Rustbelt Irony: Suffering Art, Cars, and Cold in Detroit

Document Actions

Mike Mosher

I take pride in knowing my Toro snow blower, it's throaty rumble as it chews through foot-deep snow, knowing when to pull it back a moment before it stalls, so it doesn’t. The decisions to be made, whether or not snow this morning demands too much effort to be a good neighbor and do a couple neighbors’ sidewalks, as I can when the ground is merely powdered with five or so inches. Determining the mathematics of the most efficient way to roll over an irregularly-shaped driveway, wider at the back end to accommodate a two-car garage, changing the directional vent for the stream of snow the fewest number of times to avoid blowing snow upon the already-cleared area. Stopping to appreciate the fierce beauty of the landscape, and glimpses of light in the now-approaching dawn. It’s a Michigan thing. These attentions probably baffle my California friends.

The second week of 2014 the northern midwest bore the effects of the Polar Vortex, a blizzard of deep snow and week of sub-zero temperatures. This caused one to be humbled by the power of nature (climate now made globally weird by humankind's fossil fuels), and to reflect on the past year of culture in the major city in my state.

Michigan is a site of conflicting, or perhaps complementary, irony and sincerity.

I. Money (That’s What I Want):

The business press—like the March/April 2013 Dbusiness magazine—crowed about Detroit car industry success, attributing it to lower taxes and reduced regulations. The new Cadillac ELR electric-gasoline hybrid would be built at a Hamtramck, MI plant in which it had invested $35 million, and sales of the $60,000 vehicle was optimistically projected at 4,400. Buick sold over 550,000 cars in China in 2010, and market share was growing.

Sports are going great guns, for the Detroit Tigers baseball team have a $148 million a year payroll, $23 million going to a first base man and pitcher Justin Verlander under a seven-year $180 million contract. Their billionaire owner Mike Illich, also owner of the Red Wings hockey team (and founder of Little Caesar’s Pizza), plans to build an arena downtown, in a development project supported by $285 million in public money. A Lions football quarterback signed a $53 million three-year extension, and the Pistons spent nearly $80 million on two basketball guards.

In July the city of 700,000 filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

There were protests outside the federal courthouse in support of unions and honoring 23,000 retired city employees’ pensions before Judge Steven V. Rhodes’ ruling that they were “not entitled to any heightened protection in a municipal bankruptcy”. The protesters asserted bankruptcy had been Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s, and his Detroit Emergency Manager appointee Kevyn Orr’s, plans all along.

II. King of Pop:

In his chapter “The Comics”, in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), Marshall McLuhan noted:

…The highbrow, from Joyce to Picasso, has long been devoted to American popular art because he finds in it an authentic imaginative reaction to official action. Genteel art, on the other hand, tends merely to evade and disapprove of the blatant modes of action in a power high definition, or “square” society. Genteel art is a kind of repeat of the specialized acrobatic feats of an industrialized world. Popular art is the clown reminding us of all the life and faculty that we have omitted from our daily routines.

In August 2013, as Detroit was going through its bankruptcy proceedings, a replica of a massive can of Crisco appeared beneath Robert Graham’s bronze sculpture of Joe Louis' fist. This prominent downtown monument to the African American hometown prizefighter also carried meanings as a metaphor for Black Power, Coleman Young's 1974-1994 Mayoralty and black city government in a majority black city. When I asked his opinion shortly after it was installed in 1986 elder Detroit artist Jon Lockard shrugged "Joe Louis was about hitting people", perhaps a bit ingenuously. An art historical allusion is its resemblance to an Egyptian arm in dark stone in the British Museum, fragment of a sculpture of a pharaoh.

The Crisco can was placed there by Jerry Vile, who was remembered for publishing Orbit magazine in the 1990s, an irreverent arts and entertainment tabloid. Vile’s Orbit interviewed creative notables (including rocker/artist Niagara) and reviewed local endeavors with style, wit and panache, In the 1990s, others took a poke at Detroit myths. Graphic designer and painter Mark Dancey produced MOTORBOOTY magazine, with fellow University of Michigan Gargoyle humor magazine alumnus Danny Plotnick. Rick Manore’s C-Pop Gallery also flourished on Woodward Avenue, presenting Niagara and a bevy of Pop-influenced artists who fit painter Robert Williams’ definition of “low brow”. Guitar-driven rock bands blossomed, like the Paybacks, Dirtbombs (“I’m Sick of White Girls”) and most successful White Stripes, to revive the city’s rock soundtrack. Rising white rappers Kid Rock, Eminem and the cartoonish Insane Clown Posse achieved a degree of success that eluded the local black rappers.

