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Swinging naked, slinging pie and multiphonic monks

On 25 years of art in Detroit

"25 Years of Coverage," Photo by Cybelle Codish.
Jean DuBuffet's "Promenade a Deux," 1974.
Ed Fella's "Art makes me nuts," from Detroit Focus Quarterly, December 1986.
Still from Nelson Smith's "Natural Selection."
Poster from Outlaw Crawl, 1996.
Lowell Boileau's cover for Michigan Quarterly Review.
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Published 10/19/2005

I realize I’ll probably get in trouble for writing this, but I’m going to do it anyway:
I’m so sick of hearing everyone talk about how great the Detroit art scene was in the ’60s and the ’70s. The fistfights and the Fifth Estate. Cranbrook and the Corridor. The Alternative Press and the alternative to alternative spaces. The leather-scented womb of the Willis Gallery and the Woodward Avenue car wrecks caused by nudie paintings. The padlock of institutional censorship and the artists who pulled their own works off walls in protest.

Of course, I have a deep respect and admiration for those painters, poets and philosophers. They suck the marrow out of life like it is the last hit left on a joint, willing to fillet themselves and shellac their skins on canvas if it gets good art.

I should have been there. Really, I feel like I was, and therein lies the problem. I was recently reminded of this when asked to write an article “looking back” on 25 years in the Detroit art scene for this, our 25th anniversary issue.

Some folks have astonishingly detailed recollections of memorable moments in years past, be they scandalous or serene. Detroit Film Theatre Associate Curator Larry Baranski thought up his as if it happened yesterday:

“During a screening of Luis Buñuel’s The Milky Way, a disoriented seminary student took offense to the portrayal of clergy in the film and lost control of his id. In a 10-minute wrecking spree, he threw two 6-foot banquet tables through the arched windows of the Crystal Gallery, and then proceeded to the projection booth, punching the projectionist and tearing the film out of the gate.

“Racing up the stairs to the booth, I quickly decided that, based on the long-distance stare of the man holding the projectionist at bay with a briar pipe and Bible, I should get some professional help. I ran through the darkened theater to go out the stage door.

“The audience mistook me for the instigator in the booth, and someone yelled, ‘There he goes! Stop him!’ I escaped and the DIA security called the police. They arrived within five minutes and cuffed the seminarian. In a moment of inspiration, one of the officers decided it would be a good thing to take him back to the scene of the crime: the projection booth.

“They uncuffed him and he turned and punched the officer behind him and proceeded to completely knock the projector off its base. He was charged and sentenced with assaulting an officer, but not, unfortunately, with crimes against cinematic art.”

Art critic Marsha Miro recently recalled the impact of a Phillip Guston exhibit at the Gertrude Kasle Gallery in the Fisher Building. The artist came to the city to show his new “figurative paintings.”

“The New York critics had been merciless, disparaging Guston’s so-called abandonment of abstract painting. He was beside himself. He kept saying he couldn’t keep the imagery hidden behind abstract brushwork any longer. Gertrude Kasle understood. Many Detroit artists knew too. Gordon Newton, Michael Luchs and Brenda Goodman, among others, kept coming back to learn from these astonishing works.”

It’s just too bad these near-perfect memories occurred in the ’70s. Would there be anything this great post-1980? Speaking unknowingly for so many, sculptor Sergio De Giusti says, “Today we are too complaisant and conservative.” That may be true, but the closer the deadline got, soulful stories came flooding back. Every comment led to two more names of people I should “definitely talk to.” Our community is still connected.

Most of the anecdotes are too vague to recount. Some are short and sweet, such as artist Christian Tedeschi’s: “I remember when Jerry Vile, who puts on the Dirty Show, called Mitch Cope a ‘little bitch.’ I still get a chuckle out of that.” Amusing, sure. But could such quips fill pages?

Most of the shared memories are not of specific shows or events that rocked the boat, but brief encounters with bigness — a shoestring gallery that even for a short while was the place to show your stuff. In the early ’80s, we had a gallery scene on steroids. Folks remember the Detroit Focus Gallery and Detroit Artists Market, then the bougie Birmingham galleries, the motorcycle club of Michigan Gallery, the Girlie Collective and Eastern Market’s Big Biscuit gallery and Big Design studios. Later came the raiders of lost art — Detroit Contemporary and Detroit Art Space. But no matter what, the Corridor keeps creeping in, whether through retrospective shows or show-stealing antics. The very-much-alive arts community hears their cries even today.

