P O C O !
Volume 12 Number 1 -3 Fall 1996
Community Visions of Royal Oak: A Series of Architectural and Urban Design Projects
"Glass: A Woman's Touch": Ariana Gallery
Roni Horn: Susanne Hilberry Gallery
Natalie Cox, Matthew Gollnick, Mark Mothersbaugh, and
Stephen Schudlich": The Cement Space
Jeffrey Silverthorne: Book Beat Gallery
A Visual Arts Publication
Volume 12 Number 1-3 Fall 1996
Vincent Carducci Copy Editor:
Mary Clark-Gage Contributing Editors:
James E. Hart,
Dennis Alan Nawrocki,
MaryAnn Wilkinson Designer:
Loralei R. Byatt
Tess Tchou Sales Manager:
Mary M. Denison
Detroit Focus Quarterly is published four times per year by Detroit Focus, P.O.
Box 32823, Detroit, Michigan 48232-0823. Copyright 1996 by Detroit Focus. All rights reserved. Contents in whole or in part may not be reproduced without permission.
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Detroit Focus Board Member and computer artist
At long last, an issue of Detroit Focus Quarterly. Given our erratic publishing schedule, I have often referred this beleaguered little journal as "Detroit Focus Intermittently." Rather than bore you with excuses for the continual delays in publication, let me just apologize for the extremely long wait. While the material contained in this issue of Detroit Focus Quarterly might be considered somewhat dated, for historical reasons, and in deference to those who spent so much of their time and energy in preparing their manuscripts, I felt it was important that it finally (however belatedly) reach an audience. It is my sincere desire that the community will not have to wait so long for the next issue.
Figure 1 Scale model of Royal Oak looking north showing examples of the four projects. Foreground right: commuter rail station. Mam between 5th and 6th (project by Tom Foos); left: housing project, corner of Washington and 6th (project by Matthew Coates) Background left: performing arts center, corner of Washington and 5th (project by Andrew Bader), right museum project, corner of Main and 11 Mile (project by James Mulka) Behind: figure-ground drawing.
Just as the crowded and unhealthy conditions of the English and American Victorian city resulted in utopian and garden city movements, today's suburban environment, with its wasteful, car-dependent sprawl and banal, unsightly lack of place, has prompted us to reconsider the city. By the city I refer to the vitality, density, diversity, sense of place, public orientation, and facilitation of community that urbanism has traditionally provided. The appropriate translation and application of these characteristics in suburban areas can strengthen existing centers and transform our scattered, undifferentiated surroundings.
For the past two years, the design studios I have led at Lawrence Technological University have rigorously addressed contemporary suburban/urban issues by means of architectural and urban design projects set in Royal Oak's downtown. The methodology has consisted of four avenues of inquiry: (1) to consider the timeless elements that have traditionally created and defined place and community; (2) to recognize recent and contemporary patterns of development and note their reasons, cost, and effects; (3) to research substantial, timely, and appropriate alternatives and approaches which serve to foster healthy, sustainable, and viable urbanity; and (4) to develop these approaches through "real" projects in a suburban setting that already possesses a modicum of urbanity.
While these fundamental environmental and spiritual needs have perhaps changed and are arguably diminished today, they still remain essential to a sense of identity and well being. Traditionally, religion, sacred space, mythology, and ritual have been deeply rooted in the definition of place. According to Mircea Eliade, meaningful places or centers have served to differentiate the "sacred" from the "profane": it was the "place" where the gods were present and the setting for communal activities. One's existence was always directly related to specific places and their identity and meaning. Architecture was created with the knowledge that the experience of meaningful places profoundly affected one emotionally and spiritually.
Our modern perspective insists that contemporary humans are significantly different from our recent ancestors. This myopic conceit ignores the similarities between our basic social needs and responses to our environment with those of our more distant predecessors. Our bodies are virtually the same and much of our social behavior originates from our primitive past. According to Carl Jung, our psyches are "not only of today," but are a result of the legacy of preceding generations, a thread of interconnections woven back into the fabric of time. One important, timeless aspect is an undiminished need for identifiable places to serve meaningful social interaction and communal participation. In the introduction to Town and Town-Making Principles, 1991, Alex Kreiger states that, "In an age of instant communication and mobility
it is easy but wrongheaded, to assume that physical proximity is no longer essential for urbanity."
Contemporary Patterns Our contemporary built
environment is more often described as lacking discernable centers and places. As James Howard Kunstler states, "there is little sense of having arrived anywhere, because everyplace looks like noplace in particular." (The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Fall of America's Man-Made Landscape, 1991.) It is this landscape that is characterized by sprawl, and
A Series of Architectural and Urban Design Projects
Place and Community
Human orientation and identity are contingent on our sense of belonging to a place. As Christian Norberg-Schulz wrote in 1980, "The place is the concrete manifestation of man's dwelling, and his identity depends on his belonging to places." A "place" is where we are from, a center which is differentiated from others.
