Pancakes, yoga and rap: The unique art of Mr. Mdwst

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SHAFAQNA – A tall, lanky man is sitting at a pancake breakfast, surrounded by a smattering of senior citizens. He places two pancakes with holes in the middle over his eyes, stands up and launches into a rap song.

“Yeah, I’m cooking pancakes,” goes one line of his rapid-fire lyrics. Then he sits down, to a smattering of polite, if confused applause.

Meet Mr. Mdwst, who’ll bring a very different sort of exhibition to Cranbrook Art Museum this month.

“Mr. Mdwst — A Real Good Time by Beverly Fre$h” opens Saturday and runs through March 22. It’s not exactly easy to describe, but there are two scheduled live performances and three large stage sets that double as sculptures of sorts, plus videos of “site-oriented interventionist performances” and two quite unusual workshops.

The exhibition is the brainstorm of Mr. Mdwst himself, a.k.a. Zack Ostrowski, a Michigan native and Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate who’s coming home to share his unique exploration of the cultural rituals of rural Middle America.

Ostrowski, 34, who goes by the art and stage name Beverly Fre$h, distilled the show from his “Outskirts” tour, an ongoing series that takes him to small-town settings across the Midwest to do two kinds of performance art: “site-oriented interventionist” acts, like the impromptu pancakes song, and collaborations like the last-minute rap quintet he created with a boy’s choir in Henry, Ill., right after their high school recital.

A rapper and artist who merged his two paths nearly a decade ago, Ostrowski also has entered pizza-eating and rooster-crowing contests in his travels to events like the Magic Festival in Colon, Mich. So far, the reception he’s gotten at the sites has been mostly positive.

“That was a big surprise to me, because I was kind of prepared for the worst. But I found that people are curious and they want to know more about it and even want to be involved,” he says by phone from Chicago, where he is an assistant professor of graphic art at DePaul University.

Ostrowski, who grew up in the small town of St. Clair, went to Detroit’s College for Creative Studies for his bachelor of fine arts degree and got a master’s from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

He has performed across the country and overseas in countries like China, Peru, the Czech Republic. He says his work is very different from the comedic pranks of Borat, the character played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the hit 2006 movie.

“It’s not about fooling people or anything, like Borat,” he says. “It’s a really exciting outlet for performance. I like the sense of risk and opportunity to see what happens.”

He also considers his travels a form of performance-based research conducted in settings outside the usual art world environs.

But Ostrowski isn’t snobbish about being a performance artist, a pursuit that’s capable of intimidating — or boring — people with its avant-garde nature. “I’m coming at it from my own perspective of what it can be, which is entertaining and participatory and (can) be fun. (It can) engage but at the same time not be a soft, feel-good type of thing or just pure entertainment. It can be critical and intellectual and challenging. I’m trying to find a way to blend all those things together.”

The “Mr. Mdwst” exhibit displays the sense of humor and genuine sincerity of Ostrowski’s quest through the region, according to Laura Mott, curator of contemporary art and design at Cranbrook Art Museum.

“Zack is showing up in person with a smile and a plan. He meets people who are engaging already in a performance or through this amazing art of conversation, coercion and curiosity, (he is) able to create impromptu performances along the way.”

For a long time, Ostrowski kept his music and art separate. He was considering giving up rap altogether until he met Detroit’s own Dial.81, a.k.a. composer and producer Blair French, who did the score for the acclaimed documentary “Detropia.”

“He really got me back into it, because he was making the kind of beats I always wanted to work with. It was kind of a reinvention and I got excited about music again,” he says. The two have collaborated on a rap song, “How Ya Do.” Its video was directed by Ostrowski’s wife, Ania Jaworska, whom he met while working at an architecture firm in Michigan.

Ostrowski plans to do a live performance at the opening reception on Friday evening for Cranbrook Art Museum members and another one Sunday for the general public. He’ll be assuming the personas of four character tropes he encountered while traveling: the Badass, the Innocent, the Professional and the Seeker.

The sculptural stage sets will be on display through March 22, along with videos of the Mr. Mdwst performances (some of which contain graphic language). Footage from the Cranbrook performances also will be woven into the exhibit.

Ostrowski plans to return to the museum March 1 for “After Laughter,” a workshop conducted by a “certified laughter yoga leader,” and “Language is a House,” which is described as an inspirational presentation featuring Beverly Fre$h and a visionary real estate agent.

Mott, who says Ostrowski reminds her at times of innovative comedy icon Andy Kaufman, expects his performances at the museum to be, well, unexpected.

Says Mott, “I think he’s going to have the whole roller coaster of personas and happenings.”

Contact Detroit Free Press writer Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or jhinds@freepress.com.

‘Mr. Mdwst — A Real Good Time by Beverly Fre$h’

Feb. 7 through March 22

Cranbrook Art Museum

Performances by Beverly Fre$h are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday for museum members and 5 p.m. Sunday for the general public. Two sessions with Fre$h are set for March 1.

Regular hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

39221 Woodward, Bloomfield Hills

877-462-7262

www.cranbrookart.edu

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