BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. — Scrawled directly on the wall in the second gallery of Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality at the Cranbrook Art Museum — the culmination of a three-year project by Andy Warhol Foundation Curatorial Fellow Laura Mott — are the red, spray-painted words: Si tú eres artista, vamos a sufrir. It translates to: If you are an artist, we will suffer. The statement is part of a work of the same title by Cuban artist Ezequiel O. Suárez. It’s meant as a direct commentary on economic disparity and opportunity in his native country following the Cuban Revolution, but it’s also a fitting motto for a terrifically ambitious exhibition that attempts to juxtapose the art and economic conditions of Detroit over the last half-century with those of various international locales in recent history: the Italian avant-garde from the 1960s to the 1980s, including the Arte Povera movement; authoritarian-ruled South Korea in the 1970s, which encompassed Dansaekhwa and Korean monochrome painting; Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s; and Greece, following the 2008 financial crisis.
If the dozens of works on display at Cranbrook weren’t enough food for thought, the exhibition is paired with the Material Detroit series, curated in close collaboration with Taylor Renee Aldrige and Ryan Meyers-Johnson. The latter takes the exhibition beyond Cranbrook’s hallowed grounds to points of inspiration within Detroit’s communities.
One of Material Detroit‘s works is “Bone Black” (2019), a massive installation by hometown player Scott Hocking. Hocking transformed a huge warehouse along a sprawling stretch of land next to the Detroit River, once part of the Stroh’s beer industrial empire, into a harbor for the ghost boats left to decay in Detroit’s abandoned lots. Some boats are lofted into the rafters, others idle or slump on the floor, still others stand as sentinels hundreds of feet into the warehouse. Typical of the artist, the balance of aesthetic considerations, ambition, and sheer manic labor is arresting. The piece merits an article of its own, but in this context it represents the often limited capacity for institutions to present art of place in a way that does either art or place justice.
At Cranbrook, a good 40 minutes away, a reproduction of a 1892 photo, which served as the conceptual seed for Bone Black, is a stand-in for the installation. The image features a mountain of bison skulls, the product of a westward-expansion effort to destroy the native species — and, by extension, the native people that relied on it for their existence. Hocking was surprised to discover that the location of the familiar photograph — often seen as a symbol of the White, colonial conquest of the US territories — was Michigan Carbon Works, a business that still exists in Detroit. The skulls were the charred, carbon basis for a pigment called Bone Black. The image is displayed on a wall painted Bone Black, and alludes to Hocking’s graveyard of boats, temporarily resurrected to roam again.
Although Hocking has executed installations in other locales, I suspect that his work is most stunning in Detroit, the place he knows best. When he flexes his astounding power to transform space in his native environs, he brings to bear his decades of searching and scavenging and indexing the city’s lesser-run streets, its discard, its hidden excesses, its quixotic wealth of detritus. This is why Hocking’s terminal outcomes are not the astonishingly labor-intensive installations themselves, but photographs of them. He understands not only the power of labor to alter the landscape, but also the power of leaving his work where it lays, to become part of the perpetual struggle between human development and the processes of the natural world.
Hocking also understands something that institutions — even those with the best intentions and most thoughtful processes — consistently fail to grasp about art of place: it must happen in place. Landlord Colors tries to “elevate” art and movements borne of struggles with economic hardship and upheavals, placing it on Cranbrook’s travertine floors, in its hushed, white spaces. But such art needs no elevation; the viewer must seek and find its level. Material Detroit highlights these works as living parts of the city. In this respect it more successfully captures the works’ spirit, but still undermines the power of art in a quotidian role. Art here runs the way the buses run: rigged-up, unpredictable, but moving people through their daily lives.
“[I]s there something that could be labeled Detroit art?” writes Marsha Miro, former arts writer and founding member of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, in a piece originally published in the Detroit Free Press in 1979, and republished in the exhibition catalogue. “[Roy] Slade [then President of Cranbrook Academy of Art] couldn’t find a neat package for it. Instead, he settled on this answer … ‘In the work of Detroit artists, there appears to be a tenuous and tentative bond: that of assemblage. Consciously or unconsciously, the artists share the commonality of putting things together, whether objects, colors, shapes, forms, textures, materials, images or ideas.’”