To be meaningful, a place needs to possess what Norberg-Schulz terms an "imaginable structure" that gives its inhabitants a sense of belonging and connection. Moreover, identifiable places have meaningful content and
provide the setting for individual and group interaction, a need architecture has historically
Thomas Barrie is a practicing architect and Assistant Professor at Lawrence Technological University; his book Spiritual Path-Sacred Place: Myth, Ritual and Meaning in Architecture was recently published by Shambhala Publications.
Figure 2. Theoretical exercise exploring issues of threshold, commuter rail station project.
which has been built according to the dictates of our dominant transportation system, the private automobile. The result is the predominance of fragmented, isolated enclaves and a paucity of true public spaces. The street, traditionally the place of commerce and social interaction, has been reduced to a conduit between the separate entities of home, shopping, recreation, and work. Pedestrian access and transportation choices have been marginalized and the use, function, and population of our cities and towns has become increasingly segregated. The disturbing phenomena of gated communities and
"edge cities" eloquently encapsulates these patterns and their broad ranging societal
Contemporary patterns of development have been attributed to the global communication and transportation revolution of the late-twentieth century, but this is only partially accurate. Our increasingly dysfunctional built environment is also the result of specific transportation subsidies and development practices. It is not simply the effect of laissez-faire, "natural" market forces which therefore
represent "what people want." Even if it were a natural reflection of our needs, we can no longer afford it socially, politically, economically, and ecologically. It is ironic that a country defined by notions of personal freedom has created an environment of limited mobility which serves to segregate our society by age and socioeconomic status. The family budget is increasingly devoted to paying for automobiles, and our communities are disproportionately burdened with the cost of maintaining roads, infrastructure, and services. As we relentlessly continue to spread out, more and more farms and open lands are lost and the health of our water and air declines.
Moreover, our built environment's relentless assault on our senses compels us to retreat psychologically and become passive. We structure our environment, but it in turn structures us. Analogous to the dialectical interrelationship of culture and language, our environment possesses a depth of content in terms of national identity. It is a legible sign system that succinctly tells us "who we are"—our values, beliefs, and priorities. Michael Sorkin argues that dispersed suburban enclaves are antithetical to a free society and that "the effort to re-claim the city is the struggle of democracy itself." Christopher Lasch, in his last book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, 1995, writes about the loss of true public discourse and its implications regarding the practice of democracy. The "sprawling, amorphous conglomeration without clearly identifiable boundaries, public space or identity" that he describes is attributed to the balkanization and polarization of society. According to Lasch as the "privatized classes" retreat from public life behind their gated enclaves, or in their rootless mobility, democracy and its institutions are put at risk.
Contemporary theoreticians such as Peter Calthorpe, Margaret Crawford, Mike Davis, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Harrison Fraker, Doug Kelbaugh, Kreiger, Daniel Solomon, and others argue for the transformation and urbanization of suburbia. Their arguments are based in part on the premise that viable urban environments are created by a straightforward response to timeless qualities of human community and the appropriate application of traditional urban precedents. This is not a nostalgia for past forms and symbols, but timely responses and strategies that satisfy essential human needs in the context of their contemporary setting.
In Calthorpe's "transit-oriented development," for example, public transportation is an essential component. However, the aim is not to eliminate the automobile, but to integrate a diverse range of transportation, commerce, business, and residential needs. Growth is not limited in particular areas,
Figure 3. "Community Visions of Royal Oak" installation view, Washington Square Plaza. Left: "Speakers Corner" project; center: housing project; right: museum project
Integrated Design Studio for Commuter Rail Station: Thomas Barrie (architectural design);
Figure 4. Housing project, including ground-floor commercial spaces and shared public space (projects by Cori Linnell, Julee Taylor, and Matthew Coates).
Integrated Design Studio for Performing Arts Center: Thomas Barrie (architectural design); Chris Wazacny (urban spatial structures); and
which often leads to sprawl elsewhere, but is controlled in ways that foster density, diversity, and community. In this regard, local and regional zoning and planning laws, as well as street improvement subsidies and traffic engineering standards, are addressed. According to Calthorpe, successful strategies include a coalition of urbanists, developers, and environmentalists—a synthesis of problems for common solutions.
The result is full-time communities that are inclusive not exclusive and provide a healthy balance of public and private places. Privacy is created by interstitial spaces not barriers, security by streets that are inhabited not guarded. Because people participate in their community, there is a sense of ownership and care.
The five principal characteristics of these new or revitalized urban centers are: (1) diversity of use, population, accessibility, economics, and transportation; (2) sense of place and public identity which includes a clarity of center and boundary
demarcated by civic places and buildings; i
(3) pedestrian scale and accessibility accomplished in part by narrow streets with short crosswalks, facilitated through traffic slowing and by humanly scaled architecture, signage, lighting, and planting;
(4) a mixed-use commercial core with a dense concentration of business, commercial, civic, and residential buildings that maintains and engages the street edge; and (5) a "downtown" area served by public transportation with adjacent residential areas within walkable distances.
