Five Highlights From Detroit’s Queer Art Biennial

DETROIT — The Mighty Real/Queer Detroit biennial isn’t notable just because of its dedication to LGBTQ+ representation — though that is something to celebrate. It’s also because it’s in Detroit, a perpetually under-the-radar place (and my hometown). I’ll Be Your Mirror, the nonprofit’s second monthlong exhibition of queer art, curated by Patrick Burton, brings more than 180 artists to 11 galleries in and around the area. For a city whose creative output is frequently overlooked on the national stage, I’ll Be Your Mirror shows the depth and range of Detroit’s creativity as well as its diverse queer community, and the unique character that has made it a destination.

Although I couldn’t make it to all of the galleries, those I visited showcased a wide range of works by local and national artists, many of whom deserve more attention. Below are some of my favorites.

CCS Center Galleries

Twenty years ago, the Detroit Artists Market hosted a show juried by Mike Kelley that leaned toward a brooding heavy metal aesthetic. Although most people know Kelley as a Los Angeles artist, the Detroit native’s roots were clear in the tone of that show: There’s something gloomy and weird about growing up in this place, but it’s resulted in an original, visceral, and sometimes awesomely oddball art and music underground. Tom Livo’s small, strangely endearing painting of little villains, “Halloween ’71” (2023), brought me back to that state of mind, while John Criscitello’s tiny portraits of Hollywood glamour gone wrong (displayed beneath a vibrant multicolored embroidery by Kira Keck) recalled the trash-glam style of Kelley’s early Ann Arbor-based band/art collective Destroy All Monsters.

The Elaine L. Jacob Gallery at Wayne State University has been host to a number of impressive exhibitions over the years. This show felt the most global of those I visited, with the studied complexity of a university undertaking and a roster of bigger names. A portrait photograph of Sam Wagstaff, who served as director of the Detroit Institute of Arts from 1968 to 1971, and a large abstract painting by Detroit native Brenda Goodman nodded to the city. Of this show’s many great works, A.L. Steiner’s photo series, Highlights III + IV (2024) engages with the lives of queer people through portraits that are by turns inviting and private, while Hugh Steers’s muted, gestural painting of what looks like a man washing another figure’s hair is wondrous in its quiet intimacy. And there’s something elegiac about Shauna Steinbach’s mixed-media sculpture of a tube of flowers balanced on a brick. 

Detroit Artists Market

Founded in 1932, the nonprofit Detroit Artists Market (DAM) is one of the city’s art landmarks. Among a well-curated and cohesive selection of works, I was most drawn to those that center women as powerful protagonists in their own worlds, including Heather Benjamin’s trio of line drawings of nude women with cat-eye sunglasses in what looks like an Aubrey Beardsley-Guerrilla Girls mash-up, and Katharine Kuharic’s blissful paintings of nude women lounging in a fantastical realm. But Mavado Charon’s “Fire, Fire, Our Brutal Lover (Feu, Feu, Notre Amat Brutal)” (2021) — a black marker drawing on a white sheet, portraying a drama of earthly carnage and gods with animal heads — is an undeniable highlight of the show.

Scarab Club

The Scarab Club is another of the city’s longstanding art institutions, founded in 1907. Befitting the private club atmosphere of the historic building, with its walled garden, much of the work on view had undertones of secrecy, as if we’re privy to lives behind closed doors. One work that embodied unspoken bonds between men was Duncan Hannah’s oil painting “Weekend in the Country,” depicting two men in business dress walking in a verdant field; evoking a different time and place (perhaps the England of the Merchant Ivory film Maurice), a subtle sadness imbued the piece. Also from another time, Carl Van Vechten’s charismatic black and white photo of a smiling Merchant Marine, “Marcus Jackson,” was rife with boy-band charm and sexuality.

The Carr Center

Since 1991, the Carr Center has been a central forum in Detroit for multidisciplinary arts by African-American creators. Although the presentation of I’ll Be Your Mirror at the center’s art gallery skewed slightly toward photography, the showstopper for me was Wayne Coe’s black sand painting of bare-chested studs on the floor. Coe (whose work is also at the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery) made the “painting” over several hours in the gallery; a video shows him in the process. What could be a gimmicky artwork succeeds because it’s actually a great piece, with enough humor, camp, and flair to get me down on the floor inspecting it. Of the photography, Paula Allen’s beautiful portrait of a woman reflected in a car’s rearview mirror, “Havana, Niurka” (2007), is a different kind of showstopper — delicate, subtle, and staying with me long after I left the gallery.

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