Fun, social criticism mix at Highland Park show

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

“Operation Wetback II” is easily one of the most arresting — no pun intended — pieces in “Big Sculpture @ The Factory,” a 59-artist exhibition set in a sprawling Highland Park industrial complex.

Peter Daniel Bernal’s sculptures, which he refers to as “piñatas,” hang a couple of feet off the floor and consist of one very mean-looking cop with a gun, and three apprehensive Mexicans, all holding up their hands in mute supplication.

The installation is just one of about 160 sculptures, broadly defined, that have taken over the old Lewis Manufacturing & Stamping plant, a 23,000-square-foot complex repurposed into 17 artists’ studios and occasional gallery.

New Zealand artist Rob Onnes bought the factory when he moved here three years ago, and quickly turned it into one of the most intriguing exhibition spaces in southeastern Michigan.

“I was looking for about 2,000 square feet of space,” he said, “but then it grew.”

“Operation Wetback” was the name the Eisenhower administration gave to a program that deported thousands of Mexicans, hundreds of whom turned out to be U.S. citizens.

In the case of Bernal’s installation, each of the frightened Mexican-Americans resembles the artist’s father, and there’s a reason for that. Several years ago, a Minuteman border vigilante accosted the elder Bernal, bellowing that he needed to get back to where he came from.

“The irony is my family is thoroughly American,” said the artist, who grew up in Houston. “We were in Texas before it was part of the United States. My family says they didn’t move, their country did.”

Piling irony upon irony, Bernal added that his father even sounds 100 percent American: “He speaks with a heavy, Texas-country accent.”

If this begins to sound just a little like the Black Lives Matter movement, you’re not entirely mistaken.

“Sometimes,” said Bernal, who spent the last five years in Germany, “it’s like being a foreigner in your own country. It kind of sucks.”

But by no means is all the artwork in “Big Sculpture” this dark or topical. Some is just inspired fun.

Right when you step in, you’re greeted by Tim Péwé’s “Mega Bat,” which is suspended from the ceiling and the size of a small airplane.

But neither is everything here humongous, despite the show’s title.

Had enormous been the sole criterion, we would have missed out on Pamela Day’s trio of untitled, ceramic gargoyle heads — leering little fellows who are simultaneously amusing and, to quote David Letterman, major-league creep-outs.

Also striking a note of social criticism, albeit not as sharp as Bernal’s, is Sandra Osip’s dazzling, beautifully crafted “Hell in a Handbasket.”

An ancient wheelbarrow is tipped to dump out its load of dozens of colorful little wooden houses, all jammed together, and each one based on an actual Detroit home.

“This newer work started when I came back to Detroit and saw that all the houses where I grew up, by City Airport, were gone,” said Osip, who now lives in Brooklyn. “It was kind of devastating.”

Striking a more-whimsical note is Catherine Peet’s “Sea Monster,” a large assemblage of objects from trash bins the artist collected on her daily walks in Royal Oak.

“I looked for things that were colorful and lightweight,” the artist said. “Sculpture can be masochistic in a way, with all the metal and welding I’ve done. I wanted something easy to carry.”

The sea creature she produced, which floats in mid-air, is about two yards long and is a cheerful mishmash equipped with a lampshade snout, small propeller for a tail, and a head made from a child’s wheelbarrow.

Art can sometimes take on a life of its own, as any artist can tell you.

“I was initially thinking ‘sea horse,’ ” Peet said with a laugh, “but this is what I came up with.”


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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

‘Big Sculpture @ The Factory’

Through Oct. 22

Where: 333 Midland, Highland Park

When: 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday; starting Sept. 24, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. both Saturdays and Sundays.

More info: 333midland.com/big-sculpture

Admission this weekend only: $5 per person