TOLEDO, Ohio — Rocco DePietro and Gloria Pritschet characterize the massive group show they curated for Gallery Project, Wish List, as a contemporary statement of cultural desire. If your desire, like mine, is for a visual smorgasboard embodying the collective wishes and hopes of a range of rust belt artists, then Wish List should be on your (to-do) list. The show, which fills out the empty street level of the former Lamson’s department store in downtown Toledo — in tandem with a secondary location in Ann Arbor, Michigan — features more than 50 artists, and the collective impression is one of hope or aspiration as perhaps the only real renewable resource.
In a region so deeply impacted by the dying of industry, hope can sometimes feel a little hard to come by. Some of the presentations quite literally reflect archetypal wish-making, such as “If I Had a Million Dollars…” by Tim Gaewsky (Toledo), a bright and cartoony acrylic painting with four unscratched lotto tickets at the corners, making the piece worth potentially hundreds more than its purchase price ($1,500). Alex Mandrila’s (Ypsilanti) “Birthday Cake” video features a humorous and repetitive meditation on the ritual of birthday wishes, packing the top of a cake with dozens of candles and then attempting to light them all. “When You Wish,” an installation by experimental musicians Frank Pahl and Terri Sarris (Ann Arbor), interacts with a second assemblage piece, “…Upon a Star (Cassiopeia),” creating a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Disney’s well-known ballad.
But another kind of wishing is represented as well, for a more abstract set of hopes or desires. Alex Buzzalini’s (Hamtramck) installation “I Wish for the West, This is what a Cowboy Looks Like” is a playful rumination on his perennial theme of the stereotypical old American West, pushed through a Red Grooms–like filter. Desertscapes, horses, arrows, targets, and cowboy hats are rendered in plaster, paper, and PVC, using bright colors and a loose hand that enhances the sense of childhood fantasy and divorces the cowboy motif from the less whimsical reality of American colonialism and massacre (wishful thinking, indeed). The piece includes an “interactive photo sculpture” in the form of an anthropomorphic sawhorse, which visitors can mount to take their own cowboy pictures (with accessories). John Gutoskey’s “The Mandala Project” — a ceiling-high installation of mandalas made of found objects and game board pieces, complete with meditation pillows — could be construed as a form of prayerful wishing, a fundamental basis for mandala-making.
One of the most eye-catching pieces comes from artist Andrew Thompson (Detroit), who converted one of the former department store’s street-facing windows into a cave-like 3D environment built from eight years of accumulated junk mail. The scene is visible only from the street, like a regular department store window, but gives the sense of an enclosed and oppressive reality, even from the outside. The collective power of student loan reminders, credit card offers, and business reply mail to encroach on the life of the artist, day after day, are brought into the show’s theme with his wish for more than the occasional piece of personal correspondence — something he candidly admits he’s done nothing to deserve, as he rarely sends any himself. “I want more than I give, I spend more than I have,” Thompson says. “All the
creditors say ‘hi.’”
Artist Heather Accurso (Ann Arbor) contributed a mixed-media drawing titled “Immigrant,” one of her trademark surrealist landscapes starring a spooky, science-fictionesque child steering a raft through a green-washed world. Accurso’s drawings are fascinating psychological studies, with a strange mash-up of signs and signifiers (child, canopic jar, volcano, white flag, keyboard) held together without direct logic through incredibly strong compositions and a sense of motion within the frame, very much like dreams on paper. Children are often the subjects or objects of hopes and wishes, and are featured throughout the show in numerous other ways, including classic Detroit painter Mario Moore’s images of mothers and grandmothers proudly displaying pictures of their kids and grandkids.
Industrial salvage plays a role as well — par for the course in this region, because it’s material readily found at hand, but metaphorically, salvage can also play a key role in the practice of hope. Indeed, much of the work of rust belt artists who deal in found objects and materials, particularly industrial ones, might be seen as an attempt to bring renewed usefulness and hope to a place that has been collectively discarded by the rest of the country. Cleveland artist Dana DePew has two extremely powerful pieces in the show: “Makeshift Sanctuary (Rustbelt Crystal Palace),” which draws together reclaimed storm windows, stained glass, and found objects from vacant and foreclosed homes into an enchanting jewel box of a shed, and “Give Until It Hurts,” a reclaimed sign from a bankrupt Cleveland business that proclaims the title on one side, and on the other reverses its message, exhorting the viewer to “Hurt Until It Gives.” DePew’s works radiate a palpable sense of injured nostalgia, and even as he’s given these salvaged pieces new life in a gallery setting, they stand as reminders of the fallen wishes of others.
There are truly too many outstanding moments in Wish List to name. It stands as a thematically strong and immersive show, repurposing abandoned space on a massive scale and filling it with surprising and touching work. To see a former and failed monument to consumerism reclaimed and filled to the brim with the hopes of artists is a real wish come true for this writer.
Gallery Project‘s Wish List continues at One Lake Erie Center (600 Jefferson Ave, Toledo, Ohio) through August 31 and opens at the Ann Arbor Art Center (117 W Liberty Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan) on September 11.