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....

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:

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

30 Modernist Detroit Churches

(originally published 6/14/16 in Infinite Mile)

One of Detroit's most celebrated architectural assets is its remarkable collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century churches. Designed to mimic Medieval styles, such structures impress with their soaring spires, grand facades and elaborate ornament. They are understood to be local treasures, sites of distinction. Tours are given, books are written, holding them up.

Less celebrated are the city's numerous modernist churches, built in the middle of the twentieth century.

The turn toward modernism in religious architecture here, as elsewhere, was a turn against "historicism," seen as false, and toward the then-contemporary (the true). The authors of Modern Church Architecture, an international survey published in 1962, characterize this shift:
Nineteenth century revivalists chose to adopt the medieval cathedral as the apogee of the Christian architectural form. But we must realize that in contemporary building, historicism cannot be legitimate. Our building materials are different from those of the old masters. The play of vault against buttress, the daring originality of thin walls and large openings—making possible the marvelous flowering of stained glass—became in our time the dead weight of steel columns, plaster vaults painted to simulate stone, buttresses that buttressed nothing. Indeed, they were themselves buttressed by the steel columns. This miserable deception in a place where truth reigns supreme!
Modernist churches, of course, are but one species of the genus Modernism, one facet of a sprawling, decades-long socio-architectural project that touched buildings of all kinds. And so they follow fundamental precepts that also governed the design of schools, banks, offices, single- and multi-family homes, libraries, gas stations, funeral parlors, post offices, police stations and more. Namely: simplicity, functionality and the construction of pure geometric forms and volumes out of the mass-produced materials of the modern (machine) age.

There are modernist buildings of all types dating from the 1930s to the 1970s all over Detroit. Many have seen better days and are neglected, their clean lines crumbling. The churches, however, tend to be in relatively good shape. They are, after all, beloved spaces, safeguarded over the decades by the Detroiters to whom they mean so much.


My husband and I like to drive around the city sometimes, depositing ourselves in unfamiliar neighborhoods, where we drift, taking arbitrary turns and marveling at what we find. While such auto-mediated dérives, taken over the ten years we've lived in Detroit, have reinforced the city's essential incomprehensibility, they have also helped me better understand it. I've learned a thing or two about Detroit during these drives, including the extent and breadth of its modern church architecture. I find myself actively looking for these buildings now. I am drawn to them, even more than to the earlier, revivalist cathedrals.

The photographs collected here depict thirty churches, located clear across Detroit's 142 square miles. They are modest or magnificent, well known or obscure. They are situated in dense residential or commercial neighborhoods, or else they stand apart. The photos are arranged, somewhat arbitrarily, by the churches' ZIP codes.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Essay'd: Biba Bell

(originally published 6/13/16 in Essay'd)

On a sunny Sunday afternoon last July, several hundred people crowded the Dequindre Cut, a popular recreation path in Detroit, to see a dance. The performance, one of three public dance labs programmed to accompany “Here Hear,” the Cranbrook Art Museum’s celebrated exhibition of Nick Cave soundsuits, included music by Frank Pahl and choreography by Biba Bell. There is no telling what, exactly, the audience expected. What they witnessed was a distributed dance, a de-centered performance event, in which any vantage point along the Cut’s long, linear footprint offered a different view of different groups of dancers, some of whom slinked by in sinuous silence, while others posed, elegant and remote, above the crowd. Others danced a mannered duet involving the ritualistic exchange of their black or white soundsuit costumes, and the rest, by the end, were dancing in furious, ecstatic unison. When all was said and done, no one present had seen a complete dance, or the same dance. Everyone, however, had seen a dance by Biba Bell, an artist who specializes in the unexpected.

Thursday, June 9, 2016


I spent some time today shooting inside the DIA's immersive installation inspired by the 1968 Merce Cunningham dance RainForest, part of the terrific exhibition Dance! American Art 1830-1960 (ends this weekend!).

I got some pretty exciting shots and will post a handful of them, along with some thoughts, in the next couple days, but for now, here's my favorite -- a fleeting visitation by the ghost of Merce (1919-2009) himself:

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Downtown photo diary, Spring 2016

I took a sunny Monday off of work in March and devoted much of the afternoon to walking around downtown and taking photos. I started out near Rosa Parks Transit Center, meandering through the Central Business District, heading down Gratiot -- toward the fail jail, Lafayette Park and Eastern Market -- and finally up the Dequindre Cut, which took me back home in Lafayette Park. There is so much to see within that small geographic footprint, so much variety -- I ended up shooting quite a lot, and am finally getting around to thinning the herd and sharing my favorite photos from the day. There are 24 of 'em:

Monday, May 23, 2016

Second Baptist addition

I'm in the midst of working on my next contribution to Infinite Mile, a photo essay documenting 30 modernist churches in Detroit. This project has pretty much consumed my free time these last couple weeks, and as much as I'm enjoying working on it, I'll be happy to turn it in this week.

