Grosse Pointe artist Carl Demeulenaere, 56, is a rare painter these days in that his portraits are both unapologetically realistic, and crafted on miniature canvases only a few inches across.
"Labyrinth: The Circuitous Life of a Miniaturist," at the Flint Institute of Arts through Jan. 4, is a career retrospective spanning work dating back to the 1970s. Three of Demeulenaere's pieces, which often invoke religious and historical imagery to comment on prejudice, are in the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts, including "Unto Us a Child Is Born," a portrait of two men and a newborn that predated the gay-marriage debate by a good 10 years.
You've got over 100 miniature paintings and ornaments in the show. Did those all come out of your own collection?
There are only 20 pieces that I own in the show, plus 16 ornaments. So 100 pieces were lent by 50 collectors. I got in touch with every single one of them. I started in March, and finished when some final pieces came in the week of the opening.
How would you describe your style?
Somebody once called my work Gothic realism, and I've always liked that. It's naturalistic.
I've always worked in that meticulous way. Miniatures were not only manageable, but something I could handle mentally and physically. Then there's the pragmatic side — they were affordable for patrons. However, I started building theatrical and immersive installations for my shows, like in Flint, rather than just putting small work on the walls. And that's been important to me.
Your work is often compared to Renaissance art. Did you study that at Wayne State?
Heavily. I could have graduated with a major just in Renaissance or Northern Renaissance art. As a studio-art major, I was told I took way too many art history courses, so I did a fifth year and just did studio-art classes.
What historic painters specialized in miniatures?
It's a tradition better know in England. Nicholas Hilliard is one. He painted Queen Elizabeth I. And the Northern Renaissance painter Hans Holbein produced some beautiful miniatures of the English nobility.
When did you begin to address specifically gay themes in your work?
I started right after my mother passed in 1990. I came out to my parents the last year of her life. It was like climbing Mt. Everest. I was bursting at the seams and dealing with migraines.
How do you frame the gay characters in your miniatures?
They're never victims. And I don't like the term 'martyr' or 'meek.' I see gay men and women as heroic in what they've survived with AIDS, and how we've become politically active and a united front. I have mellowed, though — my work was much more militant in the early 1990s. It's less personal now, and I've expanded to include prejudice directed at other minorities – African-Americans, Jews and Muslims.
What's in your future?
This show is sort of a closing chapter. I'm not turning my back on miniature work, but I want to get larger in scale. So I thought this was a good time to turn the page. I'm not going to become a painter doing 20 foot by 30 foot canvases, but I am going to enter the 30 inch by 40 inch realm.
Will this be a difficult transition?
I don't know who I'll sell them to, because the prices will have to go up. And scaling my miniaturist technique up to larger sizes is going to make my work understandably more expensive.
'Labyrinth: The Circuitous Life of a Miniaturist'
Through Jan. 4
Flint Institute of Arts
1120 E. Kearsley St., Flint
Noon - 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; noon - 9 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. - 5 p.m Saturday; 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
Tickets $7, adults; $5, senior citizens & students with ID; members & kids under 12 get in free