Monday, June 12, 2017

"Infinite Work" in Detroit Research

I'm long overdue in sharing my contribution to Vol 2 of Detroit Research, the ambitious, multi-vocal publication centered on art making in Detroit today (with a focus on social practice/post-studio trends). Michael Stone Richards, who teaches at the College for Creative Studies and leads Detroit Research, invited me to contribute what he called a "dossier" on the dance artist and scholar Biba Bell, whose work I have written about fairly extensively and who served as guest editor of Vol 2, which had a dance focus. I ended up gathering together a selection of Bell's writings and interviews, as well as a handful of images of her performing, and wrote a short introduction to the collection. Excerpted below are that intro, an interview that Bell and I adapted from a longer conversation we published in Infinite Mile, and a brief description I wrote of her 2015 apartment dance.

To read the whole thing (and a truly remarkable collection of other writings on art and dance by a diverse cohort of artists, scholars, and writers), I'd encourage you to pick up a copy of the journal, which you can order online, and which, having been designed by Josh Smith of Who's That?, is a thing of beauty. Without further ado:

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Maya Stovall at home with Quaint

I'm working on my next Essay'd essay, a profile of artist/anthropologist Maya Stovall, who performs dances in front of Detroit liquor stores before interviewing spectators about their experience of art and the city. Look for the essay in a couple of weeks, but for now, here's a shot of Stovall in the loft/studio she shares with her husband, sculptor and musician Todd "Quaint" Stovall. The sculptures are Quaint's, installed for a recent exhibition in their cavernous space -- a converted historic bank building on Gratiot in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Essay'd: Oren Goldenberg

Rituals for Spatial Transformation (2012-2014), Video still by Oren Goldenberg.

(originally published 4/12/17 in Essay'd)

Between 2013 and 2014 in Detroit, the four high rise towers that were the last remnants of the Brewster-Douglass housing projects, the country’s first federally-funded public housing for African-Americans, were demolished. While the towers had been officially cleared of residents in 2008, they were, in fact, still home to a handful of people up to the time of their demolition, as Oren Goldenberg’s 2012 cinéma vérité short Brewster Douglass, You’re My Brother reveals. The video opens with a two-minute montage depicting the derelict complex from a series of neighboring perspectives—evoking its omnipresence, both physical and psychic, in the Detroit landscape—set to the sound of a gospel crooner’s insistent refrain that, “Time don’t wait for no one.” Then the focus shifts to Darlene, a long-term resident who says, as she reflects candidly on her hard life, that she survives by scrapping, and that she hasn’t seen her large family in years. At the end of the video, with the towers’ demolition imminent, Darlene is seen leaving, her empty hands in her pockets. She’s crossing the I-375 overpass, going—where? She doesn’t say. Does she know?

Goldenberg’s empathetic portrait of Darlene is typical of the video and installation artist’s concern for what happens to people when the spaces around them change, and for what happens to Detroiters, in particular, when their public institutions collapse.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Keeping time with Merce Cunningham in Chicago

I took a quick trip to Chicago last weekend to see some art! Though brief, it was full—a grateful getaway and a memorable aesthetic adventure.

The impetus was Tesseract, a new dance/video work created by video artist Charles Atlas and dancer-choreographers Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell. Tesseract was performed at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)—and at the Walker Center in Minneapolis the week before—as part of "Common Time," a knockout Merce Cunningham exhibition currently on view at both institutions.

From Tesseract (2017) by Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener. Photo courtesy of the MCA.

Atlas enjoyed a decades-long collaborative practice with Cunningham (1919-2009), documenting many of the legendary choreographer's dances, but also creating with him a host of experimental dance-for-camera works that radically reimagined the relationship between dance and video. Riener and Mitchell, meanwhile, were both acclaimed dancers in Cunningham's company near the end of its long run. (It disbanded, per the choreographer's instructions, upon his death.) So their new collaboration is a little "Merce Cunningham: The Next Generation," as Oren Goldenberg, a Detroit video artist and one of my travel buddies, put it. (Oren, who makes terrific dance-for-camera videos himself, is the subject of my next Essay'd essay, which will be out in a couple weeks.)

