June 11, 2013

Christopher Samuels :: New Works and Short Films

Christopher Samuels: New Works & Short Films opened on Saturday, 8-June 2013 at Popps Packing in Hamtramck.

For the show, Mr. Samuels divided the gallery into three rooms, one for film screening, one for dance, and one for installation work. For the latter, Mr. Samuels transformed the gallery itself into an installation. When you enter, your first thought might be, “What the hell?” The works make use of artifacts of the room to cloud the distinction between artwork and gallery. The gallery is the artwork. You will not see a white cube with objects and title cards beside them. In fact, the work here verges on participatory in the sense that the visitor feels disoriented, uncomfortable, unsure how to react — at least this one did, as did others asked for their reaction — visitors mill about, searching for landmarks in a strange dance of their own.

The room feels spare and industrial, unfinished. A sense of the place, Mr. Samuels said, dictated what happened in the room. He looked around at the odd shaped walls, with alcoves and doorways, and tweaked them with objects he placed thereabout. He hoped the objects would feel organic, he said. They do, but at the same time they are jarring — like a tumor, organic but indicative of illness. An LED light down under a sewer grate, glows upward like a compound-eyed alien trapped beneath the iron bars.


A set of clinical white curtains across a wide doorway to an alcove, backlit with harsh florescent light, forms another work. That streaming glare from between those curtains, like an operating room dropped into this high-ceilinged former industrial space feels spooky; it almost makes you shudder, and it might if you were alone in that room.


A semi-circular florescent tube set on top of a pipe outlet inset into the battered concrete floor, the electrical parts of the lamp concealed by a rag, glowed like a strange interface to some unseen, menacing machine.

Nearby, prints of three prismatic color smears in various orientations and resolutions hang beside a simple gray scale transition; all unlabeled, as though readily interpretable or usable to those in the know. But you are not in the know. At least not when you enter this room.


A projector down near the floor shines the image of a hand, index finger extended, pointing to something unseen on the floor. A piece of glass, propped between the projector and the wall at a forty-five degree angle redirects a washed out facsimile of the moving, gesturing, imploring hand onto the adjacent wall.


Shreds of foliage adorn an apparently functional gas meter, pipes projecting from a wall and disappearing through the concrete floor. The foliage might be reclaiming this room for Mother Nature, except the foliage is dead and desiccated. Reclamation aborted.


A black and orange plastic spool rests inexplicably in the center of the room, in peril of stray kicks by passersby. No matter, its relevance, or irrelevance persists.


Black plastic netting drapes the corner of one wall. Remnants of a former purpose that now only form patterns.


Up high, concealing a row of windows, Mr. Samuels installed a semi-transparent mural comprised of multiple sheets turned out to the street. During the day, you see the mural in the room, but reversed, like a window sign. At night, the image fades and the sheets take on a pale blue due to insufficient light penetrating from outside.


In the next room, Mr. Samuels ran his short films in a continuous loop. They are: Indian Shield (4:56), Loosie (4:00), Indian Jim (5:24). All of them projected a haunting sense that disaster lurked around the corner, but all imply disaster might yet be averted. The saturated color hints they were shot on 16mm film, but this effect could be digital magic. The sound comes a bit muffled at times, especially in a crowded room; words get lost.

Indian Shield and Indian Jim featured the same actor, telling a self-revealing story, but from slightly different perspectives. In Hollywood’s reductive shorthand, think Midnight Cowboy meets Blue Velvet: the images seem straightforward, but the soundtrack and the editing create a nasty sense of foreboding. Both feature a man recovering from a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery, but both were about more than that. Indian Shield included additional actors, scenes of the roiling surface of the sun (Indian shield?) and a narrator telling of times when it is safe to stare into its glare. A party, after much tossing back of shots, ends with a peculiar toast to art. The film ends with the lead actor and another man doing Tai Chi beside a porta-john, aching it seems to keep their shit together, even if they are the only ones who believe they actually might.

Indian Jim features the same actor and the same shoulder injury, but he does pushups here, insists on recovery, and ends with the man, shot face on, riding a bike through downtown Detroit at night. With both of these films, one gets the sense of watching a stranger kicked to the curb by a capricious labor market in a post-industrial town where a man without formal education credentials, or adequate drive to re-create himself, ends up disenchanted, deluded, and desperate for a leg up from a society that mostly doesn’t give a damn about him and wishes he would disappear. But he won’t — Mr. Samuels proves that.

