Sunday, September 25, 2016

NYC 2016!

I went to New York in August! It was my fifth time there, my fourth solo adventure. It means a lot to me to go to New York, which I try to do every few years. It energizes and enlivens me in particular ways -- intellectually and sensorially, of course, but also emotionally. I used to think that I wanted to live there, but that's increasingly untrue. Instead, this is what I want: a lifelong relationship with it. When I'm there, enveloped by masses of bodies and buildings, in near-constant motion yet situated, appreciably, at some still point between past and future, I am frequently, inexplicably, on the verge of tears; I feel that I belong there, more than other places -- but then I remind myself that when I'm there, I'm on vacation.

I usually plan my NYC excursions around shows, typically performances, but this time, it was Future Present, the Guggenheim's exhibition of the work of Bauhuas multimedia artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (opening soon in Chicago!). I'd only seen one or two Moholy-Nagy pieces in person before, at the Gropius House outside Boston a couple years ago, and I've been hungry for more ever since. I started getting obsessed with seeing this show once I read about it...I even had dreams about it. So upon arriving to the to the city, getting to the Guggenheim was my first order of business.

Also on my to-do list this visit was the Central Park Conservatory Garden, Louis Kahn's Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, Alan Sonfist's 1978 Greenwich Village installation Time Landscape, the new Whitney Museum of American Art, and 101 Spring Street, the recently reopened onetime home and studio of Donald Judd, now operated as a permanent installation/quasi-museum. I photographed extensively at all these locations when I could, as well as around the Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, where I stayed with friends and where I had a good opportunity to try my hand at street photography. Here are 60 or so of my favorite shots from a memorable trip (a lot, I know, but these were whittled down from my original 300....). You can view them below, in a column, with captions, or else open a scrolling gallery by clicking any one of them.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Essay'd: Levon Kafafian

(originally published 9/1/16 in Essay'd)

The art of weaving has long inspired metaphors for nothing less than the nature of human existence — from the mythic Fates, literally weaving each individual’s destiny, to Ishmael’s musing in Moby Dick that the “mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm.” The age-old link between weaving and living is of paramount significance to Levon Kafafian, a young artist and teacher for whom this ancient way of making is at the center of a vital, unfolding, multimodal practice — a practice that seeks to connect people more deeply to the natural world, one another, and their own lived experience.

Kafafian is a skilled craftsman, a deft weaver of sensitive, distinctive fabrics that revel in their handmade quality. But for Kafafian, objects — no matter how soulful — are inert, ineffective; they only become activated when used. “One of the reasons I started weaving was to move away from mass production and be more in tune with sustainability,” he says, “but as time went on, I realized that I was still just making stuff.”

Kafafian continues to make stuff and, at the Fringe Society, his loom-filled home and studio, to teach others how to do the same. But more often than not, what he makes now has a function, whether protective (as in his numerous scarves and shawls), ceremonial (as in the fabrics, garments, and pottery produced for his ongoing series of interactive performances), or else as constituent elements of short video pieces. The work in the latter two categories at once depends on Kafafian’s foundational weaving and notably departs from it, engaging participants in ways that objects alone never could....

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Essay'd: Mel Rosas

(originally published 8/16/16 in Essay'd)

With their luscious surfaces, painstakingly lifelike textures, and subtly surreal depictions of almost-possible places, the oil paintings of Mel Rosas invite and reward both close attention and long-view contemplation. Rosas, an influential professor of painting at Wayne State University, is one of those painters who draws knowingly from the deep well of art history (Vermeer, Hopper, and Magritte are three signal antecedents), as well as an idiosyncratic assortment of wider cultural influences. The expansive body of work that has obsessed him for more than 30 years is also an object lesson in the use of art as a tool to explore, expand, and communicate the self. Rosas’s paintings are portals that offer the artist passage into his Latin American ancestry, and the viewer into a lush and evocative dream world.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Book: launch'd!

So I launched my first book last week! Well, we launched our first book, "we" being Essay'd, the four-person writing collective I'm part of that regularly publishes short, illustrated essays about contemporary Detroit artists online. (That would include me, Dennis Nawrocki, Steve Panton, and Sarah Rose Sharp, four local art aficionados united by our interest in promoting an informed and ongoing conversation about the notable art that's being produced right in our midst.)

