Ann Gordon and Jessica Erickson

The Detroit Urban Landscape As Re-Interpreted by a New Generation

Christina Hill


Detroit has no shortage of talented young artists
, but it is rare to find exhibiting together two of the species exploring the possibilities of the paint medium and also assemblage; two women who combine old-school expressionist painterliness with mature color choices, sophisticated mark-making, and creative use of castoff materials. Ann Gordon and Jessica Erickson, longtime friends, have just concluded showing together at MONA in Pontiac. In both their individual work and their collaborations, they represent the newest generation of Detroit artists spawned by the legendary Cass Corridor movement of the 1970s, those artists known for powerful interpretations of the chaotic urban environment, and arguably for "art truly of Detroit." (Although I know of no art critic, including the doyenne, Marsha Miro, who has been able to make real sense of that description.)

This show's special prizes resulted from Gordon and Erickson working closely together on several pieces. According to Jef Bourgeau, MONA's director, their work was so authentically collaborative that even their visiting high school art teacher was unable to discern which of the women had painted which parts of those pieces. Despite real differences in approaches and temperaments, Gordon and Erickson so successfully melded their styles they achieved something truly neither here nor there: an authentic and unforced product, representative of their special personal relationship, one which has matured along with their work, from years spent discussing art together and sharing studio space.

Although I no doubt reveal my age along with my preference for old-time expressive painting, I find much lauded contemporary practice unsatisfying as fine art because it is unrevealing of the artist's hand and devoid of psychological insight. To me, it's the difference between a long, filling meal, and a few quick bites of sashimi: the best art is difficult to digest, just as the best meals sometimes provoke lingering indigestion and groans of pain from over-indulgence.

My aging eyes also find it hard to believe that Gordon and Erickson haven't been holed-up studying a discounted copy of the 2001 Gordon Newton catalogue scored from the DIA's bookstore, or a dog-eared, 1980 exhibition catalogue of the show, "Kick Out the Jams: Detroit's Cass Corridor, 1963-1977." It's eerie how in both their individual and collaborative work I see strong reflections of the legacy of Detroit's most exalted artistic era, the one made historic by former DIA director, Frederick Cummings, as "Detroit's own avant-guard." I admit: it makes me happy to consider transferring the mantle of smartest interpreters of Detroit's urban grit from the manly (but aging) shoulders of Newton, Bob Sestock, and Michael Luchs -- those legendary, hard-living exemplars of artistic machismo and derringdo -- to the slim, youthful figures of these well-mannered young women. (Yes: they're fresh-faced, sweet, and cute, but their work doesn't trade on that, so forget about it!)

Ann Gordon's paintings come in several sizes; the very small ones are often hung together in big groups. All the paintings from her recent series are the result, however, of her looking very intently at, and reinterpreting in marvelous ways, a multitude of sites in Detroit. She depicts the fabled dark atmosphere of the city in all its magnificent dirty-and-disfigured splendor. Like the Corridor artists who came before her, she has been inspired by our down-at-its-heels city. Those of us also only too familiar with the landscape can recognize the places: the bridges over I-75 marked with distinctive graffiti; the beguilingly curvaceous parking structure connected to Cobo Hall; the elegant under-structure of the Ambassador Bridge; the (once) futuristic walkway-with-portholes from Fort Street over the Lodge to Joe Louis Arena, and also mundane accoutrements of our common urban experience: striped traffic barrels signaling construction, rows of trash cans lining the alleys, swinging traffic lights, and the repetitive voids of apartment and office building windows which, in Gordon's unique interpretation, provide a lively geometric backdrop to lives led in the city.

Gordon's paintings are out-of-the-ordinary not because of what she paints, but because she does an ad hominem redecoration of the city by assigning idiosyncratic color where none actually exists, and by frenetically imposing multitudes of her signature, small fantasy-shapes, in luscious, mouth-watering combinations of reds and pinks, and purples and blues, over the representative landscape parts. She combines abstraction with figuration: not leaving well enough alone, she frosts hard steel frameworks with thick white paint, slashes skeins of strong black lines against gloomy, gray skies, and scribbles bright messages in a personal calligraphy, like an inspired child, to enliven her surfaces. Lastly, she sprinkles everything liberally with animated decorative marks, like hard candies dribbled festively by a mad pastry chef on cupcake tops.

And they are noisy paintings! Although I was alone in the gallery, I felt like plugging my ears against the cacophony. Some are arguably too busy, probably due to her youthful enthusiasm, but even when one has been dismissed as too full by half, it manages to pull one's attention back in with some odd bit of whimsy. The plausibly readable density of her work, because it's filled with energy and gestural strength, is the reason I've made an otherwise audacious decision to liken Gordon's oeuvre to Gordon Newton's. Because of her youth, her work is still in an embryonic stage, but I imagine it will only get better and better, like fine wine.

Newton and his fellow Corridor artists, it must be noted, didn't paint literal scenes of Detroit, even partially hidden, as in Gordon's work. Instead, they typically evoked the aura not the actuality of the decaying urban environment, using discarded detritus they fashioned into gritty, powerful assemblages, sometimes painted. Jessica Erickson's work shows the influence of iconic Corridor pieces in both her choice of materials, the way she combines them into a whole, and in her application of paint, often suggesting age and neglect. She cobbles together odd pieces of plywood and moldings, old window-frames and whatnot, recycling junk in much the way that Newton, Luchs, and Sestock did, although not yet always with their sophistication. Not all her pieces have an innate energy yet, or demonstrate a highly intellectual process, but she skillfully augments her appropriated odds and ends with enigmatic choices of color and very powerful drawing. Too, Erickson's fascination with shapes that look like machine parts, cogs, or gears -- no doubt because they ignite movement on the surface and suggest power -- is right out of the Corridor playbook.

Erickson's work is more grounded in a plainly-stated material reality and less lyrical than Gordon's; her relied upon shapes are more solidly monumental, her work sparer, and more related to American organic abstraction of '30's and '40s. Because the women's drawing styles are similarly energetic, Erickson's difference is more apparent in her paintings, as opposed to her assemblages, because they don't evoke the Corridor era, but, reflect the aesthetic and color choices of Arshile Gorky, for instance. Her signature use of acid greens is another reminder of that era. However, Erickson's drawing style is much like Gordon's; it has a willfulness, energy, and an emphatic rhythm that is reminiscent of his. It can now begin to serve as a emissary of the Detroit aesthetic.

Perhaps their collaborative work is most akin to iconic Corridor work. Combining their talents and styles, Gordon and Erickson produced (among others) a fascinating painting, "Out of Reach." Done on a nasty piece of plywood with multiple, intriguing imperfections -- holes perforating the surface and emphasized by their energetic mark-making -- it reads as an explosion in a shipyard that's had disastrous results: the distorted silhouette of a corpse is outlined in white. The scary background skies are colored the shade of dried-blood. Drips of gray paint, and edgy, dark hatching marks - which look like the results of a lie-detector test connected to this hypothetical homicide investigation -- enliven the surface, as do green lines that read as a faint, embedded barcode. (And while their fun with the holes in the plywood is amusing, it's innocent; they didn't drunkenly shot into their piece with a gun, as Luchs did.) In this postmodern narrative, they have left the viewer an enigma to chew on: some nasty darkness on the edge of town. All told, Gordon and Erickson have succeeded in reinterpreting Detroit's own aesthetic with fresh, new eyes. I look forward to following their futures.

Chris Hill teaches art history at College for Creative Studies, Wayne State University and Wayne County Community College. Her Master’s thesis concerned the work of Cass Corridor Artist Brenda Goodman. She is a frequent contributor to's arts section.

© 2002