Tyree Guyton’s art is overwhelming. Called assemblage, it’s monumental, environmental, and unmistakable–and is best grokked in one of two ways: You can stand in the middle of his Heidelberg Project and gape at the ton of installations of decorated detritus on the Detroit street where he grew up. Or you can see the current UMMA exhibit that curates his work down to key pieces. As an intro, it’s like seeing through a looking glass, and there’s no better way to view Wonderland.
That’s exactly what Guyton, now sixty, has created during his thirty years as an artist, and Guyton’s body of work is as wondrous and weird, as quirky and crazy-sane, as Lewis Carroll’s.
You’ve probably heard of Guyton. He’s the one who paints colorful polka dots on abandoned houses, who covered one with dolls and another with Motown records, who filled vacant lots with urban “junk.” His work is now celebrated, but it hasn’t been without controversy, including complaining neighbors, arsonists, and legal attacks by the City of Detroit, which tried repeatedly to shut him down.
And yet, most of his work still stands, minus what the arsonists and bulldozers destroyed. It is now hailed as Art, a cultural phenomenon known worldwide. What started as his personal way to improve his own blighted neighborhood blossomed into a global tourist attraction for the city that shunned him.
But the immersive Heidelberg Project experience can be an ADD nightmare–huge and everywhere and too too much. That’s why UMMA’s looking-glass approach is perfect. You view the exhibit by appointment in a small group. It’s in a small gallery, staged with relatively few pieces. One person tells Guyton’s story–the time I visited, it was MaryAnn Wilkinson, who knows him and worked with him when she was a modern art curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Now an adjunct curator at UMMA, Wilkinson starts with how Guyton came to be an artist: his grandfather, Sam Mackey, a housepainter, put a brush in the preteen Tyree’s hand to distract him from drugs and guns.
She continues with Guyton’s artistic stirrings and motivations as she guides our group of twenty-plus through the exhibit, pointing out motifs, like Motown albums–an especially important theme to an African American in Detroit–and the U.S. flag, which one visitor notes is depicted in distress positions. As she walks us through his progress and success, she tells great, intimate stories. After a probing Q&A, people still mill about, not quite ready to leave.
I wander over to “What’s Going On,” a sculpture assemblage that jams a Marvin Gaye album (the record’s actually in its cover) into a birdcage perched atop a beat-up pedestal. My native Detroiter heart sang, remembering that my very first single was one of Marvin’s. But, as with most of Guyton’s art, there’s a pang, too, this one about Motown’s and Detroit’s fates. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings comes to mind.
That kind of poignancy is in so much of Guyton’s art and in this exhibit, beautifully curated to be manageable, understandable, and inviting–until its closing on January 3.
Note: An earlier version misspelled Wilkinson’s name as Wilkerson.