Rough and ready

On a weekend dominated by celebrity sightings, exclusive engagements and sports mania a few weeks ago, the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit presented the city with that other kind of culture: artistic. While much of downtown was making itself pretty for its one-night stand of super-hype, CAID quietly opened its doors for the exhibition Animate Object.

Curator Hugh Timlin says he purposely chose fewer artists than is typical for a group exhibition. Exhibiting the work of nine artists — Molly Reilly, Cooper Holoweski, Brian Pittman, Leslie Sobel, Gail Mally-Mack, Mary Ann Grauf, Catherine Peet, Chris Nelson and Toby Millman — Animate Object offers a brief glimpse of Detroit's emerging art scene.

With four of the six works in the first floor's main room, Molly Reilly's art has a dominating presence. But since her work is subtle and poetic, there is a surprising balance. Among the best of Reilly's works are "Gone By" and "Breathe," both of which superimpose the image of a suitcase on a natural landscape. Using Photoshop techniques, Reilly splits the landscape and then reflects it to create an uncannily symmetrical background. The resulting image very subtly adds surrealism to realism.

Where Reilly's works speak quietly, the other pieces in the main room express themselves in bold juxtaposition. The works by Pittman, Mally-Mack and Sobel draw the viewer in with their haptic qualities. As the only sculpture, Pittman's "Trunk" sits on the floor in two parts, reminiscent of a giant clamshell. The work, made of laminated wood, has a vessel-like quality that explores the relationship between interior and exterior. Sobel's work, "Growing Bone," relies on surface texture and color to evoke a reaction. Sobel layers wax until the two-dimensional surface takes on a reddish depth that makes it look like viscera, intriguing viewers to peer closer, paradoxically, by repulsing them. Mally-Mack's "Radiance" is a large vibrant painting of a few loosely limned red flowers against a muted gray background. Steeped in abstract expressionism, the "radiance" in Mally-Mack's work is a result of her variations in line quality, which reveal her intense focus during the painting process.

Also on the first floor are three video works by Cooper Holoweski, whose videos turn everyday images into artistic concepts. "Constellations IV" shows a bird's view of people walking in an open-air market, creating a parallel between people and stars and planets, and "The Dance" features a single live fish flopping atop a pile of dead fish. His videos play more slowly than real time, and the accompanying sound track adds a rhythmic beat. Through these sounds and images, Holoweski leads the viewer to reinterpret "what is" as "what could be."

In the upstairs gallery, works by Chris Nelson and Brian Pittman steal the show. Pittman creates three new works that play with material. Like "Trunk," all three of his smaller pieces are laminated wood and sit on the floor. However, by altering each form with springs, tar and metal feet, each sculpture takes on its own identity. Together, they create a strong presence in the room.

Unlike every other work in the exhibition, Chris Nelson appropriates materials to reconstruct rather than create objects. Using baseball cards as source material, Nelson cuts out jersey numbers, uniform pinstripes or players' beards in order to create newly patterned cards. The irony of his work is that it removes everything that's "animate" and an "object" from the photo in order to create a new body of work.

In CAID's gallery, concrete floors, visible ventilation systems and exposed brick on the walls create an atmosphere that makes art look different than it would in a refined gallery. The space seems more intimate, like an artist's studio rather than an exhibition space. Artwork here is much more approachable for the general public, revealing that Detroit has all the elements for a strong artistic presence.


Animate Object runs through March 18 at Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, 5141 Rosa Parks Blvd., Detroit; 313-899-CAID.

Jacque Liu is an artist and freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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