Once upon a time, a man had an idea. He planted the idea in Pontiac, but it didn’t take. He planted it in Detroit, but it didn’t take. Now Museum of New Art curator Jef Bourgeau has planted MONA back in Pontiac, but this time it’s fortified, surrounded by a litter of art galleries that coddle an array of aesthetic talents and tastes.
After a history rippled with displacement, sticky politics and troubled funding, MONA lives again at the Oakland Art Center Building at 7 N. Saginaw St. in downtown Pontiac, along with other ARTCORE affiliated blossoms: the Forum Project from John Cynar, and the A.K.A. Gallery run by Mary Harrison, formerly of CPOP gallery.
This is a welcome collection, burgeoning with potential to feed creative hungers and imaginations in metro Detroit, and A.K.A. promises to start you off in a refreshing direction.
Last weekend kicked off a two-man show of new paintings by Davin Brainard and Ron Zakrin at the A.K.A. gallery, and it holds true to the “eclectic Americana” and “unpretentious space” Harrison strives to employ.
Brainard continues his spray-painted path to fun-fun-fun with a flat and simple world where popcorn shapes can read as clouds or treetops depending on their color, and stenciled dandelions, werewolves, rifles and unicorns all live in harmony, with a little bit of furry-fingered rebellion here and there. “Were Wolf Rising” depicts our fur-covered brothers (in both casual and business attire) as misfits of society, clutching rifles and an I’m not gonna take it anymore attitude. It’s an image that’s both sandbox playful and able to muster oppressive sensations associated with real life society and working worlds.
Accenting the A.K.A. visuals on opening night were Zakrin’s Goudron and Brainard’s Little Princess, solo music projects. The most exciting exhibition of spontaneity came as the reverberating hum of Little Princess began to swell inside the A.K.A.; a woman splattered her red wine across the tan carpet, which proved that not everyone warms up to Noise. And, no, Goudron is not a Tokyo-devastating Japanese monster, but Zakrin’s groovin’ DEVO-esque electro-techno synth-instrumentals, as well as the French word for tar.
A perfect complement to Brainard’s full-moon-loving subjects are Zakrin’s series of chimpanzee portraits. Zakrin’s rich depth and color-savvy paint application depict formally posed chimps, outfitted as a conquistador, a greaser, Caesar and more. The intense portraits will not only conjure yearnings for Planet of the Apes, but will stir primal urges that seem somehow much more human than Zakrin’s paintings of emotionless girls bearing wings and rockets.
In addition to the Habitat gallery, the first floor of the Art Center is home to The Annex, showing a collection of sculptures and abstract minimalist pieces, and Forum Project, which presently offers the works of two photographers: Hard, sexy and awkward human moments caught on grainy black and white by Cybelle Codish (a frequent Metro Times contributor), and panoramic American landscapes sliced and bled together in full color by Rob Kangas.
Just up the stairs resides MONA in its beautiful new space; consisting of a high-ceilinged main room with plenty of natural light, and several intimate rooms off the first and second floors. Most of the rooms are filled with an immense collection of color photographs by “Dutch photographer” Jan de Groot. The images are purported portraits of notable artists, with reputations that range from high profile to terribly visible to should I know who they are? Yet the everyday people faces, some of which you may recognize, don’t match the names. Enhanced with digital filters that soften the image and sharpen selected contours, most of these faux portraits are framed in old-school dark oval portrait frames. The effect is nostalgic, reminiscent of early 20th century photography that offsets the softness of images (caused by long exposures) by defining and touching up edges by hand.
As I look at a photograph of a man with a flattened-out fedora and a finger up his nose (a goofball shot that doesn’t come close to capturing the artist it claims to portray, Joseph Beuys), a light-haired woman next to me points to a photo and says, “That’s me when I had dark hair.” In the “Portrait of Yayoi Kusama,” Elaine Ohno poses in a straitjacket as Kusama, an artist she wasn’t familiar with. When I ask her whether de Groot was a visiting artist or lived in Detroit, she knows nothing of the Dutch photographer and tells me, “Jef took the picture.”
I say, “You may have told me something I’m not supposed to know.”
Ohno replies, “Oh, well, candid to a fault.”
The jig is up! It’s a double-headed sham. Jan de Groot is none other than Jef Bourgeau posing as a Dutch photographer taking portraits of Detroiters posing as the cream of contemporary art darlings.
It is true that Detroit sure could use a museum dedicated to exposing contemporary works of art, but at the moment, MONA is taking after its curator and only pretending to be a contemporary art museum in metro Detroit. In between the de Groot photographs, which weren’t taken by de Groot, filling just about every spare room in the joint, are virtual art images tacked to the wall. The computer images are part of the museum’s E-MONA project, created as a means to get around the exorbitant costs of shipping the real thing to the museum. Concocting art and artists can cut costs too. And Bourgeau’s great caper managed to get top artist’s names inside his museum, for nothing.
So what is he up to? At best, MONA is a luxurious art gallery surrounded by an impressive maze of dense rhetoric. It appears to possess a conflicted personality that isn’t quite sure if it wants to be pretentious or just have a good time. Bourgeau could have easily used the pseudonym Mr. Dress-Up from the far off land of Make Believe. Instead, he cloaks his museum in highbrow facades, using the European version of Biennial to title his Biennale 2004 show, and catering to Dutch photography. After all the hoopla fades, the realization sinks in that this great new space is accommodating old-hat concepts, far from the cutting edge of art, that may make you smirk but ultimately leave you uninspired.
Don’t get me wrong. Pontiac’s Art Center building really is something to celebrate. All of its artistic venues allow necessary opportunities for metro Detroit artists (and more) to share their visionary voices with the public and encourage ongoing dialogue. However, when it comes to MONA, I say let’s stop pretending and challenge Bourgeau, (and what the heck, de Goot too) to fill his magnificent new space with actual, substantial art — by actual artists if it’s not too much trouble.Anita Schmaltz is a freelance writer for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]