Call it subtle subversion.
Nicole Macdonald's political billboards, which form her solo show "Declared Dissent" at Detroit's Holding House through Oct. 4, could clobber you over the head if they wanted. But they don't.
They just want to get you thinking.
Macdonald, a 2017 Kresge Artist Fellow, has a point of view that's unapologetically progressive, even radical. But her 12-by-5-foot canvases, four of which are currently up on abandoned billboards scattered across Detroit, are so gorgeously painted that it's hard not to respond to them. They suggest without hectoring.
"Sanctuary State" highlights migrant lettuce-pickers in the shadow of the Mackinac Bridge. "Rebuild Puerto Rico / Occupy the United States" presents a cluster of hurricane survivors in knee-deep water. "Tear Down This Wall," by contrast, stars just one Arab youngster trying to scale the security wall between the West Bank and Israel -- a political message Macdonald explicitly addresses "To Mr. Netanyahu," the Israeli prime minister.
"This may be tooting my own horn too much," the artist said, chatting at Holding House, "but I see the billboards as a civic good. This is our visual space, and it’s generally used to sell liquor or political ads."
When billboards have been forsaken by their owners, Macdonald is happy to substitute her own messaging. "I see it as bringing art and the concerns of the larger world to this community," she said, "and making them relevant to this place."
She was inspired in part, Macdonald says, by a Dutch project last year in which activists pasted names of significant women over city street signs honoring men.
As an artist, she wants to "intervene in a public space and change something for the good, open people’s eyes. Sometimes," she added, touching on the derelict billboards she's appropriated, "the line between legality and illegality is something that should be tested."
Reaching back 50 years, she also points to John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1969 billboard campaign in cities around the world, at the height of the Vietnam War, proclaiming "War Is Over."
(Lennon's response to those who said it wasn't? "It could be if you wanted.")
Indeed, social critique informs everything Macdonald, a U-Mich philosophy grad who did not study art in college, takes on. Some works are less political than others, like her "Detroit Portrait Series," large-scale paintings of significant cultural and political leaders, mostly African-American, that now fill up once-blank windows on empty buildings. But even those raise questions of exclusion and dispossession.
She is, as the critic Sarah Rose Sharp noted in Art in America, telling the history of Detroit "from the ground up." For proof, check out the windows on the Knack Building at 3343 Gratiot, at Mack, which honor Black Bottom and Paradise Valley greats, including Coleman Young and Aretha Franklin.
Stylistically, there's a loose realism to Macdonald's work, marked by brushstroke and use of paint that suggest the Impressionists.
As it happens, Cezanne was her father's hero, and it was her father, "a pretty cantankerous fellow," who first taught her to paint.
"He was a great critic," Macdonald said. "He’d say, 'This is so tight. I don’t know what you’re doing, but you should look at some Cezannes.'"
'Declared Dissent: A Political Billboard Show'
Solo exhibition by Nicole Macdonald
Through Oct. 4
Opening reception: 6-9 p.m. Sept. 7
Holding House (3546 Michigan., Detroit) does not maintain regular hours - call for an appointment.