Connecting the Specific to the Universal: In Conversation with Tylonn J. Sawyer

Photo c/o Sal Rodriguez

Tylonn J. Sawyer is an American figurative artist, educator, & curator living and working in Detroit, Michigan.  His work centers around themes of identity, both individual & collective, politics, race, history and pop culture. Last year Sawyer was named one of the recipients of the 2019 Kresge Arts Detroit Visual Arts Fellowship. We discuss the artist-curator relationship, issues of cultural appropriation, and the ability of art to allow people to empathize across cultural lines. 

I’m curious about the chronology of your career, how did your current subject matter develop? 

My work was really self-centered and very expressionistic when I was in undergrad. I wouldn’t say it was thoughtful of other people’s visions outside of myself. I know there are a lot of artists who create work like that, but I’m not that way now. And then as graduate school went on and you start to move from being a teenager to being an adult, and the world hits you and you really start to take an inventory of the way the things that you see and what it means to create something responsibly and put it in the world. 

And so I would say around graduate school, being a figurative artist, I really started thinking about things that may have troubled me and things that were of concern to me in my own world and seeing how those universal concerns and not just things that were specific to me. So I could definitely see around that time when I started making figurative work, that when it was a metaphor, the genesis of that metaphor was personal, but by the time it was finished hopefully anyone who is looking at that painting can relate to that situation in any type of way. 

And even though my work is heavily based on race and politics and a very specific viewpoint, certain issues like discrimation, erasure, and insecurities, those are universal human concerns. Despite the lens that it comes through, hopefully whoever is looking at the work can see it that way. And I know it just sort of evolved in that way over time.

When you talk about this way in which the work is very specific but can still be read at a more general, universal level, is there a difficulty then in terms of how the work is curated and contextualized?

Sometimes it’s been problematic, sometimes it has been very, very easy, and it all depends on the relationship between myself and the curator, just like a relationship between any two people. The job of the artist is quite different from the job of the curator, at least for me.

And you have curated before too right?

Yes, but then there is even a difference too with myself being a curator and a maker, so I approach it from a different view from somebody who went to school and got an art history degree and decided to be a curator. I’ve met some curators who upon seeing my work our relation may have become contentious. Some curators’ political views cause them to either erase my work or place it in the wrong context. My work is very multivalent, you can look at it at surface level if you want to, but if you choose not to look beyond the illustrative aspect of it then that’s on you. 

I’ve had a curator come to my studio for a studio visit and argue with me about one drawing because they had a certain political stance that they took, almost saying I shouldn’t have drawn that person, that person is an iconoclast and wanted to be an image breaker like in early Christian art, and I’m just thinking, ‘you’re a curator you should think a bit more objective about work,’ but that was just my personal point of view.

Like I said though, myself as a maker who has curated shows with artists, I’m more concerned with that artist point of view. I think of a show and what its meaning should be and how the work is contextualized, I’m very interested in the artist themselves: the type of work they make, why they make that work, the formal aspects. So while the work is important, I think the maker is equally important. Some curators don’t share that vision. Sometimes the show is just the curator’s work of art, and you’re a piece of a collage they put together. Sometimes there’s a hybrid of both of those ideologies.

I’m curious about that hybrid, have you had that experience yet where it feels like your work is part of a larger curatorial vision that is both authentically what you want to do with your piece but it also opens your work up to something you hadn’t seen in it?

Yeah I was at this show at MOCAD, the last show curated by Jens Hoffman there, Sonic Rebellion. He had curated three pieces of my work in there, and even though the show was about music, he saw that there was a socio-political aspect to these creators. So he picked these two paintings I did called Class Photo 2 and Class Photo 3 of James Baldwin and Nina Simone, and so thinking about Simone as a musician and the relationship that they had and seeing that in the context of that show–and a lot of times MOCAD’s shows won’t be so formal, but the fact that they were curated in that show along with this other drawing I did called Class of 2016 which kind of spoke more towards the reputation of law enforcement–and seeing that in relation to how music contributed to resistance, I thought that was a good marriage. 

And even in my conversations with Jens about the show, it was about the individual aspects about the work and what it means, but also how he contextualized it in a grand scheme of how music can be the soundtrack of the revolution, or even spark the revolution.

Tylonn J. Sawyer, “Class Photo #2: Black Convening”

Circling back real quick, you mentioned that part of what changed your work from being more impressionistic in undergrad to becoming more figurative in grad school, you mentioned the responsibilities of putting images out in the world, could you expand on that?

So for example, in undergrad I was super Christian, don’t get me wrong I live in a secular world and I did secular things, but I had this very clear Christian ideology. So I remember doing these abortion paintings where it was ambiguous whether the baby was alive or dead, and I would talk about these paintings in class with this confidence. Luckily nobody went off on me, but I was like 17, 18 and it was what I believed. As I’ve gotten older, and being a post-Christian, and not identifying that way anymore but still having opinion on subject matter like that, I couldn’t imagine painting something like that because I think about how heavy a topic that is, and so if I were to do something like that now– which I wouldn’t– I would try to be much more researched, and much more nuanced. 

