Born Detroit, 1976 / BFA, Eastern Michigan University / MFA, New York Academy of Art, Graduate School of Figurative Art / Lives in Detroit
Visibility, accessibility, ambitious scale, and industrious zeal are some of the constituent hallmarks of Tylonn Sawyer’s activist art and life. Such attributes are readily apparent in his very public, very large, Detroit-centric Whole Foods Mural of 2013. Drawing upon Marshall Fredericks’ iconic Spirit of Detroit sculpture, Sawyer reinvents Fredericks’ hero as a young, African-American lad with empty palms (freed of Fredericks’ fusty totems of god and family) who, while awaiting new symbols to cross his palms, glances over a colorful, agricultural grid on the left, and a tidy, green, aerial urban view on the right. Such unconventional revisions of conventional tropes have been basic to Sawyer’s vision over the last several years. Here, it is a vulnerable, albeit perfectly-balanced, adolescent who embodies a city’s great expectations.
This envisioning of transformative progress on a muralist scale intersects with Sawyer’s role in the Teen Council at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, now a two dozen member group that he founded in 2014 and continues to mentor. Its mission, to actively engage young people in the life of the museum, also introduces them to the dynamics of a life of dialogue, engagement, and activism. Sawyer’s fervent commitment to arts education stems from his belief that life opens outward both for oneself and to others when fostered within a social structure (home, institution, school).
For his own creative practice, Sawyer astutely primed himself for the production and goals of his art. Choosing what he describes as “an adamantly figurative” art school, he enrolled in the New York Academy of Art’s Graduate School of Figurative Art to ensure the mastery of a highly accessible style and meticulous technique. He now teaches foundational courses at the College for Creative Studies, and in two recent bodies of work he has focused his ambition on emphatically frontal, large scale portraits—“Faces”—and on masked individuals who hide their faces behind images of famous personages—“Black Masquerade.” In the latter, he has segued from his earlier bust or waist-length single figures, as in The Son (Sun) (2013) and A Lady in Red…not Jean Hill (2012) to dramatic, multi-figural compositions like “3 Graces” Nina and the mural-scaled “Congregation” MLK (both 2015).
The shift from “Faces” to “Black Masquerade” is as interesting conceptually as aesthetically. The concentration in “Faces” on portraits of African-Americans, Detroiters by and large, in a relatively sizable scale (up to 5’ x 4’) was intended to assert unmistakably their physical presence in the frame, on the wall, at a gallery, and in life. Subsequently, Sawyer began to think that their larger-than-life depictions, while arresting and boldly hued—reds, pinks, oranges, mustards—were insufficiently vocal for fraught times. Hence, the multi-figural groupings, as in “Congregation” MLK, “3 Graces” Nina, and “Class Photo #1” Baldwin, that mimic the format of group photographs of graduating classes, business officials, and miscellaneous awardees, but with a salient difference. Here, all raise masks depicting civil rights activists (Martin Luther King, Jr., Nina Simone, James Baldwin) to shield their faces, preferring, it would seem, to deny their own identities while hallowing their predecessors’ hands-on, civil rights bona fides. Idols are endorsed and venerated, but their rebellious, transgressive deeds are not, a paradox Sawyer reinforces by the stiff, static poses of his band of dissemblers.
A striking counterpoint to these masquerades is an earlier series of nightmarish figure studies, ominously christened “The Battle of Detroit,” in which the subjects—young men—donned grotesque gas masks, as in Precipice #1 (2013). Here, however, the impetus to do so was survivalist, since the figures were literally protecting themselves from a toxic environment and metaphorically from a world hostile to Black bodies.
The visceral and visual drama of Sawyer’s art is enhanced by his vaunted, polished, academic skills as a painter. In “The Battle of Detroit” series his deployment of a Caravaggesque play of light against murky backgrounds heightens the portrayals of distress, while in the “Masquerade” canvases the gray, black, and bone white chroma of “3 Graces” evokes a state of mind drained of robust color and action. In “Class Photo #1” only the blood red hue of the drapery evokes any sign of vitality. Sawyer’s own vital, spirited immersion in teaching, mentoring, painting, and a broadly defined social practice, instead embraces Socrates’ ageless mantra that “the unexamined [i.e., masked] life is not worth living.”
Dennis Alan Nawrocki, December 2015
Copyright Essay’d 2015