When news broke last year that Red Bull, the Austria-based energy drink giant, was opening an art gallery in Detroit’s Eastern Market, the general reaction seemed to be ... huh?
Here was a brand more often associated with attaching itself to extreme sports like snowboarding, motocross and other stunts. What did any of this have to do with Detroit’s art scene?
Any confusion, though, soon dissipated, since the venue where Red Bull chose to locate is admittedly one of the more hip spaces in town. Located at the E & B Brewery Lofts on 1551 Winder St., Detroit, the House of Art bills itself as an “art incubation project” and has hosted four exhibitions so far — showcasing up-and-coming local talent — with the latest exhibition set to open Friday, Aug. 9. (Full disclosure: Metro Times’ production manager Desiree Kelly is among the latest featured artists).
The House of Art is just one manifestation of Red Bull’s massive marketing strategy, aimed squarely at the 18-35 millennial set, a demographic typically wary of traditional advertising models. The idea is not to create a commercial that interrupts a story, like a banner ad or a TV spot — it aims to be the story itself. (If this reporter fell for it hook, line, and sinker, at least he is aware of it.)
Red Bull’s more conventional approach to marketing and promotion has typically been accomplished through sponsoring extreme sports events or performing stunts other media outlets are happy to cover — like sending a spacesuit-clad skydiver to the stratosphere in a helium balloon to perform a record- and sound barrier-breaking jump. The product itself is hardly mentioned; in this way the Red Bull brand is not attached only to the silver-and-blue cans filled with questionable ingredients, but instead to the idea of a high-octane lifestyle.
The debate about corporate sponsorship in art is beating a dead horse — at least in 2013, anyway. Red Bull House of Art gallery curator Matt Eaton shrugs off any accusations of an “elaborate advertising scheme” at play. A practicing artist and native Detroiter himself, Eaton first worked with Red Bull through previous collaborations over the last decade while living in New York.
“Even if you view it from a corporate advertising perspective, it still does more for local artists than any other corporation here,” he says via email. “The fact that a European company like Red Bull can recognize the importance of being here in Detroit and doing this kind of thing speaks volumes for their business model,” he adds. “Any number of local corporate monsters could have, and should have been doing this kind of thing years ago.”
The House of Art is not the first time Red Bull has attempted to attach itself to the creative instead of the athletic, and also not the first time they have worked specifically in Detroit.
“They have a few initiatives in place globally that are similar but in different creative fields,” Eaton says. “It only makes sense for Red Bull to build a nest here when they are actually involved in many annual events such as Movement and other sports-related programs.”
The Red Bull Music Academy stage has been a mainstay at the Movement electronic music festival for years, and in 2008 they held the Red Bull Air Race over the Detroit River.
“Detroit is just one of those places bristling with energy and filled with creativity with very little support for artists from the people in power,” says Eaton of the choice to build in Detroit. While not the only House of Art — there are others in São Paulo, Brazil, and Lisbon, Portugal — it is so far their first and only foray in North America.
The House of Art was built in Eastern Market’s E & B Brewery Lofts. Formerly the Eckhardt & Becker Brewery, at first glance the space looks more or less of what one would expect from any art gallery: White walls, a bar and large workstations for the resident artists to create art. Yes, there are refrigerators built into the walls stocked with plenty of you-know-what, but the main gallery turns out to have a uniquely Detroit charm about it. Turn the corner, descend the stairs, duck under a dim, brick dungeon-like archway and emerge into a wide-open, underground space that can host hundreds of guests and DJs on an opening night. In addition to art shows, the space also holds workshops and visiting artist lectures.
The artists featured in the latest show vary considerably, from the meticulous, realistic paintings of Camille LaMontagne to the raw metal and neon sculptures of Steven McShane. But the artists are united in other ways: All are young and most are recent art school graduates just starting their careers.
“The selection process for the current crop of artists was just the same as every round,” Eaton explains. “The goal is not to find the hippest, coolest artists (though I think they are all very cool), but to find the people who may not typically have a voice.”
LaMontagne, for one, appreciated the opportunity to take the next step in the evolution from art student to functioning artist. “[Eaton] wanted people to get spotlighted and to encourage people to continue with their artwork,” LaMontagne says. “Because, you know, after art school you’re really hyped up about doing artwork but then you take a couple months’ break and all of a sudden it’s a couple years’ break. He wanted to make sure that people were continuing what they loved and that they were supported and that people saw it.”
A Red Bull residency grants the artists 24-hour access to the space for three months in addition to covering the cost of materials — and providing snacks (and Red Bull). LaMontagne used the opportunity of a communal setting to bounce ideas off her fellow artists. “I’ll ask one of the artists there, ‘Is my painting looking alright? What do you think of this idea?’” she says. “Sometimes when you’re working on something for so long you need kind of a fresh perspective.”
