ArtPrize Nine opens Wednesday with 1,346 artists

Michael Hodges
The Detroit News

Time flies when you’re making art and having fun.

Artist Hubert Massey works on “Detroit: Crossroad of Innovation,” a 30- foot-by-30-foot charcoal drawing that features many symbolic images. The fresco will eventually be painted on Cobo Center’s second floor.

It’s hard to believe this is the ninth year Grand Rapids has turned its entire downtown over to the radically democratic ArtPrize, which first electrified the world in 2009 by offering the largest art payout on the planet.

ArtPrize Nine, which runs Wednesday through Oct. 8, will feature 1,346 entries at 175 venues scattered across the city. As usual, prizes are awarded on two tracks — the visiting public gets a vote, as do expert juries.

The grand prize for each track is $200,000. Winners will be announced Oct. 6.

Competing for the big bucks are four Detroit-area artists: Hubert Massey, Nina Caruso and Christopher Schneider, and Rebekah Modrak.

Hubert Massey

It’s hard to work on a 30-foot-by-30-foot charcoal drawing in a room that’s only about 15 feet high.

So Hubert Massey had to divide the preliminary cartoon for his planned Cobo Center fresco, “Detroit: Crossroad of Innovation,” in half along the horizontal.

“I just want to see the whole thing together,” Massey said, taking a break from finishing the huge piece in his temporary Cobo studio. “Because so far I’ve been working on two separate walls.”

The fully assembled charcoal drawing will be exhibited at ArtPrize in the DeVos Place Convention Center.

It’s a dramatic composition, starring the “Spirit of Detroit,” the Ambassador Bridge, a Native-American woman directing slaves to Canada, and a tidy collection of classic Detroit workers’ cottages, among other symbolic images.

Maureen Devine, who’s curating the artwork slowly filling up Cobo Center, called Massey a “consummate storyteller — he can divide compositions to include several complicated perspectives simultaneously.”

You’ve likely seen Massey’s work, whether the mural on the Brush Street side of the College for Creative Studies garage, sidewalk medallions in Detroit’s Paradise Valley, or the historical mosaic on the Bagley Street pedestrian bridge over I-75.

Come the New Year, Massey will transfer the charcoal cartoon onto wet plaster, just like Diego Rivera did at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and begin the meticulous job of painting the fresco on Cobo’s second floor.

The 2011 Kresge Artist Fellow mostly credits his skills to the 13 years he spent as a sign-painter, though it’s worth noting he also studied with Rivera’s assistants, Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Pope Dimitroff.

“I was a high-profile painter,” Massey said, “doing faces and cars and so on.” His first artistic commission was a pair of panels of Greek statues at Detroit’s Atheneum Hotel.

The cartoon traveling to ArtPrize alone has consumed about six months of off-and-on labor.

Does he think his sweeping, historical drawing has a shot at the grand prize?

Massey laughed. “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know.”

Caruso and Schneider

Take 480 feet of black steel pipe, bend it into crazy shapes, paint it bright green, and you’ve got Nina Caruso and Christopher Schneider’s “Anonymous.”

At eight different places, the piping bends up like a garden hose, open mouth just begging for someone to lean down and speak into.

“It’s an art piece,” Schneider said, “but it’s also a social experiment where people can interact by talking or listening to one of the eight ends.”

ArtPrize artists Nina Caruso of Rochester and Chris Schneider of Hamtramck painted and assembled 'Anonymous', a giant steel pipe sculpture.

And because the pipe is tangled, you have no idea where your voice will come out — hence, every speaker is “Anonymous.”

Even better: blow into an opening, and a shockingly strong rush of air gusts out at the other end, dozens of feet away.

Caruso and Schneider, both artists and teachers, stumbled on the idea at last year’s ArtPrize, when they started playing, kid-like, with the open-ended railing that acted as a bannister on a ramp.

“We were really struck by how well the pipes conducted sound,” said Caruso.

“We hope that visitors find the piece enthralling, delightful and playful,” said Schneider, “and that they actually do try it.”

Rebekah Modrak

In a reminder that art can be political, University of Michigan art professor Rebekah Modrak’s short video takes dead aim at a company that prides itself on boosting Detroit — Shinola.

The Implicit Jacques Panis on Shinola’s Quest to Revive American Manufacturing” takes an existing promotional video starring Panis, Shinola’s president, and alters it to cast him in a series of colonialist guises.

Modrak did this by drawing costumes and hats on the unfortunate Panis, including Col. Sanders get-up, a pilgrim’s hat, a safari hat, and several over-the-top Easter bonnets Modrak borrowed from the late Margaret Thatcher.

At the festival itself, the video will be on display at Grand Rapids’ Fountain Street Church, which showcases art focused on social justice.

“The issue for me,” said Modrak, “is how Panis and Shinola present themselves. It’s the white-savior myth — that Detroiters are people who need to be rescued.”

Shinola did not respond to requests for comment.

Modrak’s also incensed that the Bedrock-owned company chose to call itself Shinola, when she says the old shoe-polish company used caricatures of African-Americans in ads decades ago.

“It’s shocking to me that a company would come into Detroit, resurrect a brand that has this racist history, and use it in a city where they’re also using images of blacks in their branding,” she said.


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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

ArtPrize Nine


All over central Grand Rapids

Key dates

Sept. 30: Round 1 public voting closes

Oct. 5: Round 2 public voting closes

Oct. 6: Awards announced