Friday, July 30, 2010

Fatherhood Friday: My kids, my muses

The past few weeks have had me busy getting ready for my part in a show opening a week from today. The details are driving me nuts and are making my decision to teach art rather that show art as my primary occupation a wise one. However, the gallery release a press release today regarding the show, so I thought I would share it with you all. If you are in the area, please consider this your invitation to the opening.

(Carson G: Monster Killer, Thomas McMillen-Oakley 2008, altered photo, 20" x 30")



(Plymouth Township, Mich.) With a nod to the Social Realism art movement of the 1930s, Art & Ideas presents three artist-photographers whose contemporary views of “reality” incorporate irony, wit, and ambiguity. This exhibition of photography, called “Social Realism 2010,” officially opens August 7, 2010, at Art & Ideas Contemporary Art Gallery & Studio (a.k.a. “Art & Ideas Gallery”).

The show features the work of three southeastern/central Michigan artists: Thomas McMillen-Oakley of Jackson, Julia DeClerck of Metamora (in Lapeer County), and Shaqe Kalaj of Livonia, who’s also the gallery’s artist-in-residence and curator of the show. For the exhibition, Kalaj sought photographers whose work tried to communicate compelling social truths, as many Depression-era artists tried to do. “But in our case, we were also looking for humor and irony depicted about our current situation in the USA and Southeast Michigan.”

Thomas McMillen-Oakley, professor of studio art at Jackson Community College, fulfills this goal by focusing on children as subjects. He's showing a series of photos that depict children in various and seemingly typical settings and situations, but with a layer of ambiguity added via his photographic technique. Much of McMillen-Oakley's photography plays with viewers' perceptions on the relative "normalcy" of family life and children.

He says his interest in using domestic settings in his work increased after adopting a child with his same-sex partner. Throughout the adoption process, the couple faced extreme demands from our legal system, overcoming major obstacles that male couples face when trying to adopt. The emotional demands are reflected in his photography, adding intensity to each shot.

“My kids are my muses, and I find a great deal of wonder and fun in their daily lives,” he says. “While some of the photos I take are staged, many of the images in this collection are spontaneous and a reaction to the current situation and environment. How my kids respond is what makes these images so much fun to view.”

“The title of this collection (“The Dangerous Lives of Children”) is my reaction to the constant onslaught of potential dangers and lurking boogey men propagated by the media (and by two very doting grandmothers). Childhood is a dangerous place, but it’s also a lot of fun, and my hope is that the joy of being a kid is what the viewer will take from this show.”

McMillen-Oakley’s irony and wit make these domestic scenes anything but banal. For example, one photo ("Story time: Mr. Mapplethorpe's Neighborhood") shows a pleasant scene of father-figure reading a book to two young children -- although careful inspection reveals it is a book about the work of controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Meanwhile, the artist's image-altering practice helps accent the idea that something unexpected is going on here. In this way, the artist negates misguided notions about same-sex-partner families by using irony to turn these notions against themselves.

He creates ambiguous moods in other, action-based photos as well. In "Colton Dropping By," a child is being thrown playfully into the air by his uncle, with the picture freezing exactly when the boy is at his highest point -- strangely making it appear that the child has just been launched into heaven -- or just fallen from there -- or perhaps is floating…. (McMillen-Oakley blogs about his life as a parent and an artist at

Julia DeClerck’s photos also use children as subjects, but in a very different way. She uses standard, unmanipulated film photography to capture children in spontaneous, unexpected poses that reflect each child’s immediate mood, economic conditions, or playful creativity. A range of children’s moods are captured – real displays of joy, anger, or sadness that for children are typically fleeting, lasting only moments in real time, outside the frozen world of photography.

Shaqe Kalaj’s photos depict diverse adults from urban and small-town environments. She captures the direct gaze of each subject, a gaze that is strangely similar for each subject, but also different – usually honest, though sometimes elusive and manipulative. Kalaj chose her subjects from the streets of Albuquerque (New Mexico) and from Plymouth and Northville in Michigan, emphasizing how her subjects’ personal choices in dress and appearance defines (or is defined by) the unique identity of each city – a concept she refers to as “cityology.”

The opening reception for “Social Realism 2010” will be on Saturday, August 7, from 6-10pm, with short talks by the artists at 6:45, followed by live music. The show runs through Sept. 18. Regular summer gallery hours are Tues.-Thurs., 5-7pm; and Friday & Saturday, 1-8pm; or by appointment.