July 28, 2012

War Paint :: Niagara

War Paint, Niagara -- artifizz

“So They Got Us Surrounded… The Poor Bastards”
War Paint, Niagara 2012

“War Paint,” the show currently on at Re:View Contemporary Gallery (until 4-Aug) brings the masterful work of Niagara back into Detroit’s limelight. No stranger to limelight, Niagara grasps the essence of narrative presentation. She knows how to make a point, and with the series of paintings that comprise “War Paint,” she does.

War Paint, Niagara -- artifizz

“You’re Standing Outside Of You and Telling You What In Hell To To Do” (close up)
War Paint, Niagara 2012

The works on display are big. They carry a big theme, they tell a big story. And they present a cautionary tale, a tale told before, a tale with a moral that seems forever unheeded. No one can say how many times those with the power to commit fellow citizens to war considered it, and then wisely and humbly demurred, but it sure seems like we dive headlong into war far, far too often. With subtle irony, and the grace of a faintly jaded eye, Niagara reminds us that war remains folly. Heroes arrive reluctantly and regretfully, and nearly all those who experience it up close, never wish for it again. War seems to be mostly the product of arrogance, greed, and not least of all a pure testosterone rush on the part of those who do not actually engage in combat, i.e. politicians who talk big.

Niagara brings true courage to her work, not big talk. She paints characters from the drama of World War II, yet all of her characters are women parachuted into combat roles typically played by men — or boys. She inscribes her pictures with slogans and catchphrases of the time, phrases dripping with bluster and bravado. You read them and chuckle — for a second or too. And then you sense the acerbic wit at play, you sense the fear that forms the catalyzing subtext for such bluster. You know from experience that when things like, “If you don’t like to fight, I don’t want you around” are uttered (did Patton say that?), your interlocutor blows smoke. Inevitably, an agenda backs such words, an agenda motivated by anxiety and self-preservation. You can expect the next thing this person will say to be, “Take that hill.”

War Paint, Niagara -- artifizz

“Shoot The Works” (close up)
War Paint, Niagara 2012

Make no mistake, I believe there are times for such unabashed bluster: like when you are one of the poor slobs decked out in olive drab, drafted to fight a war started by a bloviating psychopath; started by a deceiving demagogic striver who instead of elevation to an honorable leadership role should have been demoted to janitorial duties in a jailhouse. When you need to find the courage to fight, bluster can be a good thing. And there is such a thing as honor in battle. But the leitmotif here, I think, is that too often the call to battle comes from ambitious cowards devoid of honor who compel others to fight and die filthy, agonizing, anonymous deaths.

That’s my rambling spin on Niagara’s “War Paint.” Look at the paintings and form your own opinions; let the narrative wash over you, and see what you think.

  War Paint, Niagara -- artifizzWar Paint, Niagara -- artifizz  War Paint, Niagara -- artifizz

close up
War Paint, Niagara 2012

While you are doing that, stand back from each picture and take it all in, blink your eyes, and do it again. Then, move in close. Move in so your eyes nearly go crossed. Get close. Look at the brushwork. Look at the lines that fall like feathers across the canvas. The shapes they form look as though they grew there, organic. She applies her brush with surgical precision. Some of the forms appear cut and stenciled in place. Look close. You will not find a flaw, a misplaced stroke, a wandering streak of paint. Look at the spatters that land exactly where they should. Look at how she overlays color.

War Paint, Niagara -- artifizz

close up
War Paint, Niagara 2012

Now, step back again, and appreciate her choice of color. It seems as though she perceives wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that elude the rest of us. Her choice of color imbues her pictures with a radiant energy that pulls at you, like the ineffable force that draws subatomic particles close to one another, yielding the essential elements of the universe. Somehow, I get the feeling she sees microwaves emanating from cell towers, or navigates guided by Earth’s magnetic field. She sees something the rest of us do not. I would not be surprised to hear that when she steps on to a glorious crowded beach drenched in glittering sunshine, populated by the myriad colors and contrasts of beach umbrellas, skin tones, sand, bathing suits, water — when she steps on that beach she feels breathless for the intensity of it. I would not be surprised if she hears music in the midst of such a clamorous riot of light — sort of an inverse synesthesia, where you see colors when you hear music. Somehow, she pairs colors that feel right, but are by no means obvious brethren. And those color pairings elevate her pictures to another plane where sensibility transcends sense.

Go see these paintings, and if you have the means, buy one. Twice the price would be fair. Niagara’s intellect possesses width and depth, and her works do too (see her reading list if you have doubts). Her works reside in a timeless realm, but they are accessible. They yield meaning and insight to anyone who takes a moment to wonder at them. A child would see something far different from an adult, but no less meaningful. That’s the magic of masterful art, and this is that.

