Cay Bahnmiller

November 10–December 17, 2022 East Gallery

Press Release

White Columns is pleased to present the first New York exhibition of the work of Cay Bahnmiller (1955-2007). “Painting is inscription, rather than description,” Bahnmiller once wrote. Aptly, her own vast oeuvre saw the prolific painter inscribe upon materials ranging from discarded bits of wood, cardboard and plastic to found street signs and sandwich boards. Pithy, vivid and texturally dense, the ornery, often irreverent content of her work belies the gestural clarity of Bahnmiller’s technique.

A longtime fixture in Detroit’s “Cass Corridor” known as much for her art as for her affecting, if at times thorny, personality, Bahnmiller invoked the geography and architecture of the city in her expansive artistic practice. “There is nothing that interests me more probably than urban spaces and use,” Bahnmiller wrote in a letter to collector Gilbert Silverman.[1] This fixation can be seen in her inclusion of mundane, cast-off bits of the city in her work, an expression of architect Louis Kahn’s idea of “spent material,” as noted by Bahnmiller in her own writings.

Bahnmiller’s paintings came to perform an excavation that brought to the surface a fraught psyche. In the wake of a traumatic event, her work grew more insular, focusing on the psychological alongside the structural. These later works reflect the shift from Bahnmiller’s lifelong preoccupation with urban spaces to a more complex interpolation between notions of the public and the private, the exterior and the interior, the built and the natural. Fiercely protective of her home, Bahnmiller fashioned signage to hang in her yard emblazoned with phrases like “KEEP OUT YOU LITTLE MOTHERFUCKER” or “BEWARE OF THE DOG.” The wry Untitled (Enjoy the raspberries, I/we lace them with arsenic), sardonically defies its purpose as a warning through its illegibility, while works like Untitled (Warning) are even less legible, such that the text serves as pure visual form, simultaneously inviting and repelling attempts to engage with the piece. These works function both as literal warnings to would-be intruders and as symbolic signposts demarcating the boundaries of the artist’s interior world.

A voracious reader, Bahnmiller noted that a text to which she returned often “[became] a painting.” Her many journals and books took on a palimpsest-like quality, with layers of scribbles and oil paint imbuing the original object with new aesthetic life. Sculptural works such as the Ship of Death series also contain myriad and complex literary allusions. Much like Bahnmiller’s own work, the D.H. Lawrence poem from which Ship of Death’s title is taken underscores the necessity of forming a protective sphere within a broader, bleaker world: “Oh build your ship of death, your little ark/ and furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine/ for the dark flight down oblivion.” Bahnmiller’s iterative engagement with literary forms reemerges at the bottom of another piece in the Ship of Death series: the painted phrase “AKA THE CAT CAME BACK” is, in fact, a double-reference to a Ted Berrigan poem that makes mention of the Lawrence poem and nicknames it “a/k/a THE CAT CAME BACK.”[2]

Throughout her life, Bahnmiller returned to paintings from earlier years and added to them, often obscuring or altering their original content. The haptic and multilayered quality of her work collapses linear processes of making to create a space in which the painting is continually recreated. In her sprawling inscriptions upon both texts and materials can be seen the workings of a frenetic mind perpetually reaching to bridge the gap between thought and object. “The violated environment is a physical remainder reconstructed through many layers of perception, intense light and obscured, disfigured form,” she wrote. “Thus, the process of painting becomes the coverlet to experience.”

Cay Bahnmiller’s exhibition has been developed in close collaboration with the Estate of Cay Bahnmiller and Daniel Sperry and Alivia Zivich of What Pipeline, Detroit.

Cay Bahnmiller (1955-2007) was born in Wayne, MI. After spending part of her childhood abroad in Argentina and Germany, she lived and worked in Detroit, MI until her death. Bahnmiller graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Michigan in 1976. In her lifetime, her work was shown at Feigenson Gallery and Susanne Hilberry Gallery in Detroit, and was collected by Gilbert and Lila Silverman. Her work is in the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Since her passing her work has been shown at What Pipeline in Detroit. Her work has been written about in Artforum and The New York Times.