Letterpress poster by Lynne Avadenka

The in-print edition of our first 30 essays, beautifully designed and published by the folks at Wayne State University Press, has been about a year in the making. (Think it'd be easy to just turn existing content into a book? NO! NO, THAT IS NOT EASY! In fact, it was way more work than any of us anticipated. But it was, in the end, so very worth it.) 

We celebrated the launch last Thursday night at Cafe 78, inside MOCAD, Detroit's contemporary art museum, with a couple hundred friends, family, supporters, and collaborators. It was a great opportunity to elevate and celebrate Detroit art, and we ended up selling more than 100 books! 
Photo by Andy Malone

Photo by Peggy Brennan

Me 'n' Rosie, all aglow.  Photo by Emily Nowak.

In the lead-up to the launch, I had the chance to speak with Travis Wright about the Essay'd project for about five minutes on Culture Shift, a new program on WDET, Detroit's public radio station. If you'd like to give it a listen, you can find our conversation here.

I was also invited to talk about Essay'd for a bit longer on Detours, the Free Press's arts & culture podcast, hosted by Rob St. Mary. You can find that one here. (The ~15 minute Essay'd portion starts about 16 minutes in.)

And I was delighted to see afterward that the South End, Wayne State U's student newspaper, rather thoroughly covered the launch event. Something we haven't talked much about in terms of this project is its pretty remarkable connection to Wayne State (not only did WSU Press publish the book, but of the four co-authors, I'm a WSU alum and Dennis is a professor there), so I'm glad to see the student paper pick it up.

It would have been nice to have gotten some coverage from some of the bigger news outlets in the area, but that points to a wider problem, one I've been having a number of conversations about lately -- the seeming inaccessibility of Detroit art to metro Detroiters. (Something we're trying to work against with Essay'd.) Nonetheless, I would say that our little labor of love has been well and thoroughly launched. Thanks to everyone who had a hand in getting us here.

(If you're looking to pick up a copy, you can buy it in person or online at various places including the DIA bookstore, the MOCAD bookstore, Pages Bookshop, or from WSU Press's site or Amazon.)

While the publication of our first book is a huge milestone, it's far from the end of Essay'd. Our regular web publication schedule continues, with three new essays slated to come out in the coming month. We're talking to WSU Press about publishing a follow-up volume of our second round of 30 essays. We're also gearing up for our first ever art writing workshop, which will also take place at MOCAD. We have several other book-related events & activities in the pipeline (follow us on Facebook for the deets as they come out). And from there, we're working on getting the project sustainably funded so that we can continue to grow our operations, pay ourselves for our work, and bring more voices into the conversation. Onward!

But for now, excuse me while I pick up this awfully handsome book sitting in front of me and flip through it just one more time....

Thursday, July 28, 2016

B-side: Coach Robbie on LGBT life in Detroit

Earlier this week, I published a piece in Model D about LGBT spaces in Detroit that featured some powerful thoughts by queer Detroiter, activist, and fitness instructor Robbie Dwight.

I met Robbie a little over a year ago, when he was the guest instructor at a gay fitness class I was regularly attending. The class was organized by Kimo Frederiksen at his Corktown gym True Body Fitness. Billed as "Gay Boy BootyCamp," it was a once-a-week, summer-long fundraiser for Affirmations and the Ruth Ellis Center, two important local LGBT community organizations, and it turned out to be super meaningful to me.

Photo by Kimo Frederiksen

It wasn't until I started going every week that I realized how much I was lacking social activity with other queer dudes that wasn't oriented around drinking. And not only was it not about drinking, it was about getting fit...basically the opposite of drinking. It addition to the fact that we were getting together for a good cause, it felt really special to be in a productive gay social space, not a consumptive one. (Why is that such a rare thing?)

So it was really great, and I looked forward to it every week. I was bummed when it wrapped up for the season, until I remembered that the week Robbie guest-taught the class, he'd mentioned that he also taught a weekly class over at Detroit Tough, another small gym nearby. So I started going to his kettlebell class there every Sunday morning. Several months in, Detroit Tough's ownership changed, resulting in a shakeup that prompted Robbie to move over to Proving Grounds, where I followed him, and where I continue to catch the Sunday morning kettlebell sweatfest whenever I can.

