Detroit

Ed Fraga

Joy Emery Gallery

In his book Devil’s Night and Other True Tales of Detroit, Ze’ev Chafets likens Detroit to a third world nation, portraying the city as crude in terms of its quality of life and paralyzed by the struggle with issues of self-determination. While Chafet’s sound-byte adequately summons images of squalor and desperation, the cultural reality of the third world—the politics of moving from a “lesser-developed” to a consumer economy—is quite unlike the dilemma facing Detroit, a city that has become derelict as a result of postindustrial disinvestment. It would be more apt to compare Detroit’s condition to a medieval one, for the city is a ruin after the fall of the golden age of Modernism.

According to Umberto Eco, the medieval period has held particular fascination for Modernists because “all the problems of the Western world emerged in the Middle Ages: modern languages, merchant cities, capitalist economy (along with banks, checks, and prime rate).” Detroit artist Ed Fraga’s paintings exhibit a neomedieval inflection—his method of rendering images and his use of arched wood panels evoke altarpieces. Nevertheless, his work cannot simply be relegated to the anachronistic; on the contrary, Fraga’s art is determined by considerations that are quintessentially Modernist.

Many of Fraga’s works incorporate the detritus of the city, and they all are imbued with the quiescent atmosphere of melancholy that pervades much of the art made here. In the mid ’80s, Fraga produced a series of character studies of people he saw on the streets of the city; subsequently he has focused on his own persona. Though Fraga’s concerns have undeniably shifted in this respect, there has, in fact, always been a feeling of apocalyptic isolation in his work—a sense that humankind has been forsaken by God and cast to the terrestrial plane.

Spiritual estrangement, particularly as it was expressed in Calvinist theology, was identified by Max Weber as the origin of the Protestant work ethic, which has resulted in an ever-increasing maximization of natural resources for personal advantage, facilitated, in large measure, by the demystification of the metaphysical at the hands of Western technology. It is the ultimate refusal of the sacred under capitalism, the effect of which has meant near disaster for Detroit both socially and economically, that Fraga seeks to counter. Through his painting, he endeavors to represent purely subjective states; his art is a search for a condition prior to the intrusion of thought.

It is ironic that an exhibition of this work should carry the title “Momentary Awakening,” as the artist appears to desire refuge from the world. Many of Fraga’s works refer to modes of existing, such as lying comatose and receiving an intravenous injection, which offer exemption from the exertions of day to day reality. Moreover, in Fraga’s work the landscape functions as a metaphor for a preternatural condition, either in and of itself or as a protective envelope for a solitary figure. These solipsistic circumstances reference a ground zero no less Modernist than the Cartesian cogito. Yet to revoke the objective world in order to inhabit a subjective one is not to solve the crises of modernity, but simply to hide from them.

Vincent A. Carducci