The same could more or less be said of Landlord Colors, though it manages to reach beyond the walls of just one city, to present room after room of objects arranged in loose conversation around material, form, and ideas. There is, of course, far worse a show can be than slightly eclipsed by its own scope; nearly all of the work in Landlord Colors is interesting, and none of it is objectionable. At every turn, the show bears the earmark of a deeply considered project. But I felt the sense of a curatorial exercise extremely conscious of a desire to hold up under scrutiny. Mott, Aldrige, Meyers-Johnson, Cranbrook, and all the artists and organizations have labored greatly to present something deeply meaningful, yet the whole exhibition seems to be holding its breath a bit. While Mott’s previous collaborative exhibition with Nick Cave (at Cranbrook and into the streets of Detroit) had a celebratory feeling, Landlord Colors has an atmosphere that evokes someone preparing to defend her master’s thesis. It is smart, layered, interesting, and wildly — perhaps excessively — ambitious, but also a bit stiff. It is perhaps unsurprising that an exhibition that takes economic austerity as its thesis delivers oppressive aesthetics, but by bridging so many international art scenes, the show seems to overreach. We have beautiful, meaningful, dynamic things — rocks, a brimming sea of fish hooks — but not things that lend themselves easily to an institutional setting, and all too many players.
Mott takes a stand and puts these works in conversation with one another, curating with a measured eye, delivering a show that deserves scholarly consideration. However, there is at least one flawed notion at the root of Landlord Colors that I cannot ignore, because it is antithetical to the Detroit I know:
“In the context of a place such as Detroit, an exemplar of the American Rust Belt, the term [landlord colors] poetically speaks to the overarching material conditions enveloping the city — a situation not of its own choosing,” writes Mott on the introductory page of her catalogue essay. This perspective on choice prizes economic prosperity, rather than — as Detroit and the other cities in the show prove — demonstrating capitalism as an unsustainable driver for progress or success, one that produces human and environmental collateral damage. I have lived in Detroit for the last decade, and it attracted me precisely because it seemed to be in a situation of its own choosing, more so than any city I’d ever seen, inasmuch as people have to actively choose to come, and fight to stay, even in the face of difficulty and a lack of institutional support. While statisticians and city planners tend to focus on the people who have left, the true spirit of the city is expressed by the people who stay or come, who choose Detroit, day after often-tedious day. The freedom of such a choice is only possible when profiteers finally finish ravaging the carcass and fully abandon the scene for a fresh kill; only then can those remains shape a new, self-made ecosystem.
Maybe every Detroiter didn’t choose to be in Detroit, but many of its artists were certainly drawn, I believe, to the unique opportunity to shape the aesthetics of a place, and therefore its possibilities, available in locales that have been left for dead by the ravening dogs of industry. This spirit of freedom is not just a function of Detroit’s once rock-bottom cost of living or past lack of oversight; it rises from a deeper wellspring of place, something that can be neither driven nor diminished by base economic considerations.
For me, the spirit of Detroit is echoed in the present-day weavings of Greek artist Zoë Paul, which interpose salvaged wool with scrapyard grill plates from refrigerators as their matrix. While layers of meaning are woven into Paul’s abstract designs, the artist noted during the press tour that one of the factors in their creation was the availability of these materials during a time of personal scarcity. The art world rarely acknowledges lack as a defining factor in artistic production, yet it romanticizes artists who remain “pure” by persisting in a state of financial insecurity. Landlord Colors is brave and groundbreaking in recognizing the conditions on the ground for most artists — even those who do not live in places of broad economic crisis. For me, the most compelling art will always be supplied not by those artists who are consciously in conversation with the academy, market, and institution, or belong to the ivy league, trust fund society, or blue-chip pipelines, but those who make art whether or not anyone can see them.
What Suárez’s statement, “If you are an artist, we will suffer,” underscores is that artists have a different perspective on and role in economic success or failure. Creative people will find a way to make art from whatever is at hand, because it is an uncontainable desire and mechanism for processing the world. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating Detroit and some of its artists, nor with putting them in a wider dialogue with art of economic disparity — but real art of place cannot be removed from its context, because it is the furious, uncircumscribed expression of people willing to take art-making and city-making into their own hands — not with a business plan, not for material gain, but because the only way to amend their circumstance is to remake their situation, one charred and discarded bit at a time.
Editor’s note 8/27/19 6:02 pm: An earlier version of this review mischaracterized a sentiment expressed in the curator’s catalogue essay. This passage has since been removed for clarity.
Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality continues at Cranbrook Art Museum (39221 Woodward Avenue, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan), with an associated program of activities, Material Detroit, through October 6.