Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Steel the show


Metalworking has made us who we are today, moving humanity out of the Stone Age, setting Western civilization on a path toward the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and bringing us to where we are now — whether we like it or not.

It’s clear that the 16 artists in Detroit Artists Market’s exhibit Metalize respect the medium and admire the history of metalworking. Because of that, nostalgia and angst are replaced by reverence and reverie. Curated by Giorgio Gikas and DAM Chair Dan Graschuck, this exhibit showcases a sampling of the different methods for using metal, from the historical to the contemporary, and the possibilities of all that it can be.

Whether literal or metaphorical, in this show, metal is a tool for human development. The curators chose artists from around the city and across the country, abiding the gallery’s mission to support Detroit’s artistic community by showing quality artists who live outside Michigan. It’s one of the strongest exhibitions in the city right now, and definitely the best Detroit Artists Market has had in a long while.

Recently, Nick Sousanis, editor of, and Rebecca Mazzei, Metro Times arts editor, visited the gallery for a conversation.

Nick Sousanis: Charles McGee always insists it doesn’t matter what’s in a show — the artist’s age or style — as long as there is an overall insistence upon quality. I won’t speak for Charles, but this show has it.

Rebecca Mazzei: That’s definitely true. For such a diverse medium, you’d imagine it would be difficult to get a consistency across the board, but most people who work with metal appreciate the tradition of good craftsmanship.

Sousanis: Curator Gikas is a sculpture conservator. Who better than a man with an intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of metalworking — from materials to processes — to curate this show? There’s a tremendously diverse range of work. There’s also a statement about Detroit being a town that makes things out of metal.

Mazzei: Yes, but is this what you’d expect to see? Not at all. I’d expect car parts and rusted found objects.

Sousanis: You’re right. There’s little Detroit aesthetic here. But there’s a Giorgio Gikas aesthetic. He’s a huge motorcycle collector, and those by Ron Finch and the Detroit Brothers show his particular love for functional metalwork.

Let’s look first at Evan Larson’s work. Larson is an assistant professor of metalsmithing at Wayne State University, and I find it hard to believe that, outside of the university, people in Detroit don’t really know his work. This guy’s imagination and craftsmanship are boundless.

Mazzei: All three of his pieces seem philosophical, but they also refer to science through metaphors to biology or anatomy. This is great for a medium that seems so inhuman. There’s the fishtail motif in his pieces, and the wall piece with flower-like forms shooting out into the gallery space, pistils protruding, exaggerating the reproductive organ. Then there’s also the literal reference to physics — working with material in its simplest but most challenging form, as he does, using one sheet.

Craftsmanship is great in Nicole Jacquard’s work too, especially the aluminum “Leaf Vase,” or ornately decorated half-vase. She treats something as heavy and formidable as metal to make it look lightweight and fragile. But Jacquard’s art is interesting not just because it’s beautiful. From head-on, it looks like a completely round piece, but the vase is actually one-sided, like a three-dimensional sketch of a vase. It’s a riddle. The same thing goes for her other work, a sculptural landscape called “Magic Month.” The white trees are smooth and naked, with branches cleanly chopped where leaves might sprout. They look like hands reaching for the sky.

Sousanis: That links to the idea of the material as a representation of the human — strong and malleable yet brittle. Metal can be shaped into something pretty, or used as weaponry, like Scott Lankton’s Bronze Age dagger. Sometimes objects are just about being objects, and others are about understanding an idea bigger than their form.

Mazzei: The full-bodied geometric forms by blacksmith Tom Joyce, a MacArthur Fellow, are an example of that. His work seems to be more about formal artistic concerns. They change shape as you walk around them; they’re puzzles of perspective. These sculptures don’t seem to be about the medium. Couldn’t he just as easily make them out of stone? I like that not all the works in this show are about “being metal.”

Sousanis: I like that Joyce’s works are impossible to capture adequately in a photograph. Again, like some of the other works, it reminds me of the metaphor of metal as human — as they appear different from every angle. They possess hidden depths that are rough and raw within an exterior that’s smooth and impenetrable. But you’re right — you take his work in like you might take in an abstract color field. They are contemplative, about a mood or a feeling, and very little about the object itself.

Mazzei: Symbolism is really strong in this show. Take Lin Stanionis’ “Mystic Interchange.” In the center of this large disc of cold, hard and heavy metal, a colorful metal flower protrudes from what looks like a waxen birth canal. It’s a beautiful poetic expression that metal has a soul. Life is waiting within, ready to be exposed by the artist.

Sousanis: Ron Finch’s motorcycle is more playful, but also a representation of life. It looks like one of H.R. Giger’s creatures.

Mazzei: Yes, a skinless mechanical creature. Notice the eyeball painted near the seat, staring at the rider. I also like that Finch juxtaposes gothic flourishes with contemporary hot-rod details. It pays homage to the old and the new.

Sousanis: On the other hand, “Weldy’s Revenge” (a motorcycle by Detroit Brothers James and Dave Kwiatkowski) is a different sort of art form; it’s all about muscle and function.

Mazzei: Yes — and America. The bike is branded on the tires, the hubcaps and the seat. The piece is very Detroit; their orange logo looks like the old English script of the Tigers logo.

Sousanis: It also has this Detroit-style “loner on the road” spirit. Our cars are equated with freedom and fierce individualism; they take us where we want to go, when we want to go there. This definitely isn’t a two-seater.

The machine contrasts well with, for instance, the sculptural vessels by James Visti or Darlys Ewoldt. Even a motorcycle could be considered a vessel, but Visti’s vessels reference the agricultural age, which was facilitated by steel or iron plows. He’s going back in history to the practical reasons why people made iron in the first place — to use as weapons and tools.

Mazzei: On the other hand, Brad Nichols’ pieces, “The Rat Really Knows How to Smoke” and “Prehistoric Queen,” mock pop culture fads. They are outlandish narrative scenes that remind me of East Coast and West Coast trends. There’s the hip-hop street rat hanging out in the sewer pipes smoking a fat cigar or doobie and the haughty yet trampy flamingo floozie in her cheap high heels under the coconut trees.

From artistically expressive works to the highly functional, (like Rico Eastman’s surprisingly comfortable “Ascension Chair,” created from a single sheet of metal folded like an origami swan) there’s an overall theme in Metalize of transforming the medium into something people can relate to. Whether focusing on style, form or content, they express their fondness for the material, succeeding admirably because they know it so intimately. Metal is so difficult to work with, they have no choice but to know it intimately. What makes it meaningful for the rest of us is that they share their secrets.


Runs through Oct. 23, at Detroit Artists Market, 4719 Woodward Ave.; 313-832-8540.

Nick Sousanis is editor of Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to

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