And while you’re there, wander around “See Art + Design” next door. You’ll find a selection of art and design; a deep collection of varied media. Chat with the owner of “Re:View Contemporary” and “See Art + Design,” Simone DeSousa — her experience is extensive, and the insights she shares with visitors illuminate the works in her galleries. Her staff shares her knowledge and appreciation of art, too. Simone and her crew know how to pick and place art. The shows prove it.

War Paint, Niagara -- artifizz

close up
War Paint, Niagara 2012



July 21, 2012

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 — A Modest Defense

Diana & Actaeon -- Titian, 1556-1559 -- National Gallery, London -- artifizz

Diana & Actaeon -- Titian, 1556-1559 -- National Gallery, London

I share here a comment I posted, which I wrote as a reply to a critic’s explanation of a review he made of the exhibition currently on at the National Gallery in London, “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012“. The critic replied to a request I posted for explanation of his negative take on Chris Ofili’s and Conrad Shawcross’ contributions to the multi-media show. I found his review, and his reply offhanded and not very thoughtful, and it really bugged me, so I posted the following, which might be a bit over the top:

Thanks for the quick reply.I haven’t seen Mr. Ofili & Shawcross’ commissioned works (except one or two pictures), so I am in no position to critique them. But from the reviews I’ve read, all the contributions to this ambitious exhibition do have merit worthy of at least a few more words than those you gave them in your review. To be honest, your review, and the title you gave it (with a reference to “pervs”) angered me a bit. It felt like an over the shoulder remark given with a dismissive wave of the hand. But that’s my opinion.

I would venture further to say that the effort by the National Gallery to situate the Titian works in a modern context represents the best purpose of such institutions. Exhibitions like “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012″ illustrate why it is essential that civilization cultivate and patronize the arts, both with attendance at shows, and with public funding: they offer rare moments of reflection on our too often woeful condition. Civilization without art ceases to be civilized. Our museums, theatres, opera houses, dance stages, orchestra halls and libraries are our most precious collective possessions. They map not only the past, but our future via the force of inspiration. Without them, the web of shared history and wisdom that binds us together in the ineffable grander scheme dissipates and dissolves. We stare into the abyss and find nothing redeeming; existential angst overwhelms aspiration, and we descend into nihilistic, self-serving anarchy. As we create, so do we destroy. Witness the library at Alexandria, witness the persecution of “magic” during the reign of the brothers Valens and Valentinian, Roman emperors who drove philosophers to burn their own libraries. I happen to be reading “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (an abridged version edited by Dero Saunders — worth a look!), and there is a footnote on book burning (p. 474):

“The persecution against philosophers and their libraries was carried out with such fury that from this time (A.D. 374) the names of the Gentile philosophers became almost extinct,” said Dean Milman, of Gibbon’s editors. “Besides vast heaps of manuscripts publicly destroyed throughout the East, men of learning burned their whole libraries lest some fatal volume expose them to the malice of the informers and the extreme penalty of the law.”

Suppression of learning and art occurred during the Inquisition. It happens in the US when benighted politicians score points with a too easily fooled electorate by cutting cultural funding below its already shamefully anemic level. Antiquity fell under siege after the US invaded Iraq, and looters destroyed museums and libraries while indifferent leaders of the occupiers did nothing. I live near Detroit, where the Detroit Institute of Arts struggles to put a referendum on the ballot to provide modest but essential funding, and demagogues rail against “lefty priorities.”

So to me, when someone courageous invites inevitable scorn by undertaking an exhibition like this one at the National Gallery, I think those of us who put any value at all on art owe it to them to grant them more than a cursory aside. We owe it to them to recognize the necessity of muses; our collective appetite for grace. From other reviews I’ve read, I suspect this exhibition offers both. You say you found Mr. Ofili and Shawcross’ works jarring. But isn’t that exactly what Titian’s work was, in contrast to the forced (and likely hypocritical) piety and devotion to Christianity prevalent at the time? From what I gather, all of the works commissioned for this show are jarring in one way or another, and that is exactly what we should be thankful for. I listened to the poems, read by the poets, available on the National Gallery website. They varied widely, and some strayed far from both Ovid and Titian. But they got me thinking how little things have changed since Romans burned books, or guys like Actaeon were murdered for being “pervs.” Let’s defend and nurture our better angels, and let our petty ones perish from neglect. We owe ourselves that.

And you, Sir, are blessed with two things that I, candidly, would cut off my own hand for: a bully pulpit and a willing audience. Cherish them both, and put them to good use. You have my admiration and respect. You’re one of the good guys.

I invite readers’ comments…

July 13, 2012

Alternativity :: Hatch Art Collective :: Café Show


The Hatch Art Collective of Hamtramck offers a Café Show, Alternativity, at Café 1923, 2287 Holbrook Street in Hamtramck, thru 28-July-2012. The show consists of about a dozen works by Julia Dammons, Anthony Chirco, and Tori Sanders, all 2012 graduates of Art Academy in the Woods. It is a small show, with mostly smaller pieces, not over-finished, not tweaked to impenetrable perfection. By which I mean, the works do not seem unfinished, but they suggest the artists took risks in their creation.