At one time Detroit was one of the largest cities in America; now its population stands at less that one million, many of them poor. Woodward Avenue, once the grand boulevard of Detroit, epitomizes the city's decline—miles of abandoned buildings, empty lots, loss of any sense of meaningful place. Looming over its sparse downtown is the Renaissance Center, intended to revitalize Detroit's downtown, but now functioning like one of many self-contained corporate fortresses that ring the city. A metropolis
Figure 5. Museum project, including artist live/work studios, street-level commercial spaces, public exhibition courtyard (project by James Mulka).
Abou-Chebl, Andy Bader,
Matt Badrack, Andy Bennett, Brad Boyer,
Matt Coates, David
Czeszewski, Brent Folkert, Tom Foos,
Joe Furwa, Greg Gibbard, Chris Lauinger,
Beth Malberg, David Miller, James Mulka, Brian Neeper, Shelley O'Brien, Kirk Phillips, James Renaud, Jack Runkle, David Stone, Adrian Ursu,
Dan van Dyke, Slobodan Varga, Rochelle Vogel, Matt Weeks, Tracie Withrow, and
Figure 6. Commuter rail station project (project by Kirk Phillips).
that evolved according to the economics and dictates of the automobile, contemporary Detroit and its suburban environs are defined by sprawl, auto dependence, and lack of place. It is characterized by borders, edges, separation, economic and racial segregation, fragmentation, and defensible enclaves. It offers a striking example of suburban settlement patterns run amok and contemporary attitudes about urbanism.
However, interspersed among the miles of freeways, corporate enclaves, and faceless strips and housing tracts are pockets of urbanity. Royal Oak offers a striking example of a community struggling to provide a meaningful, humane center. It is a popular place, known for its restaurants and "street life," and people drive there from the surrounding suburbs to sit in its cafes and walk its streets. The small-in-scope, upper-level student projects which are set in Royal Oak's "downtown" respond to, and build upon, the modicum of urban fabric that exists there.
These projects explore issues related to the
urbanization of suburbia and have been grouped under the constructs: "Place and Community:
Alternative Housing in Royal Oak," "The Street and the City: A Museum of Contemporary Cultural Artifacts," "Threshold: An Urban Rail Station for Royal Oak," and "Place and Occasion: A Performing Arts Center for Royal Oak." The goals of the projects were first of all to introduce the morphology and experience of a viable urban environment. Most students have not experienced urban environments and often have not been sufficiently introduced to
issues of urbanism, though they are from junior and y\n exhibition
senior level design studios. Urbanity was the Qf
principal focus of the studios, but because they are "Community
student projects they also included other Visions of
educational goals. Royal Oak"
was on view
The educational methodology of the studios at
included precedent, context, and theoretical Washington
exercises. Precedent studies of each project's Square Plaza,
specific building type as found in urban settings Royal Oak,
were researched. Context studies included drawing April 7-30,
and model exercises to document the range of 1995.
Figure 6. Commuter rail station project (project by Kirk Phillips).
public space and the scale and texture of Royal Oak. For example, in the housing project (figure 1) the students were asked to create a series of model and sketch studies that explored issues related to shared or public space. Specific questions were posed: "What is the scale and texture of the streets and buildings surrounding the site?" "What is the rhythm and cadence of the street as one walks along it?" "What are its horizontal and vertical layers, its materials and forms, its openings, corners and edges...?" Students were asked to consider how the surrounding urban fabric of Royal Oak might be strengthened and made more cohesive.
The rail station project began by building a model of Royal Oak's downtown that identified public spaces and the scale and detail of the street (see figure 1). In the museum project a figure-ground drawing of the downtown area was developed by the students as a group, using Giambattista Noli's 1748 plan of Rome as a model. The drawing illustrated interior and exterior public spaces that allow for human assembly, repose, and interaction (i.e., sidewalks, plazas , markets, cafes, coffeeshops, restaurants, churches, and theaters), and showed as much detail as possible, including planting, paving, seating, lighting, awnings, etc.
Theoretical exercises were used to identify fundamental issues related to both formal and social relationships. Their emphasis was the interrelationship of elements and patterns as opposed to formal objects. In the museum project an exercise entitled "Interface" identified certain relationships inherent in streets and asked that they be conceptually expressed. Similarly, the rail station project had a theoretical exercise entitled "A Place of Meeting" (figure 2) where the students constructed a 1' x 3' relief, material collage that conceptually addressed issues of threshold, limen, border, meeting, interaction, convergence, and interpenetration.
The performing arts center project utilized an exercise entitled "Speaker's Corner." This latter assignment was site specific and concluded with a performance in situ. Its (not so hidden) agenda was the notion of the value of taking possession and care of public spaces (figure 3). The project abstract was based on Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park, where, in a tradition which dates back to the nineteenth century, on Sunday mornings anyone may publicly speak. Established by the local government of its time as a place for public gatherings and debate—a service it still in part performs—a simple podium serves as a stage for political or otherwise orations, inevitably with audience participation. (Today, the polemics often take the form of marginal political performance, street theater of sorts.) Based on the concept that open societies and communities depend on the freedom to publicly debate issues, present ideas, or entertain (often in simple urban settings: street corners, squares, the public green), students were directed to imagine a place in Royal Oak that would fill a similar need.
