Specific Site: The Art of Tyree Guyton by Justine Lai

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Tyree Guyton on view at CUE Art Foundation October 17- November 22, 2013. 

We must be careful about romanticizing the fire.

Here are the facts: on May 3, 2013, an act of arson nearly destroyed one of the iconic components of Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, an outdoor installation spanning multiple blocks on Detroit’s east side. Located on Heidelberg Street and vicinity, the installation consists of houses (some occupied, others abandoned), vacant lots, trees, sidewalks, and streets transformed with layers of bright paint and assemblages of salvaged objects. Multicolored polka dots—the artist’s trademark—decorate the pavement and swallow a two-story house. Old shoes and crucified stuffed animals hang from trees. Colorful portraits painted on boards and car hoods line the yards. Visitors can wander around the Project as though it were a park. But this is a real neighborhood: the houses’ interiors are inaccessible to the public, and if you venture too far, the landscape reverts to tall weeds and decaying homes. Guyton, with his late grandfather Sam Mackey, started the Project in 1986 in response to crime and blight in his childhood neighborhood. What began with dots and detritus on individual buildings grew in size and scope. Today, the Heidelberg Project is an internationally renowned attraction with a nonprofit organization that runs community-based programs. Guyton remains a regular presence on site, working on new components and encouraging young locals and visitors to participate in its making.

But back to the arson. The burned house, like the other houses of the Project, has a unique name and theme: the Obstruction of Justice (“OJ”) House, started in 1994. Before the fire, its facade was covered with the text “OJ” and the porch was piled with doll parts and household objects. The house’s sides were an ever-changing salon-style installation of paintings, usually of shoes or American flags. In the aftermath, the facade was standing, but the rest of the building was blackened debris. The arson is currently considered an act of retaliation by a neighborhood youth.

The fire is especially poignant considering past destruction at the site. In its 27 years, the Project has been partially bulldozed by the City of Detroit in 1991 and 1999 under two different administrations. Guyton’s most vocal opponents at the time, which included several neighbors and City Council members, considered the work an eyesore in an already blighted neighborhood—and partly on city-owned land to boot. The history of the infamous demolitions and subsequent legal battles have been covered in greater detail elsewhere.2 What’s important to us now is that the Heidelberg Project has always come back. Guyton’s response to his critics has been to persist and adapt. His practice embraces change, be it natural erosion or politically motivated demolition. Destruction is mythologized on the Heidelberg Street palimpsest: rebuilding becomes resurrection. The arson seemed no different when I interviewed Guyton in May. He was optimistic about the opportunity to transform the OJ House into something new.

The fire also accrues meaning from our understanding of Detroit’s history. The Great Fire of 1805 destroyed most of the early settlement. The city burned again in the race riots of 1967. Consider the city’s mottos: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. We hope for better things. It will rise from the ashes. As a newcomer to the Detroit metropolitan area, I found myself reflecting on the irony of these mottos after news of the arson. The narrative of Detroit that dominates the popular imagination has romantic arcs of rise and fall, ruin and revitalization. I was tempted to view the Heidelberg Project fire strictly in those terms—after all, what American doesn’t love a good comeback story?

However, if you witness the extent of the destruction firsthand—in my case, while shoveling rubble during a cleanup day—the shortcomings of romantic rhetoric are clear. This was senseless arson, plain and simple. That day, there were more volunteers than wheelbarrows. Some had to remove debris by the handful, passing it down the porch like a bucket brigade or assembly line. It was a reality check: while it might be emotionally resonant to think about the destruction metaphorically or mythopoetically, dealing with the physical aftermath is just plain hard work.

I bring up this contrast because I think the power of Guyton’s work lies in the tension between everyday and epic, practical and poetic—where trash becomes magic. The work’s connection to Detroit is both actual and metonymic. As a result, its commentary on the city—specifically, on the forces that heal and wound communities—is direct but nonetheless complex. Guyton’s work in painting, printmaking, and sculpture often overlaps with the Heidelberg Project and shares a common visual language of materials and signs. The accretion of everyday objects emphasizes their metaphorical and spiritual properties. But they insist on being read as trash—not simply found, but used and discarded. Magical yet undisguised, the objects offer a critique of wasteful consumerism and our neglect of shrinking cities, flickering between mournful/cautionary tale (roadside memorials) and optimistic gesture (child’s play). The painted symbols are similarly polyvalent. Guyton’s signature dot is at once a point, circle, hole, cell, pattern and ritual; repeated and applied to a surface such as a house, it demarcates, obscures, decorates, populates, and dissolves with aesthetic and political consequence.

