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Along a desolate-looking strip of Michigan Avenue, off the beaten path of nearby Corktown, along a strip of industrial buildings, sits the Zeitgeist — a gallery and performance space that, for the last 11 years, has been a mecca for the aesthetically avant-garde, the challenging and the underground in art and theater.
During those years, Zeitgeist actively carved out a kind of aesthetic and community niche for itself as a defining center of the city’s art scene — which, of course, made commercial success tenuous at best. And that is precisely the case with Zeitgeist. The gallery and theater space is closing its doors for good next week, leaving a gaping hole in Detroit’s art community.
And if the vibrancy of an art scene is measured by the health of its fringes, then we’d all better hope a band of aesthetes and activists steps up and nabs Zeitgeist’s mantle.
Zeitgeist embraced raw talent, those artists going for the emotional and psychological underbelly of modern life. It never hosted funk nights, and rare was the opening where you could spot a gossip columnist. It didn’t dabble in hot-rod airbrush paintings, tattoo retrospectives or overt gimmickry to pull in the faithful. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the aforementioned marketing methods, but an old-fashioned, well-curated DIY space that welcomes joyful and challenging expression is a necessary haven for community expression.) Instead, it relied upon passionate art lovers and those keen on the useful and postmodern notion that art isn’t always "easy" and ideas are meant to be expressed in radical ways.
From the outset, the joint was as lofty as it was community-involved. Original founder Troy Richard purchased the former Michigan Gallery specifically to stage avant-garde works of theater, both classic and locally grown. Inspired by the late Ann Arbor artist Jacques Karamanoukian and his Galerie Jacques, Richard established the Zeitgeist’s zeitgeist early on. (In fact, Zeitgeist’s Bar Gallery hosts an ongoing and rotating exhibit of works from Karamanoukian’s collection.)
The first production Richard mounted was a month-long run of Sartre’s No Exit. The second show was Detroit poet and playwright Ron Allen’s elegiac and funky "Ritual of a Dead Planet."
On the 2-D side, Richard partnered with artist and activist Karl Schneider, who curated the gallery half of Zeitgeist’s operation, mounting shows just as challenging as the theater works Richard was producing. The two embodied a set of high artistic standards while aggressively reaching out to the community. They knew that if you’re going to set the bar high, you’d better shout loud about it. They were, it could be argued, outsized in their expectations of how the gallery and theater space should be received in the community. They constantly reminded folks in the press not just how "important" the art on display was, but it wasn’t born from of pretense so much as a real passion for the material. If they hounded you for coverage, you could at least know that you would come away from the conversation having learned something. And Zeitgeist was never going to be one of those places where the cool kids hung out. Ironically, over the course of their 10-plus years, they never really tapped into one particular zeitgesit — that of the latter-day urban hipster.
In 2001, the gallery’s curatorial duties were taken up by artist Jim Puntigam. Puntigam provided a sense of continuity, being equal to the founders’ enthusiasm. Over the course of the gallery’s 11-year run, its walls have seen mounted works from many local notables, including Puntigam and Schneider as well as Diana Alva, George Graveldinger, Robert Hyde, Maurice Greenia Jr. and Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts. They’ve also welcomed notable shows from such European artists as Stani Nitkowski, Sanfourche, Sendrey and Claudine Goux among others.
The common thread connecting all the works that see the light of day (or the illumination of night) at the Zeitgeist is the gathering of a self-described collective of "experimentally avant-weird."
This collective of folks will honor their run with a final event this Saturday at 7 p.m. with "Celebration or Commiseration," an evening of entertainment and art spearheaded by the Eric Mesko, the curator behind the Main Gallery’s wild and wooly, politically-charged featured exhibit, "The Last Days of 1984." Mesko will perform a series of rants, and Maurice Greenia Jr. (aka Maugre) will do his beautifully demented street puppeteering. Maugre, for what it’s worth, does double duty that night as "The 10 Year Anniversary of the Hudson’s Building Demolition" — a photo documentary series capturing the surreal drawings Greenia created on the walls, windows and other surfaces of the former department store on the days leading up to its implosion — will close that night as well.
It’s somehow fitting that an exhibit like the one Mesko has curated — with its overtly political commentary in our national time of crisis — as well as an exhibit celebrating Maugre’s Detroit transformational urban graffiti should be the swansong for a gallery that’s so sought to engage itself with the underdog.
Though many will mourn Zeitgeist’s passing, the current of fringe and underground art in Detroit should teach us that the art will still get made. It just needs to find a new — and hopefully as open-minded and welcoming — a fountain from which to bubble up to the public.
The Zeitgeist is at 2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-965-9192. Event starts at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8.
Chris Handyside is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.