Art

Leaving Cynicism Aside to Take a Fresh Look at Detroit

For Ryan Standfest to give off a defeatist vibe in the face of adversity is nothing new, but for him to use humor as a coping mechanism rather than a distancing device is refreshing.

Ryan Standfest, “THE HEART OF THE WORKING CLASS! (after Klutsis)” (2018) (all images by the author)

DETROIT — Greeting viewers upon entrance to Ryan Standfest’s solo exhibition at the Wayne State University Art Department Gallery is a framed map of Michigan, hand drawn in chalk, on a canvas treated with and dripping blackboard paint. The map is labeled with commodities and industries —cherries, butter, fishing, and lake tourism — suggesting a messy tribute to the Michigan Mural by Ezra Winter in the lobby of the Guardian Building downtown. Like most murals of the era that adorn halls of finance, Winter’s mural was designed to venerate the richness of Michigan’s industries and natural resources.

Standfest’s version, by contrast, is smeary, drippy, and annotated with dirty clippings that suggest an 1950s-style child’s encyclopedia. In the place where Detroit should be, there is a pile of charred and desiccated wood and stones, labeled “CITY” from afar with a long chalk arrow, and populated by a handful of dead yellow jackets (presumably the result of an exterminated nest). A billowing form of what appears to be glossy black insulation foam rises from the nest and obscures a large swath of the state in an approximation of a toxic smoke cloud. The adjacent label identifies “automobiles,” and helpfully elucidates the concept with an etching of a Packard-style car and the caption: “We ride in our automobiles.”

Ryan Standfest, “A Child’s Picture Map” (2018), installation view
Ryan Standfest, “A Child’s Picture Map” (2018), detail view

Arresting all on its own, this map is so unlike the work I’ve come to associate with Ryan Standfest, that I had to backtrack and check I had not mistaken a group show for a solo by the artist better known for his meticulous print work and dark humor produced through his publishing venue, Rotland Press. But this exhibition, including 3D sculpture, video and animation, and multimedia assemblage, is all Standfest, and titled THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE — it is, indeed, other than I expected.

Ryan Standfest, “FACTORY HEAD No.2 – No. 4” (2018), with soundscape created by Chris Butterfield and Mike Williams, set against the backdrop of WSU’s midcentury modern architecture
THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE, installation view

Along adjacent walls of the exhibition space are a series of new works more in the vein of Standfest’s signature aesthetics, which tend to satirically leverage anachronistic media and advertising forms for works that crackle with cynicism. These pieces make sly cultural references, and combine ostensibly upbeat slogans with crisp iconography to convey scathing social commentary. Rejecting the recto-linearity of conventional canvases, this series resembles the kind of displays one might have seen at an auto show in the 1950s, or as a print advertisement in a black-and-white periodical, featuring highly promotional language and graphic design that toes the line between energetic and unintelligible.

“DREAM HOUSE” (2018) and “LAND PARCELS” (2018), installation view

“YOUR MODERN DREAM HOUSE,” reads one, with 2D shelves lined with Monopoly-style house cut-outs. “CHEAP. GET ONE WHILE YOU CAN! EASY.” “LAND PARCELS. YOURS. NOW. NOW.” exhorts another. “DEAD DOGS OF THE CITY,” are advertised in another display, lined with meticulously repeated tiny canine corpses in matte-black cardboard. “ACCIDENT / REMAINS / ABUSE” —these not only present some of the common tropes of “new” Detroit and some of its lesser-told aspects, but represent Standfest working through personal themes. Just this year, the artist and his partner bought a house of their own in the city, complete with dead dog in the backyard. Standfest’s cheery advertisements, which repeatedly characterize these efforts as “cheap” and “easy” must be understood as his ironic commentary on a process that — as anyone who has attempted the American dream here in new Detroit can tell you—is neither cheap nor easy.

“DEAD DOGS OF THE CITY” (2018)

For Standfest to give off a morbid and defeatist vibe in the face of adversity is nothing new, but for him to tackle personal issues and present work that uses humor as a coping mechanism rather than a distancing device is refreshing. One wall in the main gallery is dedicated to a video work titled “The Dirt Eater” (2018) and stars Standfest as a character named Mister Ricky, wearing a comedically large foot cast and using an old fashioned TV dinner tray to construct a snack for himself out of “Fresh Dirt! From Grammy’s Backyard!” Standfest grew up in the adjacent Metro Detroit exurb of St. Clair Shores, and there’s every reason to imagine that the working class house, the snack tray, the woman playing “Grammy,” and the dirt are all authentic pieces of his personal history. While Standfest has lived and worked in Detroit proper for long enough to call the city home without reservation, his artistic output (if not his actual worldview) more accurately reflects the working class and white-flight disillusionment of the surrounding metro area.

Ryan Standfest, in the role of Mister Ricky, in “The Dirt Eater” (2018)

These are just a few standout moments in a show that represents a mid-career artist both in control of his tools and willing to break dangerous new emotional and material ground. The antidote to cynicism is curiosity, and while Standfest is perhaps predisposed to a melancholic perspective, it is heartening to see him shaking off old routines and using his prodigious talent to grow in new directions. At the core of every cynic lies a broken heart. Humor is panacea for this condition, perhaps, but as Detroiters can tell you, it takes real sincerity, vulnerability, and hard work to heal it.

Ryan Standfest, “VINTAGE LABOR HANDBOOKS” (2018)

THIS MUST NOT BE THE PLACE YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE is on display at the Wayne State University Art Department Gallery (150 Art Building, Detroit, Michigan) through December 7.

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