Detroit Three #1 - January 2016 by Taylor Renee
Since moving back to my hometown Detroit, I have been wanting to document the changes and consistencies happening in the Detroit art community on a regular occurrence. Shortly after my move, I co-founded ARTS.BLACK, and quite parallel to that, I learned that the art community in Detroit is as vast as its corresponding geography. I was intimidated by this notion of being somewhat one of the only contemporary critical Black voices in this city. My research is sincere and I write with care and caution, no matter how inflammatory my thoughts may come across in publishing. Nonetheless, I am starting the year off with a new project, an accountability effort of sorts, whereby I critique Detroit exhibitions on a monthly basis. Detroit Three, (a play off of The Big Three), will cull together reviews of three Detroit shows monthly, aiming to provide some context on what’s happening in the city's art community from a Black critical perspective. Here is the first iteration of the series.
Cosmologies at College for Creative Studies Center Galleries
Cosmologies, the most recent iteration of works at the College for Creative Studies’ (CCS), Center Galleries features seasoned artists Kim Harty, Assunta Sera and Robert Sestock. Harty’s only piece in the show, is a subtle greeting upon the entrance of the modest geometric exhibiting space. Spill (2016), is an installation that includes clear hardened glass and baking soda mixtures plastered along the far right wall of the gallery. The clear, small masses extend along the wall and the adjacent floor surface creating a linear gesture, that begins at eye level, dips to the floor, then escalates reaching the top of the wall. Keeping consistent with the exhibition theme of cosmologies, this linear collection of hot cast glass and baking soda is a luring introductory piece, guiding the viewer along the entrance like the Milky Way, as the artists refers to it.
The end of Harty’s angelic liquidated fragments are met by fixed geometric shaped canvases by Assunta Sera. While the canvas shapes are quite unconventional, the paintings depict representations of rudimentary cosmic-like imagery. The plane on which the ‘abstracted landscapes’ lie is more abstracted and interesting than the paintings themselves. In Leaving the Galaxy (2015) (one of six works by the artist in the show), Sera positions three fragmented painted canvases into a puzzle like presentation. This provides a notion of matter moving throughout space; the canvases seem suspended in air -- representing an absence of gravity.
The most thrilling pieces in the show are by Cass Corridor sculptor Robert Sestok. Sestok is known for his large aluminum structures with natural deep rustic red hues that are widely recognized throughout the city of Detroit and the metropolitan area. Yet, in Cosmologies, he presents four shiny vertical life-size structures throughout the CCS gallery, that appear to be light in weight despite their massive size. The four sculptures in Golden Standard (2015), range in height from about 4-feet to 7-feet. The aluminum material, caste in a anodized finish, has been manipulated and crunched up, resembling light pieces of paper, and stacked neatly on top of one another like food on a iron kabob. The golden structures are mounted on a square rustic colored aluminum plate. Complementary in nature, this show presents a range of common galactic ephemera with unconventional material collection.
Cosmologies is on view at College for Creative Studies, Center Galleries until February 27, 2016.
Carlos Rolon/Dzine, Commonwealth at Oakland University Art Gallery
Commonwealth by Chicago based artist Carlos Rolon/Dzine features several installations by the artist in three relatively large galleries on the remote University campus. Commonwealth is purely autobiographical, including objects and materials inspired by the artists’ Latino-American cultural heritage and upbringing in inner-city Chicago. The exhibition provides common signifiers of urban ecosystems that may be quite nostalgic for many people of color living in urban American cities. For instance, Nomadic Habitat (Hustleman) (2016), features a wooden vendor cart that would most likely be found on a busy urban-American street corner. The mobile cart has a variety of items intended for sale; a t-shirt that reads “Team Cookie,” (an ode to the popular character from the hit television show Empire); a vintage prince vinyl LP; and bootleg Gucci belts and Michael Kors purses. The cart represents a particular subculture, an ecology of commerce that permeates many urban communities of color.
What’s a bit un-common in Commonwealth is the choice of wall color and wallpaper design throughout the galleries. In one of the three galleries the walls are lined with a baroque like pattern featuring gold symmetrical symbols on a turquoise wall. The pairing of this wallpaper with installation work is distracting. We also see this distraction paired with (Hustleman) and in the anchor installation of the show, Barbershop (2016).
Barbershop is a site specific installation inspired by Jack Delano’s Barbershop in Bayamon, 1941. However, rather than reducing the homage to solely photography, the artist recreates an actual barbershop, and reimagines the shop as an art studio or therapist office where barbers are often seen as artists/sculptors, while simultaneously providing a safe space for clients to express themselves. During the opening night of Commonwealth, Rolon/Dzine invited two Chicago-based barbers from Bladez of Glory Barbershop of Chicago to create six hair-cuts on site in the form of a performance piece.