When you look at Vermeer’s “The Girl With the Pearl Earring,” you get the sense that the artist possesses deep familiarity with the medium, and knew precisely how he would execute the painting at the outset. There’s nothing tentative, or imprecise about it. But, neither do you get the sense the painter challenged himself with new techniques, or pushed the boundaries of his skills. The artist produced a wonderful and masterly painting that required deep insight and knowledge of his process, but the painter himself changed very little during the process. Vermeer established a style long before he created this painting and creating this one required that he maintain speed and direction, not veer off course into unknown territory.

The artists in this show are less established, and less committed to a style, and less burdened by patrons demanding recreations of the past. For show visitors that’s a good thing. The work feels new and refreshing. The artists might differ, and choose fame over courage, but I sort of doubt it. In this show, there are photos, drawings, and paintings. Some offered for sale, some not. The prices range from $20 for a drawing by Ms. Dammons, sized at about 8½  by 11, to $500 for one of the larger paintings (18? x 24?) by Mr. Chirco. They are all well worth the price.

I wandered into the café gallery after a visit to the expansive exhibition, “Post-Industrial Complex / Vertical Urban Factory,” at MOCAD, and found the close-in view of the works in the café a welcome contrast to the big picture at MOCAD. Such geographic shifts serve a purpose, I think. They clarify your perspective.

The Sickness -- Julia Dammons

The Sickness -- Julia Dammons

The first work I noticed, mostly because I sat across from it while I drank a double espresso (perfectly rendered) was Ms. Dammons’ “The Sickness.” The drawing, in pencil I believe — the name cards do not note the media — shows a woman in torn jeans, no top, arms crossed in self-embrace, her expression doleful. The figure appears in black and white, except for a blue pattern of curlicues traced down her left side: on her arm, her shoulder, chest, and abdomen, and peaking through a tear in her jeans above her knee (a hole over her knee on the right leg exposes un-infected skin). The picture ably suggests despair and confusion, someone at a loss, lonely, suffering from a singular affliction; possibly an affliction more of mind than body.

Big Bang Theory -- Julia Dammons

Big Bang Theory -- Julia Dammons

“Big Bang Theory,” also by Ms. Dammons, represents the face of a conventional Caucasian man, shown in profile on the right — conventional except for green hair and a blast of interstellar space pocked with stars and planets exhaled upward from his mouth. Three earrings decorate his right ear: on top, a simple bar, in the middle a proportional square black cross on a red field — perhaps a flag — and on the bottom the head of pussycat. Their symbolism is lost on me, but they are nice touches, and get you wondering. The man appears to me as a mystical vision of a mythical being, conjured to explain the unexplainable: infinity.

Green Thoughts -- Anthony Chirco

Green Thoughts -- Anthony Chirco

“Green Thoughts,” by Mr. Chirco, presents one of the larger works, perhaps 18 x 24, done in oil I’m guessing, and depicts the skeletomuscular structure of a man’s head, face on. Painted in rough, sweeping strokes, mostly black and white with purplish paint under-laying. A misty green halo with an air brushed finish surrounds the head. A third eye appears in the center of the man’s forehead. The figure seems caught in the act of formation, or transmutation — a spectral being, probably bearing ill will; or, at least bearing cold and acute powers of observation.

The Doctor -- Anthony Chirco

The Doctor -- Anthony Chirco

“The Doctor,” also by Mr. Chirco, skillfully rendered in charcoal or ink represents another man’s bust, again transforming, to me it seems like de-composing, but could be the opposite. I should probably say man-like, or anthropomorphic, but not exactly human. The figure is fluid, composed of dark rivulets and streaks, amorphous and dynamic. To me, sort of like a mirage. A fantastic, science-fiction quality infuses the image. I find it captivating, like watching flowing water.


“Epiphany,” a carefully composed and focused photograph by Tori Sanders, depicts a close-up of a brown eye, the iris circled by a black boundary. The pupil appears contracted, focused; a few red veins streak the inside corner of the otherwise bright white. The eye bulges outward, as though shot close in with a wide-angle lens. Is the view of the eye the epiphany? Or, does the wide-open, focused eye witness the epiphany? Mystery and wonder infuse this picture, too.

“Gifts of A Wounded Lover,” another photograph by Ms. Sanders, shows a tightly shot still life of a blazing fireplace, no screen in front to protect the room. A few envelopes and miscellaneous artifacts litter the floor in front of the fire. In the fire, more envelopes curl and combust: a kiln to harden a wounded heart? A well-crafted image, for sure.

