Brash Stephens at ArtNxT, Tyree Guyton at U-Mich

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

New paintings by Chicago artist James Stephens virtually explode off the walls in the debut exhibition at the new ArtNxT gallery in Birmingham.

“Improvisations” is up through Dec. 6.

Located in the city’s emerging “Rail District,” ArtNxT is a handsome gallery that shows off work well.

This is particularly the case with Stephens’ bright, brash oil paintings, mash-ups of the real and the fantastic that feel almost like collage.

Stephens strikes a formal note in most of these pieces with some sort of vertical axis — a blue pole, a or a beige torpedo — from which the artist has hung horizontal images, whether bow-tie like “wings” or receding views in car mirrors.

What’s interesting here is Stephens’ careful manipulation of color, which he heightens in some cases with grisaille — the Renaissance technique where colored glaze is laid over black-and-white paint to create a sharp, visual burst.

Stephens, a graduate of the College for Creative Studies, says these new paintings represent a deconstruction of earlier techniques.

“They’re more fragmented, with bolder color,” he says, walking around the show the night before its opening. “I really tried to make the color strong.”

See how he succeeded in “The Raft,” with its sharp yellows, oranges and tangerines set against a dull background. Or take “Staging Area,” with its amusing shaving-cream blobs in shocking pink and teal blue.

Lurking in the back of these part-abstract, part-literal compositions, you’ll often find distant scenes of urban collapse. “Industrial decay,” Stephens notes, “is a theme that’s run through my work the last 34 years.”

But before Detroit defenders get up in arms, these “ruin porn” touches are for the most part drawn from Stephens’ drives around Chicago, the artist says, not the Motor City.

Decay and the impact of time, of course, have always figured in the work of Heidelberg Project founder Tyree Guyton, who has a show of new work at Gallery/DAAS, run by the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan.

“What Time Is It?” runs through Nov. 7.

The gallery is on the first floor of Haven Hall and is an admittedly small space. But in this case, such compression works to great advantage.

We’re used to seeing Guyton’s works at a distance, whether houses he’s adorned or freestanding paintings and sculptures in the vacant lots along Detroit’s Heidelberg Street.

But here, the paintings and collages — mostly of clocks — crowd in on the visitor with real urgency. Time is short, Guyton appears to be saying, and this particular installation underlines that message in visceral fashion.

Many of Guyton’s familiar artifacts are here, whether his characteristic “baby-dolls” or casually decapitated Barbies.

In the show’s most-impressive touch, the artist has recreated one of his recurring tableaux, carpeting a street with discarded shoes, in “A New Heaven,” a multi-soled installation on the gallery floor.

But here the loafers and high heels are all bright white, which creates a surprisingly pleasing uniformity. In one corner sits a bright-green watering can, a hopeful allusion amid all the abandonment.

‘Improvisations — New Work by James Stephens’

Through Dec. 6

ArtNxT, 2253 Cole, Birmingham

Noon-8 p.m. Thursdays, noon-6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays

(248) 881-2612

‘What Time Is It? New Work by

Tyree Guyton’

Through Nov. 7

Gallery/DAAS, ground floor Haven Hall, University of Michigan central campus

1-5 p.m. Monday-Friday