Tyree Guyton: Faces of God on Fire by Jenenne Whitfield

Added on by Shona Masarin.

“God is a consuming fire. The City of Detroit is on Fire!! It’s been burning since 1967. Could it be that the city of Detroit is burning the old to make room for the new? Since these acts require a perpetrator could it be that the man is on fire?” 


Tyree Guyton looks through a lens that few others experience. His views often challenge the norm and causes us to think—deeply. “People don’t think for themselves anymore.”

Guyton has a style all his own, a style that often distresses the norm, causes us to stop, take notice and ponder.  Guyton claims to have a love affair with his work. The relationship he builds with his canvas becomes his voice and his spirit. He searches way beyond what he sees on the surface to engage his third eye—the eye of understanding. He searches for life, energy, magic and from that Guyton says,
“I extract the beauty.” Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder and Guyton admits that everyone does not like his style or methods, but neither does he expect them to. “I don’t want everyone to like what I do. I’d rather make you think and challenge what we call normal. When I look at the world we live in, I ask myself, is this normal?” The face of God is our own face and there is a fire burning in us, through animation and it’s hot! We are all on fire, first a flicker, then a flame and then a flicker until our light goes out. There are all kinds of faces in the arsenal of God.”

What kind of beauty does Guyton see that escapes they eye of the typical viewer? As we take a glimpse into Guyton’s world, perhaps we can begin to imagine beyond what we see on the surface and experience something new.

Guyton juxtaposes that which is twisted, torn, rusted and weathered with colors, lines and imagination to fill an otherwise negative and seemingly unattractive space. The outcomes are large sophisticated, caricature images. Whatever or whoever they are, there is no mistaking the contagious energy that moves with deliberate intention to fill his canvas—in this case discarded automobile hoods. Guyton takes the forgotten fragments of a once thriving city, the Motor City, to reflect back to the viewer what’s been left behind. Life on the streets of Detroit where Guyton grew up is not a pretty site to most but for Guyton he says it all depends on how we see. “Our perception is just that, how we choose to see. I think the old is making room for the new. We grow up in a world that teaches us what to think or believe and we miss the magic, but I see beauty in the faces of God on fire."

Salvaged from the rubble, Guyton gives each canvas a chance at new life and they make a wildly heroic presentation. As you study his faces, for example, they appear to be ailing, in distress or lacking in some way and yet they are all smiling a big, wide-toothed grin. It’s the inner man that I seek to capture. If you remove the veil of the flesh, you will see that the man/woman is always smiling, perhaps suggesting that they know something that the rest of us don’t. 

The question Guyton asks is, “what is art today in the 21st century?” “I listen to my art, it guides me and tells me what to do. It’s a courageous thing to listen to that voice within and not second guess it. You lose conscious control and the art becomes your teacher.”

Stepping away from the traditional canvas, Guyton is internationally recognized for his large scale work in Detroit known as the Heidelberg Project (heidelberg.org). Founded in 1986 and located on in the heart of an East-Side Detroit community, this two city block art installation is fashioned with various discards and found objects collected mostly by Guyton from the streets of Detroit. It includes several structures (some inhabited and some vacant), vacant lots and also incorporates the street, trees, and sidewalks. Most everything contained within the two-block radius has become is an integral component of the art installation. Guyton says his work is a medicine, not only for community residents, but also for the many visitors it attracts. Guyton’s provocative work has become a platform for discussion in an otherwise desecrated area of Detroit where most would dare to travel were it not to witness this much talked about art environment. Critics, art enthusiasts, collectors, artists and most importantly, everyday folks come from near and far to study and give voice to Guyton’s work. Because of the variety of people it attracts and the people who reside in the area, the result is authentic community engagement.

The effect of the [Heidelberg] site on new visitors is fascinating to behold.
As a frequent escort to the Project for scholars visiting my University,
I often observe looks of wonderment if not outright disorientation on the faces of my guests. For a complete understanding of the effect of the site on visitors, it is essential to have this appreciation of the complex and dynamic nature of a visit to the site as it relates directly to the dialogic nature of the experience and is at the heart of Guyton’s efforts to engage the community. It is challenging to articulate the various ways in which the public interacts with the Heidelberg Project. Who would have imagined that in all of the seemingly random and chaotic work on Heidelberg Street, Tyree Guyton was actually building a space for all of us.

This engagement on multiple levels is the driving force behind Guyton’s question: What is Art Today in the 21st Century. The question he asks appears to be more subjective, as if to suggest that it is not the objects that are relevant but rather the message behind the objects. Since many of the works featured in this exhibition have also lined the streets of Heidelberg in Detroit, I asked Guyton if the context of his work changes once housed in a traditional museum or gallery setting. Guyton replied, “A true artist makes it happen anywhere he goes because it is the work that instigates the conversations. There is a fire burning in the man and in me and I want to talk about it.”

Jenenne Whitfield is the Executive Director of the Heidelberg Project.