This is the first essay in an ongoing series about Detroit artists, curators and gallerists, with an emphasis on the city’s emerging art ecosystem.
The Detroit art scene right now is a funny place, a multi-venue stage for unorthodox performance, experimental installation and a playground for talented art newcomers, recently minted BFAs, and self-taught makers and doers. Art venues emerge, move and close at a disorienting pace, and the skills of a treasure hunter are required to keep track of them all, but constant throughout this ever-changing and evolving art ecosystem are a few artists whose instantly identifiable work shows up regularly all around Detroit.
Alexander Buzzalini, painter, printmaker and installation artist, is one of these itinerant and ubiquitous makers. I’ve seen his work in prestigious galleries like N’namdi Center for Contemporary Art and Wasserman Projects and in less exalted settings like Bumbo’s Bar and Public Pool. In spite of his use of a wide variety of formats and materials, Buzzalini’s work is always identifiable and relatable, with its comic wild west subject matter, saturated color and gestural pizzazz.
I was curious about the source of Buzzalini’s inspiration and motivation, how he gets along in Detroit and why he stays, when other millennial artists might decamp for Brooklyn or L.A. So I contacted him in search of some insights about what it’s like to live and make art right now in Detroit. We arranged to meet at Outer Limits, a venerable Hamtramck dive bar near his studio. When I arrived on a still-chilly April afternoon, I immediately noticed the bar’s proudly retro décor, which clearly hadn’t seen an update since the Carter administration. The bartender and I exchanged a few pleasantries until Buzzalini walked in a few minutes later, bearded and paint spattered, clearly just off work. We ordered our beers and dug right in, in classic Hamtramck fashion, to talk about art.
As it turns out, Buzzalini is a local boy, born and raised in Pontiac, MI, just north of Detroit. He moved to the city in 2012 to attend Wayne State University, where he studied printmaking with Stanley Rosenthal and Pam Delaura. After he got his BFA (summa cum laude), he saw no reason to leave. “I basically just stayed here,” he says. He has found a group of like-minded artists and writers like Steve Hughes and John Charnota, printmaker Ryan Stanfest and designer Jack Craig. Together, they produce publications, organize exhibits and generally bounce ideas off each other for their mutual benefit.
I asked him how he became interested in painting American frontier western themes. “The western has such a deep tradition in American culture,” he replied, adding, ”it’s also that internationally the western is seen as a purely American genre.” The American movie western represents an archetype of what an American is, but Buzzalini is well aware that vintage movie westerns are a reductive and simplistic representation of American manhood. Over time, he said, “I really started looking and paying attention to [these] things, and pointing to that façade. But I liked the idea of [examining] what is real and what is not real.” He went on:
I like to tell the story that when I was 12 or 13, I was in Colorado hiking through the mountains with my uncle and my cousin, and he says, “Stop , wait, look at that rock!”
“What?” And I say, “Yeah that’s a rock.”
And he says, “No, come here, look.” And he poked it, and it’s just a fake rock made of chicken wire and plaster from some John Wayne movie, left here after all this time.”
The anecdote gets to the heart of Buzzalini’s work, questioning received notions of masculinity, nationality and identity.
The images in Buzzalini’s painting are clearly theatrical and satirical. He subverts the manly images he paints. The cowboy boots are red and pointy, his guns droop, and even the cow skulls are wearing lipstick. “That’s my approach to dealing with what is masculinity… today, using the historical references to the western, where male roles are so prominent … I’m taking that example and making fun of it, [to] tell young people today, including myself, what it means to be masculine is just fabricated by Hollywood… I think people are beginning to be interested in ideas about questioning their identities and where those identities came from and [realizing that] they are fabricated by these larger corporate things.”
Buzzalini’s cowboy paintings are quick and loose, with gestural, almost cartoonish, brush strokes, “I tend to work quick, and on multiple things at once, because I have a hard time sitting and working on one painting and waiting for it to dry. I like [to make] quick paintings… they’re kind of like drawings, and [the speed creates] a good kind of pressure.” He continues, “It’s drippy and sometimes… I use certain mediums, mix it with paint and add water… part of it is I like the drips. It adds fluidity, gives immediacy, and from the physical aspect of the actual painting I can make one continuous brush stroke. I work fast, it’s gestural, it’s the way I’ve always painted except when I was forced not to, (and then it didn’t turn out too good.”)
When asked about what media interest him most now, given his background in printmaking and the numerous installation pieces he has exhibited recently, Buzzalini still pledges his allegiance to painting. “[I’m interested mostly in] painting, [even though] the last show I did was a two person show with John Charnota … at Public Pool. It was called 100 Beavers and I did do a couple of wood block prints for that, and a series of silkscreens…that involved doing this installation of a beaver dam on the back wall with all these sticks that were cut outs. …The beaver show was kind of a leap and speaks to [my aim for] a [high] level of productivity … it was a lot of work, and [I was] speaking of productivity as a way of projecting self-worth–that we’re not lazy.” He admitted this might be a particularly midwestern way of thinking about art, in terms of productivity and hard work.
We talked briefly about his current project, some funky, gloppy plaster lamps he made and recently showed at Butter Projects. He says, “I’ve been working on a series of lamps using plaster, inspired by work I did assisting Jack Craig–It’s very strange, weird design–and I thought, “I want to try this!” His description describes nicely how the cross pollination of ideas occurs right now in Detroit.
Our discussion circled around, inevitably, to why he stays in Detroit, what still excites him about it and his future plans. His answer returned to the openness of Detroit’s artist community, the ease of artistic exchange, the wealth of places to show work, and of course, the cheap rents.
“Rents are going up–It’s not as cheap as when I moved here, when you could pay $400 a month for a 1000 square foot flat — now it’s more like $900, he says. “I recently purchased a house. I stay here because the community’s been really good, and it’s growing, not stagnant, and new people are constantly moving in. It’s easy to have a show, even at your house, and get enough people to make it worth your while to set it up. The community’s tight like that. Mostly a lot of my friends are Cranbrook graduates and a small group of people from University of Michigan have started to move in. The community’s close so there’s also the exchange of social gatherings and something [that] has to do with the walkability of the town. That’s what’s keeping me here, stuff like that.”