Guyton’s practice connects him to a wide range of artists. The work shares formal affinities with Robert Rauschenberg’s combine format, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s iconography, and outsider art’s individualism. The mutability of the Heidelberg Project finds precedent in Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau, a Dada precursor to installation art in which the artist spent a decade and a half turning his apartment into a cavernous, walk-in sculptural environment using scrap and mementos. But perhaps the most compelling touchstone is Joseph Beuys. Beuys’s use of fat and felt as symbols came from a personal mythology and furthered the artist’s role as shaman, teacher, and healer. His concept of social sculpture focused on expanding the paradigm of art to include the whole of society. Operating under the principle that everyone is an artist, social sculpture is inherently inclusive, interdisciplinary, and participatory. Guyton’s practice occupies a similar position in which art, life, and politics meld, thereby creating the potential for positive social change.

The work on display at CUE Art Foundation is no exception. At the time of this writing, the show will include recent sculpture, prints made during a residency in Switzerland, and paintings on car hoods from the Faces Of God series. Some of the paintings were originally installed on Heidelberg Street; several were damaged by arson. In each painting, a cartoonish head gazes outward, its expression ambiguous. Some mouths are drawn as single thick shapes, implying both the void of an open mouth and a line representing sealed lips. Other mouths arc in Cheshire Cat smiles, part grin and part grimace. The line work creates an exuberant, unsettling lattice of teeth—in some cases, forming a miniature landscape scene in the mouth. The portraits seem less concerned with asserting individual identities or encoding specific emotions. Instead, the mouths function as portals symbolizing imaginative access to some other place or state of mind.

The backgrounds of these paintings are similarly charged. Dots, crosses, and text reading “God” radiate around the heads and overlap the eyes and foreheads. The placement of these words and symbols suggests states of altered consciousness, from the aura of religious ecstasy to the chirping birds of cartoon head trauma. They create the figures’ entire world, giving them an air of self-possession and spiritual intensity. 

The use of salvaged metal in the Faces of God paintings alludes to Heidelberg Street on multiple levels. The car body parts remind us of Detroit’s industry. There’s also a visual pun: hood and ‘hood. (Similar wordplay occurs in Guyton’s work where shoes reference the soul and vacant lots are “lots of art.”) Most importantly, setting off a single piece of the car signifies collecting and framing the fragment. Scrap becomes relic, part represents whole. 

I can only imagine that viewing the work in the institutional frame of the gallery throws the work’s relic-like and totemic qualities into high relief. The patina of weather and arson are indexical to a history unfolding elsewhere. As we experience the work some 480 miles away from its origins, we can never quite take Heidelberg Street off our minds. Under the framework of social sculpture I’m obligated to reflect on Detroit not simply as a location and a history, but as an idea. What does it mean to say that New York City is here and Detroit is there? The synecdochic associations of Detroit are revealed to be as polyvalent as Guyton’s dot. In thinking about the city’s difficult past and what lies ahead, I ultimately arrive back where I started, torn between romantic mythology and the work to be done on the ground level. Perhaps an answer exists in the partial view afforded by the relic: it suggests the inability of any single story to define a place, thereby liberating us to construct a layered, complex, and inclusive alternative model of Detroit.


Justine Lai received her MFA in Painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2013 and BA in English and Studio Art from Stanford University in 2008. She is based in Bloomfield Hills, MI and Brooklyn, NY.

Mentor Janet Koplos is a New York City-based art critic. She is co-author of Makers: A History of American Studio Craft (2010) and author of Contemporary Japanese Sculpture (1990) and other books. She has written extensively on crafts and on American, Japanese and Dutch contemporary art and has published approximately 2,500 articles, reviews and essays in some two dozen periodicals over the last 30 years, writing on Richard De Vore, Leslie Dill, Oliver Herring, Teun Hocks, Gyöngy Laky, Ed Moses, David Nash, Rona Pondick, Martin Puryear, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ursula von Rydingsvard and Betty Woodman, among others. She lectures, critiques and juries frequently, and has taught at Parsons The New School for Design and Pratt Institute in New York, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. She was for 18 years a staff editor at Art in America magazine and is currently a contributing editor.