Mary Fortuna show opens at ArtNxt in Birmingham
Royal Oak artist Mary Fortuna, whose dolls and canvases conjure worlds unknown, is pulling up stakes and taking her considerable energies northward to Traverse City. Before she goes, she’s staging one last exhibition opening Dec. 10 at Birmingham’s ArtNxt gallery.
Her show, “Mythos,” will run through Jan. 24.
Fortuna, the power behind the oustanding exhibits at Rochester’s Paint Creek Center for the Arts until a couple years ago, has been working her craft mostly out of the spotlight’s glare, which is a pity given the unexpected power wielded by her dolls in particular.
As a rule, dolls generally get short shrift in the artistic community. You can’t help but wonder why that would be the case when introduced to Fortuna’s gene pool of eccentric, not-quite-creepy little humanoids.
“Dolls are supposed to be girly,” says Vince Carducci, editor of the Motown Review of Art and a dean at the College for Creative Studies, who’s a big fan. “But some of Mary’s are a little vicious. There’s something almost kinky about them — like fetish items.”
Mostly made from handsome, sewn leather, these humanoids constitute a remarkable demographic, with heads that range from rabbits to reindeer to a hard-to-identify green fellow with a scowl. Body-wise, they’re all of a piece — stretched and thin, often decked out in costumes or skins that call to mind super-hero duds, albeit without the show-off capes.
Carducci applauds Fortuna’s meticulous craft — the leather and stitching are often beautiful — and her willingness to take on art that isn’t puffed up with its own importance. “I love that Mary doesn’t pay attention and just follows her muse,” he says.
One feature is riveting. These proto-humans don’t have eyes, just dark impressions where eyes ought to go. It’s the sort of detail that guarantees the otherworldly never passes for cute.
“I specifically don’t paint on eyes,” says Fortuna, who got her art degree from Wayne State University. “They have dark eye sockets — these sort of recessed places. It’s always seemed if I put eyes on them they’d instantly become less mysterious and more a cartoon character.”
You could almost see them as dark, grown-up substitutes for Elf on the Shelf, the spymaster who terrorizes little kids in the lead-up to Christmas. Once Fortuna’s little guys lock their non-eyes on you, there’s no escaping their gaze — or judgment.
By contrast, Fortuna’s mythic paintings — full of snakes, lotus flowers, crows and other ancient symbols — are bright and, at least on the surface, utterly non-mysterious. No shadowy eye sockets here.
“I don’t even like to call it painting,” she says. “My stuff is much more decorative and pop-based than art-history based.”
The imagery, she says, comes from a lifetime of enthusiasm for folk tales and mythology, from American ghost stories to the Arabian Nights.
The pieces in “Mythos” read like bright, flat southwestern totems — a touch of Frida Kahlo here, a bit of the Tibetan Book of the Dead there. And over and over again, Fortuna gives us cheerful, knowing snakes.
“I don’t know when I became completely obsessed with making and painting snakes,” she says, noting she’s done dolls and sculptures in that line as well, “but I cannot get it out of my system.”
One thing Fortuna is getting out of her system, however, is a great deal of Detroit art she’s collected over the years but will not have room for in Traverse City.
Fortuna’s got a ton of stuff, much of it small, stretching back decades and covering any number of local artists including Rick Vian, Tom Humes, Matthew Hanna.
Those who’d like to round out their collections might want to drop by her house at 910 McLean in Royal Oak 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday.
“Mythos — New Work by Mary Fortuna”
ArtNxt, 2253 Cole, Birmingham
Noon - 8 p.m. Thursday; noon - 6 p.m. Friday & Saturday; noon - 4 p.m. Sunday
Other art around town:
■“Thirty-Nine Years,” an anniversary exhibition honoring the late Susanne Hilberry, opens Saturday at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, Ferndale. (248) 541-4700
■“Rick Vian: Using the Whole Chicken,” through Dec. 19. Robert Kidd Gallery, Birmingham. (248)-642-3909
■“Jim Pujdowski,” through Dec. 23. Anton Art Center, Mt. Clemens. (586) 469-8666