“WE EXIST / THE FUTURE IS FLUID,” declared a billboard installed on Detroit’s east side in Spring 2020. In the bold design, styled to look like a neon sign at night, the words curled around the prominent central focus: the word “WE,” huge and proud in pink.
Designed by Bakpak Durden, the billboard was both a work of art and a promotion for a project that the artist co-curated: a citywide exhibition of five billboard artworks by queer and gender-nonconforming artists. (An accompanying gallery show would have included work by five more artists, but was canceled due to COVID19.) The centrality of the first person plural in We Exist points to something fundamental about Durden, a self-taught artist who identifies as transgender: their painstaking image-making is but one part of a broader effort to raise up the queer community they are a part of.
Born Detroit, 1937 / BFA, MFA, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor / Lives in Detroit
It takes the village to raise a child, as the proverb goes, but what about a work of art?
Western art history hands us two over-convenient grab bags: one is crammed full of solitary geniuses, laboring alone in their studios, while the other contains a jumble of movements and manifestos clotted by collectivist élan. Generally lost in the shuffle are the simple but profound processes of interpersonal give and take that inform individual artists’ development, as well as the acts of productive exchange that can propel them, via conduits of communication and collaboration, from one mode of making to another.
This conception of the art world as a sprawling site of generative transfer is a helpful lens through which to look at the lively, multiform art of Lester Johnson, a master craftsman and inveterate community member. Over six decades, Johnson has created a capacious body of work in a dazzling diversity of forms, and he has done so in large part by embracing opportunities to step outside himself, to expand his expressive capabilities through germinal creative collisions.
In June 2019, Essay’d co-facilitated Art Writing for Artists with interdisciplinary writer Rachel Harkai. The highly collaborative workshop, which helped visual and performing artists develop new language to think about and describe their practice, took place over three weekends at the Room Project, and was funded by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation
Born Royal Oak, MI, 1972 / BFA, University of Michigan; MFA, Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, CA / Lives in Southfield, MI
You could be forgiven for mistaking Patrick Hill for a minimalist. After all, a cursory glance at his sculptures will tell you that he is a native speaker of that iconically laconic language. Geometric forms in clean configurations? Check. An aesthetic of carefully considered refusal and reduction? Certainly. An exquisite sensitivity to space, balance, and the materiality of matter? That’s him, all right.
But in its reductive simplicity, minimalism ultimately leads to a conceptual dead-end. “What you see is what you see” only gets you so far in a time when art aspires to boundlessness. Taking cues from feminist artists, Hill circumvents this impasse by using minimal forms to go deep inside, to explore the body and aspects of subjective experience like identity, sexuality, frailty, and failure. (In his words: “It’s Richard Serra, only less ‘dude’.”) He finds source material not just in material itself, but in his personal experience and the wider worlds of fashion, pop culture, art history, and Eastern aesthetics and spirituality—a sprawling mixture that accretes, in his hands, into fragile monuments to interiority and human imperfection.
Born 1989, Royal Oak, MI / BFA, The Cooper Union, New York, NY / Lives in Detroit
In his 2017 bestseller Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen makes the convincing case that an essential aspect of the American character is a brazen disregard for the line between reality and fantasy. This is a congenital condition, he argues, that dates back to the nation’s founding.
Andersen’s thesis provides a useful lens through which to view the work of Bailey Scieszka, a multimedia artist and writer with a voracious appetite for history, on one hand, and popular fantasies like conspiracy theory, live action role playing, and end times prophecy, on the other. But for Scieszka, it is not just our eager and longstanding embrace of the irrational that makes Americans Americans; it is also the will to violence that is so dangerously entangled with our mania for make-believe.
Scieszka’s work has a great deal to do with violence. It’s “the only way to tell a true story,” according to her unbridled alter-ego Old Put—a murderous, shapeshifting, basket-weaving demon clown and pro wrestler who is the star of her elaborately-conceived plays, performances, and videos, and who features prominently in her prodigious drawings. Indeed, Scieszka’s astonishing output to date can be understood as an extravagant explosion of American violence, fantasy, and myth—a deranged, bedazzled, go-for-broke freak show that is informed by history, interpolated by trash and post-internet pop culture, and framed by anxiety about the horrors of contemporary life. Her work is a funhouse mirror reflection of the world today, hilarious at one turn and terrifying the next.
