Putting art in its place 

The contemporary art scene is packed with installations you can enter and exit; floor sculptures you step over, on, in and around. Particularly in metro Detroit, the trend of sizing up is symptomatic of drafty, spacious lofts and warehouses that abound. Russell Industrial Center's DIP Gallery, CAID's new Carriage House Gallery, Gallery Project's basement, even MOCAD, these places are fit for fabricating site-specific environments rather than simply showcasing self-contained artworks.

A less practical, more philosophical way to look at it is that the city's buildings are perpetually on our minds. Creating architecturally-scaled art makes our feelings about the immediate environment just a bit more manageable, as if we have a hand in it.

Which means that sculptor Graem Whyte is an innovator here when he downsizes, deciding against the kind of art that could easily make for a solo show in an impressively large space.

In his latest body of work, Whyte — who began his career at Lawrence Tech — expresses a vast psychological terrain with landscapes you can hold in your own hands. In Spaces and Places, Whyte, along with Dennis Jones and Abigail Newbold, use the world around us to mirror all the complicated stuff — memories, feelings — that we "store" in our minds.

Whyte's sculptures present lone figures tiny enough to ride in miniature trains, existing in totally surreal environments. A businessman waits for a bus, sitting on the edge of a bubbling mountain of cast bronze. Another guy hangs out on an Astroturf prairie as his horse drinks from a wooden pond. A typical couple of elderly tourists look lost in a metal dessert, as if one mistake landed them in another dimension. The size and style are subversive, evoking 19th and early 20th century dioramas in history museums. Manufactured scenes of epic battles in uncharted lands used to titillate the bourgeoisie into viewing their environment as a commodity. Photographs worked much the same way, turning memories into objects. What's ominous here is the implied narrative. With the polished wood and the tiny, artificial trees, this is a perfectly hopeless vision of utopia that's isolating, pristine and synthetic — and closer to reality than it seems. By the looks of these forlorn figurines, we're too far gone down the hole, too disconnected to know the difference.

Newbold tries to hold on to memories, to pin down what makes a house a home. In oversized traveling suitcases about the size of small beds, she packs up traditional symbols of domesticity that provide physical and emotional comfort. It's as if she's trying to make sense of what matters, the objects or the ideas. With "Sleep To Go," she straps in a pillow, blankets, books, a log and other items. Her installation evokes the coziness of furnishings in a log cabin and the sterility of classified and displayed specimens in shadow boxes. In reality, memories are far more elusive.

From a distance of a few yards, Jones' drawings look like cracks in a white wall. They act that way too — you've got to dig through the visual debris, the roughly sketched messiness, to get to the narrative. The series personifies the birth of thought. A small figure, a cute puppet, climbs out of a box, looks around and considers the context. It's a metaphor for how electricity in our brains finds its way as a notion with meaning, something to be valued.

Jones, who is an artist, architect and educator, also presents sculptures that sit on two pedestals nearby, giving these figures three-dimensional form in muddy shades of white, black and blurred grey. In "Hills," a group of the cuddly characters look at each other from opposite sides of a frame, which manifests some sort of rudimentary boundary, establishing a perceived sense of order among the not yet fully-formed ideas that mingle in our subconscious, in the back of our brains, out of reach.

Spaces and Places runs through Dec. 15 at Community Arts @ Paramount Gallery, 22635 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-414-6500. Dennis Michael Jones also has a solo show, Fundamental(ist), which runs through Dec. 23 at Oakland University Art Gallery, 208 Wilson Hall on the Oakland University campus, Rochester; 248-370-3005.

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

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