Art-lovers in the city felt especially threatened that summer. Detroit's financial decline resulted in the Republican Governor Rick Snyder appointing an Emergency Manager for Detroit, with bankruptcy one of his options, and the option manager Kevin Orr soon chose. Orr then hired the international auction house Christie’s to evaluate the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection, its “first tier” 400 most valuable works, then 3,100 (out of a total 65,000 artworks and objects) of its “second tier”, for Orr’s office sees the holdings as a necessary part of what the city will submit to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. As Christie’s auction house took inventory of the Detroit Institute of the Arts on October 4th protestors assembled out front. Orr told the Metro Times, “Everything is on the table. I have a fiduciary responsibility to account for all of the assets of the city of Detroit and foremost among them might be the DIA.” “There’s no plan to take the bricks out of the Diego Riveras”, Orr said of the Detroit Industry frescoes commissioned for the Institute by Edsel Ford. “You come to the city you don’t want to be the person responsible for selling grandma’s fine china,” said Orr to WDIV TV’s Carmen Harlan, “But think of this, we have an obligation to our creditors…In bankruptcy, everything has to be on the table.” Yet as of early October, four months after Christie’s was first engaged, the October 4, 2013 Detroit News reported that DIA board chairman Eugene Gagaro had not met with Orr.

Jerry Vile soon followed up the Crisco can intervention with a full page ad in the Detroit Metro Times, and then produced yard-long FOR SALE tags he attached to public sculpture, lamp posts, other pieces of urban property. Vandyke-bearded Vile appeared on local television morning news with his friend and publicist Rick Manore, two stout bullet-headed men in dark suits with dark shirts, the kind of guys you want promoting critical art, not showing up to repossess your car or collect on a loan.

The show’s caffeinated male host hemmed and hawed around the fist’s meaning, probably remembering when "Crisco parties" was a punch line in high school. Thirty-five years ago a photographic magazine I innocently picked up from a table at a garage sale in San Francisco illustrated the process where an arm is inserted into a willing partner's anus; Vile’s addition to Robert Graham’s public sculpture visually proclaimed the city was being fisted, Mr. Orr’s grasping arm inserted whether Detroit likes it or not

Art is primarily about influence, entering public consciousness. He who dies having birthed the most memes wins. Irony is the proper response at certain times, but not all the time. Jerry Vile saw the proper moment, and seized it with a brilliant meme, then tossed out sale tags and an ad as his victory lap. Marcel Duchamp insured that literati in the 20th century (or especially the Postmodern 21st) couldn't look at the Mona Lisa without seeing a moustache. Thanks to Jerry Vile, one can never look at the Fist again without tensing up back there and hearing Michigan Governor Snyder's nasal voice telling Detroit to bend over. A lot more people immediately saw Vile's addenda to previous artworks than saw Duchamp's.

III. Tears of a Clown:

Only a few months before Jerry Vile’s interventions, attention was drawn in Detroit to the creativity of a dead man, Mike Kelley, with the springtime completion and re-dedication of his now-permanently-installed "Mobile Homestead" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), a project begun a few years ago when the current owners wouldn't sell him his boyhood home in the Detroit suburb of Westland. An approximation of the house, using a factory-built (misleadingly-called “mobile”) home, was created in 2010 and had been mounted upon a trailer bed. At one point it slid off its trailer during its travels around the city. In its permanent, lightly landscaped site, it contains oddly—some say creepily—designed basement spaces. Kelley's college friends Jim Shaw and Cary Loren drew, and made crafts, with local children for the dedication; Loren has posted on his facebook page a 1970s photo of Kelley in his bedroom that evokes the unforgettable musk of a damp Michigan basement.

