Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Retro vision: Warby Parker helps reimagine an iconic downtown mural

(originally published 2/7/17 in Model D)

The mood was festive on a bitter, wintry night in early December when a few hundred people crowded into a spiffed-up downtown storefront to inaugurate the opening of Detroit's new Warby Parker, an innovative eyewear company known for selling affordable frames in hip, vintage styles.

A handsome new shop selling something both useful and relatively inexpensive is reason enough to celebrate in downtown Detroit. But it wasn't just the promise of retro eyewear in a recently revamped building that brought people out into the cold that evening. In designing their latest store (one of about 50 nationwide), the New York-based Warby Parker invited 82-year-old Detroit artist David Rubello to reimagine his 1973 mural "Color Cubes"—an iconic public artwork that was lost in 2014 when, after decades of deterioration, it was painted over to make room for a billboard.

"Color Cubes," which once adorned an historic high rise just two blocks from Warby Parker's new Woodward Avenue home, had been created under the auspices of Living With Art, an ambitious early 1970s urban renewal project organized by New Detroit, Inc. that resulted in the creation of some 12 public murals and sculptures throughout the city. At a commanding 50 x 25 feet, its scale befitted the lofty ambitions of its commissioners, who believed that public art could help improve quality of life in Detroit and stem the rising tides of disinvestment and decline.

If "Color Cubes" was Rubello's great open-air symphony, a monumental work of vivacious color and geometric play, the new Warby Parker mural—which the artist calls "Blue Echoes"—is more like a piece of chamber music. Rendered in white, black, and seven shades of blue, it measures just 5.5 x 14.5 feet. But, as one attendee put it the night of the opening reception, "It makes the place."

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Rubello in motion

I recently visited the artist David Rubello at his home and studio in Ray, Michigan, a small, rural town about 40 miles northeast of Detroit, where he lives with his wife Mary, who is also an artist.

Self-portrait by David Rubello, early 1990s

I got to know Rubello (b. 1935) a couple years ago, after I became obsessed with his 1973 mural Color Cubes, a piece of downtown public art I loved that was lost in 2014. Since then, I have come to appreciate him as an astonishingly gifted, learned, and prolific visual artist, whose expansive body of work bears witness to an inspiring practice of perpetual forward motion.

In Rubello's home: antique Sicilian marionettes and six of his dimensional paintings from the early 2000s

Rubello is an under-appreciated modern artist — an American master, I'd venture, whose prodigious output in multiple media ought to be well-known internationally, but who has operated largely under the radar these last decades. Nonetheless, I can't shake the sense that his substantial and varied body of work is ripe for discovery by a wider contemporary audience.

I had a few reasons to visit him recently: I wanted to check out his recently reorganized studio, check in on one of his current projects (more on that later, but here's a teaser: there's a new downtown mural coming!), and to see some of his photograms, "cameraless photographs" that are made by arranging objects on photo paper before exposing the paper to light.

Photogram by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1926

The photogram was popularized by the Hungarian artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, whose career retrospective I saw last summer at the Guggenheim. I'd mentioned to Rubello how alluring I'd found Moholy's early 20th century photograms, and he surprised me by responding that he'd made a number of them himself in the 1990s.

He showed me several dozen of these works, which he calls "New Life Forms," during my recent visit. Whereas Moholy made use of a remarkable variety of objects to produce his photograms (including his own hands and even his face), Rubello restricted himself to either an aluminum form of his own construction or, much more often, different kinds of paper, which he folded, sometimes cut, and carefully arranged on top of the photo paper in his darkroom.

Ganz by David Rubello, early 1990s

In their recursive, abstract revelry, hard edges, and play with depth and light, the resulting forms are essential Rubello. But in their delicate, sensitive grayscale, they're something of a revelation.

Septun by David Rubello, early 1990s

Rubello is, after all, an artist to whom pure color is more than a tool, but a subject in and of itself. He's been concerned for decades with how different color fields appear, feel, & interact with each other, and with reflected color, whereby vivid colors are cast onto white surfaces:

Detail of a Rubello sculpture comprised of painted panels

Detail, same piece, from behind, showing the reflected color effect

When we made it out to his studio, there were more surprises in store, starting with a new painting that's part of an ongoing series exploring the use of color to suggest movement and dimensionality.

