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'Labor of Love' brings Cuban accent to DIA

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

The Detroit Institute of Arts invited New York artistic power couple Isabel and Ruben Toledo to prowl the museum's galleries and design a series of reactions to what they found. 

The result is "Labor of Love," a charmingly eclectic exhibition imbued with humor and pathos, in which the Cuban-American couple riffed on everything from the Diego Rivera "Detroit Industry" murals to art in the Egyptian and Early American galleries. 

The show, organized by Laurie Ann Farrell, DIA curator and department head of modern and contemporary art, will be up through July 7. 

"We got a first-class art education as the curators took us around," said Ruben, describing the couple's visits over the past year. "We ended up doing nine interventions, but it could have been 90. We had to whittle it down."

"Shape of Faith" is one of Isabel and Ruben Toledo's temporary interventions in the regular DIA galleries.

As DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons put it, the couple have brought a Cuban accent to the museum.

Isabel is principally a fashion designer, while husband Ruben works in sculpture, painting and illustration. If you're not familiar with their names, you've at least seen Isabel's work — she designed the lemongrass ensemble Michelle Obama wore on Inauguration Day 2009. 

"I felt enriched by the DIA galleries," Isabel said. "As a fashion designer, this project allowed me to be an artist, as well. I hope my joy in the labor, and there was a lot of labor," she added with a laugh, "comes through." 

The couple, who were friends with Andy Warhol, have made collaboration their stock in trade — marrying Ruben's formal artistry to the more-practical world of fashion that Isabel has inhabited for 30-odd years.

Ruben Toledo's "Plastic Surgery gets Creative!" at the DIA, shown in conjunction with Diego Rivera cartoons.

"We're spoiled," Ruben said. "We learned in school that art has no borders, whether fine art, commercial or advertising. You can play in all these fields."

Demonstrating that breadth, the Toledos created sets and costumes for the 2014 Broadway musical "After Midnight," for which Isabel got a Tony nomination. They also reimagined "George Balanchine's The Nutrcracker" for the Miami City Ballet in 2017.

For Latino designers, of course, the chance to engage in dialog with work by Diego Rivera is the stuff of dreams. 

"Our French and Italian friends," Ruben said, "were all like, 'Wow! You get to work with Rivera?' "

The exhibition splits into three parts.

Isabel and Ruben Toledo's "Synthetic Cloud" hang in the DIA's contemporary galleries.

The first involve occasional "interventions" scattered here and there through the museum's regular galleries, including "First Lady Silhouette" in the Early American period room, "Human Remains" in the Egyptian, or the balletic "Synthetic Cloud" hanging high in the contemporary gallery. 

The second part is Ruben's artistic take on the four reclining female gods who crown the "Detroit Industry" ensemble, which he's reimagined and painted on huge strips of pleated canvas. 

Ruben Toledo's "Color Code (Yellow)," one of his reactions to Diego Rivera's reclining female gods that crown the "Detroit Industry" fresco set.

In an adjoining room, Isabel's sprawling installation, "Migration," features a cast of mannequins outfitted in resplendent gowns, blank faces framed by gilt-and-black hoods, or exuberant constructions that blossom around their features like fabric carnations. 

One of Isabel Toledo's spectacularly outfitted mannequins in "Migration" at the DIA.

With its dark walls, dramatic lighting and gloriously attired statues, the room summons up the sacred — a tribute by this child of immigrants to the cross-pollination that occurs when individuals migrate and plant themselves in foreign lands. 

Mixed in with the Toledos' work are a number of Rivera's huge, preliminary cartoons for "Detroit Industry." These chalk-on-paper works are fragile and rarely exhibited — if you haven't seen them, don't miss this opportunity. 

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy


'Ruben and Isabel Toledo: Labor of Love'

Through July 7

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodard, Detroit

Extended holiday hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thurs; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat.-Sun; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon; closed New Year's Day 

Regular hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Closed Mon.

Free with museum admission

$14 adults, $9 seniors, $8 college students, $6 kids 6-17; Free to Wayne, Oakland and Macomb residents

(313) 833-7900