The replica includes a platform situated in the middle of the make-shift barbershop that has black and white balanced tiles and a vintage green leather Koken chair. Surrounding the platform and barber chair, there are three video installations mounted on a rectangle wall paper design with the same sophisticated symmetrical symbols installed in the other gallery on dark wooden wall planks. The video installations feature several clients getting haircuts at Bladez. The clients speak freely about life, providing a range personal testimonies. The testimonies provide a deeper level of authenticity in the exhibition. With the surrounding waiting chairs, images of a fair skinned Jesus, and gaudy mirrors, it feels eerily similar to a typical barbershop experience in an urban American city. Although this barbershop is based in Chicago and the inception behind the project is also influenced by the midwestern city, I am reminded of popular barber shops in Detroit and the similar nuances.
Most notably, the Social Club Grooming Company in Midtown Detroit comes to mind. Social Club founder, Sebastian Jackson, has maximized on the unique social atmosphere barbershops have a tendency to produce, and he has coined a movement around this experience through a series of “Shop Talks.” The Shop Talks have become popular destination events in metro Detroit where Sebastian interviews tastemakers and successful creative entrepreneurs as they receive haircuts in Koken chairs amidst a large audience. The Social Club Shop Talks are essentially panel discussions coupled with the comfortable atmosphere and elements of a barbershop. While the two efforts of Jackson and Rolon/Dzine are different in medium, the mission is ultimately the same; highlighting and capturing the intimate cathartic experience of a grooming space. As I walked out of the gallery at Oakland University, one of the barbers in the video, featured in Rolon/Dzine’s barbershop installation said “sometimes, I’m more of a therapist than a barber,” as he smiled proudly on the screen, continuing to cut his clients’ hair.
Commonwealth is on view at Oakland University Art Gallery until April 3, 2016.
The Tears Ran Down by Rashaun Rucker, The Gallery at Marygrove College
Rashaun Rucker, who is most known for his photographic work and small scale drawings, presented a series of linocut portraits and charcoal drawings on the last Friday of January 2016. The Tears Ran Down, housed on the fourth floor of the visual arts building on the Marygrove College campus, features a series of prints and drawings by the artist that reflect tensions between historical Jim Crow narratives, and contemporary efforts that seek social justice through the Black Lives Matter movement. During the opening reception, I was immediately drawn to the linocut portrait prints.
I felt that the drawings, which seemed more like preliminary sketches for the stronger linocut pieces, were a bit choppy in presentation. The drawings are exhibited alongside the linocut works; the back and forth between linocut prints and drawings on paper became a bit distracting. It would be interesting to see the sketches shared all together in a separate space of the exhibition; and likewise the linocut works presented together in a separate area of the gallery, in an effort to represent the preliminary works that (may) have informed the linocut works, which are more powerful in aesthetic.
I Still See Them (2015) depicts a relatively small portrait of an elderly man with his eyes closed, his face is situated on the background of small Ku Klux Klan hoods men, like wallpaper print. Rucker’s use of line gesture in this, and some of the prints are reminiscent of Hale Woodruff’s linocut prints from the 1930’s. I’m personally not interested in comparing works of artists to one another, as it is a bit rudimentary, however, this commonality was the only point of reference for me as I continued to examine the works. It was clear that the show was about racial injustice and unrest between Blacks and whites in America, throughout time and in the present. However, I found myself yearning for a bit more context with the works. To some avail, Rucker shared with me the particular impetus behind this iteration of prints and drawings shortly before I left the exhibition's opening night event.
“I’m just trying to express how I feel, it’s like the Zora Neale Hurston quote; ‘If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.’ And I’m just not trying to do that,” said Rucker. He then went on to share how each of the linocut prints is a representation of a greater autobiographical fabric. For instance I Still See Them (2015), is a portrait of Rucker’s grandfather, a product of Jim Crow laws, and racial segregation of the south, who is still hesitant about entering the front entrance to white owned spaces. He grew up in North Carolina where he was only allowed to enter businesses from the back entrance because of the color of his skin.
In another work, Rucker presents a linocut print on paper, that depict pyramid shape in the square rectangular composition. In the pyramid, Rucker has carved out the silhouette of a tree and several branches. Hanging from one of the branches is a short rope and the outline of a hanging human figure filled in with all black. A narrow white cross is on the front of the figure. The morbid landscape presented in the triangle shape, is placed above a set of large dark eyes. This particular work, I later learn, is influenced by a true story. One of Rucker’s family members in North Carolina had a friend, a Black man, who received rotten apples from a white owned store during the Jim Crow Era. The Black man returned to the store to get a refund for the bad food, instead he was reprimanded for the query. He was hanged and then killed.
Without this background information, the works have the potential to fall short in interpretation. It may be easy to understand the images that Rucker presents as reflections of common traumatic images experienced throughout Black American history, but this vague understanding can leave too much to a viewer's subjectivity, where one may interpret the series as just an emotional rant through artistry, rather than what it really is; a visual representation of the artist's own family history. The greater autobiographical narrative is remiss in Rucker’s works, and could provide a greater context and ultimately, appreciation for the series if these stories were shared through small wall texts.
The Tears Ran Down is on view at The Gallery, Marygrove College until February 19, 2016.
Taylor Renee is Co-editor of ARTS.BLACK