Biennial sculpture show at Marshall M. Fredericks museum dazzles

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Mary Fortuna's "Nageena" is typical of the artist's intriguingly un-pretty little creatures.

If Saginaw seems a long way to drive for an art exhibition, in this case -- trust us -- it's not. 

The "Regional Biennial Juried Sculpture Exhibition" at the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum at Saginaw Valley State University is a visual knock-out and a reminder of how seldom we get large shows entirely devoted to three-dimensional objects. 

Another incentive to make the drive?  The museum has two of the most-dramatic galleries you'll find anywhere in Michigan. 

Michelle Perron, who juried the 2018 exhibition, sees sculpture gaining in popularity.

"More than ever people like spectacle," said Perron, who's director of exhibitions and public programs at Detroit's College for Creative Studies.

"People like big," she added. "They like to be dwarfed, and like to walk around and touch and take selfies."

In her catalog essay, Perron makes the interesting point that "because sculpture frequently occupies space in much the same way as humans occupy space, we can identify with sculpture in a different way than with painting."

Mark Beltchenko took First Place with "The S. Series," a steel and wax composition.

There were 151 submissions Perron had to comb through, with 51 artists — all but two from Michigan — making it into the show, which is limited to artists living within a 200-mile radius of Saginaw Valley State University. 

Grosse Pointe Park resident Mark Beltchenko took First Place for "The S. Series," an elegantly twisted piece of pink steel and wax, a bit like a large scrap of seaweed impaled on a nail on the wall. 

Second Place went to Hamtramck artist Virginia Torrence for her untitled mosaic — made of ceramic, glass, plaster and fruit peel, among other materials — which practically erupts off the wall in three-dimensional exuberance. 

Erupting off the wall as well is Shelby Township artist Calum Clow's delightfully absurd "Star Spangled Bovine," a cow's head liberally wrapped in red and blue streamers, with cheerful white stars stuck all over.

Is it political - who knows? But it is a visual treat, almost guaranteed to make you laugh.

Cheerful as well, in a completely different fashion, is Mary Fortuna's "Nageena," one of the Traverse City artist's affable little grotesques emerging from, or connected to, a striped lower half and tail. 

Perron admires the quirkiness of Fortuna's little creatures. 

"I like the tenderness of it," Perron said, "but there's a tension, too — they're not pretty."

Perhaps the most disturbing piece in the entire show is Marcia Polenberg's "Child from Aleppo." There is, to be sure, a sort of tenderness in the Ann Arborite's concern for this battered little boy in blue shorts, his body covered in the ubiquitous white dust familiar to urban catastrophe. 

"Child from Aleppo" by Marcia Polenberg

With his left foot up in the air — whether kicking or frozen in rigor mortis is unclear — and a face half covered in blood, this is a powerful, unhappy reflection of our times. 

Handsome works meriting a good look also include Valerie Mann's "Blue Bird Chain," Gary Eleinko's polychrome "Now and Then," and "Hop, Skip, Leap" by R. Jean Ruth.

The latter is a set of three wire figures, constructed from 1/8-inch diameter steel rods.

These ephemeral little beings, the physical equivalent of an artist's quick pencil sketch, are striking and utterly convincing in their fluid movement. 

An additional reason to visit the museum, apart from the excellent biennial show, is the opportunity to see two of the most dramatic rooms you'll find anywhere in Michigan.

R. Jean Ruth's "Hop, Skip, Leap"

Two soaring, 20-foot-high galleries are artfully filled up with sculptor Marshall M. Fredericks' plaster casts, both working models and originals. 

Among the casts on display are very large busts of Winston Churchill and President John F. Kennedy, as well as a working model, several feet high, for the head of the "Spirit of Detroit," as well as a quarter-scale model of the entire statue.

Museum Director Marilyn L. Wheaton says she always loves the juxtaposition of contemporary artists with Fredericks' more-traditional work, a contrast she thinks is illuminating for visitors. 

And how does she rank this year's show?

Wheaton smiles. "Every two years, I always say, 'Oh, this is the best one!' "

(313) 222-6021

Gary Eleinko's "Now and Then"

'Regional Biennial Juried Sculpture Exhibition'

Through Sept. 22

Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum

Saginaw Valley State University, 7400 Bay Road, University Center

(989) 964-7125