Cranbrook Art Museum's 'Shapeshifters' explores transitions

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

If you feel like you've had to completely reinvent your life during the pandemic, Cranbrook Art Museum has a show for you.

"Shapeshifters: Transformations in Contemporary Art," up through the end of the year, focuses on ways in which artists redefine themselves, often pushing the envelope by violating the norms of their medium.

Laura Mott, senior curator of contemporary art and design, said the initial idea for the show had to do with being in transition -- something we're all familiar with now.

"We were thinking of that idea with artists," she said, "but also thinking of the conditions of the social moment we're in, both with the pandemic and cries for institutional reckoning tied to Black Lives Matter."

The result is a show in four galleries drawn from Cranbrook's own contemporary collection, featuring work from yesterday as well as half a century ago. As usual, it's a handsomely hung show with two knockouts the minute you walk in.

Frank Stella's 1969 "Takht-i-Sulayman Variation from the Protractor Series," at Cranbrook Art Museum in "Shapeshifters."

The first is Frank Stella's pair of flowery geometric panels, ""Takht-i-Sulayman Variation from the Protractor Series," handsome exercises in geometry, comprised of semi-circles and squares.

"What’s interesting about this piece is what it’s named after," Mott said, "an Islamic city famous for its architecture. Stella's work goes back to ancient city plans, ideas that deal in the language of humanity, not just modern art."

The second stunner is a group of four enormous, abstract panels, originally attributed to the great African-American artist Sam Gilliam, who was a visiting artist at Cranbrook in the 1970s, but which, on closer examination and research, turned out to be uncertain in origin.

"This is the fun when you’re creating a show," said Mott, noting that in going down this particular rabbit hole it became clear these were likely by some other artist. But Mott and curatorial assistant Kat Goffnett liked the four huge banners so much that they still included them in the show, attributed to "anonymous."

First attributed to Sam Gilliam, "Shapeshifter's" determined these panels couldn't have been made by the great African-American artist - but liked them so much, they hung them as anonymous works.

"Sam was definitely here, we know that," Mott said, "but the panels look like later work. So we thought it’d be interesting, instead of removing the work, why not just be transparent about the mystery?"

In the second gallery, "Sea Change," it's hard to take your eyes off the large work facing you as you enter -- Conrad Egyir's "Yonder" from 2018. Egyir, who's from Ghana and got his MFA at Cranbrook two years ago, has painted himself in three different skin tones, from dark to light, touching on representation and racial hierarchies.

(Egyir, who's now based in Detroit, also has a show up through Jan. 10 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, "Terra Nullius.")

To the left of Egyir's canvas is Beau Sinchai's striking sculpture -- a black mannequin-like head that's surrounded, almost enclosed, by a delicate copper net that seems to act both as a charmingly unlikely fashion statement and protective screen.

Beau Sinchai's sculpture suggests style and fashion, but its wire net also acts as protection.

Mott draws a connection between Sinchai's screen and Nick Cave's "Soundsuits," all-enveloping costumes that also balance ideas of entrapment and protection.

Indeed, in the show's last gallery is a short film by Cave, "UP RIGHT: DETROIT," which features performers in his trademark suits, a small choir from Detroit's Mosaic Youth Theatre, and groups of kids from the Ruth Ellis Center, which supports LGBTQ youth.

Shot in the city's legendary Michigan Theater, converted decades ago into a parking structure, the actors enact a ritual of initiation and transformation that's both alluring and spellbinding.

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

'Shapeshifters: Transformations in Contemporary Art'

Through Mar. 7

Cranbrook Art Museum, 39221 Woodward, Bloomfield Hills

Noon-5 p.m. Wed. & Fri.-Sun; noon-8 p.m. Thurs.

Admission: $10 - adults, $8 - seniors, $6 students with ID; free - members and kids under 12

Thursdays: free admission

(248) 645-3323