A recent graduate of the College for Creative Studies, LaMontagne praised the program’s loose format. “In school, everyone is rushing to try and get things done. You have to do it a specific way, where this is all about you and what you want to say with your artwork.” LaMontagne used the residency to challenge herself, switching the subject matter in her work from close-up crops of young women to include full figures and scenery.
Fellow resident Carolyn Weber, a current CCS student, befriended LaMontagne at the House of Art. Working in pastels, she created fashion-based portraits for the show. “With it being summer and the show also during summer, all of my drawings are based around that theme,” she explains. “I wanted them to be really bright, fun and flirty.” Though the subject matter is breezy, the drawings are rendered in meticulous detail. “I’m obsessed with beauty and physical perfection,” she says. “So I also wanted my pieces to just be gorgeous and pleasing to look at, much like if you were actually looking at a beautiful woman in real life.” Not worrying about studio space or cost of materials allowed her to focus on the details of her work.
Painter Desiree Kelly praised the House of Art’s carefree format. “When I first heard about this project I was very excited and was searching for a way to get involved,” she explains. “They provide the essentials … which is the most stressful thing about being an artist — being able to get materials or space and being able to relax in order to let your creativity flow. This project has definitely helped me focus more on creating art and developing new ideas.” For her body of work, Kelly created portraits that subvert the typical context of their subjects, such as Abraham Lincoln anachronistically wearing a Burger King crown, placing him behind the camera lens instead of in front of it.
Not all of the artists featured in this round work in two dimensions. Ceramicist Elysia Vandenbussche creates images using tiles that are emblazoned with transfers of photographs, hand-drawn lettering and other patterns. “I create a 3-D clay canvas that allows me to be playful with 2-D imagery, which is printed and fired onto the tile surface,” she explains. “This show gives me an opportunity to represent my work and have fun by trying new things, taking risks, while also presenting me with a challenge to continually learn and evolve as an artist.” One of her pieces for the show seems particularly suited for Red Bull’s lifestyle brand: A succession of identical figures in an action pose creates a sense of movement; the words “we are a culture of rush” are emblazoned above.
Artist Steven McShane also seized the opportunity of his residency to do something different with his art. A former welder, McShane was able to use Red Bull’s budget to partner with local neon sign artist George Visas from Detroit-based neon shop Signifier Signs to create found scrap metal sculptures, with the neon glow juxtaposed against the raw metal material.
McShane’s father used to work at a junkyard, so for him his body of work has a nostalgic quality. “This current body of work takes me back to my youth, allowing me to save unique pieces of structural scrap and showcase its beauty,” McShane says. “[Visas’] neon work allows me to highlight pleasing attributes of each piece with vibrant color.”
Other residents were influenced greatly by working at the House of Art within the city of Detroit. Brian Lacey used found objects like street signs as his canvas for a body of graffiti-influenced work.
“I prefer street signs and wood panels opposed to canvas because they add a certain tangibility not seen in canvas,” Lacey explains. He also praised the visibility afforded by the program. “The opportunity is extremely priceless,” he says. “I’m not even completed with the residency and I can comfortably say it has benefited my life in ways I wouldn’t have imagined a few months ago.”
Painter Christopher Batten is another artist who was influenced by the city. His work includes a short story he wrote that envisioned a futuristic Detroit overtaken by strange animals, painted in his vibrant, painterly style.
“The paintings serve as illustrations for that story, and consist of wildlife that I’ve seen in the city proper, as well as conceptions of future people and environments,” Batten says. “My goal is to remind viewers of the richness of Detroit in the present, while simultaneously triggering their imaginations to conceive what Detroit has the potential to become.”
The final artist featured is Jesse Kassel. Working as an assistant at the House of Art before he was offered a residency, Kassel also found inspiration in his environment. “I would say my work for the show is inspired by the landscape and to a degree the psychology of the inner city, blended with my love for vintage graphic design and advertising. It is also very folk art-inspired,” he says, which features paintings of re-created, old-fashioned beer labels.
Kassel elaborates on what he’s learned from both working at the gallery and being able to have a residency as well. “[When] people appreciate the fact that you make art, it becomes your purpose and you feel a sense of duty to make it for them,” he says.
Kassel also sheds light on the shared spirit between extreme sports and art. When he was younger, he and his friends aspired to be professional skateboarders — with professional corporate sponsorships and skate videos.
“When I was in high school, all of my friends and I had it set in our minds that you haven’t really made it until you got sponsored for skateboarding,” he says. “And since I sucked at that, I relied a lot more on my drawing abilities for validation. Being in this program sort of feels like I’m sponsored by Red Bull for being an artist.”
Maybe the worlds of art and extreme sports aren’t all that different, anyway.
Click here to see more art from the show.
Lee DeVito writes about business, art and culture for the Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]