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UICA reveals nearly lost Detroit art treasure

The retrospective of the recently deceased Detroit artist Mary Ann Aitken share her powerful paintings with their thickly painted and encrusted surfaces. These are paintings that really need to be experienced in person for their full impact.
Untitled, 1990 oil on masonite 16 x 24 in.

Untitled, 1990 oil on masonite 16 x 24 in. /Tim Thayer

Mary Ann Aitken: A Retrospective 1983-2011

The show of recently deceased Detroit artist on view at the UICA

2 Fulton West

Downtown Grand Rapids

Now until February 16

Open Hours:

Tuesday- Thursday 5-9 p.m.

Friday-Saturday 12-9 p.m.

Sunday 12-7 p.m.

Self-Portrait, 1987 oil on wood   40 x 20 in.

Self-Portrait, 1987 oil on wood 40 x 20 in. /Tim Thayer

 Untitled, 2010-11  oil, mixed media on canvas  20 x 16 in.

Untitled, 2010-11 oil, mixed media on canvas 20 x 16 in. /Tim Thayer

I came to the work of Mary Ann Aitken with a lot of anticipation. My old friend and painter Ed Fraga who has been a full time artist for years in Detroit had told me about Aitken's untimely death and her last request of him to mount a retrospective of her paintings. Apparently she had set aside some money in her final will to cover the expenses needed to frame work and print a proper catalog for a show. Fraga says they both had studios in an old warehouse downtown in the early 80's and he knew Aitken for four years before she even let him in to see her studio. Aitken was a very private person who did nothing to market or promote her art, though she was entirely devoted to working in her studio as well as keeping in touch with the work of other contemporary artists. It is a powerful experience to be in front of her work because it is immensely personal and yet very approachable because of her use of images from everyday life like billboards and household appliances. 

An untitled still life from 1990 shows us a collection of items from a recent trip to the grocery store. With a sliced open lime, a tied bunch of onions, and several packaged items with all their labels facing us, she brings these everyday objects to life with her clunky brush strokes and heavy impasto paint pushed around like frosting. With its vibrant color palette and the strange animation she gives her subject, this piece reminds me of Christs Entry Into Brussels by the 19th century prophetic Belgian painter James Ensor. 

Another piece that stood out to me is Self Portrait from 1989. I love how she stares out at us with the suggestion of the outside in nature with the swirling plant forms in the background. In this painting there are pieces of paper stuck into the paint that reveal her constant experimenting and the struggle that these paintings emerged from. As in most of her pieces, the paint is layered on thick and textured. It is important for you to know that these built up layers could take Mary sometimes years to accomplish. Oil paint dries slowly (especially in a cold poorly heated Michigan art studio) and the artist must wait sometimes days for one layer to thoroughly dry in order to add the next layer. These paintings came into the world slowly with much patient and courageous resolve. 

The last works that Aitken completed before her passing may not be as easily approached for she is no longer working with transcribing an image. Untitled 2010-11 is a small rectangular piece made up of what looks like a bunch of stuff she picked up on a walk through her neighborhood. Looking closely you can see pieces of string and tiny bits of broken glass, gravel and even pieces of lobster shell. It looks like everything is held together with some kind of sticky tar-like substance that has now hardened and is holding these bits and pieces together for all eternity. With her death looming before her, Aitken made these last dark paintings- which to me are the exact opposite of Monet's giant water lily paintings that proved to be his swan song. Whereas the lily paintings are airy and open, composed of subtle color and value modulations that he spent a life time perfecting, these last paintings of Mary Ann Aitkens are like the final contraction of a dying star into a dark hole of earth shattering density and gravitational pull. This tiny painting, composed of what we would thoughtlessly walk over on our way to work, have been transformed into a portal that is ready to transport us into the afterlife.

For those who are interested in collecting art, I would be hard pressed to imagine a better choice than a Mary Ann Aitken. Since she worked for so many years completely under the radar of the art world, her work is still very affordable. I know this will not be the case for long. There are already plans underway to pull this artist up into the jetstream of much deserved and long overdue art world attention.

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