John Torreano 'Columns' at Birmingham's Hill Gallery

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

John Torreano was a working-class kid at a Flint community college in the 1950s, planning on pre-law or trying to get into the General Motors Institute.

But his grades weren't great, and neither of those dreams was going to pan out.

Then he took a drawing course from artist Richard DeVore, and the scales fell from his eyes.

"I had one of those epiphanies," Torreano said from his home in Sag Harbor, New York. "You mean you can do this? Be an artist?"

Torreano argues his "Columns," at Hill Gallery through Jan. 15, are democratizing -- the artwork changes depending on where the viewer stands.

That set him on a path to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the early 1960s, then the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and onto a successful abstract art career in Manhattan.

Some of Torreano's most recent works are on display in "John Torreano: Columns 2015-2020" at Birmingham's Hill Gallery, up through Jan. 15.

Few words are more appropriate to these pieces than "unique." Torreano's idiosyncratic curved columns are often painted in bright, strong colors, and studded with acrylic "gems" that catch and reflect the light.

Birmingham's Hill Gallery hosts "John Torreano: Columns 2015-2020" through Jan. 15.

You could be forgiven for thinking they might be some sort of religious totems -- if such iconography came in the rich shades that the artist employs.

Indeed, there's both a mystical and cheering quality to these constructions hanging on the walls, each several feet tall.

For his part, Torreano has always liked the relationship they strike with the viewer.

"They democratize the idea of painting," he said. Rather than the artist painting a "window" in which there's only one view, the reflections off the embedded gems in these columns change and shift, depending on where you stand.

There's an element, if you will, of audience participation.

"If you were here, you’d get a strong reflection from a gem," Torreano said, "but move left, and that goes away and these other two light up."

Torreano's work is currently much in demand. He's got shows up right now in Turin, Italy, and Boulder, Colorado.

John Torreano's rounded columns sport embedded acrylic "gems" that catch light differently depending on where you stand.

The artist says that his time at Cranbrook was exhilarating, even if he felt a bit like  a fish out of water.

"There was a steep learning curve," he said, "both intellectually and culturally. I came from a deeply lower-middle-class family in Flint. But then," he added, "you go to Cranbrook and you’re talking with a woman from Virginia who’s worried about her horse."

Torreano calls himself mostly self-taught, a painter who never fit into standard categories.

"My entire history as an artist has essentially been formless," he said, "even though I use these kitschy things in it."

(313) 815-6410

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

'John Torreano: Columns 2015-2020'

Through Jan. 15

Hill Gallery, 407 W. Brown, Birmingham

Noon-5:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat.

(248) 540-9288