Born Detroit, 1991/ Lives in Detroit
“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 Rantoul, Illinois, 1951/ BFA, MFA Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
Painter Betty Brownleeʼs transition from landscapist to figurative painter took place more or less in the middle of her four decade (to-date) career. Tiring of scenic vistas painted in the 1980s and ’90s and wanting to inject more “reality” and “romanticism” into her art, about 2000, she turned to portraits, self portraits, genre, and still lifes. Introduced as well at this juncture is the prominent portrayal of women as subjects, in works she describes as a reflection of “the condition of the female body.”
Born Valle Hermoso, Tamaulipas, Mexico 1985 / BA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
“Functional art” generally describes objects of everyday life, such as furniture or tableware, that are fashioned in a fine art or high-concept style. Dalia Reyes flips that definition—crafting paintings and mixed-media works that function as tools to open up a space within the viewer for contemplation and reflection.
Some of the most stunning of Reyes’ works, the ones that pour forth an energy felt even through a computer screen, have a deceptively simple geometry. On square or rounded supports, multicolored circles and rings interspersed with glowing gold leaf hover, as in Rainbow Body Portal (2018) or Sound Portal (2019). These works are often reminiscent of targets, but the goal is within; classified by the artist as portals, they are purposely constructed as doorways to a meditative state.
Nacida en Valle Hermoso, Tamaulipas, México 1985 / BA, College for Creative Studies / Vive en Detroit
El “arte funcional” generalmente describe objetos de la vida cotidiana, como muebles o vajillas, que están diseñados en un estilo de bellas artes o de alto concepto. Dalia Reyes cambia esa definición: elabora pinturas y obras de técnica mixtas que funcionan como herramientas para abrir un espacio dentro del espectador para la contemplación y la reflexión.
Algunas de las obras más impresionantes de Reyes, las que derraman una energía que se siente incluso a través de la pantalla de una computadora, tienen una geometría engañosamente simple. Sobre soportes cuadrados o redondos, círculos y anillos multicolores intercalados con hojas de oro resplandecientes, como en Portal del Cuerpo Arcoíris (2018) o Portal de Sonido (2019). Estos trabajos a menudo recuerdan a los objetivos, pero el objetivo está dentro; clasificados por el artista como portales, se construyen a propósito como puertas de entrada a un estado meditativo.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.”
Born Wyandotte, MI, 1952 / Studies at the College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit, MI
Art, for Vito Valdez, is about expressing something real – an idea, an emotion, an experience, or, even better, all of the above. Valdez’s visceral 1999 paintings Columbine and Kosovo, for example, combine dynamic brush strokes, intense colors, and fragmented references to the perpetrators and victims of violence to convey a sense of deep anger at the senseless massacres that occurred in these places. It is impossible to deconstruct the exact experiences that underlie these paintings, but perhaps they include the time Valdez spent working as a surgery technician while a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, or his childhood growing up in a tough environment where masculinity and violence were often interchangeable.
Born Detroit, MI, 1959 / Studied College for Creative Studies, Wayne County Community College, Detroit / Lives in Detroit
“I am still an Impressionist after thirty-five years,” boasts painter Bryant Tillman. Born years after the death of the French artists linked with this storied model of modern art, Tillman’s rootedness in the style is as much a surprise to him as to his viewers. His original quest was to wend his way through all the isms of the modernist era—from Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism–in order to become a skilled maker. But, as it turned out, he became besotted with Impressionism and continues to practice his scales, as it were, in this mode. “I learn more and more each time I pick up a trusty filbert and attempt to finesse a photo-expressionistic slurry, approximating a blurred Polaroid, shot by a jiggling hand.”
Born Rochester, MI, 1992 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
Recall a time in your childhood when you were asked—perhaps by a teacher or parent—to draw yourself. A dizzying effort to help us think about ourselves in terms of scale, color, surroundings. Who are we at such a young age, and what do we look like at the basic level of anatomical structure? When asked to create his very first self-portrait in kindergarten, Detroit based painter/poet Bryan J. Corley drew Godzilla—a prefiguration of the richly realized and curiously sympathetic monsters that presently populate his spellbinding visual universe.
Born Clemson, South Carolina, 1924 / Lives in Detroit
“The creative mind continues always to test the parameters of conventional knowledge, forever in pursuit of new vistas. Trying to understand life, death, the totality of existence, and the logic or order that governs our moral being is the forum from which all of my creative offerings extract meaning,” Charles McGee wrote in 1994. It is safe to say that he has lived this thought, since almost 25 years later, he is still pushing his limits as an artist. In so doing, he has changed the face of Detroit, the city he has lived in since childhood and where he has embraced intersecting careers as artist, curator, gallerist, teacher, author, and outspoken critic and champion of art in the city.
Born Detroit, MI, 1952/Art studies at Wayne State University, Detroit/Lives in Hazel Park, MI
James Puntigam’s artwork has come a long way since 1986, when he quit his job at the Michigan Department of Social Services, obtained a city vendor’s license, and began making money drawing caricatures in downtown Detroit during events at Hart Plaza and the Eastern Market. Though he might still do the occasional caricature, his main work now is in making linocut prints. His extensive experience over the years has included drawing with graphite on paper, and painting with acrylics on canvas, sheetrock, board, and other surfaces. Continue reading
Born Detroit, MI, 1955 / DFA (ad honorem), College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
It’s all about YOU.
In his book Free Schools, Free Minds, Ron Miller describes two ways to imagine the relationship between radical education and social change: the first (exemplified by A.S. Neill) says that if you liberate the mind of the individual they will go on to change society, and the second (exemplified by Paulo Freire) says that you change individuals by working collectively on projects to change society. But in Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, it’s all about YOU – first discover who you really are, and then go on to change the world.
Born Detroit, 1987/MFA, Yale University; BFA, College of Creative Studies/ Lives in Brooklyn, New York
Mario Moore has learned to slow down. His paintings and drawings reflect his personal journey, his evolving understanding of the world, and his desire to spark conversation about the complexities of contemporary society. His powerful and assertive body of work channels narrative painting, social protest art, and traditional approaches to craft, and centers around revealing portraits of family and friends. A more recent series turns introspective, his personal story expressed through nearly-lost techniques and an interest in earlier periods of art that lend richness and sensitivity to his highly detailed compositions. Continue reading
Born Detroit, MI, 1949 / A.A. Henry Ford Community College, Dearborn; Coursework in Ceramics, Wayne State University, Detroit / Lives in Hazel Park, MI
Lines! It all started with lines for Detroit artist Diana Alva. Before she could recite the alphabet, Alva’s artistic-minded father, Julian, had her filling page after page with lines, any kind of lines, whether or not they made sense or were part of a coherent drawing, just to get her used to the feel of a drawing instrument in her hand and the mental process of creating something. Continue reading