Monday, November 25, 2013

My art review: Gilda Snowden - Album: A Retrospective 1977-2010

I came to see Gilda's Snowden's retrospective primarily because I felt like I owed her something. This is not to say that I wouldn't have come to see all of her fabulous work all in one place, nor would she herself would ever suggest that anyone "owes" anyone, but sometimes what appears as hyperbole is actually justified. She is one of the most important people in Detroit.

This is my personal list of the most positive cheerLeaders in Detroit, all of them are artists:
Mary Fortuna
Chido Johnson
Andrew Thompson
Gilda Snowden
Jack Summers

And to imagine Detroit without any one of them would feel like such a great loss, this city is lucky to have all of them, really.

I am so thankful (we are coming up on Thanksgiving after all) to know that both Chido Johnson and Gilda Snowden rooted for me to be hired at CCS which ended up being one of the most surprising and fun work experiences ever.

The reason I bring all of this up beforehand, is because I feel like there is a funny thing that happens when any of these people support you and your work. You're supposed to feel like they're your peers and yet through their overflowing enthusiasm you become only more aware of the energy that they have that makes them so good at what they do. 

Thankfully Gilda's show brings her down from the pedestal I put her up on as she reveals her values throughout this show. She comes off not as "Gilda the educator" but as the ever curious lifelong learner. The broader message is that a diverse body of work comes not from pushing oneself to produce, but that one becomes productive the more one becomes curious about ones own life and ones surroundings; and you can do this as long as you would like.

Gilda Snowden's retrospective is one of the most hopeful gestures of what it means to live in Detroit. The exhibitions does not make one nostalgic as much as it tells a story of how one person makes priorities in their life so that they can hold onto visceral moments as best as they can.

Nostalgia generally is about being unhappy in the moment because of remembering things as being better in the past. The photography embedded in Gilda's work then counters this sensation of time. Black and white photographs of friends and relatives appear sharp and present, while recent photographs from the internet still have a trace of jpeg artifacts and then are overlaid with a gauzy treatment obscuring the color photographs of her and her daughter. 

It is unfortunate that I didn't bring my 50mm to show you the detail of these images cut out from a contact sheet, it's like a precursor to Gilda's full on commitment to Facebook updates.

The technological advance of sharing images and printing them is filtered by encaustic in order for it to have the possibility of the photos being treated as "real" memory as opposed to a "doctored" digital photograph. In the era of Instagram where colors mimic the feeling of old-fashioned cameras, I imagine that there are those who believe that content can be achieved through which filter you choose over what you aim your camera towards.

Her painted constructions also reference transforming thinking with your hands into something solid, like as if a hug could turn two people into a single child. The rope on its own would not be enough as an object, nor the separate pieces of wood, but they are joined together and marked up in non-smothering treatments of warm earth-toned wax. She doesn't claim that the colors are a conscious decision as much as an economic limitation, which I find hard to believe, because it just would not seem like "limits" would be in this woman's vocabulary. The earthy colors of her constructions are very appropriate as if the work she produces suggests that art is as natural as a tree grows, colors and stencils of dates are the bark.
I took all of these photos on my GoPro so my apologies if you are averse to fish-eye lenses.

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If you read the catalog, you find out that:
  1. Gilda hates driving and therefore has walked everywhere.
  2. She names artists (who unfortunately I don't know who they all are), but she expresses the importance of knowing ones context.
  3. She explores personal histories and presents that not really knowing her relatives (because she's never met them) is as valid a reason for bringing them into the artwork as if she did know them.
  4. She whips out her CCS educator badge in order to keep the police from keeping her from taking rubbings from manhole covers for her series "City Album".
I don't know if she'd agree with me with everything, but I took the liberty of matching up those sentiments so that you can see how contrary they are to common perceptions of living in the city. Many would say:
  1. If you don't have a car you are screwed
    (Gilda might say: be tough* or get a chauffeur)
  2. Detroit is like a cultural island
    (Gilda might say: you're never truly alone in your practice)
  3. We need to talk about racial issues
    (Gilda might say: We need to be ok with looking inward too and the possibility of not knowing)
  4. Fuck tha police
    (Gilda might say: Everyone likes to learn including the police AND The best teacher is a student.)

* [In the interview with Dick Goody she is asked about a younger version of herself that acted tough in order to not have anyone mess with her as she took the risk of taking long walks through dangerous parts of the city.  She would give advice to that younger version of herself to be tough on the inside.]
I think these might be my favorite pieces of hers and they're not listed on her website currently! They are titled "City Album" and they remind me of Jasper Johns, but now they'll always remind me of Gilda being stopped by the cops.

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The catalog is also interesting because it shows how firmly she is from an older generation of artists, abstract expressionists. Her work fits well in a traditional white-cube setting, it can go anywhere, which is something I would like to challenge her on. 

If you look through the catalog you will find a sculptural painting called "Inverness" that is for her Scottish husband, Boswell. In the digital representation of the work it is cut out of context and missing my favorite element of the piece which helps give its definition: it's shadow. 

"Inverness" is pictured on the wall next to the reception desk, I find the reference to Scotland as being really interesting considering that many of their archives in that country are mostly used by people trying to trace their family history and genealogy.

I'm harping on this because in "Still Life with Film Canisters" she focuses on making the shadow as present as the object itself. Like the missing shadow in the catalog, I believe that even more context could make her work even richer, context that may be accidentally edited out.

Contrast of all sorts as well is really wonderful in this show, which makes her exhibitions of a single body of work look like selling wholesale flowers out of plastic containers rather than the wild forest that is her studio.

Consider this scenario: The DIA puts up reproductions of artwork up around metro Detroit. Can you imagine if they purchased one of her "Bright Stars at Night" paintings and then put one up nearby where the East Side Riders put their bikes? There is energy to her chairs and those Bright Star paintings that make her tornadoes look docile. Perhaps this is not accidental either, could this express that the desire for power (what her chairs may represent) is a force that needs to be recognized and reckoned with that is far more dangerous than the inherent chaos of nature?

Imaginary Landscape is also depicted on, but I swear the image they have is too yellow, this piece ZINGS. Also I really love the couple of sentences that accompany her work, it's as if she's right there next to you while you look at the work.

This is the wording that she had next to the "Bright Stars at Night" piece: "A visual cacophony between the artificial illumination (neon, klieg lights) and the natural lights (moon and stars) in my downtown neighborhood: natural light cannot compete with man-made."

There are some people in metro Detroit that might be old enough to remember seeing the Milky Way without having to go to the Night Sky Park in Mackinaw City and there is value in questioning the technological prowess of all human endeavors. One very American aspect that comes through in her work and some of her words is that of American optimism: with positive thoughts, all is well. I would like to see Gilda also create darker themed works that continue to utilize her great sense of intuition and playfulness, because I feel that there is more criticality that she could have to offer. It seems that she pulls back from being too definitive about the fight between natural light and artificial illumination (There's a quote somewhere in the catalog that states that she considers both kinds of light are wonderful, or at least it has a different tone than the sentence next to her piece). But I would argue that it is important that one takes a stance on this issue and many others, even if it's just on the inside, because cheerleading is only as strong as solidarity, activism and resistance.

- Cedric Tai

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I would also like to put it out there that I am going to start putting together some small informal meetings of artists/writers based around the question "What makes good writing about art" as a way to meet other local artists/writers, communally share resources, and have some alternative formats to doing research and development. If you are interested, feel free to e-mail me.

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