In the meantime, here's a little outtake, a photo I took while shooting the Brutalist 1968 addition to the Second Baptist Church in Greektown. It doesn't really fit the piece but I like it for other reasons:

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Essay'd in print!

EXCITING NEWS! Essay'd, the project I'm part of that publishes a short, illustrated essay about a different contemporary Detroit artist every 15 days, is being released in print! Wayne State University Press is publishing the first 30 essays in a beautifully designed and illustrated paperback on August 1st. And at $25 a copy, it's a steal!

The four of us behind Essay'd have been working our tails off getting the thing ready for print these last few months. We're all so excited to see this work take shape this way, escaping the confines of the web and finding its way (we hope) to bookshelves everywhere! 

Baby's first page proof. The final product will be in full, glorious color!

You can take a closer look and pre-order a copy of the book over at WSU Press's site. 

In the meantime, the Essay'd project continues over at, where new essays continue to roll out. (We're well on our way to #60, so with any luck, Essay'd, vol 2 won't be far behind!)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Meet the Hinterlands, your friendly neighborhood theater revolutionaries

(originally published 4/28/16 in Model D)

The place that Detroit-based experimental performance ensemble The Hinterlands calls home is, in fact, a home. Or at least it used to be.

Play House is a formerly vacant, 1,000 square foot corner house on a dense, residential street in Banglatown, the Detroit neighborhood that borders Hamtramck to the northeast. Built in 1920, it was converted into a small rehearsal and performance space by Power House Productions in 2013 as part of their creative stabilization work there.

It's fitting that "The Radicalization Process," the Hinterlands' new performance, begins in the basement of that house. Because this work, like just about everything else they've done in Detroit, is suffused with a sense of subterranean richness.

The vivid, boundary-stretching productions the Hinterlands creates are wonders to behold; they're beautiful, funny, and technically accomplished all at once. But they also reflect an unusually profound engagement with their subject matter, as well as a long and intensely physical creative process. The result is a theatrical experience like no other -- something that's alive, intimate, multilayered, and that reverberates long after each performance has ended.

The Hinterlands take an exploratory approach to creating work. They conduct extensive research into subjects they're interested in, incorporate that research into their ongoing physical training, and see what emerges over time. In their previous productions "Manifest Destiny," "Dreamtigers," and "The Circuit," they took on the Wild West, magical realism, and vaudeville, respectively. At the center of the new work is a timely question: what drives people to become political radicals?

They root their investigation of this theme in late '60s/early '70s American left-wing extremism, and explore it in typically kaleidoscopic fashion. The world of "The Radicalization Process" includes, among much else, a bomb that's being built in a Detroit safe house, a fanatical Method acting coach, and a rehearsal for a production of "Antigone," all set against the background of the Vietnam War. A live score is performed on an analog synthesizer, a briefcase turntable, and ringing wine glasses.

All of that takes place on the first floor of Play House. But before you, the audience member, see or hear any of it, you start in the basement, where you're invited to spend time rifling through a mysterious archive.

The Hinterlands' co-founders, Richard Newman and Liza Bielby, take an approach to performance-making that is indisputably their own, but also informed by a handful of notable traditions. Moving to Detroit from Milwaukee in 2010, they've taken a long, winding path to get here, and picked up a few things along the way.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Liza B at Play House

I'm working on a piece for Model D about The Hinterlands, a Detroit-based experimental performance group that I just can't get enough of.

I went and took some photos of them and their space to illustrate the piece the other day. I didn't think this particular photo was good for the article but I wanted to share it anyway. It depicts Hinterlands co-founder Liza Bielby on the set of their new production The Radicalization Process, inside their performance space, a once-vacant house transformed by Power House Productions.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Essay'd: David Philpot

(originally published 4/25/16 in Essay'd)

David Philpot is an antenna, finely tuned to subtle frequencies. He listens carefully, receiving transmissions from as far away as West Africa, and from as nearby as God or the wood in his hands. His primary medium, fittingly, is the staff, an energizing rod that joins the earth to the sky via the human being who wields it.

Long before he ever considered himself an artist, the 30-year-old Philpot heard a voice call his name, leading him, amazed, to an oasis: a grove of trees in a Chicago housing project. A week later, Philpot, who had never abandoned his childhood habit of gathering and carrying sticks, and who had recently admired Charlton Heston’s staff in The Ten Commandments, woke in the night with a mission: to chop down one of those trees, and make from it a staff of his own. When it was done, he called it Genesis (1971), an apt title for the first of more than 350 staffs he has made in the 45 years since.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Fiberglass History

(originally published 4/4/16 in Model D)

Since its opening in 1964, Guy Kenny's Plymouth-based industrial company Glassline has specialized almost exclusively in the fabrication of corrosion-resistant fiberglass equipment for the steel, chemical, and automotive industries. Hence the massive, multi-chambered tank that's currently under construction in the middle of his workshop.