There’s no way to tackle all the events that mean so much to everyone, so what follows is a pasteboard, hopefully a conversation-starter, rather than the last word on 25 years of art in the city.

In 1981, the Detroit Institute of Arts put on the seminal show Kick Out the Jams: Detroit’s Cass Corridor, 1963-1977. Put together by Mary Jane Jacob, this exhibit finally gave Cass Corridor artists their due. In 1982, sculptor John Chamberlain hauled a big mess of colorful auto metal to the plaza of the McNamara Federal Building, downtown on Cass Avenue. Deliquescence is a red, white and blue heap salvaged from a junkyard and twisted and burned into art. Unbelievably, it still stands. So does Robert Graham’s Memorial to Joe Louis (1986), at Woodward and Jefferson avenues — more commonly known as “The Fist.” Graham’s bronze and steel memorial to one of Detroit’s best-known heroes was met with decidedly mixed reviews.

In 1983, the Detroit Institute of Arts was the record bidder at a Sotheby’s auction on Charles Sheeler’s “Drive Wheels.” DIA photography curator Nancy Barr was an intern at the time:

“The hammer price was about $67,000 and I remember the controversy over the price. We made headlines worldwide and the front page of The Detroit News. The city was in a major recession, so the expenditure seemed frivolous. It was an extremely controversial purchase because folks here didn’t really understand the value of photography as a fine art. But this auction raised the value and appreciation of photography in the international market, and let the public know the DIA was serious about collecting photographic work. Sheeler’s photographic work now auctions at half a million and more.”

We must also give props to local poet and artist Maurice Greenia, who marks 20 years of making art in Detroit. He began publishing Poetic Express, his Xeroxed zine, in 1985, and every year since he has single-handedly produced volumes with pen, paper and a stapler.

The early- to mid-’80s also was a time of abundant art criticism in the city, with the printing of art reviews, interviews, manuscripts and articles in Detroit Focus Gallery’s publication, Detroit Focus Quarterly. (A side note: Dolores Slowinski also remembers the Detroit Focus benefit softball games held at the State Fairgrounds: “Fred Cummings threw out the first ball, and Sen. Jack Faxon performed the play-by-play. The artist-players jumped to other teams if theirs was eliminated, just to keep playing.”) Also, former MT scribe Sadiq Mohammed founded City Arts Quarterly, a publication of Detroit Council of the Arts.

In the spring of 1986, Michigan Quarterly Review, University of Michigan’s literary quarterly, published “Detroit: An American City,” an entire issue devoted to the Motor City, edited by Laurence Goldstein. The special issue featured more than 300 pages of content, with insightful articles about such topics as the Detroit River, the blues and jazz scene, the demolition of a Poletown church, the 20th century visual arts scene, the automobile industry and more. Authors included Joyce Carol Oates, John Sinclair and Douglas Aikenhead. MQR also solicited an unbelievable amount of artwork by such area artists as Charles McGee, James Stephens, Hughie Lee-Smith, David Griffith and Lowell Boileau (whose work appeared on the cover), among many others. “Detroit: An American City” was so significant, a feature-length review landed on page one of the Detroit Free Press. The very next day, editor Goldstein says he received 500 orders.

In 1986, Tyree Guyton began building the Heidelberg Project, only to have it destroyed in 1991. CAID director Aaron Timlin says: “The bulldozing of Tyree’s first two houses was more significant than the bulldozing of his entire block some years later. If [Mayor Coleman] Young had not removed the first pieces of Tyree’s, we may not have ever had the opportunity to see an entire block and city sprout up with dots, with creative vigor and incisive energy.”

In Demolished by Neglect, a photo exhibition at 1515 Broadway in November 1987, photographers and installation artists went around the city drawing attention to abandoned buildings by spray painting the exhibit title on them and posting their photos on crumbling walls. The Detroit Council of the Arts threatened to pull their $3,000 grant because they claimed the urban artists defaced buildings, Art critic Vince Carducci says, “Many people were whizzed off because it wasn’t very boosterish.”

And speaking of uproar, in the late 80s, Slowinski remembers when artist Marilyn Zimmerman’s nude photos of her daughter were found by a cleaning staff member at Wayne State University, leading to a child pornography accusation. “WSU supported her in her fight for freedom as an artist,” Slowinski says. “And so did the entire art community.”