Early in my own career I tired of trying to break into the bourgeois art world, and turned my attention to community murals. Coming back to Michigan for a university teaching in 2000, I became intrigued by the Los Angeles-based yet international careers of Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, (joint-) passing acquaintances of mine from their college days in my hometown Ann Arbor. With film-and-photo collagist Cary Loren, and post-Pop painter Niagara, their teenage Destroy All Monsters art gang was a model of artistic confidence that I constantly present my students, an example of exploring your sensibilities and good ideas to the max while young and less distracted. To not let your college studies get in the way of your education. My wife says Kelley's February 2012 suicide struck me hard, but I believe it was less as a personal loss than that it shattered my appreciation of his life as successful negotiation of the art world on his own quirky terms. I was rooting for him, big time art hero, but the center was rotten.

The 2012 issue of Artforum that contained a multi-author tribute to Mike Kelley has, on its cover, a cute little deer fawn, appropriated from some children's book or item, with an attacking gesture of paint (evoking Abstract Expressionist, exuberant gestures that came to be called "art marks" by 1980s). As John Berger wrote about Picasso, when the market bought anything the artist produced for a high price, telling him it was brilliant, he didn't know what he should paint well because all he produced would be embraced, whether treasure or shit. Kelley, having reached that status, burned out trying to maintain irony, producing imagery like the cute little deer. In contrast, the year of his death, my college students in Art 433 Community Murals class painted a picnic of cute friendly animals for the pediatric therapy rooms of Mid-Michigan Health Center in Midland, not ironically but because it was appropriate decor for scared little kids.

In October, 2013, the University of Michigan Penny Stamps School of Art and Design screened the Mobile Homestead videos Mike Kelley produced in 2010 at the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor.

At the showing, I ran into bandleader David Swain, a high school friend who also remembered Kelley from his Ann Arbor years. We joked there should be a special seating section roped off Smoked Dope at God's Oasis, the house Kelley shared with Jim Shaw and others at 741 Packard Road in Ann Arbor (the Stooges' collective band residence the Fun House, notorious a few years before, had been located a couple miles further down Packard). Swain then introduced me to a friend who remembered Kelley's housemate Jim Shaw from her high school in Midland. Two elderly women, retired UM Art & Design faculty, were telling each other they remembered Kelley in class, as they perused the books of his writings on sale in the lobby. It was a wake, more staid and academic than the Ron Asheton Memorial Concert the Stooges held in that same theater.

Cary Loren gave a brief overview of their Destroy All Monsters art gang and band, and his photograph of Kelley in his lime-green-and-pink basement room triggered memory of the smell of a damp Michigan basement. For Swain and me, it was arresting and fun to see Ann Arbor lovelies Ingrid Good and Francesca Palazzola, Loren's 1970s photographic models and Super 8mm movie actors, towering over us on the Michigan Theatre's big screen.

After that, Kelley's studio assistant recounted the history of the Mobile Homestead, its initial 2010 incarnation and then its posthumous 2013 completion at MOCAD. It became apparent as she showed the plans, however, that the basement rooms are windowless and accessible only by tunnels and ladders on a still lower level. Its underground tunnels look creepy even in architectural diagrams, clearly the artist's intention. The demands of art, personal and obsessive, and the demands of a public space, open and transparent, obviously were in conflict. In contrast, Rick Manore has repeatedly expressed a wish for the kind of humorous outdoor public art sometimes seen in Europe to enliven Detroit. Kelley's college paintings and drawings, which he later reworked with abstract expressionist brushwork, reaffirmed his perception (expressed in a witty police Abuse Report) of abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman as the abuser who violated his—hell, our generation’s!—artistic education.

The first of Kelley’s videos begins with shots of the Mobile Homestead rolling, on its flatbed truck, shadowed between the skyscrapers of downtown Detroit then back in the sunshine as it chugs westward on Michigan Avenue, US 12. We visit a trio of junkies on the stairs into their house, one a pre-op male-to-female transsexual, another her devoted male companion, all bleary-eyed but intelligent, and Kelley gives them time to tell their tales. Then come the pink and chubby gentlemen of a gay bar on Underwear Night. This is followed by deft cross cutting between the proprietor of a Jewish deli, an Albanian immigrant's ham-centered restaurant, and a dominatrix slapping the inflamed shoulder of her corseted submissive with custom-made leather gear.

