Alchemic sideshow 

There’s a sweet treat that’s just outside of the main gallery in the Alumni and Faculty Hall (a fancy name for a strange corridor that takes up a lot of space in an odd building) at Center Galleries at the College for Creative Studies. The exhibitions in the hall are usually ancillary to the big show in the main gallery, but in this case the works of Italo Scanga and Matthew Hanna pose a serious addition to the fantastic main feature.

Scanga, who briefly went to CCS in the ’50s and who recently passed away, is one of those artists who comfortably worked in many different media and whose work defies categorization. He worked mostly as a painter and sculptor, and the five pieces included in the exhibition typify the peculiar subject matter and the lack of boundaries that characterize his work.

At the end of the hall is a large charcoal drawing of German composer Richard Wagner, entitled Wagner (Musical Sketches). It is ensconced in a frame painted to parody the grain of wood. In front of the drawing on the floor is a pedestal painted with the same cartoonish wood grain upon which sits a clear glass vase holding water and a yellow lily. At once an installation piece, a shrine to Wagner and a critique of the simplified categories of art, it also a lovely work that mimics the decorative tchotchkes of domestic pop culture.

Just as Scanga’s Wagner drawing pulls from classical music, art history and popular culture to challenge our perceptions of art, each of the five pieces, with a deft visual alchemy, remains almost lighthearted; each becomes an almost heraldic emblem that condenses an encyclopedia of information.

Many years ago Hanna collaborated with Scanga for an art benefit at Paint Creek Gallery, and it seems that it was a confidence-inspiring event for Hanna. Directly opposite Scanga’s iconic masterpieces Hanna has installed hundreds of his pieces from floor to ceiling the whole length of the hall. And, like Scanga, Hanna is all over the place in using his wide-ranging interests to map his experience.

Composed of paint, found or personal objects and lifted images, the wall of quick notebook-like works reveals Hanna’s unpretentious, even self-effacing, exploration of the two-dimensional surface. For Hanna the drawing surface is a site for investigation of what’s out there as well as what’s in his memory; as such, it is an area of limitless possibility.

For those who recognize it, there’s a palpable sense of local history in these works which borrow shapes from other artists. The pieces are also puncutated by personal memorabilia, a host of images from American pop culture and copious drawings that repeat shapes, including bounteous breasts.

In a painting he calls Grand River, what looks like a stainless steel cup (rendered in silver oil paint) is lodged in a grass-green field, which is cut diagonally by blue arabesque. The cup is painted carefully and convincingly and the rest of the painting is fast and effortless. The intense blue and green fields are countered by an upper right corner of black. But make no mistake, it is quick and provisional; seen amid the rest of the drawings it is merely a moment and one can construct a narrative of it or not.

The installation is entitled “Lodgebility (drawing survey, 2000-2003)” and in that sense one sees the overall project and each drawing and the elements within as a provisional campsite or arrangement of consciousness that is less about identity and more about conditionality of being. In the drawing-collage For Italo R.I.P. (pictured), a memorial drawing after Scanga’s sudden death in 2001, a golden crown sits atop a cross which is cut out of the surface and is surrounded by black molecular-like shapes. In its use of the pop image of the crown and abstracted shapes it is simple; yet Hanna’s unusual visual literacy makes for an astute work. Hanna’s brave, sometimes reckless, often improvisational, interrogation of himself and his world offers work that more established and iconic figures of the art world should heed.

 

The big show in the CCS main gallery is “Artists’ Books at CCS,” an intriguing exhibition curated by Lynne Avadenka, which explores the way visual artists manipulate the book form to make art. See both shows at the Center Galleries, 301 Frederick Douglass, Detroit; call 313-664-7800 for details.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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