DETROIT — Summer seems to be the moment for many Midwestern cities to launch new art festivals, in the hopes of using art as a driver for tourism and promotion of place — a time-honored formula stretching back to the first Venice Biennale and beyond. While festivals like the FRONT International Triennial in Cleveland and Open Spaces in Kansas City are investing heavily in attracting outside talent, and using the city as a framing device, a little upstart festival in Detroit, Detroit Art Week, took an opposite tack.
More of a self-guided tour and spate of weekend activities than an actual week, DAW is the brainchild of self-proclaimed “art world multi-tasker” Amani Olu, and took place in late July. Certainly a far more scrappy effort than the heavily funded analogues in other Midwestern cities this summer, it feels as though DAW is still working toward being a marquee event, but it was buttressed by programming at many of the cities anchor institutions, including galleries, and a special feature at the Detroit Institute of Arts, curated by Olu.
Titled Rhythm, Repetition, and Vocab, the show features a handful of works by two true ambassadors of the Detroit art community and its style: Allie McGhee and Carole Harris. Both McGhee, a painter, and Harris, a fiber artist, are lifelong Detroiters, and both have established a signature aesthetic akin to visual jazz. While energetic, abstract gesture is perhaps a common practice among painters, it feels utterly groundbreaking in Harris’s quilted works. And the presentation of these two artists in tandem creates a mirror that not only enables the work of each to inform the other, but deftly flattens the difference between two media rarely considered of a piece.
Each artist presents four works, on walls facing one another other. McGhee’s side of the gallery is dominated by blue and bright flashes of yellow, while Harris’s works largely feature earth and jewel tones, creating the feel of a sunny-blue sky above fecund earth. Harris’s work can be interpreted as abstract topography — perhaps we are birds in McGhee’s sky, looking down on her finely filigreed landscapes. Harris layers up fields of fabric, with some areas abraded to reveal previous layers, and others tamped tightly into place under quilted figuration. Patch points and holes are often surrounded by complex hand-work; while quilting as a domestic art remains invisible to some, Harris’s extraordinary investment of labor and improvisational detail makes it nearly impossible to ignore the hand of the artist in the fiber plane.
I have long held that the original heroes of Abstract Expressionism are not the male painters of the 1940s — Kandinsky, Kooning, Motherwell, Pollack, Rothko — but the largely unaccredited female quilters who worked in the South from pre-Reconstruction, through the Great Depression, and beyond. Though there is a tendency to focus on intricate patchwork styles, quilts made of true necessity often had to prioritize using every inch of spare fabric over symmetry or preciousness, and the abstract aesthetics achieved by impoverished female artists making of quilts is on par with these men of painting, who made such a great impact on the concept of fine art.
Harris is a logical extension of this lineage, but her work pushes further, incorporating her interest in other heritage traditions, such as the Japanese patchwork art of boro and jazz. Looking at her works, one feels a sense of indignation that fine art has, historically, felt the need to distance itself from domestic arts like quilting — as though the fiber matrix employed by quilters is more base or somehow deeply materially different than the canvas that has served as the base for paintings throughout the centuries.
Just as Harris’s work reminds us that most paintings are, in fact, fiber works, McGhee’s surfaces can be seen as quilt-like, inasmuch as they convey a similar interest in layering textures, gestures, and irregular shapes into an abstract narrative. Overall, the two artists in tandem create a deeply stimulating visual presentation.
However, they do suffer somewhat from being tucked away in literally the furthest reaches of the museum’s contemporary art wing. It is a laudable effort on the part of Detroit Art Week to attempt a homegrown festival that centralizes the Detroit art community, and one hopes that if DAW continues, there is more buy-in, support, and promotion by Detroit institutions. The Detroit aesthetic may reflect circumstances that require improvisation and patching things together from scrap, but as Harris and McGhee aptly demonstrate, the results can be nonetheless fascinating and resonant.
Rhythm, Repetition, and Vocab continues at the Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Ave, Detroit) through November 4.