For further information, please contact info@whitecolumns.org

[1] Via Loren, C. (2022). Gilbert and Lila Silverman. Three Fold.  https://threefoldpress.org/silverman

[2]  The Berrigan poem was published by The Alternative Press, a Detroit poetry press run by Ken and Ann Mikolowski, close friends of Bahnmiller’s.

 

 

Gallery view at an angle. Nearest to the viewer, a sculpture of an abstractly painted dresser drawer rests atop a plinth; painted black text on the drawer’s side reads “OF DEATH.” On the center free-standing wall hangs a large abstract painting. Installed on the floor to the left, a painted sandwich board reads “WHAT PART OF KEEP OUT.” On the rear wall hang six smaller paintings with painted text.
An abstract painting is hung against a white gallery wall. It is an amalgamation of thickly layered oil paints, scribbles and cursive letters on a quilting board. The phrase “Ship of Death” can be distinguished amongst the sea of cursive letters. Hung from wire to the upper right, a small sign with black text reading “POSTED” is in view. It is painted in a mixture of yellow, red, and black.
Frontal view of variously sized paintings. There are two pieces on the left wall. In an ornate frame, the left painting is made of tape, yellow marker, a red outline, and black text reading “EXIT.” Six metal and wooden signs are on the back wall covered in thick layers of paint, depicting text with varying degrees of legibility. Installed on the floor, a sandwich board reads “WHAT PART OF KEEP OUT” in painted text.
Six signs are on the back wall covered in thick layers of paint, depicting text with varying degrees of legibility. They read (from right to left): “BEWARE OF DOG,” “DO NOT CUT CHICORY,” “PRIVATE PROPERTY KEEP OUT,” “DO NOT BLOCK THE DRIVEWAY,” and “KEEP OUT.” The last sign is illegible.
Six signs are on the back wall covered in thick layers of paint, depicting text with varying degrees of legibility. They read (from right to left): “BEWARE OF DOG,” “DO NOT CUT CHICORY,” “PRIVATE PROPERTY KEEP OUT,” “DO NOT BLOCK THE DRIVEWAY,” and “KEEP OUT.” The last sign is illegible.
Four abstract paintings hang on a white gallery wall. From left to right: a painting with illegible brown text painted in blue, beige, red, and white strokes. Next, a black, dark blue, brown, and cream painting that reads “ROSADA” at the bottom.  The third painting includes cursive letters and abstract cream, black, blue and green marks. The last painting, on a repurposed street sign, depicts black and white shapes.
A gallery view captured at angle. To the left, two table vitrines full of artist books. In the center are hung five small framed drawings on a freestanding wall. To the left, a painted sandwich sign is installed on the floor.
Five small works on paper are hung on a white wall in white frames. There are cool-toned colors with a focus on black, cream, gray, and blue. The acrylic and pastel pieces depict varying mundane scenes of a private home. With scenes from a kitchen, a bedroom and a reading nook. Three of the five works have various iterations and angles of a chair.
Gallery view captured at an angle. To the upper left hangs a black multi-colored dangling with black lettering that reads “KEEP OUT.” Five framed works on paper depicting various scenes of domestic life are hung on the freestanding white wall. To the left, several signs coated with thick layers of paint and varied lettering are on the wall. In the foreground two table vitrines are full of artist books.
A detail view of the vitrine. There are several artist books, collaged with a mix of papers, paint, and marker. The works vary in color, pattern and texture.
A worn artist's book lies open in a vitrine. The left page is a photograph of a man silhouetted in a doorway. On the right page, Ted Berrigan’s poem “The Einstein Intersection” has been glued to a page, surrounded by beige and blue strokes of paint. Below the poem, the name “ANNA” is written in black permanent marker.
A closed artist’s book lies in a vitrine. The cover has been painted with a woman’s bust; colorful strokes are outlined with white. The white paint stands out against the worn black leather cover of the book.

