An Italian Futurist mural on Michigan Avenue

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

It was high summer when Ryan Standfest started work on his black-and-white, geometric mural on the side of Detroit's Holding House gallery at Michigan and 25th. 

"Nobody has any business starting a mural in July," the artist and printmaker said on a hot August afternoon, casting a critical eye at the 20-by-50 foot wall he's still in the process of painting. 

Detroit artist Ryan Standfest discusses his mural on the side of Detroit's Holding House on Michigan Avenue. The Wayne State professor mostly paints at night.

Given that it's a west-facing wall, heat is a considerable issue. So like some forest creatures, he's gone nocturnal.

"I've settled into the habit of night-muraling, which I enjoy," Standfest said. "It's cool, and you get a nice feel for Michigan Avenue life after dark."

Adding to that life, a party one night at the little house across 25th Street was bursting with Mexican music. "That," he said, "was the best night."

He added, "It's has been a challenging summer. The weather's mostly been nice when I was out of town."

Anyone who caught Standfest's show at Wayne State University last fall, "This Must Not Be the Place You Thought It Would Be," will recognize his unmistakable style and tone. 

Heavily influenced by Italian Futurists who celebrated speed and technology, as well as old conventions of sign-painting, the artist's mural and prints alike are full of straight lines and sharp angles, with stylized text often leaning one way or another for emphasis. 

As for tone, the University of Iowa grad with the beard and ever-present khakis specializes in a dark take on the last century's commercial boosterism, when both heavy industry and Madison Avenue were going to create heaven on earth for the common man, come heck or high water.

"I'm interested in optimism and its aftermath," the artist told the Detroit News last fall, in particular the frothy sense of limitless possibility that characterized the decades just before and after the Great Depression. 

That said, Standfest insists he's not creating political art, despite what seems like an implicit critique of late capitalism.

"I don’t think I’m making a statement," he said. "It’s not agit-prop. But I’m asking some questions with the piece. I don’t believe it’s over-political."

The somewhat cryptic text on the half-finished mural reads, "Wants / Needs / Yours / Mine / Supply + Demand.”

Ryan Standfest's prints as well as the mural he's painting on Michigan Avenue play with the optimistic concepts of 20th-century capitalism.

The bottom line, Standfest said, is "Whose needs? Whose wants?"

Adding depth to his work, however, is the fact that Standfest's grandfather was a professional sign painter -- a fact he only stumbled on after the old man's death. 

"He was a Detroit sign painter in '50s, and died in late 1980s," he said. "I never had a chance to ask him how he did what he did. I think the family chucked his tools. So part of my need and desire is to commune with the spirit of Gramps." 

There's a bit of communing with other muralists going on as well. While Standfest said he hasn't made a concerted study of Detroit's rapidly expanding mural universe, he does take note of those works he respects. 

"I admire W.C. Bevan's work, 'True Meridian' on Gratiot by Eastern Market," he said. "I also like his mural on Michigan a few blocks from here. I think he's one of the town's great muralists."

And unsurprisingly, he loves the work of Hubert Massey, who recently painted an allegorical fresco of Detroit history in Cobo Center. 

What what does Holding House think of the gallery going up on its west-facing outside wall?

Standfest touches up his Holding House mural in Detroit, which echoes the graphic style of the Italian Futurists.

"I've always liked Ryan's style and sense of humor," said Andrea Eckert, who's both gallery director and co-owner of the former hardware store. 

Like Standfest, she's also a printmaker, and has a professional's sympathy with some of the difficulties that come with her wall.

"Painting on a very uneven surface on a not-totally straight building has presented interesting challenges," she said with a laugh. "And Ryan's so calculated and precise. I think he's had to do some re-do's, but it's been fun." 

For his part, Standfest said he expects to finish the mural by mid-September.

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

Where is Ryan Standfest's mural?

Holding House, 3546 Michigan, Detroit

Questions? (734) 845-2476