"The principle," Kenny tells me matter-of-factly, "is that is they can put a car in there, give it seven years of exposure in four or five weeks, and see how it holds up. They'll raise the temperature inside from 40 degrees below zero to 140 at one degree a minute. They'll spray it with water and salt. They can even make it snow in there."

Fascinating as the tank is, it is not actually the reason for my visit to Glassline. I'm there to learn about the curious variety of disembodied architectural elements that are strewn about Kenny's workshop, and that give it the appearance of a disassembled classical theatre set. There are elaborately carved lions' heads, bits of balustrade, and several sections of cornice -- the ornate ledges that crown historic buildings and are intended to deflect rainwater from their facades.

That's because, in the last ten years, Kenny has brought his technical know-how to a whole new market: the revitalization of downtown Detroit. In addition to their industrial work, Glassline has taken to recreating lost or deteriorated architectural elements for a host of historic buildings that are undergoing rehabilitation. And they're making them all out of fiberglass....

Read the rest at Model D.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Curtain Call

I was really struck by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson's Woman in E, a performance installation that was on view at Detroit's Museum of Contemporary Art from January 15 to April 10. 

Formally, Woman in E is pretty straightforward, minimal, even. The two entrances to MOCAD's main gallery are obscured by curtains of gold tinsel that reach to the floor. Part a curtain, step through, and enter an expansive oval room, defined by an uninterrupted wall of tinsel. In the center is a rotating platform, upon which you'll find an amp and a woman in a glittering gold dress and gold high heel shoes. She is standing or sitting on the amp, strumming a gold and white electric guitar. She strums an E flat chord, over and over again. Sometimes she riffs. She looks over your head or down at the guitar, or else she closes her eyes. Occasionally she might glance at you, ever so briefly, but you get the impression she's not supposed to. The platform rotates slowly. The tinsel dazzles in the light. Stay as long as you want; she's here whenever the museum is open for visitors. "She" is actually seven different women, local musicians who work in three hour shifts.

I don't want to spend a lot of time reading the piece here, because this is all really intended to be a prologue to some photos I'd like to share, but of course there is a lot to be said about it. It's a complex work about objectification and music, cinema and presence, glamour and artifice. It's about art history's long line of singular, sorrowful women, and about women's long history of being looked at. It's about you and the performer, being in the room together. It's about conceptions of beauty. And all of its meaning comes by way of this experience: Woman in E is alive, multi-sensory, enveloping. It's art you become part of, gently but powerfully. I went to experience it three different times, twice in February and again last Saturday. On my second visit, I went alone in the middle of the day and sat on the floor for a while, just sort of giving myself over to the piece: its resonant sounds, the beautiful visual counterpoint of the slow rotation and the fast-dancing light, the exquisite tension of looking, really just sitting and looking, wordless, at another human being. A stranger. A woman.

Part of the pleasure of repeat visits is the variability of the performers. I saw a different woman each time I visited. Each time I felt moved to take her picture. (This is the kind of work that invites you to photograph it, but also makes you feel a little uncertain about whether or not you really should. That's a person up there, after all, who didn't exactly give you her permission to be photographed; yet there she is, no doubt being photographed all day, no doubt having signed something saying she was cool with it.) I shot the first two with my phone:

Last Saturday, I went back to MOCAD to write at the cafe there, and I brought my proper camera, knowing that Woman in E was closing the next day. I worked for a couple hours, listening to the E flat chord emanating from the next room, savoring it, telling myself I shouldn't go in until I'd done a couple solid hours of writing.

Eventually, ready, I picked up the camera, parted the streamers, and walked in. This woman (her name, I learned from Instagram, is Deekah Wyatt), was evidently just starting her shift, or returning from a break. She was being led across the gallery and up the stairs of the platform by a MOCAD employee, and she was crying. I learned later that she was crying because it was her last shift, her last time playing the Woman in E, but I intuited that before I knew it. Deekah Wyatt was really feeling it, feeling something (who knows what, after so many hours of doing this over three months?), and her unexpected outpouring changed the piece, deepening its beauty and raising the stakes of our interaction. Her tears subsided after a few minutes, but her emotion hung in the room, stayed preserved in her body. For a long time, it was just the two of us, and it was all so personal. I felt in our moments together that I was equal parts witness and intruder. That ambivalence about taking pictures reached new heights, and it took a few minutes before I felt comfortable turning on the camera. (I don't, in fact, ever recall feeling so acutely that the taking of a photograph is a rapacious act. Yes, you take a picture). But I did turn it on, and in the end, I'm glad I did.

Here are my favorite shots from that afternoon: