Nov 11, 2009 at 12:00 am

Imitation can be unabashed or slickly hid, either way it's flattery. That's tired. 

What's more gripping than a solid rip-off (of idea or design) is some conceptual take on duplication, an approach concocted to bastardize the source to the point that it can't be (easily) recognized. Make art. And make a point, sure, but — for God's sake — make it amusing.

Those who came out to Hamtramck's Design 99 this past Saturday saw the opening of a group show displaying the work of 12 artists and two curators who set out to do just that.

Steve "Stupor" Hughes and Nina Bianchi are the curators behind Work and Tumble: Photocopier as Illuminator. Their choice group of artists and graphic designers was challenged with creating artful duplication with photocopying to, as Bianchi puts it, "illuminate ideas through the use of or influenced in some way by a photocopier." Wacky borders, but borders nonetheless. Still, these artists had freedom to roam, and that can be as dynamic as it can be a flop. The artists didn't necessarily have to produce work on copy machines, but were asked to take an image or idea and manipulate it using a copy machine. 

A sundry collection of area artists including Kristin Beaver, Libby Cole, Ben Hernandez and Scott Northrup, to name a few, brought out a steady and equally diverse assembly of art heads and friends. Some artists were very direct, some transferred copied images onto other materials, others played with degeneration or did cutouts and collages of stuff they either transferred to other materials or created on a final copy. 

"A lot of different usages are represented," Hughes says. "Everyone's work is very different [from each other's] and interesting, everyone took this idea and made it their own. I think the show looks fucking great." As a jumbled collection of images, they do play well together in the space.

The idea for this exhibit hatched when Bianchi (a graphic designer) and Gina Reichert  (who owns and operates creative hub Design 99 with husband-artist Mitch Cope) purchased a small offset press duplicator with the intent of utilizing it for a project Bianchi describes as a "print shop gone wrong.

"We wanted to embrace the errors and mistakes that happen in the reproduction and assimilation process," Bianchi says. "We went back and forth working that idea, brainstorming with the printing industry term 'print and tumble' in our minds. Another idea was thinking of the copier itself as a piece of machinery that could be utilized as light system to design." But that project was put on hold to make time, and room, for Tumble

Meanwhile, Reichert had to focus on projects she and Cope had already set in motion, specifically traveling with the waterway-vagabond Heartland Machine exhibit and also their ever-intriguing Power House endeavor, which finds the couple renovating houses in Detroit as an urban-dwelling performance piece. No worries, Bianchi found a collaborator in Detroit artist and zinester Hughes while Reichert and Cope provided their venue. 

When Bianchi illustrated an issue of Hughes' Stupor zine, the two realized a creative accord. The result didn't only prove successful in the output of the artists they tapped for Tumble but their own artistic spins, abstractly and tangibly. 

"We'd been talking about ideas for a while," Bianchi admits, "but it was when he was asking me about a show (Keep it Loose) I did at Design 99 over the summer with Chris Ridell that we got to talking about the use of the place and [Cope and Reichert's] continued interest in having a work space that is also a revolving, kinetic space where other stuff happens. It came together rather organically."

The pair's shared vision is evident in their selection process, which was rooted in three essential questions: Does the artist have a real connection to Hamtramck? Would they be willing to participate in what Bianchi sees as a "more conceptual show — not your standard hanging-of-pieces-for-sale opening?" Does their work show some degree of pop-culture? 

Bianchi and Hughes are both friends of Cope and Reichert, so they know that Design 99 works with particular curators who suit their vision. They went against the grain and, in doing so, Bianchi believes Tumble "will shed light on a group of people who wouldn't normally show together and might not normally show in this space."

What affects Hughes most about the show is the consumer-friendly wrinkle he and Bianchi ironed into it. See, they also made copies, duplicates of the work of all the artists in the show. 

Hughes: "They're like prints — nice quality copies made on the offset press available at the Hamtramck price of 99 cents. You can go to the gas station and buy yourself a bag of chips or you could come out and buy some artwork for 99 cents — take the whole show back to your place for $40. It's all about the idea of being able to bring art to people at a low cost."

Hughes is on to something; there's a show within a show, two layers and exhibits to consider. That Bianchi and Hughes took all of the submissions and copied them, transforming their appearance once more, is clever albeit slightly gimmicky. And that most of the work on display costs less than $100 is realistic and cool. 

Bianchi says that many of the artists she and Hughes chose for the exhibit said that the loose structure in which they were asked to work compelled them to create outside of their comfort zones. What's important to remember is that, for some, the impact of producing art for this show was significant, yet looking at the art on Design 99's (freshly painted) white walls, there's no sense of convoluted highbrow jerkery. Tumble was an idea that turned into an exercise, a group show that took on the role of history lesson, a duplex exhibit that repackaged affordable art and redefined curatorial role-playing. And, believe it or not, it was an all-around good time. For some, it was heavier than that. 

Susan LaPorte, an associate professor at CCS in the graphic design department and artist with four retro-vibed, ad-inspired pieces in Tumble, told Bianchi that she's going to continue to do something weekly that's along the lines of what she produced for the show. "Now that's what's important," Bianchi concludes, reconsidering this show's value, "the idea that artists not only made work, but grew in some weird way, that they went through some personal transformations." 

Heavy and amusing? Nah, not in Detroit ...

Work and Tumble: Photocopier as Illuminator runs 1-5 p.m. Saturdays in November at Design 99, 3309 Caniff St, Hamtramck; visitdesign99.com.

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]