Loosie, opens with a woman walking on the sidewalk in a rundown neighborhood. Soon she arrives at a dingy home. She rattles off numerous banal hardships in her life with a cigarette scratched voice, until she finally describes her home as a jail where no one visits. There are lots of close in shots, and her suffering infects the viewer with a desperate sense of malaise. The film ends with Loosie walking down the same sidewalk towards an unknown destination. Things may turn out all right, but one senses that for an impoverished and disenfranchised woman, life is nasty, brutish, and (mercilessly) short.

Towards the end of the evening as scheduled for the opening, Paul Bancell, Megan Major and Sam Horning performed a dance piece that both complemented and extended Mr. Samuels’ transformation of the gallery. They all moved with grace and emanated emotion that suddenly made the small space allotted to their performance seem large. Their use of the “found” stage — not a formal stage with formal lighting and formal wings — mirrored Mr. Samuels’ adaptation of the gallery space. The movement flowed effortlessly and gorgeously from the dancers, and this old meatpacking plant became somewhere else; took on a new set of dimensions.

Mr. Samuels’ show takes the typical polished, tightly curated gallery show and smacks it in the head. This is not the sort of show where “the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo.” You should feel out of your element here, whomever you are. The artwork of Mr. Samuels breaks standard assumptions about the presentation and constitution of art and erases standard descriptive vocabulary for such events. The art here might be described as dadaist (anti-art, embraces chaos, opposes conventional standards); postminimalist (uses existing objects, esthetic depends on form); fluxus (mixes media: sculptural objects, prints, painting, mural, film, music, dance, the gallery space, the audience, the happening, all of it!).

Or maybe its none of that, and just happens to be what Christopher Samuels gives us. No matter how you describe it, Mr. Samuels took a risk conceiving and presenting this show. It’s an all or nothing, what have you done for me lately world for artists, and one misstep can send their career off the rails. So I do define what the artist did here as real risk, requiring real premeditation, and that, aside from subjective artistic merit, is what separates this from what any six year old can do (to refute a remark in a review by a British newspaper of a Henry Moore show). We all need to be smacked in the head once in a while. The show runs through 29-June.

Here’s a poem to ponder:


Why do I write today?

The beauty of
the terrible faces
of our nonentities
stirs me to it:

colored women
day workers—
old and experienced—
returning home at dusk
in cast off clothing
faces like
old Florentine oak.


the set pieces
of your faces stir me—
leading citizens—
but not
in the same way.

William Carlos Williams


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…

June 24, 2012

Childhood, Boyhood, Sonic Youth :: Matt Zacharias

Matt Zacharias, in his solo exhibition at Re:View Contemporary Gallery (444 W. Willis, #112, Detroit) unselfconsciously maps the landscape of his youth in a series of multi-media works that zoom in on the terrain of his formative years. Mr. Zacharias, via technical mastery of collage and subtle brushwork, plus meticulous selection of printed imagery, offers visitors to Re:View between now and July 7th free transportation to a realm of recollections and reflections.

rock star plan, matt zacharias, review gallery, detroit

“Rock Star Plan” (panel II)
Matt Zacharias, Re:View Contemporary Gallery, Detroit
photo: Re:View Contemporary Gallery, Detroit

Mr. Zacharias initiated the most expansive work, “Rock Star Plan”, a series of five panels, each five feet tall and four feet wide, with a visit from “The Wallpaper Lady,” a woman contracted to lay down vintage 1960’s wallpaper on the panels to create a base layer for the collage to follow. The wallpaper approximates wallpaper found in a room Mr. Zacharias inhabited as a boy, a room in a relative’s home, where his foremost concern before moving in was whether or not he could hang his posters on the wall. To his relief, his host agreed he could. That Mr. Zacharias carried a recollection of wallpaper with him for so many years attests to nascent design sensibilities incubated ever since. He remembers that wallpaper, and many more visual components of his youth, and now they form the core of the work in his current exhibition. Old photos, play lists from bands, band posters: they all offer insights into an evolving mind. Here, the whole resolves as other (greater) than the sum of the parts –- stand back and look at the whole “Rock Star Plan” series and comprehend in an instant the essence of this child. Or, move in close and read captions and clippings, focus on individual images as they flicker past your eye and grasp subliminally at your consciousness. You find yourself transported to fleeting moments cached in memories, the artist’s internal past. As the gestalt of the works populating the periphery of the room — the whole other than the sum — grips you, your mind wanders down the shadowy alleys of your own past. Neurons fire and spark memories you think evaporated. Proust’s ghost passes you the magical madeleine. Memory and subliminal perception are potent forces; Mr. Zacharias toys with them in “Rock Star Plan”, and throughout the exhibition.

