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.
Born Newberry, South Carolina, 1983. BFA, Syracuse University; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit, Michigan
The observation that an artist’s surroundings influences their work finds new relevance in the delicate geometries, intricate textures, and subtle color variations of Ruth Koelewyn’s restrained abstractions. A key reference for Koelewyn is the sky as it appears framed by architecture. This has given rise to the striking cyan blue monochromes of her ongoing Skyshapes series (2014-present), and the conceptually related Blue Triangles (2014-2015), Blue Crowns (2017), and Can Serrat Skyshapes (2019).
Dorota Coy, Born Lubin, Poland, 1978 / BA University of Vermont / Lives in Detroit
Steve Coy, Born Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1978 / BFA, University of Michigan, MFA University of Hawaii / Lives in Detroit
Like many outside of Detroit, I first encountered the work of Dorota and Steve Coy through the film Detropia in 2012. Looking up at the glowing, gold-gas-masked Executives of the Hygienic Dress League Corporation (HDL) I never imagined that in 2020 I’d be emailing with Dorota to reschedule an interview when the opening of their exhibition The Five Realms at Wasserman Projects – along with all other social events in the city and across the world – was postponed due to a global pandemic.
As I clear my calendar, I wonder how many respirators are currently among HDL’s holdings, and whether that number affects the corporation’s value. There’s plenty of time for a deep dive on the internet to find out while I’m waiting for public life to resume.
What I discover is that Steve and Dorota Coy are not the Hygienic Dress League.
Born St. Louis Du Nord, Haiti/ BA, Florida State University; MFA, Maryland Institute College of Art/Lives in Detroit
The second time I saw Gracie Xavier, I was standing in front of Eastern Market Antiques on a late-summer Saturday, admiring a turquoise vinyl couch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Xavier in a kelly green dress. “I know you!” she exclaimed, as we had recently met briefly. Xavier was new in town, so the onus of a hello was on me. But I was mesmerized by the couch (and, if I’m being honest, not feeling terribly social) until Xavier’s bright greeting pulled me out of my shell. Everything about this moment, I’d come to learn, was quintessential Gracie Xavier—the vibrant colors, the warm approach, the being right in the thick of things, as if she’d lived here all her life.
These characteristics all underlie her most recent project, “Common Bond: Muslin Ladies Social Club,” (2018-present) a series of conversations/textile arts workshops for women in the largely immigrant communities of Banglatown, Brightmoor and Dearborn. Xavier designed the project after helping develop a vision and action plan for Banglatown, part of her work for a local nonprofit. During that process, many women shared that they felt isolated and desired spaces to connect. Xavier saw an opportunity to create that space through art. “People aren’t going to tell you what they’re thinking on sticky notes,” she often says, referencing a common top-down urban planning exercise. It’s when you break bread together or engage in other shared traditions that people begin to reveal, first, their stories, then their hopes and dreams.
Detroit, 1967 / Lives in Romulus, MI
When discovering the work of Detroit artist Darin Darby, it was not only the finished composition of Route To My Past (2019) that attracted me, but also the instantaneous memories that guided my curiosity about the maker and his portfolio.
The visual—a stylish young fella with a relaxed facial expression, standing on the curb with guarded arms as the number 3 Grand River bus approached—reminded me of living in Chicago and catching the number 3 King Drive bus from downtown to the South Side (never a dull ride).
Kansas City, MO, 1949 / BA and MFA, Drake University, Des Moines, IA / Lives in Huntington Woods, MI
From 1951 to 1985, Jeffrey Abt’s father worked as a traveling salesman dealing in costume jewelry. With sample cases packed, he traversed a sales region that encompassed south Nebraska, Kansas, north Oklahoma, and east Colorado. Abt accompanied him on occasion, allowing insight into what is routinely a salesman’s solitary life on the road. His father’s absence at home instilled a sense of rootlessness in Abt, compounded by the knowledge of the displacement that his parents experienced as Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany during World War II.
Leyya Mona Tawil, Born Livonia, MI, 1975 / BDA University of Michigan, MFA Mills College, Oakland, CA
Mike Khoury, Born Mt Pleasant, MI, 1969 / BA(Econ) University of Michigan, MA Central Michigan University, MA Michigan State University / Lives in Northville, MI
On a sparse stage, a woman’s body rolls sideways, spinning about its central axis, ricocheting from one edge of the space to the other, back and forth, sometimes at alarming speeds and almost crashing into the audience, other times slowing down, exhausted. In comparison to the familiar, childlike, head-over-heels rolling, this movement seems alien and serious. The woman is clad in a stylishly cut, army-green, hooded raincoat and wears black boots that periodically land solidly but awkwardly on the floor, searching in vain for a physically sustainable way to continue the body’s rotation. Elsewhere on the stage, a black-clad musician holding a viola alternates between periods of repeated, siren-like glissandos and silence. There is a palpable push-and-pull between dancer and musician, but who is pushing and who is pulling is hard to say at any moment in this uncompromising performance.
