Minding the art 

“I always tell my students, ‘Do something that throws a wrench into your work and then deal with it.’” Mitch Cope is talking about taking imaginative chances as we walk up the stairway of the Chinese Dog to the Cranbrook Art Museum. Cope teaches painting and drawing at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, but folks on the Detroit art scene know him as the artist-curator who, together with painter Helen Bevan, founded Tangent Gallery (715 E. Milwaukee — 313-873-2955), one of the city’s most promising new art sites.

In the warm breeze under the peristyle — Cranbrook’s modernist version of a classic Greek colonnade — some of the Academy of Art graduates are loading in parts of the year-end degree show, carrying tools and diagrams or just talking, their voices full of concentration. A cluster of blue ceramic bottles casts real and man-made shadows. A large, mosaic-tiled replica of the Elias Brothers’ Big Boy smiles in the sun.

But Cope and I start our visit by ogling a selection of pieces from the Dr. John and Rose M. Shuey collection, recently given to the museum by Rose Shuey and spanning three decades of contemporary art (through Aug. 25). We laugh as we look at Takht-i-Sulayman Variation I, Frank Stella’s huge minimalist painting, not because it’s funny but because it throws out such a powerful rush of color: “It’s like listening to loud hard rock,” I decide.

Robert Rauschenberg’s Moon Burn (Scale Series) is one of Cope’s favorites: “It’s a combination of him really enjoying the images, layering them up and being very loose in his handling of sculpture, just throwing elements in there and having a really fun time. I love the way the mirror part just comes at you. He’s got all these images in there that reference stuff, but there are so many of them that they’re diluted. It’s a completely contained work pointing at itself and it doesn’t reference other art. He’s completely in his own mind, stretching his art skills.”

Then Joan Mitchell’s large oil on canvas, Preface for Chris, pops our eyes out. “It’s raw,” says Cope. “There’s nothing like the hand painting, the rawness, the brushstroke. I’ve always liked the way she does that, just those blocks of color — in comparison to the sensitivity of this Agnes Martin” (Untitled, a quietly perfect minimalist drawing).

At Tangent, Cope and Bevan have made the freshness of contemporary painting one of the gallery’s focal points, presenting the work of Gail mally-mack, Erik Campbell, Dennis Jones (through April 27) and Maria Prainito (May 2-25). Cope got his bachelor’s degree in painting from CCS and his master’s from Washington State University, so he sees the new emphasis at Cranbrook on the painted image as particularly important:

“The Shuey collection really showcases the period from the ’60s to the ’80s and with it the museum can teach more. It’s a great teaching tool because of its diversity: From abstraction and op art into minimalism, it’s all image-based. And this is a mysterious period for a lot of people: It’s when the general public got lost. The art world started taking this path and lots of folks didn’t understand it.”

Placed on the floor before these masterworks are benches with a memory, seats which retain the impression of our presence, by graduate ceramicist Jacque Liu. “I love the idea of making sitting enjoyable, and to take something as simple as sitting and make it thoughtful,” says Cope.

Just left of the imposing Mitchell canvas are the aura-heavy color-field paintings of graduate Matthew Penkala.

“That’s what’s special about the Academy,” says Cope. “Students come here knowing that it’s at a certain level. Then they walk through this museum every day and know that they’re going to have to show here. So it forces them to push themselves.

“Sometimes that can be a problem, because they’re up against it, want to fit in with it or react against it. Other times, it just pushes them to make better work, not settle. When I went to grad school, it was all about ‘settling,’ which is what bothered me about the Northwest. It was complacent. There wasn’t that really strong challenge that you get here or New York or Detroit.

“Part of our city’s appeal is that it’s a strange place ... but people come here for the quiet, the aging architecture and the kind of people you meet. Detroit has an incredible texture and there’s enough to keep you here — the DIA, the DFT, the music and gallery scenes …

“But Detroit isn’t as much in the picture when you’re a student at Cranbrook. Here it’s more about how you fit into the art world. And that can get in the way, because students start making work for the art world — instead of really digging in and taking a huge chance, doing something that nobody’s ever seen or nobody wants to see.”

In the next gallery, Armon Means’ color photographs fill a wall with other walls and either the marks of graffiti on them or signs hawking cigarette brands to the shallow-breathing citizens of Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis and Perry, Fla. The installation isn’t complete yet — a small platform beneath it meant to hold a CD player is still empty — but the image grid is “kind of refreshing,” says Cope. “The work and the exploration it takes to find all these locations over time — that gives it integrity. And the way it’s laid out, I can get trapped in it.

“Then here we have a reference to one of my favorites, Joseph Beuys,” says Cope, as we approach a complex piece by photography graduate Aaron Anderson. “It’s very tangible. Some of Beuys’ ideas were abstract, idealistic, utopian, but his work always comes down to that real human level.” Anderson has produced a series of simulated chalkboards filled with diagrams and German text that reference World War II and the Holocaust, flanked by raised metal containers containing deep dry grass. One of the German texts translates as “and the Panzers roll over the field in Kansas.”

“Cranbrook is about minds … challenging what you think,” Cope suggests. “Sometimes it gets out of control where it’s so much about the thought that you get lost, but it’s good to stretch that aspect. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the idea of stretching your mind almost at any cost — and I’ve seen it fail where ‘Man, you’ve thought about this way too much,’ instead of naturally progressing with the art and then thinking about it, backing off.

“But the decision in this museum that I really support is that people don’t know where the Shuey collection leaves off and where the student show starts.”

As we walk the Cranbrook grounds, Cope notices “the ivy, the trees, the brick, the pools, the sculpture with all the water.”

It’s a vision that has fascinated generations of visitors and a pleasure that will continue.

This is the fourth and last in a series of visits in which young curators from alternative art spaces take a critical look at major regional art centers. Be sure to read the others:

"Got art?" (4/3/02) — Up-and-coming art curator Aaron Timlin looks long and hard at the DIA’s modern collection.

"Art at the border" (4/10/02) — Artcite’s Christine Burchnal challenges the Art Gallery of Windsor.

"Epiphany in Treetown" (4/17/02) — Painter and curator Jocelyn Rainey finds heaven at the U of M Museum of Art.

George Tysh is Metro Times' arts editor. E-mail him at gtysh@metrotimes.com

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