Hit & myth

“Detroit is the ass lever of Satan,” slurs an ebullient man as he sucks on a cigarette outside the Motor City Bar in lower eastside Manhattan. He’s one of many shivering on the narrow soot-covered street in the night’s bitter winds because indoor smoking is verboten in New York City, leaving the weak and hedonistic to associate outdoors.

When I ask the man, a real estate broker, sculptor and chef, to explain himself, he says Detroit is clearly the suppository of the “evil one,” the “lever” that releases a flood of nasty material for Americans to, in turn, shit on. Mixed and drunken metaphors aside, the Californian-cum-New Yorker, who identifies himself only as Sam, is clearly adored by his party buddies. When pushed for details on his Detroit mantra, Sam launches into a tirade about how the Midwest is constantly and wrongly pissed off because the East Coast gets all the attention for arts and culture.

“Cry me a river and show me somethin’,” Sam quips to uproarious laughter.

Back inside the themed dive bar, which doesn’t specialize in Detroit music but nonetheless draws Detroit travelers and expats, I peer at two girls playing a race car video game near signs for Cobo Hall and the Red Wings. There’s a neon Ford light.

“What do you think of Detroit?” I ask Sam’s friend, a writer from Brooklyn.

“It might as well be Xanadu,” she deadpans. “Except for the MC5, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout Detroit.”

These Motor City Bar patrons missed the night’s excitement, and perhaps an opportunity for enlightenment. Hours earlier, a thick line of people snaked down the block in front of Tribeca’s Gigantic Art Space. Some waited for more than an hour in the icy air to check out the new gallery and its opening show. Some were curious to see the latest from a trendy NYC curator, others were lured by free booze.

“Chicks, booze and art,” says a glam rocker as he enters.

“What’s going on in there?” asks a young lass as she cranes to see past the crowd and the colorful dots painted on the gallery’s shiny glass exterior. “I don’t know,” says her friend, “but it must be good.”

Inside, Talking Heads front man David Byrne stands shoulder to shoulder with the throng, dodging flying gulps of martinis to peer at artwork about Detroit.

On exhibit

“I am your so-called God,” shouts blood-red graffiti, almost like a message from the dead, in a haunting image of a Detroit interior by Ann Arbor photographer Doug Coombe. Coombe (whose work appears regularly in Metro Times) is most known for his photographs of musicians, but for the last decade he’s obsessively tramped amid the city’s grand and vacated architecture, camera at the ready. He’s photographed all 13 floors of Detroit’s deserted Michigan Central Train Depot during more than 50 visits.

Last week, in a trendy gallery in downtown Manhattan, Coombe’s photos were prominently displayed for a show aptly called D Troit. The exhibit of nine artists and a music journalist is the first for the little gallery, sarcastically dubbed Gigantic Art Space. Up through Jan. 31, 2004, the exhibit aims to give Gotham City a taste of Motown and its art, says the show’s curator, Trevor Schoonmaker.

“The reason for the show is Detroit’s incredible creative output, and it’s really not known in the U.S.,” says Schoonmaker. He says the show in no way is meant to represent the city, but just to give a taste. “I have a strong interest in art and artists who are not mainstream, who are not part of the establishment or have not received tremendous exposure and critical acclaim.

“It’s a way to help them get their work out there, and let their work speak for itself," says Schoonmaker, who fell in awe of the city during his time studying African and African-American art at the University of Michigan.

The contemporary, multimedia show — featuring video, painting, sculpture, drawings and hours of Detroit music classics — was a good selection for GAS. Hundreds of people showed up.

Gallery director Lea Rekow, an Australian human-rights activist living in New York, says she wants GAS to spark debates on important subjects, such as Detroit, with shows that combine music, film, politics and art.

“Detroit,” she says, “is an excellent example for American culture to look at. I love Detroit. It’s so rich, and something we can look at in this sociopolitical context.

“It’s tremendous and so tragic in so many ways. I’d love to explore it more,” adds Rekow, who visited the city with a friend. “I’m going there to document oral histories in the spring.”

Rekow selected Schoonmaker to organize GAS’ inaugural event because he’s a rising star — and he’s good. As D Troit’s opening night proved, the young curator draws a voluminous and pedigreed crowd. Lines at galleries are a rarity, and Schoonmaker not only lured a queue for the D Troit show, he got more press than a Madonna concert for his last opening, a retrospective on the life, art and music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti at Brooklyn’s New Museum of Contemporary Art.

