Contemporary commitment

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Even when it beautifully occupied what is now Casino Windsor, the Art Gallery of Windsor was often overlooked by Detroiters. Now that it's in the surreal hyperspace of the Devonshire Mall on the south end of Windsor, it's even easier to avoid. It shouldn't be.

The ongoing, unfolding drama (more on that in the future) in the Department of Modern Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts has left us with a couple of years of irritating uncertainty and uneven, if any, curatorial practice. And while Cranbrook's Art Museum has made a major contribution to local and national contemporary art with an engaging run of exhibitions, and though Wayne State's Elaine L. Jacob Gallery recently opened with a wonderful exhibit and promises a major commitment to contemporary art, what AGW is doing shouldn't be missed.

In what is an extraordinary space -- no windows, huge rooms with sky-high ceilings and accessed via Mall Hell -- the Art Gallery of Windsor, like an insular, psychic black box, maintains an active exhibition schedule that integrates historical and popular culture with a strong contemporary art interest.

Among the five current exhibitions at the AGW is a large show of two regional artists whose painting signifies a moment in the pluralist 1970s when certain critics and artists concurred that "painting is dead!"

Mary Celestino, a Windsor native, and Duncan DeKergommeaux, from nearby London, Ontario, both independently responded by systematizing their painting to achieve an objective, meditative patterning that led, in both artists' works, to extraordinary results.

In the case of Celestino, who in the '70s was a WSU student and based in the Cass Corridor, patterned painting based on numerical sets achieved a metaphoric relationship with what she perceived in the urban grid of a decaying city. Employing the X's and O's of Roman numerals, Celestino's paintings immediately remind us of the circuitry of computer chips.

DeKergommeaux found artistic and spiritual grounding in the writings and grid works of Mondrian and, after a stint in New York, an interest in Buddhism led him to employ the Buddhist "prescription for mandalas" as a generating process in his paintings. Both artists are represented by strong paintings that serve to contextualize a moment in our history. But the exhibition of period works by DeKergommeaux and Celestino also reveals the remarkable commitment of the AGW to both regional and contemporary art.

Two other exhibits underscore this ideal commitment of AGW to contemporary art. The traveling show, "Disturbing Abstraction," is a survey of the significant "constructed paintings" of Canadian-born, New York-educated painter Christian Eckart. A wide range of techniques reveals Eckart to be engaged with the perimeters of paintings and with the mutations of abstraction.

The most poignant works are composed of perfect, lacquered surfaces on thick, gauged aluminum encased in seamless aluminum frames. At times, the disturbingly slick paintings throw up a wall of indifference that must be engaged before we can realize their potential abstraction as landscapes or find their "meaning." Some of the aluminum paintings are shaped so that they reflect the image of the viewers back on themselves.

Other paintings are composed of elaborate gilded frames cut and shaped into sometimes closed, sometimes open irregular shapes that at once echo medieval and Renaissance art, and at the same time question the nature of representation and artistic closure. The enclosed white surfaces of the paintings may be textured or glossy plastic laminates involving the whole order of materials that an artist has at his disposal.

"De la séduction à la résistance: Sylvie Bélanger," curated by Helga Pakasaar, AGW's curator of contemporary art, is a large video installation that takes the current issue of body theory and technology to a lyrical level, beginning in a room with a lectern holding an empty book and Bélanger's version of Hegel's anatomy of the master-slave relationship written on a wall. The text focuses on the formation of the "I" of self-consciousness, while the spectator is subsequently brought into four encounters with unique video projections. The videos in each space isolate us in a fixed relationship with the "haunting sort of poetry in technology" and allow for an uneasy exploration of our relationship with the seductiveness of video.

The first two videos are projected on a hanging filmy screen and a rippled satin pillow on the floor. A text from French author Marguerite Duras shimmers before us and identifies the body as the source of the spirit. In each of the two succeeding videos, a unique shimmering body and face individuate our experience and ultimately succeed in isolating the alarmingly edgy reality of video space.

Perhaps the most exciting realization for Detroiters at the Art Gallery of Windsor is the kind of quality curating that can be done when the all of the energies and budgets are going in the same direction on behalf of the arts.

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