As a purveyor of contemporary art, Project Art Lounge often highlights emergent artists of our time, with a focus on art that goes beyond the literal to a more abstract or conceptual narrative. Occasionally, however, we happen upon a museum or gallery with a more traditional focus that captures our interest. Sometimes it’s the juxtaposition of established and emerging artists, which calls us to attention. Such was the case during a Labor Day visit to the Dennos Museum Center at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, Michigan.
Large scale works by contemporary Korean artist, Lee Sung Keun, were presented together with a smaller retrospective of works by master painter Armand Merizon, Michigan’s own “painter’s painter.”
Lee’s exhibition entitled “Interconnected” filled the main gallery with suspended structures of organic forms and color, some mounted on the walls and others hanging from the ceilings, casting shadows as integral to the visual experience as the artworks themselves. According to the museum’s literature, “building a bridge between man and nature, Lee’s work is a perfect illustration of the concept of vital energy (Qi), which is omnipresent in the artistic culture of Eastern Asia.” The exhibition, which originated at the Waterfall Mansion and Gallery in New York City, is on display at the Dennos Museum from June 9, 2019 through September 22, 2019.
Whether by intention or happenstance, Dennos curators juxtaposed a retrospective of Armand Merizon’s work directly adjacent to Lee’s “Interconnected” – creating an interesting interplay with Merizon’s nature filled landscapes and evocative portraits of man living in and shaping the natural world of Michigan’s farms and small towns. The exhibition “ARMAND MERIZON: HIS LIFE AND ART” pulls together a diverse cross section of paintings by the Michigan painter and teacher, who died in 2010. Influenced by Dutch masters and contemporary artists alike, the Merizon exhibition includes both classical rural landscapes, nostalgic period pieces and abstract compositions with the color and vibe that seemingly harness the energy of Lee’s neighboring exhibition.
For a museum located far from the bustling art scenes of New York and Seoul, it was a welcome and unexpected delight to see these two exhibitions of local and international acclaim together. Whether it is the vivid energy that each of these artists embody or the “symbiotic unity” that both exhibitions claim for themselves and with each other, the Dennos Museum presents a well of creative energy and “Qi” in the otherwise placid surrounds of Northwestern Michigan.
On the first of what will no doubt be several visits to the 2017 Whitney Biennial I was confronted with an uneasy feeling. As I worked my way through the crowded galleries, I stood shoulder to shoulder with others pondering the works before me. It was like standing next to a stranger in a public bathroom, looking into the mirror. Are we staring at ourselves, or looking past one another wondering what the other person is thinking, while trying not to make eye contact. However innocuous the encounter, I walked away from each artwork feeling that we are all here because of a common purpose and a desire for shared experience.
The “Zeitgeist” portrayed in the Whitney’s newest survey of American art is one of seriousness and concern over the polarization in society. Significant artworks deal with themes of inequality and injustice that were at the forefront of last year’s election. Probably the most talked about piece is Dana Schutz’s homage to Emmett Till, the painting of a young black boy who was brutally killed following false accusations by a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. Controversy erupted as some black artists protested what could be perceived as profiteering on a “black death spectacle,” criticizing that – as a white female artist – Schutz has no ownership in the cultural heritage and the civil rights movement that the image of Emmett Till represents. In her defense, Schutz has made clear that she never intends to sell the painting.
I disagree with the criticism and feel strongly that it is for all Americans to own that shared cultural heritage including the shamefulness of white supremacy. It’s certainly better to confront that experience than to run away from it or deny its continued existence. Biennial’s co-curator, Christopher Lew on artnet put it this way: “It is deeply painful and traumatic—more so for some than others, in unequal terms—but it is something that we all have to deal with, and I think if we don’t confront it, if we don’t have these kind of conversations, then we’re not getting anywhere.”
That painting is also the subject of a personal confession and the source of that unsettling mirror-image I was feeling. In a moment of pictographic ambiguity, the yellow cloth surrounding the victim’s head suddenly resembled the shock of yellow-blond hair that we have all become too familiar with. Was it Emmett Till’s casket open in front of me or was I staring into a dystopian void in which Donald Trump was staring back at me? However fleeting, this weird moment of confusion was a reminder that the subject of racism is ever present in society today. Our fate as Americans – white and black – are all wrapped up in the heritage that led to the death of Emmett Till and we have a shared responsibility to deal with it. I am reminded of the song “Everyone’s a little bit racist” from the musical Avenue Q:
If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit,
And everyone Stopped being so P.C.,
Maybe we could Live in — harmony!
In the words of another notable white figure, controversial on matters of racial injustice, the Polish-British author Joseph Conrad said this: “In order to move others deeply we must deliberately allow ourselves to be carried away beyond the bounds of our normal sensibility…” Whether through literature or painting, art has a way of transcending reality to engage us in new ways of thinking about ourselves and our shared experience.
Biennial co-curator Mia Locks wraps up the exhibition this way: “When people keep talking about racism, when people keep talking about inequity, when people keep talking about debt — when conversations come around without you bringing it up — you realize: These are the ideas!”
For a show bustling with the energy of an overzealous crowd in search of the next big controversy, the Whitney Biennial also offers quiet moments of reflection. The busy visitor will miss the beauty and poignancy in “Harmony of Difference”, a video and music installation by jazz musician Kamasi Washington. As I stood and watched, I could hear hushed questions from impatient passersby asking “is anything going to happen”.
Slow images rolled by as visitors came and went. For those who patiently waited, Washington’s beguiling music evolved and the video rewarded greatly with “Desire,” “Humility,” “Knowledge,” “Perspective” and “Integrity” – the five themes beautifully woven together. My take away of the whole biennial: for true understanding, we must take the time to look (and listen) carefully and to see deeply.