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On a sunny day in Northville, two women sit in a coffee shop flipping through an album of wedding cakes. Down the street, a movie theater advertises Alice in Wonderland on the marquee. A middle-aged man cruises Main Street in a red convertible. A block over, on a storefront window, someone has written a heartbroken confession in dust, visible only in sunlight: "Courtney loves Blake. But I love Courtney."
Born as a village in 1867, Northville has over the past few years revamped itself as a modern-day Pleasantville. In the historic downtown district, there are brand-new awnings and sewers with grates so clean you could grill meat on them. New Guinea impatiens blanket the lawns and spill from planters in psychedelic pink. A scent from something like a spiced-pear Yankee candle wafts from a new brick building furnished with only a Dumpster. This here is a city without grit. Even the garbage smells like dessert.
So it was probably a bit of a conundrum for Detroit artists when Northville Art House's part-time curator, Motown maverick Aaron Timlin, charged them with the mission to make art within 10 blocks of the gallery. N-turprt features sculpture, found objects, photography, painting and drawing, accompanied by handwritten journal entries describing each artist's experiences, thoughts and reflections on their time in Northville.
Timlin says he came up with the idea when he was sitting out in a grassy area behind the gallery. "It was a nice place to reflect, it's like being in a whole other world. I thought it would help artists to think about their world back home, but from a distance, a critical look at where they were at."
The exhibit showcases 20-some works by a group of mostly Detroit artists, including Harlan Lovestone, S. Kay Young, Davin Brainard, Ed Sarkis, Scott Hocking and more, but the reason to see this show is Mike Richison's approximately 30-foot scroll, "The Slowest Walk I Have Ever Taken." Richison took Timlin literally, obsessively mapping his walk (actually, his limp he twisted his ankle the morning he started the project) through the neighborhood. With ink and colored pencil on tracing paper, he makes notes and pictures documenting every agonizing inch of effort to understand his environment and himself.
From oil stains to dog poop on the sidewalk, Richison gives the streets more attention than they would receive from a surveyor. Making for an enjoyable read, he also includes witty observations and wisecracks about the bucolic town "Someone should clean up around here!" showing an ability to say something valuable about absolutely anything. But just as importantly, his linear narrative maps out the artistic process, including the worries and ruminations that grow in an artist's mind as a project nears completion. At one point, he expresses curiosity about what the other artists are doing for their project and wonders whether his will fare worse. At another, he reflects on his haphazard drawing:
12:30 p.m. So the panels are getting smaller should I be concerned? Is that an indicator of decline in quality? Have I become complacent or is there just nothing happening here?
Tracing Richison's 700 steps, it seems like the viewer spends nearly as much time reading the work as he did making it (although it took him a few days). But what's great about the piece is that Richison manages to be both sardonic and sincere, while other artists in the show seem to fall in one camp or the other, often relying on wit to turn their task into interesting art or perhaps use humor to keep their distance.
Accompanying a small painting, Davin Brainard presents his "travel log" on the gallery floor an actual log and branches affixed with a carabiner. Catherine Peet's witty wall-mounted work "Down Church Street" is a landscape painting with a horse figurine that looks as if it could be sold in one of Northville's gift shops or tack and supply stores, fancily framed in wood and accessorized with golf tees and silver charms. Scott Hocking's work is a funny one-off on local culture. Scrawled in red sharpie on a rock, the piece is entitled: "The Northville Duck Pond Ducks Take Out Wolfgang Puck While Smokey the Old Race Horse Looks on." Timlin says a Northville resident who drives a Cadillac bought Hocking's $22 piece for her kitchen.
Artist Lisa Calice, who grew up in Northville, offers "Our Lady of Victory," a sentimental portrait of a garden at the Catholic school she attended as a child. Her drawing is intimate and without a hint of irony. Calice draws a statue in a nearby garden, from a perspective she let her daughter choose. Her rendering comes alive in deep colors of black, grey, purple and red, crackling in sparks like a memory flickering. In her notes, she recounts her walks around her old neighborhood. "I looked at the parking lot where I outran the boys in my class while playing football."
Several artists could have stepped further outside their element. Faina Lerman, presents small-scale landscapes of her rose-colored world, but at least she makes the effort to imagine Northville's scenery specifically, a building being demolished rather than built or renovated as a comparison to Detroit. Victor Pytko's landscape, while beautifully rendered in an impressionist style, is pretty straightforward and offers little more insight about the cloistered community. Artist Ann Gordon's work is one that doesn't quite seem to fit in the show. With a handwritten note as her journal entry, she takes the opportunity to comment on her blog, detroitarts.blogspot.com, and contemplate audiences' reception to art in general, rather than investigate what Northville has to offer. Her work is sheets of graph paper presenting such loaded terms as "good" and "bad" in an attempt to make a statement about how quickly we make up our minds when it comes to what we know and feel safe liking.
About what the locals saw, Timlin says, "It's not the flowers and birds the community is used to, but they were interested in seeing the show because they knew the artists were commenting on them."
When it comes down to it, Timlin says he's really impressed with the support he's received in Northville. The exhibit offered a good opportunity for both the public and the artists to step outside their comfort zone, a way to turn on Northville residents to Detroit art and to help the residents take a look at themselves through creative response.
N-turprt runs through Oct. 22, at Northville Art House, 215 Cady St., Northville; 248-449-9950.
Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.