Marion Jackson


Tyree Trilogy: This is the second part of our Tyree-trilogy, in which we caught up with Tyree Guyton's current project, took a look at his new work, and saw his efforts come to live on the other side of the world in Australia. For Arts Editor Nick Sousanis' story on Guyton, click here. For contributing writer Sara Lyon's report from Australia click here.


When Tyree Guyton made his first trip to Australia in April 2004 at the invitation of performance artist and native Detroiter, Aku Kadogo, his goal was to develop ideas for a collaborative public art project in Sydney. Guyton did indeed develop an innovative plan for a public installation of shoes, polka-dots, clothing, and other objects in Sydney. He and Kadogo also garnered endorsement for the project from the Mayor of Sydney and financial support from the City of Sydney and from the U.S. Embassy. As a result, Guyton will return to Australia in late-September to begin installation of "Singing for That Country," creating an echo of Detroit's Heidelberg Project among the rolling hills and along the winding paths of the spacious Sydney Park.

Little could Guyton realize, however, that his trip to Australia would significantly shift the path of his own art work. Internationally-known for his neighborhood-based Heidelberg Project and polka-dots painted on abandoned structures in Detroit, Guyton had come to a point of "feeling stuck," of knowing that he "needed to go deeper" but not knowing how to do this. His trip to Australia provided an answer to his question.

In Sydney, Guyton saw many examples of Australian aboriginal art, and Kadogo introduced him to many artists, including an aboriginal tribal leader and maker of boomerangs. Guyton was entranced. "I saw something so beautiful in the people themselves - so in tune with nature and with the spirit world. The experience said to me that I needed to go deep inside myself. And I knew that I needed to come back to Australia."

And go back, he did. Guyton returned to Australia for three weeks in July at his own expense, accompanied during the first week by Heidelberg Project Executive Director, Jenenne Whitfield. Guyton spent the final two weeks of his July visit alone - living in isolation in a small room in the simple apartment of Kadogo's ex-husband. "There was no radio or TV - just art and books. Jimbo had aboriginal paintings; they became my TV and radio. I was in this room for two weeks - just painting and reading. I got up very early - 6:00 a.m. - and I just painted. I started very early, in the silence."

Although Guyton continued painting his signature polka dots, his dots began to resonate with the complex dot patterns of the aboriginal art which surrounded him. Guyton began to impose firm black lines in his fields of dots, pathways echoing the lines and elemental structures of the aboriginal paintings. At that time, Guyton had little understanding for the meaning and sacred symbols represented in the dots and lines of the aboriginal paintings, but he sensed innately the spirituality and "connections" expressed in these aboriginal works.

Isolated from outside distractions, Guyton's mind began to flood with visions of his own personal connections - connections with mentors, connections with ancestors - and he began to look deeply into his own soul. He recalled the advice of his teacher, Charles McGee, who - twenty years ago - counseled him to lock himself in a room for two weeks and do nothing but paint. He recalled how his Grandpa Sam Mackey took delight in a jumble of colored jelly beans and how his Grandpa, when approaching the end of his life, made drawing after drawing all through the night with an energy and urgency that seemed to flow from the center of his being. Guyton's personal recollections and feelings seemed to be echoed in the shimmering dots and meandering lines of the aboriginal paintings which surrounded him, and he began to sense a new direction in his own work.

"I realized then that everything is connected." Guyton had always considered his multi-colored polka-dots representative of the varied people and cultures of the earth. In Australia, however, Guyton was astonished to find parallels between his polka-dots, Grandpa Mackey's figure drawings, and the shapes and forms in aboriginal paintings. The patterns of contemporary aboriginal paintings have been a part of aboriginal culture for centuries and represent to aboriginal people a deep and fundamental reality called "Dreamtime," the transcendent spiritual, natural, and moral order of the cosmos. Although aboriginal paintings contain multiple layers of meaning with the most sacred messages legible only to the initiated, lines typically denote pathways and circles suggest points of significance, gathering and nurturing.

Guyton's new works are filled with firm circles and bold black lines -- gathering places and pathways - organically positioned on a flickering surface of colored polka-dots. Although cast-aside objects embedded and obscured in the thickly painted surfaces recall Guyton's persistent attention to the overlooked details of daily urban life, his new paintings seem to transcend individual experience in a new and intense effort to reach a higher level, a level of a universal spirit that embraces and embodies all people.

Guyton himself is very excited about the new direction of his art and says he trusts the spirit he feels within himself. "I know what I want to do now. I've got to paint! This is only the beginning of what's inside of me, what's wanting to get out. I'm excited about it. I want to paint. I have to paint." It will be interesting indeed to see where this new path leads.

The first works in Guyton's new series painted since his first trip to Australia are currently on display at the Batista Gallery, 756 Livernois, Ferndale, Michigan where the exhibition, "Singing for Our Countries," continues through late-October.

Exhibition of New Works
September 18 - October 15
Batista Gallery
756 Livernois
Ferndale, Michigan 48220
248 544-4627

Marion Jackson is a Professor of Art History at Wayne State University Detroit, Michigan

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