In the ’90s, with artists presenting performance pieces; large-scale installations; Ann Delisi’s Backstage Pass, profiling area artists and musicians on Channel 56; and even an interactive Web tour (Lowell Boileau’s 1,000-page Web tour hosted by detroityes.com), art was all about engaging the audience.

Vanguard spaces started popping up everywhere that decade. Artist Don Thibodeaux organized an Outlaw Crawl as a “last gas” for Michigan Gallery: “The crawl included all these alternative spaces — Maureen Maki’s 2 South Gallery, A.C.T Gallery, Metro Center for the Arts, Mask Gallery, Michigan Gallery, Moore African Art, Willis Gallery and Thibodeaux Gallery. It was a blizzardy night and we had seven buses carrying people around, there was drinking and a jazz band, and we sold silkscreen posters for $10. It was great.”

Paint Creek Center for the Arts director Mary Fortuna has a dream-like memory of a performance art event held by Detroit Focus Gallery and juried by Laurie Anderson:

“Five or so pieces were presented at Ferndale’s Magic Bag Theatre. One interminable piece involved a plane crash and the start of a new society on a deserted island, and another seemingly endless performance consisted of a naked man and woman swinging on a big trapeze-type swing suspended over the stage, while the woman recited a long monologue. At least, that’s how I remember it. I doubt very many other people remember either, as what looked to be 75 percent or more of the audience walked out halfway through the swing piece.”

Over several years in the mid- to late-’90s, artist Nelson Smith developed and performed a large music-theater installation work. One piece, called “Natural Selection,” was created in an abandoned convent chapel behind Marygrove’s campus. Smith says:

“I couldn’t resist using the chapel for staging this piece. The Stations of the Cross were still reflected in the walls where they had resided for decades before being removed.

“The installation involved a 13-foot electrical transformer tower, a formal staircase that led nowhere, an overstuffed chair, an answering machine, a steel transformer box and a bed suspended from airline cable and pulleys to a hoist. Gregory Patterson, a choreographer, walked up and down the staircase, which was amplified, so the steps reverberated throughout the space. Terri Sarris performed, and at the climax, she lay down in the bed and slowly disappeared into it. Greg then hoisted the bed into the air revealing a bathtub, from which Terri emerges soaking wet. While Gregory returns to the amplified stair, she dissects a football and removes a lit light bulb, rises and slowly leaves the space while a voice on the answering machine pleads for understanding.”

In 1999, the Detroit Institute of Arts brought Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in India to perform sacred singing and dance. It was a mesmerizing experience for the masses who visited the monks as they spent four days in the museum, constructing a Mandala sand painting, a Tantric Buddhist tradition.

Eastern Market became a haven for artist activity full of studios and galleries in the ’90s. Artist Jeff Karolski worked alongside Ed Sykes and Chris “Benny” Benfield at Big Biscuit gallery. Talking of their wild nights in the market, Karolski says, “I was the guy on top of the roof controlling a flaming sign, sending large bursts of propane into it as cars drove by. It grew to be quite a spectacle, and eventually I started to perform from up there.”

Nearing the new millennium, a group of Wayne State art students and some of their friends, under the direction of visiting professor Irina Nakova, presented The Cathedral of Time, an exhibition mounted in the abandoned Michigan Central Station on Michigan Avenue. For one week, the old train station was home to art installations and performances.

Mary Fortuna: “The students spent weeks, probably months, securing permits, arranging for heavy equipment, clearing debris and working on their individual contributions to the whole project. There were a number of installations, multimedia presentations, performances, music, film — a real beehive of activity. They did a lot of promotion, got a good bit of attention in the media, and drew a big crowd for the whole event. Some of the projects were, predictably, more successful than others. Artist Graham McLeod, dressed as an Oscar Mayer Wiener, set up outside grilling hot dogs and serving them to visitors.”

Around that time, Birmingham’s gallery row began to dismantle, with GR N’Namdi Gallery moving back downtown and others edging in toward the city proper. Excited about the energy by the river, artists and enthusiasts were taking matters into their own hands. As an artist, if you wanted to show somewhere, you went to the underground places before driving to the suburbs.

In 1998, Aaron Timlin opened Detroit Contemporary at an overgrown corner on Rosa Parks Boulevard. During his tenure as director, he pulled off funk nights just as successfully as he did a weekend art auction to raise money for a nonprofit. One artist describes it best: “At a vanguard space, anything flies because everyone knows you have to pay the bills.” Two years later, Timlin wore out a couple of pairs of shoes when he walked 700 miles to New York in a cardboard box to raise money for neighborhood educational programming at the gallery.

