Detroit is a myth. In a twisted, ironic way, the city has become an art-world Shangri-La, a place where artists are discovering — thanks in part to insanely low rents — creative possibilities to remake and reform a large geographic area with public art projects, interventions and community building. Detroit has become a rich backdrop for contemporary art.
People do live in Detroit. They always have, since the days of Henry Ford, the assembly line, the 1967 riots, white flight, “The Renaissance” and the near collapse of the auto industry. Even now, during a time of obvious depopulation, when blank spaces, outcropping and abandoned buildings seem to outnumber actual people, there are still Detroiters. I offer this because when I mention that I am from Detroit, the level of disbelief or puzzlement ranges from the physical — the bug-eyed stare of astonishment — to quizzical attempts to get the real deal. “Oh, are you really from the city?” people ask, as opposed to Detroit’s affluent suburbs.
Being a Detroiter sometimes makes me feel like a socio-anthropological specimen. But of course Detroit has people. My parents still live there, in a middle-class, Tudor-style, three-bedroom house on a tree-lined street, not a deserted one dotted with burned-out buildings.
The experience of a native Detroiter can be at odds with the image of the city projected by both news and visual media. Growing up in Detroit during the 1980s, I had to confront the obvious decline: abandoned buildings, decrepit grand hotels, a downtown that became a ghost town. When I go home I feel the reality of my surroundings as one would a severed limb, as a phantom pain. Or I dream the reality out of existence, perhaps like a Weimar-era Berliner on yet another nostalgic trip. I bounce between despair for what was and amazement at what could be.
Who would want to visit or live in Detroit? Sculptor Marsha Pels, for one. And her experience, based on what I have read about her sojourn, really sucked. Pels, together with photographer Frank Schwere, recently shared an exhibition at Schroeder, Romero and Shredder. The title of the exhibition was Detroit Redux, and it aimed to translate the concrete reality of Detroit’s urban structure into mythic lore and personal history.
Pels and Schwere traveled to Detroit for different reasons, and their treatments of the city are miles away formally but still strikingly complementary. Pels arrived in 2008 as a sculpture professor; she left in 2010 and now resides back in New York City, where she produced a recent series of sculptures cast in bronze or iron or fabricated in resin and coupled with found objects. While in Detroit, Pels had major back surgery and had to wear a constrictive neck brace. She found herself confined, immobilized and despairing. Her feelings of debility experienced within a city whose decay is all too apparent became a wellspring for her art, although the experience was also psychologically draining and physically taxing. Her sculptures fuse her emotional and physical condition with a living, breathing and dying city.
Her pets were a source of comfort and inspiration for a few of the best works in the show. “To Fly, To Drive” is a stunner. In this installation she renders a pair of winged dogs in resin and fiberglass with fluorescent lights. The duo is airborne, yet they’re also chained to a 1997 Lincoln V8 engine. The work suggests that getting out of Detroit on a wing or a prayer is not so easily accomplished. Pels manages to include her own narrative in her work without being maudlin; her sculptures unfurl into the viewer’s psychological space.
In “Self-Portrait, Detroit,” the city is made corporeal, assuming a body in a state of decay and decomposition. The work features a bisected skeletal figure with its trunk severed and part of the spinal column revealed, below which Pels has neatly arranged a mound of bones and miniature cast-bronze automobiles. A cast-bronze façade of the oft-photographed Michigan Central Depot mingles with the figure’s ribcage. That old station has become a stock character performing Detroit’s decline over and over again.
Images of Detroit’s decline in the hands of visual artists are often similar, generally uninspired and eerily attractive. One more picture of Michigan Central Depot as an example of urban decay, political disenfranchisement and social neglect only makes you think about urban space as so much romanticized concrete, stone, brick and mortar. Where are the people? Perhaps they are reflected in Detroit’s abandoned factories, churches, hotels and homes, vestiges of the power and will of the people who created these places, but you wouldn’t know this from the number of photographers who travel to the city and approach its architecture in purely formal terms. After a while the effect is similar to looking at 1,000 pictures of the Colosseum.
And this is why I take an issue with Frank Schwere’s stark and studied photographs of Detroit’s crumbling buildings. Schwere ostensibly went to the Renaissance city to disinter its economic tragedy, the social collapse of a once-thriving American metropolis. But in pictures like “Arcade (Michigan Central Depot, 240 West Vernor St.) Detroit, Michigan” (2008) Schwere mounts a frontal assault on the station. His use of a tightly controlled perspective positions both exterior and interior space as remote dead ends. Detroit’s Fordist history, the promise that industrial production could provide a paradigm for social mobility, has been well documented. A better photographic analogue would be the wide, less traveled, arterial boulevards that spoke through the urban space, showing its exterior blight but nonetheless offering a less formulaic exposition of urban decay.
However static the content may be, the way in which Schwere’s photographs interact with Pels’s work provides a context that reveals how urban structures can relate to personal history. Schwere’s photographs of Detroit’s empty shells and hulls serve as both a window into decay and a backdrop for Pels’s drammatis personae.
Marsha Pels: Detroit Redux with Frank Schwere: Detroit took place at Schroeder, Romero & Shredder (531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) from January 12 to February 11.