A man dumped his backpack on a wooden bench, littered with cast off lottery tickets in University Gallery of the Student Center at Eastern Michigan University. He looked up at the framed art from his seat on the bench.
“Hey! Careful with that. They’re actual drawings,” said Hartmut Austen, 43, curator of the 2010 Great Lakes Biennial. “It’s not trash, just don’t put your foot on it, okay?”
The man jumped from his seat and took a closer look at the cast-offs. He had mistaken the precisely drawn KENO and Daily 4, with its graphite barcodes and numbers, layered over the softly shaded Michigan Lottery symbols as actual trash.
The artist who drew the cast-offs, Daniel Parker, was not surprised.
“I wanted them as cast-offs. They’re losers, and I wanted them to be sitting in a world of losers. It was based off the idea that every day is the hardest day and you do what you can to try to make things better for yourself.”
Parker received his art degree from Cranbrook in Michigan. He finds time to draw in between his jobs teaching art at Wayne State University, working at a car dealership and the Detroit Institute of Art. The cast-offs were a contridiction to his framed motivational drawings of “Be a Leader” and “Make People Like You.”
Parker’s art was part of the top drawings selected in the 2010 Great Lakes Drawing Biennial Contest. From Sept. 6-Oct. 22, at University Gallery, the drawings are available to the public before they are returned to the original artists.
As the curator of the contest, Austen selected and judged the 39 pieces shown, out of the 200 different works submitted.
Austen, who earned a Master’s degree from University of the Arts in Berlin, is an abstract painter who has shown internationally around the world and was awarded the Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellowship in 2009.
The Biennial is open to artists who live in the states touching the Great Lakes. The Best in Show this year is Patricia Bellan-Gillen from Pennsylvania. She drew “Diver/Until Human Voices Wake Us,” a huge drawing done on birch panel of a man diving into a pool of small faces, surrounded by snowmen.
“Every piece was good,” said Josh Rogers, 22, majoring in Graphic Design. “There were some which weren’t my favorites, like the one that won Best in Show- it’s questionable. I don’t have a problem with it; I liked other pieces more.”
“I think this is just an awesome work,” Austen said. “You can see the ambition. During the day, you see how the light breaks the surface and you see the incredible depth. It has expertly used materials and the combination is surprising. You see very detailed areas and areas more washy and applied like paint.”
On Sept. 22 from 4-7 p.m. a reception was held at University Gallery as a celebration for the artists and their work.
Roughly 140 students attended, where the artists mentored the students and helped them appreciate the pieces on a deeper level.
One such piece was Merit Award winner “Stitch” by Larry Cressman, who lives in Ann Arbor and has been an artist since 1975.
At first glance, “Stitch” looks random, with obscure scribbling and shading on rectangular pieces of paper. After closer inspection, tiny drawings like fig leaves from Adam and Eve, a foot and cupid’s face can be discerned. The rectangle pieces of paper are Italian postcards whose surface has been sanded off.
“It makes reference to the fact that things don’t always last forever. If you’ve spent any time in Italy, you become aware of the surface of the world there,” Cressman said. “The surface of a wall is crumbling and it’s beautiful. There are layers, if you go to a cathedral; there will be frescoes and portions of it destroyed and painted over, there is some reference to that too.”
Gregory Tom, the new Gallery Program Director at EMU said, “Good art, it’s accurate, it’s finely crafted, it’s decisive, it takes perspective, it’s to the point. Good is a modifier. There is a lot of good art.”
Tom has a goal to give the gallery programs a higher profile with the external artist community beyond EMU.
He said, “I’d like to have the gallery programs really market and expand its audience. Our on-campus attendance and audience is really good, but I’m interested in making stronger connections to Detroit and what-not.”
Tom’s long term strategy might prove to be successful. Many college students simply don’t have the time to fit art into their lives, especially if they are not in the art program. EMU’s gallery program might be more valued and appreciated in a market whose members make art their life and career.
“Right now, I don’t know what they have on display,” Daniel Peterson said. “I’d go to the art galleries if they had art I was interested in but, I don’t know what kind of art they have. I haven’t decided not to go, I’m just not as informed enough to decide if I want to go or not.”
“It’s college; 16 credit hours that you’re trying to hash out,” Rodgers said, “you’re not worried about somebody else’s 16 credit hours.”
“You’re working a job, you’re so busy, you don’t want to take the 15 minute to go to the art gallery and look at it, unless you need LBC credits,” said Laura Huston, a 20-year-old graphic design major. “You’re not going to get everyone to go.”
“I love the Charles McGee,” Huston said. “I remember the first time it went up. The piece has so much energy. So many people walk by that area. It’s not like it’s stuck in no man’s land by the art department.”
For Peterson, a 21-year-old history major, who is outside of the art community, attending a gallery show at EMU is only a casual possibility. He sees art as something everybody can relate to, but few can get into. From what he’s seen outside of graffiti, the art on campus is respectable, but there is a lack of it, with art only on the old side of campus.
Like the man who thought the drawings were trash, it can be difficult to recognize art even if people pass it every day. One piece that gets overlooked is the sculpture by Charles McGee on the path to the Student Center. The sculpture is abstract, composed of many intersecting white, squiggly, metal lines on top of a gray box. McGee was an EMU professor from 1969-1987, with artwork on permanent display in the Detroit Institute of Art and Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.
Austen said that art is in the eye of the beholder and based on individual personal experiences. Someone who goes to University Gallery might see a lot of good art, but someone else can’t wait to leave.
“It’s not what they should look at, but the mind set they should have coming into the gallery,” Tom said. “The best advice I can give someone is keep an open mind. You are presented with 39 pieces of art. Take a look at all of them. Look it over, think about it, what is this artist trying to accomplish? What’s the meaning here? Then you’re doing as good a job as anybody.”