After the Revolution

Peter Williams embodies the city
by Nick Sousanis

Where does the body end and the world begin? It's a question of philosophy and science, and in Peter Williams' exhibition of oil paintings and watercolors at the newly opened Paul Kotula Projects, it's a question of portraiture as well.

This show is the perfect inaugural for former Revolution Gallery director Paul Kotula's new space. Williams — before leaving town for a University of Delaware post — helped define the identity of that gallery, which closed last fall after 13 years of pushing contemporary art in Detroit.

Kotula takes advantage of his new upstairs space, above his old gallery in Ferndale. Photographs by the art collective Object Orange, featuring the derelict houses they've painted bright orange, hang in the orange stairwell leading up to the gallery. The color and subject matter segue into Williams' watercolor "New Detroit," which faces the staircase. Composed (again) in shades of orange, "New Detroit" looks a bit like a silent film roadster, with "Detroit" written in calligraphic letters, setting the stage for what's around the corner.

Williams often compares his work to Brueghel's; he captures people and events in ways similar to the old master's depictions of 16th century peasants. His watercolors show spliced-together baseball bats that crack skulls resembling watermelons, the man in the moon shot in the eye, cars and roads, Halloween costumes and Devil's Night, newspaper headlines and, of course, his trademark rubber duck. Williams could be a visual DJ, mixing together ideas, imagery and styles ranging from cartooned drawing to realistic painting and all in between.

He blends influences of painters past with pop cultural references to create a style of his own. This could devolve into a mad, unreadable terrain, yet his deftness with a brush and discipline as a painter (note his vivid color palette and the transparency of his watercolors), and his devotion to aesthetics, hold the complex imagery together. It's fantastically surreal stuff that captures our urban landscape.

These cityscapes also function as self-portraits, and Williams reveals himself in his observations. It's a complex puzzle of words and imagery, social commentary rendered with compassion and humor. To know Williams is to laugh with him, either at your expense or his. Through this humor we can confront the human despair and the ridiculousness of city politics — and still maintain hope.

In the thick and layered surfaces of his oil paintings, Williams offers a greater sense of overall integration than in the watercolors. The compositions revolve around a single figure made of twisting, spiraling forms that are interlaced with one another. Williams uses a vocabulary made possible by cubism, in which the division between the figure and the ground was shattered and then woven into a single inseparable whole. He references cubism overtly in "Picasso a Tergo" literally "Picasso from behind." It's distinctly Williams; bulbous forms twist around one another and a cigarette becomes a leg. That ubiquitous duck is grinning at us too.

Here portraiture is used to consider the world as oneself. Truly, as the show title states (from a Lauryn Hill song) everything is everything: The elements of figure and the ground, body and the world, are wound together.

Throughout his work, Williams often refers to losing his leg as a young man; images of the prosthesis find their way into the surreal imagery. It seems possible that this handicap has given Williams a vehicle for expressing identity, not as a whole, but an amalgam, where parts are interchangeable and the boundary between self and the environment is blurred.

The watercolor "Free Stress," an almost literal map of the Detroit metropolitan region made from words and images, is a patchwork quilt that speaks to the inseparable identity of a place and its inhabitants: Who we are is inseparable from where we live. The richness of Williams' perspective as a Detroiter now living at a distance is matched masterfully by the richness of what he achieves in paint. Williams and Kotula are back and we're better for it.

An Object Orange alert
by Rebecca Mazzei

Here in Detroit, it's the middle of the night, it's freezing outside, and there's a sense of urgency. Not because of the chill in the air or because of what four artists are about to do — trespass and deface property — is a crime punishable by a possible $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail.

It's the anticipation of an afterglow. "If you ever want to feel worth something," one artist says, "wake up at 4 in the morning and go do something big to combat apathy."

Even though they're exhausted, Mike, Greg, Jacque and Christian pull themselves out of warm beds and away from late-night rock shows to meet at a gas station in Highland Park. They follow each other down some shady-looking streets and reach a field that falls back to an abandoned house. Christian's pickup truck climbs a curb and crosses the overgrown plot of land to a spot that's yards from the biggest and best canvas the Object Orange crew has yet to paint.

For almost a year now, the artists have been scouting out abandoned homes like sales reps searching for prospective clients, targeting the city's abandoned structures and painting them hazardous orange in an attempt to force the city's hand in demolishing the buildings. Their work sends out a signal to thousands of daily commuters cruising local expressways, like a great big bonfire calling attention to the city's blight.

So far the crew painted facades on nine abandoned houses in Hamtramck, Detroit and Highland Park, three of which have since been torn down. It may seem like Robin Hood community activism, but they call it art. Jacque says, "Maybe the difference is that activists say, 'Let's do something about it,' and we say 'Let's do something to it.'" In a makeshift manifesto, he writes, "We seek to accentuate something that has wrongfully become part of the everyday landscape."

As the artists unload their artillery, hauling out ladders, paint rollers with extension rods and gallons of Home Depot paint — every step toward the stripped facade requires two more they don't plan for, moving aside the broken tree limbs and keeping an eye skyward for what falls from a fractured house. The whole scene is poetic but heartbreaking. These buildings are bodies with all these old bones.

Nearby, cement barricades bar traffic on one street, blocking off a dying part of the neighborhood like it's nobody's business. Two houses stand, just barely. There are still gaping holes where windows and doors used to be, but now the painted facade looks like a face, glowing like a giant jack-o'-lantern in a black night. Glancing around nearby at some of the other ones untouched, a maternal instinct kicks in. Somebody's got to tell these places to cover themselves; they look naked and vulnerable, exposed in the cold. When the job is done, the guys feel a sense of calm, but leaving must also be kind of tough.

Once, Mike recalls he was on the phone with Christian, trying to figure out how to get to a house they were going to paint. It's pretty tricky giving directions to a place where the streets have no names, so Christian just told Mike to follow his instincts: "You'll figure it out. Just don't turn down a wimpy-ass street," he said. As if the home were human, calling out to them for help, Christian told him, "Think about where the house is, and just go there."

Through the end of this month, "before" and "after" glimpses of the crew's efforts are showcased in Object Orange: Detroit. Disneyland. Demolition., a photo exhibit documenting the site-specific works. These are stunningly real portraits of buildings looking both pathetic and proud, as Mike says, "like a shipwreck or a gravestone."

In person, the painted buildings are large-scale sculptures with peeling paint adding texture and the flat terrain of color highlighting positive and negative space. They also could be paintings, with beams and broken windows becoming a series of jagged lines.

But the photos offer a different sort of beauty, almost more potent through perspective. Especially in the "after" photos, the scenes are surreal. Against a steely winter sky, one painted house looks like a psychedelic elevator rising from the underground. In the summer, swallowed by a vicious jungle of vegetation, a little shack is like some brilliant and bizarre captured flower. These photos are a poignant accompaniment to Williams' one-man show in the same gallery, his portraiture of a city and a man, and of a city if it were a man.


Through May 31, Object Orange has also taken over the Public Arts Project billboard on the north side of the building on Woodward Avenue, tacking on scraps from the buildings and drenching the mural in "Tiggerific" orange.


Peter Williams: Everything is Everything and Object Orange: Detroit. Disneyland. Demolition. run through May 13 at Paul Kotula Projects, 23255 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248 544-3020.

Nick Sousanis is the arts editor of and Rebecca Mazzei is arts editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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