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Jan Krist-Finkbeiner: Detroit Way of Life

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


To produce art is to tell a story. The storytellers are as diverse as the stories themselves, and the best understand that they must place a piece of themselves into the spotlight and be vulnerable to entrance their audience. Jan Krist-Finkbeiner does this expertly in her exhibition, "Detroit, change and the temporal vessel”, as she tells the story of the city she still calls home, while being based in Fort Wayne. By infusing her own concepts of the city’s history and character, Krist-Finkbeiner creates a complex mythos out of both the uniquely “Detroit” as well as many everyday objects and situations expressed in her work.

Not so unlike Fort Wayne, Detroit’s history of growth, decline, and rebirth contains an amazing array of creativity, industry, moguls, and anonymous characters. The story that Krist-Finkbeiner tells draws her audience in because she includes all of these aspects, but personifies the city in a number of ways and brings life to the geography itself.

This is most evident in her piece “Ms. Detroit”, a monumental portrait of Detroit told in three pieces, which dissect the figure, made out of large terracotta slabs with majolica, a type of earthenware pottery with lead and tin glazes. “Ms. Detroit” depicts the city as a pensive female figure, framed by architectural features with a patina and weight that immediately sets the tone of the piece. In the top panel, “Ms. Detroit” is a healthy and wealthy woman, wearing tiara like Lady Liberty with the city’s name spelled out on each triangular segment. With flowing ample hair and surrounded by natural elements, she looks out on the world with a confidence and will.

The middle panel of “Ms. Detroit” is markedly different.
The skin tone is now darker, blacker, and her clothing is tattered, her body wilted and malnourished, and her pose timid with arms folded and frail. The third panel is the most straightforward as it depicts “Ms. Detroit’s” legs as sturdy skeletons, picked clean and bone white, they stand in a wilderness of flowers.

Krist-Finkbeiner describes “Ms. Detroit” as representing the three distinct physical spaces present in Detroit being downtown, the neighborhoods, and the industrial sites. This critical analysis of the city belies many of the city’s inherent realities as well as the artist’s experiences therein. The presence of segregation between Detroit’s downtown and neighborhoods becomes palpable when viewed through a piece of visual art like this. The recent history of outsourcing and technological disruption are clear in the third panel, and the also acts like a portent for the neighborhoods, which currently cling to life. Overall, “Ms. Detroit” is a beautiful and captivating monument to a city that should be (and is) proud of its history, no matter the negative aspects and harsh realities.

When “Detroit, change and the temporal vessel” is read as an exhibition from left to write, one finds a mirroring of the cyclical nature of city, moving from “Ms Detroit” to give us a baseline to the story of the city, to pieces like “Bird in the Fist,” a small porcelain and underglaze wall hung piece which depicts a small character looking up, yelling, desperately grasping a small bird which the viewer realizes is in a chokehold. In a second pass through the image, the open mouth
of the yelling character is an oversimplified vista, showing a road leading to a city in the distance. Taking from the ancient phrase “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, “Bird in the Fist” describes the city of Detroit’s reliance on the automotive industry, and how the city grasped tighter and tighter to it during times of trouble instead of diversifying its economy more prudently.

Moving along, Krist-Finkbeiner continues with “Michigan Reliquary,” a wall based sculptural relief made of terra cotta, reclaimed architectural pieces, and mirror, as well as a small installation containing a number of smaller wall hung ceramic pieces which describes the interior of a home, and how the troubles of Detroit not just “city problems” but also translate through the homes of its citizens.

Next, and most poignantly, Krist-Finkbeiner gives her audience “Bail with a Pail,” a beleaguered man seemingly coming up for air and being battered by the sea, but sinking not into the waters, but the urban landscape around him of brick and stone. “Bail with a Pail” describes the death throes of the decline of the city. The “last hurrah” of economic worry and woes. Following this, the exhibition becomes hopeful with symbolic imagery referencing growth and change, as well as intoxicatingly attractive pieces like “Made in Detroit” and “Detroit Beets” which remind us that not all is lost, and that the city of Detroit is merely going through a renaissance.

By intricately representing the best aspects of a storyteller, Jan Krist-Finkbeiner gives us a new way to think about the city of Detroit, but even more so, she tells us a parable and her art exists like a canary in the coalmine warning others not to make the same mistakes. By respecting the work of artists like Krist-Finkbeiner, our city may be able to learn from others and side step potentially crippling problems, paving a way for a brighter future.


For more Information:
“Jan Krist: Detroit, Change and the temporal Vessel”
Wunderkammer Company
Now through Sunday, July 17

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