Defying Collapse: Post-Industry Art in Detroit

The people of Detroit are resilient. The artists who make up the aural and visual landscape of the city work with such diligence and urgency that it is difficult not to be greatly affected by their vision and drive.

Detroit, once a beacon of the industrial American dream, found its urban structures in the grips of severe osteoporosis. Crumbling and decaying, the city became known for being in a losing battle with the future. Now, engagement with art has since transformed a pastime into a necessity, and become a vehicle through which the people of Detroit can interrogate ideas of place and progress, uproot ideas of collapse, and investigate the past in order to reinvent the present. Gary Wasserman, founder of Wasserman Projects, and his team, are some of the people filling these roles.

Installation view, PD Rearick

The organization’s current exhibition After Industry showcases works by Willy Verginer (Italy), Christer Karlstad (Norway) and Jason DeMarte (Michigan). Together, they “offer a subtle but unmistakable commentary on humanity’s intervention and attempts to control the natural world.” Good Trouble's Jennifer Lorraine Fraser spoke with Wasserman about post-industry art, the tensions between the manmade and natural worlds, and how the energy of the past remains in the spirit of the city's people.

GOOD TROUBLE: Why is this show a necessary commentary on  environmental concerns in Detroit, and in the broader industrialized world?

GARY WASSERMAN: Detroit is a city that attracts widespread attention because of the massive economic and social collapse of the fabric of the city. Detroit once had more than two million people within the city limits, and as many as six million in the metropolitan region. It is now home to 550,000 within the city limits and four million in the region. Detroit today is left with vast spaces that are unused, and great swaths of the population are underemployed.

Detroit today is left with vast spaces that are unused, and great swaths of the population are underemployed.

The energy of the past remains present in the people, history and places of the city. It is also a place looking to the past, present and future to determine what it’s going to be. So, the title of the exhibition stems from this unique posture and the opportunity of the city.

In my visits to Detroit, I have only ever met inspiring, kind and hard-working people in the arts. Can you speak of this?

More than that, the people of Detroit work with a sense of pride, almost patriotism, that is unique. It is that energy that is being redirected into what the place is going to be.

There exists a sense of tragedy that runs through numerous nearby centres, such as Flint, Michigan, yet there are also sharp contrasting places of consumer engagement like Ann Arbor. How does Jason DeMarte’s work display the locality of the place?

Candied Cultivation, Jason DeMarte

Jason is working out of Ann Arbor, a very robust place only 45 minutes from Detroit. However, his photographic sense of environment collapses the division, representing familiar foliage, birds, and candies, remastered. His work demonstrates the cultural desire to enhance and perfect nature, approaching it much as we would a consumer good that can be improved through augmentation.

I cannot help but think of addiction and drug consumption when looking at his images; they do say that sugar is the first drug we are introduced to as children. His works are also disturbing for me.

They are disturbing. He takes completely ordinary things – weeds, garden flowers, common birds – and then photocollages them into post-industrial landscapes – images that are up to the viewer to interpret.  And yet, he confuses the interpretation with the goo – cake sprinkles, sugar, candies, bright colours. The suggestions to sweetness are references for consumerism. By looking at real things removed from their natural contexts and repositioned into manmade environments, it triggers the kind of contemplation expressed throughout After Industry. It’s familiar, but it’s also not quite right.

Looking at the images of Christer Karlstad’s paintings, I cannot help but think of folk tales… dangerous princes embodying animals and women inviting them innocently into their private spaces. How can mythology be used to demonstrate environmental realities?

Artists should invite the viewer to find their own interpretation. It stimulates you to think of your childhood memory, or a critical social-industrial analysis, and it is really meant to be both. His work shows the intersection between the manmade environment and the natural world. In many of the paintings, he references a world that is no longer there, a return to nature.

Unidirectional, Christer Karlstad

In some of his works, you see a road leading off to nowhere, or sometimes you see a shadow – a shadow of the past. The intersection with the natural world is not defined. Depending on how you are viewing the images, the human figures might be in danger, or might be dead, or might be protected. It depends on the perspectives of the viewers. Keep in mind, though, the humans are not dressed for hunting. They are dressed in city clothes, and that’s part of the otherworldly kind of effect.

How does Willy Verginer’s installation interrogate the spaces of industrial destruction?

Willy Verginer’s installation is about disruption. The tallest figure, sitting on top of the drums, is a self-portrait of him as an imagined commodities broker, directing the chaos around him. You see people crawling into the 55-gallon drums. You don’t know what they are doing. Are they trying find something of value? Or maybe protecting themselves? The 55-gallon drum is a universal asset of productivity, as well as a reminder of detritus.

PD Rearick

The installation signifies waste, and setting the theme and tone for the works around it. The same way that the drums represent productivity and waste, so do the tires – though they are direct reference to automobile industry.

There is this tension between the reality of usable equipment and the waste it produces, and the impact of that waste on our environment. With the tires, Willy has carved leaves and trees that seem to be springing from them. It’s a symbol, but whether it’s hopeful or despairing is on the viewer to interpret.

I notice the references to Italian art history. Strong classical sculptural forms, and his use of the oil drums with monochromatic colour schemes remind me of the Arte Povera, and how artists would use pieces of the natural environment as primary material interacting with the made environment…

Rootless, Willy Verginer

For insight into the influences of the work, Verginer comes from Val Gardena, a region in northern Italy, historically situated as either Italian or Austrian. It went back and forth. Inhabitants of the region speak their native language of Ladin, an old Rhaeto-Romanic language, and speak Italian and German as second languages. With 90% of the population speaking this 2000-year-old language, their identity is more Ladinish than Italian or German.

You recognize a classical approach to craft because that valley remains the centre of ancient and medieval European woodcarving. The schools taught students to carve saints and religious figures, and it was expected these figures would be duplicated without end. As demand for the figures has diminished, though, there is a group of breakaway artists who use the exquisite process in contemporary art.

Verginer’s donkeys refer to those religious figures and classical sculpture. They are incredibly precise. Interestingly, the execution of the donkeys and children are flawless, but the adult human figures are carved as something more abstracted. The execution of perfection is not always true. It is a decision he makes depending on the impact he is seeking. 

After Industry is on view through April 8, 2017

Top image: Willy Verginer, The Dark Site of the Donkey

Art writer and curator based in Toronto, Canada.