Soft landing

Nov 8, 2006 at 12:00 am

Before it opened a few weeks ago, Meditations in an Emergency, the first show at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, had a lot of hype. The show, curated by Klaus Kertess, features work by nine internationally recognized artists. With the anticipation came questions about what a new museum can and should do to enliven the local art scene, and gossip about what the work would be like. An inaugural show says a lot about what a museum wants to be, and in evaluating the exhibit, it's best to keep that bar high. The hope was that the work would be a welcome distraction from all the chatter about egos and art stars, and that in characterizing today's "dark moment," as curator Kertess calls it, the art should be like a thunderstorm, both graceful and forceful, its effects intimate and intense.

When sculptor Nari Ward visited Detroit months ago to check out the new space for MoCAD, he visited an unremarkable-looking neighborhood on Detroit's west side, at the corner of Clairmount and 12th Street, renamed Rosa Parks Blvd. The site is home to a park that probably has a name, but who knows what it is? — two broken posts are left where the sign used to be. A steel sculpture by native Detroiter Jack Ward commissioned by the city serves as a monument honoring the site where the Detroit riots were sparked in July 1967. But the park's condition is less than honorable; it's intolerable.

Nari Ward (no relation to Jack Ward) is a Jamaica-born artist living in Harlem known for his installations constructed from salvaged materials. His piece, "White Flight Tea Bar," is loosely modeled after the park's monument to the riots, shaped like an origami hourglass, but it's made from slabs of acoustical ceiling tiles he found in the museum prior to renovation.

Although he uses discarded material, Nari Ward's large-scale sculpture is as delicate and deliberate as a flower arrangement, and its surprising loveliness contrasts the austere piece in the park. In the museum, Ward has set out green tea and cups on four tables, recalling a Japanese tea ceremony, giving viewers a place to sit and contemplate his art as an offering to Detroiters.

Ward also presents "Airplane Tears," which features the backs of dozens of televisions affixed to the wall. Kleenex hangs from each set as a reaction to millions of Americans "glued" to TV screens, investing themselves emotionally in whatever drama unfolds.

Kara Walker offers a sensitive portrayal of the black experience in her short video animation 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-American. It's a bold retelling of African-American history played out in a series of short vignettes with paper dolls. Walker is well-known for her cut-out wall silhouettes that depict stylized scenes of slavery and violence like elaborate Victorian scrollwork on wallpaper. Here, her viewpoint and voice are strong. In part of her animation, a mother and a young girl partake in a haunting duet, confessing such secret fears and desires as "I wish I were white."

Video artist Paul Pfeiffer teases our perceptions of sports celebrities and Hollywood icons. For MoCAD, Pfeiffer's Live from Neverland installation displays video footage on two screens: depicting Michael Jackson's press conference, in which the icon addresses child-molestation allegations, and a chorus of Filipino children reciting the King of Pop's words. Pfeiffer's deft editing alternately speeds up and slows down Jackson's tape to sync perfectly with the children's recitation. Pfeiffer is a hypnotic surrealist and Live from Neverland is an imaginative exercise that liberates our unconscious beliefs and desires about celebrity.

Of all the works in the show, Jonathan Pylypchuk's mixed-media installation, "Press a weight through life and I will watch this crush you," is too precious. His "Muppets do shantytown" — in which a cast of shopworn stuffed animals outfitted in raggedy scraps drink beers and console each other in a darling, makeshift ghetto — is a G-rated scene that belies its sorrow. The Los Angeles-based Pylypchuk has been profiled in Art Forum, the Village Voice and Art in America for his homespun stagings, perhaps because "folky" self-styling has become trendy in visual arts, with artists stitching enough ironic imagery on handkerchiefs to make My Little Pony want to puke. But this little bit of theater is too knowing, and the narrative is pretty one-note.

This may not be entirely Pylypchuk's fault. If curator Kertess has a stronger conceptual framework for the exhibit in mind, or at least some sort of theoretical component in the form of a catalog essay — this is a museum show, after all — we may have a better understanding why he thought Pylypchuk a good fit.

Roxy Paine's "SCUMAK No. 2" is an odd choice to include here as well. The computer-operated machine drips out a sculpture over a period of several hours. Paine's device is a statement about technological advancement and the time it takes to produce a handmade original work of art. But its concept is dated, and the device seems irrelevant in this context.

Tabaimo's short video "Hanabi-ra" references the art of 18th and 19th century woodcuts and contemporary anime. The four-minute clip is like an animated drawing in which a tattoo on the back of a figure's body, featuring colorful flowers and butterflies, comes to life and flies away. While the work stirs up quiet beauty along the lines of Ward's "White Flight Tea Bar," this video is, regrettably, boring.

Mark Bradford's sports celebrity tableaus of African-American athletes are much prettier to look at. An established artist who's already had a solo show at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, Bradford's wall works are made from remnants of posters and fliers, or hairdressing endpapers. He layers his collage in bold colors and graphics so they resemble contemporary versions of impressionist paintings. He doesn't exploit; rather, his subtle style blurs ideas about pop culture and makes us curious about what he's revealing.

As the only Detroit artist and musician featured in Meditations, Christopher Fachini's sound installation "The Rock Box Sound System plays the Mental Machine" is one reason MoCAD's opening reception was a success — it saw folks in ragged blue jeans and Armani suits dancing to his reggae sounds in a kind of community celebration. Fachini — a former guitarist in Godzuki, the Detroit Cobras, His Name is Alive and other groups — wrote and recorded all his parts on drums, percussion, bass, guitar, sax and organ. His interest in reggae's artistic and political roots is indicative of the deep crate-digging in Detroit's music scene. A big crowd moved to his music as he toasted from behind his big black stack of boom boxes. His production puts a monogram on the city's spirit.

Graffiti is a Detroit signature exploding in color everywhere, from the tracks at the Dequindre Cut to southwest Detroit near Springwells. For MoCAD's facade, Barry McGee — who lives on the West Coast — presents a throwback to old-school silver-and-black tagging, it's blandness does little for the museum's street presence on Woodward Avenue.

Meditations in an Emergency presents a few moments of real refinement and fragility. But the exhibit's also bewildering. If it's supposed to say something about the contemporary art scene — with a machine that plops out gooey sculpture, a video of flower petals trailing off a body like tears and a "plywood paradise" of cuddly creatures — it says that, in these tough times, artists have gone soft.


Meditations in an Emergency runs through April 29, 2007 at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622.

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