beginning in a gallery's walk-in closet that founder Jef
Bourgeau rented for $1 a year, the Museum of New Art in
Pontiac has been less a place than a concept. It's fitting,
then, that MONA would host a series of artist exchanges
between Detroit and its neighboring metropolis. Changing
Cities: Chicago, curated by Chicago gallerist Paul Klein,
is the first installment of the exchange, to be followed in
the coming months with a contingent of Detroit artists
traveling to Chicago's ThreeWalls gallery.
of Chicago's rich 20th century art history, particularly the
lowbrow imagists of the 1960s, are evident, this exhibition
won't conflate geography and style. The conceptual side of the
artwork also calls into question the relationship between
meaning and logic in art.
Only Sandra Perlow and Bernard Williams show a debt to the
imagists. In Perlow's paintings, amorphous blobs and geometric
shapes navigate a neon universe in psychedelic reds, yellows,
oranges and blues like alien cartoons. The paintings have the
immediate impact of pop art, but without the structured
imagery of Warhol or Lichtenstein. Instead, they keep company
with pop's grimy younger brothers imagists such as Jim Nutt,
Carroll Dunham and even later artists like Martin Kippenberger.
Here, the referent is gone, as is pop's capacity to distill
culture into pure image, but the work is still an irreverent
response to "high art." Perlow's jittery, juvenile abstraction
is a story between shapes.
Williams' three paintings, all on thrift-store baby
blankets, are close in style and sensibility to teenage urban
graffiti. In the most elaborate painting, "Iron Nigga," an
African-American face in profile (a recurring subject) is
propped on an Indy car, orbited by images, such as a matador
or a military symbol, and phrases like "Iron Nigga" and "Meat
Market." Where Perlow implies narrative, Williams deters it.
Any impact originates solely in the loaded imagery, which, in
2007, is no longer shocking. The paintings point vaguely
toward race and class issues, but without direction, the
gesture founders. What results is art that makes a lot of
noise without saying much.
Todd Pavlisko's self-portrait photographs seem like
analogues to Williams' paintings. Pavlisko, young, with a
shaved head, piercings and a pale complexion, is shown from
the shoulders up in a suit and tie. Like Williams, Pavlisko
represents himself through conflicting symbols that parse the
subject into a politicized text. The banality of the images
Pavlisko's polite gaze, the subtlety of the photographs
defuses the statement, and recalls photographer Francesca
Woodman's claim that she photographed herself because she was
Peter Stanfield's wall sculptures are more arcane than the
surrounding works. His gleaming steel and glass
constructions resemble strange medical tools from a doctor's
secret stash, but without any clues as to what they would be
used for. The interest lies in the typed narrative elements
inset in each sculpture. The friction between the sterile
physical objects some with red and blue vitrines or lights
and the narratives infuses the objects with an identity that
doesn't belong and casts a shadow of suffocated life. The
effect is subtle and easily overwhelmed by Stanfield's
technical prowess, but the artwork is disquieting, and this
impression resides with the viewer for a while.
Diana Guerrero-Maciá's fabric panels play with the
structure of language with open-ended words and phrases, such
as "Sitting in limbo," "Words are not signs, they are years"
and "Rough groove," that are cut from fabric and sewn into
clever, colorful designs for the 20-something crowd. Likewise,
Dan Ramirez's faux-modernist paintings trick the eye into
believing sandpaper is paint and acrylic is collaged
materials. In both cases, the works are casual they don't
linger in the mind but captivate while they can.
The same effect is heightened in Cody Hudson's "Choking on
a Rainbow," a wall installation of 13 paintings and panels and
two skateboard decks. The pieces, painted in brown, orange and
turquoise and arranged symmetrically on a gallery wall, are a
DIY shrine. The work, however, displays a logic only known to
If Changing Cities: Chicago has any unifying theme,
it may be this rupture of meaning and logic, the Mad Libs
approach to cultural production. The principle that art must
have meaning still exists in the work at MONA, but meaning is
no longer one with logic. Perhaps the most elegant expression
of this comes from Michael Pajon's hand-colored etchings done
in the style of 18th and 19th century portraits. The small,
antiqued portraits immortalize seafarers, businessmen, circus
performers and families, all gentrified, all with animal
heads. As we remember; as it should be.
Changing Cities: Chicago runs through June 9 at the Museum
of New Art, 7 N. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-210-7560.