Metro Detroit is spreading like the blob that ate southeast Michigan. Our beloved megalopolis keeps gobbling up more towns — Pontiac, Rochester, Ann Arbor and beyond. And as the sprawl grows, the “Detroit” art scene gets bigger, more diverse and more exciting. This month, an exhibition (actually four exhibitions) called “Detroit Now” gives us a fresh look — not from a trafficopter in the sky, but from ground level — at the work of a younger generation of artists that is redefining the scene.
Taking advantage of the recent gallery explosion and all kinds of living spaces abandoned by middle-class flight, these twentysomething artists are glad to be where they are, not anywhere else. They hail from Detroit and other U.S. cities as well as from Germany, Iran, Korea, Lebanon, Lithuania and Mexico. They’re transforming an art scene that was once dominated by Cass Corridor energies, black-white tensions and career fantasies of making the jump to Manhattan, and they’re creating a whole new aesthetic landscape and vision of who we are. Nobody’s thinking about leaving anytime soon.
The idea for “Detroit Now,” the most exciting local group show to come along in years, was suggested by John Cynar, exhibition director of Paint Creek Center for the Arts in Rochester. From his vantage point at the artistic north pole of Oakland County, he longed for a closer connection with a scene that had always been thought of as “downtown.” And with the fine arts departments of the College for Creative Studies, Cranbrook Academy of Art and Wayne State University turning out so much new talent, he didn’t find it hard to convince Phaedra Robinson of detroit contemporary, Aaron Timlin of Detroit Artists Market and Dick Goody of Meadow Brook Art Gallery to collaborate on a mammoth show that could fill any contemporary museum.
By devoting each of the four venues to the work of four artists (for a total of 16 in all), this anthology of Detroit art 2003 does what more misguidedly ambitious surveys always fail to do: give ample room for each artist’s installation to breathe while providing viewers with a healthy sample of each creator’s output. How many overpopulated thematic shows, squeezed into the confines of even the largest galleries, could have found room for Nolan Simon’s 8-foot-by-24-foot painting, As Innocent a Swindle as They Come? This disarming minimalist work, done on interlocking fiberboard panels with latex-gloss house paint, needs plenty of wall and floor space around it for us to really get a mind-whack from its daring naiveté. But Simon finds himself in a large, well-lighted place with just three other gallerymates at Detroit Artists Market: Hartmut Austen, whose paintings bracingly engage our public life; Mark Dancey, whose images make surrealism a 21st century word; and Melanie Manos, an irrepressibly claustrophobic performance artist. In fact, DAM has rarely looked so good.
For anyone beginning the “Detroit Now” odyssey in the Cultural Center, the next stop would be detroit contemporary, where the show’s unashamedly wildest segment is on view. The dominant tone at dc is otherworldliness, with concept sculptor Christian Tedeschi and multimedia artist Laith Karmo invading both floors with disturbing organic forms. Tedeschi’s Arms Race combines multiple castings of his left arm into a tunnel of angst. And Karmo uses ceramic, rubber and wood in his funny but great, Hans Arp-like abstraction, SPS. Also in the maniacal mix are sculptor Fabio J. Fernandez (who says, “I like the personification of objects,” and is obsessed with coffins and tripods) and painter Senghor Reid, whose intense canvases interlace colors like musical tracks.
But there’s relatively little abstraction in “Detroit Now,” with most of its artists tending toward one kind of realism or another. In fact, after a long drive up I-75, we discover that each of the four artists showing at Meadowbrook Art Gallery takes a decidedly referential approach. Eric Meier’s prints depict a mysterious world of virtual information, but it’s his Joseph Beuys-like drawing, Channeling Demon I, produced while the artist was having sex (that’s what he says), that frees him from all realistic responsibilities. Denise Whitebread Fanning’s gorgeous installation, The Great Weight State, combines a living lawn, video projection and a lead-weighted rain. And both Shiva Ahmadi and Renata Palubinskas use images of women (old, young or undeterminable) to dig deep into the core of our collective pain.
As a last stop, Rochester’s Paint Creek Center for the Arts seems light-years, not just miles, from DAM. Located on a parallel side street west of Main St. (aka Rochester Road), it’s graced by trees and relative quiet. But inside, on the second floor, our journey through Detroit’s present comes to a surreal but intimate conclusion. Kai Kim’s Altered Altar (enamel and oil on copper plates) is a still-life triptych filled with grim ecological predictions. James Stoia’s sculpture, Evolution of Axion, gives eerie life to a technological object. While Riva Sayegh’s nine oval-framed portraits of scissors (from surgical to household varieties) and Marco Garcia’s primal, mixed-media paintings and sculptures on the theme of birth confront none other than life and death issues.
Each of the sub-shows in “Detroit Now” has been selected by its host director, and manages to reflect, in an uncanny way, a gallery personality familiar to many of us. But what’s not familiar here is the wealth of energy, the out of-the-ordinary excitement and kick-ass visions of these young artists. And there’s also the urban-suburban link, with a suggestion of a newly emerging regional sense that could lead the way for politicians and bureaucrats to start thinking in more than sectarian terms.
Anyone who cares enough to drive from downtown to Oakland University to Rochester (or the other way around) will be infinitely rewarded.George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org