June 1, 2006
Detroit artists use color to draw attention to urban blight.
On Detroit’s East Side, not far from the new football stadium used for this year’s Super Bowl and the country’s largest incinerator, “outsider artist” Tyree Guyton has spent the last 20 years rescuing his once decaying block by painting houses with pastel polka dots and Basquiat-like words and faces. The Heidelberg Project—colorful homes surrounded by trees and empty lots decorated with provocative installations of discarded shoes, crucified stuffed animals, and assemblages of vacuum cleaners and painted car hoods—has survived two visits by demolition crews to become one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. But last summer an anonymous group of artists calling itself Object Orange was inspired by Guyton’s work, as well as the international Shrinking Cities Project, to create another series of urban art installations in a section of northern Detroit using paint to advocate demolition as a positive force for change.
“We have old aerial satellite photos that indicate that this neighborhood has been blighted for years and years and years,” says Greg, one of the four organizers, who prefer to use only their first names. “It’s shocking that something hasn’t been done about it. Recently there was a move to clean up the city, but it was mostly the area around the Super Bowl.”
Object Orange scouted out neighborhoods cursed with an exceptional number of collapsing houses—several of them long ago marked by the city with a “D” for demolition—and returned before dawn to cover their facades with Tiggerific paint from Behr’s Disney Color series, purchased from a local Home Depot. “We were looking for neighborhoods where there’s a high level of visibility from a highway,” Greg says. “Usually we only paint the side of the house that faces a major artery. Orange is often used as a warning or a protective color, but in this case it’s being used to draw attention to something that should be torn down.” Within months three of the nine homes had already been demolished.
Former Cranbrook Academy of Art students who gravitated from the school’s idyllic campus in the northern suburbs to Detroit after graduating, the members of Object Orange are not sure if the demolitions were a coincidence, but they feel that at the very least the painted houses are bringing more attention to the problem. “At this point in Detroit there are so many abandoned spaces,” says Christian, a New Jersey native who recently began teaching at a university in Colorado. “Living around these neighborhoods and experiencing the product of the blight and seeing what happens to the children and the landscape, we’re just kind of questioning it and saying, ‘Why is nothing done? Why is this happening?’”
If nothing else Object Orange has produced a new typology for site-specific art installations: art as a possible agent of demolition. “I tell my students that if you’re in Detroit you don’t need a studio,” Christian says. “The city is one big studio.”