Art

Monumental Domestic Scenes Address Race and History in Detroit

Jason Yates’s interdisciplinary project deploys kitsch and abstraction to grapple with the social legacies and the lived present of Detroit.

Homemade Ice Cream at Wasserman Projects (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

For artist Jason Yates, mounting a solo show in Detroit is a homecoming of sorts. Fitting, then, that Homemade Ice Cream, a series of large-scale, interrelated, interdisciplinary sculptures, creates a life-sized playhouse of disturbing, funny, and monochrome domestic scenes.

“It’s nothing if not kind of a weird retrospective of all my stuff,” Yates said during a walk through the gallery with Hyperallergic. Visitors to Wasserman Projects are greeted at the gallery’s entrance by one of Yates’s recurring motifs — an oversized, teary-eyed basset hound. Perhaps it is instantly recognizable to some, but it seems less important to Yates that visitors are able to directly identify the character as a scaled-up, matte-blackened version of the crying basset hound coin-collection banks used by the Humane Society to gather change in Salvation Army stores — in fact, it seems preferable that people simply see it as an iconic or eerily familiar dog character. In this case, it represents the family dog, standing guard alongside a wash line of blackened clothing, outside a shanty-sized all-black gingerbread house.

Jason Yates, Please Don’t Ever Leave Me (2017)

In the same sense, though Yates has used the characters of Raggedy Ann and Andy as his proxy-family characters (both mother and father, and a set of children), he is attracted to them as highly abstracted symbols, recognizable but indistinct to the contemporary viewer, more than direct associations. As with everything in Homemade Ice Cream, Yates is reaching deep into the murky late-’70s domestic subconscious, replete with kitsch and hazy half-impressions. The show’s monochrome palette is perhaps the only effort to ascribe a sense of contemporary coolness to an assemblage of found objects and source material that runs the gamut from folksy to kitschy to downright garish. Throughout Homemade Ice Cream, Yates demonstrates a willingness to lean into his subject matter, reincorporating the very things he once rejected. This idea is perhaps best crystallized in a mixed media shelving unit on the open-interior side of the house, populated entirely by a collection all-black decorative mass-produced objects and other low-end statuary.

Elsewhere (for Matt Blake) (2017), detail view

“Some of this [source] material is just completely racist,” said Yates, “and no one wants to talk about that.” The sentiment is true, whether it pertains directly to the art at hand, or the culture of uncomfortable silence around around Detroit’s fraught history of race relations — especially while the champions of “new” Detroit try to build up the narrative of an all-inclusive land of opportunity. “I’ve tried in different ways to talk about that in my work,” said Yates. “It’s all right here, but people only want to talk about it formally. I went [all] black to try and take any negotiation out of it.”

Happy Meals #1-12 (2017), series of 12 plates made in collaboration with ceramicist Victoria Shaheen, detail view

Still, Yates recognizes his own complicity in issues of gentrification, simply by showing in a space as relatively new and upstart as Wasserman Projects, even as he had a hand in developing a full program of live events, staged on the front porch of the house, which featured an older generation of dyed-in-the-wool Detroiters and stalwarts of a fast-fading era.

“One of the themes in the show is, in a culture where we’re constantly rewarding youth and not placing value [on older people], the people I’ve asked to do the performances is very much a part of it,” said Yates. Performers included seminal performer and party-thrower Allee Willis, performance artist Penny Arcade, “primordial Detroiter,” poet, and essayist Marsha Music, and jazz poet, John Sinclair, who performed his spoken word accompanied by legendary Detroit bluesman Jeff Grand.

“In the case of John Sinclair, my parents regarded him with hushed [reverent] tones,” said Yates. “And that has been lost, in many ways. In general, as a culture, we’re not respecting what came before us, and I think that’s a real poignant issue for the time we’re in.”

“Facilitating connections and fostering relationships is a critical component of our programming at Wasserman Projects,” said Gallery Director Alison Wong, in an email to Hyperallergic, “and especially with these exhibitions — strengthening the narrative built around childhood influences and environments.”

Stay a Little Longer (for John Gomez) (2017), installation view

Yates also employed a number of Detroit-based artists in the execution of these interdisciplinary works, including fiber and performance artist Leslie Rogers, who assembled a quilt for a “garden bed” constructed (among other things) by artist and Butter Projects co-director John Charnota; ceramicist Victoria Shaheen, who worked on the dinnerware set that accompanies a dining room table scene; and the house itself, which was constructed by painter Alexander Buzzalini. The personal work of all contributors is on display in an adjacent gallery under the title Friends of Friends, in a rare and generous nod to the often unrecognized creative contributors to the execution of a featured artist’s vision on this scale.

The Garden of Sleeplessness (2017)

As for Yates’s vision, the aesthetics of Homemade Ice Cream are utterly unsettling — though they are stark and colorless, one can still feel the indomitable essence of kitsch radiating from every seam. Yates’s Raggedy Family is impossible to relate to on a personal level, yet also impossible to completely distance oneself from. The show is full of visual jokes — from the “Garden Bed” that combines giant wooden tulips with a bed frame, creating a visual portmanteau, to the deeply weird pair of life-sized Ann & Andy wrought in fine black leather (made in collaboration with artist Jonathan Baker) and seated in black rocking chairs on a black rag rug. The materials somehow interpose a sense of S&M culture onto what would otherwise be a more straightforward and saccharine tableau. Who are these parents? Have they been waiting up for you to come home? What were they doing just before you walked in? In one corner, a little pile of dismantled black canvas doll torso, legs, and arms form a distressing lean-to. The center, it seems, cannot hold.

Artist Jason Yates poses with his work at Wasserman Projects

Yates’s work at Wasserman is ambitious on every level, and feels risky and emotionally honest in a way that complements its Midwestern debut. While coastal city art scenes thrive on conceptually challenging notions, Homemade Ice Cream presents a challenge on an extremely different level — one that touches and bravely displays the elements of discomfort, familiarity, angst, and remembering which are a part of every homecoming, no matter where you call home.

Homemade Ice Cream continues through December 16 at Wasserman Projects (3434 Russell Street, Detroit), along with Friends of Friends and Martha Mysko’s Selective Memory.

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