Schoonmaker borrowed the show’s title, D Troit, from Motown artist Mark Dancey (also a Metro Times contributor; read about his current exhibit at CPOP), whose 1997 poster, “White Elephant,” is a popular feature in the GAS exhibit, as are laminated examples of his inimitable music and art zine, Motorbooty. The poster shows a wrinkled old elephant draped with a tapestry that bears the words “D Troit” over a heart that’s been ripped in half. The rug has been sullied by something — egg or paint or bird droppings. The pachyderm walks over tombstones with windows in them.

The work of photographer Mark Powell, a Corktown resident, is prominent as well. His photographs are otherworldly, seeming more like Vegas or Jamaica than Detroit. Powell has a tremendous eye for composition, light and color, and his works showing a used lawnmower salesman, a man with his mother in front of an orange wall and a young woman with a bandana on the street enchant the crowd, as do Coombe’s shots.

Then there are the eerie, off-color paintings of Thomas Rapai, who spent 30 years in Detroit before moving to Ann Arbor. Rapai creates images of roadside motels with huge parking lots, devoid of nature and humanity. Rapai says the motel was a childhood symbol of escape from the city. The paintings, however, are haunting, wrought in bright but sickly hues of red, yellow and blue. They are beautifully executed, evoking a tangible sense of desolation.

Up-front, gallery-goers are immediately introduced to the trademark dots of Detroit artist Tyree Guyton, painted on the gallery’s front glass wall. Two of his paintings are displayed near the front door. A documentary video facing the entrance chronicles how the administration of Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer tore down Guyton’s famous Heidelberg Project, in which he turned blight into art by garishly decorating two city blocks of abandoned homes with found objects such as dolls, bicycles and old furniture. In the process, he brought attention to the plight of his east-side neighborhood, which continues to struggle.

In another element of the show, New York artist Susan Cook melds footage of the 1967 Detroit riots with home movies to tell a story of societal ambivalence. The film shows Cook as a child playing in a pool in Detroit and listening to her favorite song, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” by the Temptations. Cook says she was oblivious to the lyrics: “People moving out/People moving in/Why, because of the color of their skin/Run, run, run but you sho’ can’t hide.”

Cook was born in Highland Park and lived near McNichols until her family moved to Oak Park. Her father is a Detroit judge.

The rear of the gallery features a documentary by Nigerian stylist, photographer and filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu. The often-uproarious video, Hot Irons, looks at the competitive culture of black hairstyling in Detroit. The 1999 film won Best Documentary at FESPACO, Africa’s biggest film festival. Dosunmu, who’s styled album covers for Public Enemy and Erykah Badu and directed music videos for Isaac Hayes, became intrigued with Detroit’s hair scene after striking up a conversation on a New York subway with a woman whose hair was sculpted to represent the Jamaican flag.

Detail drawings and paintings from the comic book Witch Doctor, by Detroit artist Kenji (“Comic relief,” Metro Times, April 17-23, 2002) draw their own fans.

Thom Klepach, who attends graduate school at Notre Dame but spent much time in the city, offers up light boxes that comment on Henry Ford’s influence and environmental abuses.

“I think he’s at the root of a lot of problems in Detroit and, by extension, in America,” says Klepach, who views himself “as a universal citizen that is closest to being a Detroiter. Detroit is the most dangerous city in America, because the story of Detroit is totally dangerous to the status quo. The full story of Detroit is not being told. People don’t want to know what’s going on.”

Feelings, thoughts

Is Detroit really dangerous? The eternal question floats around the exhibit, accompanied by loud debates over its answer.

David Byrne, the famously genius music man, says he had no problems during his journey through the city. Byrne says he rode a bicycle through Detroit, from Greektown to the suburbs, where he was playing a show. The trek, he says, served as “a history lesson. You get a feeling for what happened in each section of town.”

“Detroit is beautiful in a way. It’s like Faulkner, decaying beauty,” says a man with wild reddish curly hair and a gap in his front teeth.

J.J. Garfunkel stands in front of Coombe’s photos of the train station and says he was born in Detroit but hasn’t been there since he was an infant. “I’d definitely like to go check it out sometime,” he says. “The empty spaces, there’s a metaphysical entropy left there.”

“We know so little about Detroit,” says Garfunkel’s friend, Jude Hughes. “Was it a port town? I know Detroit has this amazing music scene, especially for dance music. What else are you going to do? I guess, when I think of Detroit, I think of it as always cold. And everyone drives bad-ass muscle cars. And it’s the murder capital of America.”