I was so curious to see what these three Mercists had made together. It turned out to be interesting, stylish, and ambitious but, I thought, ultimately a bit of a mess.

Oren's Star Trek reference ended up being pretty appropriate: Tesseract, which is half 3D dance video and half live performance with live video effects, has a decidedly sci-fi flavor. There were alien landscapes, alien scenarios, alien architecture, and (in a surprising and funny moment) an alien language; there was an especially beautiful dancer in shiny silver and black that looked and moved like an automaton; and, of course, there was the self-consciously hi-tech quality of the performance itself: not only the 3D dance film of the first half (a pretty exciting experience and, I thought, a delightful use of the medium), but also the live video effects of Act 2, which found a graceful (you might say dancerly) Steadicam-equipped videographer onstage with the dancers, whose likenesses were simultaneously projected onto a scrim and digitally manipulated by Atlas in real time.

From Tesseract (2017) by Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener. Photo by Ray Felix, courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

There was, in the end, much to appreciate about Tesseract, especially in the 3D film, which cut between six different scenarios with markedly different sets, choreographies, costumes, and video effects. My favorite was a sort of Martian landscape, complete with a little Ray Bradbury building on the horizon, in which a group of orange-clad dancers with little geometric growths in their costumes were green-screened into the scene, collage-like, and proceeded to manipulate and move, slowly and exploratorily, through a series of larger shapes with which they were each paired. Subtle, mysterious, seductive stuff.

From Tesseract (2017) by Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener. Production photo courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Aside from a few decidedly over-the-top moments, I found myself mostly absorbed by the video, but I had a harder time getting into the live performance. It wasn't just that the on-stage videographer was distracting (he was); it was also that the video effects felt a little hokey and arbitrary, and that they reminded me of stronger, surer works that incorporated similar effects more successfully, like Lucinda Childs's 1979 Dance, which I saw on the same MCA stage in 2009 (and which I wrote about in this very blog!), and Cunningham's own Biped (1999), which made an indelible impression when I saw it in Ann Arbor all the way back in 2004. Both of those pieces include images of moving bodies projected onto a scrim in front of the dancers, but in each, the live dancing and the film/video effect are integrated into a coherent whole.

From Dance (2009 revival) by Lucinda Childs. Photo by Sally Cohn, courtesy of L'Obs.

Tesseract emulates both of those classic works, with the key difference that now the video is live. Does it need to be? It felt showy and a little contrived—something done because it could be done, rather than something undertaken to meaningfully advance the relationship between dancer and moving image. A stimulating challenge, no doubt, for the whole team of artists, but does it justify the distracting and distancing effect on the audience? I give the creative trio credit for much about Tesseract, which, in the end, I'm glad I saw (and which was, I ought to say, a robust and tentacled work, not easily summed up) but ultimately I felt that it didn't hang together. It lacked a center, and at the same time there was so much of it. (Do I sound like a cranky minimalist?) It seemed, as Oren remarked later, experimental in a way that connotes something still being worked out—something unfinished, in process.

More coherent, even in its overabundance, was "Common Time," the Cunningham exhibition that occupied the entire fourth floor of the MCA, and which we returned to the museum the next day to experience. Its theme is the dense network of creative collaborations and relationships that typified Cunningham's practice—and that brought dance into fruitful contact with the wider art world.

66-76-89 (1990) by Nam Jun Paik

Cunningham was an inveterate collaborator, working with a dizzying array of influential (largely New York-based) artists over his long career. They created sets, costumes, music, soundscapes and, in the case of Atlas and fellow video artist Nam Jun Paik, films and videos that augment, complement, complicate, and ultimately co-create Cunningham's work. (Cunningham maintained a remarkable degree of trust in his many collaborators, who were typically encouraged to pursue their own visions independently. Often, it was only in performance that all the elements would come together.) The exhibition overflows with these materials, including sets by Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Morris; costumes by Rei Kawakubo; scores and sound art by John Cage and Pauline Oliveros; and more Cunningham videos than I had ever hoped to see in one place. In addition, there are a number of standalone works by many of these artists, as well as ephemera from others with whom Cunningham did not actively collaborate, but who labored around the same time and place in their own influential and boundary-breaking ways, like Trisha Brown and Yoko Ono.

