Born Chicago, IL, 1964 / BA, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, Nigeria ; BFA, Kansas City Art Institute / Lives in Detroit
There is, it’s fair to say, a lot going on in a typical Jide Aje painting. Aje is both a visual interpreter of West African culture, and an interpreter of West African visual culture. If his starting point is fairly traditional, there is nothing conservative in his approach. Instead, his paintings illustrate a worldview in which cultures are dynamic, extensible, and in constant dialog with each other. It is a vision that, perhaps not coincidentally, is paralleled by an open-ended approach to painting that involves constant experimentation with process and media. The result is an immense body of work in which Aje simultaneously abstracts and explodes, constantly working to reduce his source concepts and visual language to their most fundamental forms, while never allowing them to settlIe.
Take, for example, Untitled with Blue Cowries #1, a relatively small work from 2007. The overall structure is a four-by-four grid, and many of the individual cells imply a further division into a smaller four-by-four grid. The work refers to the Ifá, the divination system that plays a central role in traditional Yoruba culture, and which is based on sixteen main books, each of which has sixteen parts (or Odu). The title, and the physical presence of the shells, refers to a method of divination in which eight Cowrie shells are cast, and depending on how they land (up or down) one of the 256 possible outcomes is indicated.
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Born Detroit, 1979 / Lives in Macomb Regional Correctional Facility, New Haven, Michigan
In 1996, when Yusef Qualls-El was sixteen years old, a Wayne County judge sentenced him to mandatory life without the possibility of parole in the Michigan prison system. Though his original sentence has since been ruled unconstitutional—a violation of the Eighth Amendment—he remains incarcerated, one of hundreds of juvenile lifers awaiting re-sentencing in Michigan. As Qualls-El puts it, “they threw away the key.”
Qualls-El was born in Detroit in 1979 and moved from neighborhood to neighborhood with his family before ending up on the city’s east side. He grew up watching morning syndications of Merrie Melodies cartoons and learned how to draw them; Bugs Bunny, Foghorn Leghorn, Marvin the Martian, and Yosemite Sam were all part of his self-blossomed art education. Drawing cars, often flying ones, was a recurrent pastime; their unfettered mobility represented “ultimate freedom” for him. A few years later, Qualls-El would be sentenced to mandatory life without parole for being involved—as a driver, not the shooter—in a homicide that would change the entire course of his life.
Born Detroit, 1951 / BFA, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in in Huntington Woods, Michigan
For me the formation of the thought is already sculpture. (Joseph Beuys, 1969)
In 1978, a small portfolio of nine Barry Roth photos was published in the periodical Lightworks, #10. These tabletop images (including Day Sleep, 1975) were staged from Roth’s Palmer Park Detroit studio/apartment in the mid-1970s. Their intimate scale and dark theatricality worked discreetly with post-modern tropes such as self-identity, deconstructed narratives, pop-culture and historical references—and made them more disorienting and idiosyncratic. They presented interior landscapes that were new and radical.
Roth’s artistry was an unacknowledged rupture in traditional photography that challenged norms of tableaux representation. While studying for an MFA, Roth discovered his unique analytic style. “I liked street photography,” said Roth, “but wanted something I could do anytime. “I was attracted to photographers like Les Krims – who staged things, setting things up for the camera.” Roth centers his photography as the thing itself; photographing to see how something looked as a photograph, aligning his ideas with street photographer Gary Winogrand, who explained, “The photo is a thing in itself. And that’s what still photography is all about.” Photography as a “truth-telling” medium was rejected by Roth, who describes his process as image-making rather than image-taking.
Born Royal Oak, MI, 1984 / BA, Naropa University; MFA, International Center of Photography – Bard College / Lives in Detroit and New York
Self-described “media activist” Kate Levy uses her extensive place-based research to explore issues of social justice through video, photography, and artist books. A central concern of Levy’s practice is who does or does not have access to means of representation. Highly conscious of her privileged social, economic, and educational background, she is determined to create working relationships that transcend this – even when it means giving up elements of creative control. For example, the 51 minute film I Do Mind Dying (2017) – covering water affordability and shutoff issues in Detroit from 2014 to 2017 – was developed in collaboration with numerous grassroots and advocacy groups. During the work’s production, Levy distributed cameras to people who lived in neighborhoods with high levels of shutoffs, and the subsequent material was merged with Levy’s own footage in a collective editorial process. The result is an urgent, and multi-layered, work that combines on the ground reporting with revelatory research to create a damning indictment of the web of injustice that envelops many Detroit citizens – recounted in the words of people in the thick of the action. Continue reading
Born Detroit, 1983 / BFA, College for Creative Studies; MFA, Hunter College, New York / Lives in Detroit
Picture, if you will, an archaeologist. Is your imagined archaeologist mucking about in the dirt somewhere? Probably she’s got a trowel and a brush, and is dusting off a mysterious object disinterred from the depths of the earth. What, exactly, is the object she’s holding in her hand? More likely than not, it is a shard of ancient pottery.