Since I've come to think of him as a purely abstract artist, when he showed me a handful of watercolors from the early '70s, I was struck by their transitional nature, hovering as they do between abstraction and representation.

There are a number of sizable paintings stored in his studio, some as big as 4' x 8'. Most of them are purely abstract, but one, a work from the late 1970s that was inspired by a pre-Renaissance crucifixion painting he'd seen in Italy, has figures in it!

When I remarked on this, Rubello pulled out some of his earliest works on paper, illustrations made in the 1950s after he pursued studies at both Cass Tech High School and the School of the Arts and Crafts Society of Detroit (now the College for Creative Studies).

These sixty-year-old works, the last we looked at together, are evidence of a young artist's powerful raw talent. While they're confident, subtle, and painstakingly rendered, there's little evidence in their straightforward style of the rigorous, experimental abstraction that would follow. As such, they offer remarkable insight into Rubello's ever-evolving trajectory, revealing just how far he's come in order to come into his own.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Inside "Rainforest" at the DIA

Back in June, I posted a photograph I took inside an installation at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The installation, a multimedia immersion in the 1968 Merce Cunningham dance RainForest, was part of Dance! American Art 1830-1960, a fine exhibition organized by the DIA that included mostly representations of dance in visual art, but also a handful of notable works related to dance as an art form itself.

RainForest, like many Cunningham dances, is notable in part for its incorporation of work by other prominent New York artists. The costumes, two examples of which were included in the exhibition, are by Jasper Johns, and its famous decor — silver, helium-filled Mylar pillows — were designed by Andy Warhol. 

Recreations of those pillows were central to the installation, which was essentially a room, defined by a curtain, two walls, and a scrim. The pillows floated along the ceiling and billowed about the room, while a 1968 film of the dance was projected onto the scrim, but also through it, onto a solid wall, creating a mirror image. 

The viewer could either consider the work from outside the room, looking at and through the scrim, or from inside, a gently chaotic, multilayered environment in which the predominant sense was of existing inside some version of the dance itself. 

From either perspective, one was conscious of other people viewing/inhabiting the work, so a kind of voyeurism (watching people watching dance) became central to the experience of the installation. (The scrim, the gauzy mediator, at once allowed for this voyeurism and softened the tension that might otherwise arise from the experience of observing/being observed.)

I'm grateful to the DIA for organizing the installation, which provided the opportunity to experience RainForest in a way that was both vital and archival. It was an inventive installation and, I thought, well suited to Cunningham's work, in that it provided an essentially decentralized viewing experience. (Throughout his career, Cunningham resisted choreographing in ways that were uniform, at both the level of his dancers' individual bodies and in the relations between and among dancers, but also from the point of view of the audience, which, he recognized, were always in fact points of view, plural.)

This was not, after all, a reliable record of a dance, but something new and more complex that shifted between past and present: something that enveloped, even overwhelmed the spectator, whose eye zigzagged from the pillows above to the recorded dancers' spectral, larger-than-life bodies in motion, to the bodies of the people on the other side of the divide: walking, standing, sitting, watching. 

This textural layering advanced an engaging and noteworthy approach to the presentation of historic dance works in a museum setting, outside of live performance, carrying RainForest forward in a sensitive and respectful way. It also made for a naturally inviting opportunity to take pictures, so after seeing the exhibition once, I returned, during lunch on a weekday, to shoot. For this opportunity, too, I thank the DIA, which encouraged museum-goers to take and share photos of the Dance exhibition — an unusual invitation, as far as special exhibitions at major American art museums go, and a nice example of the DIA's ongoing commitment to accessibility.

It's unusual for me to be in the museum on a weekday afternoon. I was surprised by how many people were there, and struck by how many of those people were seniors. It was an unexpectedly poignant experience, watching elderly people, many of whom moved slowly around the museum with the help of wheelchairs and walkers, absorbed, for a time, in the breathless, exhilarating movement of the dancers. Another layer: unpredictable and unintended, but resonant, nonetheless.

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....