Born Farmington Hills, MI, 1987 / BS, Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
“What is an artist? A provincial who finds himself somewhere between a physical reality and a metaphysical one…”
Movement artist Rachael Harbert can be found dancing in that space between the lived and the dreamed. Propelled by nature, relationships, and other earthly things, she works in extremes that point to absurdities within the norm. Exaggerated gestures and surrealist imagery leap out from within her creations. Harbert’s body of work includes site-specific performances, installations, and stage presentations. Each confronts the viewer with urgent meditations on the human condition, and breathes into being the otherwise invisible, intangible, unsociable psyche.
Elena Smyth, Born Detroit, Michigan, 1990 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
Aubrey Smyth, Born Detroit, Michigan, 1990 / Lives in Detroit
Artists Elena and Aubrey Smyth, working together as Armageddon Beachparty, have created a universe, an epic narrative of deities and powerful beings in vivid images across a wide range of media. A shared, life-long love of comics, street art, and mythology permeates their paintings and sculptures while their canny sense of branding propagates their vision via prints, clothing, watches, and other objects. The artists paint contemporary pop surrealism scenes while surrounded by their considerable output and the energy from a steady stream of admirers and buyers in what Elena calls a “perpetual motion machine” of creativity.
Born: 1952, Detroit, MI; Studied at Spelman College and Clark College, Masters of Art from Olivet College/ Lives in Romulus, MI
Trading low saturated pastels for eclectic textures of colored paper and acrylic paint, Judy Bowman’s recent bold and often jubilant collages have been years in the making. After a 35-year hiatus from art-making—a period during which she worked as a Detroit Public Schools educator and raised a family of 10—Bowman describes her return to canvas and to documenting the black experience as a “gift from the universe.”
Born Royal Oak, Michigan, 1965/ BFA, University of Michigan; MA, Wayne State University; MFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago/ Lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan
Striped cubes, spheres, wooden limbs, wheels; Jen Fitzpatrick’s sculptures are like bizarre children’s toys, boiling down complex experiences into simple shapes to wrap your hands around. She encourages imagination and observation, endowing her minimalist geometric sculptures with bright colors and a hint of character, then handing them over to us to parse their meaning through active, tactile engagement.
Born Flint, MI, 1988 / BA, University of Michigan; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit, MI
Can you grow an apple with an Apple? Can you ever really describe the wind? These are the sort of questions – often at the intersection of culture and agriculture, and at the boundary between the digital and the physical – with which Ash Arder likes to engage. Her investigations are esoteric but allude to something universal. Trained in media studies, Arder uses art, with its essentially undisciplined relationship to knowledge, to explore the world she has been born into.
Born Chicago, IL, 1984/BA, Western
Illinois University, Macomb, IL/MFA, University of
Wisconsin-Madison/Lives in Detroit
Decisively and colorfully, Tyanna Buie contends that “getting out of the storm” of an overwrought psyche and easing into a calm demeanor is a crucial prerequisite for conceiving rich, reverberant art. She observes as well, “My art is much louder than I am,” metaphorically describing her inclination to work on a muralistic scale, of limning larger than life figures, and of rendering complex, multilayered images. In response to the troubled, sundered families (her own, and one senses, untold numbers of others) who are often her subjects, such tactics and an exploratory mindset beget deep-seated emotions, ranging from bittersweet to extremes of joy and anguish.
Born Ann Arbor, MI, 1978 / BFA, Eastern Michigan University / Lives in Ann Arbor, MI
John Maggie practices an exuberant form of syphilitic painting, a disease of imaging afflicted merrily upon the construct of painting itself; a good-humored sickness that attacks the root of pictorial convention. This is both painting and anti-painting. Maggie takes the banal trappings of tradition—the landscape, the still life, the nude, the maritime, the equestrian—and joyfully slings mud at them. In a work such as Frankly Feather (2019), there is an embrace of thrift store painting—found images that allow the artist to revel in failed attempts at image-making where notions of good and bad are jumbled. (A painting is good because it is bad.) Adam & Sue (2015) is both right and wrong: the proportions of the figures are off, the composition is imbalanced, foreground and background seem dislocated. Comedy results as the frolicsome beach couple are clumsily sexualized, with Sue’s breasts squeezing together above her distended belly and Adam’s erect penis glowing and pointing toward a branch. Within a single work, Maggie uses clashing approaches to representation, as Sue’s tightly rendered face is partnered with Adam’s ham-handed visage. In Night Rider (2018), he renders illusionism absurd and the oft-applied conception of conventional beauty as useless. Employing an abject Romanticism, he one-ups English horse portraitist George Stubbs (1724-1806) and pushes his regal subject into outrageous theatre with excessive baubles evocative of My Little Pony.
