Courtesy of Michael Barera.

I’ve never liked contemporary art. I’ve just never really had a positive, meaningful encounter with it. Maybe it’s something about the pretentious proclamation that this is Art, or its sometimes-unsuccessful attempt to be radical or groundbreaking. That a jagged piece of rusted metal is so clearly an embodiment of the artist’s tumultuous relationship with their grandparent just doesn’t strike me as particularly interesting, especially because it is so inaccessible as an outsider ignorant to the specific life experiences and inner monologue of the artist.

My fears were confirmed when I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit on March 6. As much as I wanted to leave with a new appreciation for contemporary art and an introduction to the Detroit art scene, my biggest takeaways from the experience were, unfortunately, that parking is free and no, you cannot bring coffee into the exhibitions.

The exterior of the museum itself is promising: a one-story, squat, windowless, black warehouse that takes up a whole block on metro Detroit’s Woodward Avenue. The words “everything is going to be alright” in simple, white neon letters are emblazoned across the front of the building. Art has recently tended to reflect the weird dark times of the pandemic, and the neon message was reassuring. It made me hopeful for what was inside.

The major exhibition on display right now at MOCAD is called “Dual Vision” which is comprised of 20 different pieces, some paintings, some sculptures — others digital or multimedia — and each created by a pair of Detroit-based artists. Each pairing was decided on by one of the curators of the show. As stated on MOCAD’s website, the show is “framed as a series of visual conversations that explore various methodologies for collaboration between practitioners.”

Initially, I thought its premise was fairly innovative. I liked the notion that one year into a pandemic that has isolated and separated so many people an art show would be entirely dedicated to the general concept of collaboration. How would creators react to working together after living in quarantine for so long? What kinds of products would come from the basic idea of partnership?

I really did try to give the exhibition a shot. When walking into the Dual Vision room, the first thing that struck me was that the different pieces on display were of all different mediums: painting, sculpture, multimedia and so forth. This was intriguing until I found out that the projects were entirely unrelated to one another, except for the common thread that they were all created by a pairing of artists.

Walking from one piece to the next, I soon realized that this huge, open room was really just sparsely filled with disconnected and incohesive projects. Nothing went together and none of them made much sense on their own. 

One piece included street lamps with functional lightbulbs mounted on a wooden board with a double light switch below. Another project featured the back of a white car laying on the ground with a five-foot palm tree sprouting out from the exhaust pipe, while a coconut with a straw sat on the side. And an even more puzzling third installation: a black display table with a collection of seemingly unrelated framed photographs, glass spheres and little figurines (or maybe dolls?).

Perhaps my perception of “Dual Vision” as being disjointed and random was in part due to the actually pretty tame and comprehendible exhibition in the previous room. This show, called “Leni Sinclair: Motor City Underground” featured a collection of photographs that reported on the local social justice movements of the 1960s and ’70s. MOCAD asserts that Sinclair’s “images are among the most iconic and thorough records of the city’s countercultural history.” The photo exhibit was cohesive and clear, telling a strong narrative that undoubtedly left viewers with a better understanding of the subject matter and an emotional connection to the work.

In contrast, as I viewed each piece in the “Dual Vision” room and read their short descriptions, my hopes to extract some meaning or to feel touched by the artistry were not realized.

Was the car/palm tree piece supposed to give me a sense of harmony and synergy? Was I supposed to draw a larger conclusion about collaboration when connecting the street lamps and the dolls on the black display table? Maybe I’m just not a seasoned-enough museum patron or art-scholar to understand this more abstract, contemporary art, but I really did leave the exhibition scratching my head.

We’ve all gained a greater appreciation for connectivity and shared experiences this year, and though the artists of “Dual Vision” might have collaborated, they ultimately isolated the museum-goers. While of course all art is valid, specifically to the artist, my opinion is that these types of exhibitions create a larger divide between artists and the viewers instead of fostering connectivity or any kind of productive dialogue.

Daily Arts Writer Caroline Atkinson can be reached at catkin@umich.edu.