Visiting art in person again, Olivia Guterson and Laura Earle
Art Review by Idelle Hammond-Sass
During Passover I had an opportunity to go to Detroit to view a temporary art installation at MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit) by Detroit artist Olivia Guterson. Her piece, “At Our Table,” was one of the installations for REBOOT’s “Plastover: An Exodus from Plastic Waste” initiative and was installed outside at MOCAD. Guterson’s installation was also a part of the national “Dwelling in a Time of Plagues” commissions that were installed in cities around the country during both Sukkot and Passover.
As luck would have it, Guterson was also exhibiting at 22 North Gallery in Ypsilanti the night before I was to go. I was excited to venture out in search of art and an opportunity to meet artists, something I had not done for the past year (except on Zoom), and to see two exhibits by the same artist. And unlike online events, it was great to see people and objects in three dimensions with all the complexity of using my senses, to hear, see, and feel the space.
22 North is an exhibit space in Ypsilanti dedicated to encouraging emerging and established artists to create their most adventurous works. The exhibit, “Lumenality: Embodying Light,” on display till the end of April, is a collaboration between artist/curator Laura Earle and Olivia Guterson. The impetus for the show was their dual desire to create an uplifting, joyous, and inspiring experience. As Guterson explained, she wanted to create a space that would bring joy both to her young child as well as adults, where they could experience “hope and wonder.” With the long and isolated winter, COVID, political uncertainties, actions and activism providing plenty of stress, this is a time for art to be healing and contemplative.
By embracing light, the many patterns and shadows bring the space to life. As you enter the gallery you pass through vertical branches and enter a circular labyrinth lit with pinpoints of light emanating from within. Although we were there a bit early, as dusk fell the lights twinkled and glowed gently, while in the center of the spiral were illuminated lanterns of various sizes and designs. Lanterns with openwork patterns, suspended from the ceiling, threw intriguing shadows. Two large circular paintings anchor the space on both sides of the gallery filled with Olivia Guterson’s lacelike designs. As I passed through and under the lanterns, I felt a sense of wonder and delight. Continuing to the back of the gallery, a floating, fluttering rainbow of butterflies with golden inner wings threw shadows on the wall, moving into and out of focus, like lost souls. While beautiful and ethereal, this piece also invites contemplation, as artist Laura Earle explained that the migrations of animals and butterflies, as well as many lives lost to COVID, were very much on her mind this year while she was working.
Earle frequently uses computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) to realize her sculptural work, used here to cut Guterson’s intricate designs into the structure of the lanterns. Earle also creates furniture and Judaica, such as an Omer Counter and Menorah designs. An active artist and curator, Earle and Ann Arbor artist Leslie Sobel are leading a group of artists to prepare a multimedia exhibition to open at 22 North in July titled “All We Can Save,” based on a book of the same name. Earle’s other projects have included an exhibit titled “Seeing White” which took on the long history of racism in the U.S. based on the podcast of the same name, and back in December, Guterson and Earle also collaborated on a REBOOT event for the third night of Chanukah, “The Light Within,” which featured similar lantern forms in a large outdoor menorah illuminated by solar power. The purpose was to bring light and shine a light upon the families that have been impacted by COVID-19 and homelessness. Guterson’s design motifs illuminated all from within.
REBOOT is a nonprofit arts and culture organization which has reimagined a number of Jewish themes and holidays, “reinforcing Jewish thought and traditions.” They produced the well-attended “Saturday Night Seder,” the amazing Zoom seder offered last year featuring well-known entertainers.
For this Passover, REBOOT was part of a national project that invited artists to create outdoor installations in cities around the country to explore the idea of “Dwelling in a time of Plagues.” Olivia Guterson created an installation for Detroit, “At Our Table.” Outside and visible from the parking lot at MOCAD, the installation was a riff on the theme of “Plastover” — a look at our dependency on single use plastic, and how we can “free ourselves from the plague of plastic waste,” just as we get rid of hametz at Passover. At the entrance to the site, a container proclaimed “Let my Plastics Go Bitul Hametz: Nullify your plastics!” The plastic collected will be turned into eco-bricks by Hazon Detroit.
Guterson’s multi-racial heritage informs her work, as well as growing up in New Mexico where she was influenced by the landscapes, textures, and patterns around her as a language that draws from both her Jewish and African American heritage. She works primarily in black and white, incorporating ancestral patterns and narratives, an unraveling and re-weaving of her experience.
As I looked closely at the Passover table Guterson had created, complete with seder plates, plastic tableware, and her lace-like meandering designs, two things caught my attention. She took the project to heart, noting she could not celebrate Passover as usual this year with her family. In order to cover the table, she had woven together hundreds of plastic bags to create a tablecloth almost 15 feet long, representing the many hours that she collected bags from the streets in her Detroit neighborhood. It was sobering, those woven bags, reminding me of the enormity of the waste we create. Each chair back (socially distanced) was marked for the four questions — How do we learn the story, re-imagining the outcome, so we can move past this consumer-driven waste?
Although the Plastover project is over, you can see the installations online at www.bycanvas.org (plaguedwelling.com) and read about it at www.nu-detroit.com/setting-our-table. 22 North Gallery has exhibits planned through the summer and fall. I hope you will feel like venturing out of your routine, to experience the joy and wonder of light and the magical worlds these artists have created.
Idelle Hammond-Sass is a Jewelry and Judaica artist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, www.idellehammond-sass.com.