DETROIT — When I was in high school, there was a small store by my school where all the windows were blacked-out. It was called the Groove Shop. I ventured in once, and I instantly recognized that it was cool place. It was dark, it smelled of incense and it had the type of paraphernalia one would expect from a place called the Groove Shop. A few years later, during my freshman year of college, I was hit by a deluge of black lights, lava lamps, LSD art and Op art. While the introduction to counterculture was fun, it eventually faded and failed to capture my imagination — at least the somewhat cliché tropes mentioned above did little to capture my imagination. That’s not to say work in this vein, including the art of 1960s underground cartoonist/musician/artist R. Crumb and Topher Crowder, who pays homage to Crumb in a novel way, doesn’t thrill me — although a lot of this 60s inspired stuff is just un-inspiring.
These cliché tropes are now on full display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit during Joshua White & Gary Panter’s Light Show, which closes this Sunday, April 29. While this show is fun, it doesn’t capture my imagination or engage my intellect. As a whole, it feels like a successful backdrop to another event, but the problem is that the “event” doesn’t exist. The show is missing substance. It’s worth mentioning that the Light Show has been shown elsewhere as an event and not a full-scale installation such as this.
The Light Show fails to fill MoCAD. Rather than filling this large space with their collaborative vision, the artists display only fragments of what feels like 1960s subculture. This show does not change the atmosphere of the museum, and actually leaves a lot of the museum dark and empty. One large area of the museum mimics the Groove Shop. It has various glass displays with miscellaneous 1960s paraphernalia. The walls are covered with miscellaneous pictures of what appears to be previous lights shows and in one corner there are various tools from those presentations — this area of the show translates as a humdrum vintage shop.
Another large area of the museum (the largest display area) promises an exciting experience because it requires museum goers to walk through a carnival-like gapping mouth. Yet, once inside you feel as if you just missed something, perhaps a concert. The area has an band setup and color cardboard pieces with cartoon characters drawn on them. These mounds are sad little islands lost in the shadows of the cavernous MoCAD. Where are the lights? Where is the music?
The exhibition, and this style of work generally, feels like it is merely there to distract. The artists create amorphous floods of color in an effort to entrance you. In addition to being accomplished graphic novelists and cartoonists, White’s and Panter’s professional backgrounds are in creating graphics, sets and designs for musical performances and television shows — Panter snagged a number of awards for his work on the 1980s cult classic Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. It is obvious they are comfortable creating cool zones. In fact, my favorite experience during the show was an interactive light wall where viewers are mesmerized by fleeting colors on a large rectangular screen. As an added treat, you can wander behind the scenes to see how the colors and forms are created using a rotating device with small, shaped mirrors.
You could argue that shows like this have to be “activated” to be fully appreciated, which means that an environment such as this can only best be enjoyed when people are engaging with them beyond the visual art, such as when a band plays music or an artist reads his or her poetry (all of which happened during the show’s tenure at MoCAD). But doesn’t this reinforce the idea of the show as a backdrop? This points out the issue that White and Panter’s exhibition probably does not deserve such a central and extensive focus at a major contemporary museum. Perhaps the lights and the pockets of darkness are meant to let your mind go and contemplate the moment — people on drugs must love this — but that’s not me. Walking through I felt like I was reading Voltaire’s Candide: While this light show provides colorful epithets that are fun and optimistic outlooks on life that offer momentary distraction. But I feel like I’ve seen too much and can no longer trust or value them as I may have done in high school or college. Perhaps I expect too much from artists and hold them up as a category of philosophers. And I should mention that the real experience wasn’t as slick and pristine as the press photos taken by the museum and published on media outlets without commentary might suggest.
I left the show scared about the museum’s direction. MoCAD’s highly praised director, Luis Croquer, left the museum in October. He organized shows that challenged museum goers, and he managed to introduce Detroiters to historical figures in the avant-garde, not to mention rising stars in the contemporary scene. His parting exhibitions highlight his talent. Barely There I and II focused on compelling pieces that ranged from the “World Question Center” (1969) by James Lee Byars to “Love Lettering” (2002) by the brother and sister art team Rivane and Sergio Neuenschwander. It was a joy to behold. He also closed out his tenure with an impressive show by Stéphani Nava, Considering a Plot (Dig for Victory). In her installation (which is intelligently labeled a work-in-progress), she explores the history of subsistence gardens using her intellectual talents and gift as an artist to create beautiful drawings, environments and structures. You leave the show wanting to know more.
MoCAD was once on a difficult path that earned it praise from the contemporary art world. This current show, and MoCAD’s current Post-Industrial Complex call for “MAKERS, INVENTORS, PROBLEM SOLVERS, FABRICATORS, MODIFIERS, CREATORS, BUILDERS, CONJURERS, PRODUCERS, SCIENTISTS, STORYTELLERS, MYTH-MAKERS, URBAN LEGENDS, TINKERERS, VISIONARIES & HOBBYISTS!” [ALL CAPS theirs] to showcase locally made objects, represent an easier path for the museum to take. This may make some people happy, but I’m not one of them.
MoCAD is located at 4454 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan. It is open Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 am to 5 pm, and on Thursdays and Fridays from 11 am to 8 pm. More information can be found at www.MoCADetroit.org.