Ceramics carry a whiff of the ancient. Much of what we know of our lost progenitors comes to us by way of their broken pots. The history of humanity is partly the history of people making things from dirt and clay.
The art of Kylie Lockwood (who teaches at the College for Creative Studies and helps run Cave Gallery) resonates with this ancient history. Many of the art objects she’s created over the years look like they might have been discovered during an archaeological dig or stolen from a museum of antiquities in some little-known Mediterranean town.
Born Detroit, 1938 / BFA, College of Creative Studies; MFA, Eastern Michigan University / Lives in Dearborn, MI
Lois Teicher is one of the few women artists anywhere who has built a career around large-scale public sculpture. Even more unusual, she works squarely in a post-minimalist idiom of industrial materials and formal shapes. Most American women sculptors of Teicher’s generation are rightfully celebrated for incorporating the aesthetics of crafts into their sculpture, for introducing new materials, ornamentation, or a sense of working by hand. But Teicher chose a different path; her large-scale, site-specific sculptures look more like Ellsworth Kelly than Magdalena Abakanowicz. For Teicher, feminism gave the artist permission to overcome gender roles to fashion her own definition of what it means to be a sculptor. Over her long career, she has refined her ideas about shape and surface, posited new relationships of sculpture to its surroundings, and hardest of all, overcome the long odds of being a successful woman working in this manner. Finding satisfaction in learning to use industrial tools, as well as working with fabricators, engineers, and installers, she has developed a unique style for large-scale sculpture that emphasizes tension and a suggestion of movement that serves to deny her work’s complexity and weight.
Born Detroit, 1996 / Lives in Royal Oak, MI
Clay sculptor Austen Brantley is unmistakably young—in his years and in his practice.
This is not a conversation Brantley likes to have. He knows, however, it’s where many people start when they talk about his artworks, primarily figurative. To ignore the obvious would be to miss part of the wonder of his work. There’s also this: he’s completely self-taught.
Of course, Brantley’s actual body of work contradicts much of what his youth and lack of formal training imply. His command of craft is evidenced in the lifelike quality of his sculptures. The eyes, the shapes, speak to a nuanced understanding of the human form as a language all its own, and to a disciplined commitment to learning by doing. Yet for those who must know, Brantley is 22. He’s only been making work since age 16 and only because he thought a ceramics class would equal an effortless A for his plunging high school GPA. The A eluded him (he earned a C) but a life’s passion emerged.
Born Lansing, MI, 1981 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Hamtramck, MI
At the edge of the city, one empty lot from the noise of I-75, George Rahme lives and works in a small, unassuming Hamtramck house. His studio occupies the second floor. With no partition walls, the space is open and provides plenty of room for a drafting table and enough area on the floor to spread out and assemble his large-scale collage pieces.
One of his early works, a crudely rendered human figure, is stationed just inside his entry door. The body is made from foam with applied resin. Its right leg is truncated below the knee and stuck with forks. Titled Exit Eden (2004), it was his first in a series of sculptures regarding living with a disability.
“I was born with severe club foot,” Rahme says. “My feet were turned in and upside-down. I had surgery, and they put a pin in at six months. I had casts to wear until I was two. At a young age, I had arthritis. I spent time in a wheelchair. It framed my identity, and in the early days of my sculpture work, I used my feet as a reference.”
Born Detroit, 1953 / BA, University of Detroit / Lives in Detroit
Where do you begin with Maurice Greenia, Jr., aka Maugré? This painter, sculptor, blogger, actor, musician, cartoonist, pamphleteer, puppeteer and all-around walking art project is a bundle of creative energy focused through a lens likely ground in some dimension far, far away but somehow reflecting so much of our world.
His prolific works in watercolor, acrylic, oil, and pen and ink, such as View of a World (2007), create in viewers the irresistible urge to consider how, under what circumstances, the strange and colorful figures prancing across a strange and fantastical landscape could make sense. Look at one of his estimated 10,000 (!) drawings or his pieces hanging in a gallery exhibit, such as the huge section of Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art given to Greenia in a 2008 show there. Some will jump out and resonate for reasons that may immediately call to mind something of personal significance. Others may resonate for reasons that may not become clear for a long time, if ever, yet they will continue to compel and intrigue.
Born Ithaca, New York, 1987 / BS, Skidmore College; MFA, University of Kansas / Lives in Detroit
Eli Gold’s conceptual performances explore the value of labor in art by using the artist’s own body as medium, material, and live-tested instrument. To consider art as a form of labor places emphasis on measures of time and physical effort, and on the demonstration of the processes by which a work of art is made. In addition, Gold’s work exposes how gestures of doing are inextricably intertwined with gestures of feeling, as his practice foregrounds how institutions such as art galleries regulate human behavior. The conceptual approach to performance art in Gold’s work also makes intellectual labor significant, as an a priori plan prefigures each task-based event—whose execution is an ultimately perfunctory affair.