"Heidelberg 25" exhibit shows artist's transformation

Michael H. Hodges / / Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Tyree Guyton, creator of the sprawling outdoor art gallery known as the Heidelberg Project and arguably Detroit's most controversial artist, is the subject of an absorbing retrospective at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History through Nov. 27.

The great thing about "Heidelberg 25" is that it allows us to trace Guyton's evolution from his early — and traditional — art school roots to his emergence as the king of found-object folk art and the prince of the oversized polka dot.

What emerges is a more complex portrait of the 2009 Kresge Arts fellow's artistic breadth than you might expect if all you've done is drive down Heidelberg Street on a fine summer's day, fascinating though that childlike crazy quilt landscape always is.

The show is divided into epochs, bracketed by the two notorious demolitions when the city of Detroit smashed several houses Guyton had covered with objects.

Also helpful to those who don't know or don't remember the project's tortured history are two videos that play endlessly with news reports both local and national on Guyton and his difficulties with the city he calls home.

Designed by Guyton's wife and Heidelberg Executive Director Jenenne Whitfield, the show is comprehensive and yet pleasingly intimate. Pieces are well-chosen and restrained enough in number to prevent museum fatigue — even for kids.

Pointing to an early still life of an old shoe and pop bottles, Wright Museum curator of exhibitions Patrina Chatman remarks, "What I like is that early on he was already using shoes," an allusion to the artist's fondness for vast assemblages of real-life shoes. His most recent work in that vein was the Art X Detroit installation "Street Folk," a field of shoes that carpeted one whole block of Detroit's Edmund Street in April (sadly, now removed).

On display at the Wright is "Souls on Fire," featuring an ancient stove stuffed with shoes that touches on the Holocaust, a theme Guyton has returned to time and again.

Guyton's art school paintings of houses also point to what would evolve on Heidelberg, where Guyton famously appended found objects — street signs, teddy bears and what Guyton always calls "baby dolls" — all over the dilapidated houses of Heidelberg Street.

Some works here are thematic, such as "Souls on Fire" and the large installation of drinking fountains topped by painted shoes of many hues titled "For Colored People."

Equally fascinating are several small artistic studies the artist eventually turned into full-scale artworks — an inclusion that Chatman particularly likes because, as she puts it, "It contradicts the idea that Tyree's just doing junk."

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