Kelley’s camera stops to examine a Latin American Pentecostal church, with good music, a dedicated ex-cop pastor and comely teenage female deacon, and then an Irish bar in Corktown, proud of its roots going back to County Cork. He continues down Michigan Avenue, going to a franchise gym, and an Arab women's clothing store. Another bar, there for many years and said to be friendly, its bartender sporting biker tattoos on her arms and neck. Then a St. Vincent De Paul resale store, and some mobile home residents complaining of violence and robbery on a dangerous stretch of Michigan Avenue, and an optimistic fried catfish cook who draws cartoon advertisements. The video grew exhaustive, a seemingly pointless catalog, and like most videos shown in art galleries, too long. Its production was professional, but dry.

One African Americans' Baptist church had a few white members (or guests) and music less engaging than the Latin American one, but impressive preaching. A Catholic church had a sympathetic priest, and a couple of black members taking Communion. A segment on the Eloise hospital complex, the county poor farm which had also been its tuberculosis sanitarium, insane asylum and its potters' field, worthy of its own documentary. A whisper informed me that David Swain’s II-V-I Orchestra had played at its director’s wedding. It all start to blur, for Kelley’s steamboat down the Mississippi less is a Ken Burns documentary, whose historical tapestries always have a point to prove, than a booster-ish chamber of commerce production, The Many Interesting Faces of Our Michigan Avenue.

A self-inflicted death causes an artist’s artwork to all be looked at differently; John Berger once illustrated this by asking the reader to look at Vincent Van Gogh’s “Crows in a Cornfield” both before, and after, knowing that was the artist’s last painting before his suicide. The video thus feels unresolved, ultimately frustrating. It’s become suffused with Kelley’s own yearning, searching, searching his hometown for someplace to belong, a community.

While the 2011 Prism Gallery Destroy All Monsters show (which Loren has lamented was more prim and formal than earlier shows with artwork and ephemera tacked to the walls) of their 1970s artwork was being installed, Kelley was interviewed by Arete art magazine. In this final interview, he said that he was burnt out and wanted to stop working for a while. Supposedly both Loren and painter Niagara (who, with Ron Asheton, had whipped Destroy All Monsters into a tight rock band that played for several years after the arty boys had left it) implored their depressed friend, to come to Detroit and just relax.

Perhaps Kelley had been so traumatized in adolescence that he sees an attractive Michigan Avenue gym, but fears joining out of shame of being out of shape. He could have connected to Irish family roots in a friendly Corktown pub...but feared being called a poseur, a sissy, an artsy-fartsy by some neighborhood grumbler deep in his cups. He could lose himself, his ego, by joining a church (especially an emotive, evangelical one)...but, scarred by old-time Catholic strictures, that prospect was scary...and, as an atheist, what's the use? Those bedraggled junkies turning tricks seem to have self-awareness and motivating purpose that can elude an artist working at Kelley’s frenetic pace.

Intermission was called. By this time the theater was nearly empty, the art students all having gotten credit for showing up. There were two more videos ahead, but I left, as did Swain and his friend. I felt guilty, but then realized I stayed longer than I probably would have for any Kelley-era Destroy All Monsters noise performance.

Mike Kelley yearned for connection, to the variegated forms of authenticity in Detroit (ironically, a speculator currently buying numerous plots of land in Detroit is named Mike Kelly). In spite of the city’s maddening decline, long-time resident Jerry Vile feels a part of a Detroit that remains worth his creative effort, good enough to criticize. Vile’s not the only one who cares. At the January 2014 North American International Auto Show, always an annual local highlight, General Motors revealed its new GMC Canyon Pickup at the Russell Industrial Center just north of downtown, a former factory converted to spaces for artists’ and small entrepreneurs. The center is decorated with a mural of a winged lion, a Rastafarian symbol probably inspired by a 1970s reggae album, glowering at cars passing on I-75. That month a group of philanthropic foundations stepped forward to pledge $330 million towards Detroit’s $18 billion in debts, avoiding public pension cuts and saving the, the masterworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Michigan history buff David Swain recently launched a mock-campaign for the state to regain the strip of Ohio it lost with statehood in 1837, which would, after all, give us the Toledo Museum of Art.

Yet even beyond January’s Polar Vortex, a decades-long winter—a perfect storm of globalization and de-industrialization, fiscal and financial freeze—still grips Detroit. Never knew I’d be living through Michigan’s Ice Age.

—January 26, 2014

Mike Mosher writes on Michigan for Bad Subjects. Photo of Jerry Vile by T.J. Samuels from Deadline Detroit.

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.

Personal tools