Chelsea Art Gallery Takes Another Look At Detroit

June 30, 2014 | Rhett Jones

Over the past twenty years or so, Detroit has become a symbol of a failed city, to America and to the world. Yet, recent reports show that artists are flocking there, believing it’s the new hellhole that can be revitalized to provide cheap rents, urban inspiration, and deep artistic roots. But unlike the Lower East Side in the late ’70s or East Berlin in the late ’90s, in Detroit there are no adjacent systems that can provide amenities for survival.

There are 3,000 people getting their water shut off per month. About half the city can’t pay their water bill. Good luck with a heart attack. The average wait time for a 911 call is about an hour. Yet, the city’s effort to sell the publicly owned art collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts dominated most bankruptcy news. People don’t want to hear about a US city so neglected, its residents burn the dead in abandoned buildings to avoid funeral costs. It’s easier to turn to art than to imagine that kind of horror. But if art gets peoples attention, that’s great.

Max Ortiz, Johnnie Redding Frozen in Elevator Shaft (2009)

In a new exhibition, curator Todd Levin wants us to take “Another Look At Detroit.” This dual gallery exhibition opened Thursday night simultaneously at Marianne Boesky and Marlborough Galleries in Chelsea.

Many Detroit staples were present: cars, civil rights struggle, music, etc. The “other look” comes from an absence of Motown, an emphasis on the really early days of Detroit like their bridge between America and Canada (1800’s style), and the exclusion of what Levin characterizes as “ruin porn” — the sexy shots of dilapidated buildings, retired factories and other stages for human suffering (at a distance) that characterizes so much of the visual representation of failed cities. Whatever “ruin porn” is present, prominently featured the humans suffering or had a meaningful context. There’s also a decided emphasis on “culture”, as opposed to exclusive “high art”.

Nick Cave, Untitled (2012)

What you get is an exhibition that spans two galleries, and wouldn’t be out of place at the Met. That is not to say, it’s staid. The exhibition takes the historical view and attempts, in a couple of interesting juxtapositions, to show that times have always been tough in Motor City. The diversity of cultural artifacts present is something you don’t see often in Chelsea. Everything from ceramics to video to fashion design and jewelry mixed with the standard presence of paintings and sculpture.

It all amounts to a collection ranging from historically interesting art, to oh I didn’t know so and so is from Detroit, to oh shit, thank god there’s the MC5 and Mike Kelley has come to destroy.

Destroy All Monsters Collective (Mike Kelley, Carey Loren, Jim Shaw) Mall Culture, from the installation, Strange Früt: Rock Apocrypha (banner); Strange Früt: Rock Apocrypha (video), 2001 (banner); 1998 (video)

Detroit’s national legacy isn’t immediately apparent. No one can deny our government is absurdly dysfunctional, allowing and often causing these conditions, but we need to work to make sure every city, county, and town not only functions but excels — you never know where the next Iggy might pop in! When it comes to cities like Detroit or New Orleans, we should remember that what they provide is priceless, and they should receive every dollar necessary to make them thrive. As gallerist Marianne Boesky tells the New York Times, “We wanted a show that reflected a living city, not a dead city, and that if it had a message it might be ‘Don’t take what’s left.’” “Another Look At Detroit,” Various Artists, Jun 26 – Aug 8, Marianne Boesky and Marlborough Galleries, Manhattan