Tyree Guyton, Heidelberg Project, 1986–ongoing. Photo: Tim Johnson, 2018, Courtesy the artist

Tyree Guyton

Detroit

Museum of Contemporary Art

Tyree Guyton’s remarkable career, which is almost inseparable from his three-decade-plus Heidelberg Project, has included international recognition, honorary PhDs, highly publicized spats with two Detroit mayors, and the transformation of his sprawling flagship installation on Detroit’s east side into the city’s third-most-attended cultural institution, with a reported annual visitor count in excess of 250,000. Despite all this, there has always been a sense that Guyton is a prophet without honor in his own land, and this suspicion seems to be reflected by the fact that “2+2=8,” his recent show at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAD), was his first solo exhibition at a major institution in the city for at least a decade.

In preparation for “2+2=8,” Guyton conceptually deconstructed the history of his monumental Heidelberg Project, taking it down to the core elements of “Heidelbergology,” his term for the “science” behind this life-long undertaking. He describes the process as being akin to “riding an elevator down through 30 levels,” a liberating, but scary, experience. Along the way, he revisited the polka dots, clocks, shoes, taxis, houses, hoods, faces, and all the other physical and painted objects that have become the building blocks of his extraordinary visual world.

Guyton thoughtfully transported these elements into MOCAD’s cavernous main space in a manner that preserved the essence of the Heidelberg Project, without attempting to re-create Heidelberg Street. If anything, the exhibition had the ambiance of a slightly surreal town square, with eye-catching sculptural works rising out of the terra-cotta-colored tile floor. Overlooking the room, and crucial to the show’s visceral impact, was a large-scale, painted image of a burning house (THE CONSPIRACY, 2018)—a reference to the unsolved series of arsons that have plagued the Heidelberg Project. Other wall-mounted works were arranged into roughly house-scale groupings, further reinforcing the streetscape feel. A relocated tree, festooned with shoes and apparently growing straight out of the ground (Y TREE, 2018), formed the center of the show. Shoes are an important symbol for Guyton, and he has often described how the ones that he strings from trees are inspired by what his grandfather, and Heidelberg Project co-founder, Sam Mackey, remembered about the horror of lynchings during his childhood in the South.

Other standout floor works included a police-car-cum-taxi-cum-mobile-clown-service (WHY YOU HATE ME?, 2018) and a former phone booth with allusions to Clark Kent’s transition into Superman (SUPERWHO, 1989). Both of these pieces speak to Guyton’s core interest in personal and social transformation. The taxi, another recurring symbol, refers to his vision of the artist as a taxi driver, asking you where you want to go. But it also originated in the specific experience of Guyton and his wife Jenenne Whitfield trying to hail a cab as a black couple in New York. As with much of Guyton’s work, he wants you to live simultaneously in two worlds: one of harsh social reality and the other of infinite possibility. The title of the show, “2+2=8,” alludes to a philosophy that embraces the latter condition.

The walls of the gallery presented a thoughtfully selected and annotated thematic survey of Guyton’s work. Works from “Faces in the Hood,” his long-running series of portraits—often of neighbors, often painted on discarded car hoods—were particularly memorable, but almost any piece in the show offered the viewer a powerful example of Guyton’s consistently poignant and poetic vision.

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