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Joe McHale
b.1942 d.1981
 

The Detroit News - Sunday, April 24, 1983

 

Cass Corridor Art Honors a Friend

by Joy Hakansan Colby, News Special Writer

 

   Not one of the artists on view in the Modern Wing of the Detroit Institute of Arts tries to upstage the others with a razzle-dazzle performance.  Still, the small exhibit of mostly works on paper, The Carson-McHale Gift: 13 Detroit Artists Remember Joe McHale, packs an emotional wallop - particularly when one knows how the collection was brought together, and why.

   Joe McHale, laicized Catholic priest, political activist, and friend to Detroit's Cass Corridor artists - died at the age of 39 in 1981.  So saddened were the artists he had supported with his friendship and commitment that they decided to form a memorial collection to present to his wife, Barbara Carson-McHale.  The original suggestion came from Ellen Phelan, who asked for works on paper.

   After the artists had given their work, ostensibly as a private tribute, Mrs. McHale realized that the collection was museum-worthy.  So, with the artists' blessing, she offered it to the DIA, which gladly accepted it.  The present show, which will be up through June 12, marks the first time the Carson-McHale gift has been on public display.  In addition, several works from the permanent collection by participating artists are hanging in surrounding galleries.

   Joe McHale, who was introduced to art in special children's classes at the DIA, had a lifelong habit of drawing.  He had no illusions about being an artist, his widow says; still, this collection of works on paper seems especially appropriate.  (The one exception to the paper motif:  Thomas Regenbogen's wonderful fan-shaped construction of wood coated with spackle, enamel and lacquer.)

   Each work is special in its own way, from Jim Chatelain's gyrating skeins of colored crayon to Ellen Phelan's rich black charcoal landscape, from Nancy Pletos' bit of concentric geometry to Robert Sestok's rush of small boats.  Michael Luchs' rabbit is a prime piece, containing a strong black rabbit outline and flashes of red and green pigment.  Gordon Newton contributes a Diving Board with strong thrusts, and John Egner's triptych in ink and pencil line has some forceful interior dynamics.

 

 

THE CARSON-McHALE GIFT: 13 DETROIT ARTISTS REMEMBER JOE McHALE

The Detroit Institute of Arts

5200 Woodward Ave. Detroit, MI

313-833-7900

 

   Tough, gutsy, energetic, aggressive:  that's what Detroit's Cass Corridor art is supposed to be.

   Enter Joe McHale, a former Catholic priest who left the Church in 1971, but continued to live its social teachings.  McHale settled in mid-town and befriended many, including the Cass Corridor artists.  In 1981, Joe McHale died of cancer at the age of thirty-nine.

   Encouraged by Ellen Phelan, each of the artists close to him presented a work to his widow, Barbara Carson-McHale, in tribute to their friend's memory.  Ms. Carson-McHale has, in turn, placed these works in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

   The Carson-McHale gift belies the stereotypic labels that are attached to Detroit art and that seduce people into thinking about the labels instead of the work.  The gift generally expresses the somber, the introspective, the calm and quiet aspect of Cass Corridor art.  It is clear that this aspect is inherent in the style because all but four of the pieces were executed before McHale died and were only later selected for the memorial.

   Each artist achieves a sense of poise in a different way.  For Gordon Newton, for example, it is with brooding, thrusting planes of richly hued oil stick.  For Halyna Mordowanec, a tumulus image carries the message of ponderous serenity.  John Egner, Mary Preston, Kathyrn Brackett Luchs, and Phelan use pencil, ink, charcoal, and black-and-white photographs to evoke solemnity.

   As if to insist upon the paradigmatic energy of Cass Corridor art, three works involve movement.  A loosely patterned background of color swatches allows Nancy Mitchnick's serene pastel bird-of-paradise flowers to grow almost across the picture plane.  James Chatelain remembers McHale joyously, with crayon spirals that suggest bat, ball and the impact of the hit itself.  Robert Sestok's  view of the Detroit River uses deliberate, yet impetuous, markings of lumber crayon to show boats careening across dark water in a visual metaphor of the anger and pain of loss.

   Three quarters of the pieces were done in 1980 or 1981, and so the Carson-McHale gift offers an opportunity to see mature work of these artists, who are now in their mid-thirties to early forties.

   Before the donation of this gift, about half of these artists had not previously been represented by a major work in the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

                                                          PAUL EDSON