The Secret Life of Suburbia
Meadow Brook Art Gallery
Henry Ford once famously declared, “The city is doomed. We will solve the problem by leaving the city.” Of course, the means of transit out was in Ford’s own mass-produced product, the automobile. And the destination for the majority of Americans, not just Detroiters, was the suburbs.
Artist Deborah Sukenic grew up in the 1960s in Motown’s crabgrass frontier. Memories of her suburban-pioneer life are the subject of her recent paintings gathered together in the fine exhibition, The Secret Life of Suburbia on view at Meadow Brook Art Gallery.
Her works reflect on the subject of the single-family home — a central element of the suburban experience. A metaphor for self-reliance, the suburban tract house came in two primary (and nostalgic) variations, the colonial and the ranch. Inside, the postwar nuclear family lived an autonomous private existence, cut off from the bustling public spaces of the urban environment. Hence it’s fitting that images of suburban housing figure prominently in Sukenic’s work.
The focus of many of the current works is the exterior of a single house isolated from its neighbors by an expanse of lawn and shrubbery. Clues as to what might lie inside are given by representations of or actual artifacts from domestic life, often presented in separate frames of space floating around the house image.
Some of Sukenic’s paintings feature family snapshots, opening the work up to possible narratives about specific lives lived in what on the surface appears to be anonymous spaces of the United States of Generica. Indeed it’s the specificity of place and time in Sukenic’s paintings that prompt some to label her work as regionalist. But a more useful term might be what anthropologists call “local knowledge,” transcending art historical categories to get to a deeper understanding of culture.
An emotional drama permeates Sukenic’s work. And in fact, Sukenic, who has moved further out of Detroit to Chicago, studied psychology as an undergrad and worked as a social worker before a serious illness forced her to quit. It was during her recovery that she took up art, first studying ceramics then moving into drawing and painting as she regained her strength.
In an interview with Meadow Brook Art Gallery curator Dick Goody printed in the show’s catalog, Sukenic notes that she can no longer paint from her mind’s eye, but that she must use photographic references or other source material. This isn’t a failure of imagination. It’s a process that starts with closely observing the material world, seeking to understand it in order to unlock the otherwise invisible.
Sukenic’s use of collage (incorporating wallpaper, sparklers, Chinese cookie fortunes, etc.) stems from the same impulse: to bring the refuse of the world into the refuge of art.
The Meadow Brook Art Gallery is located on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Call 248-370-3005 or visit oakland.edu/mbag for more info.
Different Strokes: Michigan Painters
The Janice Charach Epstein Gallery
This spacious, architecturally impressive nonprofit gallery space reserved for Jewish artists or art with a Jewish theme has unfortunately tended to rest outside of the Detroit art scene. The current show, Different Strokes: Michigan Painters, claims to “demonstrate the variety of painters from our area.” And while the three painters exhibited have diverse approaches, styles, media and purposes, the show is far from representing the variety of quality contemporary painting in the Detroit area.
Marcia Freedman is undoubtedly the star of the show. Her rich abstract oil paintings on large canvases present a distinct language of symbols (though very reminiscent of Brenda Goodman’s style) that successfully communicate a sense of psychological trepidation. Freedman’s medium is handled with confidence and experience, and can therefore dabble in areas of (esoteric) ugliness without becoming truly ugly. For example, her striking colors and purity of pigment are not entirely left to their innocence. Through her strong, simplified strokes exist areas of murkiness. Multiple colors fight over the same space. Wet paint laid on wet paint without time to settle exhibits how literal the language of paint can be.
Freedman’s brushwork creates layers of insinuation of something dark to come. Her paintings are intensely emotional, but even more so because they are wise and true. In her own words Freedman explains her points of frustration with each piece, “I get so damned angry, that is when it starts to work.”
The paintings reveal a depth of character and a person aware of her own complexity.
