Five to stay alive

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In the midst of unkempt fields, where a suppressed whisper of “once upon a time” rustles through the black frozen twigs of slum elms, sits a two-story brick building. Inside its cavernous rooms and in two big semitrailers in an adjacent garden are collections of the strangest objects.

“Five Solo Exhibitions,” the latest project from detroit contemporary director Aaron Timlin and co-director Phaedra Robinson, is an adventurous undertaking that folds the work of five wildly different artists into a combination of 2-D images, sculptural busts and site-specific installations, each of which teases out difficult notions of sensibility and tests the thresholds of our imaginations. It’s a blockbuster exhibition that reveals more about the nuances of contemporary art than many large institutional projects.

In the “gray room,” the aesthetic vestibule of the exhibit, and representing the most traditional notion of high art, are the delicate images of Kamil Antos, entitled “As the Goddamn Songs Turn Sour and the Days Die of Grayness ... .” Composed of vulgar materials — shellac, rubber, sawdust, cardboard, toenail clippings, recycled industrial detritus, rusty water, blood, polyurethane — these attractive, beguilingly simple works are chimerical marks and alchemical compositions. In their foreignness, they become objects of contemplation leading us through a series of discoveries and recognitions.

Antos’ unruly poetic titles, such as “orchids growing wild like dreams/in the fields of my mind,” may be daunting but seem serviceable: Here a balsa-wood frame holds a composition of amber-colored polyurethane and coffee grounds from which a desiccated orchid emerges. Behind glass, the image gains a condensation of focus and a powerful status in the psyche. Neither thought nor meditation, this poetic evocation transposes the crumpled orchid into something else entirely: perhaps a beautiful, apocalyptic explosion.

All of Antos’ works necessitate this “close in” reading, a suspension of reality and a dissociation of perception that transform the usual recycled Motown waste into a metaphoric celebration of process and redemption.

In mind-jarring opposition to Antos’ work, in the “brick room” or high-art antechamber, is the pop iconography of the artist Pavs. Called “Sideshow,” it’s an orgy of kitschy materials — beads, feathers, molded plastics, Bondo, found objects and chains — in which 16 busts celebrate the fetishization of identity. But it’s more freak show than sideshow.

From the first sculptural assemblage, “Sister Wendy’s Art Lesson” (which shows a nun pointing to a plastic-molded toreador’s privates with a 12-inch ruler), to “Flaunt It” (a riotous, big-bosomed, wild-lipped abundant woman), there’s an over-the-top, kitschy sexuality that governs the installation-styled exhibit. Here again, there’s a breach in perception: While not strictly courting the concerns of high art, there’s a quality of performance in material and conception that asks, “How is it different? Is it Art?” and which answers with a resounding “Yes” — making us at least think about the hierarchical landscape of the art world.

In the “second floor gallery,” New York artist Jeanne Pfordresher’s “I Want to Hear What I Want to Hear” (a series of five photographic elements and a sculptural installation) explores violence and the theatrical nature of consciousness. In the setup photo, “Hank,” we see a naked man encircled by threatening police officers. In the photo “Connie,” a prone naked woman is surrounded by female evangelical bible police. In “Copmamma,” a naked pregnant woman with threatening flashlight corners a mother-with-child driving a car. Each photo examines the role-playing quality in the construction of the identity of the keeper and the kept.

Three photos of a crime scene at a grocery store, “Professionalism, Courtesy, Respect,” while probably real, begin to look like a film set. And finally there’s “Hedge,” the centerpiece of the installation, which is a green-velvet, alcove-like structure punctuated with an abundance of ears. “Hedge” is accompanied by a familiar gray-noise sound track reminiscent of deafening freeway din, and provides a counterstrategy or haven from commercial stereotypes. Because of its episodic quality, the whole installation builds “meaning,” but like the work of Antos and Pavs, it does this through methods not easily discerned.

Finally both semitrailers in detroit contemporary’s gardens have site-specific installations that engage subjects and strategies not normally found in Detroit galleries. Graem Whyte’s “Recent Births” combines the architectural elements of a steel armature with six soft sculptural pieces that hang, as if from butcher shop meat hooks, painfully in air. Each sculptural form, with a name and a specific elemental shape — “Chet” is a double-helix shape in various colors of suede; “Gwendolyn” is a green-velvet scalloped sea shape — engages the conflict of individual psychic and cultural identity in the hard world.

In the second trailer is Jeff Karolski’s “Warmth,” a singularly quick and brilliant installation — involving elaborate construction techniques — that employs a raucous and jazzy sound track. After a labyrinthine walk, it submerges the viewer in a cozy dark place illuminated by a simple space heater and subtle exterior audio feedback. As an epigraph to the piece, Karolski asks, “How meaningful can ordinary be?” essentially focusing on how he has taken fundamental human experiences — heat, sound, sight — and telegraphed them into a singular controlled event.

Once again detroit contemporary has pushed curatorial practice beyond our expectations and created in “Five Solo Exhibitions” a constellation that reveals the interdependence of each artist’s work, each pushing artistic practice to new limits and ends.

Glen Mannisto writes about visual art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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