Deep Doodie -- Julia Dammons

Deep Doodie -- Julia Dammons

“Deep Doodie,” a drawing by Ms. Dammons, shows a toilet, lidless, with a face in the bottom staring back. The floor around the toilet finished in an antique, Victorian-looking pattern gives the image a gothic feel. Adding to that sense, black sludge drips downward from the top of the painting, as though emerging from the base of the wall, about to wash over the entire scene. At first, you want to laugh, but you soon realize things have definitely taken a turn for the worse here, and they are not about to improve very soon — the well-placed undercurrent of darkness subtly infuses the humor of this image.

“КрИЧИz,” a drawing by Julia Dammons, a woman, eyes closed, hands up, palms inward, moving away from her face. Blood appears to run from her right nostril, and more blood covers her chin. Her mouth hangs open as if she screams, or rapidly inhales, like a reflex to a stunning impact. Her shirt is a blue crisscross pattern on white; her hair blond. A field of pinkish and blue streaks like a stationary pattern blurred by camera motion forms the background. I cannot read the title, I think it is Greek (that’s what I used to type it), but the image is expressive and unsettling.

“Urban Elephant,” a large painting by Mr. Chirco, shows an impressionistic elephant painted in geometric, stained glass like strokes, on a background of colored squares. A well-executed, lively painting with vibrant color, suggestive of an animal done up in ceremonial or circus garb, it warms up the room. I found this quote on the web about the symbolism of elephants in dreams: “An elephant in one’s dreams can signify the emergence of one’s Highest True Self.” I wonder if Mr. Chirco dreamt this elephant? I know elephants can symbolize lots of things …or nothing at all.

Moth & Flame -- Tori Sanders

Moth & Flame -- Tori Sanders

“Moth & Flame,” a still life photograph by Ms. Sanders, shows via careful camera work a moth, dead in what appears to be a lamp fixture. An almost impressionistic image, close-in, grainy, and perhaps blurred a little, qualities which give it a more crafted feel. The moth suggests the myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun in an arrogant attempt to escape his island home and fell from the sky. Perhaps an observation similar to Ms. Sanders’ led to that story; substitute a candle for the electric lamp. A mournful tone imbues this image, while a strange sense of motion animates it.

Unfortunately, I could not get close to several other works by Ms. Sanders and Mr. Chirco without bugging people seated at tables engaged in their own work …or at least intently surfing the web. That’s the hazard of a café show, I reckon; that, and having coffee and food flung at your work. But these are pictures worth seeing — all of them, actually. I enjoyed the show: nice job, crew.

Editors note: sorry for the blurry and incomplete set of pics — the camera let me down that day… if anyone has better images, or the ones I missed, send them along.

July 12, 2012

Post-Industrial Complex / Vertical Urban Factory

Post-Industrial Complex :: thru 29-Jul-2012

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) provides the following description of their current exhibition:

Post-Industrial Complex is a survey, group exhibition, and source book that explores the ingenuity and adaptivity of human-scale production at the heart of Detroit. The exhibition disrupts the notion that there is a story of the city. A true metropolis is comprised of multiple stories and multiple voices. From a prolific inventor to a collective working to keep an aboriginal language alive, the artists included in this exhibition—all of whom responded to an open call for “makers, inventors, problem solvers, fabricators, modifiers, etc…”—are a small, yet representative, sample of the diverse range of brainpower that exists in a city often oversimplified by metanarratives.

Programming includes a trading post, how-to sessions, exhibition tours led by community members and barbeques in the back parking lot. This exhibition is organized by Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit Curator of Public Engagement Jon Brumit and Curator of Education Katie McGowan.

Major support for Post-Industrial Complex is provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Team Detroit. Related programming support is provided by the McGregor Fund and Edith S. Briskin/Shirley K. Schlafer Foundation.

I arrived at the museum on one of those clear, crystalline, cool summer days that bestows a movie set quality on Detroit. Everything seems to either glitter, fluoresce, or radiate an aura. It feels magical. It probably happens everywhere, but in Detroit where the winters are long, gray, and cold, and summers unpredictable, such glorious days propel me along with a sense of childish optimism as though no ill wind will ever blow again. Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac must have rowed ashore on a day like this.

I buzzed up to the museum on my scooter. MOCAD’s café doors were swung open to let the old brick building inhale fresh air. I parked in the big, free parking lot behind the building, where on certain summer nights movies are projected on the wall for everyone to watch. The free parking came more manna from heaven. A half hour earlier, I stood in the sun at a protest against the failure of the Michigan Board of Canvassers to put a duly approved referendum on the ballot that would offer voters a chance to vote down the pernicious Emergency Manager Law. Interested readers — anyone who lives in Michigan should be interested — can read more about this law elsewhere, so I’ll spare you a lecture. But at this protest, some boys were selling bottles of water to raise funds for the “Boot Camp To Stamp Out Bullying” (I probably have that name wrong, but I think that’s the gist of it — they were doing a good thing.) I had no paper money in my wallet at all, and I only had about a dollar in change that I carried for parking meters. The price of a bottle of water: $1. I gave the kid my meter money, and knew I probably could not go to MOCAD unless the meters took credit cards there; not a sure thing. Lo and behold, there appeared free parking. The point of this digression: I felt hopeful when I walked into the museum.

