Two shows up through March 29 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit remind us why it's so cool to have a contemporary-art museum in town, and what we were missing in the years before MOCAD landed on Detroit shores.
"Jamian Juliano-Villani" features the whacked-out paintings of the New York-based artist, who often deals in an intensely colored cartoon format. By contrast, "Ragnar Kjartansson: The End" involves five huge video screens filled with gorgeous scenes of two men playing music in the deep wilderness.
Taking the latter first, "The End" is, to put it bluntly, a lush sensory experience.
Need to calm down? Want to get centered? Walk into the middle of these screens, which form a sort of circle, and let the imagery and recorded music wash over you. Really — you owe it to yourself.
MOCAD executive director Elysia Borowy-Reeder says when she first saw Kjartansson's work at the New Museum in New York last summer, she knew she wanted him in Detroit.
"Kjartansson was so generous," she says, noting that "The End" premiered at the 2013 Venice Biennale, and isn't exactly cheap. "He just said, 'We'll figure it out.'" Lucky for us, they did.
Each screen features Icelanders Kjartansson and Davíd Pór Jónsson in Davey Crockett caps and winter garb, a bit like pioneer hipsters, who are unaccountably playing music in the jaw-dropping wilderness outside Banff, Alberta.
On one screen, a baby grand piano far out on a snowy plain is being played by one of the two with a classic Rocky Mountain tableau as dramatic backdrop. In another, the two fight to keep playing a guitar and banjo in an unrelenting snow storm (which is actually kind of funny), and so on so forth with the other screens.
The explanatory notes on "The End" call it a "five-channel video installation synched together as a single, disfigured country music arrangement in the chord of G," which puts it far more succinctly than this writer ever could.
As it happens, the music is wonderful, country edging into folk that — with nine simultaneous performances — is layered over and on top of itself in three-dimensional harmonic cacophony.
All in all, "The End" is lyrical, witty and utterly absurd. Those who love mountain scenery will dig it, as will acoustic-music freaks. And, one suspects, just about anyone else.
If "The End" is a wintry, ethereal experience, the fiercely colored paintings by Jamian Juliano-Villani around the corner, part of the museum's "Detroit Affinities" series, heat things right back up.
Juliano-Villani apparently draws on a range of artistic inspirations, from classic American comics to Japanese pen-and-ink drawings.
In many of the works here, the New Yorker gives us canvases jammed with chaos and color like "Midnight Snack," with its dog-headed mom and kid, refrigerator crammed with great leftovers (lobster, a Dagwood sandwich, and leftover Chinese), and — unaccountably — a pair of hands struggling to get out of the freezer.
However, Juliano-Villani's most impressive work, "Some Deaths Take Forever," cops a completely different attitude, and at about 9 feet by 5 feet, is by far the largest canvas on display, folded into a corner so it takes up part of each wall.
The canvas is inky black apart from two images far apart at either end. On the right is a lit, red candle. At far left, a fist has just snuffed out a shorter candle.
By rights, this ought to be trite. But it's not. Instead it's striking. Go figure. It's an intriguing artist who moves so easily from the zany to the symbolic, never stubbing her toe in the process.
Kjartansson: The End'
Through March 29
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit
4454 Woodward, Detroit
Tickets $5 donation