Different strokes

Oct 2, 2002 at 12:00 am

Gallery openings are supposed to be full of surprises. We expect to be lifted out of humdrum habits by the latest work of Sir or Madame X; but too much of a difference between our expectations of a particular artist and the new pieces before our eyes puts us in a quandary. Some artists — e.g. such notable Cass Corridor painters as Jim Chatelain or the late, great Paul Schwarz — build whole careers out of constant questioning, and keeping everybody intrigued by the gap between what once was and now is.

The new show by Robert Sestok and Sherry Hendrick at ZeitGeist Gallery raises the stakes in just this way. Sestok and Hendrick bring the values of the Cass Corridor tradition into the 21st century with gutsy attitudes toward risk-taking and a shared commitment to keeping us off balance while getting us to reimagine the world we live in.

Those who remember Hendrick’s drawings at the Center Galleries in March 2000 — gorgeous waterscapes centered on references to the ecology of Michigan and the Great Lakes — might wonder where she’s going with this compact selection of new pieces. Only one of them is what could conventionally be called a painting, the oil-on-paper Boat, whose blue-green water allows us to connect it to her previous concerns. But the other five works make us ponder the primal aspects of existence by means of strategies involving wood constructions, background-washes and drawing. Here’s an artist who’s always been known for her painting (a groundbreaking series of heads in gestural black-and-white or intense color, followed by those coolly philosophical, yet deeply felt waterscapes). But when it comes to her latest investigations, she throws us a curveball that says, “Go fetch.”

The most successful of these new works combine wood elements that rise out of the picture plane — casting shadows on either the gallery wall or on the work itself — to suggest mythical, poetic connections. The starkly beautiful Low Resolution (pictured) brings paint, pencil, varnish, wood and plywood together in a small but powerful metaphor for the human will to discovery. Out of a black painted background, with the merest suggestion of a grid or weave rendered in pencil, juts what looks like the prow of a ship. In the aura surrounding this piece are echoes of Homer and Ezra Pound’s cantos, as well as the history of North America, in particular that of the Great Lakes.

If that seems like too much of a stretch, a similar construction called Audio (watercolor, varnish, mahogany and plywood) simply presents an impressionistic, three-dimensional space that resonates with poetic ambiguity. Are the wood lozenges (and the shadows cascading from them) and light background-wash another reference to water? They seem to be, but in a much more enigmatic way.

Hendrick takes a different (though related) tack with Tablet, a piece in which a faint text suggests primordial events with words such as “fire,” “shelter,” “soil,” “nest,” “oxygen,” etc. The net effect of these six works is a tantalizing departure for this Detroit artist, if a bit frustrating in its brevity.

Sharing the ZeitGeist show are 10 of Sestok’s latest paintings that continue this multimedia artist’s fascination with two-dimensional space (see “Cathedrals of light,” Glen Mannisto’s review of Sestok’s recent Cass Cafe exhibition, in the arts archive at metrotimes.com). Their titles refer to Cass Corridor streets and environs (Forest, Willis, Lincoln, 94 East, etc.) while their intensely layered method (combining Mondrian-like patches of color, swirled drawing and spattered paint) is guaranteed to disturb most viewers with its severely somber assault on the retina. Yet in tandem with Hendrick’s new work, these oils make us stop, look and listen — to the silent scream around us.

“Sestok-Hendrick,” recent work by Robert Sestok and Sherry Hendrick, is at ZeitGeist Gallery (2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit) through Oct. 19. Call 313-965-9192 for hours.

George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]