Post Industrial Complex MOCADphoto: artifizz

Inside, a kind woman greeted me at the reception desk and told me, when I asked, that it would be all right to take photos. I did. This exhibit deserves photos. The works on display are disparate to an indescribable degree; words might not sufficiently convey one’s impression on seeing that curious collection of objects that comprise the show. At the entrance to the exhibit area, a large poster board offers the exhibit title and a brief description. Read it. The description stands as muse to your imagination; it gives context to the eclectic offerings before you. You turn from the poster board, and a jet engine intake cone threatens to suck you into the room. A mockup, more likely, constructed of wood I think, and on close inspection a little worse for the wear, a relic (or mock up of a mock up of a relic?) of past ambition that led inexorably to invention. You ponder this thing. Maybe it is not a jet engine at all. Maybe it comprised part of a wind tunnel? Maybe they built it for testing an engine shape in a wind tunnel? Out of place here, un-tagged, anonymous, it grabs you in a way it would not in the Air and Space Museum or some other institution devoted to technology. Here the old engine mockup makes you wonder: who, what, when, where? Why?

Post-Industrial Complex MOCADphoto: artifizz

You move away from the engine and look up. You can’t help but look up. There, tilted toward the heavens, a little rocket clad in bright white paint strains skyward, suspended by disappearing cables. Bright red letters from a non-Latin script decorate the fuselage. Inscrutable to me, the beast envelops itself in mystery. I considered the purpose of the rocket. Good or ill? To nurture — collect weather data, or convey information? Doubtful. Or kill? More likely. Humanity devotes so much of its best work to delivering murder and mayhem. One wonders.

Next, an acrylic display case filled with handmade jewelry. Jewelry concocted for a certain taste — not mass-produced mall paraphernalia kluged for mass appeal. Why did an exhibit curator choose this? There are no identifying labels, much less price tags on these jewels — no context. You wonder.

On the wall, a colorful but cryptic mosaic beckons. The work enchants but the enigmatic subject remains as inscrutable as those letters on the little rocket. Who is this man? What engages him? When was he? Where?

Next you meet a big barbecue grill — like one you might find out back at a barbecue joint in Texas, stacked with bleeding ribs, and thick slabs of beef cut thick as though the supply were infinite. The thing rusts. An ominous air hangs over it. Maybe detectives collected the grill as macabre evidence at a crime scene? (I know, that’s nuts, but imagination can take over, and objects out of context fuel the imagination.) Who knows? But there it is.

Post Industrial Complex MOCADphoto: artifizz

Beside the grill a selection of children’s books lay carefully arranged on a shelf; laid flat, covers face up. I inspect them; they have appeal. The covers at least appear well executed. What’s inside? I can only guess, and from the innocent titles, I do. Fun.

I turn, and a big, gnarly motorcycle blocks my path. Did someone ride that in here? A fancy bike, this; all chrome and glossy paint; minimalist; a hard tail (no rear shock absorber, a rough ride). I picture a very proud owner of this impractical wire donkey, a machine constructed for love, not utility.

Across the room, stand two quaint bicycles. Compared to the motorcycle nearby, they represent a pure form devoted to functionality. They remind me of the past. One is a “girl’s” bike. The top tube curved downward to accommodate a rider wearing a dress. In modern times, such bikes are not often sold. Girls just do not very often wear dresses when they ride bikes. They do not ride side saddle on horses anymore either. My thoughts tripped back to childhood. I can remember friends riding bikes like this. We kids were consumers, too, and a vast infrastructure existed to churn out such bikes for our consumption. We outgrew these bikes, and bought different ones. Or, our parents did. Or, didn’t. Different folks, different memories, I imagine.

A manikin stands erect and headless in the middle of the room, like a stranger arrived at cocktail party, attired in a conservative but fashionable ensemble. Did this collection ever find a market? Was this a one off?

Post Industrial Complex MOCADphoto: artifizz

A chalkboard partly filled with human figures and scrawled notation occupies a section of wall. Adjacent to that a Stonehenge-y circle of dome shaped speakers protruding from a white surface. Phonemes and tones, occasionally words, even phrases, emit from the speakers alternately. The words and phrases escaped my hearing. I figure that was the idea: more questions; no answers offered. (If you must have answers, you can duck into a booth and watch a thirty minute video that offers explanations of the show, but do it after you look around — mystery nurtures the spirit.)

