Review of Harbinger (better late than never)

Review of Harbinger (better late than never)

An installation view of "Harbinger" (via ayersgallery.com)

How could I miss a show titled Harbinger? I immediately imagined images of howling dogs or an albatross or other omens of death and destruction. This was not the intended connotation of the word. This was just the first instance where this show confused me. Harbinger: Shifting Culture and New Art from Detroit is the latest show at Studio Couture Detroit. It closed on November 27 (sorry for the delay), but it will travel to New York (so I will update you for when you can see it there).

I initially found it difficult to name a specific feel for this show. These are all very dissimilar artists. The show seems to fight with itself. Yet, it is memorable.

I left the exhibition besieged with questions about whether I liked certain pieces and whether the installation highlighted or downplayed the artwork. There are definitely strong pieces. And a show that confuses its audience based on stark contrasts is apt for a show that comes from Detroit — a city teeming with confusing contrasts.

To begin with, here are the quick takeaways and facts about the show:

  • I enjoyed a lot of the pieces;
  • the show introduced me to an impressive artist that I had not seen before (Singer);
  • The coffee bar made an extremely strong coffee — which was great; and
  • ArtStar.com and New York/Detroit art director Sara Ayers collaborated to bring us this show.

The Confusion

I was confused by the show’s installation and the chosen artwork: There are highly polished and affected works juxtaposed against delicate and ephemeral works. Rather than complimenting one another, the placement and choice of pieces may highlight the weaknesses of one another. The installation of the works focuses further on these disparities: there are weighted pieces that seem gallery ready (e.g., neon light work and framed glossy photographs) mirrored by pieces of paper tacked to the wall or folded on a podium (no frames, no gloss).

For example, the first piece you come across is a large piece by Mike Han. It is a simple-lined illustrative shark on found wood. It is an enjoyable piece, and Mike’s mark making is more compelling through his choice of materials. But that’s it; Mike has no other pieces in the show. You are then drawn to Peter Beaugard’s highly manufactured resin (I assume) and neon light sculptural works. These works have a heavy base that serve as a backdrop to a simple line drawing made from a neon light. One of his pieces that I particularly enjoyed was one where the heavy base was in the shape of Michigan and the neon light image was that of a hand – a nod to simple mark making for complicated, underlying images.

Maya Fardoun’s photographs of abandoned buildings and isolated architectural elements join these pieces. Possibly because I have seen pictures of abandoned Detroit for as far back as I can remember, I rarely see any imaginative take on the abandoned building or forgotten architecture genre that speaks to any unique vision of the photographer. Maya’s photographs show me that she can take photographs well, but they do not tell me anything about Ms. Fardoun’s aesthetic or personality, and rather are mere documentary photographs of a common theme. Overall, Peter’s, Maya’s, and Mike’s work had a recognizable dialogue.

I asked Ms. Ayers why she chose Mr. Beaugard’s work for the show (I was confused (yet again), because he was not in the original press release). She explained that, “When we were hanging the show I decided we needed a three dimensional component and I lucked out and he had available work.” While three-dimensional work often serves as a good grounding and balance for two-dimensional work, I think the artificial light hurts any such potential balance in this show.

Hobart Frolley provides the show some outsider art. The inclusion of his work was particularly confusing to me. More than any other pieces in the show, his work translated as mere sketches of ideas rather than developed narratives. Artists should leave room for the viewer to add to the discourse that the artist started, but an artist has to start a meaningful discussion that warrants a response. Some of his imagery is intriguing, and maybe he could put in the effort to expand these characters. Who knows, with effort his work could harden to an artistic practice that adds to the dialogues started by Jean Dubuffet, Philip Guston, or George Condo.

The Successes

All confusion aside, there were great pieces in this show. Brian Barr’s large pencil drawing “Crusoe” was captivating and I was able to fight through being overshadowed by any other work (even if it was only tacked to the wall). He ingeniously explores concepts of masculinity. “Crusoe” is a portrait of a modern Grizzly Adams who happens to be wearing a sports coat (i.e., heavy beard, long hair, shades, and a hairy chest peeking out from under a sports coat). The positioning of the male figure and the use of materials is what makes this image so strong. Barr uses a light touch (possibly a 4H graphite pencil (hard lead pencil that creates a faint  drawing)), and the male figure merely peaks out from the corner of the page. I appreciate being able to see the artist’s notable dexterity (which at times appears to be frowned on in contemporary art).

Paintings by William Irving Singer (via ayersgallery.com)

Ayers also introduced me to William Irving Singer. Singer provides the show with forthright and enthralling figurative works. Singer’s work stands in unforgiving contrast to Frolley’s work. Singer is a confident artist who developed a compelling narrative that pays homage to Francis Bacon. His work also showcases excellent dexterity married to an emotional astuteness, which creates haunting whispers of figures. His “Untitled No 4″ is superb. My only complaint was that I wanted to see his work larger and on higher-quality canvas.

Finally, Lauren Rice’s work displays a unique voice that explores the often dismissed art form of collage. In her pieces she explores collage, spray paint, and gouache paints on Duralar. Initially, I liked only Rice’s “The Tree,” the fact that I only liked that particular piece and not her other pieces was the fault of the installation. After re-visting her work, I focused on the intrinsic quality of her pieces, and I concluded that “Exercise in Neutrality” and “The End, Beginning” are also special pieces. Her technique forces you into the piece as you try to unravel the artist’s intent with her choice and arrangement of images.

Clarity

I left the show and felt that in the whole it provides sketches of concepts and ideas and not a polished and cohesive show. I would like to see the paper work presented differently, so that it isn’t overshadowed by the other work. I know framing is expensive, but I’ve seen paper work stuck to the wall under inexpensive Plexiglas and mirror screws, and it looked professional (even though it was cheap). (The installation is only a comment as it relates to all of the other pieces in the show–namely, because there were framed pieces and the neon light pieces, the paper work looked like it need more, but if the paper work was alone in the gallery, the present installtion would work well.)  I would also like to see more work by Mike Han — it is such a dynamic piece when you walk in … a powerful introduction, and then you walk through the gallery to learn more about the artist, but there is nothing to learn … he’s already gone. Maybe in line with his mark-making/graffiti inspired style (homage to Keith Haring), Ms. Ayers could have Mike provide imagery directly on the walls to tie the show together more (it would have to be done sparingly).

In fact, maybe before it goes to New York, Ayers should require each artist to provide additional pieces and provide different presentations of their works. I know this is not a game show, but I feel that I was only able to really get to know a couple of the artists’ aesthetics, and I don’t think the work complimented one another as much as it should have. I think the show would have worked better visually to clump all of the artists’ work together rather than mixing them up — then the narrative of six really different voices doing work in Detroit may have been easier to digest.

Harbinger: Shifting Culture and New Art from Detroit was on display at Studio Couture Detroit (1433 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan) until November 27 and  it will travel to New York–again I will update you on when and where (when I know when and where).