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The Detroit Institute of Art celebrates its 125th birthday this season with projects and exhibitions, including DIA: Inside/Out, outdoor installations of reproductions from their permanent collection. But will metro Detroiters be taken aback by the 40 clones placed — quite conspicuously in some instances — in parks and downtowns?
Larry Baranski hopes so.
He's the DIA's director of public projects, and this show is his baby. "These images are fresh, startling, amazing and beautiful," Baranski says. Even so, it's not just about aesthetic, but also about access. "The interesting thing about access is that most people don't take advantage of it. We have access to everything now, but it's not really increasing or developing people's interests."
Baranski, a 36-year DIA veteran, says there was a concerted effort to pair works with sites where there could be opportunity for dialogue between the two. A painting of a dog that has tracked a stag installed in the Orion Oaks Dog Park is an obvious example. "On one hand, it is a heroic portrait of a dog, but on the other a stag's been killed," says Baranksi, both proud and concerned about potential public perception of the scene at hand.
Ben Morris, a pastor at Good Samaritan Lutheran Church in Pontiac, walks his dogs at Orion Oaks Park. "Overnight, there was this painting of a dog over an elk kill, which was cool," he said. The tombstone — signage that identifies the artist information and how the DIA acquired the piece — was not installed right away. "I knew it was a Landseer," said Morris. "Not because I know art, but they named a dog breed after him." When the tombstone was installed, Morris was delighted to see he was right. The painting is "Chevy" by Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873).
Traditionally, exhibitions at the DIA are planned two to five years in advance. In a flurry of activity and creativity, however, Baranksi and his eager team put this exhibition together in less than eight months. He and Michelle Hauske, location manager for the Department of Public Projects, framed all the reproductions themselves.
"Our budgets have been tightened and stabilized; they're not going down and they're not going up," said Baranski. "We're trying to do things more efficiently. Originally, we built prototype [frames] using exterior PVC architectural molding. They looked great. Then we found out that we could actually get ready-made frames for a quarter of the cost. So, ironically, the real thing was actually easier than trying to fake it. We put enough varnish on them to float a Chris-Craft, so we think they're going to last three months pretty well."
DIA: Inside/Out is modeled after a similar exhibition, The Grand Tour, produced by the National Gallery in London in 2007. "They reproduced their replicas and put them throughout Soho," Baranksi says. "Our collection is on par with the National Gallery, and so we were able to do that every bit as well as the National Gallery. The challenge for us, however, was people walk around Soho — whereas in southeastern Michigan ... they drive. What's interesting is seeing [the paintings] outside the context [of the museum]. We want you to encounter this art on foot or on bike, where the state of mind that you're in is so much more relaxed. Suddenly here's this 15th century painting — the luminosity and the colors delight even in the reproduction. There's that surprise, that sense of wonder."
Still, and Baranski will be the first to tell you this, there's no comparison to the face-to-face experience with the original art. "With the real deal, being able to look closely at the mark of a hand from 500 years ago, you realize this is work is from before people had modern supplies; colors were ground from minerals and oil. In our day-to-day life, there's a lot of disconnect. Art connects us to our humanity."
For several sites, we tagged along to watch the DIA staffers place the pieces.
A medieval French tapestry entitled "Eros Triumphant" was hung at Affirmations, the LGBT community center in Ferndale. Nary a pedestrian walked by as the art went up, but afterward, Affirmations' special events manager told me about the viewer who was so excited about the content because, she said, "it represents the triumph of love, which is what our mission is all about."
Across from the Royal Oak Music Theatre, Mike Kean and Don Stokes of the DIA hung a reproduction of "Luncheon with Figures in Masquerade Dress" by Jean Francois De Troy, which depicts two sets of figures conversing. A gentleman named Dave, caulk gun in hand, stopped by to make sure that the wall was not being irrevocably harmed. Once satisfied that wasn't the case, he said: "For me, it's kind of old-fashioned; people are more into modern stuff, I think. Who am I to say, though, I'm just a bricklayer. My art is doing walls." He pointed proudly to the brick wall behind. In spite of his initial hesitancy, and without prodding, he lent an interpretation of De Troy's work: "I guess what I think about when I look at it is, 'I wonder what they're talking about — probably talking about George down the street.'"
Elsewhere in Royal Oak, a very young girl and her father were walking toward us as the DIA team finished placing Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare," a piece the Louvre has requested to borrow, if not buy outright, from the DIA. The piece is positioned on the wall of Noir Leather. When the daddy-daughter duo arrived, I asked the girl what she thought of the painting. She grabbed her dad's leg, buried her face in his side, and made a one-armed gesture to be picked up. He obliged, putting her up on his shoulders. We all contemplated the painting together. Some were lost in thought, others commented aloud yet essentially to themselves, and some had questions for Hauske.
Eventually the dad put his daughter down, but as they walked off, little hand in big, we heard her say, "Daddy, that was cool."
Surely everyone involved in the project — the sign hangers, the vinyl printers, the gallery directors, the interns, and even painter Henry Fuseli in his Elysian Field, would have been delighted to hear her verdict.
DIA Inside/Out it set to show until the end of November, and the DIA is already considering next year's version.
This is Phreddy Wischusen's first piece for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.