Go see Post-Industrial Complex at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit before someone gathers up these artifacts of our questionable civilization, and stores them away in some lonely place where they will wait sadly for another discoverer to come along. Get there before July 29th.


Vertical Urban Factory :: thru 29-Jul-2012

Vertical Urban Factory MOCADphoto: Vertical Urban Factory

Vertical Urban Factory, a touring history of industrial architecture, unlike Post-Industrial Complex, indulges visitors with answers. Lots of them. And they remind us of what humans with compelling purpose accomplish. Students of architecture should see this show. Students of history should see this show. Anyone with any curiosity at all about the buildings that surround us and dominate our urban landscape should see this show. Take the time to read the inscriptions, they are informed and in context. They reveal a path through the forest of structures in which we so often feel lost. Minds evolve like organisms. New thought springs to life and dies off, dead-end epistemological branches on the tree of knowledge. Humans conjure so much zeal for progress; so many late nights fine-tuning and perfecting; so much blood, sweat, and tears spilled on the workshop floor.

Collectively, we expend all this energy in the service of Commerce. Those who claim any -theism at all, generally embrace monotheism these days. But from Enlightenment onward, western civilization embraced Commerce as a second deity equally deserving of sacrifice and worship. We took manufacturing — a word with roots that imply hand-work (as a description board helpfully reveals) — out of the hands of workers. Workers no longer needed to create things, to be artisans. Industrialization demanded they tend machines instead — machines to do the making; machines perpetually in need of tending; merciless machines that might lop off an arm or a foot if not assiduously attended.

Film footage in the show reveals men and women at work in factories that employed these machines, eyes of the operators glued to their task, locked in concentration: pushing, pulling, twisting. The beasts demanded constant effort to feed and manage them. For the operators they were cruel masters, yet from these machines sprang the tools and comforts of a modern civilization. We evolved. We left farms and the daily repetition of numerous backbreaking tasks in the service of agricultural subsistence, and headed off for factory work and the endless repetition of a single task, over and over and over. But factory work offered a path out of mere subsistence; factory work promised a few hours of leisure time at the end of a shift. You left your job at the factory. You hoped to earn enough to feed your family and indulge their fancies, too. Life changed for the better despite killing hours, lack of worker safety rules or collective bargaining protection of wages, health insurance, and pensions. And in the big city, you could get an education, you could be an entrepreneur, you had a hope of climbing the economic ladder, you could entertain delusions of grandeur and not feel utterly foolish.

Vertical Urban Factory MOCADCourtesy: Skyscraper Museum / Prof. Eberhard

The ample, detailed descriptions provided in Vertical Urban Factory reveal the timeline of visionary inventors, designers, and engineers who wrought this change. At first, the same inventors who created the products created the means of production and the buildings to house production. Soon though, the demand for greater efficiency led to specialization in the manufacturing architecture realm, too. Architects devoted to factory design took over the task of creating homes for industry. They built up and they built out, they first employed gravity and manpower to move parts through buildings. Then they amended those forces with steam, and finally electricity. Assembly line manufacturing began over two hundred years ago. For example, I learned that, in addition to the cotton gin, Eli Whitney invented a machine to manufacture muskets from standardized parts in 1798. Much different from the smithy hammering out horseshoes one at a time in front of a smoldering forge. In fact, manufacturing from standardized parts actually pre-dated Whitney. This stuff goes way back.

Large photos, diagrams, and meticulously edited text accompany each step in the evolution of manufacturing architecture presented in Vertical Urban Factory. One of the earliest significant buildings designed specifically for manufacturing and product distribution was the 1.8 million square foot Starrett-Lehigh Building, New York, 1930. Trains and trucks could drive in, raw materials be unloaded, manufactured into finished product and re-packed for distribution on upper floors, and the finished product shipped out via road or rail. The building presented a working prototype of vertical integration, practiced later by Henry Ford and virtually every other manufacturer.

Vertical Urban Factory MOCADHighland Park, Ford Factory, Albert Kahn Architect, Detroit, 1910.

Courtesy: Skyscraper Museum / Albert Kahn Associates.

Similarly designed structures soon followed in other cities, including MOCAD’s hometown, Paris of the West, Detroit. The works of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, and Albert Kahn present notable and numerous examples in Detroit. Later, in 1952, Buckminster Fuller got into the act with his trademark geodesic sphere adapted for a cotton mill, with numerous unconventional means of achieving greater efficiency of space utilization and comfort control.

Vertical Urban Factory MOCADBuckminster Fuller, Automatic Cotton Mill, 1952, model designed with North Carolina State University students.

Courtesy: Skyscraper Museum / North Carolina State University, College of Design. Photograph by Ralph Mills.

