Out of the ordinary

Of no special quality or interest. Commonplace. Unexceptional. If you want to piss off an artist, use any of these definitions to describe their work. Tell them their sculptures and paintings, their “installations” and their mobiles and their 373 turkey drumsticks soaking in rat’s blood are regular and plain and customary. These are not the kind of reviews that would encourage a career, or make Ma and Pa feel any better for dropping 20 grand a year on Junior’s burning desire to attend the toniest of art schools. Cries of “ordinary” would normally sound the death knell for anyone involved in the creative arts, excepting television production and starving artists’ sales at the Light Guard Armory.

The Ordinary Things exhibition at the Johanson Charles gallery does not wish to bathe you in tepid waters of exalted mediocrity or confound you with the numbing boredom of “found objects on brown paper” irony. Its mission, according to co-curator Lon Gauthier, was to put together works that were either constructed from “ordinary” items or works that conjured the “ordinary” with materials not commonly associated with that damning adjective.

With the help of Bradford Watson, architecture student at Cranbrook Art Academy, Gauthier collected the works of eight Cranbrook graduate students and seven professional artists and assembled them all in what couldn’t have been a more appropriate setting. The gallery is a former warehouse tucked within the historic expanse of Eastern Market. It once housed the excruciatingly ordinary staples of grain and sugar. The gallery’s last tenants used the premises to construct egg crates and baskets. There is a metal chute that descends from the ceiling. It’s long dormant and now relegated to conversation-piece status. Owner Kevin Johanson has occupied this space for 11 years. For the past eight years it has housed the gallery. When not attending to his photography business (“I do everything but weddings”) and his Internet company, Motown Wireless, he’s busy showcasing art in an area more widely known for the distribution of fruits and nuts, spices and meats.

Although the mission statement is a bit loose — this meditation on “the ordinary” — the artists seemed to love the premise. These works are infused with a fair amount of humor and absurdity. Each piece explores the “ordinary” with a refreshing dollop of individuality and independence. The artwork varies widely in the manifold of mediums used and the size, shape and focus of their vision — so much so that no work reproduces or repeats another. A vacuum cleaner with a hot pink collection bag and sensual, twisting tubes sits alongside Sarah Turner’s enormous wrapping bows made of tar paper and foam and wood veneer. This is one example of the satisfying juxtaposition of form and imagery seen in the show. There are many others.

Sculptor and machine-maker Ed Sykes collaborates with video-artist Kelly Parker on a nasty bit of business his former architecture profs back at Lawrence Tech may not fully appreciate. “The Intolerable Act” utilizes a scale model of the Fisher Building he constructed back when he thought he’d be doing this stuff for real. Upon the top and sides of the well-known Detroit landmark are more than four thousand teabags holding fast with the eight gallons of resin they painted and poured all over it. The sides of the model slightly bow from the weight of the extraneous props, and the whole piece packs a powerful monster-movie punch. Along with this slap at his past, Sykes offers up his collection of reworked bowling balls and Parker will be showcasing the shoes she fabricated from army men, clear plastic spoons, and clear plastic grapes.

James Stoia, son of an orthodontist, pays homage to his father’s craft by outfitting three animal skulls with some imaginative dental work. His piece consists of a beaver sporting a set of braces, a cat with a silver filling, and the chilling sight of pig with a full-set of dentures. Ordinary appliances attached to ordinary animals and the results are as funny as they are unnerving.

Beside Stoia’s freak show oddities are the paper-and-wax constructions of sculptor and painter Graem Whyte. Whyte did not have to look too far in his search for a symbol of the ordinary. He merely had to look in the mirror. Whyte creates an exact model of his beard using the folded-paper-and-colored-wax technique that he’s utilized for many other works (primarily abstract sculptures that have graced countless other galleries around town). Alongside the beard sits a paper bag that has received a similar Whyte treatment. A seemingly infinite amount of folds and angles and geometric patterns adorn the simple bag as if it had been machined on a madman’s lathe.

In addition to curating this show, Gauthier’s work is on display. His “The Lumberman’s Monument” humorously attacks the outdoorsy motif with a metal-handled, wooden-bladed ax and a flaming ceramic log that will gladly roast your marshmallows at the opening reception.

The Ordinary Things show has a great time disproving what its title proclaims it to be.


See Ordinary Things at the Johanson Charles Gallery (1345 Division St., Detroit). Call 313-567-8638 for further information. Ends April 5.

E-mail Dan DeMaggio at [email protected].
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