Cay Bahnmiller, Home Sweet Home, 2003, oil, latex, Sharpie, dried flowers, metal sign, wood, 18 × 21 1⁄2 × 3".

Cay Bahnmiller, Home Sweet Home, 2003, oil, latex, Sharpie, dried flowers, metal sign, wood, 18 × 21 1⁄2 × 3".

Cay Bahnmiller

Between the 1960s and the 1970s, Detroit’s Cass Corridor was the center of a burgeoning local art scene that echoed and responded to what was happening in New York’s Greenwich Village. Its artists embraced a rough formalism in works often crafted from repurposed industrial materials. Cay Bahnmiller (1955–2007) was loosely associated with this milieu and intersected it in multiple ways, but she surpassed it with her vibrant thinking and art. She was a painter and sculptor whose accumulative rhizomatic approach to object making incorporated Detroit’s material and psychic detritus, but she turned the aggressive stuff of the city into a visual language—tender, funny, sharp—that was uniquely hers. Bahnmiller lived in Detroit until she died, leaving behind a tangled archive that curators at What Pipeline, an artist-run space, distilled into a compact survey that spanned twenty-six years. The show’s organizers adeptly reframed and redirected Bahnmiller’s legacy away from her struggles with mental illness and away from the long shadow of the Cass Corridor.

Bahnmiller’s paintings and assemblages have complex strata that feel archaeological. The exhibition’s curators identified several of her recurring motifs, such as a petroglyphic rendering of a horse, a long-necked woman whose confrontational stare is not too unlike the artist’s, a kitchen hutch, and aggressive bursts of text on found signage that articulate Bahnmiller’s fierce defense of her privacy. Many of her works are as inscrutable and as dense as the myriad layers of substances that inhabit them. Yet pieces such as Home Sweet Home, 2003, are unequivocally direct. Cobbled together from a metal sign, slats of wood, and dried flowers and decorated with Sharpie and oil and latex paints, it reads KEEP OUT YOU LITTLE MOTHERFUCKER in bright cheerful letters. Despite the hostility of the message, the assemblage itself is somehow warmly inviting.

Bahnmiller’s apartment exploded with her art, and she labored on single pieces for years at a time. Sometimes she altered her objects after they had been exhibited, and even took her works back from collectors to modify them. She painted on everything––address books, auction catalogues, toys, a beehive—yet there was a rigor to her seemingly chaotic methodology. Up close we can see that the artist built her surfaces skillfully and carefully—their colors shimmer and vibrate with the intensity of her spirit. Country Calico, 1985–89, is one such masterpiece; its three-dimensionality captures movements in time and space through heavy accretions of oil paint on its unstretched canvas support. A comic-book-like image of a country house appears on a round piece of tin that’s been embedded into the work; the paint engulfs it as though it were an invasive vine overwhelming a tree. Elsewhere in the composition, a totemic horse stands within a sliver of white paint, as though the creature were being illuminated from behind; below this scene is a vague silhouette of what might be a cityscape. Bahnmiller’s paintings existed in no definite state of completion, and she added to them slowly over the years. The long pauses she took while working are evidenced here in the way the massive daubs of paint dried to solidity before additional layers of oils were added. Country Calico also calls to mind Detroit’s urban topography and how parts of it have been reclaimed by wildlife and plant overgrowth. I imagine Bahnmiller would have appreciated this interpretation, as she rejected the more exploitative aspects of modernity and understood deeply the disastrous effects of the Anthropocene.

In the gallery’s back room were stacks of laminated verse that viewers were invited to thumb through—lamination seemed the closest to finality Bahnmiller could achieve in an artwork. Some of these texts were by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge or by Anna Akhmatova, while a few were uncredited. The curators speculated that these might be examples of Bahnmiller’s own writing, as embodied by Oh Lover How I Love You, Luv You, 1994–2003, a xeroxed copy of a poem (titled “Blue Whitie”) onto which she painted the faint outline of a ghostly figure. The work reads STRANGE CORPSES THE ONES WHO / STILL TALK. HERE IS ONE NOW. / TELL US, SIR, WHY ARE YOU SO / FULL OF SHIT? NOW, COME ON, MAN, DON’T BE ANGRY / SPEAK RIGHT UP INTO THE MICROPHONE.