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Review of Oil & Water

By Tom McCartan


When I think of the concept of “oil and water” I can't help but consider the idea of repulsion. Two substances atomically opposed to one another and to join them requires fundamental reorganization. With Oil and Water, the Gallery Project set to illuminate the idea that while these two substances are naturally un-mixable, they have become inextricably linked through their commodification. To this reviewer there is hardly a more apt metaphor to describe our hubris.


Oil and Water is massive. Contained within is work from 32 local, regional, and national artists.


The concepts of “oil and water,” if defined literally as substances, or even more so as commodities, are inherently political. The curatorial statement itself seems to focus on this reading of the terms, using language that speaks to the global political and economic impact of the “use and misuse, scarceness and over-abundance” of these substances. Being one who thinks that all art is political, always has been and always will be, I tend to approach shows or pieces that contain an overt political slant with a touch of reticence. My consideration of Oil and Water was no different. And, yes, there is no shortage of social commentary. In fact, there is a plethora of it. There is even the obligatory Michigan Train Station photo, namely Michigan Train Station by Eric Smith. Luckily, the photo is beautiful, otherwise I would have railed against it.


Maybe I was a little sensitive to the Michigan Train Station because hanging next to it was another of Smith's photos, Ste. Anne Parish, which was one of my favorite pieces in the show. It is a photo of a holy water dispenser at Ste. Anne's in Detroit, above it is Ste. Anne's “Roll of Honor,” naming parishioners who had fallen in combat. His use of color and light alone were enough to make the piece striking, but combined with the composition, which makes it look like some sort of otherworldly triptych, and the content, which speaks a narrative of the redemptive or “holy” (water) in eternal struggle with the negative in the form of a litany of names of soldiers destroyed by oil infused war machines.


I stared at this photograph for a long time.


The pieces by Louise LeBourgeois, specifically Water #429, are also a highlight of the show. Water #429 is superb in its simplicity. It is important to me, as a reviewer, to be able to understand why a piece is in a particular show or how it fits with the curatorial concept. The more avant-garde among us may scoff at this, but I like harmony. So here we have a show: Oil and Water, and among all the representations of the commodification of water, the synthesizing of oil into plastic hinting at our cultural decay, the environmental effect of oil spilling into our water, and even a few that seem to have nothing to do with the theme of the show, there hangs a scene of open water, done with oil paint. Oil and water. That is what Water #429 is and there isn't much more to say about it. It is concise, harmonious in relation to the whole gallery experience, visually stunning, and massively effective.


As alluded to above, there are a healthy number pieces relating to oil spills. I know I also said above that I like harmony, so it would follow that oil spill pieces, given their obvious connection to the theme of oil and water, would satisfy that craving. They didn't, and while fully assuming the risk of contradicting myself, I will attempt to explain why.


Before I even set foot in the Gallery Project for Oil and Water I already expected to see works pertaining to oil spills. Bearing that in mind, when I did see them I felt like my expectations were validated more than challenged. However, this is a paradox because how could one have a show Oil and Water and not have oil spills be represented? Essentially, I knew they were going to be there because they necessarily had to be there. So when they were there, I wasn't surprised or really all that interested.


There were a lot of pieces that I liked when considered on their own merit. Joshua Ray Smith's Oil and Gas Manifest Destiny: A Great American West Extraction was a wonderful cross-section of somewhere in the American West depicted in three dimensions. Done in steel, water, and spent motor oil it hangs, suspended in mid air, to allow clearance underneath for the long, steel, underground oil pipes that descend from the bottom of the piece.


Henry James Have Crissman's A Spring, Matthew Boonstra's Ghosts of Detroit 1, and Audrey Niffenegger's etchings from the Three Incestuous Sisters series were also among my favorites in the show.


What the The Gallery Project does best, and what they certainly did with Oil and Water, is to present grand concepts of immediate importance. By showing a large number of artists from all over the world with very different backgrounds and even skill levels, one leaves the Gallery Project feeling like a genuine attempt has been made to address these urgent and relevant topics from as many perceivable viewpoints as possible.


Their current show, Extremes, runs until August 7th. I hope to see you there.