From her studio in the Pioneer Building in Detroit to The Jewish Community Center, it is absolutely worth following Freedman’s show up to West Bloomfield. Needless to say, hers is a tough act to follow.
Deserving of a little tough love is painter Susan Adelman, who has only been at portraiture for the past year, though she’s shown her jewelry and sculptures extensively for the past 20 years. Adelman’s portraits are unappealing for their lack of aesthetic understanding, which is not always a bad thing, but when vacant of further substance the work comes off painfully. The painter has potential, and more serious time experimenting in the studio will do wonders as her portraits do not currently appear ready for a professional gallery.
Likewise there are problems with the work of Michelle A. Hegyi, who often paints with acrylic and encaustic. Her series of new “digital paintings,” abstract works, are hung opposite Freedman’s abstract oil paintings. The juxtaposition leaves Hegyi’s digital works appearing as wallflowers.
Coinciding with Different Strokes, the Epstein gallery is hosting a silent art auction on the upper level. Dated, delightfully quirky and endearing works from local unknowns to limited edition prints by the likes of Alex Katz, Larry Rivers and Tom Wesselmann are available for bidding. The last day of the auction is tomorrow, Thursday, Sept. 30.
The Janice Charach Epstein Gallery is located in the Jewish Community Center of Metro Detroit at 6600 W. Maple Road in West Bloomfield. Call 248-432-5448. Open Monday-Thursday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
I am a Negro, so what?!
The Redd Apple Gallery
Walk down Iron Street, off Jefferson and near the Detroit River, and through a wide open gallery door and you will immediately feel the inclusive and attentive atmosphere that gallery director and owner Katrina Redd nurtures at her year-old venture.
Currently Redd Apple Gallery is displaying a solo show of recent paintings by French native/Ann Arbor resident painter Patrick Dodd. Formerly working intuitively and uninhibitedly with the human figure, Dodd’s current body of work shows a change in approach, as he uses the distinct boundaries of the hard-edged picture plane to display text in bold, bright, thick paint atop equally bold and bright backgrounds. The work discusses race in contemporary American society.
In I am a negro, so what?!, Dodd displays two bodies of work with different objectives.
One series on exhibit functions well as literary art (though not so well as visual communication) and reveals much of the artist’s perspective and emotional setting. These works are bold and meant to be provocative, sometimes with disturbing color combinations. The paintings are handwritten recordings of specifically chosen statistics (implying a conclusion), and Dodd’s own ponderings and reflections on those statistics. For example, one work states, “Most women incarcerated in the U.S. are non-violent offenders convicted of economic crimes or drug use. 80 percent are mothers, 80 percent are poor, and the majority are women of color.” Written in the center of this painting is, “What does one nurture when one is incarcerated?” The title of the exhibition itself testifies to the preoccupation America (and the artist) has with race issues, and which (in this case) unfortunately undermines the quality of the art object. So what?! Well, the physicality of the artwork itself should be considered and used to communicate the message beyond the obvious symbolism (here, words in French and mainly English).
In his series of acrylic and enamel paintings on wood or canvas, Dodd uses geometric form, color, and vinyl text to comment on the possibility that color can be irrelevant to what it symbolizes. For instance, in some works colors are written out in random colors of paint and placed on another randomly-colored ground, so as to say, “I’m green, so what?!” and then again, not green at all at the same time.
These conceptual works appear to be overly barren at first, with pleasing colors, few words and little exploration of form. But they reveal meanings that the more busy and talkative paintings do not offer. As visual art the simplified works are more mysterious, and demand analysis for a more full understanding.
The process of searching for understanding enables us to comprehend, not just to hear, or read, or see. There is a sophistication in some of these works which may not be an accident.
I am a Negro so What?! Runs until Oct. 13. The Redd Apple Gallery is located in the River Park Lofts at 227 Iron St.,
Suite 116, Detroit. Call 313-567-0712 or visit www.reddapplegallery.org.
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