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“Extremes” at the Gallery Project: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t, and Vice Versa

By Jennifer Metsker, Ann Arbor Arts Writer


It’s common to hear the term “extreme” and to expect an experience that’s louder, riskier, and more over the top than the ordinary.  Extreme sports or other activities come to mind: base-jumping is extreme because of the ridiculous danger involved, extreme eating challenges the digestive track with insects or hot dog contests.  At the Gallery Project one can usually expect to see work by many artists who take risks on a regular basis, so with the with the current show’s theme being “Extremes,” I suspected I might see more outlandish, challenging work than the usual fare.

            When I entered the gallery on opening night, my first glance didn’t disappoint: large paintings on the walls accosted each other with dynamic colors and strange perspectives, a carnival cage loomed above gallery goers’ heads, and from somewhere deep inside the gallery came a clattering noise like a popcorn machine full of rocks.  But as I began my trek around the gallery, the bombastic effect softened into a quieter and more complicated view.  Many of the most successful works at this month’s show don’t deal in shock as much as the in the subtle revelation that there are extremes surrounding us all the time, ordinary extremes that we live with far too easily.           

            My first encounter with this more subtle interplay of image and concept came in two color photographs by JeongMee Yoon titled “Jeonghoon and His Blue Things” and “Jiwoo and Her Pink Things.”  The modest photographs feature two children in their bedrooms, a boy and girl respectively, surrounded by, as one might guess, their blue and pink respective things.  The children’s toys, clothing, games, backpacks, etc. cover every inch of space around them, every inch, which allows these photographs to reveal two extremes at once in their well-composed scenes.  First of all, one must ask, just how far have manufacturers taken gender expectations?  Too far, it seems.  But secondly, one also must confront the fact that these portraits showcase only the blue and the pink stuff.  How many things of other colors are stuffed away in the closet, one must ask?  Surely too much.

            A few of the pieces in the show also caught my attention by exposing everyday popular extremes.  Two large oil paintings by Alise Henriquez transform advertising imagery we are all too familiar with into equally enticing images with less straight-forward messages.  Based on actual collages Henriquez made from women’s magazines, the paintings “Resolve” and “Eye of the Beholder” feature common and colorful ad-stuffs—cartoon sandwiches, soccer balls, a downpour of cola, words like “sale,” and more.  The paintings remind us of the ridiculous things advertisers do to garner our affections, but they also strip away the context of the salespitch and leave us only with the seduction, creating an engaging commentary about desire.  Michelle Word also uses collage in her multi-media piece “Dorseraceae,” but her work doesn’t transform; it showcases.  Adhered to a background created from an explosion of fabrics and stickers and hand-drawn patterns drawn on what appears to be shelf paper, weird doilies and fussy plastic flower-like crafty things hang together and cause one question how domesticated our domestic world really is.  The word eccentric comes more to mind, as does the word hilarious, but the overall effect of the piece deserves nothing less than the word “gorgeous.”

            Another painting that also deserves mention, and takes up more real estate on the wall than anything else, is Benjamin Duke’s “TMI.”  Though the puzzling narrative and the washed out palette seem a bit underdeveloped, the central focus of the work, a monsterously twisted frankenstein form that appears to be part-elephant, part-eagle, part-fast food container, part-shopping cart, part-picachoo, part-everything-pop-culture-you-can-think-of, can keep the eye happily engaged for quite a while.  The clattering object in the back of the gallery, “Barrely Fun,” an installation by Steve Kuypers and Steve McShane, is equally hard to ignore.  The cement mixer filled with colorful superballs seems a mere plaything as the balls bounce out and children throw them back in.  Is this it, one might ask?  After talking to the artists, however, I understood the depth of the content beyond the silliness.  Though the final piece itself can easily be mistaken for a laugh, the cement mixer represents just one of many machines the artists required to rehab an old warehouse into an artist work space in Detroit, a worthy act that would certainly be “Barrely Fun,” indeed, despite the value it adds to the community.

            A work that very consciously and thoughtfully exposed for me an extreme I never would have expected, however, is a film made in collaboration by Frank Pahl and James Knight entitled “What’s Wrong?” The film offers a different treatment of a 50’s sitcom-like scenario.  Whereas one might usually expect this genre to feature mostly “what’s right,” with keen re-editing and a wonderfully apt musical accompaniment, this piece creates a hypnotic portrayal of existential crisis out of a simple after dinner discussion between husband and wife.  How many narratives of this time (and of our time, actually) feature this exact same moment of temporary disharmony?  By fixating on this moment the artists show us how writers might be trafficking in an extreme trope made out of mildly furrowed brows and minor problems.

            Many other pieces in the show will certainly encourage the viewer to take a closer look at human behavior, whether for the techniques involved (such as an acrylic painting that I still swear has been fashioned out of feathers) or at culture (a video of a retired female Mexican wrestler comes to mind).  Other pieces, however, fall flat, which is disappointing in a show that ostensibly invites risk if nothing else.  A mural titled “On the Spot” does little more than decorate a wall with colorful hatch marks leaving one to wonder how hard is to make an impression; and an installation on the basement level titled “Killface” seemingly deserves the all-too-common comment, “I could do that”—aside from an intriguing diary tacked to the wall, the installation looks like items leftover after a garage sale.  It seems there’s nothing so extreme about the easily dismissible.

            Such works aside, the show provides more successes than failures and in the end allows viewers to expect the unexpected.  For example, as the crowds began to disperse, I had a chance to discover what was in that carnival cage: a giant stuffed elephant hanging from a chain.  While the elephant’s fuzzy fur and lolling head suggest he’s just sleeping, not suffering, and children peered through the bars with more delight than shock, even I, a viewer who usually favors more off-putting experimental art, found my perception challenged.  Though I couldn’t categorize Kevin Ewing’s “The Elephant King” with other well-known artists who use found stuffed animals in risky ways, such as Mike Kelley and Tyree Guyton who display stuffed animals in sad piles or stapled to trees, Ewing‘s work perhaps more wisely uses our sympathy for stuffed things to tell a story.  The extreme comes from the dedication Ewing has to the visual story; he fashioned the stuffed elephant from scratch and built its cage out of old gates and bedposts to create a piece that reads like a fantastical, and therefore approachable, image from a children’s book, while at the same time subtly reminding us that we don’t treat our real animals as well as we should.

             The show this month reminds me once again why I believe the Gallery Project is a great boon for our community: at this gallery we see artist’s exploring themes in more ways than one, bringing ideas to life in visions that are sometimes beautiful, sometimes challenging, sometimes loveable, and yes, sometimes flat (evidence that the gallery itself can take risks).  But what’s most impressive in this show is how well artists can expose the strange propensities that humans have, suggesting that in addition to looking at art, we may need to consider looking more closely at ourselves to see what, if anything, is not extreme about our behavior.