Three Exhibits Weave Culture Into the Work

Three Exhibits Weave Culture Into the Work

I visited three exhibitions to brighten up my winter: ‘jide Aje’s show at 2739 Edwin (below), an all women show up at Paint Creek Center for the Arts as well as an adventure farther north to the Flint Institute of Arts to see the Gee’s Bend Quilts. If you can’t get your vitamin d, I highly recommend immersing yourself in artwork that uses warm colors, it can really help battle the winter blues.

Gee's Bend Quilters on display at the Flint Institute of Arts

Gee's Bend Quilters on display at the Flint Institute of Arts

alt textHere, you can see the back/front of the quilts in the other photo.

How many of you Detroiters have actually been to the Flint Institute of Arts? It’s really great! After a personal tour with Kathryn Sharbaugh (assitant director of development) I had a new found enthusiasm for large French Tapestries and dead people in American Naive Paintings. They really do a great job of having contemporary art in their main hallway that rotates regularly (and regularly doesn’t mean once a year either) but they also have given grand shows to Michiganders such as and Judy Pfaff and Ed Fraga. It’s really too bad that I didn’t get up there too see either of those shows.

Currently up right now is a show of abstract looking quilts by Mary Lee Bendolph and others of Gee’s Bend that have finally come to the midwest as a large exhibition! The story goes that these women in Gee’s Bend Alabama were extremely poor and selling normal enough looking quilts when William Arnett, a historian and collector, asked to see a quilt that one of the ladies was sitting on as opposed to the one that she had for sale. That quilt like the rest on exhibit, was made up articles of used clothing and whatever other fabrics could be mustered together. From here, what started as a quilting tradition passed on from mother to daughter dating back to the days of slavery, moved to greater exposure from a slew of books to a show at the Whitney. Unlike the Bray Tapestries also in the Flint Institute of Arts that tell the story of Rinaldo and Armida, these quilts tell you about the visual culture of this small secluded town in Alabama. Compositions resemble the strips of wood that are left on wood barns and other ordinary things that inspire them to attempt different designs. These quilts are made up of what little they had, jean, corduroy, as well as clothes that still had the familiar smell of a loved one.

alt textA painting by ‘jide Aje

alt textA closeup of a small work by ‘jide Aje

Another artist that makes due with whatever materials he can find is ‘jide Aje. Steve Panton let me into his gallery/living space on 2739 Edwin and we chatted about ‘jide’s work and our views of the Detroit art scene. I enjoyed seeing characters that I thought were the same until Steve pointed out that actually each symbol changes ever so slightly when you look at their structures. From ‘jide’s artist statement, “My work is inspired by a wide variety of themes and influences. I use African iconography, especially West African decorative motifs as the jumping off point. Sometimes I incorporate traditional color schemes as well. Working from the viewpoint that culture is dynamic, I attempt to rework the symbols to fit a modern context.” His command of culture is inspiring and is a good reminder of how ‘culture’ or ‘identity’ as we define it is constantly in flux. Another influences that comes to my mind when looking at his work is the fiber artist Sheila Palmer. She once told me that ‘jide praised her for teaching him more from her than he felt he had even learned in school. I feel like I can see the structural workings of a quilter in his paintings, consciously making a specific number of dots or divisions, a specific number of knots (notice the picture on the left). So congrats to ‘jide, the space really does his work justice and he’s sold quite a few pieces so far. It boggles the mind that his studio space is as cramped as it was when I last visited.

alt textLuzhen Qiu

alt textSun You

ThePresence/Absence show at the Paint Creek Art Center could also have gone by another name ‘Fragments’. The show is made up of all talented women and is rewarding for those who take time to look at each piece. I think that there’s something interesting to be said about the fact that there are three Asian / Asian-American artists in this show which I believe makes me think about how presence or absence could play a role in their lives. This is just my theory, but the works by each of those particular artists contain familiar patterns as a backdrop but also contain objects that seem to be cut away from their original context. There’s a sense of isolation that doesn’t lend itself to anything scientific or documentary-like in Amy Sacksteder’s studies about Amelia Earhart, where we are looking at solitary islands. In the work by Luzhen Qiu, Sun You and Alison Wong’s work there is no solid land.

alt textAllison Wong
Sun You’s work portrays only parts of her face, the detail on Luzhen Qiu’s objects seem to hover above and below a sheet of mylar, Alison Wong’s birds and bees and other objects are highly rendered, and rich but against flat cold backdrops. As an Asian-American myself I can understand the description of the Asian-American condition as one where I am considered an outsider in both cultures, floating in a kind of national-identity limbo.

alt textThe large wall piece by Faina Lerman
Also compare the use of their fragments to the the works by Faina Lerman (below), a maximal compilation of children’s toys and cheap materials. Her work ties into an ongoing theme of this article that artists are using what they have available although in Faina’s case it may be even more deliberate. The pieces feel like commentaries on consumption and as sculptures have a much messier feel as if they are sputtering and like sticky hard candy, not something you’d want to handle. I would be interested in finding out more from the artists themselves about how they feel about my interpretation, that their quilts and patterns don’t just tell stories, but speak to the circumstances surrounding the creation of the work.

For more information about the spaces see the links below:
2739 Edwin
Flint Institute of Arts
Paint Creek Center for the Arts