Brushes with greatness 

Originally, gallery owner Susanne Hilberry wanted her current art show to be a portrait show, but as she visited artist studios in New York and Detroit, her idea shifted, pure and simple, to painting. It’s a medium that seems to get knocked around an awful lot by people who want to claim it’s obsolete, but the opportunity for inspiration offered by blank surface is boundless. And the range of work in Painting, showing at the Ferndale gallery through Jan. 14, is proof of what is yet to be discovered with paint, as well as how engaging fine craftsmanship can be. Overall, what we have here is terrific stuff.

Three of the show’s participants, David Deutsch, Ellen Phelan and Billy Sullivan, have long chosen to make paintings, and theirs are masterly. The younger featured artists — Holly Coulis, Ryan McLaughin, Anna Schachte, Josh Smith and Clinton Snider — have selected painting from the multitude of media in use today, regenerating the idea of abstract reality with their own unique content.

Melding information and imagery from so many sources, such as cinema, news and television, media photography and the Internet, is a common tactic with this group. They each keep us guessing what their paintings mean, leaving lots of room for interpretation. David Deutsch makes paintings from images shot on a surveillance camera, the technology of Big Brother. The fear of identification — of identity, really — is hidden in his signature brushstrokes. In “Heat,” a cool blue and gray landscape featuring two almost-nude figures standing in the snow, Deutsch uses the same kind of loose and abbreviated brushstrokes to paint the figures as he does for the big pine trees they are standing in front of, making the people mutable, hence undercover.

The particular camera image that Deutsch chooses makes one curious about the artist’s intentions. Why did Deutsch select these frames to paint? Who are these two naked people? What do these two figures (who should be freezing in the snow, but obviously aren’t) even mean? In the end, we don’t have enough clues to understand. Whether Deutsch is expressing his own fear of personal discovery, pointing out our own, or illustrating society’s fixation with identity and anonymity, his paintings are beautiful documents of imaginary escape.

Many of Ellen Phelan’s previous paintings were images reconstructed and abstracted from memory. Now, she is also incorporating the idea of photographic memory, the specificity and “truth” of a fixed moment, into her work. The concept behind the painting “Halloween Party” began with a 1972 photo of Phelan sitting in a chair. In the painting, her image is blown up to almost life-size. She portrays herself as someone with coyness, sexuality and aplomb, and these are personally revealing gestures. But she also hides her identity in a tonal curtain of inky brown paint, casting it in the light of yet another history — art history — that includes references to Whistler, Sargent, Degas and Turner, artists who demonstrated the allure of paint. Rather than pure autobiography, these paintings are different ways of portraying the “self.” We are witnesses to the process of uncovering and discovering, of being.

Billy Sullivan’s portraits are more direct, like records of appearance. Meaning in his art hinges on a casual intimacy the subject has with the artist and others he portrays. In “Louie and Ricky,” two men in conversation sit close to each other on a couch. One, in a gray fleece top, seems to be questioning the other, more flamboyant man who wears a red feather boa over a jacket. Are they just friends or in a relationship? Their unseen history is intimated by Sullivan’s artistic style; paint unifies them while lines that are drawn abstractly convey the energy of their interaction. We may not have enough information (beyond their names) to know who these individuals are, but because of Sullivan’s style, from this portrait we can make conclusions about their lifestyles and contemporary culture.

The younger artists in the show take painting a step further, remixing realistic imagery with all manners of ideas in order to explore wide-ranging concepts. Holly Coulis presents a portrait of “Flora,” a descendent of the Greek goddess of springtime, a medieval Mary and Botticelli’s sylph. Painted like a tapestry, the artwork is an immovable abstraction, featuring Flora sitting in a contemporary floral-patterned dress, posing against a disorienting backdrop; the ground is reminiscent of the flat pattern of Arts and Crafts-style wallpaper and the scene behind her looks like a fake garden.

Filling out the show with unique visions, Ryan McLaughlin’s paints images from real video games, as well as those he has invented, incorporating well-known art history imagery and cartoon stills in a carefully edited mix-up of high-low culture. Artist Josh Smith uses the letters of his name as the starting point for his expressionist paintings, producing a climate of shaken identity in a maelstrom of energy. Anna Schachte paints cohesive narratives that are political and social critiques of America today. And Clint Snider also references political and social commentary, as well as art, in “Dream 32,” a painting of a future place of devastation. His landscapes shimmy like a vision in a dream, predicting what will be.


Through Jan. 14, at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, 700 Livernois St., Ferndale; 248-541-4700.

Marsha Miro writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to

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