Made to disorder

In a devastated yet strangely beautiful neighborhood just northwest of downtown Detroit, among windowless brick buildings and overgrown fields, one wall on 4731 Gallery reads in large black letters: “Art in a Living Context.” This is the perfect sentiment to express what’s going on inside the space during Detroit Art Riot, an exhibition and series of performances curated by multimedia artist Harlan Lovestone.

At first, the sheer quantity of artwork, both performed and displayed, is overwhelming. But thanks to Lovestone’s careful consideration, it all fits together. Gallery Director Brian Heath says the gallery’s primary purpose is community involvement in the arts, and Lovestone’s project, featuring three Saturday evening performances of art and music, is drawing in the crowds. Heath also says that Lovestone has “touched on every issue, but left something for the imagination.”

The work in Detroit Art Riot represents that which unifies these artists — their idealism, creative diversity and youthful energy. It showcases a considerable amount of political and social consciousness on the part of local artists, presenting viewpoints in diverse styles that reference the history of modern art. Performances are influenced by Dada cabaret, 1960s happenings and contemporary techno culture.

At the exhibit opening, on a recent Saturday evening, a passionate army of arty youngsters calling themselves The American Scientists, wearing mouse ears and standing in militaristic formations, swept up balloons and enacted nihilistic, post-World War I-flavored agitprop theater. The piece was well-accented by their backdrop, an expressionist American flag mixed-media piece hanging from the ceiling. The American Scientists superimpose bullet-ridden images of Oprah, Willie Nelson, the Olsen twins and others against sloppy stripes.

Earlier that evening, under the soft pink glow of a paper lantern, Phaedra Robinson (an artist with Elaine de Kooning beatnik hair and a divine face), scrawled graffiti on the walls from her perch up in an elevated nook, reachable by ladder. Accompanied by video and sound, she invited visitors to enter her “Tree Fort.” To this exhibition, Robinson also contributes visionary Symbolist drawings that are moody dreamscapes.

Artist Clinton Snyder presents a surreal painting picturing two dead pigs’ heads — one dour and wrapped in plastic, the other one smiling — and a Superman figure. Shelly Vitale’s painting “Circles Study” inspires close examination of its swirling lines, organ shapes and strong color, while Brian Cronin’s two minimalist pieces have great nuanced surfaces.

Jeseca Dawson’s “Cass Community Social Services Portraits” display the tired eyes and mental fatigue of those who live on the city’s streets and Janice Polzin’s “Riot?” is social commentary in bold expressionist colors. “Cowboys and Indians” by Diana Alva is a Picassoesque nude with plastic Western toy figurines lined across the top of the canvas, making the piece postmodernist in its ambiguity. Large-scale photographic prints by Michael Bizon illustrate his personal preferences in facial hair, while the archival prints of Howard Davy’s “First Amendment Project” are more traditionally political.

When taken in as a whole, Detroit Art Riot channels the spirit and energy of the Cass Corridor movement. In the ’60s and ’70s, artists were united by the experience of working in a supportive environment. Our contemporary creative community is just as diverse, but as the writing on 4731’s wall promises, living with art in a daily context unites these artists.

So many of us witness violence, political unrest, racial tension and homelessness, but we also experience beauty, spirituality, humor and joy. When taken together, the works in Detroit Art Riot reflect our urban environment. They’re symbolic of Detroit itself — the gritty and the grim as well as the energetic and the beautiful.


Through Oct. 15, with performances by Siddhartha, The Amazing Eugene Clark, Thor and Ziam at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15. 4731 Gallery, 4731 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-894-4731.

Christina Hill writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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