DETROIT — Located in Midtown Detroit, today a cultural hub praised by some as an exemplar of urban renewal, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit fleshes out the skeleton of American manufacturing. The museum’s current site opened in 2006, occupying a former industrial building erected in the 1920s to house a Dodge showroom. Endeavoring to reflect this past moment and subsequent evolution of the structure, the MOCAD redesign is a kind of temporal composite, in which new elements articulate with original floor tiling and walls of exposed brick and concrete, crudely patched up during many former alterations.
What more symbolically fitting place, then, to host Useless Utility, an exhibition of recent work by six artists based in Detroit and the surrounding area corralled around the topic of art production in a post-industrial time. Detroit sits on the southeast border of Michigan, one of the regions of the Rust Belt hit hardest by deindustrialization. During the 2000s, the collapse of the state’s manufacturing base swiftly halved employment in the sector; nearly 450,000 jobs vanished. Such seismic economic upheavals disrupt not only people’s financial livelihood, but they just as forcefully upend people’s social relationships and self-identities forged in relation to the idea of work. These latter consequences seem to be the crux of the exhibition’s inquiry.
Southeast Michigan is a place structurally and culturally shaped by its historically broad manufacturing base, and which in turn defined itself through its material output. A desire to reconcile with this past is suggested in the attention to material that suffuses so many of the exhibited works. In the paintings of James Benjamin Franklin, the everyday material environment of the artist fuses with his work. In the piece titled “Dreams and Demons” (2019), a rug, a jute trivet, some towels, and other scraps of fabric populate the picture plane, encrusted beneath a painted field of bright, inorganic hues. The overall look exudes an improvised bricolage aesthetic.
Iris Eichenberg uses polymer clay for its dual association with both industrial production and craft-making. For “Setting the Table” (2011), the artist implanted two bowls fashioned from this material into a white gallery wall. The resulting rounded, terracotta-hued craters are unlike the more brutal structural interventions of Anish Kapoor’s hole (“Descent into Limbo,” 1992) or Doug Aitken’s pool (“Sonic Fountain,” 2013), in that they feel modestly provisional. At the end of the exhibition’s run, the bowls will be extracted and the gallery wall mended. The works are knowingly made for a situation that is transitional and contingent.
Still other works take on mass-market products. One among several instances in the show touching on racial dynamics, Tyanna Buie’s “Between a Comb and a Rough Place” (2019) consists of a pile of porcelain mold replicas of the hot comb, a hair tool invented by a Frenchman and later marketed to and popularized among African-American women to straighten their tresses. Osman Khan’s sculptures are, by contrast, fashioned directly from mass-produced chairs sold at Ikea and Target. Based on the premise of a resource shortage, Khan applied the absurd solution of removing discrete functional elements: one chair has lost an anterior leg, another the cross rails integral to back support. I can imagine these aberrant structures inhabiting a dystopian narrative, the comical outcome of late capitalism’s market logic and environmental destruction. Yet, as unwieldly structures that jolt the body from its customary interactions with objects, perhaps they also stand for a hopeful paradigm shift in our material relations.
This very ambiguity between adaptation and transformation hangs over the larger exhibition. The former is evolutionary, the latter revolutionary. In the improvised, provisional and bricolage aesthetic that characterizes the bulk of the selected works, I cannot help but posit a connection to neoliberal capitalism’s creation of ever more precarious, contingent labor, ever more flexible, resourceful citizenry. Are these works expressions of imposed adaptation to a persisting system, or in fact experimental modes of working in new ones? This is a question inevitably raised, but left unanswered, by this exhibition.
Useless Utility, curated by Jova Lynne, Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow at MOCAD, continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit through April 21.