Martyn Bouskila has been around the Detroit art scene for at least 20 years and yet, until now, not much of his work has been available for viewing. He’s had a somewhat mysterious career: Bouskila came to Cranbrook from London to get away from an ineffective conceptual art career that bordered on art terrorism.
With his typically wry humor, he explains: “In the ’70s, England was passing the same kind of anti-terrorist legislation that the Bush administration is now — with, of course, the same results. Everyone is suspect and everyone’s rights are jeopardized and the government can do what it wants.”
In response, Bouskila, an art student at the time, created a conceptual work of art, using photos, maps and text, that implied that various buildings were going to be blown up.
“The idea was to make art into a more responsible part of social communication, challenging the political climate, and, of course, the idea was that when I was arrested I would say, ‘but it’s only art.’ The faculty at the school didn’t think much of the conception.”
Growth Patterns, the title of his new series of paintings at the College for Creative Studies Center Galleries, is Bouskila’s first exhibition since the mid-1980s. It represents the stunning re-emergence of a technically inventive, and socially and philosophically engaged artist.
In effect, the works continue Bouskila’s preoccupation with the pointillist style of painting. But rather than in the traditional use of pointillism — a controlled labor of painting thousands of dots to create a landscape — the dots in Bouskila’s new works are all about themselves, like cells in our biological world.
The paintings are about accumulation and pattern, about the mystery of genetically controlled growth and uncontrolled growth. As metaphors about culture, they are at once beautiful and frightening graphic illustrations of social disorder and chaos.
Seen as a memorial to his wife Lynn who recently died from cancer, the paintings are brave confrontations with the realities of everyday life. Yet they are also the accomplishment of an artist’s technique and use of material. Bouskila experimented with the interactions between lacquer and acetone, two highly active and volatile substances. With Bouskila’s masterful stewardship, the results are gorgeous.
Having worked on an Israeli kibbutz (a socialist commune) in the ’70s, Bouskila has always valued social and political consciousness. Yet when he arrived in Detroit, he had to find another strategy for illustrating those values.
His early Detroit works were labor-intensive constructions made of tens of thousands of pins or nails, each one applied by hand, composing images of crosses. The crosses could be read as images of crucifixion or of the urban grid. The surfaces were layered with dramatic colors and sometimes burned or charred to create abstract images of human suffering.
“Being the home of the assembly line, Detroit was all about work, and my pin-and-nail ‘paintings’ were a modest way of identifying art as work and expressing my solidarity with the plight of workers.”
These works gave him an auspicious entrance to the local art scene, at a solo exhibition at the Willis Gallery and a group exhibition at the Focus Gallery. But after that, while a regular at art openings and art community projects, he seemed to have retired from making art, although he made a living, unlike most artists, painting his extraordinary, pointillist landscapes.
“I married Lynn Farnsworth, who was also a conceptual artist, and we had children to raise and bills to pay. After a lengthy and demanding stint with a design and installation company I wanted to return to art as work, not a hobby. I got a studio and got up early every day and went and painted. I never sympathized with the concept of the artist as a romantic figure. The landscapes were composed again of thousands and thousands of painted dots and sold probably because they were recognizably labor intensive. I was working, man.”
Bouskila’s work is showing with John Torreano, the New York hybrid painter, in Convergence: Martyn Bouskila and John Torreano, at College for Creative Studies’ Center Galleries (201 E. Kirby, Detroit; call 313-872-3118) through Dec. 20.Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]