New York

Tyree Guyton, Good Boy, 2016, house paint on canvas, 26 × 22". From the series “Faces of God,” 1989–.

Tyree Guyton, Good Boy, 2016, house paint on canvas, 26 × 22". From the series “Faces of God,” 1989–.

Tyree Guyton

“Love, Sam,” Tyree Guyton’s solo exhibition at Martos Gallery, was titled in honor of the artist’s grandfather Sam Mackey. A housepainter by trade, he gave his grandson his first paintbrush when he was nine years old. Guyton, who is now sixty-four, would go on to study art at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies in 1980; six years later, he began painting candy-colored polka dots on the facade of Mackey’s house on Heidelberg Street in McDougall-Hunt, a predominantly black, working-class enclave on Detroit’s east side. This benignly eccentric act marked the beginning of the Heidelberg Project, an ever-changing, gleefully shambolic site-specific environment for which Guyton is best known. The sprawling work grew to encompass two residential blocks and is festooned with paintings, children’s toys, car parts, household appliances, and miscellaneous clutter.

Stippled with Guyton’s recursive vocabulary of dots and crosses, numbers and letters, many of the works here were once a part of Heidelberg and show the wear and tear of a life outdoors. In Extinction, 2017, a pair of toothy, rectangle-headed visages appear on a rumpled car hood; painted red and white letters spell out SAM and 1967—the year Lyndon B. Johnson sent tanks and soldiers to McDougall-Hunt in order to crush that summer’s wave of civil unrest. “I thought the world was coming to an end,” the artist remembered. In a sense, it did. Many of his neighbors abandoned the area, leaving behind the disinvested real estate, empty houses, and discarded belongings that would become the materials of Guyton’s art.

For Guyton and his admirers, Heidelberg was a monument made from ashes. For his detractors, it was an eyesore and a symptom of the very decay it claimed to remedy. Long a target of municipal bulldozers and arson fires, his scrapyard Gesamtkunstwerk squared less easily with the rhetoric of urban renewal and “creative placemaking” than with more recent reno-artworks—such as Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward, or Theaster Gates’s Dorchester Projects on Chicago’s South Side—though that may soon change. In 2016, Guyton announced plans to dismantle the installation to make way for “Heidelberg 3.0,” an “arts and culture village” appointed with a residency, a gallery, and programming. 

Seeing pieces of Heidelberg in a commercial gallery might conjure a kind of Benjaminian melancholy: Indeed, they seem to narrate art’s shift from an auratic value rooted in community and place to what the philosopher called “exhibition value,” becoming deterritorialized and exchangeable. But Guyton’s paintings jeer at this lapsarian story even as it takes shape, serving up comedy, menace, and a knowing yet irrepressible exuberance. His “Faces of God”—as this 1989– series of portraits is called—vary greatly in style and facture, from the Picassoid jaunt of Nothing Is Real, 2017, and the broken impasto of The “Y” Theory, 2018, to the painterly muddle of Good Boy, 2016. The most common feature among them is a gaping rictus: an irregular grid of squares signifying teeth. Hanging alongside these works were wild drawings by Mackey, made when he was in his late eighties and early nineties. Manifesting from energetic, looping tangles of pen and colored pencil, these happy grotesques, farragoes of stretched mouths, saucer eyes, and flipper-like limbs, vibrate with an almost eschatological optimism. “If you remove the veil of the flesh,” writes Jenenne Whitfield, Guyton’s wife and the Heidelberg Project’s executive director, “you will see that the man/woman is always smiling, perhaps suggesting that they know something that the rest of us don’t.”