Michael Hall:
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.

Hall 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.

Moving 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.

All 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.

One 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.

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