The story goes on, Detroit’s now demolished Packard Plant gets a mention, including the Banksy graffiti painted there and spirited off to 555 Gallery, in Detroit. Did you know Nabisco once held the name National Biscuit Company? They inhabited a notable building in Chelsea (15th & 16th St), between 9th & 11th Avenues in Manhattan. First came the New York Biscuit Company, from the originator of the “cracker” (for the sound it made when bitten), then the American Biscuit Company, then United States Baking Company, and ultimately the National Biscuit Company. Nabisco baked the first Oreo in a facility inclusive of factory, office, and railroad accommodations. Nabisco moved on in the 1940′s, but left the High Line behind, now an elevated recreation area. A company called American Bank Notes once called Hunts Point, Bronx home. A print shop for bank notes! Fantastic. Back in the 19th century, every bank printed their own money. No problem, until they went out of business.

We used to manufacture everything in the United States. A lesson resides here, I think. National prosperity parallels manufacturing prowess not financial cleverness (and middle-class prosperity followed establishment of unions on manufacturing shop floors). For the United States, one of the last big manufacturing structures built — printing again — was the NY Times Printing in Queens County, NY. Apropos considering the current melancholy state of the newspaper trade.

Over in Europe, one description informs, Le Corbusier revolutionized architecture with his “Modulor,” a system of proportion and scale that integrated the seeming magical math of the Golden Section (or Ratio) and the Fibonacci sequence with human dimensions. Van Nelle appears as a leader of Dutch Modernism, and Fiat models a plant on Ford’s Highland Park Plant (although upside down, with a test track on top).

Vertical Urban Factory MOCADFiat Lingotto Factory, Giacomo Matte-Trucco, Turin, Italy, 1916-23. Courtesy: Skyscraper Museum / Archivio e Centro Storico Fiat

Following a surfeit of enlightening historical cameos, the show devotes a separate room of Vertical Urban Factory to “Contemporary Factory.” I won’t lie — I literally did a thirty second turn through that room. A man informed me it was closing time at the museum. It was five o’clock. I was stunned. I have visited MOCAD many times for special events later in the evening. I assumed they were open late — at least until 8 or 9 — every night. Oh, well. The stuff in “Contemporary Factory ” looked compelling, particularly with vertical urban farming sprouting up as a locavore option; and especially considering the aspirations so many have for Detroit: its past, present, and future architecture. Not to mention my and many other’s aspiration to return manufacturing to Detroit. Why not make our own pencils, toys, kitchen tools, yard tools, hand tools, power tools, bicycles, boat engines, blenders and all the rest of the articles we buy every day at Wal-Mart, and which they import from China and elsewhere. We can do it if we stipulate that no natural law demands we pay CEO’s many millions, or that we dole out dividends to shareholders, or that we cosset management in corporate jets and plush office towers. I’m guessing — no I am 100% certain — unionized American workers can turn out a competitive product, and adhere to worker health and safety rules, and obey environmental laws, which overseas rivals do not. Lay tariffs on overseas products until they get in compliance with fair labor and environmental practices. That will “level the playing field” as business folks love to say. Then, instead of a race to the bottom for factory worker compensation, we will have a race to the top. What if you pay 20% more for t-shirts, or ironing boards? What if the a rising tide floated all boats instead of sinking the little ones, leaving only yachts in our harbor? You and your neighbors will earn a fair wage, with health and pension benefits — they can afford the extra 20%. Do not trust the clowns who say it can not be done economically, they have a vested interest in the inhuman, toxic, overseas manufacturing racket — the crave the corporate jet. Up to date, energy efficient machines and automation will economize much of the work — and replace a fraction of workers, but robots do not build, install, program, or maintain themselves either, and that is well-paid work. And new factories will embrace sustainability — another word for holistic efficiency like that found in nature. It can be done. And should. It will. And I will return to visit the “Contemporary Factory” annex. And you should visit, too. There’s hope in them there edifices.

On my way home, I rode my imported scooter past Henry Ford’s old Highland Park plant. Grass — no, shrubs — sprout in the pavement along the driveway. Litter blows through the property; trees ramble un-cropped and too close to the building. Those weedy tendrils grab at passersby, too, and infect you with a sense of wasteful decay. After just having looked at pictures of this plant in its best years, and read how architects across the globe admired and imitated it, I felt a pang of grief. But it was one of those crystalline days in Detroit when anything seems possible.


July 10, 2012

See the Child (Through the Eyes of a Poem)

Peter Markus shares poetic insights with students
2012 Kresge Fellow Peter Markus shares poetic insights with students,
and vice versa…photo: Detroit Free Press

by Peter Markus

appeared originally at: Guest commentary, Detroit Free Press, 08-July-2012

Call me the Man with the Magic Pencil. This pencil of mine that I’m using right now to write down these words, I’ve had this pencil of mine since the third grade — this stubby stick of wood with hardly no lead on it, no eraser, worn thin like a chicken bone that some dog’s chewed all the meat off of. It’s mine. I carry it with me wherever I go.