Cay Bahnmiller, installation view, 2022 (Gallery view at an angle. Nearest to the viewer, a sculpture of an abstractly painted dresser drawer rests atop a plinth; painted black text on the drawer’s side reads “OF DEATH.” On the center free-standing wall hangs a large abstract painting. Installed on the floor to the left, a painted sandwich board reads “WHAT PART OF KEEP OUT.” On the rear wall hang six smaller paintings with painted text.)

Cay Bahnmiller, installation view, 2022 (An abstract painting is hung against a white gallery wall. It is an amalgamation of thickly layered oil paints, scribbles and cursive letters on a quilting board. The phrase “Ship of Death” can be distinguished amongst the sea of cursive letters. Hung from wire to the upper right, a small sign with black text reading “POSTED” is in view. It is painted in a mixture of yellow, red, and black.) 

Cay Bahnmiller, installation view, 2022 (Frontal view of variously sized paintings. There are two pieces on the left wall. In an ornate frame, the left painting is made of tape, yellow marker, a red outline, and black text reading “EXIT.” Six metal and wooden signs are on the back wall covered in thick layers of paint, depicting text with varying degrees of legibility. Installed on the floor, a sandwich board reads “WHAT PART OF KEEP OUT” in painted text.)  

Cay Bahnmiller, installation view, 2022 (Six signs are on the back wall covered in thick layers of paint, depicting text with varying degrees of legibility. They read (from right to left): “BEWARE OF DOG,” “DO NOT CUT CHICORY,” “PRIVATE PROPERTY KEEP OUT,” “DO NOT BLOCK THE DRIVEWAY,” and “KEEP OUT.” The last sign is illegible.)

Cay Bahnmiller, installation view, 2022 (Six signs are on the back wall covered in thick layers of paint, depicting text with varying degrees of legibility. They read (from right to left): “BEWARE OF DOG,” “DO NOT CUT CHICORY,” “PRIVATE PROPERTY KEEP OUT,” “DO NOT BLOCK THE DRIVEWAY,” and “KEEP OUT.” The last sign is illegible.)

Cay Bahnmiller, installation view, 2022 (Four abstract paintings hang on a white gallery wall. From left to right: a painting with illegible brown text painted in blue, beige, red, and white strokes. Next, a black, dark blue, brown, and cream painting that reads “ROSADA” at the bottom.  The third painting includes cursive letters and abstract cream, black, blue and green marks. The last painting, on a repurposed street sign, depicts black and white shapes.)

Cay Bahnmiller, installation view, 2022 (A gallery view captured at angle. To the left, two table vitrines full of artist books. In the center are hung five small framed drawings on a freestanding wall. To the left, a painted sandwich sign is installed on the floor.)

Cay Bahnmiller, installation view, 2022 (Five small works on paper are hung on a white wall in white frames. There are cool-toned colors with a focus on black, cream, gray, and blue. The acrylic and pastel pieces depict varying mundane scenes of a private home. With scenes from a kitchen, a bedroom and a reading nook. Three of the five works have various iterations and angles of a chair.)

Cay Bahnmiller, installation view, 2022 (Gallery view captured at an angle. To the upper left hangs a black multi-colored dangling with black lettering that reads “KEEP OUT.” Five framed works on paper depicting various scenes of domestic life are hung on the freestanding white wall. To the left, several signs coated with thick layers of paint and varied lettering are on the wall. In the foreground two table vitrines are full of artist books.)

Cay Bahnmiller, installation view, 2022 (A detail view of the vitrine. There are several artist books, collaged with a mix of papers, paint, and marker. The works vary in color, pattern and texture.)

Cay Bahnmiller, detail view, 2022 (A worn artist’s book lies open in a vitrine. The left page is a photograph of a man silhouetted in a doorway. On the right page, Ted Berrigan’s poem “The Einstein Intersection” has been glued to a page, surrounded by beige and blue strokes of paint. Below the poem, the name “ANNA” is written in black permanent marker.)

Cay Bahnmiller, detail view, 2022 (A closed artist’s book lies in a vitrine. The cover has been painted with a woman’s bust; colorful strokes are outlined with white. The white paint stands out against the worn black leather cover of the book.)