In a new exhibition, Alejandro Campins and José Yaque capture the energy of the city’s past while exploring its future.
When the curator Rafael DiazCasas and the Cuban artists Alejandro Campins and José Yaque were first in Detroit together 2015, they were struck by the amount of green land in the city. “In abandoned lots where houses used to be, we always saw something growing, something new,” says DiazCasas. They often found Queen Anne’s lace, a weed also known as wild carrot, which can be seen crawling the walls of abandoned buildings and empty lots during Detroit summers and, for many, has come to symbolize the city’s resilience.
At Wasserman Projects near Eastern Market, you can now find a new exhibit by same name. In “City of Queen Anne’s Lace,” curated by DiazCasas, Yaque and Campins explore the history and regeneration of Detroit, both in its organic and built forms.
Conversations about the show began when the gallery’s founder, Gary Wasserman, visited Cuba 2015 and met the artists. They quickly noted the similar trajectories in Detroit and Havana. In 1959, when the Cuban revolution drew people to Havana’s streets, the economic elite fled the island in a mass exodus, leaving some of the wealthiest colonial manors emptied or left to a family’s servants. A few years later, in 1967, Detroit was rocked by upheaval; then-mayor Jerome Cavanagh presided over some of the city’s biggest years of white flight and lost the support of the black community following his response to the rebellion. Both Havana and Detroit found themselves at pivotal moments in the aftermath of these events, which would continue to mark their urban landscapes.
Fifty years later, both cities also see themselves at similar crossroads, bracing for a wave of newcomers. Since President Obama lifted the embargo on American travel to Cuba, Havana reckons with how to preserve its culture and its built environment while remaining open to new economic opportunities and a fresh crop of U.S. tourists. A new influx of Millennials brings similar concerns to Detroit. Though the connections between the two cities are not visually apparent in the exhibit, these similar trajectories are perhaps what makes the artists so sensitive to Detroit’s contemporary moment—one caught in continuous conflicts between development and preservation, and growth and equity.
Campins’s paintings take Detroit’s buildings as a central focus. He paints façades of structures found around Detroit—from Art Deco to more Brutalist architecture—with pared-back colors and simple or empty landscapes. Iridescent and bathed in azures, the buildings he depicts evoke a kind of melancholy and tension, allowing for any viewer to map on their own relationships to the city.
In several of the paintings, he leaves billboards and signs empty. This isn’t to show them as vacant and lifeless, but rather to create a moment marked by anticipation, explains DiazCasas.
The tension the buildings hold is also apparent in Yaque’s drawings, which are photo transfers that he has sketched on with charcoal, evoking the energies and histories present in the vacant buildings of Detroit.
For his installation, which sits in the center of the gallery, Yaque scoured the grounds surrounding Wasserman gallery in Eastern Market and collected objects—old Bibles, torn dresses, broken wheels—that represented individual stories, “people’s memories,” says DiazCasas. Yaque didn’t come in with a set agenda, but instead constructed the installation intuitively. The nearly 16-foot installation approximates a cross-section of the city exhumed and exposed for viewers. “Yaque is trying to depict the layers of the city with the layers of its land,” says DiazCasas. Like elements of a sedimentary rock, car pipes, and iron from a bygone industrial era are lined below books, newspapers, and tree roots, entangling the city’s economic downfall with what has kept it fertile. The result is a hyperfocus on the individual stories of Detroit’s past and present.
While the artists explore Detroit, the show does not attempt to write the city’s complete narrative. Instead it urges viewers to remember, to interrogate change, and to imagine a regenerative future.
City of Queen Anne’s Lace is on display at Wasserman Projects through June 24, 2017.