Once the preliminary studies were completed, urban strategies, which emphasized the elements of viable urbanity previously noted, were developed in
concert with the architectural design. The housing project set in downtown Royal Oak, for example, addressed issues of public space, density, mixed use, and economic and social diversity (figure 4). It included research on alternative housing and urban/suburban issues and acknowledged that, as the typical American family has changed (along with work patterns and community structure), the need for alternatives to the single-family house has grown. Responding to economic and social needs, shared housing, among other benefits, can fill the need for affordable housing and community. The program included a range of housing units, indoor and outdoor community spaces, and street-level commercial spaces, including a gallery/bookstore/cafe.
The museum project focused on the social and formal qualities of the public street, public space, and urbanity; and its program included a street-level cafe and commercial spaces as well as artist live/work spaces. Its diversity of use and pedestrian street scale was intended to engage a prominent site on Main Street currently used as a lot for a car dealership (figure 5). The project definition of "a museum of contemporary cultural artifacts" was left open to each student's interpretation; meaning and cultural context were givens in the studio's enquiry. Context surveys and precedent studies were utilized and the projects were developed through an emphasis on the scale, use, and viability of "the street;" shared positive public space and contemporary urban theories.
The rail station project identified the conflict in American culture of celebrating communication, mobility, and transportation, while depending on the slow, wasteful, and primitive mode of transportation of the private automobile. It served to introduce the students to issues of public transportation, including its implications regarding civic identity. The projects transformed the site on Main Street into a prominent entry point to the downtown; the station became a threshold to Royal Oak and points beyond. The building program included commercial spaces, a restaurant/coffee bar, a station hall, and a public plaza, and addressed their implications regarding public space and pedestrian access. The necessity of a "kiss and ride" drop-off area and short-term parking required the accommodation of the automobile. The project was integrated with urban and landscape design studios to comprehensively address a range of issues. It focused on issues of public space, street edge, and appropriate scale and materials, while recognizing that "traditional" urban strategies do not need to be mimetic, nor do they preclude timely and evocative architecture, (figure 6)
When the post-World War II suburbs blossomed in America they provided an option to the city and the country, as they still do today. However, if we lose the city due to fragmentation, and subsume the country due to profligate sprawl, then we will be left with no choice or diversity at all. Moreover, radically
changed demographics and the resources necessary for the development and maintenance of suburbia make it an increasingly marginal option. Alternatives are desperately needed for a world that is dramatically different from 40 years ago. We may not need radical change, even if that were possible, but simply a broader range of choices that serve more of our population.
The need for change is apparent and yet we find ourselves in an interval between the realization that the old ways no longer work and the discovery of new patterns, a characteristic of a transitional time.
In many ways we do not know what to do and thus the plethora of debates within architecture and urbanism as to its role and responsibilities. Too often this results in paranoid and arcane debates that suggest a profession without a center. Our perceived impotence to effect positive change has resulted in a professional placelessness of sorts. Often, the debate is polarized between nostalgia for the past and passive acceptance of the present.
Both approaches, by utilizing selective criteria and information, are inadequate. We need a middle way that recognizes archetypal human needs, responds to our contemporary milieux, and perhaps anticipates the future. We need to synthesize traditional patterns of human habitation and social interaction with contemporary issues of suburbia and urbanism. Lastly, it is essential to reestablish a proactive social agenda toward the creation of place and community in our built environment that can be rigorously tested in a full range of theoretical and constructed projects. ^
This issue of Detroit Focus Quarterly was made possible by a grant from Detroit Council of the Arts and services donated in kind by Clark Graphics, Warren, Michigan, and Seaman Patrick Paper Company, Detroit.
Arianna Gallery Royal Oak, Ml March 31-May 1, 1995
Eight years ago when Ann Kuffler opened Ariana Gallery, her husband hung the lights and kept the books. Today she is the sole proprietor of the 3,500-square foot space and the employer of a staff of five. Recently, she curated the show "Glass: A Women's Touch" at the gallery. Inspired by a lecture she attended by the Guerrilla Girls, Kuffler wanted to present the art of glass from a feminine perspective.
Techniques and expressions of women artists from all over the world were represented in the exhibit which, in many instances, have revolutionized an art form traditionally thought of as male dominated. (In a recent interview, Kuffler spoke of herself as a frustrated artist, claiming her two great passions to be glass and ceramics: "glass blowing requires a great deal of physical strength and stamina; women bring a more subtle, delicate view, creating smaller-scale objects.") Inventive methods, such as fusion, engraving, weaving, and incorporating various hand-made and natural objects into the glass, were to be found in the show and the artists included Carol Perry, who weaves colored strips of glass, then heats the structure into freely formed shapes; Zoe Adorno, who fuses and slumps her pieces to create sculptures that are further embellished with strips of latticcino (woven canes of glass); and Susan Batian Gott, who heats the glass to pour it into
Sand-Cast molds. Lisabeth Levine, See No Evil,
The effect of these innovative techniques was compounded by the highly personal, autobiographical, and emotionally charged expressions of the work, much of which appeared to be informed by the physicality of the body, in both a sexual and sensual way. Lucy Lippard in her latest book, The Pink Class Swan: Essays in Feminist Art, 1995, states: "I, for one, am convinced that there are aspects of art by women that are inaccessible to men and that these aspects arise from the fact that a women's political, biological, and social experience
Dale Sparage is an artist and educator working in Pontiac.
