Three Decades of Sculpture
The Scarab Club, Detroit
by Vince Carducci
Conspicuously absent from
my recent essay on public art for thedetroiter.com ("Res
Publica: Detroit Style") is any mention of the work of Michael
Hall. The sculptor-in-residence at Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1970
to 1990, Hall is a widely published author, a legendary educator and
lecturer, and a noted connoisseur of folk and regional art. He is as
qualified as any artist I know to speak on his own behalf. (And he often
does!) But a 30-year retrospective of his sculpture mounted on short
notice at the Scarab Club in downtown Detroit provides the occasion
to offer a few thoughts.
With four major sculptures
installed at various sites around the metropolitan area, Hall is the
second-most prolific Detroit-based public artist after Marshall Fredericks.
At the tail end of the generation (which includes Alice Aycock, Michael
Heizer, Richard Serra and Robert Smithson) that challenged the conventions
of sculpture with an "expanded field" of earthworks, site-specific
constructions, installations, etc., Hall has always been as concerned
with content as he has been with form, as aware of the conditions under
which art is received as how it is produced. His project spans the breadth
of the field of creative production, from the avant-garde ideals of
"pure" aesthetics to the kitsch expressions of popular culture.
has long been a master of the minor narrative. He has consistently worked
at widening the cracks that exist within supposed cultural hegemony.
In the 1970s, he added narrative onto the abstract forms of constructivism,
fusing the "local color" of rural Midwestern gates and fences
with the universalizing grids of international modernism. These sculptures
are named for small cities in "the provinces," asserting Hall's
self-acknowledged position at the margins of the contemporary art-world
imperium. This phase is represented in the Scarab Club show by works
such as Montgomery, from 1972, and Ashtabula, from 1974.
The latter is shown at the Scarab Club in the form of a model and documentary
photographs; the actual sculpture is in storage at the Detroit Institute
of Arts. Another, Covington,from 1972, is on permanent display
outside an office building on Northwestern Highway in Southfield.
into the next decade, he rejected the narcissistic subjectivity of then
prevailing neo-expressionism (first brought into the art-world mainstream
by the New Museum's 1979 "New Image Painting" show) to uncover
the collective unconscious lurking beneath the surface of the architectural
vernacular of structures such as barns and community meeting houses.
Sabbathday--a Theater of Resonance is represented by the 1979
model. The actual sculpture, completed in 1980, is permanently sited
on Warren Avenue not far from the Scarab Club. It is based on the polygonal
architectural forms used by the Shakers. When Amaranth, a three-walled
floored structure 16 feet high, 27 1/2 feet wide and nearly 45 feet
deep (represented at the Scarab Club by a one-inch-equals-one-foot model,
a documentary photograph and two related drawings) was installed temporarily
at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1981, the communal potential of Hall's
sculptures of the period was oddly realized: it became a popular gathering
spot for a tribe of sun-worshipping art students, convinced the reflected
light coming off the brightly painted interior amplified UV rays and
thereby increased their tanning effects.
By the mid-1980s, he demurred
at overt political engagement, then being expressed by postmodernist
image appropriators such as Barbara Kruger, by producing the mute enclosures
of the "waltz" sculptures, which evoke hoppers, dumpsters
and other receptacles, literally and figuratively bottling up whatever
might be contained within. Instead, these works stand as sentinels of
the ineffable, icons of the eclipse of Midwestern industrial and rural
life by postmodern global capital. (Thus there is a relation after all
between Hall's work and that of Cass Corridor artists like Gordon Newton,
Bob Sestok, Michael Luchs, Jim Chatelain, etc., specifically in terms
of the postindustrial pastoral Wayne State University art historian
Dora Apel identifies in her important essay on the movement in the "Up
from the Streets" catalog.) The wood, copper and steel elements
of Waltz Out of Time, 1985, Hall's proposal (not accepted) for
the Library of the State of Michigan, refer to the primordial lumber
stock and the copper and iron ore deposits from which the state's commercial
and industrial culture once arose, a quiescent yet obdurate reminder
of the exploitation of earlier generations.
In the 1990s, he seemed to
abandon so-called fine art altogether with a series of assemblages,
based initially on the motif of Niagara Falls and incorporating all
manners of chochkas. These works push his connection to the populist
impulse in American culture into the foreground. Most recently, he began
the "kachina" series (named for the figurines carved by the
Hopi and Zuni tribes) in which the dualities of art, i.e., the dialectics
of material physicality and expressive spirit, structure and ornament,
"high" and "low," etc., are laid bare.
the while Hall has practiced his art, he has also worked as a critic,
collector and curator, chipping away at other paradigms of art's conceptual
apparatus. He has revealed the "insider" conditions that gave
birth to "outsider" art, for example, and revised the trajectory
of American art history to mid-twentieth century, for another. The latter
project is most palpably embodied in the Inlander Collection of Great
Lakes Regional Painting, which he and his artist/educator spouse Pat
Glascock assembled over the past decade and which as of September 2003
is now housed in the Flint Institute of Arts. It is essential to mapping
the road that brings Hall (and us) to the Scarab Club.
Consisting of 105 works in
watercolor, gouache and oil, the collection surveys the production of
artists who worked between 1910 and 1960 within a 500-mile radius of
the Straits of Mackinac, the point where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet.
One thing the artists in the collection share is that they all responded
to the physical and social environment around them. Consequently, the
collection is a material record of a place in time in the cultural development
of the United States, a topology and typology of Middle America, a visualization
of the "imagined community" of the Upper Midwest.
might reasonably argue that any retrospective worthy of the name for
someone of Hall's stature should at least be presented at Cranbrook
Art Museum or the Detroit Institute of Arts, if not the Whitney Museum
of American Art in New York City or some other national venue. In some
respects, though, that such an auspicious event should take place at
the Scarab Club is fitting. In this regard, it is worth noting that
several of the artists from Michigan represented in the Inlander Collection
were members of the Scarab Club. They are the forebears of those now
tilling the often barren field of cultural production in latter-day
Detroit, Hall included.
Founded in the early 1900s,
the Scarab Club is an important piece of Detroit's cultural heritage.
In the first half of the twentieth century, most of the region's prominent
artists and patrons were members. It was an essential stop on the circuit
for visiting cultural luminaries, and it was considered a high honor
to sign the beam on the ceiling of the club's lounge on the second floor.
More than 230 names are preserved there, including John Sloan, Marcel
Duchamp and Diego Rivera. The annual Exhibition of Michigan Artists,
presented for decades under the auspices of the DIA, originated in 1911
at the Scarab Club.
Hall is the last artist to
be awarded the top honor at the DIA's final version of that exhibition
in the 1980's. The Scarab Club retrospective of his work includes his
signing the beam. And so the artist's sojourn with the regional muse
has come full circle.
Vince Carducci is living
in exile on a small island off the coast of America.
Michael D. Hall: fits
& starts: Three Decades of Sculpture can be seen at the Scarab
Club from January 6 through February 14. A lecture and beam signing
will be held Saturday January 31 from 7 to 9pm. The Scarab Club is located
at the northeast corner of John R and Farnsworth, just east of the Detroit
Institute of Arts. For further information 313-831-1250 or www.scarabclub.com.