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There is a modest-sized but exhilarating exhibition of Richard Stankiewicz's sculpture at the David Klein Gallery. It's a study in an artist's evolution, and it's all made of rusty steel.
There is a tradition going back to the beginning of the last century of making art out of junk, out of the detritus or derelict materials of society. Of course, there's always been a wonderful tradition within "folk art" that uses the castoff materials of everyday life to make decorative or utilitarian artifacts, but we're talking "high art" here, the art celebrated by society, the art that eventually influences how we see the world, that makes culture and costs, eventually, lots of money. The cubists were the obvious artists who recycled all sorts of stuff — old theater tickets, broken chairs, shards of wood, fabric, whatnot — in making art, and their influence has been nothing less than miraculous. The cubists profoundly changed the way the Western world looks at itself.
Detroit's own art scene has been a veritable laboratory of recycling junk. The Cass Corridor artists beginning in the '60s — Michael Luchs, Robert Sestok and Gordon Newton, to name the obvious — and their descendants are the obvious guys, but before them there were two surprising artists who became famous: Ray Johnson and Richard Stankiewicz. They both grew up in Detroit, went to Cass Tech High School and ultimately went on to New York and were celebrated for their art, which was basically made from the detritus of culture. Johnson, part of the Fluxus movement and "the most famous unknown artist in New York," as one critic called him, made collages out of cut-up advertising graphics among other cultural scrap. Stankiewicz made sculpture out of pieces of rusty metal he found.
The son of Polish immigrants, Stankiewicz grew up in Hamtramck in the shadows of the famed auto plant, Dodge Main. He played by railroad tracks where the discarded shards of old machines littered (to his eye, decorated) the landscape. "There were small factories that had stockpiles of unused machinery — rejected, castoff things all around the railroad track, and we kids used to fool around there," he once said. This is the stuff of Stankiewicz's memory that eventually emerged in his art.
After Cass Tech he was accepted into the Cranbrook Art Academy program but couldn't afford it. He joined the Navy and eventually, after a solitary stint in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska guarding against a Japanese invasion (and carving the likenesses of local animals out of found bone), he ended up in New York studying art under the famed teacher and painter Hans Hofman.
The most iconic sculpture of the exhibit, "Untitled (1958-4)," is a rusted steel piece simply assembled from an exhaust manifold welded to an exhaust pipe, resting on a solid steel base. The first thing you're likely to see is the image of a ram, with its horns emerging from a skull. That trophy-like image doesn't last long. Like a psychic slide show it evolves from a tribal artifact to a totemic object to a simple abstract image that carries the weight of all of our hasty imaginings. Its precise design enlivens the synapses, and its elegant form gracefully slides us from one impression to another. Like a Marcel Duchamp readymade — an everyday object declared art with minimal tinkering — Stankiewicz's assemblage seems an effortless creation.
There's a whole world of stereotyped, most often annoying, kitschy welded junk metal in the art world, at art fairs and galleries alike, but the transcendent magic of Stankiewicz's vision — to conflate many visual ideas into one unified form — sets him apart. There is one playful piece composed of discarded compressor tanks, "Two Tank Figures (1963-1)," that suggests early sci-fi robots; while flirting with kitsch, it's remarkably reserved and classically beautiful with a rich patina of rust and oxidized galvanized metal. In this earlier work there was a more pronounced cartoony figurative quality in his sculpture, but the Klein show emphasizes his later, and perhaps, more minimal and serene work.
After a residency in Australia in the late '60s, where he learned more sophisticated steel fabricating processes, his work changed into what we see at Klein. For the Zabriskie Gallery in New York he did a series of small abstract sculptures composed of cylinders. In one seemingly architecturally impossible piece ("Untitled-1972"), a voluminous cylinder cantilevers over a rectangular base. For such a small work — it's less than 3 feet wide — there is a quiet, meditational balance that might even achieve a level of the sublime.
Stankiewicz seemed to always return to his favorite medium from childhood, rusted metal. But master that he was, he experimented confidently with many forms. Other later pieces of the early '80s, shortly before his untimely death, return to a flat, framed, relief-like form, suggesting painting, are elegant and playful meditations on abstraction and representation.
At the David Klein Gallery, 163 Townsend St., Birmingham; 248-433-3700; 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, through Jan. 3.
Stankiewicz's colleague John Chamberlain is in conversation with sculptor Michael Hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, in the Wendell W. Anderson Jr. Auditorium at the College for Creative Studies; 313-664-7800.
Meanwhile, Michael Luchs, along with his wife, Kathryn Brackett Luchs, is currently showing in the CCS Center Galleries, and Robert Sestok has a show at Café Verde in Ann Arbor; 734-302-7032.
Glen Mannisto is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.