In April 2018, Essay’d hosted Dushko Petrovich (Assistant Professor of New Arts Journalism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and co-founder of Paper Monument) for a one-of-a-kind art publishing workshop funded by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation. Dushko arrived with a well-deserved reputation for a very fun, positive, and down-to-earth approach to publishing, and over three weekends at Allied Media Projects participants worked to create a mockup of their own publications.
It’s true that you can read all 100+ installments of Essay’d online, but sometimes there’s no alternative to just sitting down with a book. That’s why we partnered with Wayne State University Press to bundle essays 61-90 into a beautifully designed and illustrated volume. And you certainly can’t beat the price – $25 for a whole year’s worth of essays and 240+ illustrations.
Available at galleries and bookstores, or online via the link below:
Born Detroit, 1975 / BFA, College for Creative Studies, Detroit / Lives in Detroit
It makes sense that Nicola Kuperus was onstage at the Detroit Institute of Arts recently, running her big yellow vacuum up and down a strip of beige carpet. And that a few minutes later, her face obscured by a long, black wig, she started to play the vacuum, using an effects pedal to modulate and amplify its heavy roar. And that a few minutes after that, she pulled out a tall, pink vase and began to fill it, maniacally, with fake plants, while on a screen above her, anotherKuperus appeared, dressed up and gesticulating like a cross between a magician, Laurie Anderson, and some faceless horror movie creep, and that that Kuperus had the same vase, which she began to slap with her white-gloved hand, asking it, over and over again, “Ya like that?”
Born Detroit, 1945 / BFA, MFA, Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
What is an artist’s practice but a universe unto itself? A total environment, with the artist at the center, in which a vast but finite set of ingredients—think experiences, materials, impulses, and predilections—cohere, by means both mysterious and prosaic, into related forms that evolve over time. It’s an apt metaphor for the work of Gary Eleinko, a lifelong Detroiter who came of age as a painter during the bricolage days of the Cass Corridor movement (where any cast off thing could become art) and who remarks with frank wonder that, “Everything in the world is made up of 98 natural elements. There’s nothing else. 98 ingredients make up everything we know.”
Born Detroit, 1982 / BA, Howard University; MA, University of Chicago; Phd, Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
Art, ever sociable, is always in conversation with something else. One of artist Maya Stovall’s primary interlocutors is the City—that ever-shifting concatenation of street, sidewalk, and neighborhood; of people, power, and capital. (This conversation started early; Stovall recalls riding her bike to the Detroit Institute of Arts as a child and developing an “obsession” with the street life she encountered along the way.) For the last four years, she has pursued a related obsession, enacting and documenting an ongoing series of sidewalk performances and ethnographic interviews made near the liquor stores that dot her eastside neighborhood, McDougall-Hunt. Stovall, who trained in classical ballet, holds a Master’s degree in Economics and a PhD in Performance Studies and Cultural Anthropology. She approaches the sprawling yet tightly focused Liquor Store Theatre project as a means to ask what she calls “monumental questions” about human existence via “close, rigorous, devoted, durational looking.”
Born Detroit, 1983 / BA (Film & Video), University of Michigan / Lives in Detroit
Between 2013 and 2014, the four high rise towers that were the last remnants of Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing projects, the country’s first federally-funded public housing for African-Americans, were demolished. While the towers had been officially cleared of residents in 2008, they were, in fact, still home to a handful of people up to the time of their demolition, as Oren Goldenberg’s 2012 cinéma vérité short Brewster Douglass, You’re My Brother reveals. The video opens with a two-minute montage depicting the derelict complex from a series of neighboring perspectives—evoking its omnipresence, both physical and psychic, in the Detroit landscape—set to the sound of a gospel crooner’s insistent refrain that, “Time don’t wait for no one.” Then the focus shifts to Darlene, a long-term resident who says, as she reflects candidly on her hard life, that she survives by scrapping, and that she hasn’t seen her large family in years. At the end of the video, with the towers’ demolition imminent, Darlene is seen leaving, her empty hands in her pockets. She’s crossing the I-375 overpass, going—where? She doesn’t say. Does she know?
It’s true that you can read all 100+ installments of Essay’d online, but sometimes there’s no alternative to just sitting down with a book. That’s why we partnered with Wayne State University Press to bundle essays 31-60 into a beautifully designed and illustrated volume. And you certainly can’t beat the price – $25 for a whole year’s worth of essays and 240+ illustrations.
