DETROIT — If you happen to be prone to synesthesia, you may want to give Kari Cholnoky’s exhibition Semi Lucid Steaks, at David Klein Gallery, a wide berth. The artist’s multidimensional wall hangings and freestanding sculptures layer texture upon texture to create a critical mass of pustulant foam, fringes of hair, plastic toys, and shellacked insulation material — all coated in eye-popping and high-contrast shades. These texturescapes literally rise off the canvas like a pot bubbling over. Synesthetic or not, you may be left with the lingering desire to wash your hands, or an unshakable sense that you have food on your face.
Which is not to say the art lacks appeal. In a commercial art scene dominated by tasteful minimalism, Cholnoky’s creations are the gregarious partygoers that break into conversations, down your drink, and send echoing laughter around the gallery. You can’t help but be intrigued, if for no other reason than to try to understand what you’re seeing — and if you stick with the works for a moment, information emerges from the chaos. Step back, and the jumble of materials may resolve into a figurative form, like Magic Eye pictures suddenly revealing an underlying image. Step closer, the constituent materials reveal themselves: craft paper, macaroni, chicken-foot candy, and string. There is a deeply playful nature and sly sense of humor in Cholnoky’s creations; one imagines the artist working with great concentration to build golems in the midst of a kindergarten craft area. The result is work that communicates the kind of frank openness that goes hand-in-hand with the decision to let go of being pretty.
How liberating the breed of female artist that eschews cool self-possession for loud, hairy, flashy self-expression! Like Chicago artist Claire Ashley’s bright, jiggly inflatables, Cholnoky’s work in not attempting to suck in its stomach and stare you down — it invites you to pull up a chair, grab some glitter glue, and get your hands dirty. Life is long, and being a grown-up is pretty dull, as it turns out. I’ll take a playdate with Cholnoky’s Semi Lucid Steaks any day.
Speaking of trash-to-treasure, Cholnoky’s work pairs beautifully with Mitch Cope’s Garbage Totems: Zen and the Art of Garbage Hunting and the Protectors of the Refuse, in David Klein’s second gallery. The hanging work, created in collaboration with Cope’s partner in art, Gina Reichert, are 30”x46” black-and-white chromogenic prints from scanned negatives, each featuring one of the garbage piles that chronically blight the streets of Detroit. These piles typically indicate an eviction or fly-by-night exit — of trash left behind that gets pushed to the curb, or else accumulates as the result of collective dumping. City pick-ups of oversized trash items have failed to happen in Detroit for years at a time (these images are from 2014 — it’s worth noting that more regular trash pick-ups have been a high priority of Detroit’s current mayoral administration).
For each refuse pile, Cope imagined — or in his words, discovered — a guardian spirit, mystically revealed in the printing process. “The black and white photographs were taken with a highly sensitive and specialized machine tuned to capture what is otherwise invisible to the average garbage hunter,” states Cope’s written testimony, available in the gallery. Each piece, with titles like, “Eddy’s Pile” and “Tree-N-Company,” showcases a different guardian spirit, variously referencing Chinese, Native American, and other cultural origins that mirror the makeup of Cope’s Banglatown neighborhood. His works echo the playful tone set by Cholnoky in the first gallery, with the skillful layering of detritus into strong, formal compositions uniting these artists’ two very different bodies of work.
In the midst of Cope’s phenomenological studies stand two totems: sculptural pieces that stack items found within the home of a recently deceased neighbor and friend to the artist. Tatty and weathered shoeboxes create a colorful column supporting a small stack of books, a bright triangle of Plexiglass, and a ceramic skunk. Scarred and much-used kitchenware in archaic 1970s colors were painstakingly stacked and topped by a different ceramic critter. Cope dedicates these totems to the memory of his neighbor and neighbor’s mother, and documents the power of the objects’ excavation in a video that accompanies the installation.
Well, all is not fun and games, after all. Bright and engaging surfaces or kitschy animal friends do not replace conceptual or aesthetic considerations for either Cope or Cholnoky — and, in the end, their use of such aesthetics makes that point all the more obvious. Although these two artists explore common materials, including garbage, it is the strength of their artistic visions — on Cope’s part, to bring order and meaning to the chaos of objects left behind; on Cholnoky’s, to create chaos out of commonplace items — that animates their works. Some people do a lot with a little; Cope and Cholnoky both aptly demonstrate the great risks and rewards of doing a lot with a lot.
Kari Cholnoky: Semi Lucid Steaks and Mitch Cope:Garbage Totems: Zen and the Art of Garbage Hunting and the Protectors of the Refuse continue at David Klein Gallery (1520 Washington Blvd, Detroit, Mich.) through March 12.
Correction: This piece originally misstated that Mitch Cope lives in Hamtramck, not Detroit. We regret the error, and it has been fixed.