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Johnny Coleman, “Poem for Brother Yusef” (2015/16), mixed media, audio (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

DETROIT — Perhaps I should preface my discussion of Homage: Regular Folk with a brief declaration of my own sentiments regarding the energetic qualities of inanimate objects. This perspective is not so much in alignment with object-oriented ontology, which suggests that objects have existences and uses beyond their relationships to humans, but rather a hyper-human orientation that regards much-used, well-loved, and dearly-valued objects as repositories for the energies of their human caretakers. Second-hand objects — a bit of a misnomer in itself, as it implies that “new” objects are not handled by anyone prior to their purchase, which is patently untrue — betray their use through patterns of wear, reshaping, scent, material change (such as softening), and, I would argue, an ephemeral energetic signature. I am a native Californian; we have license to believe such things.

Johnny Coleman, “Lifted (For Shoulders)” (2015), mixed media (click to enlarge)

Allow me to return, now, to the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, where the main gallery features Homage: Regular Folk, a solo exhibition by Johnny Coleman, also a native Californian. His works include wall-hanging, free-standing, and installation pieces, all comprised of found materials that very much bring a sense of their own history to bear on his austere and moving compositions. Many pieces in the series are dedicated to poets and musicians — including Maya Angelou, Wendell Logan, Andre Burbridge, Toni Morrison, Brother Yusef, Kamau Daaood, and even one dedicated more generally “For the Poets” — and the most frequently recurring found materials are salvaged wood and musical instruments. These constructions are basically sculptural in nature, and feel quasi-figurative in the sense that salvaged tool-handles and low benches can mimic human forms, but also in the sense that they radiate personality.

Johnny Coleman, “First Poet (For Maya Angelous)” (2015), mixed media (click to enlarge)

In “First Poet (For Maya Angelou)” (2015), a maple birdhouse stands at roughly head height atop a carved oak post set into a polished, hand-built stool. The roof of the birdhouse is lifted from the walls by an ebony piccolo. One gets the impression of a diminutive woman with shoulders squared, delivering an oratory from her woodwind pipe. “Lifted (For Shoulders)” (2015) features the trumpet of Wendell Logan (who founded the jazz department at Oberlin College, where Coleman teaches), “peeking from a leather bag slung over the shoulder of [a] hand-built oak sear, oversized neck rest rising from open bird house, linen, coiled piano strings, Dr. Logan’s trumpet mouthpieces, carved bone beads, beeswax.” Even the catalogue descriptions of Coleman’s materials are full of actions — instruments “peek,” necks “rise” — and body parts — shoulders, mouthpieces, seats. Just as a person’s record collection, wardrobe, or other objects might act as indicators of their personality, Coleman’s object collections manifest a sense of presence, resonating in the air around these wooden constructions the way a note lingers in the body of a violin.

The central, and most elaborate, installation, “Poem for Brother Yusef” (2015/16), features a tabletop composition supported by a base made of wood-framed chalkboard segments, which stands before an illuminated fabric scrim amid a carpet of oak leaves. The scene is peaceful and full of autumn melancholy; gourds loll in the thick scattering of leaves, two little stools display bunches of still-green oregano and basil stuffed in bottle gourds. A ceremonial spread sits atop a table full of dry brown rice that serves to anchor dishes containing a medley of spices, a bamboo flute, and a recovered radio set, among other items. A soundscape accompanies the installation and includes an improvisation on “12 Bar Blues” interspersed with recordings of Yusef Lateef’s breath and afternoon traffic outside the Detroit Public Library. “The relationship between ‘Poem For Brother Yusef’ and the blues piece emerging from within the installation,” Coleman says via email, “speaks to the manner in which Yusef Lateef in particular, and jazz and the blues in general, serve as vehicles for the transformation of struggle and pain into something more than tenacity.”

Installation view of Saffell Gardner’s ‘Cosmic Spirits’ (click to enlarge)

This reference to jazz as a creative touchstone for visual art mirrors a common practice among many Detroit artists, including Saffell Gardner, whose show of new, large-scale paintings executed on moving blankets opened in the N’Namdi’s black-box gallery in tandem with Coleman’s exhibition, and offers a lively 2D counterpoint to the sculptural objects in the main gallery. Gardner’s work approaches figuration, with at least the suggestion of forms amid the chaos of shapes — is that a ribcage? A ladder? — but ultimately remains abstract in nature. His typically bright and chromatically inclusive palette feels more limited by the underlying density of his choice of material. “The quilting texture added the depth that I felt was necessary for the spiritual aspect I wanted to convey in this series of paintings,” Gardner explains via email. If Coleman’s work gives found objects a figurative presence in the main gallery, Gardner’s paintings perhaps capture the imagery of their dreams and collective memory. The fortuitous pairing of exhibitions at the N’Namdi shows that, just as we project onto our objects, so objects are capable of projecting back toward us.

Johnny Coleman’s Homage: Regular Folk and Saffell Gardner’s Cosmic Spirits continue at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art (2 East Forest Avenue, Detroit, Michigan) through April 1.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

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