I can see things inside this pencil that nobody else can see. Its magic is something I freely share with my students. If I don’t share its magic with the world, the magic inside my pencil will surely dry up.

I tell this to my students before I go around the room tapping on their pencils twice and inviting them to repeat after me, “I believe … in the power … and the magic … of my magic pencil.”

I tell them about the 12-legged purple octopus riding a unicycle down Ferry Street, about the bird with one wing, about the egg that the moon placed underneath my pillow last night.

I tell them stories that I see when I lift my magic pencil up to my eye and see what only I can see.

I’ve been going into the public schools of Detroit with this pencil for the past 17 years as a writer-in-residence with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project of Detroit.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I sometimes tell them that I flip word-burgers at a diner called the Moon Palace, but eventually, if they stick around for more than a few minutes, I’ll tell them that I teach poetry to inner city kids. I like that term “inner city.” It makes me think of the phrase “inner circle,” and to me there’s something sacred and almost hidden about the picture that those words in my mind create.

When I say that I “teach poetry,” what I really mean to say is I create with these students a space in the world where words on the page are considered sacred, a place where students come to believe there are words inside each of their pencils that are waiting to be written, heard, listened to. Their words, in short, I hope to teach them — no matter if they are real or imagined — matter to the world.

These students are fish that are hungry for such bait. I wish you could see with me the looks on their faces when they lift up their own pencils and dive inside. But what we mostly hear are those stories about how these fish can’t swim.

I am here to tell you otherwise. I’ve seen some of these fish walk across the river. I’ve seen some of these fish sprout wings and fly across the sky.

How do you measure such flight? How do you gauge the intelligence of a song?

In the eyes of many in our data-driven world, these are students who, according to the measures of standardized test scores, fall short of being grade-level proficient. These are students who, when you ask them to write down a list of things they’ve seen and heard, will sometimes tell you things that you wish they did not have to know.
Something Lost

I have lost
my father

to a bullet
in the head.

–Alexis Marshall, Southwestern High School

These are students who, when you tell them that the page is a mirror, this is what they see:


My face
is a book

of invisible

Each scar
has its own

story. Each
story begins

Back when
I was small.

– Alex Garcia, Southwestern High School

These are students who aren’t afraid to share their stories of personal struggle and pain:

I Cry

for my mother who
did drugs, stole things,
and is in jail right now
in Ypsilanti. I cry

for my father who was
hardly ever around.
I cry for the corner house
where my uncle lives

where a man was shot
on the 4th of July.
I cry for my grandmother
who shouldn’t have

to take care of me
but she does. I cry
for my friend who lost
her grandmother. I cry

every time I am alone.
I cry to cover up
the anger and rage
inside of me, the sadness

and emptiness I feel.
I try to cover up
these feelings.
I bottle everything up

inside. But sooner
or later they have to come out
like right now
in this poem.

– Tiffany Stockman, Golightly Education Center

These are also students who dare to dream and bring insights such as this to the page:

For things are not what you see.
They are what you make them be.

– Cameron McKinney, Golightly Education Center

Call Me Ghost

I am from a place where the old
dog cries. I am from the place where

the sun doesn’t shine. The place I’m
from is where you wake to the smell

of old Delray’s soul. I am from a place
where people call me ghost. I am

from a place where nobody goes.

–Quincy Mann, Southwestern High School

“Such old souls,” a friend recently said to me, about these students, after hearing them read their poems at a recent event at the Detroit Film Theater. And yes, it is the soul; it is the souls of these children, that I believe we, as a culture, are failing to see, failing to teach to.

How do we measure feeling and the type of imaginative intelligence that it takes to shape the emotional topography inside us into such song? Can we “score” a piece of writing that reaches out to us straight from a child’s heart? Is the boy who writes this poem in the wake of losing his mother to a drunken driver merely proficient?

Inside My Heart

Inside my heart
there is a house
where my mom
lives with angels
singing in a voice
that sounds like
the wind blowing
through my hair.

–Deon Bateman, Fitzgerald Elementary School

Such singing needs not only to be listened to; it needs to be heard. It needs to be revered. Like the magic in this magic pencil of mine, if I don’t share poems like these with the wider world, I’m afraid that the poems will dry up, that the fish will have no river to swim in, no ears to sing to. I will not let this happen. This river is a good river. If you walk out into it, this river, it will hold you up. Watch it, listen to it flow.

Peter Markus is the senior writer with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project (or, visit their blog here) of Detroit. Markus, who was recently named a 2012 Kresge Arts Fellow, is also the author of a novel, “Bob, or Man on Boat,” as well as three books of short fiction, the most recent of which is “We Make Mud.”