Tiny gnarled nests of black lines freckle three barn-door-sized slabs of green drywall. This aerial map of Detroit shows no highways or roads, only the city's culs-de-sac — those attempts to create homey harbors in suburbia's beige seas. Mapped on U-M architecture professor Steven Mankouche's Cul-de-Sac City, the scattered road-clusters instead suggest isolation and sterility, like knots of shriveled capillaries cut off from arteries and veins. The works dominate Gallery Project's multimedia show of works exploring the idea of place.
Accompanying Mankouche's large maps, a small ring-bound book depicts the same land area, with one small section per page. The pages show names for the culs-de-sac only, not for the main roads. The names float on the page at cockeyed angles mirroring their streets' orientations.
"It's funny — the names are so colonialist and agrarian," notes exhibit curator Gloria Pritschet, reading with me such names as Foxcroft, Kensington, Edinborough, Old Ranch, Meadow Valley, and Great Oak. Almost none identifies a true geographical feature or Michigan landmark. The artwork suggests that the street names, and by extension their residents, have broken any meaningful connection with their place.
More breakage appears in three large photos of abandoned and dilapidated Highland Park structures photographed by Detroit artist quartet Object Orange, a group that paints abandoned homes bright orange. The center photo (pictured) shows a garish trio of orange-painted structures stranded in a weed-stubbled snowfield. The leftward building, its windows dark voids, nevertheless retains an intactness that suggests it could be handymanned into a livable house. Its adjacent structure, with a warped roof, is halfway to ruin, and the rightward building, half collapsed, reveals dull gray interior walls decades removed from the humblest adornment. The street-cone-orange paint added to the facade suggests a combined warning to avoid the structures and visual summons to remember the lives they once contained.
The same siren orange appears in woven straps binding together penicillin-green drywall panels forming a waist-high plinth for a five-by-eighteen-inch wooden model of a narrow house. Mankouche's Home for One Person offers an architectural mock-up half-walled with paper. Built of frail scale-model beams, the work resembles in its incompleteness the nearby photos of collapsed houses.
The exhibit's most touching works, by recent Cranbrook M.F.A. Christina Day, gleam from a tiny shelf bearing items from an antique or thrift shop. A gold compact, a makeup case, two small metal lighters, a cigarette case, and other found objects bear shimmery photos on one of their faces. The photos, printed on transparent decals, show a lone streetlight, an old-fashioned decorated ceiling in tortoiseshell sepia-green, and a sunny tree-lined street as it might appear in a snapshot pulled from a dusty shoebox. The antique images, lovingly and carefully combined with relinquished personal items, suggest memories of a longed-for past mentally revisited so often that they have crystallized into real-world souvenirs of memory.
Imprint of Place is on display at Gallery Project, 215 South Fourth Avenue, through March 25.
[Review published March 2007]