3 planets in 1 night

One minute you're half-listening to a white-haired dean's obligatory remarks at the podium about integrating communities, the generosity of the provost and a victory against Penn State. A few hours later a girl in teal eyelashes walks by a drunk blonde who comments astutely, "That looks like a penis, and yet it's an octopus." An evening in Detroit can easily include both academics and aliens.

Opening night at the new Work: Detroit gallery was a collision of past and present that brought out toddlers in sundresses and professorial types clasping the elbows of their wives. The wine-drinking crowd spilled onto the sidewalks of the Detroit Center, now home to 17 U-M academic departments. Folks trickled past Orchestra Place's tinted windows, which were covered in stickers by artist Jim Cogswell that looked like gasps of colorful air. Nearby the Detroit Symphony Orchestra warmed up for the evening's performance.

"We don't want to call this place a gallery," said Bryan Rogers, dean of the school of art and design, who was behind Work: Detroit from the get-go. "U-M was founded in Detroit in 1817. We want our students and faculty to be part of the city, part of its creative life, and we want Detroiters, too, to take advantage of what Ann Arbor has to offer."

Work: Detroit gallery director Nick Sousanis, who's well-loved for his commitment to the Web magazine thedetroiter.com, received applause for his curatorial efforts. Unfortunately, he was not given an opportunity to share a few remarks of his own.

Sousanis made an adroit move that was both promotional and engaging when he came up with Intersections, an exhibit about the gallery's physical location at the corner of Woodward Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. For the artists, participation wasn't just about working alone in the studio, dropping the work off and attending the opening. U-M faculty and Detroit artists researched the location's history, and spent days hanging out on the street corner getting to know each other and the neighborhood as it was and is. For the public, it was another good night spent observing and addressing the immediate environment.

Detroit artist Vito Valdez erected a public sculpture commemorating Native Michiganders. Metal armature holds a raised bed upon which a skeleton rests. Above this open-air coffin dangles a sculpture of a lone wolf with its head cocked, as if crying out to the city.

Valdez's piece is one of few in Detroit dedicated to our native people. "Can you believe that?" he asks. A sculpture of a Native Michigander carrying a canoe once stood on Washington Boulevard. This piece has since moved inside Cobo Hall, where it's not as prominent.

True to its name, Intersections was by far the most diverse crowd at an opening in years (although U-M's director of the Detroit Center was nowhere to be found for a compliment). The place was packed, which made it impossible to see some of the art, but you couldn't miss Lowell Boileau's Brush Park before and after — a large-scale painting of a beautiful mansion, windows crowded by silhouettes of party goers, hanging next to a blown-up photo of a home collapsing under the weight of Detroit's oppressive history.

Not all art has intentions so sober. In fact, if you take yourself or your work too seriously, please talk to Mary Fortuna.

"Yeah, I thought to myself, this summer I could do something important — or I could sit around and knit monkeys!"

That's what Fortuna said later that same night as she stood in the doorway and watched the crowd soak in representations of life and death at Zeitgeist Gallery. The exhibit Azutunarasharedo — an amalgam of the artists' names, of course, thought up by Fortuna — presented her stuffed animals and insects on a "Tree of Life," as well as work by Azucena Nava-Moreno, Kathleen Rashid and Mary Laredo Herbeck. Zeitgeist has always recalled some sort of William Burroughs vision, a swirling Michigan Avenue hallucination in between empty lots. While the programming tends to recycle the same cadre of artists, it is, in its own way, one of the city's few "live" art spaces. There was no more proof of that than this opening night of art by four women.

Rashid's masks of tortured faces with mouths gaping in trauma reference people suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Made from paper painted reddish brown, the masks look as if they grew right out of the brick wall behind them, as if to say that people are shaped by the land they live on. Her material was made of printed e-mails she's gathered over the past seven years, making her own private life public, much like the lives of those in the Middle East. Curator Vito Valdez (who was doing double duty that night) said the show has been a year in the making because these artists work slowly and carefully.

It follows then that impromptu one-night exhibits are hard to pull off, and the Alien Show that closed the Saturday evening at Corktown Tavern was no exception: It missed the mark.

The crowd was feisty upstairs in the dive bar at 2 a.m., yelling over the music of Klaus Schulze, Kevin Ayers and Tiny Tim. But aside from a few pieces, there was little titillation. Ron Zakrin presented his "Rape Fantasy," a painting of post-coital alt-reality, in which a classically painted nude with a milky, arched back sits on the bed. A storm trooper — who's taken off little more than his helmet and tube socks to do the dirty with the courtesan — smokes a cigarette before undoubtedly ditching his one-night stand for battle. Human Eye's Timmy Vulgar belched out "When We Wander," showcasing the phallic sea creature previously mentioned, which gave a few ladies still in their waitress uniforms pause. Nearby, a picture of something like a witch's finger in a vagina got one of the women riled: Removing her salty hand from a bag of barbecue Better Mades, she pointed at the piece, saying, "I'm sorry, my vagina's worth a lot more than $750."

After three shots of Jameson's and a beer, and under dim lighting, that's about all to call memorable, which is as much the artists' fault as the critic's (plus, we showed up way too late for the Ziggy Stardust fashion show). Here's hoping Tim Caldwell, who curated this exhibit with a friend known simply as "J.R.," keeps up with these quickies. Although he missed with green men and flying saucers, he often hits with darkly silent drama to send our community spinning.

Intersections featuring work by Alana Bartol, Lowell Boileau, Jim Cogswell, Miroslav Cukovic, Pat Duff, Tirtza Even, Anne Fracassa, Mary Heinen, Scott Hocking, Jack Johnson, Deb King, Emily Linn, Jacque Liu, Andy Malone, Thylias Moss, Ansted Moss, Dan Price, Jocelyn Rainey, Ted Ramsay, Senghor Reid, Stephanie Rowden, John Sauve, Stephen Schudlich, Gary Schwartz, Hannah Smotrich, Rachel Timlin, Nick Tobier, Vito Valdez, Ron Watters and Marilyn Zimmerman runs through Nov. 2 at Work: Detroit, 3663 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-593-0527.

Azutunarasharedo runs through Oct. 27 at Zeitgeist Gallery and Performance Venue, 2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-965-9192.

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