Closing out the decade, artist Chris Turner and filmmaker Ben Hernandez salvaged the pimped-out art bike ridden by James “Slim” Thompson. Slim had a personality bigger than his seven-foot stature. He used to dress up like a cross between Robin Hood and the Jolly Green Giant and ride his junk-art bike — covered in photo portraits of kinky ladies, American flags and whatever other found objects that intrigued him — pulling fried chicken from his toilet-cum-bike-seat, offering it to passers-by in the Cass Corridor. When he died that year, Turner and Hernandez found the bike in a Dumpster.

Several years later, “Slim’s Bike,” accompanied by Hernandez’s documentary about Thompson, was one of the few works contributed to Shrinking Cities, an international traveling exhibition and symposium about postindustrial cities across the world. Three Detroit curators, Tangent Gallery director Mitch Cope; Kyong Park, a native Detroit artist living in New York; and Dan Pitera, director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, selected art and architecture projects to be featured.

One scandal that got national attention in 2000 was Van Gogh’s Ear, which was supposed to be the first installment of a 12-week show at the DIA, curated by Jef Bourgeau. (He had recently received attention for opening the Museum of New Art, initially a faux contemporary art museum). At the DIA, the artist presented controversial art, as par for the course in the ’90s, referencing the Sensation show in Brooklyn, as well as his own works. Newly appointed director Graham Beal thought community members might find the show offensive, particularly Bourgeau’s “Nigger Toe,” a Brazilian nut under a magnifying glass, and “Bathtub Jesus,” an antique bathtub with a doll inside that had a bank teller’s protective finger device in place of a penis. The museum closed the gallery doors before the exhibit even went public. In an interview with Ken Paulson for Speaking Freely on PBS, Bourgeau said: “There are two sides to racism and we have to study both sides, not just the victim but the victimizer, and see where that begins. It’s a real dialogue. And that’s what art does best.”

Public art projects big and small, quiet and loud, also abounded in the new millennium. Yoko Ono planted her living, breathing sculpture, a ginkgo “Giving Tree” in Times Square (followed a few years later by her freight car on the front lawn at the DIA), and artists Chris Turner and Matthew Blake erected the “Millennium Bell” in Grand Circus Park, a 26-foot-tall, 20,000-pound metal sculpture commissioned by the city.

Local university galleries continued to prove they were just as powerful as commercial galleries. Artist Don Thibodeaux was moved by Blue: The Life and Work of Bradley Jones at Center Galleries in 2001:

“They’re not only his paintings, they had his high school yearbooks, they traced his personal history. He was a really tragic figure; you could point him out as the only Cass Corridor artist who was the leader of that painting school, a really full-on, mind-blowing show.

“You could see his transformation in and out of his dark period. I remember being there with artist Jim Kennedy, who was telling me stories, and I could see the street stories in his paintings. The show brought younger and older people together; that’s why it hangs in my mind. It was education about the history of the city’s art.”

The same year, for Artists Take on Detroit, the Detroit Institute of Arts asked 15 artists to create installations in recognition of the city’s big birthday; the works were featured in the institution’s halls and galleries as part of the Detroit’s tricentennial celebration. Artists used video and still photography, text, sound and sculpture to fill their spaces. Writer and educator Christina Hill remembers Michael Hall’s installation, “A Persistence of Memory.” Hill says, “Hall had chosen paintings kept in the purgatory of the museum’s basement, to hang with their surfaces against the wall, as a protest about so many wonderful paintings languishing unseen.” Tyree Guyton crafted “Open House,” an enormous home on Prentis Court, erected with wood and covered with campaign posters, newspaper clippings and brightly colored found objects. And artists Clint Snider and Scott Hocking collaborated on “Relics,” their wall of boxes filled with found objects. About the show, MT Loose Lips columnist Casey Coston wrote:

“This may be one of the few times where, at the DIA, you’ll see the names Captain Jolly, George ‘the Animal’ Steele, Milky the Clown, Johnny Ginger, Morgus the Magnificent and Bill Kennedy featured jointly on museum artwork. With the MC5 being featured in the artwork in the Great Hall, while simultaneously being covered live by the White Stripes in the adjacent Rivera Court, it was plainly clear that this was no longer your grandfather’s DIA.”

