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Spirit Exhibition Resurrects the Past in the Present

By Mike Tolinski,

Detroit Area Writer


The sense one has in entering any art exhibition is an anticipation of mysteries revealed or vital energies depicted visually, possibly leading to some kind of personal growth or epiphany. By its title, the group exhibit named “Spirit” (at the Gallery Project, Ann Arbor,  June 25 to August 3, 2008) seems to invite such anticipation. It delivers on this, but some reflection reveals that rather than just evoking the abstract concept of “spirit,” the artwork brings forth “spirits,” as in spirits from the past.

One evocation of unseen spirits at the exhibit comes from Frank Pahl’s Edison’s Eve, a mixed-media construction composed of a weathered doll in nineteenth-century dress posed in the act of playing two keyboards. “She” can be heard “playing” simple, long notes and chords on an organ, while wind chimes suspended underneath are mechanically activated, randomly.  The organ tones seem to suspend her in time, strangely bringing her presence to our era, such that viewers seem to be waiting for her cracked face to speak or to channel some spirit. And indeed after the viewer switches off her performance, the doll can be heard to speak, if one listens carefully.

James Stephens’s large cubist/surreal landscapes likewise echo a recent past, or perhaps signal a near future. Carnival, White Lilly, and Hybrid E12 are oils depicting abstract, rusted-out amusement rides, sterile skyscrapers, and bleak industrial parks—while including carefully depicted central flowers that keep us in a living present.

Surrealist Ed Fraga’s works generally defy making any literal connections to a lost past, except for the mixed-media Elegy for My Mother, Elegy for My Father. This touching work combines diffuse fragments of memories we all have about our parents—some images are just shapes that stir up emotions. By contrast, Fraga’s Staged Diorama for a Missing Body models a sterile room in miniature containing furniture seemingly designed by the unconscious, for a person to use who is no longer physically “there” (except for small piles of actual hair he or she has left behind). And The Book of Experience Found mixed-media series resurrects images that could’ve come from old advertising or kitsch religious illustrations, adding holy and unholy interlopers, angels and demons.

Joyce Brienza’s paintings and mixed-media pieces use sheep and goats as totems, bringing them literally into presence from the language idioms we hear every day: “scapegoat,” “counting sheep,” “leg of lamb,” and so on. This sounds humorous, but there are also dark memories of lost innocence suggested by these works. In the large oil We Are Family: Black Sheep with Cake, Scarub, a large dinner table set full with food that surrounds a central, living lamb for the sacrifice. Guardian: Toy Sheep, Baby and Angel(o) juxtaposes thin ghosts of the innocent behind an uncaring beer-drinker in the foreground, next to the stenciled word: “Busy.”

Mary Ann Aitken’s thick, textured oil paintings depict small, vague, singular figures surrounded by a roiling sea of paint. The figures seem suggest people who may have lived in the past but have faded into the background (though in this case, one could say the recent past, since the paintings are from the 1980s). In Woman in Circle, a female figure sits causally cross-legged, floating in an egg-shaped bubble of space, yet the viewer is drawn to the edges of the painting where the newspaper underlying the paint is exposed, yellowing and fraying. The paint itself is partially cracked, and overall the piece is made more haunting by this, as if it were a 20th-century icon found in an attic.

Sculptors at the exhibit expose the limits to our perception of the third and perhaps the fourth dimension, time. Tom Phardel’s wall-mounted sculptures use thick, cloudy cast slabs of glass strategically to deny or highlight our attention to 3-D shapes. In one piece the glass isolates the geometric shapes placed in front of it; in another a glass barrier prevents clear viewing, providing only a frustratingly narrow slit for the viewer to see a very limited peepshow of the yellow object inside. Alternatively, Sharon Que’s slate- and marble-based sculptures hold objects both ordered and disordered. On stone slabs, glass flasks and a model chain of spherical atoms or living diatoms occupy an otherwise elemental sparseness that suggest an erasure of time, or eternity. 

Finally, a trip to the basement of the Gallery Project reveals Scott Hocking’s photography and installations. Hocking’s Ziggurat digital prints document the construction activity of some absent builders inside the gray cracking interior of an abandoned factory. The enhanced images show that a small ziggurat, painstakingly built from stray bricks, had been built in the middle of the factory floor (ziggurats being ancient Mesopotamian step-pyramids). The unseen beings that did the work have used the waste and lost spirit of the factory as materials for something new. Similarly, at the other end of the basement, Hocking’s Detroit Midden Mound is an actual construction composed of materials from the past—heavy rusty tools and hardware, children’s blocks, and hubcaps (a collection which must have required a remarkable effort just to install). Only a few minutes spent with this and the other works bring forth other presences and emotions from other times.