Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Subtext: Beauty


A gallery can seem like a fixed, static space. Works are chosen and placed under light, waiting in stillness and silence for the crowds. On opening night, art critics filter in with the public and churn out 500 words or so explaining why people should or shouldn't like whatever hangs on the wall, sits on a pedestal or stands on the floor. Names and titles appear on placards, sometimes alongside "statements" telling viewers what the artist intended. Sometimes insight is spoon-fed by way of extensive essays. But it doesn't have to be that way. A gallery can be more engaging.

To Nick Sousanis' mind, art-world players in Detroit and Ann Arbor usually exist on "islands." They "just don't go across the street to each other." Sousanis is the director of Work: Detroit, the University of Michigan's new off-site gallery on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, which he and the School of Art and Design faculty created. It's a space for disparate communities to come together physically and philosophically, an interactive space that presents big but simple ideas and encourages dialogue with artists.

Sousanis (who, with his brother John, founded the meticulous culture Web site in 2002) is moving to New York City to teach at Columbia University. While it's the last curatorial effort at Work: Detroit under his leadership, Pathways: Consistency and Change is a characteristically thoughtful Sousanis conception, and the venue's third strong exhibit to date.

The show features a variety of art by grad students at Cranbrook Academy, Wayne State, University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. It also includes taped video interviews with the artists, providing the audience with informal takes on how they came to their career and where that road has led them.

Pathway: Consistency and Change isn't just about how and why we make art; it makes a strong case for art as a legitimate method of communication. In the interviews, some artists aren't so eloquent and not terribly animated, but what we see and hear are honest accounts of personal growth that make for fascinating accompaniments to the displayed art. It connects the audience to the artists on a human level.

Charles Fairbanks is a U-M student who grew up in Nebraska. His work mixes a passion for wrestling with photography and video. His piece is a video recording of a one-on-one grappling session, from the perspective of the artist, who has a camera mounted to his head. The result is a disoriented, almost sensual experience with an unknown combatant.

In his interview, Fairbanks describes his move from wrestling to art: "As I was losing this thing that was really important to my person and how I interacted with the world sensually, which was wrestling, picking up photography at that moment was really important to me."

Fairbanks calling the sport "sensual" is not ironic or erotic. It's beautiful. It gives insight into how to see his art. He talks about his art with patience, not pretension; hence, his work has more impact, and it's more meaningful and direct.

Sadie Wilcox's art is an interpretation of her long, painful recovery from a horrible burn accident. She exhibits a video piece in which she walks across an empty space — on her hands. And the camera is turned sideways. The body in space is abstracted, and the physiology of movement becomes a medium itself.

In her interview, she alludes to her violent injury. She presents examples of her past art work, watercolor X-rays and silhouettes of a woman in a wheelchair, which convey well how such a trauma affects us both physically and emotionally, and sticks with us through time. Her current work continues on that path by dealing with our perception of the human body in space.

Wilcox's work is perhaps the most tangible "pathway." It's a story many relate to — physical injury is as tangible a background story as they come. Wilcox does not slip into overbearing platitudes about her work. She even smiles as she discusses her rocky path from physical therapy to U-M's School of Art and Design.

Katie Caron's installation "Animation #7" is a stop-motion video projected from the gallery ceiling onto a clay crater-like basin filled with water. The image, shimmering in the water, is reflected again toward the ceiling, creating point-counterpoint images.

Working as a ceramic artist for seven years, Caron gravitated toward art as a practice after her father's death in 1998. She spent a significant amount of time in the wilderness of Colorado; her earliest ceramics are gorgeous abstractions of the natural world, with a palpable tension between organic and man-made.

But Caron, on tape, says she "felt empty in the studio." "Animation #7" is the result of the artist moving away from the studio and into site-specific installations. Instead of a static piece, Caron's video focuses on entropy and decay.

"My animations have to do with life and movement, and my curiosity about why things are alive," Caron wrote on the exhibit's blog, "so it's still an investigation, and I'm excited to see what comes next. I'm learning that my work is to be a reflection of who I am, and I think it's starting to become that."

These are but three examples of a satisfyingly complete exhibit featuring 12 other artists. The videos and installations are wildly varied and ripe for browsing. Some are more interesting than others, to be sure, but between them and the interviews you're bound to come across something — an anecdote, a childhood drawing, a joke — that humanizes the art. That's what Sousanis did at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Woodward Avenue. The artists, their work, their choices, are up for scrutiny. The beauty is the creativity that lies beneath.

Pathways: Consistency and Change runs through March 22 at Work: Detroit Gallery, 3663 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-593-0527.

Andrew S. Klein is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to

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