The new millennium also marked a definitive direction for Cranbrook Art Museum, when influential collector Rose Shuey gave the institution her collection of modern and contemporary painting and sculpture.

“She and her husband quietly collected these works in New York during the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” says museum director Greg Wittkop. “Then they were crated and shipped to their home in Detroit — where they sat in their unopened crates until Mrs. Shuey donated the work to Cranbrook. The gift completely transformed the museum.”

Thibodeaux opened Detroit Art Space, a place for events and exhibits representing a collective of anything visual and musical, depending on which scene was cross-pollinating on that particular night. Here’s what Thibodeaux says about space’s beginnings:

“I had curated my father’s retrospective at Johanson Charles Gallery, and doing that was overwhelming but really rewarding. I saw how well that opening night went over, with a band playing all night and the food. My dad made this barbecue pit shaped like a rocket ship. It was about eight or nine feet tall. People were eating shish kebobs till 4 a.m. Detroit Art Space came out of that — trying to make these events happen that you can remember.”

Thibodeaux remembers a couple of shows at DAS that really pushed limits:

“CCS students did a show one time where they had a scientific carnival exhibit with art and music. It was like a Fellini film. Then there were these guys from Grand Rapids, the LSDudes, who make music based on old Atari themes. They did a show where they put up hundreds of small drawings and paintings stacked five or six high across the whole circumference of the gallery. They were done by artists from all over the world. On their Web site, you could do your own drawing and submit it to the site and it became part of the exhibition.”

In 2003, Turtl came to town. Here’s the account of what happened, according to former DAM director Timlin:

“Turtl tagged the James Stoia sculpture outside DAM and there was an ensuing media debate. In order to recoup for the damages, I needed a conviction against the vandal, so I offered a reward for information leading to arrest and conviction. After the conviction, I could send the perpetrator a bill for repair.

“DAM received matching funds from businesses and residents, as well as the University Cultural Center Association and New Center to raise the reward. The Wayne County prosecutor used our reward to begin the investigation and make a public announcement. Museum of New Art director Jef Bourgeau offered a counter-reward of $1,000 to throw a vegan pie in my face. I sold raffle tickets for the opportunity to throw the pie in my face and collect the reward from MONA. We raised close to $1,000 selling the tickets so the MONA bounty was a great gift. But MONA never paid the person who threw the pie in my face.”

Timlin says DAM also held a symposium on graffiti, but he claims many people misunderstood his intentions for creating the bounty in the first place, even the police. “Things faded away as they usually do,” he says. “The Wayne County prosecutor got a job as CEO of the Detroit Medical Center.”

Last year, Niagara curated the Fun House Art Show at CPOP Gallery, featuring art by Iggy & The Stooges, The Melvins, Dee Dee and Joey Ramone (posthumously), Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and Kembra Pfahler from The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.

Niagara says: “Iggy had heard about the quasi-glamorous cement-block dungeon beneath our house. It has that perfect ‘dead sound,’ as Iggy put it. We said sure. It was a perfect Detroit media frenzy. I even got Iggy the cover of Juxtapoz. I was upstairs on the phone constantly with the press, and all the while hearing the Stooges playing live coming up through the heating ducts. It was surreal. I was time-tripping with Stooge Radio.”

The Colonel, Niagara’s husband: “Iggy had done a lot of large canvases, and they were framed in thick, black lacquered frames. Niagara talked Iggy into naming them the same as his rambling descriptions. Amy Yokin bought one of the best ones, titled ‘Rock & Roll Bacchus: Self-Portrait — while drunk after show in bubble bath, Halloween 3 a.m., New Orleans, 2004.’”

This past year saw small student-run enterprises pop up all over town with lively shows, including the nonprofit 555 Gallery and 101Up Gallery in Zoots’ old home. 4731 Gallery on Grand River is still rocking. Then, of course, there are the amazing instances that just don’t go accounted for, like the battling drummers who bashed their hearts, heads and hands out at a Susanne Hilberry opening this summer.

At another recent reception in the city, one severely New Wave couple walked up to the gallery entrance, pulled some liquor and a box of Nestlé Quik from a plastic cooler, and nonchalantly made makeshift chocolate martinis. Inside the gallery, another visitor dressed as a bloody bunny spazzed out on the hardwood floor in a pile of Wonder Bread and spilled juice. One of these scenes was performance art, the other wasn’t. It felt great not being able to tell the difference.

It’s 2005, and to some degree, we’re still kicking.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to rmazzei@metrotimes.com.

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