Available at galleries and bookstores, or online via the link below:
Born New York, NY, 1988 / BA (Anthropology), Wayne State University; BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
The art of weaving has long inspired metaphors for nothing less than the nature of human existence — from the mythic Fates, literally weaving each individual’s destiny, to Ishmael’s musing in Moby Dick that the “mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm.” The age-old link between weaving and living is of paramount significance to Levon Kafafian, a young artist and teacher for whom this ancient way of making is at the center of a vital, unfolding, multimodal practice — a practice that seeks to connect people more deeply to the natural world, one another, and their own lived experience.Continue reading →
Intended to promote and support critical writing about art in the wider Detroit community, the two-part workshop — which focused on Subjective Cosmology, MOCAD’s exhibition of new work by New York-based artist Sanford Biggers — introduced participants to Essay’d’s processes and best practices before turning to a group discussion and short writing exercise about the exhibition, the themes behind it, and the multitude of ideas and impressions it raised.
Born Des Moines, IA, 1950 / BFA, Drake University, Des Moines, IA; MFA, Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, PA / Lives in Royal Oak, MI
With their luscious surfaces, painstakingly lifelike textures, and subtly surreal depictions of almost-possible places, the oil paintings of Mel Rosas invite and reward both close attention and long-view contemplation. Rosas, an influential professor of painting at Wayne State University, is one of those painters who draws knowingly from the deep well of art history (Vermeer, Hopper, and Magritte are three signal antecedents), as well as an idiosyncratic assortment of wider cultural influences. The expansive body of work that has obsessed him for more than 30 years is also an object lesson in the use of art as a tool to explore, expand, and communicate the self. Rosas’s paintings are portals that offer the artist passage into his Latin American ancestry, and the viewer into a lush and evocative dream world.
Born Sebastopol, CA, 1976 / BA, University of California Santa Cruz; MA & PhD (Performance Studies), New York University / Lives in Detroit
On a sunny Sunday afternoon last July, several hundred people crowded the Dequindre Cut, a popular recreation path in Detroit, to watch a dance. The performance, one of three public dance labs programmed to accompany “Here Hear,” the Cranbrook Art Museum’s celebrated exhibition of Nick Cave soundsuits, included music by Frank Pahl and choreography by Biba Bell. There is no telling what, exactly, the audience expected. What they witnessed was a distributed dance, a de-centered performance event, in which any vantage point along the Cut’s long, linear footprint offered a different view of different groups of dancers, some of whom slinked by in sinuous silence, while others posed, elegant and remote, above the crowd. Others danced a mannered duet involving the ritualistic exchange of their black or white soundsuit costumes, and the rest, by the end, were dancing in furious, ecstatic unison. When all was said and done, no one present had seen a complete dance, or the same dance. Everyone, however, had seen a dance by Biba Bell, an artist who specializes in the unexpected.
David Philpot is an antenna, finely tuned to subtle frequencies. He listens carefully, receiving transmissions from as far away as West Africa, and from as nearby as God or the wood in his hands. His primary medium, fittingly, is the staff, an energizing rod that joins the earth to the sky via the human being who wields it.
Long before he ever considered himself an artist, the 30-year-old Philpot heard a voice call his name, leading him, amazed, to an oasis: a grove of trees in a Chicago housing project. A week later, Philpot, who had never abandoned his childhood habit of gathering and carrying sticks, and who had recently admired Charlton Heston’s staff in The Ten Commandments, woke in the night with a mission: to chop down one of those trees, and make from it a staff of his own. When it was done, he called it Genesis (1971), an apt title for the first of more than 350 staffs he has made in the 45 years since.
Born Dearborn, MI, 1969 / BFA, College for Creative Studies; MA (Media Studies), New School University, New York / Lives in Detroit
Scott Northrup’s recent temporary installation Hämeenkyrö, Mon Amour (2015) was comprised of text projected onto the landscape near the town of Hämeenkyrö, Finland, at sundown. For about thirty minutes, excerpts of scripted dialogue from Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour and several movies by Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki, as well as Northrup’s own writing, crawled across the vast, darkening plain in what the artist refers to as a “love letter” to the beautiful, welcoming place he’d come to know after a month-long residency there. Continue reading →