Artist Ryan Standfest takes dark look at failed optimism

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

If you like dark, disturbing humor, Wayne State's got an art show for you:

Detroiter Ryan Standfest's "This Must Not Be the Place You Thought It Would Be" at the Art Department Gallery is visually striking and often downright funny, at the same time that it subverts and unsettles.

The show is open through Dec. 7. 

"I'm interested in optimism and its aftermath," the artist said week -- in particular the frothy sense of limitless possibility that characterized the first couple decades after World War II.

It was a time when Detroit and its advertising engine defined an entire national mood focused on the liberation of the open road. 

But then the auto industry hit the skids, and America's chipper outlook soured. What Standfest does with this show, essentially, is pick up the pieces. 

"I never experienced that unfettered optimism first-hand," said the 44-year-old who grew up in Sterling Heights, conceding his was a more-cynical age. "But I'm interested in it, seeing it through a jaundiced lens as the product of capitalism that wasn't great for everybody. So this isn't pure nostalgia."

Nostalgic or no, it's the most personal work he's ever done. "I long avoided making art that had anything to do with the city where I was born," Standfest said. "But recent events -- and reconnecting with my own family history -- churned up a lot within me."

There's a lot of Detroit in his family's past. His grandmother, now 101, worked for Packard Motor. One grandfather worked at Parke-Davis on E. Jefferson, while the other was a sign-painter in the city. 

The pieces on display are mostly hand-painted cardboard constructions that resemble the jazzy advertising of the art deco era -- an echo of his grandfather's work, symmetrical designs full of cheerfully thrusting angles. 

The alleged corporation behind all these fake ads -- whether "The Captain of Industry," "Decommissioned Public Schools" or "Dead Dogs of the City" -- is always the  "Rotland Mfg. Co. Detroit USA." 

Is there significance to the "rot" in Rotland? You betcha. 

One construction hypes Henry Ford's failed rubber-plantation town in Brazil, "Fordlandia."

The show also includes two videos Standfest produced, each funny and unhinged in its own way, and several pieces that marry lurid tragedy with the chipper tone of 1950s Madison Avenue. 

Fascinated with newspapers, Standfest created a front page for The Modern Vulgarian, with the banner headline, "Wigwam Motel Sex Murder!" Despite the bloody lead story, an upbeat tagline at the bottom of the page reassures the reader that the motel is still a swell place to hang out.

For decades the world obsessed on the physical ruins of Detroit, Standfest notes. But those aren't the only ruins littering the Michigan landscape. 

"There's also a psychological aspect," he said, "what it was like to grow up in a city that manufactured optimism" once that particular production line has closed. 

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy


Ryan Standfest: 'This Must Not Be the Place You Thought It Would Be'

Through Dec. 7

Art Department Gallery, 150 Art Building, Wayne State University, Detroit

10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Tues.-Thurs; 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. Fri.

(313) 993-7813