Tyree Guyton, Caged Brain, 1990. Mixed media, 16 x 14 x 10.5 in. Photo: Courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts

“Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality”

Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

Cranbrook Art Museum

 “Landlord Colors” examined the relationship of art to materiality in times of crisis by displaying a wide cross-section of works from five different art scenes: Detroit during the social and economic turmoil from 1967 to the present; Arte Povera in Italy during the politically unsettled period beginning in the late 1960s; the Dansaekhwa movement, which emerged in South Korea during the authoritarian military rule of the 1980s; Cuba during the extended economic crisis from the breakdown of the Soviet Union to the present day; and Greece from the Great Recession of 2008 onward. More than 60 artists were each represented by a single, carefully considered piece, which resulted in a rhizomatic exhibition design that encouraged viewers to trace connections based on chronology, geography, materiality, and any number of other factors. The overall tone of the show was one of quiet confidence; almost all of the featured works came across as important, but they rarely seemed to be battling for attention. This latter quality gave the exhibition a coherence that belied its multi-headed conceptual framework.

Curator Laura Mott, in her introductory essay to the catalogue, suggests that constellations of artworks may be created based on a common material, and she gives the example of five works (one from each of the featured art scenes) that prominently feature rocks. Her approach draws on German art historian Petra Lange-Berndt’s concept of “material complicity,” which proposes materials as agents that act to “enmesh their audience in a web of connections.” So, if we consider Ha Chong-Hyun’s brooding untitled 72-(A)-1 (1972), which uses barbed wire flattened onto a monochrome black plane to summon up a primal sense of physical repression, we might see connections to Detroit artist Tyree Guyton’s iconic Caged Brain (1990) in which coiled rope forced into a wire birdcage draws connections between physical and mental constraints. We might also include the half a million recycled (wire) fish hooks that Yoan Capote used to create Island (see-escape) (2010), his breathtaking ode to the ocean’s capacity to both ensnare and liberate his fellow Cubans, or even Greek artist Zoë Paul’s use of discarded refrigerator grills (scrapped from former industrial sites) to act as armatures for her weavings and implicitly critique the impact of refrigeration (and technology in general) on traditional Greek society. Though these four works come from different times and contexts, they come together through the common thread of the (mostly) unhappy histories represented by their prominent wire artifacts.

In Detroit, the rapid collapse in population—from nearly two million in 1950 to fewer than 700,000 today—has resulted in a surplus of discarded materials for artists to draw from. For some, that easy access to materials is one of the defining features of Detroit art during the period. Whether specific materials are freely available is largely down to economic factors. Scott Hocking’s large-scale installations often draw attention to situations in which it is cheaper to dump something than to dispose of it legitimately. For “Landlord Colors” (the subtitle of which, it should be noted, is “On Art, Economy, and Materiality”), Hocking collected more than 30 boats that had been abandoned around the city—he had already been documenting this phenomenon for over a decade—and suspended them from the ceiling of an empty industrial space near the Detroit River. The title of the work, Bone Black, refers to a pigment historically created from bison bones (recovered by farmers on the Great Plains and shipped to Detroit for processing), which has been manufactured continuously in the city for over a century. Hocking painted the undersides of many of the boats with this pigment, creating a ghost armada that poetically juxtaposed the bison bones littering the Great Plains after the frontier era to the fiberglass boats stranded around Detroit after the massive economic and demographic shifts of the last half-century.

“Landlord Colors,” which had a slippery relationship with art history, drew from historical movements, such as Arte Povera and Dansaekhwa, but then encouraged viewers to overlay those works with a framework of materiality and the historical conditions of crisis. In Detroit, the only art scene that can be considered part of the art historical record is the Cass Corridor Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and “Landlord Colors” included several canonical artists from that group. Crucially, it also included black artists from that era, which the two exhibitions that did much to establish the identity of the Cass Corridor Movement—“Downtown Detroit: Twenty-One Artists” (Cranbrook Art Museum, 1979) and “Kick Out the Jams: Detroit’s Cass Corridor, 1963–1977” (Detroit Institute of the Arts, 1980)—almost entirely failed to do. To offer further context, the “Landlord Colors” catalogue reprints a review of “Downtown Detroit: Twenty-One Artists,” written for the Detroit Free Press by a prominent local art critic. The review arbitrates on what constitutes Detroit art and identifies leading members of the Cass Corridor Movement as the “core group” of Detroit artists. It then describes a largely fantasized picture of the social conditions that these artists inhabited following the 1967 rebellion (the article refers to them as “survivors”) and proposes a relationship between these social conditions and the basic characteristics of these artists’ work. In retrospect, it is evident that many of the writer’s conclusions were limited by the racially restricted social network to which she and the Cass Corridor artists belonged and influenced by the racially tinged narratives of blame circulating in the city post-1967. “Landlord Colors” sought to re-problematize these conclusions and hence indirectly revisit the art history of Detroit.

Entering the exhibition, viewers encountered Diamond Follow (1975), by the consummate Cass Corridor artist Gordon Newton, installed close to Urban Extract I (1979), by the massively influential black Detroit artist Charles McGee. Diamond Follow is an enigmatic sculpture featuring a large, diamond-shaped wood sheet visibly distressed by the use of industrial power tools. Urban Extract I consists of a section of the barbershop that McGee frequented in the African American neighborhood of Black Bottom; he salvaged this fragment after the district was destroyed by urban renewal. The two pieces fit well within the conceptual framework of materiality and crisis and offered an interesting comparison—both exhibit symbolic and physical violence, but in Newton’s piece it is the artist who perpetrates the violence, whereas McGee’s work reflects a systematic act of structural violence. Together, they formed a salient reminder that everyone experiences a crisis differently, and hence there is a danger in drawing broad cause-and-effect relationships between crisis and artistic production. To its credit, “Landlord Colors” was too intelligent to attempt this, proposing only that crisis is a fundamental condition of our times, and that as Bertolt Brecht said, “We gain our knowledge of life in catastrophic form.”