1982, BFA: Maryland Institute College of Art, MFA: Cranbrook Academy
of Art; Lives in Detroit, MI
A painting by Alison Wong typically represents the most ordinary things—a square of tissue and small scraps of crumbled wallpaper (Tissue Tears, 2018), or a dog’s mangled chew toy (Tattered and Torn, 2018). The painting technique is virtuosic, and the materials are the stuff of high art. She applies the paint thinly, layered, wet-into-wet; one delicate, detailed area at a time. The small scale of the works, objects depicted close to their actual size, deny any heroic, monumentalizing impulse. Why, one wonders, does she lavish so much effort on something so ordinary, so insignificant? But this questioning is right where she wants us.
Born Detroit, 1949 / BFA, School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts; MA, Wayne State University / Died Ferndale, MI 2018
Robert Bielat was an artist’s artist, a sobriquet applied to those whose work is brilliant but idiosyncratic, deeply compelling in a way that is obvious to those who can see it, but not necessarily so to the market or to the arbiters of so-called “good” taste.
Born Houston, TX, 1978 / BFA, Kansas City Art Institute / Lives in Detroit
Born in Texas to a family of laborers, Peter Daniel Bernal says that he has always thought in color. But if it is color that first drew Bernal to painting, it is through dimension that he has shaped a place for himself. As Bernal paints, his brushstrokes build and blend to create depths and massed textures that he slowly, iteratively reshapes and repaints. His figures, often draped over each other in acts of care, violence, or some combination of the two, rise from the canvas. Through the vivid, evocative imagery he creates during this assiduous process of layering and scraping away, Bernal centers his practice in the intersection of his own identity and the broader politics of cultural heritage and masculinity.
Born New Haven, CT, 1977 / BA, University of Chicago / Ed. M, Harvard Graduate School of Education / MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit
Prints, performances, drawings and zines: Emmy Bright’s work emerges from an organic process of notational delirium. Post-It notes fan out and curl, bridged by scribbled lines, insistent arrows, underlining, highlighting, and circled text fragments—thoughts redacted and reclaimed. The smell of a Sharpie lingers. A palimpsest of equations forms. Pages are taped together to expand space for addenda. Much of Bright’s imagery begins as something she terms “stupids”—diagrammatic jottings that employ slapdash methodology to disrupt normative thinking and jumpstart philosophical inquiry. For her, profundity can reside beneath that which we dismiss as idiocy. When examined, a moment of stupidity may reveal latent, meaningful instincts. With humorous schemata that collide the rational and the irrational, Bright fleshes out the absurdity of the behavioral structures we rely upon to govern our relationships with ourselves and one another.
Born Toledo, OH, 1969 / BFA, The Ohio State University; MFA, Ohio University / Lives in Ferndale, MI
Adrian Hatfield begins a painting with the most paradigmatic of painters’ actions—a gestural flooding of the surface with paint, a fast fluid marking and puddling of the space, abstract, colorful, atmospheric, lyrical. But the next steps in the process are much slower, more thoughtful and measured. In executing his most recent paintings, Hatfield makes a digital image of his abstract beginning before inserting and arranging various collected graphic imagery, planning the painting digitally. Eventually, graphic images are screened onto the actual painting surface, and fragments of various canonical artworks are painted into the piece. Each painting is a startling mix of quoted images, torn from some other context and pushed together into something new: a mash-up of high and low culture, scientific and religious signs, and an anxiety-laden blend of the sublime, uncanny and abject.
Born 1976, Detroit / Lives in Macomb Regional Correctional Facility, New Haven, Michigan
The sun is out, the sky is blue, and people are committing suicide on a rainbow. Some hang by their necks from the fuschia inner arc while others jump or lay dead in the grass as a squirrel watches (Rainbow Drawing, 2014). The scale of the dead in relation to the rainbow is deliberate. “This is life,” writes James Dean Fuson, “A lot of times things seem to be fine but if you look closely, things are not fine.”