In the name of reconciliation, art takes up popular images and follows age-old rivers to their source this month at three Woodward corridor venues. Like a crash course in multicultural sensitivity, these large, poetically saturated shows engage us in what often feels like surrealist shock therapy — or a tag-team match in an arena floodlit by abstract expressionism.
Painting is the overwhelming focus of Tom Block’s “Cousins” at Swords into Plowshares Gallery, where he brings together three bodies of work, each one inspired by a different religious tradition: the Sufi masters of Islam, the Hasids of Judaism and the 13th-century Christian mysticism of Meister Eckhart.
In his Secret Garden, Block has filled the gallery’s second floor with scores of small, beige-framed, abstract drawings and quotations from Sufi writings. It’s impossible to take in any one of the teeming walls in a single glance, so the clusters of metaphoric images give the impression that the whole of creation is somehow represented. But as the eye zooms in on a text, its tiny words stand out:
Happy are those who
find fault with
themselves instead of
finding fault with others.
Downstairs, Block interweaves two vividly colored, abstract painting styles, one (the Christian series) that vaguely recalls Arshile Gorky’s organic work, and the other (the Hasidic sequence) that brings to mind Frank Stella in a delirious mood. The Hindrance of Time and Space (pictured, from the Meister Eckhart series) is painted on wood slats like an old fence or boarded-up entrance that the colors and forms somehow lead us beyond.
Block is a political artist who’s convinced that interaction and exchange allow us to recognize our common humanity — and to appreciate the shared interface of three religions that are actually “cousins,” each being a form of monotheism with roots in the Middle East.
As another quotation from Secret Garden says,
Even though you tie a
hundred knots — the
string remains one.
At CPOP Gallery, in “Milagros,” a contrast gets set up between cultures and historical periods within the evolution of Christianity itself. On the ground floor, the show starts with a shock — walls that usually feature pop eroticism are filled with icons and other Old World religious images from Lithuania. Though there’s a disturbing lack of scholarship here, with almost no information provided about artist, region, dates or provenance, the images unavoidably take on a CPOP aura. In one Russian portrait of the “Blessed Mother,” the Virgin has two left hands, as if the artist were making playful use of 20th century collage.
But the icons only set us up for the revelation on the second floor, the paintings and prints of Daniel Martin Diaz from Tucson, Ariz. This 35-year-old artist depicts the suffering associated with Catholic beatitude in works, such as Anima Christus (pictured), that make full-blown use of Mexican folk surrealism. In his Glorius Mysteries, the words “Dementia Dolor” announce the infinite pain of the human condition. Diaz, though working in a tradition rich with iconic conventions, manages to convey the palpable sense of dread that we get when reading ancient books on exorcism and the Inquisition.
Sharing the second floor with Diaz’s visions is an ofrenda, or altar, dedicated to the victims of breast cancer. The result of a collaboration between artists Vito Valdez and Mary Herbeck, this large installation is both calming and chilling, if such a thing is possible. Gifts, food items, drinks, personal possessions, X-ray negatives and dire letters from the Karmanos Cancer Institute announcing test results are assembled with a disarmingly innocent nonchalance.
Over at Wayne State University’s Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, a six-woman show, “Making Meaning: Metalsmithing, Objects and Contingencies in the Next Millennium,” addresses a range of body-mind issues. Among the many striking works on view are metal constructions by Kim Cridler that sketch out large vases, bowls or other containers in gridlike silhouettes that retain a lovely formality while suggesting dissipation, a loss of some kind. Are they “funereal” or “festive,” “ethereal” or “elegantly weighted”? The choices keep alternating back and forth, going in and out of mind.
Beverly Penn’s series of Mexican retablas (altarpieces), The Border: Pas de Deux (pictured) has an uncanny connection with the Block and Diaz shows. Tiny ballerinas under glass domes twirl to the melodies of “Home on the Range” and “Chiquita Banana” as they guide us through a face-off between gringo and Chicano cultures. The retablas also include contrasting recipes for mass-produced “Mole Sauce (Authentic Style)” and real, homemade sauce that takes three days to prepare (that Penn actually participated in making).
The show, curated by WSU’s new metals professor Evan Larson, also includes ecologically disorienting works by Susanna Speirs and Heather White, the faintly David Cronenberg-esque night frights of Lin Stanionis and Myra Mimlitsch’s primal serving trays.
After an afternoon of looking, what have we understood? That we’re all related? That suffering is our condition? That difference and flux are life?
Among 40 sites on the City of Detroit Cultural Affairs Department’s Winter Gallery Crawl (Saturday, Dec. 7, noon-7:30 p.m.), check out:
“Cousins,” paintings and installation by Tom Block, at Swords into Plowshares Peace Center and Gallery (33 E. Adams, on Grand Circus Park, Detroit) through Jan. 25. Hours are 11 a.m-3 p.m., Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Call 313-963-7575.
“Milagros: Miracles in Religion, Treasures from Lithuania and the works of Daniel Martin Diaz” at CPOP Gallery (4160 Woodward Ave., Detroit) through Dec. 29. Call 313-833-9901.
“Making Meaning: Metalsmithing, Objects and Contingencies in the Next Millennium” at Elaine L. Jacob Gallery (480 W. Hancock, Detroit) through Jan. 24. Call 313-993-7813.George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org