Wellness Center by Nicolas Lobo

by Drew Penner

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When influential American artist Mike Kelley committed suicide in 2012, he left behind a final piece titled Mobile Homestead, a life-sized structure that recreated his boyhood suburban home. The ranch house was built on a trailer so it could travel from place to place, and even showed up in LA to comment on the rent control debate.

Now it’s back in Michigan, its permanent home, for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s latest exhibit, Wellness Center by Nicolas Lobo, which runs from May 10 – Aug. 4, 2019.

The Miami-based artist has a penchant for sparking conversations about the toxic and mundane materials that make up our built environment. Now he’s digging deeper into the connection between human flesh and socioeconomic forces.

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One item reveals how his Floridian perspective relates to a Midwestern context. In the exhibit he highlights the Detroit water issues, via a pool filled with salinated water from the underground Detroit Salt Mine. Perhaps this is a reference to the creepy hatch that leads to a subterranean maze below the original Kelley homestead – an artist’s lair, never fully realized.

More poetically, there are photographic prints that are hand drawn-on, with hydrogel beauty masks appearing to float through the scene. Their translucent quality, referencing beachwear pastels, is almost inviting; you know there’s a deeper reality that’s much more alien.

For this, the artist turned to his palette of rose water hydrogel, gooseberry hydrator, and Cannabis pain crème. These are placed inside the Kelley homestead, made to feel like windows. Lobo, who you may remember from Flaunt’s pirate radio feature, is no stranger to bizarre, yet poignant, media.

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For a 2014 exhibit called Bad Soda/Soft Drunk, viewers were confronted by carbonation, when they had to walk on a zillion pop bottles covering a gallery floor. “It’s a little like walking on eggshells,” he told a PBS interviewer at the time. “I’m really interested in substances, and how they can behave and change forms.”

Lobo has never been afraid to take on fashion in the past, either. As part of an exhibit at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, he came up with a pair of panels that mashed-up carbon fiber, spandex, and 6XL cotton blend T-shirts. The clothing was stretched and doused in chlorine, before being vacuum-bagged to perfection. And the back was even laminated with a giant sheet of Velcro.

Now, for Wellness Center, Lobo has created “sauna tents” connected to steam generators. He used structures made from Detroit Water and Sewerage personnel uniforms to construct a space for someone to sit in for up to an hour. It begs the questions, who is afforded the privileged of leisure, and whose toil is required to make that happen? 

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