He met Josefine a month later at Small’s, a bar in Hamtramck. He was looking for models to shoot.
“In January, I came to model for him, and the budding romance started,” she says with a smile. “We started talking. I loved the space. He told me about his idea with the gallery and we kind of ran with it.”
Severance isn’t about showing only pop art or outsider art or any other one style, they say.
“Once we become established, I want to experiment with the age-old question of, ‘What is art?’” Martin says. “I would love to have a furniture exhibit. That’s one of my first tasks, to show furniture, to show furniture that works, to show furniture that doesn’t — furniture that’s just purely aesthetic.”
Prices will remain reasonable. “We realize that a lot of people can’t afford art,” Martin says. At Severance’s first show, they sold posters for $20. During the opening of Slide Show, the artist sold signed and numbered prints for $5 apiece.
“It’s a nice way for people to be able to purchase a piece of art from the opening without having to take out a credit card or checkbook,” Josefine says. “They can just reach in their pocket and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got five bucks.’”
The most expensive work Severance has shown was a sculpture priced at $1,700.
Aside from the common gallery space, Severance houses four bedroom/living areas, a half-pipe for skateboarding, a photography dark room that was transformed into a kitchen, a recording/practice space/laundry room (currently occupied by the band Lisboa) and a nonfunctioning elevator. Josefine handles business and public relations responsibilities.
Severance’s first public opening was a collective show in June 2003, featuring sculptors James Pavlov and Jayson Lowery (who created a sculpture affixed to cement outside the gallery), the celebrated local painter SLAW, photographer Scott Breithaupt and Martin.
In November, the gallery exhibited Larry Zelensky’s photographic images of abandoned houses in Detroit, in a show called Digital Ghetto.
“Our plan is to do (an event) every other month,” Josefine continued. “But the shows will span two months.”
Josefine and Martin want to diversify, with a couple of fashion shows in the works, as well as an exhibit of never-before-seen photographs of the Beatles, a show of Downriver artists and video art and workshops. The gallery will concentrate on new and not-well-known artists, “People that don’t normally have a place to show their artwork to their friends and family and the public at large,” says Josephine.
“We’re still fresh,” she says. “We have all of these fabulous ideas. But I don’t want to get too big too fast. I don’t want to have huge artists come in that have a following of 1,500 people and not be able to accommodate them.”
Martin lived for a while in Chicago and Baltimore, and says, “When I came back to Detroit, I realized how open [it is] and how many ideas that you can go ahead and try. There’s no way I can do this anywhere else. Detroit’s always had great artists. There was that exhibit in Manhattan recently of all Detroit work, so it’s like, yes, let’s do this in Detroit. If you can make it in Detroit, you can make it anywhere, so screw New York,” he jokes. “I mean, I have no opposition to show work from anywhere in the world or to sell this work to anyone in the world, but Detroit ... I love it. It’s a perverted sickness, this love of Detroit.”
Josefine says she wants to help put Detroit back on the map.
“My goal is to take over Detroit, unfortunately for everybody that lives in Detroit,” she laughs. “But I have a great love for the city of Detroit. And I don’t think there is enough going on that speaks to the culture of the city.”
Martin is quick to add, “And there’s tons of it. There’s always been tons of it.”
Josefine continues, “Exactly. So anything that we can do to add to that culture or help that culture along, help the community along, I think is the best thing in the world. Anything I can do to help the city, I try to do as much as I can.”
But her favorite part is the art.
“I love going downstairs and seeing it on the walls. It’s selfish, but I get to look at all this wonderful art for a month. What more could you want?
As I take one last walk around the paintings, Josefine asks if I’d mind if she starts making dinner. And I wonder, really, what more could you want?
Severance is open on Friday, Feb. 13, from 7 p.m. to midnight, and on Saturday, Feb. 14, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The gallery is holding a closing event for Slide Show on Sunday, Feb. 15 from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. It is also open by appointment. Call 313-832-3744 or visit severance.ath.cx.Melissa Giannini is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org