in this society is different from that of a man.” Although she acknowledges that, "It would be ridiculous to assert that the characteristics of the female sensibility...are not shared to some degree by male artists.... The fact remains that certain elements...are found far more often in the work of women than of men." Validation of Lippard's position could be seen in works such as Alone in the House of Dreams, 1994, a mixed-media glass sculpture composed by Margaret Stone. Another pointed work in this regard was the installation of blown glass with intimate oil paintings of various images that the artist finds fearful by Diana Purnell titled, 50 Things to Fear, 1994. Other titles—Divorced, Not So Private Hell, Protection Too Little Too Late, Archaic Maiden, Be Safe, Caring For the Weak and Wounded suggested content dealing with tears, condoms, goddesses, marriage, and more.
Another significant aspect that was brought to light through the exhibit was the blurring of boundaries between craft and fine art. In his book Art Worlds, 1982, Howard Becker devotes a chapter on the relationship of fine art to craft, or as he states, "The new standards artists create to insure that a work's only utility will be as art to be admired, appreciated, and experienced." Artists, Becker holds, "denounce the mere virtuosity of the old school of craftsman. They discover and create a conscious continuity with work in other areas of art, especially the traditional areas of painting and I sculpture. They announce their independence of others' ideas of what their work should consist of and denounce any attempt to saddle them with the requirements of utility." The women participating in "Glass: A Woman's Touch," illustrate a high quality of professional craftsmanship, while concurrently imparting emotional and socially relevant qualities within the work.
black engraved bowl
The art community is fortunate to have Ann Kuffler in its midst for she is among those whom are contributing to the creation of new standards within the arenas of criticism, exhibition, and the market place, standards that promulgate images of women within a context in which they can identify with one another rather than fit into conventions predetermined by male standards. Through accepting the risk in supporting a female sensibility, she and others are instigating social changes and promoting renewed canons within the art world #
Roni Horn, in her frjpg Sc
recent exhibition at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery, presented what appeared to be fragments from the various series and installations that she has produced over the past decade.
Initially, the fragments jostled each other, refusing the expected melding into a coherent whole. The show coalesced only
when the viewer ^on‘ *~*orn' When Dickinson Shut Her Eyes No. dipped below
886, ed. 1/3, 1993, plastic and aluminum
mark-making activity. In Horn's procedure, the shapes are first painted randomly on paper, then cut into strips and rearranged as new configurations arise amongst the liberated forms. This collage technique, with its implication of movement and transmutability, encouraged reading the balance of the installation as random elements in a continuous state of realignment.
visual surfaces to analyze the influences and procedures that Horn brought to the making of this body of work. Straddling the separated twins of minimalism and pop art, she blended elements of collage and an intimate relationship with the terrain of Iceland to create a stark installation that slowly revealed its beauty and connections to the patient viewer.
Susanne Hilberry Gallery
February 18 - March 25, 1995
Four large, solid aluminum bars were leaned against each of the walls in the first gallery, each bar accommodating the first line of a poem by Emily Dickinson which also served as its title. The letters, which appear on the outward-facing surface of each burnished beam, were fashioned of inlaid black plastic. The inlay continued around the other three sides, creating alternating bands of varying width. The effect was spare, resulting in the desire to see more lines of poetry (in the past, Horn has exhibited whole poems, one line to a bar and the bars grouped together). In this installation, the tactic of one line to a wall seemed to leave too much inactive space, and as a result, the beams assumed the role of flaccid buttresses in their attempt to support the wall's expanse.
However, a large drawing, accompanied by two floor sculptures and a framed page of script, which occupied the next room provided more visual interest and supplied the cues for decoding the rest of the exhibit. The drawing, titled Just XX, 1993, consisted of smallish, lush acid-green shapes made from ground pigment and varnish that played across the vast white surface of the paper like charted choreography. Closer inspection revealed penciled markings, smudges, and variously pigmented fingerprints: a relative plethora of incidental
From this perspective, Dickinson's poetic fragments became, by turns, Horn's and the viewer's, each of whom can generate a different poem upon successive encounters. Regeneration was also alluded to through the list of Icelandic lava fields which constituted the text of the framed script. The reconfiguration of language and visual image that occurred throughout the exhibit worked metaphorically to describe the ever-changing and self-engendering geology of Iceland. Horn has made frequent, extended visits there, and the sparse quality of the installation, as well as the recombinant quality of individual works, might be attributed to this. Even the cloven mounds of copper and stainless steel that hugged the floor began to appear as solidified bubbles or lava, split as they hyper-cooled upon exiting the earth.
