All dolled up

When she talks to you, Mary Fortuna's voice has a businesslike, bell-true clarity, a precise, energetic intelligence as if she's engaged in some private mission. She knows how to use language as a net to trap prey. It's not exactly we who are her prey, but some elusive state of being.

Her art might serve as an explanation. Fortuna makes dolls. Sometimes they are abstract objects that suggest fishing lures, sexual fetishes, over-the-top insects or just attractive (or maybe repulsive) organic shapes. Sometimes they seem to be outrageous hybrid life-forms, sometimes grotesque human anomalies. They're composed of luxurious leather in subtle colors, sutured together to create allegorical figures that play in her fantastic drama.

Fortuna has been instrumental in the metro Detroit art landscape since the early '90s. Since then, she's spread her influence in several directions. Through the years, she's been on exhibition committees at a number of significant art spaces, such as Detroit Artists Market and the now-defunct Detroit Focus Gallery, and currently is exhibition director at Paint Creek Center for the Arts. She's also served on the DIA's Forum for Contemporary Art committee, and from 1995-98 she heroically self-published 15 issues of Ground Up, an enthusiastically received collection of art journalism and criticism by Detroit artists and writers.

But while Fortuna is well-traveled and her art has been appreciated and loved in many group and solo exhibitions, her work seems to have remained local, escaping the deeper and wider exploration it deserves. A current exhibit of her dolls at Flatlanders Art Galleries, down in the cornfields of Blissfield, might change that.

Floating in air as if they're puppets controlled by an awful unseen force, 15 of Fortuna's dolls are suspended, perhaps lynched, in the isolation of their painful uniqueness. Great skill has articulated each of their body parts; their hands and feet are weighed down by gravity, heavy like the resigned expression on their faces. In reference to Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights," she calls her installation of the dolls "Hanging Garden."

In her artist's statement, Fortuna lists "a few things that amuse the heck out of me," including Bosch, devils, Ray Johnson, H.C. Westerman, the Hindu pantheon, Inuit art, Pacific Northwest indigenous art, Venetian carnivales, masks, scary puppets and sympathetic magic. So while as a "freakish little kid" she made dolls to amuse herself, as a mature artist, she's out for big game, to question life and death. Fortuna says she doesn't know who a doll is until she starts modeling or carving its head. They find their identity as she works with the materials. About one doll, Queequeg, named after Herman Melville's savage cannibal in Moby-Dick, she didn't know who it was until it was finished.

Her figures are impeccably crafted, a dream to touch, caress and even to manipulate. Straight-up sensuality, even sexuality, is invoked by their form and palpable presence. Children may make up stories about their relationship with their dolls, but Fortuna's are encountered on a more existential level, as if they are victims of the world. Thoughts about the cause of human suffering or the nature of our hybrid identities occurs when we enter the loving yet tortured enlightenment of her third-eyed "Bodhisattva." Engaging with her oddly touching, warm yellow "Dumb Duck" leads to thoughts about the overly deterministic nature of society. If we enter the turquoise world of "Blue Monkey," with it's humiliated isolation, man's hopeless inhumanity comes into view in all its ugliness. Fortuna's "Hanging Garden" begs you to enter a contemporary allegory of a scary social dimension, offering psychological prescience and philosophical depth. It's ultimately a very un-Detroit kind of art, and a refreshing release because of it.


A solo exhibition of new work by Mary Fortuna runs through Oct. 1, at Flatlanders Art Galleries, 11993 E. U.S. 223, Blissfield; 517-486-4591.


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Glen Mannisto is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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