What’s in a Title?

May 11, 2005 at 12:00 am

Contemporary Michigan Sculpture, curated by sculptor and arts activist Sergio De Giusti for the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, is a show with a stellar cast but a singularly misleading title. Gathered here are 10 well-seasoned area sculptors of a certain age who, overall, embody an aesthetic that might be described as tidy and compact. No younger generation artists are represented, nor a contrary aesthetic that embraces the loose, spontaneous or conceptual. In terms of mitten-state geography, Ann Arbor, Blissfield and Kalamazoo are as far afield as the show roams. And while gender representation is reasonable (four women, six men) no sculptor of color is featured.

Given the adjective “contemporary,” one might very well expect to see the work of metro Detroit newcomers (relatively speaking) — artists Matt Blake, Ed Sykes, Christian Tedeschi or Chris Turner — in company with Pi Benio, Louis Marinaro, Tom Phardel and the other sculptors included at the Art Center. Alternatively, other veteran artists who are “contemporary” with the BBAC exhibitors are unrepresented here, sculptors such as Mark Beltchenko, Ray Katz, John Piet or Robert Sestok. And these are just a few of the artists, both vernal and ripened, one might cull from the greater Detroit area, let alone fulfilling the mandate of a show of recent “Michigan” sculpture.

Admittedly, 10 artists is already a pretty full roster when the space available is just 40 feet square, one of three contiguous exhibition galleries at the BBAC. Either more space or a delimited title would have resolved that issue.

Nor is the work in the show “contemporary.” It doesn’t push boundaries of edginess. With the exception of exhibitor Sharon Que, essentially a modernist ethos is on display here.

These caveats aside, the show does all the things a group show does so tellingly. It lays out a cross section of media (bronze, marble, steel, glass and wood) and techniques (casting, welding and assemblage), presents a spectrum of wall and freestanding objects (one might, in fact, be pleasantly surprised by the number of wall-hung works in the show) and it tenders a breadth of emotional engagement from perfunctory to intense.

To wit, here are three pairs of peak encounters proffered by the exhibition:

Albert Young’s agitated assemblage of rusty steel and slumped glass, an expressive exception that proves the rule of the exhibition’s reigning aesthetic, counterpoints David Barr’s spare, smoothly painted wood relief, comprised of a circle and tilted square embedded within a stolid square. These divergent elements eloquently harmonize the inherent conflict between a transgressive element and stabilizing force.

The weighty density of Sharon Que’s quirky, abstract, mixed-media floor piece of polished oak with gold and silver accents seemingly floating “downstream” (its title) offsets Pi Benio’s wall-mounted trio of pale, swagged cocoons and tumbling, swaddled figures fabricated of linen flax, paper and wire.

Tom Phardel’s tall, tapering totem of whitewashed steel with a single oval orifice is as haunting as Louis Marinaro’s black bronze evergreen balletically poised en pointe is unsettling.

So, this is what the BBAC and De Giusti have wrought: a display that for all
its diversity of imagery is governed by a more or less uniform aesthetic, a group show replete with the rollercoaster peaks and dips of that format, and a tantalizing but unfulfilled premise announced by a hyperbolic title.

Yet another curatorial enterprise of De Giusti is an overview of the political cartoons of Draper Hill that runs until May 22 at the Detroit Artists Market. Simultaneously, the busy De Giusti’s own sculpture can be assessed in a two-person show he shares with painter Alisa Henriquez on view until June 4 at District Arts Gallery in Birmingham.


Runs through May 27 at Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, 1516 S. Cranbrook Rd., Birmingham; 248-644-0866.

Dennis Alan Nawrocki is the author of Art in Detroit Public Places. Send comments to [email protected]