Utilizing simplified procedures and minimal materials, Horn created a complex and an ultimately active mindscape. Too much current art simply rests on a nexus of process, material, and idea: both social agenda and formal stricture can act as screens that deny access to the intentions of many an artwork's creator. In contrast, Horn's human response imbued her art with character; the aura of personal experience brought to pared-down means resonated throughout her work with desolate grace.
Kevin Castile is an artist and writer.
Matthew Gollnick, Mark Mothersbaugh, and
The Cement Space Detroit, Ml November 18-December 23, 1994
Certainly one of the more interesting developments on the recent art scene in Detroit has been the opening of The Cement Space in the warehouse district near downtown. In the past year, The Cement Space has mounted some notable exhibitions and generated keen interest among the art-going public. Perhaps the most significant effort to date has been "Syntax Error," which brought together four Midwestern artists who address issues of visual culture in the twilight of the age of mechanical reproduction.
From a strictly promotional point of view, the exhibit's main attraction was Mark Mothersbaugh, who is more widely known for his project, Devo, the New Wave group from Akron, Ohio, which rose to international prominence in the late-1970s. Mothersbaugh has been a visual artist all along, having done cover art for Devo's recordings, directing films, and otherwise supervising the group's image. As with Devo, Mothersbaugh's art production sounds the mindnumbing shallows of America's cultural waters. Many of his images are drawn from tabloids, print ads, the comics, porno, and other segments of so-called trash culture.
Mothersbaugh deals with these sources mockingly, defacing images with hand-drawn interventions and collaged elements to reveal the lameness of it all. As with graffiti, however, which began as an outlaw practice and now graces the walls of some of the tomest residences and cultural institutions in the world, the market always seems to extract its revenge; and it is no small irony that Mothersbaugh's disaffection with lowbrow culture has itself entered the cheese canon through items such as "Whip It," his pop composition which has found its place in the weddmgband repertoire and performed each weekend along with "Proud Mary," "Feelings," and "Achy-Breaky Heart."
Carducci is editor of Detroit Focus Quarterly
Although nowadays easily created digitally using computer programs such as Photoshop, Natalie
Cox's photo-montages are made the oldfashioned way; by painstakingly assembling layers of images in the darkroom. Cox refers to her work as "propaganda for my thoughts," acknowledging the ideological function of symbolic representation. Her free floating images, utilizing now familiar surrealistic techniques, also point up a paradox of the avant-garde's position within the field of cultural production in late-modem consumer society.
In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin wrote, "One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later." The example used by him is Dada's destruction of the ritual sacredness of the art object, what he termed its "aura," which was subsequently acknowledged in the public sphere through the mass distribution of film. Another case is surrealism, which—inspired, in part, by Freud—juxtaposed seemingly random signs through devices such as photo-montage in order to unlock the inner workings of the mind. Along with the splintering of narrative developed by experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, these techniques are now part of the advertising lexicon and used to stimulate desire in consumers for all types of goods, absorbing the putative opposition of avant-garde and kitsch into the market system.
Steven Schudlich, whose day-gig is freelance commercial art, draws upon his personal experience as a mercenary for the media. Having cranked out illustrations and graphic designs for major publications, TV networks, and ad agencies,
Schudlich is well-versed in the techniques of the culture industry. In "Syntax Error," Schudlich presented a series of computer generated images in which the trace of artist's hand is effaced by the pixel.
Beginning with manually created materials which were then scanned into Adobe Illustrator, Schudlich used the computer's electronic editing capabilities to
produce a variety of graphic effects. Final proof copies were printed, framed, and presented along with 3 1 /2" diskettes of the files. The works depict catastrophic situations in cartoon-like planes of outlined flat color, setting the cheery representational code of advertising on its head. An interesting aspect of Schudlich's method lies in the process by which the objects are marketed: images are purchased with reproduction rights, legally transferring the "aura" of the work to the collector and questioning the concept of "original" in a way that, by foregrounding the privileges of ownership, reflects the nature of art under capitalism as described by Benjamin.
The post-pop, neo-neo-geo paintings of Matthew Gollnick are distinguished by a sophisticated use of vibrant, hard edged color, display typography, corporate logos, and other visual elements which conjure up contemporary package design. Over and above the sheer retinal pleasure of his canvases, Gollnick's work is of special interest because of its resonance on several levels.
The first level addresses the resilience of painting in the information age as a tool for pure investigation into perception. In a practical demonstration of what Yves Alain-Bois has termed "painting as model," Gollnick equals, and in many respects surpasses, the computer in making palpable the multivalent expanses of cyberspace; indeed, digital tools cannot duplicate the subtlety of tone and planar modulations attained by the artist. That this is so comes as no surprise. Painting at the service of the eye and the mind in conjunction with the hand operates in the phenomenal world whereas the machine only samples it by grid-coordinate.
