Detroit Art Kicks Out The Jams


gordon-newton-head-variatioContemporary Art 1945-Present
Detroit Institute of Arts

Through September

Detroit is rightly credited as the breeding ground for great music. Iggy and The Stooges, Eminem, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, and Jack White have all captured the sound of the exquisite decay of metal, the beauty of rust which is Detroit. Less acknowledged are the artists who have sprung from, or continue to work in, the Rust Belt Capital, giving us a sense of the visual poetry found in the ruins. The newly retooled Detroit Institute of Arts has at last given us a glimpse of some of the works of these artists in a section of their current exhibition Contemporary Art: 1945-Present. A wonderful show of their permanent holdings (much the same as New York MoMA's similarly themed current exhibition), it gives us the opportunity to peruse the best-of-the-best of the collection.

Skipping over some less than noteworthy earlier examples of Detroit's early Arts and Crafts movement's art'n'design, and the unfortunately, though probably well-intentioned, section entitled African American Artists, we do get a glimpse of some of Detroit's finest product.

The notoriously reclusive Gordon Newton is represented by four oil and resin on paper portraits called "Head Variations" (top left). Stark and architectural, they represent just that, resembling nothing so much as Picasso's famous late crayon self-portrait. Unlike Picasso's defiant stare-down with Death, Newton's heads seem more introspective and withdrawn, as if he has absorbed the architecture of the city and given it human form once again. Nearby, Heather McGill's sculpture "An Ego is a Terrible Thing" sulks against the gallery wall. A good companion piece, it is a gold-leafed, architectonic figure resembling a folding ruler, resembling nothing so much as a fitting monument to Henry Ford's assembly line workers.
Not surprisingly, music plays a major role in many of the works in the
exhibition. How could it not? Like New York in the '70s, when Punk and New Wave proved inspiration to artists including Robert Longo, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Stephan Prina, many Detroit artists were involved in the music scene. Newton hung out with James Williamson, and Mike Kelley jammed with garage bands. In Kelley's work "Carnival Time," a multi-paneled black and white acrylic on panel, heads of George Bush and other politicians are impaled on spikes; a panel depicting Disneyland, with Donald, Mickey, Goofy, and an pig in a party hat are juxtaposed with a drawing of a metal band, lead singer and drummer caught in mid-performance. Although the performers are generic, in a vague, tattooed-hair-metal, heroin-chic vein, they capture something of the spirit of the early Stooges. In contrast to all this rage against the machine, Charles McGee gives us the quiet and sublime "Spectral Rhythms," an abstract composition of floating forms, resembling Adolph Gottlieb's series "Frozen Sounds" His technique (spray paint of smooth layers of acrylic and enamel) bring to mind an auto-body paint shop, but the painting couldn't be further from the hammering of the machine shop; it is all Arcadia, a moment of quietude. Sophisticated color balances and harmonies and a deft placement of shape remind us that Detroit also gave us Blues and Motown, not just Metal.

The TKO of the show goes to Peter Williams, with his "Portrait of Christopher D. Fisher, Fourth Reich Skinhead" (image, above left). Williams reminds us of Detroit's past (think Rosa Parks) and serves to warn that history has a way of repeating itself. His black skinhead -- tattooed, pierced, and wearing a Sambo logo in lieu of a swastika -- co-opts White Pride. The defiant, multi-eyed and tribal-scarred face of Christopher serves to remind us of the delicate balance of race relations in Detroit, and the city's long and checkered past. Williams's powerful, future-history portrait seems to say that although the next revolution may not be televised, it has already been painted. - Bradley Rubenstein

domMr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.