DETROIT — It is sometimes difficult to realize that a lot of what might be construed as who you are is actually a reflection of where you are. Perhaps contemporary gallery spaces embrace the “white cube” concept because it is a great equalizer, reducing wherever you are to the same nowhere space, a blank canvas against which everything becomes venerated, outstanding. But this is Detroit, and it is no blank canvas.
Ostensibly, it was a rejection of the white cube that influential Los Angeles gallery Moran Bondaroff was seeking, as it kicked off its yearlong residency in the Detroit space dubbed Cathedral — formerly Woods Cathedral, and built in 1925 as the Visitation Catholic Church. The gallery’s inaugural show, War Games, curated by Benjamin Godsill, featured a coterie of national and international names — Simon Denny, Yngve Holen, Haley Mellin, Yuri Pattison, Oliver Payne, Hannah Perry, Jon Rafman, Chadwick Rantanen, Sean Raspet, Yves Scherer, Hugh Scott-Douglas, and Sean Townley — and one Detroit-based artist, the internationally known ceramic artist Anders Ruhwald.
But rejection of the blank canvas is fraught with complications — logistically, aesthetically, and politically — and in viewing War Games, some of those issues became very prominent. Woods Cathedral is a breathtakingly lovely space in its own right, replete with remarkable 100-year-old frescoes, original woodwork, and architectural details in varying states of decay. The quality of light and space in the vaulted main gallery was designed to showcase God’s glory, and, with a few exceptions, the individual works struggled to stand up on such a stage.
The show’s theme, as Godsill conceptualizes it, was “technological misuse and abuse,” which seems disconnected from this former house of worship, in a city that still runs largely on analogue systems. The choice of subject that has nothing to do with Detroit was a conscious one, and an extremely smart move on the part of Godsill and Moran Bondaroff, who have clearly done their homework enough to know that they should assiduously avoid the common newcomers’ staging of a “Detroit” show that attempts to tell Detroit about itself. While the contrast between the works on display and the psychic space of the location did feel energetic, many of the works wandered in the space like lost tourists, looking as ill-dressed for the occasion as the Los Angelian party girl that turned up in an ass-cheek-revealing leopard miniskirt.
Many, but not all. Some of the works generated a successful rapport with the space, such as “Emma (Icon),” by Yves Scherer, a gold-leafed plaster cast of a female form, tucked away into a vestibule like a forgotten piece of statuary. The aged patina and missing aspects of the figure mirrored the surroundings; the figure lent itself to the kind of quiet reflection that the space was designed for.
Likewise, paintings by Haley Mellin found themselves in literally a tricky spot, mounted directly beneath an intensively decorated cupola with a mural of Jesus on his throne, flanked by two angels; when we consider the implications of joining the conversation of painting throughout art history, it is rare that a painter has to literally show work juxtaposed directly against it. Mellin makes art that “addresses the shifting contexts of painting in light of constant technological innovation, with work that stems from the idea that painting is a human technology on the same spectrum as computing.” A series of paintings rendered in oil muddled with graphite were crude in their execution, seemingly smeared in a low-chromatic version of finger painting where perhaps Mellin used her whole palm. Peeking sideways through Mellin’s installation, there were two of her “white noise” canvases, created by blowing up low-resolution Google images into abstracted static, slyly positioned so as to be perfectly framed by the interior windows of the cupola. In the mirroring cupola, a 2015 single-channel video work by Hannah Perry, “Mercury Retrograde (I Believed in it at the Time),” cycled through imagery, including a hearth with fire, that generated both a sense of intimacy in the small space and the implication of hellfire at the feet of a second mural of Jesus in judgment.
For site-specificity, however, it should be no surprise that the out-of-towners had the mic dropped on them by Ruhwald, who installed a “special project” within the space: an astonishing glazed earthenware piece floor-to-ceiling at the high alter. The series of large ceramic rings were wired with electrical components and supported from above by a steel frame of spokes 120 inches in diameter, creating the suggestion of a three-floor chandelier, which seemed, somehow, impossibly light. Though Ruhwald clearly had the benefit of home turf advantage and more familiarity with the space, his finished work was jaw-dropping, and quite rightly the talk of the opening.
Other works seemed to have inadvertent connotations. A piece by Yngve Holen, “Taxi B-BB 2640 kommit innerlab von 3 minuten,” seemed to me a large-sized manufacturing component of some kind (like a maxi-sized mouthpiece of a cell phone); perhaps in the context of the fine art world, the acknowledgement that objects we take for granted are made up of hand-assembled components is a revelation; here in Detroit, factory labor is the financial cornerstone of the majority of households. The piece could easily have been something seen rolling down an auto assembly line, every three minutes.
Two pieces by Simon Denny similarly repurposed informational content from the tech industry, specifically the Zappos.com online shoe empire, to examine technology’s role in shaping global culture. Hanging across a massive installed wall, “Formalised Organisation Idea Painting (whiteboard) canvas: Zappos City Planning/Mural Inside GCHQ,” paired together with a large-scale freestanding architectural model, presumably of Zappos corporate headquarters, strived to translate the bleed-through between the public-private sectors and corporate governance — all of which are particularly ominous in the context of Detroit, a city approaching peak velocity for corporate takeover, with billionaires like Dan Gilbert (Quicken Loans) and Mike Ilitch (Little Caesers) literally reshaping the face of the neighborhoods, one futuristic maquette at a time.
All of this raises some questions about art’s ability to retain its meaning in the face of changing circumstances. It is fascinating to see work that might be deeply impactful in the neutral zone of a white cube gallery struggle to retain meaning in a place as heavy with history as Woods Cathedral. Who you are and the value of what you offer changes radically based on the demographics of your location — that’s just the free market relationship between supply and demand, as any good capitalist will tell you. And capitalism is worth keeping in mind when we consider the efforts of Moran Bondaroff in Detroit, as it represents only a piece of a wider strategy by Paul Johnson of Johnson Trading Gallery (JTG), which is the property owner of the residency space and outlines its plan rather baldly on its website. The page gives an overview of the two properties currently owned and under management, then offers this long-term mission:
The goal is to continue selecting undervalued properties primarily based on location and then use our ability to quickly renovate them into a more functioning state. Although this rehabilitation will serve as the main objective initially, the overall strategy is to increase the total value of the land and properties by adding value from the development and engaging the proper community choices as tenants. Focusing on industries with creative merit and growth potential will be the ultimate focus.
Nothing like seeing stalwarts of the wider art world dedicate themselves not to the spreading of ideas, nor the expression of humanity, and certainly not to any sort of discovery of the thriving proletariat art scene that’s alive in Detroit, but wielding their capacity to increase the value of land holdings for personal gain. With the help of Moran Bondaroff, we can witness the old gods replaced by the new, as the investors line up to worship in the cathedral of commerce.
War Games was on view at the Moran Bondaroff’s residency space in the former Woods Cathedral (1945 Webb Avenue, Detroit).