DETROIT — After many decades at virtual standstill, Detroit has been quickly met with change, bringing with it new opportunities as well as growing pains. However, one of the fringe benefits of spending so much time under-the-radar is that Detroit’s physical and cultural history remains visible, accessible, and present (for now). Young people especially have been drawn to the wide-open sense of possibility in the city, but there is also the old guard — a cohort that has seen the city transform over a much longer timeline, and from which there is much to be learned.
Artist Kurt Novak is about as old school as it gets, and he’s captured a prodigious cross section of Detroit’s diverse talent pool in a series of portraits rendered through a live-scanning process that stretches the limits of what a single frame can capture. The show, Detroit Portraits, is installed across three floors surrounding the lobby atrium of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) building — an appropriate setting for this collection of talented contributors to the legacy of art, literature, and music in the city.
“The impetus behind the work is a reaction to my personal dislike of traditional photographs,” says Novak, “I always look fat or ugly in them and have always felt like very few of them have ever successfully captured my personality. So my working method and goals are an attempt to rectify or work around the limitations of camera-based photographic images.”
Working with a flatbed scanner, Novak captures his subjects through the time-lapse scanning process — a crucial lengthening of the moment between shutter open-and-close that allows for some fantastic interventions. “I often like to note that I like ‘democratic’ working methods,” says Novak. “By this I mean that I like to utilize processes and tools to create works of [art] that are common and that conceivably anyone can utilize. Anyone can stick their head into a copier or a scanner, in fact many people have. Hopefully I add a little extra into the equation when I do it, that’s all.”
The portraits incorporate high drama and no small degree of playfulness. On the DSO’s main floor is a portrait featuring celebrated jazz pianist Henry “Hank” Jones, who worked with a variety of artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, and Louis Armstrong, and accompanied Marilyn Monroe’s famous birthday serenade to President John F. Kennedy in 1962. In his portrait, Jones’s fleet fingerwork is illustrated by the inclusion of a third hand — his left hand scans in twice as he plays across the picture plane. On the third floor, renowned Detroit curator and collector James Duffy sprouts two heads — one wearing his iconic glasses, one without — a seeming nod to his keen editorial eye. While MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer rotated his face from right to left with each pass of the scanner, creating an inchoate head atop a steady hand holding the neck of his guitar.
“This project was great for me because I dealt with creative types creating many different kinds of products,” says Novak, “I then used my appreciation of their working methods and aesthetic aims as grist for executing my artwork.” In his portrait, screenwriter and novelist Elmore Leonard is being pushed into the scanner bed and menaced at knifepoint by an attacker in a ski mask — a role performed by Novak himself — alluding to Leonard’s focus on gritty crime fiction, suspense thrillers, and Western fiction.
Novak’s portrait series captures a hit parade of influential Detroiters — including saxophonist James Carter, activist Nancy Bonoir, poet Aurora Harris, arts writer and professor Dennis Nawrocki, painter Robert Wilbert, and sculptor Charles McGee — and presents a remarkable time capsule of creative life in the city at a time when it’s more valuable than ever to know where we came from.
Kurt Novak: Detroit Portraits continues at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (3711 Woodward Ave, Detroit) through June 5.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the exhibition was held at the Detroit Symphony Opera instead of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This has been fixed.