The second level of resonance brings us back to Benjamin and the concept of the "aura." Gollnick's mapping of the forest of signs asserts the work of art as a site of ritual celebration, embracing the unique object as intrinsic to the project of cultural production. Mass society, molded by mechanical reproduction, is based upon the dissolution of the singular, the "aura," into the infinite, ultimately propagating alienation which is redressed ostensibly, although never truly, through consumption. High-culture theorists, such as Harold Rosenberg, have postulated the autonomy of the aesthetic realm as the last refuge of individuality; and from this perspective, Gollnick's art appears to be a riposte to the dehumanizing process of commodification.
On the other hand, according to Benjamin, "...the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the function of art is reversed." Thus, in the age of mechanical reproduction where "originality" disintegrates in an endless sequence of copies, rather than locate its meaning in sacred homage to subjectivity, art instead becomes significant in terms of its political function. Gollnick's reference to virtual reality and other manifestations of the corporate state are not in critique so much as in rapture of the ecstasy of communication. Like a Phoenix rising from the ruins of the Machine Age, postmodern informational civilization has established its authority through the decentering of social interaction: a Teflon-coated fascism slipping through the fingers of ham-fisted proletarian revolt, it commands allegiance in pay-per-view, distributing the means of production via network and dispersing the mass's ability to unite. Perhaps beguiled by the alluring puissance of this new master, Gollnick suspends a consideration of the political implications of his work and its effectiveness in the current debate on cultural representation is diminished as a result.
While it is romantic to demand that art necessarily be the instrument of social change, as certain simplistic readings of Benjamin have done, to presume an awareness as to its role in a larger social context on the part of the cultural producer has become fundamental. The merchandising of alienation, the complicity of the avant-garde, the proprietary interests of creation, and the gelded existence of the autonomous, modernist art object are all issues which must seriously be considered when plotting and evaluating potential paths of action within the held of cultural production. To its credit, "Syntax Error" provided a glimpse of these concerns even though ultimately fell short of offering a solution. The primary lesson was twofold: first, in terms of the framework of study still to be addressed in terms of visual culture and, second, the continued relevance of Marxist-based analyses, such as Benjamin's, in that regard.
Stephen Schudlich, Death in a Box, 1994, color output on film
Book Beat Gallery Oak Park, Ml
September 24 - November 25, 1994
While living, our bodies are a private sphere over which we exert a degree of control to shape and mold ourselves. When we die we relinquish that control and privacy. It is ironic that just when we, as ultimate voyeurs, may look unreservedly at a corpse, even unclothed as in some morgue photographs, most of us on instinct will turn away. For, though it is natural to identify with another human form, the sight of the dead places us in an uncomfortable position. We do not wish to identify with a corpse or be reminded of our own mortality.
And so it is, with unsettled emotions and unsure reactions, that we approach the photography of Jeffery Silverthorne. For some twenty years Silverthorne has made, with a direct and unsentimental eye, the post-mortem portrait his hallmark. Although Silverthorne first began photographing in morgues in the early 1970s, it has only been fairly recently, through publication and exhibition, that his graphic imagery has been made available to the public.
The 1993 monograph of the artist's work Jeffrey Silverthorne: Photographs, as well as the recent show, "Jeffrey Silverthorne: Mr. Lotus Smiles and the Businessman's Lunch," held at the Book Beat, offer a glimpse into the truly diverse and eclectic nature of the artist's career. This is particularly true of the show at the Book Beat, which displayed primarily the recent work of the photographer (1991 - 1994). The monograph and show revealed the artist's past and ongoing explorations in subject matter and technique, which extend well beyond the now "classic" black and white, documentary-style morgue work.
Those who visited the Silverthorne show at the Book Beat found an almost dizzying and certainly crowded array of work that encompassed the following subjects or themes: post-mortem and living portraiture, formal studies of nudes as well as individual images and series which suggest mythological and/or contemporary narratives; i.e., "Silent Fires" and "Detroit Negative," flower still lifes, tabletop tableaux constructed with miniature toy figures, and the recurring subject of the artist and model.
Holly Jennings recently
graduated from the Cranbrook Academy of Arts master's degree program m photography.
Suggestive of the artist's technical experimentation is the wide range of media and formats featured in the show; i.e., collages, straight and manipulated photography, photographic transfers on canvas with paint, and even a high relief painting with a gumby doll. Most marked in the nineties work is Silverthorne's increased use of color, which include small Polaroids, large type-C prints, paintings, hand-colored photographs, and photographic collages.
The task of making sense of such a diverse and seemingly disjointed body of work is indeed off-putting. The discoverable connections and the associated questions, however, form the core of what is potentially both most interesting and problematic about Silverthorne's work. Most importantly, such a critical examination helps place the morgue work, for which the artist is most well-known, in context with the other work exhibited at the Book Beat.
The far-flung explorations in Silverthorne's artistic career can be divided into two major areas of concern: the dialectical relationship between Silverthorne's role as artist and our own as viewers— particularly in regard to the construction and control of identity, memory, and narrative; and Silverthorne's treatment of the feminine which due to the artist's conflation of sensuality and death, fertility, reproduction and creativity, can be linked to the morgue work on various levels of interpretation.
