Tuesday, November 24, 2015

30 Americans at Detroit Institute of Arts

Very impressive and coming to Cincinnati

30 Americans Exhibit Featuring
MickaleneThomas and Kehinde Wiley
     We went to Detroit in a gloomy October because we wanted to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts to see 30 Americans.  It was also a way to preview a major exhibit that will travel to Cincinnati next year.  The Rubell family has put the collection together over the past four decades and it’s been exhibited at a couple of other museums over the past few years.  All the artists are black, but each displays an individual style and subject matter.  

Sleep by Kehinde Wiley
     All deserve attention and discussion.  I’ll focus on a few of them.  The pièce de resistance has to be anything by Kehinde Wiley and he’s well represented here by a smaller triptych as well as two other heroic pieces.  Sleep (acquired 2007) is 11 x 25 feet, both breathtaking and intriguing because of its almost completely smooth surface. Wiley’s portrayal of young black
Detail of Sleep
men in Flemish, Baroque, and Neo-Classical settings points up both the necessity for inclusion, but also a primary method to make the art crowd actually look.  It helps that they’re extraordinarily beautiful.

Detail of Portraits of Quanikah
by Mickalene Thomas
     Mickalene Thomas, a figurative painter I hadn’t encountered before, places women in somewhat confrontive positions referring to historic earlier works as well as head shot poses that are about identity and self-empowerment.  The flatness of the figures’ palettes (achieved with acrylic and enamel) is offset by wild fabric patterns on the clothing and furniture and the rhinestones she uses as a focal point.  

Camptown Ladies by Kara Walker
     Kara Walker, who works in enormous paper silhouettes of images based on 19th century photos, engravings, and even Br’er Rabbit stories, shocks me once I really take in what’s happening in her visual epics.  Sculptor Nick Cave presents
by Nick Cave
contemporary mythic liminal figures that are playful, sexy, and somehow unsettling.  Having seen their work in other venues, I have to say that their presence in this exhibition broadened political and visual literary boundaries provocatively.  

Fast Eddie
by Barkley L. Hendricks

     I saw a couple of Barkley L. Hendricks’ realistic portraits back in college in the 1980s.  The works in this collection are from that period even though he has continued painting and teaching, but the effect felt like time freezing.  He’s a precursor to both Wiley and Thomas in presenting proud, naturalistically rendered male figures dressed and nude.  On the other hand, Jean-Michel Basquiat combined lettering with childlike imagery on heavily brush-stroked backgrounds; they’re almost like impasto.  Because of how the work was shown, I was able to come away with a new appreciation for his art, even though I don’t like it.  

A Visitor Contemplates
Duck, Duck, Noose by Gary Simmons
     I could go on about each of the artists because all of them provoke thought and intrigue.  Figurative painting may dominate, but there is also sculpture, video, and conceptual pieces that are symbolic or abstract.  The audio (and visual) tour was the first time I’ve seen perspectives on specific works by the curatorial staff, the artists discussing with board members in what looked to be a green room, and high school students of various ethnicities.  All three groups had intelligent, original viewpoints.  The book of the exhibition was worth it and I look forward to seeing it again closer to home.

A Gallery of Black American Artworks
     The rest of the museum was unexpected.  For one thing, it’s enormous – the size of the Chicago Art Institute or the Museum of Modern Art.  We spent four plus hours there and covered the exhibition and the second floor.  There’s a very strong emphasis on black American artists from the 18th century through the present, including Robert Colescott, one of the 30 Americans.  

The Atrium with Diego Rivera's Murals
     The justly celebrated crown jewel of the museum is Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry (1932 – 1933), twenty-seven fresco panels that surround an inner atrium.  They speak of factory workers and capitalist bosses, the developing airline industry and pre-Columbian agrarian culture.  It’s a place to stand and stare.  However, there was also a group dancing performance to celebrate the Day of the Dead.  It’s certainly a museum I would visit again.


No comments: