Detroit, thank God, is no Los Angeles. We have no Eli Broad. No billion-year-old billionaire collector with bad taste shoving the same old shit in his collection down our throats in his brand-new masterfully-designed museum — a museum, naturally, in his name.
As a Detroiter, I am happy to be able to lay eyes all over Considering Detroit, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit's latest show. With no permanent collection and a slightly tighter budget than most contemporary institutions, the folks at MOCAD are resourceful. They're not shoving some blockbuster touristy show down our throats as if it's manna. (For that, you can catch the Jeff Koons show in Chicago.) Instead, they've put together a delightfully accessible summertime exhibition featuring five visual artists, one poet and a collective, all connected to Detroit.
The first in a series of exhibits showcasing an "active and important art community that's produced a lot of great work over the years," according to director Marsha Miro, Considering Detroit opts for friendly inclusion. It flits among artistic lives that are lived fully and sometimes even outrageously, celebrating creativity. The roughhewn is neighbor to the precise, an installation of real art near one of fake art. Poetry adorns walls while a "crushed painting" flows through them. There's a video you can dance to. And each artist, either overtly or indirectly, explores the notion of growth.
Considering's fun begins with a temporary addition to the museum entrance, built by Gordon Newton. Using plywood and transparent green plastic panels, the covered 20-foot-by-8-foot room could be considered a send-up of "edgy" museum expansions by internationally renowned architects, or it could be an attempt to create something that's between the utilitarian and fine art. With the panels casting green light inside the small entranceway like stained glass in a church, Newton could be satirizing the sacred nature of art. The plywood actually makes it seem more like the temporary entrance to a dive bar.
A museum official floated this idea of the "influence of the Bauhaus and Richard Neutra," but you might want to sit on a bench and think hard about that one, and also about why a label calls the piece "elegant." This is art with an attitude. It obscures the real entrance, leaving people wondering where and how to get inside.
Newton, one of the original purveyors of the '70s Cass Corridor aesthetic, has several works inside the museum as well. His assemblages and wall sculptures are significant because of their deceptively haphazard craftsmanship. They appear to be fragile beauties persevering in a hostile environment, like delicate plants poking miraculously through a heavy blanket of wet, decaying leaves. This art is about regeneration.
"Diamond Follow," from 1978, presents Newton as a Mad Max survivalist, guerrilla warrior and religious leader. From the most banal of materials — plywood — he conjured (or preserved) a sacred tablet, placing it on an altar (an easel). This piece seems like a relic of ancient worship, a survivor of centuries of abuse, referencing burial and desecration with knife wounds.
Attached to a wall, Newton's tall, wooden totem-like pieces, "Gold 1" and "Gold 2," from 1974, speak of the primal connection of man to the earth. "Untitled," a work made with a protruding swordfish, a radio and a child's Big Wheel, and "Camcorder (Honey Jar)," both from the '80s, demonstrate how Newton transformed castoffs into talismans with strong auras. His black surfaces suck thirsty souls into their depths.
The work of Heather McGill, head of the sculpture department at Cranbrook, is austere but playful, severely masculine and ridiculously feminine. She uses advanced automotive technology to embellish her minimalist aluminum wall sculptures, lending the metal that usually takes the form of an incredibly powerful machine a bit of a sense of a humor. She occasionally gives the metal a kitschy fem design or a lacquer finish that makes it look like a tasty candy treat. Where Newton seems a reclusive wizard brewing under a bridge, McGill seems a methodical scientist who enjoys walking on the wild side (and perhaps seeing Busby Berkeley movies) in her spare time. The work of both artists describes the irrepressible urge of life to burst free.
McGill has three pieces on connected walls, perhaps intended to be read as an altar. The two that flank the center are odd shapes referencing the bladder that holds air in a Nike sneaker. The one on the right is hot dog-colored, with a shiny gold surface suggesting mustard. The one on the left is not so pop, displaying delicate floral patterns. The centerpiece here is a challenging hybrid of sculpture and airbrushed painting that looks vaguely like an object with wings — a dragonfly or art nouveau airplane. It's detailed with tiny showgirls swinging on vines, and from the center hangs a long chain of jewel-like orbs, anchored by an ornate lantern. Installed together, the aesthetics of these three pieces could make you queasy.
Nearby, longtime Detroit abstract artist Allie McGhee is represented by "Rolling on the River," a recent work. One of his "crushed paintings," it is quite literally large pieces of boldly painted, crumpled paper attached together to portray the fluid rhythm of a moving body of water. McGhee installed it to "flow through" one wall, run along another, and flow through a third. It was likely inspired by McGhee's runs through Belle Isle, on which he obsessively observes natural phenomenon. (McGhee's a marathon runner.) The colors and patterns — streams of blue, yellow and green, mostly — also suggest African headdresses moving on a stage to choreography by Alvin Ailey. It's unfortunate that more pieces by McGhee aren't included.
In another gallery, an ad hoc reading room covered with a chaotic profusion of fliers, broadsides and texts honors the late Corridor-era poet Jim Gustafson. You get a sense for the riotous persona that swells up inside the room, where you can sit in a bean bag and watch a recording of him reading his own work while rambling around. But his prolific contribution to Detroit's literary community — how he could puff out his chest and fill the world with his words and his attitude — can only be understood by reading his work for yourself. Here are a couple of lines from a 1988 poem, with a hard-boiled Detroit punk attitude that also works well with Newton's aesthetic: "Let's steal the hubcaps off Cadillacs/ and submit them to the Paris Review/I'm tired of being treated like a junkie with a lisp."
Maurice Greenia Jr.'s nearby installation outsizes the rest. The artist known as Maugré didn't even need to empty all the contents of his nearly mythical Fourth Street apartment into the museum, yet he covers two huge walls with paintings, sculpture and collectibles, including driftwood and mannequin parts. The result is visually overwhelming, but the retrospective is an apt reward for time he's spent in the trenches, fighting for Art. A lifelong Detroiter, in 1996 Maugré drew murals — in his aboriginal-infused-with-surrealism style, one among many — on boards covering the windows of Hudson's, our late beloved downtown department store. Any traces of his work went up in dust in the subsequent blast, but MOCAD here displays photos, and much, much more, including an amazing black-and-white video of puppets attending a Thanksgiving Day parade.
While Greenia Jr. gives us his heart, soul and a zillion paintings as if creativity grows on trees, the youngish artist collective Time Stereo (Davin Brainard, Warn Defever, Ronald Cornelissen and Dion Fischer with Jamie Easter, Jenny Price, Brad Taormina, Aliccia B.B., Jeremy Kallio, Sarah Lapinski, Hitoko Sakai and Sarah Burger) offers an uncanny replica of their UFO Factory gallery and performance space in Eastern Market. This faux-UFO Factory (modeled after the real UFO Factory, which itself is not a factory at all and thus makes this installation at MOCAD a faux-faux factory) is made entirely of cardboard. From the paintings on the walls to the microwave oven, their suggestion is that all art, no matter what the price tag or formidable framework, is disposable. The Stereo manifesto urges "flippancy, insane melodrama, man transformed into wolf," among other absurdist suggestions designed to negate the seriousness and pretentiousness of the Western art world. They quasi-aspire to a life in the pre-tech '50s, when boys built forts and played cowboys and Indians outside.
And when good girls didn't? Ellen Cantor's girl — a coy, wavy-haired, Botticelli-esque heroine — does. In cacophonous drawings, Cantor features this modern Rapunzel sucking on dildos (or disembodied penises), surrounded by lyrical phrases that seem stolen from a song, floating and filling in the blackness. Here's hoping she jumps out of the melancholic drawing when the museum's closed and joins the boys in their playhouse! Also by the Detroit-born Cantor (who now lives in England) is the short video "Whitby Weekender," documenting the contemporary revival of the late '60s Northern Soul craze in Britain, a craze around American soul records, many of them from Detroit. The video includes moments of peppy dancing with bouncy split-screens, but the interviews with aficionados reliving their youthful capers are awfully trying.
The art in Considering Detroit focuses on growth under challenging conditions and in surprising places, whether it's music that takes root thousands of miles away from its source and several decades later, or a makeshift club spawning in the center of the museum. To quote Maurice Greenia Jr.: "Creation is a constant. Marvelous ideas and images conspire. Everyone everywhere wakes up as never before. Question the world."
Considering Detroitruns through July 27, at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622.Christina Hill writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]