Silverthorne's treatment of identity, memory, and narrative are intermeshed throughout the development of his work and serve as underlying structures of meaning and interpretation. The relationship between the living and the dead, and between the viewer and the post-mortem portrait are interrelated to these three issues, especially in regard to Silverthorne's own position as a maker of images and meaning. At death, just at a time when we relinquish our ability to construct our own identity, others begin to sustain, if not alter it, through subjective memory. This is true as well of our relationship with Silverthorne's post-mortem portraits; as viewers we form a group of the living looking at the dead. When looking at the portraits, our emotions may be triggered to recall those we have known who have died, or we may project a set of memories onto the corpses, creating narratives perhaps about how they died, who they were, or what they were like.
Silverthorne completes the same operation in his role as an artist; that is, he projects, suggests, and creates identities, memories, and narratives for his subjects. In some images his directive hand is more clearly evident. This is especially true of those pieces in which he has introduced supplementary imagery either by manipulation in the dark room or by physically placing an image or object in the
picture frame. An example which employs both methods is My First Dream, Letters from the Dead House, 1988. In this piece Silverthorne first placed a photograph in the hands of a corpse and later, in the darkroom, added the image of a 1950s style pin-up girl to the work. The post-mortem portrait, therefore, becomes a passive recipient of both Silverthorne's and our own emotions and associations. With fragmented and joined imagery Silverthorne suggests a narrative, a memory and hence an identity to these anonymous corpses.
Two small color Polaroids from the show at the Book Beat express, with an economy of means, Silverthorne's dual attitudes toward female identity. In the first, undated, untitled Polaroid we see a close-up of a female hand resting on a flat surface. The hand is in a closed position, though it does not appear strained. A flower is placed in the hand which, in its closed form, serves as a vase for the flower. The hand is not holding the flower. Rather, it serves as a passive receiver for the flower, a vessel, a carrier of life and vitality, which the flower symbolizes. The relationship of the hand to the flower is not unlike that of the corpse's hand to the photograph in First Dream,
Letters from the Dead House, 1988,—-as a passive recipient to suggested memories and pictorial meaning.
The second Polaroid forms part of the series "The Businessman's Lunch" from 1993. In the image we see a nude woman lying on a bed. Next to her lies a dead white rabbit. Its nose is bloodied and a rope is tied tautly around its neck, forming a noose. The rope stretches at a diagonal from the rabbit's neck to beyond the upper frame of the image. In her left hand she holds the end of a cable release, which stretches beyond the lower frame of the image. The possible associations are numerous: rabbit to reproduction/fertility, woman to reproduction/fertility, blood to death, blood to menstrual cycle and life, fertility/destruction to the creative act.
This particular Polaroid may have been inspired by the earlier post-mortem portrait of a mother and infant from 1986 which must have so clearly signified for Silverthorne the particular connection women share to the thin line between life and death. The cable release and rope may therefore be viewed as life lines: lines controlling life, death, creation, and the creative process.
The image also raises questions about women's relation to the process of creation within the structure of society; that is, as artists and as bearers of children. With cable release in hand, the woman in the image appears to be in control of the picture making process. The noosed and bloodied rabbit, however, suggests that if women are to take control of the creative act (become artists) it is necessary that they must sacrifice their reproductive role in society.
Interpreted as such the image represents an act of displacement, something must die before something else may be born. This is obviously related to the process of regeneration, to the cycles of life and death. This interpretation, however, shares too great a resemblanro to the film Interview with a Vampire in which, before one can be born as a vampire one's human body must first die. For female artists in our society, however, the displacement theory is in practice not an equal one. Women who give up their role as child bearers to choose a career of artistic creation are like the vampire, a perverse and unnatural being not accepted by society.
The messages these two Polaroids express regarding female fertility and identity are trite, reinforcing as they do familiar platitudes concerning male and female relations, especially sexual ones, in the first image the female is represented as a passive receiver. In the second, she is represented as a powerful and mysterious force, more closely connected to the cycles of nature, and of life and death, than man. Furthermore, Silverthorne's preoccupation with female fecundity, as well as women's identity within a patriarchal society, is a bit tiresome.
What is far more interesting is a consideration of Silverthorne's role as an artist in relation to these aspects of the feminine, and in particular how he has used both the corpse and the female form as neutral fields on which to suggest and (sometimes literally) project identities, memories, and narratives. As such, both have served as gracious receivers of the artist's visual juxtapositions and metaphorical connections.
In images, however, where Silverthorne has arranged less, there is more room for the viewer to participate in the interpretive process. This is certainly true of those post-mortem portraits in which we are directly confronted, in a seemingly one-to-one relationship, with the absolute residue of the corpse. In the less obviously directed portraits we are more apt to ponder the identity or narrative of the corpse or, in turn, ruminate upon the deaths of those we have known. Further yet, the corpse may cause us to reflect upon the constructions of our own identities: how much time and effort is spent in its formation and how quickly it is extinguished; how strongly we cling in modern society to notions of self determination and how quickly in death we relinquish the controls of our own making, of our individual identity.
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