Epiphany in Treetown

Apr 17, 2002 at 12:00 am

“Don’t you miss that old DIA slogan, ‘You gotta have art’?” asks Detroit artist-curator Jocelyn Rainey over gooey cheese pizza in one of Ann Arbor’s by-the-slice joints. “What a beautiful day to visit a museum — actually that’s any day and everybody. Art is for everybody.”

Rainey is the brains and energy behind JRainey Gallery (1440 Gratiot near Eastern Market, 313-259-2257), a small but enlightening space that she opened in 1998, the same year she finished her master’s degree in painting at Wayne State University. That was also the year she began teaching at Loyola High School in Detroit, an all-boys program that for four years has followed Rainey’s lead 100 percent when it comes to involving students in the wide world of art. She’s both clear and iron-willed about her purpose:

“People really sleep on art — they don’t understand its magnitude. We tend to think of it in limited terms, as drawing, painting or sculpture, so our kids do too. But whenever a student says that he doesn’t care about art, I explain that art is everywhere — in the way his jacket is cut or a building is made. And each of us is one of God’s unique artistic creations.”

Remembering her own lack of exposure to art when growing up on Detroit’s east side, she shifts gears in midthought: “My mama always took me with her to the fabric store on Saturdays — I hated it ’cause she stayed in there for hours — but what I did see were the colors — it was all just color.”

It wasn’t until her senior year at Denby High School that she took her first art class, but the seriousness and commitment of her teacher, Mr. Chi, got her attention:

“Kids should have art in every grade. They express themselves in so many different ways because we don’t give them a creative outlet.”

One of Rainey’s earliest jobs was with the city of Detroit’s parks maintenance department. She spent seven years (1989-96) keeping urban green spaces beautiful and in shape. One day, her crew had to paint some swing sets and she begged to do it: “It was great. I loved it. And then I had a dream that I was an artist, standing at an easel painting. I wanted to find my destiny.”

In 1993, Rainey began studying at what used to be the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit; when she graduated in 1996 she was on her way. Yet as she specialized in painting, she began to realize that “Art is the center of everything, everything we see. And it should not be separated into music, poetry, painting, etc., because it’s just one whole.”

As we enter the University of Michigan Museum of Art (525 S. State St., Ann Arbor, 734-764-0395) and begin soaking up its intimate atmosphere, Rainey laments that she doesn’t manage to visit here often. A little perversely, we start our tour on the second floor, moving slowly through the pristine collections of African and Japanese art, past the permanent installation of Buddhist sculpture, through the gorgeous, recently reinstalled Chinese room and fixate on a captivating array of miniature snuff bottles carved from ivory, wood and jade. In all of these galleries, Rainey’s attention is as much taken up by the variously colored walls as by the impeccable scholarship and the objects on display:

“In one gallery, the wall is kind of eggplant — in another, it’s kind of reddish-green. Here it’s green. The curators are not afraid to change and not get stale.”

Back on the ground floor, we enter the large, central apse area, which alternately presents a one-person show or a group of paintings on loan from another museum or a reassessment of UMMA’s own holdings. Right now (through May 26) it features “Kara Walker: An Abbreviated Emancipation (from The Emancipation Approximation),” a contemporary series of black cut-paper silhouettes that narrates, often grotesquely, the sexual nightmare endured by African-Americans under slavery.

“It’s very important,” says Rainey, “for the museums at colleges to show new and cutting-edge artists. You hear about it and read about it, but it’s good to see the work in person, to get your own feel for it.”

In one of Walker’s stark images, a male figure with the unmistakable profile of George Washington is seated on the shoulders and back of a crouching slave boy while a young slave girl kneeling in front of the man seems about to apply her mouth to a bulge in his trousers. It’s the kind of work that’s guaranteed to split audiences down the middle, but in this peaceful museum it seems to have created no particular uproar. Would this same show anger audiences in Detroit, if presented at the DIA?

“I’m sure it would,” says Rainey, “because of the subject matter combining sex and slavery. People don’t want to relive that. Your great-grandmother or your great-aunt or your grandmother, you can go to her and she’ll tell you some stories that would horrify you. People don’t want to see this imagery because of that.

“Art is personal — it’s your likes and your dislikes … yet I would never say that Walker shouldn’t make this type of art. … Everybody had a cutting edge during their time … and it’s good to see all types of art. It gives you an education. It opens your eyes. We ought to bring a whole busload of Detroiters here, drop them down in the middle of this show and see how they feel about it.

“That’s where education comes in, about why we should see this work. Why are we going to see Egyptian treasures or van Goghs, but we won’t travel to see cutting-edge work? You’ve got see what happened back in the day, but you’ve also got to see what’s happening now. Fifty years from now people will be jumping on buses to see the Kara Walkers that we’re looking at right here.

“And why is it,” Rainey wonders, “that in New York and Chicago, people from all over the world flock to the museums? What are we doing in the Detroit area that people are not flocking … unless we have certain blockbuster shows?”

One reason might be that greater Detroit — a series of interlocking communities with a major international airport and a worldwide reputation for its music — is stuck in the past when it comes to getting from here to there.

“We need mass transit — the people want it — but the Big Three want us to drive cars,” Rainey says. “If we had mass transit, then the UMMA would be just a short trip from downtown Detroit.”

While we’re taking a long look at “Cavafy’s World: Hidden Things,” a risky series of etchings by David Hockney in the basement Works on Paper Gallery (through May 5), Rainey and I agree on a three-pronged approach to her art-for-everybody idea, one that will take a little while to unfold: art education for all (particularly grades K-12), mass transit (about seven different rail lines would be great, but we’ll take two right now) and mass-media reporting on museum and gallery exhibitions (particularly on TV, and not just when a museum burns down or a show causes a scandal). In the meanwhile, we’ll keep the ideas flowing.

“You should never turn your back on a discussion,” says Rainey. “You should be in it right now. Give your opinion.

“For a start, we need to bridge the gap between the community and the museums, between the art galleries and the museums. We can all be right in the same big city and yet seem so far apart.”

This is the third in a series of visits in which curators from alternative art spaces take a critical look at major regional art centers. Be sure to read the others:

"Got art?" (4/3/02) — Up-and-coming art curator Aaron Timlin looks long and hard at the DIA’s modern collection.

"Art at the border" (4/10/02) — Artcite’s Christine Burchnal challenges the Art Gallery of Windsor.

"Minding the art" (4/24/02) — CCS instructor and Tangent Gallery curator Mitch Cope explores the diverse and challenging works displayed at Cranbrook Art Museum.

George Tysh is Metro Times' arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]