I really like working out with Robbie. His energy is huge, and he's bright, motivating, and knows what he's doing. He's also hilarious. But more than that, he's incredibly welcoming. While his classes aren't billed as fitness for gay or queer people (and in fact, they don't seem to be attended by a majority queer group), by sheer force of his personality and his everyday activism, he takes what is traditionally a pretty oppressively hetero, "masc" environment -- the gym -- and queers it, making it welcoming to all. As a high-energy, unapologetically loud and proud queer dude, he makes it clear that his classes -- and by extension, fitness in general -- are for everyone, without actually having to say a word to that effect. It's just...apparent. That's a pretty special thing in gym culture and in Detroit, where homophobia is still alive and well.

In fact, I was recently struck by how far we still have to go when I attended another fitness class a couple of weeks ago elsewhere in town, led by another very energetic and motivating trainer, who totally lost me at the end of class by saying, as people were getting together for a group photo, that he "doesn't touch dudes" and that he wanted us to line up "guy-girl, guy-girl." It was disheartening how casually he threw his homophobia and retrograde heteronormativity on the table -- assuming we were all in the same club, so to speak -- and how immediately his words made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

Anyway, when I first started thinking about my article on queer spaces in Detroit, I figured Robbie would have a perspective (and boy, did he!). We had a hard time finding a good time to chat in person, so we ended up talking over Google hangouts one night, while he was driving home from his day job (and then while he was sitting in his driveway).

I recorded the conversation so I could transcribe it later, which is when I realized that in it, Robbie just drops one piece of really powerful knowledge after the other, all in a really entertaining and accessible way. It's both a great performance (I really love that he's driving) and a pointed critique. Of what? Well, of the city/suburb divide, heteronormative patriarchy, racism and xenophobia within the queer community, of division, complacency, and fear. It's also a rousing call to collective action, on the part of queer folks and straight allies alike. I thought that Robbie's words deserved to be heard in an unedited form by anyone with interest, so without further ado, here they are:

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The past, present, and future of Detroit's LGBT spaces

(originally published 7/25/16 in Model D)

This article is dedicated to the memory of Jeff Montgomery, longtime Detroit LGBT activist and founder of the Triangle Foundation, which worked to combat anti-LGBT crime and discrimination nationwide. He died last week.

In the aftermath of last month's attack on Pulse in Orlando, many LGBT people took time, amid our grief, to reflect on our experiences in gay bars, the spaces we'd always thought of as "safe." We wrote or posted on social media about our first gay bar, about the thrill of being suddenly surrounded by people like us, about dancing until 4:00 a.m. We discussed how our communities were built and sustained in these spaces. We talked about the clubs that have come and gone, and the ones that have persisted. Our conversations were something good that emerged from something horrific. They presented opportunities to celebrate and honor a part of our culture that we might otherwise take for granted.

The notion of the "safe space" dates back to the women's and gay liberation movements of the 1970s. And while the murderous rampage at Pulse reminds us of the literal physical danger that so many in the LGBT community still face, "safe" in this context also means something other than safe from the threat of violence. It means safe to be yourself, to express yourself—or, perhaps, to express parts of yourself that you might hide in other places. Safe to touch someone you care about without worrying who might see, and what they might say or do if they did. It means being released from the otherwise unblinking gaze of what we have learned to call heteronormativity: the destructive, socially reinforced illusion that "straight" is good and right and true, while "queer" is wrong. A secret. A shame.

While LGBT Americans have made great political strides in recent years, the need for our own spaces has not diminished. Not only have those advances been unevenly distributed among our people, many of us still face discrimination (some of which remains enshrined in law in Michigan), as well as isolation. And let's face it, even if all of us get all of the rights to which we're entitled and feel 100 percent socially accepted all the time, we're still going to want to spend time among our own people, our queer family, with whom we've shared so much.

In Detroit, many LGBT people will tell you that we don't have as many spaces in which to be our full and authentic selves as we ought to. But the folks who've been around for a while will remind you that this was not always the case.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Mel Rosas @ Wayne State

I'm currently at work on my next Essay'd essay, about the painter Mel Rosas, who was born in Des Moines, IA but who has been a part of the Detroit art scene since he moved here to teach at Wayne State in the '70s.

He usually paints at his home studio in Royal Oak, but this summer, he's also working from an otherwise unused studio space at Wayne, where I visited him last week.

Rosas is a master painter, known for his rich, evocative, and surreal Latin American street scenes/dreamscapes.

Caribbean Dream, 2010, oil on panel, 30 x 42"

Look for the essay, along with several other images of his lush oil paintings, in the coming weeks. For now, here's a portrait I snapped at the end of my visit: