Celebrating Collaborative Art: Stamelos Gallery Presents “Andy T’s Urban Vision, 2001 - 2024”

“Andy T’s Urban Vision, 2001-2024” exhibition, Stamelos Gallery, curated by Dr. Nadja Rottner and University of Michigan – Dearborn students

Dr. Nadja Rottner is an associate professor of art history at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. She describes herself as a contemporary art historian. She mostly focuses on American and Latin American art in the decades of the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Rottner worked with art history students at UM-D to curate works from local artist, Andrew W. Thompson, popularly known as “Andy T” for the exhibit “Andy T’s Urban Vision, 2001 - 2024” at the Stamelos Gallery in the Mardigian Library at UM-D.

MN: You have studied and worked in Austria, New York City, and San Francisco. How does the art scene in metro Detroit compare?

Rottner: It was 2009 when I moved to Detroit and was first immersed in the metro Detroit art scene. I entered through social connections. I entered the art scenes in New York and San Francisco through an institutional angle, as an art historian and a scholar. Detroit was different. I lived there, had friends and we started to socialize in Detroit. The contemporary art scene in Detroit is ephemeral. Institutions pop up and disappear at a much higher frequency. It is one of the most fascinating aspects of the art scene in Detroit. As a result you have to witness and be invited to witness. It is mostly through social interactions that you find out what is going on and which institutions or non profits are the most interesting. You want to be there and live through it. Historicizing contemporary art in Detroit is challenging. It is a project that has yet to be undertaken. It is much easier and different to write the history of these other cities than the history of Detroit.

MN: As an art historian, what do you appreciate about the work of Andy T?

Rottner: He makes a really important point about what it means to be political, and that’s a question my students ask a lot. The way Andy is political is subtle, and immersive. It’s very present. He looks at space and his everyday reality with a certain kind of observational intention. So, everything is observed from where the bus stops, to which buses run, to the problems with the bus schedule. You observe your everyday life, and how you move through the spaces that you encounter every day, and you start to think about them as institutions, as spaces, with a history, with politics, with power, with money entangled in them. Then you realize that being political is not necessarily primarily going out and protesting on the streets with banners saying what you stand for and what you don’t stand for, though that is part of it. The much more pervasive and all important way of being political is that you respond to your life in a critical way by thinking deeper, and once you think deeper and you understand better, then you make better decisions and you become more responsible toward yourself and towards others. So, one of the most important things I believe Andy’s work teaches us is how to be political every day, every moment of the day, and it starts with feeling and observing space, and then thinking about the things you’ve seen and what they mean.

MN: What pieces by Andy T stand out to you and why?

Rottner: I have two personal favorites. The first is called “From Room to Room.” He used the entire space of the Burton Theatre. Throughout multiple floors, he connected plastic bags without using screws, glue or any kind of hardware. He just connected elements in the space to each other, and as a result they became visual pointers from a closet to a doorknob. You walk through space and really feel it because he had changed the space. It was no longer rectangular, it had all these lines hanging through; it was organic. So that was the first work I personally experienced. And I thought, “Wow, this is a really interesting artist. This is the kind of artist I would like to learn more about.” The other one is a video made by one of his friends, Matt Ballinger, during undergrad called “Andy and the Tire.” You have to watch the entire 11 minute video. It’s in the exhibition space. And, you start to realize how much humor there is in Andy’s work, and how deeply philosophical and existential it is. So I really liked that video as well.

MN: What role do you see that galleries like the Stamelos Gallery have with local artists like Andy T?

Rottner: The chief curator of the space, Laura Cotton, was very excited when I first presented the idea of showing a local Detroit installation artist. She was immediately supportive and embraced it because it fits the overall curatorial agenda of the space itself. They’re going to show more and more local Detroit artists and that’s going to be a growing attraction for Southeast Michigan and it will get more attention to the gallery itself because I think this is one of the strongest curatorial trajectories that the gallery has, in addition to working on presenting the kind of works they have in their permanent collection.

MN: Is there anything else you’d like to share about the current exhibit?

Rottner: Anyone who visits the exhibit has complete free flow of movement through the show. It’s curated in such a way that even though it’s 23 years of work, it’s not organized chronologically from the first to the last work. It has 4 themes, but they’re very loos; they are very gentle themes. You can go from one theme to the next and get a better understanding. You can watch the videos or one video, and get to understand a single work. And then you stand on one side of the exhibition space, which happens to be a rectangle, and then you can choose any trajectory. There is not one way of going through the exhibit, and I think there’s great freedom and great strength, and ultimately also great viewing responsibility, because you only understand the work if you spend an extended period of time in the show, and just make your own connections and keep walking through the space at your own volition. So, it’s not an easy show to absorb, but it is a very free and open approach to mediating what the work is about. MN: When did Andy start creating art?

Rottner: He started creating art when he was an undergrad student at the Kansas Art Institute in 2001, where he got his BA in sculpture.

MN: Who or what have been the biggest influences of his art?

Rottner: Let me answer that as an art historian. When I sat in his living room throughout most of the summer months, he kept talking about which artists influenced him, and I kept laughing at him because he is so ahistorical. It’s those teachers he had at the Kansas Art Institute, the teachers he had at Cranbrook, where he got his Master’s degree, and their references to other artists in the 1990’s who were then considered contemporary. But if you actually historicize the artists that he considers his biggest influences they, historically speaking, go back to what artists did in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, so there’s quite a lot of artists that influenced Andy.

MN: Do you know why Andy decided to stay in Detroit after attending Cranbrook?

Rottner: That’s a question that I keep asking most of the contemporary artists that I have encounters with. A lot of artists from Cranbrook ended up staying in the Detroit area because space used to be cheap and plentiful with a strong social network so the ties between artists in the community are very strong.

MN: What does Andy’s creative process look like?

Rottner: He starts by observing and that’s not something we can necessarily take for granted. He observes and researches everyday life. He looks at products we use everyday. He pays excruciating attention to his everyday environment; that then sets him off to research and discover further.

MN: Could you explain to readers what a 23 year process would look like?

Rottner: I think the exhibit does a great job of that. He’s an artist who works with found materials, and that is a larger 20th century legacy where artists decided, at some point they wanted to work with different materials. I have so much industrial material that surrounds me every day, bought in a hardware store, found in trash, side streets, as everyday utility objects in the household, and then artists prefer to work with these materials, because, to them, it expresses what contemporary life is all about, what being in the current moment is all about. There is this celebration of everydayness in his mythological approach, the way he looks at life, and how he draws inspiration from everyday life, but also the materials are from everyday life, and then the techniques and processes that he uses to assemble come from everyday life.

MN: What does Andy want his audience to know when viewing his work?

Rottner: It is not one thing, and that’s another thing I personally like about the work. The work can be very intellectual, socially critical, and politically conscious. At the same time, it’s very humorous and playful. So there are two sides to Andy’s work. The audience will draw connections as they see fit, and take away from the work what they see fit, and the work lends itself to a certain degree of thematic openness.

MN: What is the process of installing a large installation like Andy T’s “Since You’re Gone” sculpture?

Rottner: We have a lot of historical documentation because there is nothing left of the installations that he’s done in the last 23 years. Often the waste that was used to create the installations turned into recycled material that actually went into recycling heaps. As a result, it’s a lot of photographs. We have about 90 photographs documenting his previous installations. We’ve also recreated selected historical installations. We were able to recreate old works with new material that Andy had collected throughout the past 20 years. You will get a good sense of the kind of feeling these waste installations gave. He also created two entirely new installations for the exhibit. He always thinks about space when he creates installations.

MN: Is Andy working on any new projects at this time?

Rottner: He has been spending a lot of time digging up the detritus from his past. He has thousands of historical photographs of his previous installations, and that is a way of responding to your initial question, “What is the process of making a show like this?” So, he had to basically archive himself and organize himself, and that has been all consuming. It’s not over yet because he’s now working on shoving all of that material onto a website. So he is not currently making any new work. This is still part of his trajectory for most of this year.

Laura Cotton is the director of the Art Collection and Exhibition department at University of Michigan – Dearborn. She is also the campus art curator. Cotton is responsible for fundraising and grant writing, curating, and coordinating all the exhibits in the gallery, educational programming, and overseeing a collection of 4000 works of art that are permanently owned by the university. She is also responsible for developing the art collection at the Stamelos Gallery by finding and acquiring pieces that fit the gallery’s mission.

MN: Please share the history of the Stamelos Gallery.

Cotton: Bill and Electra Stamelos are longtime, very treasured donors and supporters. They both have sadly passed away. They’ve contributed here for many, many decades. Electra was a beloved art teacher and professor here, everyone loved her. And, she was an extremely talented artist herself. When she passed away, Bill donated a huge collection of her artwork to us. They, as a couple, donated a good portion of the money that built this gallery.

When I was hired nine years ago, we had a different gallery space, and there were many challenges with that space. Bill and Electra had given a good portion of money for a new gallery and they said if I took the job as head curator and raised the rest of the money, I could design whatever gallery I wanted. That was a big opportunity because as a curator, you never get to design your own gallery. I took the job nine years ago, and worked with the fundraisers for about five years to raise the rest of the money. Then I got to work with the architects from day one on the new space, and wow, it was really fulfilling and exciting. At that time, Bill was still alive, so he was helping to direct the project. We were following his wishes and working closely with him. Finally, after all that hard work, we opened this gallery in September 2019, and named it after Bill and Electra. That’s why it’s called the Stamelos Gallery Center. It’s called the gallery center, because there’s another room where the collection is stored.

We closed down again for COVID in March of 2020, and then opened back up two years later. So it’s still kind of a very new space. The gallery and collection storage room are climate controlled spaces. We have museum quality LED lights and we just finished putting in a museum quality shelving system. These are huge steps forward for this university. Now that we have this space, and the collection storage space, we can get much more valuable donations for the art collection. Now, we can properly store and take care of everything up to the same standards that you would see at the Smithsonian. We have a lot more resources and the proper type of room to even borrow artwork. I can go to the Detroit Institute of Art, Cranbrook or any regional museums and borrow artwork. Imagine what that does for our exhibits programs? Before, for many decades, we were limited to whatever certain artists would allow us to have. We are very proud of the space and how far we have come.

MN: Is there anything else you’d like to share about the Stamelos Gallery?

Cotton: At University of Michigan – Dearborn, we have a long running tradition of student curated exhibits. Nadja Rottner worked closely with her class during the curation process. It is important for professors and students to have this experience from start to finish. They are learning the process of curating an exhibit down to every little detail. We try to stay out of the way to let the students get the full effect. The students and the professor choose the artists, from there, they bring their vision to life. We help with logistics and let the students tell us what to do. It’s a historic collaboration, because we’ve been collaborating on these exhibits for decades here. It’s a big tradition. So if you go on our website, you can see past student exhibits. Some of them happened before the website, but there are some past ones on there. It just makes me feel very proud of the students. They are also able to include the experience on their resumes, which is wonderful.

“Andy T’s Urban Vision, 2001 - 2024,” is open for public viewing through April 21 at the Stamelos Gallery in the Mardigian Library, University of Michigan – Dearborn.