For more than two decades, Dell Pryor operated a fine art and antiques gallery in downtown Detroit’s Harmonie Park. Nearly a year ago, she set up shop in a shared space at the corner of Cass and Willis in what was once an artist’s hangout, Cobb’s Corner Bar. The legendary Willis Gallery was two doors down. So, historically speaking, the neighborhood has a lot of cred. And Pryor is doing her bit to keep the tradition going.
The current show was curated by Detroit artist Anita Bates and features ten women who have ties to education, generally as teachers. Most of them have links to the city, although two, Camille Billops and Robin Holder, are long stalwarts of the New York arts scene. In keeping with the show’s title, Rhythm and Verse, the artists share a sense of the lyrical in terms of working method and aesthetic sensibility.
In her first Detroit show in many years, Donnamarie Bruton (now on the faculty of one of the nation’s top art schools, the Rhode Island School of Design) is represented by a series of medium-sized mixed-media paintings on board, all roughly square and framed in gilt silver Beaux Arts moldings, plus a couple of larger acrylics. All of the works continue her long-standing engagement with mundane detail as the key to larger meaning, in this case art’s ability to acknowledge memory and loss if not to overcome the latter. Cheap materials such as paper doilies are collaged onto the surfaces of several works to represent other things, such as a tablecloth, an umbrella or a curtain. The cut out spaces of the doilies are mimicked by stenciling built up in layers of white gel with the consistency of cake frosting.
Throughout the paintings, other household objects — an antique carved wooden dining chair, an old household electric fan, an ice cream cone, etc. — are presented as examples of “the little things in life” so often desperately held onto in times of distress. (Remember “Rosebud” in Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane?)
The assorted elements are held together by Bruton’s mastery of several drawing styles, ranging from childlike sketching to sophisticated illustration, combining to wrap each picture into an organic whole.
The concern with what might be termed “memory effects” can also be seen in the recent work of show curator Bates, who adds a narrative element to the usual cascading fields of translucent color washing over her paintings. Between layers of paint and glued-on gravel, Bates has collaged photographs of family members (in particular her father, brother and sister) and other ancestors. In a large painting on canvas, Passage, a photographic portrait is reproduced on film rather than paper, allowing the surface underneath to show through. The layering of image and paint evokes the passage of time and the desire to fix it in place. It also makes the image look like a daguerreotype (the nineteenth-century photographic method of making silver images on copper plates), which invests it with an air of preciousness.
Other pieces like “Hermano y Hermana” use photos that appear to be taken from family albums and scrapbooks, relics preserved for posterity by their incorporation into works of art.
The knockout of the show is delivered by Jessica Serran, a fairly recent College for Creative Studies (CCS) graduate currently working on her master’s of fine arts degree in San Francisco. Creator of the large mural at the Atlas Global Bistro on Woodward, Serran is represented by several modestly sized mixed media works on paper. Blessed with considerable drawing skills (including the ability to accurately depict a variety of type fonts by hand) and an innate sense of design, Serran presents playful reveries that mix text and image, visual complexity and surrealistic humor. The piece “Ascend” has what may be an evocative self-portrait of the artist with a bit of collaged verse that reads “all grown up,” an ironic assertion when juxtaposed with the seemingly naive style in which the work is executed. An abstracted drawing of scissors puns the artist’s use in the work of cut-up elements taken from printed material.
Serran’s gentle taunting of the viewer is also evident in the title of the piece “Not for Sale.” Though not technically part of the show, Pryor has a large work on canvas by Serran on view that uses texts from Shakespeare with extremely intricate cutting and collaging of fabric and other elements. It demonstrates that while Serran’s little pieces could be viewed simply as satisfying aperitifs, she is fully capable of delivering the full course.
The exhibition also features several small, colorful canvases by CCS painting professor Gilda Snowden and two acrylics and a collage by longtime City of Detroit school system administrator Shirley Woodson.
Rhythm and Verse has been extended to run until at least the end of June at Dell Pryor Gallery, 4201 Cass Ave. (at Willis) in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. Call 313-833-6990 for gallery hours.Vince Carducci writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]