Bleak and blue beauty

Apr 6, 2005 at 12:00 am

The calendar says it’s spring, but inside the Susanne Hilberry Gallery, a wintry atmosphere prevails. Gordon Newton’s black mixed-media works and Benjamin Hoy’s stark black-and-white photographs assert abandonment and loss. James Duffy’s photos, while less bleak, capture a possibility of rebirth that remains unfulfilled

One of the original Cass Corridor artists to emerge in Detroit in the late 1960s, Newton presents his first sustained body of new work in a gallery setting in nearly a decade and a half. (He’s been in solo and group retrospectives at the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wayne State University, and he’s shown some collages and sketches here and there.) It’s tough work to appreciate at first glance, as Newton’s best stuff always is. But it’s evidence that the artist, now in his mid-50s, still has plenty to say.

Newton’s new works on paper, canvas and wood are the result of a painstaking process in which layer upon layer of pigment and other materials are applied in stages, sometimes over a period of years. The work is monochrome, but there’s plenty of variation in each one to sustain repeated viewing.

Some are luxurious in their dense slathering of paint, which is thickly swirled like cake frosting. Others are distressed with holes pierced through to reveal the mat board underneath, creating a complex play of shadow and light. Several have wooden dowels and other objects attached, giving them the dimensions of bas-reliefs. Most are presented in heavy black frames, which are rubbed down to reveal glimpses of bare wood, suggesting the passage of time and investing the objects inside with the aura of relics.

The work has all been done in the last two years, since the United States’ occupation of Iraq began, and some of them seem to be a direct reference to it. In “Stargate. SG-1” (2004), the clotted layers of black pigment and dirt look like oil and sand, and the hemispherical eight-pointed star in the composition’s left center resembles a cluster bomb or a minaret as seen in aerial view. But there’s likely a longer perspective in play.

According to the gallery notes, Newton was inspired by Bernard Leach, one of the key figures in 20th-century ceramics. Besides being a craftsman nonpareil, Leach was a distinguished scholar who tried to bring the Eastern and Western ceramic art traditions together. A pacifist, he lived his last days in an old English fishing village near Cornwall, having survived World Wars I and II, plus the twilight of the Cold War, against all of which he conscientiously objected.

What’s more, above Newton’s work on the first gallery wall is a quote from cosmologist Carl Sagan on the value of right-brain intuition, an artist’s stock in trade, as a way of being in the world. Sagan, too, had a humanistic bent, speaking out against the threat of nuclear winter and the need to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps as Newton worked in the shadows of imperial hubris he thought of past civilizations embodied in ancient pottery shards, and of life going on even though it may be only cockroaches roaming the planet after we’ve blown ourselves to bits. If anyone can show you how to survive after being bombed back into the Stone Age, it’s an artist from Detroit, and Newton’s at the top of the food chain.

Detroit’s postapocalyptic landscape is a perennial subject for artists, especially the young. It’s particularly compelling for photographers because of the sense of nostalgia inherent in the medium — all photographs are memento mori, physical traces of things and moments not present. Both come together in Hoy’s work, installed in the other large gallery space.

Born in Pontiac in 1974, Hoy moved to New York City four years ago to study at the International Center for Photography. He then worked for Magnum photographer Gilles Peress. His training has served him well, as evidenced by a series of radiant selenium-toned gelatin silver panoramas, all taken in the last two years on trips back to the Motor City.

The ghost world of Detroit has never looked more alluring than in Hoy’s photos. The best push spectral imagery to the limit. An example is an untitled 2004 photograph of a decrepit building on Seven Mile. Traces of a ripped-away staircase are imprinted on exposed brick. A closer look reveals a person walking on the street beyond, visible through a hole in the wall.

The installation of Hoy’s photos is bare-boned. Mounted unframed with pushpins and binder clips, the photographs are presented in an intentionally makeshift way that plays up the art’s icy beauty and emphasizes the drama of destruction. There are occasional signs of life in Hoy’s work, but most of these photos show isolated individuals overwhelmed by the remains of the demolished urban landscape. The artist seems more interested in eliciting feelings of awe, and possibly even fear, in the viewer.

This contrasts with Duffy’s more matter-of-fact snapshots in the small back gallery. Part of the city’s patrician class, Duffy was a major patron of Newton and other Detroit artists for nearly four decades. He shot Detroit’s hardscrabble storefronts, garages, frame houses and other vernacular architecture in the mid-1970s, as the first salvos of neoliberalism rained down upon America’s working class, the rear-guard action of which is now playing out in Iraq.

Where the photographs of Hoy and Duffy cause us to dwell on the remembrance of things past, Newton’s work reminds us that among ruins, traces of life can always be found. The pervasive melancholy of both sensibilities is the right stuff for these troubled times.


Gordon Newton, James Duffy and Benjamin Hoy runs until Saturday, April 16, at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, 700 Livernois, in Ferndale. Call 248-541-4777 for information.

Vince Carducci writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]