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Review Archive


By Dennis Alan Nawrocki

Adjunct Faculty, College for Creative Studies, Wayne State University

In this distressed and distressing year, either by human design or divine intervention, a spate of metro Detroit exhibitions has tackled the vague, elusive realm of spiritual art.  January opened with “Reflections of the Spirit” at the Berkowitz Gallery at UM Dearborn (Jan. 11-Feb. 8).  This group show of twelve area artists, according to curators Becky Hart and Nancy Thayer, sought to “transcend any specific religious definitions” by speaking a “universal language” not “dependent on traditional icons.”
In the spring, an exhibition at the Jacob Gallery at Wayne State University (May 30-July 18) was devoted to the visionary art of John Torreano, a New York artist who, in muralistic compositions befitting his grandiose topic, vigorously addressed such subjects as the fiery, turbulent creation of the cosmos.  And recently, the DIA devoted the first exhibition in its newly reopened photography galleries to “Kenro Izu:  Sacred Places” (July 9-Oct. 12).   To hone the appeal of the show’s theme, the DIA has initiated a photo competition inviting the general public to submit images that capture their interpretations of “sacred Detroit.”


So, the fourth and latest exhibition, “Spirit,” at Gallery Project in Ann Arbor (June 25-Aug. 3), welcome as it is, does not arrive completely by surprise.  Selected by Detroit painter Ed Fraga, one of the artists included in the aforementioned “Reflections” display in January, it too takes on the slippery, nigh impossible task of embodying the spiritual in material form.  In this exposition of nine painters and sculptors, each of whom is represented by several pieces, “Spirit” offers a diverse spectrum of approaches to artworks that, per Fraga’s curatorial statement, distill “the ineffable and transcendent.” 


But just what is the ineffable and transcendent, and is it even possible in a secular age to imbue an image with such lofty, intangible qualities?  Can an audience sense an artist’s “sacred air” (Izu’s words) in her/his oeuvre?  In “Spirit,” is it connoted by the lambs and goats of the Judeo-Christian heritage that appear in the still life paintings of Joyce Brienza?  Or by Scott Hocking’s moody photographs featuring his own hand built stepped pyramid of salvaged concrete blocks that rises from the floor of an abandoned factory?  Or by the pure white Easter lily that thrusts up out of one of the cast off oil drums in James Stephens’ post- apocalyptic landscape of freight train cars and high tension wires?   Or by Mary Ann Aitken’s empty, impastoed backgrounds—hot, hellish red in Figure in a Red Room and dense, existentialist black in Twilight at Carey Building?  Or provocatively implied through the title of curator Fraga’s own Elegy for my Mother, Elegy for my Father?


Certainly something approximating transcendence is palpable in the intensely personal, abstract reliefs of Tom Phardel assembled from cold, austere, industrial materials:  painted steel, cast glass, wire, and resin.  Their titles, Unification and The Couple, and imagery—a pair of spheres in the latter, a two-lobed silhouette in the former—hint at both personal and spiritual oneness.  Color too plays a role.  The Couple manifests a rather muted harmony of silvery hues, while the cardinal red of Unification fairly flaunts its ecstatic rapport.

In a secular age of “getting and spending” in which we “lay waste our powers,” as William Wordsworth wrote, one welcomes artists who create spiritually inclined work that proposes alternatives or even antidotes to the crises, distresses, and distractions of these fraught times.