“Love Has a Thousand Shapes,” an exhibit now on display at the Ann Arbor Arts Center until Oct. 27, explores the many ways in which love manifests itself and tells tales reflective of each artist’s personal experience. While the point of the exhibit is to demonstrate how love can be just about anything, the diverse works lack a common ground to prove this point.

Artist Justin Marshall depicts the love present in our most intimate environments, expressed through our belongings, decor, pets, etc. In “Jeff and Delorian,” a figure, supposedly Jeff, stands facing us with his cat tightly within his grasp. He wears Mario boxers, and behind him he has Garfield sheets and a painting of Garfield lovingly petting two humans as they fall asleep. 

One might ask, then, why Marshall wouldn’t simply photograph a moment like this. It’s because photographs are just that: depictions of things at a particular moment, scenes subject to change. What Marshall hoped to show here were the qualities of people, as expressed by their pets, sheets, decorations and attire that outlive this singular moment. This is what love means to Marshall.

Several of Judy Bowman’s works also take on the theme of love in the little things, but focus primarily on the African American experience. In Bowman’s “Love Song,” we see a couple that appear dressed to go out, instead simply enjoying each other’s company at home. Their faces, constructed by no more than five or six pieces of paper, capture great emotion.

Although her works have a real life to them, they don’t particularly seem to fit the theme of love apart from the one shown here. Her collages capture patterns, objects and scenes prevalent in African American life. They seem much more oriented towards capturing this experience than demonstrating the love all around us.

Patrick Burton takes the abstraction one large step further in his portrayals of love. Three out of Burton’s four pieces on display were colorful depictions of hearts blooming out of flower vases, backgrounded by intricate ornaments and a variety of birds and leaves. Here, the meticulous act of putting together these individually-cut pieces of wood covered in paper maché, paint and Swarovski crystals seems like the expression of love itself. 

The works look ready to be delivered to the doorstep of Burton’s lover to their great delight. Their similarities lead us to compare the subtle differences in each. Depicted with the white background is “I Love Who Loves Me,” with the blue and red background “Like Someone in Love” and the other not shown “I’ll Keep Your Kiss With Me.” Each has an inscription at the bottom center. The first reads “1925,” the second, “bubala” and the third, “kookanut.” 

Your guess is as good as mine as to the meaning of each, but it’s clear that Burton wants us to ponder this question. The terms certainly prevent us from dismissing the flowery arrangements as mere wallpaper or postcard material. They do also, however, call into question the genuinity of these works as expressions of love. How could Burton invest so much time in carefully assembling each of these pieces, embedding Swarovski crystals in each, and then place phrases front and center that seem to have no inherent connection to the patterns they foreground?

The exhibit advertised itself as a collection of diverse expressions of love, and it certainly offered this diversity. However, the variety of the works does lead one to question the broadness of the exhibit’s theme. If art creation in itself is an act of love, literally anything could have found its way into the exhibit. 

Love is indeed present in our lives at home with our pets, for example, but the exhibit missed talking points — polyamorous relationships, hookups, marriage, etc. — that are all particularly relevant for an exhibit representative of our “diverse contemporary culture.” While I suppose the point of the exhibit was to point out that love can present itself in just about anything, the lack of cohesion between the different conversations of each artist makes this point fall short of the mark. 

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