Shirt tales

Sep 8, 2004 at 12:00 am

We looove our T-shirts, don’t we? Remember that one T-shirt you got at the Echo & the Bunnymen show? The one that crapped out after a couple washes, but for a minute there, you felt like the king of the world, huh? See, you can walk into any store at any mall in America and grab a little piece of identity for yourself. Hell, if you don’t want to get pierced or tatted up like all the other kids, a good old-fashioned T-shirt might be the best way to say “fuck you” to whomever you choose — plus, you can take it off at the end of the day, thereby transforming yourself back into the blank slate or nerd you were before. And if you’ve squirreled away (or refused to give up) a cross-section of your T-shirt evolution, you probably have a pretty good sense of who you were and where you’re headed — you know, both personally and T-shirt-wise.

This brings us, in a roundabout way, to Hamtramck artist Jeff Karolski’s current show at the Detroit Art Space. As a well-known sound artist, the idea of Karolski exhibiting some hand-drawn T-shirts might seem like a frivolous affair. After all, he’s had sound installations at both the Detroit Institute of Arts and the current “Shrinking Cities” exhibit in Germany.

However, the T-shirt exhibit actually meshes with Karolski’s apparent create-it-as-you-find-it ethos (this is the same man who made a triple-CD set featuring the ambient sounds of a circular saw, a fan and an aquarium).

This particular venture is part of Karolski’s ongoing project in wearable art, one that he’s pursued long enough for it to be considered a legitimate part of his body of work.

Detroit Art Space’s Ben Hernandez, who’s known Karolski for nearly a decade, has been surreptitiously watching the artist’s homemade T-shirt collection grow, and at some point realized this was a project that had received little attention. Thus, a show was born.

Among the dozen or so shirts on display, there’s a range of styles represented, from a sort of postmodern ironic (like “Holiday,” a shirt printed with a calendar box and the date “25”) to blueprint sketches for Karolski’s dream home.

Then there’s subtle and not-so-subtle commentary on Detroit’s Devil’s Night “tradition” — this series of shirts was specifically created for an Angel’s Night campaign. One features the words “Motown Realty” in a stylized, cursive-lettered logo with the subscript “it shall rise from the ashes” — a snippet of the city’s slogan translated from Latin. A shirt delivers tongue-in-cheek instructions on fire hydrant use; another shows a malevolent bat overlooking the Detroit skyline highlighted by an orange glow.

A few of the pieces feature notebook pages casually scrawled with words or rudimentary drawings; they seem like merchandise worthy of Found Magazine.

With others, Karolski has merely repurposed an existing design — an arrow, for example — and repainted it to his own liking. The shirts, most apparent thrift store finds, are all worn — by the artist himself, no less. It is, after all, wearable art, so some seem more carefully designed than others. Sometimes a T-shirt is just a T-shirt.

The temptation is to read the shirts as entries in a journal with no pages, and maybe that’s the intent. Karolski has been making art where he finds it and finding art where he makes it for some time now; and the T-shirt art is probably just a natural outgrowth — like his idiosyncratic sound/performance/installation art works — of his seemingly unstoppable yen to capture a moment in the everyday. And to that end, Jeff Karolski’s T-shirts, as humble and non-revolutionary as the show might be, work quite well.

Also, Karolski doesn’t forget the utilitarian nature of this particular show: Each shirt on display is available for purchase at just $25 a pop. Or, for $25, you can bring in your own T-shirt — or any cloth item — and have it printed with the Karolski design of your choice.

Of course, if you’re bringing in a nice swatch of fabric with the intention of framing it, you’re really starting to get away from the charm of the show — and you’re not giving yourself much of a chance to engage in a little wearable art-strutting.

Jeff Karolski’s T-shirts are on display through Sept. 16, at Detroit Art Space, 101 E. Baltimore, Detroit. Call 313-664-0445.

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]