Mortal combat

Mar 29, 2006 at 12:00 am

A dreadful disquiet stirs in society right now. And yet by the looks of the art world, many don't care. Perhaps the problems have overwhelmed us or we've grown accustomed to unrest. Maybe we're feeling so removed, we have finally reached a point where we are beside ourselves.

If you consider this country's leading people in power and prominence — our celebrities, politicians, and media men and women — now would seem the perfect climate for a show of caricature, the art of extreme distortion. Society already seems to be a grotesque caricature of itself.

That's why I was excited to hear about such a show, let alone one juried by Draper Hill, a well-known local political cartoonist who worked for The Detroit News for 15 years. Here, I thought, the art will be hot. At Grosse Pointe Art Association, Hill presents an exhibit of caricature, satire, comics and cartoons featuring a few dozen works by 14 artists.

Unfortunately, hot it's not. The grand-prize winner was George Bay's "Tortoise, Nude ... Freshly Laid Rock." According to Hill, the sculpture of a turtle, made from found, carved burl and granite rock, "looks like a wandering brain that is suddenly out in the sunshine." Why did Hill think it deserved the grand prize? "There was no way that massive egg could have been laid by the turtle," he says. "It was a nice leap of the imagination."

Creative, sure. Well-executed? Definitely. But a turtle on a rock? You really can't get much further from the edge.

According to the gallery's handout for the exhibit, "The lure of wild power without responsibility" drew Draper Hill to creating political cartoons. So I wonder why the majority of work here has nothing to do with the current political or social climate. There are, of course, a few exceptions. Andy Malone presents Dialogue, a roll of toilet paper printed with cartoons of Mayor Kilpatrick and L. Brooks Patterson. The two politicians point fingers at each other down the paper trail, blaming one another like schoolchildren: "It's his fault!" Malone also placed second in the show for his "Smart Bomb," which Hill calls "a nice piece of physical theater." It's a recycled electronic device in which a Slim Pickens-looking Bush moves around making regular, reckless missile attacks. Nick Sousanis presents "Security" and "Show of Hands," two comic strips about the artist's own struggle with Bush's re-election and national security issues.

Rounding out the meager display of politically or socially minded caricatures and cartoons, well-known portrait artist Kenji drew up a biting image of a clenched Condoleeza Rice standing in hot water. This caricature won him third prize. But Kenjji was displeased that his subtle yet searing indictment of President Bush hadn't made the cut to be included in the show at all. That portrait features our leader standing at a podium with a calm and discerning look on his face, holding a "dummy" in his own image, actually doing the public speaking. Had it been admitted, it would have been the only true caricature of Bush in an exhibit filled with representations of animals and personified objects, even a wooden car and a painting of a pre-teen on the telephone.

Why wasn't it included, especially since the show was low on submissions? Hill offers no comment. He only says that Kenjji's Condoleeza piece worked. "It was a very effective visual simulation, and it added up, for me, to be Condoleeza." He makes it sound like not including Kenjji's Bush caricature was a judgment call on quality. I happen to agree with Hill that Kenjji's Bush isn't the best likeness — he's all chin and full lips — but isn't caricature just as much about commentary as it is quality? Maybe the artist should look for clues in the next room, where Hill displays his illustrative jabs at everyone from Saddam Hussein (holding a globe and exclaiming: "It's my ball") to "Mayor N the Hood" Coleman Young and even George Bush Sr. But nowhere to be found is a poke or prod at our current president, at a time when a few of us would enjoy seeing one, even if it's all in fun.

With the caricature show being a disappointment and little else that's truly relevant around town these days, I've recently found myself questioning how with it the majority of local artists and curators are. Thankfully, I saw a show in the nick of time at Detroit Artists Market, where executive board member Georgio Gikas and assistant gallery manager Jeseca Dawson curate an exhibit of paintings and bas relief woodcuts by Jo Powers and Brian Kremer. Although neither artist directly deals with the current political climate, here's a potent expression of a disconcerting mood and inexplicable restlessness not often seen in contemporary art, which seems lately to be self-indulgent, fashionable or frivolous, and more often than not, attractive. In both style and content, this work reminds me of art in previous centuries, made by those who rebelled against oppressive conservative values with boldly unsettling creativity.

Jo Powers' work is reminiscent of a few of the Italian mannerists of the early 16th century. She paints claustrophobic scenes of figures with entangled limbs, their skin oddly shaded in pink or blue hues, and isolated figures tripping up in a nightmarish, slow-motion horror. Powers' portraits are caricatures of real people caught in twisted games of psychological warfare, such as the feuding folks on The Jerry Springer Show. But with her hand, they become monsters with impish gargoyle faces. Hatchet murderer Lizzie Borden is another of her subjects, hostile in her silence, a woman whose fame, like the Springer Show guests, sheds light on society's desire to exploit people with problems so there's a safe distance between "us" and "them."

Brian Kremer's large-scale woodcuts call to mind the German expressionists of the early 20th century who struck at wood with severity, using art as a catharsis. Kremer's woodcuts alternately impress and impose on the viewer. His circus performers are maudlin figures wearing faces like masks, with drawn mouths, kinked necks and sagging breasts, either laboring against or giving in to the space that encloses them. They are martyrs, and they could be stand-ins for anybody who's ever been made to jump through hoops or felt trapped by their surroundings. I cramped up just looking at them.

Making art isn't easy, and neither is curating a show. The viewers are the lucky ones, who get surprised every once in a while when both artist and curator come together to show something that is really moving — even better yet, something that stops you in your tracks and makes you think, not only about what matters to artists, but to everyone.


Caricature runs through March 31 at Grosse Pointe Artists Association, 1005 Maryland, Grosse Pointe, 313-821-1848; Brian Kremer and Jo Powers runs through April 15, with a gallery talk by the artists at 2 p.m., Saturday, April 15, at Detroit Artists Market, 4719 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-8540.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]