"Childhood, Boyhood, Sonic Youth," Matt Zacharias, Re:View Gallery, Detroit

“Childhood, Boyhood, Sonic Youth”
Matt Zacharias, Re:View Contemporary Gallery, Detroit
photo: Re:View Contemporary Gallery, Detroit

The title work of the show, “Childhood, Boyhood, Sonic Youth” draws that title from Tolstoy’s first three novels: “Childhood,” “Boyhood,” and “Youth,” published starting in 1852 when Tolstoy was twenty-three. Preternaturally sage for his years (although life appears to have progressed at an accelerated pace back then), Tolstoy wrote: “Will the freshness, lightheartedness, the need for love, and strength of faith which you have in childhood ever return? What better time than when the two best virtues — innocent joy and the boundless desire for love — were the only motives in life?” Tolstoy evoked an expressionistic style with these works, sparking the imagination of readers with flashes of emotion predicated on facts filtered by the lens of perception — the whole is other than the sum of the parts. But Mr. Zacharias borrows only the words from Tolstoy’s titles and fragments of Tolstoy’s themes. “Childhood, Boyhood, Sonic Youth,” is comprised of a triptych roughly the dimensions  – about seven feet square – of triptychs you see propped behind diminutive altars of thousand-year-old village churches in Italy. The work perches on the edifice of expressionism with its evocative flashes of childhood and adolescent years embodied in images of illusive, overly preened TV actors; stark, derivative Warhol-esque opening graphics for the shows the actors starred in; the stylish silhouettes of Stingray bicycles (as my crowd called them) with banana seats, so popular then for their modishness (but way too heavy for their size); a space capsule and spaceman in requisite “high-tech” rubber suit –- innocent and quaint in their technical inadequacy now; excerpts from the so pervasive TV Guide, an ephemeral fixture on the little table beside the La-Z-Boy in every middle class living room. That designers of the opening and closing credits of TV shows borrowed shamelessly from the counterculture work of Warhol amuses Mr. Zacharias. We see images from TV shows like “The Wild Wild West” (in “Childhood, Boyhood, Sonic Youth”) and “The Partridge Family” (in “Rock Star Plan”) that evoke Warhol; images which, at the time, were revolutionary.

Andy Warhol tore labels off mass-produced fixtures of everyday existence to create counter-culture icons; he adopted 8mm movie cameras sold to eager consumers with the promise of capturing idyllic, living, breathing family moments and captured instead unsettling interludes of hedonistic excess. Via co-opted components of consumerism, Warhol challenged the cultural complacency that co-existed amidst “cold” war and looming nuclear armegeddon. Warhol forced us to reassess our assumptions about survival and pursuit of happiness, and Mr. Zacharias does too.

"Flipbook, Vol. II (Pages 60-95)", Matt Zacharias, Re:View Gallery, Detroit

“Flipbook, Vol. II (Pages 60-95)”
Matt Zacharias, Re:View Contemporary Gallery, Detroit
photo: Re:View Contemporary Gallery, Detroit

As innocence gave way to the pragmatic demands of existence, Mr. Zacharias joined the Navy. His tenure with the Navy did not turn out like stories you hear from “The Greatest Generation.” His experience, his generation’s experience, was more prosaic, less heroic, and possibly more revelatory. His spell with the Navy ended abruptly and absent conventional glory, as so often the mostly unvoiced stories of soldiers and sailors do. But out of the rubble, Mr. Zacharias formed the raw, wry, and pervasively satirical reflections that constitute these works. An image of a trench coat clad man running with unmistakable urgency to or from something unseen features in “Childhood, Boyhood, Sonic Youth” and “Flipbook, Vol. II (pages 60 – 95)”. The image lends motion and continuity to these works — we flee from the past and rush toward the future. In “C.O. Accessory Kit” a work comprised of meticulous design elements suggestive of a mass-produced toy, Mr. Zacharias presents the ultimate anti-hero for American culture — the Conscientious Objector (C.O.), the passive alter ego of our militaristic culture and collective impulse to dominate the planet. The execution is flawless, and the satire is unmistakable. We can not help but sympathize with an earnest escapee from the military industrial complex, but at the same time we sense impending doom for the man. The herd will overtake and envelope him, no matter how fast the C.O. in the dark trench coat runs.

Don’t be overtaken by the herd. Go see these works by Matt Zacharias. The show is up at Re:View until July 7th. And visit the gallery next door, See Art + Design. You’ll find a permanent collection, exhibitions, and an emphasis on design that fills a void in the Detroit gallery scene.

Catch a Metro Times interview with Mr. Zacharias here:

“C.O. Accessory Kit” Matt Zacharias Re:View Gallery Detroit

“C.O. Accessory Kit”
Matt Zacharias, Re:View Contemporary Gallery, Detroit
photo: Re:View Contemporary Gallery, Detroit