After the flood of memories

Dec 25, 2002 at 12:00 am

In the fall of 1982, my parents drove off across the country on a kind of extended vacation to visit my mother’s brother in Yuma, Ariz., stopping whenever and wherever they pleased. My father was 72 years old and in fine health when they left. My mother was also healthy, but probably uncertain about being in a car so long with my father. They spent some time at my sister’s home in Glenwood Springs, Colo., before heading for Arizona.

A few days after they left Colorado, my mother called to say that my father had stopped his car in the middle of the “strip” in Las Vegas with a chest pain. He was able to pull his car into the parking lot of a motel and rent a room. They stayed there for the rest of the winter while my father recovered from a combination of the flu and angina. He called one night and said he was looking out their motel window at a dead police officer lying next to his overturned motorcycle. He had been shot by a man he’d pulled over.

Eventually (in spite of my anxiety over their being in such a nightmarish place), after my father healed, the two of them began walking around the casinos and playing the quarter slots. They said it was fun. Many years earlier, my father had told me that after all of the hardship of living on a homestead in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — building your own barn, growing your own food, harvesting and processing — it was a pleasure to walk around Northland Shopping Center and gaze at the “interesting” abundance. Though he’d been tossed into such places by sheer circumstance, I couldn’t talk him out of them. My parents drove on to Yuma after a couple months.

Until the day this past November when I was driving to the Chance Symposium at the College for Creative Studies auditorium, I’d hardly thought about the nightmarish memory of my father and mother marooned in the neon inferno of Las Vegas 20 years ago. Since my idea for the “Bones of Clouds” project at Center Galleries had begun with the legalization of gambling in Detroit in 1996 — for me a dark moment in Detroit’s history — I hadn’t connected it to this horrible time in my family life. I’d always assumed that I had gone through nine months of research for the exhibition, which included looking at chance-generated art, and reading around in philosophical and scientific writing about causality, indeterminacy and contingency, all because some misguided souls thought that gambling — the commodification of chance — would cure Detroit’s economic and social woes.

One would like to say that the success of a particular project like “The Bones of Clouds” was by design. You want to say, “I planned it that way,” but a self-betraying, smirkily ironic tone enters your voice. You really mean you planned it that way because of all the thought that went into it and you feel gracefully fortunate that it turned out fine, but you know that there was more to it than your plan. And in the case of this exhibition — including the paintings, writing and presentations — there was a certain timeliness that gave everything an urgency, an of-the-moment quality.

Over the years, one makes friends through work or play. You have some reason to continue to talk to one another and you do. There’s an uncertain expectancy in the relationship and it continues with its own intensity, depending upon what you have to say to one another. So when it came time for working out the details of the “Bones of Clouds” catalogue and symposium, there were people I knew who were already thinking about models of indeterminacy and chance in science and music, as well as in the visual arts.

As it turned out, the exhibition became an investigation into the use of chance in the generation and reception of contemporary painting, and itself was greatly determined by chance. I got a good start when in the early moments of the project I met with artist Rose De Sloover, who showed me paintings that looked like color sample strips from a paint store and that had remarkably banal names to go with them. She showed me one “sample strip” of shades of green that had the name “Glen Green” under the top shade. In the game where you’re asked what color you’re identified with or that represents you best, I’ve always said green (with the various connotations in mind). So here was a color with my name on it. Coincidentally, Rose later wrote about a color called Doric Rose when she found that Doric was the Greek name for Doris, her mother’s name.

The chance mix of name and color was producing a buildup of circumstances for me that had a promising momentum. I went home and happened upon “The Red Green Show,” a celebrated Canadian Northwoods comedian’s weekly TV program — and the next day in the car with my young daughters we listened to folksinger Pete Seeger sing the bird song that includes the chirp of the bobwhite (Bob White!).

I never would have watched “The Red Green Show” except that Red Green has a specific Canadian accent as well as a specific sense of humor, not unlike my father’s Finnish accent and humor. Implied in the humor is an ironic ignorance of new and sophisticated things, which are then exposed for not being new and sophisticated at all by a process of bungling into the truth.

While I was looking through old copies of Chicago’s art magazine, the New Art Examiner, I found a story about an outsider artist in Chicago, Michael Banicki, whose paintings were generated by a chance process. I called him up and we talked for an hour or so. I was so enthusiastic that a few days later I gathered a pile of books into my suitcase (enough for a year of reading) and got on a train to Chicago to see Banicki’s work. He showed me paintings in which he rates things on a grid and then uses dots of color on the grid to indicate where they fall on his ranking scale. His work is understated and smart. The little dots of paint are beautiful. They accumulate on the surface of the canvas in this efficient process and the results are abstract patterns that include an elegant poetic language of the names of the things he’s rating.

While in Chicago, I stopped by the studio of Detroit artist McArthur Binion, who just happened to live a few blocks from Banicki. Again, as in Banicki’s work, the surface of the abstract paintings conveyed Binion’s deliberate physical gestures. Pressure on crayon, layered assertively pigment over pigment, carried Binion’s democratic distribution of energy and embedded it into the surface of his canvas. It turned out that he employed chance procedures in choosing colors and in excavating a kind of text beneath the surface.

Odd encounters had led me to new artists and a rediscovery of what painting is about: that throughout history, the picture plane — whether cave wall, cathedral ceiling or village adobe in Mexico — has been punctuated by the intellect of the finessing artist so that it serves as a messenger about what’s important. Slowly, the “Bones of Clouds” exhibition grew into an investigation of abstract painting that was generated by chance processes, as well as by memories of my own that the processes triggered. It was thrilling.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. He curated "The Bones of Clouds: Some Recent Experiences of Chance" at Center Galleries (301 Frederick Douglass, Detroit — 313-664-7800). E-mail him at