DETROIT — Detroit faces the best/worst of times. It teems with inventive artists and entrepreneurs whose work and presence generate solid philanthropy and investment. At the same time, increasingly severe budget cuts are hitting schools, police, firefighters and transportation systems hard; poverty and crime remain high. Understanding the city’s open land mass (roughly 143 square miles with a population of just over 700,000 — compare this to Manhattan with about 34 square miles and over 1,600,000 residents) helps to make sense of things. While extensive vacant lots and fields — outside of the densely populated mid and downtown — are problematic for establishing dependable infrastructure (grocery stores, bus lines and safety patrols), increasingly these sites provide locations for art, farming and neighborhood initiatives.
The works of sculptor Graem Whyte occupy the space between such inconsistencies. In 2009, Whyte and his wife, painter/dancer Faina Lerman, established Popps Packing, a community based, experimental art laboratory in their Hamtramck neighborhood on the edge of Detroit. Through this venue, they also produce land-based works that combine things surreal, conceptual and utilitarian. Among them: “Memory Field,” a radial grass formation in Detriot’s Calimera Park commemorating community members who have passed. Currently in production, “The Squash House,” a fire-damaged home the artists gutted and are rehabilitating into a multi-purpose space for racquet sports, gardening (yes, squash as a crop) and art shows/performances. Their project favorably recalls for me a Ghandi quote I’d previously found irritating (probably because it appeared on too many bumper stickers and Facebook posts), “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Here it fits beautifully. Whyte and Lerman have a relationship with art and community that is intimate and transformative.
Whyte’s exhibition Remain Calm, in suburban Detroit, steps up his investigations of personal memory and public history. The works, at once astral and deeply grounded, read as a collaboration between the even-tempered, serious play of the late children’s TV show host Mr. Rogers, the risky, detailed voyages of novelist Jules Verne and pared down spinoffs of musician George Clinton’s Mothership. The word calm, for Whyte, may be defined as placid, but it’s the kind that brews before a really good idea or brainstorm.
The four large, playful, visually arresting sculptures (all 2012, all big enough to climb inside or on top of) revise the biblical story of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by portraying each rider as exuding not doom but a tough, contrary optimism.
In “From One to Infinity,” Whyte turns the tale’s white horse, conquest, into enlightenment (or, as the artist elaborates, “conquest of self, not others”). It is a complex structure based on the Sedan, the ancient Egyptian chair used to convey royalty on the shoulders of slaves. It has a 9-sided footprint with 18 facets. Inside, mirrored walls insure that the one being transported cannot get away from a distorted reflection. The cube is tipped at a 42-degree angle (42 for both Detroit’s latitude and the artist’s age).
In “Make Love Not War,” the red horse, traditionally war, is transposed into a bizarre ping pong table in the shape of two 8-sided truncated cones joined at their tapered apexes. Visitors can pick up a paddle and volley, but not for more than a round or two before the ball falls to the ground. The interruption of the game, along with the chasing after and picking up of the ball before resuming, is part of the sculpture. The two transportable modules that make up the “table” can be taken apart and reconfigured to face each other, or they can be separated and set on the floor as silos.
In “The Mobile Ascetic,” the black horse, famine, becomes purification. The structure could be a tree house or deer blind. Visitors climb up steps and sit next to small sculptures (actual casts of ant colonies) and books ( among them, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” in which the number 42 figures prominently) to read or hold while meditating or unburdening.
In “Every Death a Nap,” the pale horse, death, becomes sleep. A pillowy, translucent and cream-colored tent-like structure hangs from the ceiling. Part cradle, part bed, it holds two adults snugly (this piece perhaps gets the most use from viewers; by the end of the show it was lopsided) and appears to be ready for takeoff.
With Remain Calm, Whyte sets up a comforting yet complex environment to range, wonder, look, physically engage, think. Perhaps such thoughtful dreaming is required to somehow weave extreme things together. In any case, his project makes a fine case for Marcel Duchamp’s sentiment, “I don’t believe in art, I believe in artists.”
Remain Calm: Graem Whyte was presented at the Oakland University Art Gallery (208 Wilson Hall, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan) September 8–October 7.