Making Art in Detroit

Art | Aug 2017 | BY Robin Scher

Detroit has a complex relationship with history. The city itself is a testament to that, from Diego Rivera’s intricate DIA mural depicting the earliest roots of industrial capitalism, to Detroit’s former dilapidated, rapidly renovating downtown area. To visit the city is to witness a place constantly in flux. On Wednesday July 25th, at Detroit’s Fox Theater, another example of this constant dance with history could be found in the showing of Kathryn Bigelow’s latest period crime drama based on the tumultuous events in 1967 that came to be known as the 12th Street Riot. And that wasn’t even the only event that week reinventing Detroit’s storied past.

The very next day, in fact, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) and the Library Street Collective opened their collaborative group exhibition, Unobstructed Views, at the W. Hawkins Ferry House in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan. Taking the form of an auction fundraiser for MOCAD, the exhibition was also a chance to rekindle the appreciation for art fostered by the home’s original philanthropic owner, William Hawkins Ferry.

Helming that effort are Library Street Collective co-founders, JJ and Anthony Curis. Back in 2015 the couple purchased the house—a masterpiece of modernism designed by William Kessler in 1962—and have since gone about restoring it to its former glory. To wit their joint effort with MOCAD director Elysia Borowy-Reeder, which saw the house one recent summer’s eve returned to former glory as it stood filled with revelers and the work of 34 contemporary artists the likes of Nina Chanel Abney, Derrick Adams, Brian Belott, Trudy Benson, and Katherine Bernhardt to name just a few.

“I grew up in Detroit and this house was known for its collection,” said Borowy-Reeder, seated in the Curises living room the day after the festivities. Following Hawkins Ferry’s passing, the collection (which comprised work by Alberto Giacometti, Robert Rauschenberg, Pablo Picasso and Franz Klein among others) was dispersed and with it the atmosphere the work inspired. “You can kind of tell the house is designed for art and conversation,” said Borowy-Reeder.

It was with this spirit in mind that Houston-based painter Paul Kremer approached his commission for the show. “When Anthony invited me to take part, he told me he had this space in the window,” said Kremer, who had travelled to Detroit for the event. Taking his cue from the abstract work by Adolph Gottlieb that had previously occupied the wallspace, Kremer painted two geometrical forms in hues of orange and blue titled Love U (2017). “It has a real positive vibe,” said Kremer, referring to the work. “That’s what this house feels like to me, it’s real bright and colorful.”

Incidentally, the Hawkins Ferry House is not the only prominent piece of architecture in the city to house a work by Kremer. In downtown Detroit, two of Kremer’s large scale canvases hang in the foyer of a building designed by Minoru Yamasaki, one of Kessler’s former classmates. Although, this is not pure coincidence. For the past several years through her work with LSC, JJ has been responsible for placing artwork in a number of Detroit’s downtown developments, a process Borowy-Reeder characterized, as an “energy being built between the architecture and the art [in Detroit].”

Thanks to these two critical facets of the city and the collaborative efforts embodied in Unobstructed Views, Detroit is beginning to regain its momentum following the 2013 bankruptcy crisis. The key to these efforts, said Borowy-Reeder, comes down to a simple question: “How do you balance the talent of the region and what makes it special, with making it new, fresh, exciting and different?”

Detroit-based artist Tiff Massey believes that the answer requires dialogue. “We definitely need a council for arts and culture,” said Massey, who grew up in Detroit and contributed I Got Bricks (2014), a panel of metallic silver ingots, to the group show. For Massey, this need relates to the decision making process that ultimately determines which voices get heard and what stories about the city subsequently emerge. “I don’t think the history is lost, it’s about who controls the narrative,” said Massey, who hopes that the current development in Detroit will come with a greater effort to cultivate and curate alternative spaces. “It’s all about access,” she said.

As for MOCAD and the auction, this process requires fostering an appreciation for art. “One of the things I want people to realize is that in order to live with art, you have to collect art, which means you have to buy art,” said Borowy-Reeder. Through efforts like Unobstructed Views that vision could become a reality and with voices like Massey on board, contribute to an evolving history that incorporates the many members of Detroit’s artistic community.

The Unobstructed Views auction is live now on Paddle8 and ends Thursday, August 10 at 5pm EST.

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