Detroit, like any place, seems to become an abstract idea when one is away from it. The D Troit show contextualizes and expands the idea.

“The first stop on the road to Detroit’s recovery must be a reconciliation with the city’s past,” writes Mike Rubin in the D Troit catalogue. “Detroit’s decrepitude is impossible to ignore or simply bulldoze away, and whether one considers it ominous or charming, it remains the city’s defining characteristic — a haunted landscape that may yet serve as an inspiration for artists and average citizens alike, not just as a reminder of what Detroit once was, but also for what it may yet become.”

Rubin, a former Detroiter living in New York, where he writes for Rolling Stone and Spin, often gets treated as a Detroit expert. For D Troit, he compiled 18 1/2 hours of songs performed by Detroit artists ranging from John Lee Hooker to the Electric Six, with albums of Motown, rock, punk and lots of dance music in between. The 40 years of Detroit music, dubbed “313 jukebox,” plays from iPods in the center of the gallery.

Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth sits for a long time listening to Rubin’s compilation. As his son, Sage, pulls at his shirt, Ranaldo talks about his many forays into Detroit over 20 years, and his desire to return.

“I got a punkish energy from the inner city. I love Detroit a lot,” he says.

Clearly, from the scene at the show and comments from numerous people there, Detroit has maintained its status as America’s Heart of Darkness, a voyeuristic object of desire. People love to look at it, argue about it, goad it, but not necessarily live in it. It’s loved or maligned from afar.

The D Troit exhibit is no departure from that: Only four of the artists involved call Detroit home now. One never did. But all had close ties to the place at one time or another.

Many ex-Detroiters came to the show to see how their city is portrayed. Many agree the exposure is great, but are disappointed that much of the artwork, though aesthetically strong, presents a somewhat stereotypical image.

“One thing bothers me,” says ex-Detroiter Dean Karavite, a Connecticut software designer. “And that’s the train station. Those are great photographs. But how many times do we have to see that? I’m tired of the burned-out wreckage thing. It’s horribly cliché.”

And disappointing, says Ingrid Rogers, who works in a Chelsea gallery and grew up in a wealthy neighborhood near the Detroit Golf Club.

“Detroit has beautiful middle-class neighborhoods and upper-class neighborhoods. That’s something you don’t see here,” Rogers says. “We had the largest black upper class in the United States for a long time. We have very gorgeous neighborhoods. We have mansions. And you never see them. It disturbs me.”

Disturbing, yes, but honest, and real. Detroit is complex and there’s a lot going on that’s subtle and hard to capture. The show suggested Detroit’s reputation is only partly deserved, for the city is artistically alive. Some think it would have been better if done by city dwellers.

“Detroit should do a Detroit show,” says Lydia Yee, curator of the Bronx Museum of Art and a native Detroiter. “It is a very nuanced city. You could do a lot of different things” that are more subtle, she says, noting that Detroit is not known as a “great art town.”

Guyton agrees.

“I’m sick and tired of someone from New York coming and bringing us here to talk about possibilities in Detroit. Let’s do it at home,” Guyton says. “I came here to talk about the good and the hope and the possibilities of Detroit. We’re here to lift up Detroit.

“You need the good, the bad and the ugly. You need it all. It’s on display.”

Rekow and Schoonmaker say they hope the exhibit will spark in New Yorkers a curiosity, a discussion, about the Motor City and everything it represents. Opening night, they accomplished that, at least among a handful of people.

Rekow says, “What I was really interested in doing with this show and in general is to have a dialogue. Even if people are upset with cliché images, at least people are talking about it.”


“Detroit! Detroit! Detroit is cool!” hollers a confused man during the opening. “But I’m from Minnesota.”


An Apple's-eye view of the Motor City.
A New Yorker's thoughts on Detroit.

Check out Mark Dancey's new exhibition at CPOP Gallery: Gone classical - Nudes that echo the Renaissance from ex-rocker Mark Dancey.

Wild at heart - 16 young artists at 4 venues render a new vision of ‘Detroit Now.’

Check out Mark Dancey's illustrative work for Metro Times: Homeland Insecurity - The Board Game.

Read last week's story: Detroit is not alone - Can an art project help remedy global postindustrial decay?

If you would like to check D Troit, it is located at the Gigantic Artspace, 59 Franklin St. One block east of Broadway in Tribeca. Lisa M. Collins is arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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