Apr 24, 2002 at 12:00 am

Susan Aaron-Taylor’s show at detroit contemporary, “Soul Work,” sets out to unleash the secret life of trees. In the tradition of such visionaries as William Blake — whose unfettered vision found a “universe in a grain of sand” — Aaron-Taylor emancipates all manner of demons, dancers and dormant figures, as well as myths and stories, from the suggestive formal structure of roots and tree branches.

As if peering through the eyes of a child, she sees wolves metamorphose from a twisted root, a serpent in a length of animated branch, dancing animus in sprouting tree limbs (Coagulatio, pictured) or trapped female figures behind the surface of a tree’s bark. But unlike a child (and revealing an evolving, mature personal landscape as a compromise between the “primordial forces” she refers to as “the ego and the soul”), Aaron-Taylor has faith in the revelatory power of nature. With deft craftsmanship and mesmerizing imagination, she coaxes out her vision using branches, adobe, kozo (a cloth made of the paper mulberry tree) and an assortment of glass, stone and bone to animate the suggestive forms of the vegetative world.

Complementing Aaron-Taylor and animating another part of the psyche, Mary Fortuna’s “Hanging Garden” (a room full of 32 hand-sewn, brilliantly formed, doll-sized leather figures — whimsically imaginative, pathos-laden, organically erotic) constitutes another spellbinding array. These sympathetic shapes composed of glove leather and hand-tooled and -dyed resin often use flower-bud and fruit forms to activate the figures that mirror the artist’s psychic landscape.

Coquette is a sexy, pink figure with a fur bodice and wicked spiked tail that pokes if you get too close. Melancholy Fruit is a modest black-and-red leather figure, with a spindly long neck, a forlorn drooping head and a sad, flower-bud face. There’s a haunting imagination at work in these artists that, while generated by whimsy, counters much of the heady crap known as art today.

Despite the departure of its visionary director, Aaron Timlin (who has been named director of the Detroit Artists’ Market), detroit contemporary overachieves. Included in the exhibition curated by new director Phaedra Robinson are solo exhibits of Robert Herrick’s amazing process-based photographs and Gilda Oliver’s sculptures of large ceramic heads, as well as the Cranbrook Academy Collective’s “Ideas for Sitting,” a medley of youthful chair designs.

At detroit contemporary (5141 Rosa Parks Blvd., Detroit — 313-898-4ART) through May 19.


Down a few blocks and through the alley at Alley Culture is the highly anticipated return of former Detroit artist Kiersten Armstrong, who joins Chicagoan Mike Slattery and Charlotte, N.C.-based Catherine Uehara in an Earth Day celebration entitled “Earth/After.”

Dave Roberts curated this multimedia, post-installation installation which is centered around Slattery and Uehara’s blue and green artificial turf map of the Earth “protected” by double golden arches and punctuated by four kitsch designer oil pumps clad in gingham, camouflage, cowgirl and pony outfits. An array of beaver, eagle and American flag constructions includes a plastic pine tree decorated with a chewing beaver, a large eagle aloft in the rafters shitting the Stars and Stripes, and a pile of spit-balled American flags in a corner. The gallery rafters are festooned with billowing plastic bags replete with what have now, post-Sept. 11, become flag “logos.” The kitsch motif is completed by a flag logo “window treatment” announcing “I heart USA.”

The home-decor theme distinctly echoes the “Home Security” mood of American cultural politics and provides a framework for a meditation on corporate consumption of our earth’s resources. Accompanying the exhibition is a text that reads as a parable of America-gone-mad economics composed by Slattery and Uehara. Presiding over the room is Armstrong’s magnificently enormous priestly robe that somehow sums it all up.

At Alley Culture (in the alley south of Willis between Trumbull and Lincoln, Detroit — Fridays and Saturdays, 3-6 p.m.) through May 18.

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