What Role Can Art Play in a Changing Detroit?

Though it tactfully sidesteps the real politics of housing, ‘Landlord Colors’ offers an alternative model to the ‘development biennial’ 

Tyree Guyton has been filling his neighbourhood’s fallow lots with sculptures since the 1980s. Today, infusing a long four blocks, the iconic formations of the Heidelberg Project include car hoods stacked like dominos, a mound of weather-beaten stuffed animals in a speedboat hull, and a house painted all over with the word ‘YOU’. His art has always negotiated with lots of YOUs – the flocks of tourists, the skeptical city councils, and especially the neighbours. A few have burned the sculptures. Others let Guyton paint their houses. But now, perhaps sensing developers’ beady eyes, he’s shutting down, parsing his wild assemblages into discrete, traveling works.

Tyree Guyton, Caged Brain, 1990, mixed media. Courtesy: the artist and Martos Gallery, New York; photograph courtesy: Detroit Institute of Arts

Tyree Guyton, Caged Brain, 1990, mixed media. Courtesy: the artist and Martos Gallery, New York; photograph courtesy: Detroit Institute of Arts

Guyton is among the Detroit artists featured in ‘Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality’, curated by Laura Mott at the Cranbrook Museum of Art. His Caged Brain (1990), a birdcage overflowing with writhing grey foam, joins a refined survey of five parallel precarious scenes: postwar Italy, post-Soviet Cuba, South Korea in the 1970s, Greece since 2008 and Detroit in the five decades since the 1967 uprising. ‘Landlord Colors’ is how John Baldessari once described the cheap taupes and foam greens that he used to paint his father’s rental properties. Dad was, as the artist puts it, ‘kind of a slumlord.’ Baldessari doesn’t comment further on the class or racial politics of ‘landlords’ or ‘colors,’ except to compare those shades to ‘artist colors’ – cerulean blue, wheat field yellow. In a city built of what Jeffrey Eugenides called ‘root-beer colored brick’ – famous for black music, redlining and white flight – Baldessari’s phrase doesn’t look good for long.

Of course, Cranbrook is not Detroit. It’s a good ten miles away, in Bloomfield Hills, a cloistered, arboreal town anchored by the Cranbrook Educational Community: a post-graduate fine arts academy attached, like a beer’s foamy head, to an elite prep school for ages 3–18. From this vantage (to their credit, the museum’s curators and director acknowledge this irony in the catalog), it would be a little awkward to belabour the politics of rent-seeking. In Bloomfield Hills, about 88% of residents own their homes. In Detroit, that figure is 48%. Detroit renters pay an average of $773 a month, which is $400 less than the national average – but, at over half the per capita income, rivals the lion’s shares surrendered to landlords in New York and LA. Detroit’s sister cities in ‘Landlord Colors’ have their own stubborn facts. Take Athens, for example – the one other ongoing scene: housing prices are half what they were in 2008. And while nominal unemployment in the US is 3.5%, and 5% in Detroit, the average in Greece hovers around 19%. Youth unemployment is more like 40%. ‘Landlord Colors’ beautifully and wittily showcases the ageless resourcefulness of the starving artist. It doesn’t venture to say how the cliche ‘starving artist’ applies in places like Detroit, where the poverty rate exceeds 30% – more than triple the national average.

Matthew Angelo Harrison, Dark Povera Part 1, 2017, exhibition image. Courtesy: the artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery; photograph: Corine Vermeulen

Instead, the show strikes a careful balance between acknowledging these hardscrabble economic contexts, while also letting art be art. Its vision of ‘art, economy and materiality’ – also known as ‘making do’ – can be whimsical, as in Wilfredo Prieto’s Miren el tamaño de este mango (Look at the size of this mango, 2011), a Blackberry strapped to a mango. Sometimes this levity has an edge, as with The Consequence of Platforms (2016), a project by Matthew Angelo Harrison. A former designer in the auto industry, he now programs contraptions to pump clay into rough copies of African artefacts. In Building an Electronic Ruin (2011), Athenian artist Andreas Angelidakis creates a sort of Second Life picaresque. Yet despite these prescient pieces, as well as others by the likes of Tania Bruguera, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Kwon Young-Woo and Marissa Merz, ‘Landlord Colors’ gives the impression that history is already made. The curators seem to compensate for this institutional austerity with ‘Landlord Colors: Material Detroit’, a month-long public art and performance series organized by Taylor Renee Aldridge, founding editor of Detroit-based journal ARTS.BLACK; and Ryan Myers-Johnson, founder, curator and director at Sidewalk Detroit. The results are sometimes uneven: take, for instance, Unit 1: 3583 Dubois, an apartment ‘renovated’ by Danish artist Anders Ruhwald, singed charcoal grey from floor to ceiling and decorated with abstract sculptures the colour of lead. Such clever, even elegiac work misses the invective of contemporary cities such as Athens, where public murals urge you to ‘light the way to a bright future’ by firebombing a car.

Flowing down Woodward Boulevard to the river, ‘Landlord Colors’ looks a little like Prospect: New Orleans or FRONT in nearby Cleveland – biennials designed to trickle down dollars to bankable parts of the city. This exhibition, though, is a one-time event, and aloof from the specific interests of developers. It is largely funded by grants, not corporate sponsors. In fact, when it comes to the politics of urbanism, the historicizing distance ‘Landlord Colors’ keeps from the exigencies of Detroit may also be its most critical stance. By highlighting local institutions like the Heidelberg Project and the MBAD African Bead Museum, and by bringing the work of 21 Detroit artists to Bloomfield Hills, the exhibition makes a ground-up argument for appreciation and preservation, not renewal.

Olayami Dabls announcing the opening of a new exhibition space at his Mbad African Bead Museum. Courtesy: Cranbrook Art Museum; photograph: Sarah Blanchette.

Even if ‘Landlord Colors’ had taken urbanism head-on rather than tactfully abstracting the issue, industrial money would continue to shape the post-industrial city. Ford, Quicken Loans and others have recently made splashy investments in the largely white heritage neighbourhoods around Midtown – the areas that need it least. See @detroitforyou, an insider Instagram account that satirizes Detroit’s art world as well as, more mercilessly, its civic politics. One cartoon features the logo of the Detroit-based Little Caesars pizza chain; the pizza (representing millions in public funding) is impaled on the mascot’s spear (labelled the ‘spurious promise of revitalization’), as he, an ‘Oligarch’, enjoys the first, oozing slice. To paraphrase Mitt Romney, a Cranbrook School alumnus: Landlords are people too, my friend. People gotta eat. 

‘Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality’ continues at the Cranbrook Art Museum through 6 October 2019.

Main image: Olayami Dabls, Nkisi Building, installation view from ‘Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust’, 2009-10. Courtesy: the artist

Travis Diehl is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant. 

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