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DETROIT — “Cardboard and clay have run parallel for quite some time,” says artist Shannon Goff of her favorite materials. “Somehow I always await their collision.” These two media are separated into different showrooms in her solo show, Miles to Empty, at Susanne Hilberry Gallery in Ferndale, but they both are subject to Goff’s tendency to test the structural and conceptual limits of her chosen materials, a process she says she’s always enjoyed.
Isolated in the main room, the titular piece, in immaculate white cardboard, is a scale rendering of a Lincoln Continental, which serves as an homage to the artist’s grandfather, as well as an allusion to the decline of the auto industry that once sustained the Detroit Metro region. For most people, a car is a whole object; you don’t think about how many individual components went into it. But here in the Motor City, there exist a vast number of people who have built cars with their own two hands, or are close to someone who has, which leads to a different relationship with automobiles, well beyond status symbols or tools for transportation. Goff describes her creation as “a ghost-rider of sorts, forgotten, forlorn, a fading memory, white with loss.” There is a sense of quietness and reverence that permeates the gallery where it is displayed — perhaps a reflection of the lingering sensitivity many longtime Detroiters feel around the city’s precipitous decline, or perhaps the gallery’s more personal sense of recent loss around its founder Susanne Hilberry, or perhaps just a deep appreciation of the astonishing amount of work that went into building this creation by hand.
An emphasis on the role of hand-building ties “Miles to Empty” to the ceramic and unfired clay pieces in the adjoining galleries, although Goff makes an excellent case for the secret interconnections between her two primary materials. The ceramic works are made of “paper clay” containing cellulose fiber, which, she explains to me, is tubular in structure when viewed under an electron microscope. “This addition makes the clay more forgiving, in a way,” she says. “It can dry more easily, yet also be rehydrated. It can be fired and then added on to and fired again. It allows one to build thick but remain light in weight. It gives the clay some bones, if you will. It provides strength.” This micro focus on structure is critical, because Goff’s ceramic and clay works strive to build what she calls “sculpted drawings” into three-dimensional space. Each of these has a free-associative feeling of a child’s drawing, enhanced by the palette, which mostly renders any given piece in a wash of a single matte pastel shade, collectively reminiscent of a pack of standard-issue street chalks.
“The entangled line work of these sculpted drawings often begin innocently, like a doodle, a jungle gym, a rollercoaster, marquee lights, or rubber band bundles,” says Goff. Though the pieces initially seem abstract, the forms take on increasingly figurative shapes, especially in light of their titles. Again like a child’s drawing, what initially seems to be an impulsive chaos turns out to be a consciously rendered subject once you’re told what to look for. If you hear the name “Charlotte,” the dimensional bull’s eye form becomes obviously a spider web; “Treasure Island” is clearly a jungle island with rising mountains, complete with an X marking the spot. Some, like “Boy Blue” or “Hot Mess,” retain their mystery even once titled, and others, like “Brace Face” are blatantly figurative, name unknown.
The architecture of abstracted shapes gets to be increasingly complex as Goff’s sculptures rise from trivet-like forms just a few inches off the table to the towering creation, “Doyenne,” which stands 82 inches high. This unfired clay piece was built within the gallery space — the only way to manage such a large and delicate contiguous construction. The name, which refers to an older, well-respected female, is a nod to Susanne Hilberry, who for years has been a critical facilitator of the arts in the Detroit Metro area, and whose gallery has been one of the first meeting points between the wealthy communities in the suburbs and the creative forces brewing within city limits. She passed away after a long illness just a few days before Goff’s opening, so in a sense, as the Detroit art scene lost a doyenne, Goff built a new one in her image. The piece stands in the small gallery bridging two rooms, presiding quietly over memory and loss, with the cardboard vestiges of Old Detroit to her left and, to her right, a nursery full of playful clay attempts to build something new, bright, and full of possibility.
Miles to Empty continues at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery through November 14.