Autobiography (1968) by Robert Rauschenberg

"Common Time" is lavish, overwhelming, transcendent. It is at once a sprawling survey of some of the most groundbreaking American artists of the latter half of the 20th century, and a tightly focused examination of some of the circumstances and concerns that united them. (It's nuts to think that this is just half of a show, the other half filling the galleries of the Walker in Minneapolis.)

Most exciting, to me, was MC9, an unforgettable, immersive installation by Charles Atlas that reinforced my admiration for his work (any ambivalent impressions of Tesseract notwithstanding). Picture it: you enter a long, dark room, one of the MCA's impressive barrel vault galleries, and find yourself surrounded by an architecture of screens: monitors of varying sizes, many quite large, most sleek and flat, a few boxy; some mounted above your head, and others installed at body level. There is an incredible visual and aural commotion as nine channels featuring looping excerpts from 21 different Atlas/Cunningham dance-for-camera collaborations made over 40 years are simultaneously played (so that multiple screens display the same works at the same time, while different screens display others). Videos do not play back-to-back; edited between them are either a countdown, such as you'd see on an old film header (complete with penetrating, metronomic tones marking the descent), or else (literally) luminous, saturated color fields, a huge pink rectangle here, a green one there, that briefly catch and fill the eye, offering a respite from the relentless movement in the videos, and casting colored reflections on the bodies of the other spectators, who stand and take it all in or perambulate through the ad hoc promenade—agog, indifferent, or somewhere in between.

Installation view of MC9 (2012) by Charles Atlas

I got lost in that room, and might have stayed for hours. There was so much happening, so much to take in. It was a dreamy, mysterious space, both cavernous and intimate. There was an overlapping of sound—warm, ambient, and suddenly clear—and everywhere you looked, there were bodies in motion (in that crisp, awkward, balletic Cunningham style), bodies both historic and near-contemporary, in black and white and vivid color, life-size bodies that were imaginatively de- and re-contextualized, tracked up close by fluid, moving cameras, and depicted in images nested within images. A techno-temple to a titan, made of time. I took a brief video inside with my phone. It's just a phone video, nothing special (actually it's pretty bad), and it offers the barest glimpse of the thing itself, but I'm compelled to share it anyway:

I left "Common Time" and Chicago with a feeling of gratitude for having seen so much work by Cunningham and his cohort, and also with a sense of the weight and fullness of his long life (and, therefore, of any long life). Cunningham died at 90, and had been working, collaborating, and documenting his efforts for nearly 60 of those years. I am inspired by this life: by the extent of his accomplishments, by his evidently vast capacity for friendship, and by his openness to time and chance and to moving forward with the world.

On the subject of time and aging, I should wrap up by mentioning that the MCA has another terrific exhibition up right now, "Eternal Youth," that would itself have been worth the trip from Detroit. It's a group show concerned with youth culture since the 1990s. I'm not going to go into it at length here, but suffice it to say that it's a sexy, funny, challenging, and queer-forward show, full of inventive, absorbing work by a diverse roster of artists both well-known and emerging. As such, it's a nice counterweight to the somewhat High Art seriousness of "Common Time," which might even seem a little stuffy, a little camp, by comparison.

* * *

Coda: While at the MCA, I was delighted to run into my friends Lesley and Megan from Detroit, who took me around "Eternal Youth" and showed me some of their favorite pieces. Here they are watching one of my favorites, a 20 minute video by Jumana Manna called Blessed Blessed Oblivion (2010), an earthy, engrossing exploration of the macho mystique of East Jerusalem thug culture. (You can watch it on Vimeo here.)

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.