Monday, June 9, 2008

Art: Detroit Institute of Art

My dad grew up in Detroit, and moved to San Francisco in the 70s; he was the first of six children, and the only one to ever leave Michigan. I remember going to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins as a child, marveling at the expanses of lawns, tire swings, and houses that were only one floor, but had "lakes" (ponds) on their extensive lots. My cousins played in little league, knew how to roller skate, and regularly ate food cooked outdoors on Weber grills (on which I burned my hand at the age of five, when my cousin, with pigtails encircled with bows of red yarn, tried to teach me to roller skate, and I tentatively pushed forward while keeping a constant hand on whatever object was available to support me, in this case, a smoldering meat cooker that covered my right palm in blisters that kept me up crying all night.) Of course, all these families lived in the 'burbs, and I never saw Detroit itself, only heard the horror stories: the family friends who went into town for the Opera and were car-jacked, the wife being locked in the trunk during the thugs' two hour joyride, and then abandoned under a highway.

I hadn't been back to Michigan in almost fifteen years when I found out that my cousin—the one with the red yarn bows—was getting married. It was with much trepidation that I conceded to my father and bought plane tickets (fear of seeing the long-lost family again, not fear of Detroit). I wanted desperately to see the old Michigan theater, a glory-days movie palace that, in the 1970s, was gutted and turned, believe it or not, into a parking lot (the walls and ceilings still boast the original arches, stonework, and peeling paintings of the 1920s), and I woke up early the day of the wedding to drive downtown with my dad and see it on the way to visit his ailing sister, who wouldn't be at the wedding. The theater/garage was closed, and the two attendants wouldn't let me in, although I begged, pleaded, and offered cash incentives. The most I got was a tiny peep through the gate. We did, though, drive by the old railroad station, and stopped to snap some pictures.



The morning after the wedding, when everyone was sleeping of their hangovers, my mom and I were with my uncle and his girlfriend, who still live in Detroit proper (they bought a gorgeous old Victorian with stunning original details for a song about ten years ago. . . I am talking a five-figure sum, here, with a first digit of two. Unbelievable, given that my parents bought their house just outside of San Francisco almost ten years before that, also with a first digit of two, but a six-figure sum). They drove us, in their cigarette smoke-infused, cranberry-colored jalopy (we were happy for the ride) to the Detroit Institute of Art, which, I had heard, to my surprise, was an amazing museum. More to my surprise, the museum had been completely gut renovated within the last year, and its cool, silent rooms were fresh and lovely, with evenly painted mauve walls and shining wood floors and sparkling white rafters. It being early Sunday morning, and most of Detroit being rather cemetery-like anyway (silent, peaceful, mournful, grassy, now that half of the abandoned buildings have burned down and their ruins become de facto micro-prairies), the museum was mostly empty.

We only had one and a half hours to spend, so I wasn't able to take careful notes or spend too much time with any one thing, and still only managed to see about half of the museum, which has a surprisingly extensive collection. I didn't take pictures of any of the contemporary work, like the beautiful William Kentridge video that was projected onto a spinning table and then reflected up onto a metal can, where the movie played right-side-up, or the Yinka Shonibare batik-dressed mannequins on stilts that I recognized from his show at the Cooper Hewitt in New York. Instead, I wandered around snapping photos of paintings that caught my fancy.

I like different paintings for different reasons, of course. Sometimes, a painting is just plain weird, and I love it for that reason. Like this Jaws episode:


Sometimes, I see a painting by an artist I know well, but in a style that seems incongruent with his other work, like this Paul Gauguin self-portrait.


I generally cannot stand landscapes, but I found myself rather taken by this one:


And ultimately, I am always a sucker for good naked lady paintings, both the more romantic, like this one:


And the more stylized, like this one:


This last one is kind of like an Egon Schiele if Egon Schiele were a Pre-Raphealite. The artist is a Swiss guy named Ferdinand Hodler; I had never heard of him before, and this is apparently just a study for his painting called Day. Look at the way he bends her body to conform to the frame, as compared to the more straightforward portrait above. This is typical of Hodler's work, where bony bodies hunker down to "fit" inside the bounds of his wide but short canvasses. I think he is my new favorite painter.

1 comment:

scott davidson said...

Nice way to decorate your walls. I have never done that. My effort to beautify the walls in my house was to order big-sized canvas prints from wahooart.com, from images of western art. I use the same angel motifs in all of the rooms painted by different painters, such as this one by very interesting English artist Stanley Spencer, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LT7K6.