But like I said it’s not the type of thing I would paint now, because at the time my vision was singularly my own painting, and I didn’t think about how my paintings might affect someone in a negative way.

That’s really interesting to me, the way your work is not only a reflection of your specific political worldview, but that making work has also in turn shaped your worldview. Does that happen in other ways ever? That communication through artwork has shifted your perspective on issues outside of art.

I would say right now this is the golden age of art for black artists, and you have a lot of curators who are turning their lens towards black art, but then also–and this is just from things that I’ve read and the people I know who push these ideas out– you also have this rise of an unhealthy type of conservatism that is masked as liberalism but is definitely conservatism in that people use language like ‘violence’ to describe when someone says something they don’t like, or people believe images should be taken out of museums and destroyed because they feel only that certain races should be allowed to talk about certain ideas.

Cultural appropriation issues?

You have some people that believe that white artists shouldn’t be allowed to make any commentary on race related issues.

Like the controversy regarding Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmet Till?


What were your feelings on that?

I thought that it was absurd that it was demanded that the painting be removed and destroyed. To say that they are tired of artists using black trauma as raw material for their work, I get that idea because I’ve seen that done in certain aspects, but I would not say that the Dana Schutz painting fell in that category for me.

So it’s an issue of nuance?

Yeah for me. But whether I felt that way or not, unless an artist’s work is demonstrably obscene, like something that is meant to trigger and destroy, I don’t believe that images should be censored. And especially with race in the United States, white people have just as much a right to talk about that, because they share in that history and conversation. So yeah, they do have a right to talk about it, I might not want to hear what you have to say, but you have a right to say it.

And one of the things I really dig about being an artist in this day and age is that I do get to see art that offends me, because it makes me think about my art and sometimes the limits to which I can push it. It makes me get a real emotional inventory about how I really feel about a thing– the Dana Schutz painting of Emmet Till, while it’s a very prevalent and heavy story in the black community, a lot of the young people who protested are so far removed from that image, Dana Schutz’s painting can’t hurt Emmet Till no more. It’s just something in the past. And even her rationale for it, she wasn’t a black woman but she did have a son and she can’t imagine that anybody would have done it to her son. And she had never heard that story before, and when that article came out many of my white friends had never heard that story before. 

You’ve got to be careful with stuff like that. I make political work, which might be on the edge of offending someone, and I wouldn’t want my work censored just because somebody got in their feelings and felt like this type of image shouldn’t be seen by the world, or they were triggered, so I have to be a champion for art.

That’s one of the things that bothers me about the world today, even thinking about my work and making it edgy and pushing it there, I do that on purpose to see how far I can take this and still have the work maintain integrity. I don’t want to create something that just has shock value. But if it’s something that can shock an idea into people, and a sustained type of idea, and not just a one hit wonder that freaks you, because that’s like a horror movie.

It feels like you get a real sense of power in artwork’s ability for allowing people to share stories across cultural lines and step into other people’s shoes, and I think that’s an interesting counterargument against issues of cultural appropriation, but you also mentioned that there have been times when cultural appropriation has bothered you, could you talk about that?

Right after the Dana Schutz controversy was the Sam Durant controversy at the Walker Art Center, and I was one hundred percent agreement with that, I was trying to put forth a reasonable explanation for why you would want to put together a platform where a mass execution of Native Americans took place.

What for you was the nuance between the two?

For one it was the interpretation, Dana Schutz’s rationale for it, which was a very simplistic one, but she is an abstract painter so she abstracted it so far from the original image that I don’t think it had a triggering effect to the public, like if she were a photorealist, and say painted that image I could see– just the image alone, that was the purpose of it being in Jet Magazine when it first came out– but a white artist recreating that in such great detail and then presenting it in that way, just because of how we the visceral nature of illustrative work, that would have played out differently versus the way that she abstracted the painting. 

In the case of the Walker, to recreate this thing in great detail, you’re creating a thing that is an instrument of destruction against a specific people in like this big mass, there was no empathetic type of rationale for its creation, that came off more as a shock value kind of thing. I think for somebody to just push that into the realm and say, “it’s just art,” or, “it’s just recreating this historical event,” I think that is pushing it and taking away any semblance of what human empathy would be in creating art. That’s the difference in how I saw those two particular things. 

I take these on an individual basis. There are laws in place that tell you that unless something is objectively obscene, like, ‘most reasonable looking at this would be offended by this,’ then yes, it no longer falls under freedom of speech.

Do these conversations come up in the classes at all? Have you ever had students create work that you thought shouldn’t be presented?

In terms of my own work, the first day of class I go over the syllabus, answer any questions they may have, and then I show them my website and tell them a little about myself and show them my work. Most of my students are all white, so to come into class and say, “I just had this show at U of M called White History Vol. 1, and you see people look up like, “what’s he talking about?” But then I’ll loosely explain a piece or two and they get it. Once they get the explanation they understand it without being offended, and they get it in hopefully a universal context. Even though my work is dealing with race, it’s dealing with bigger issues that they can relate to no matter who they are. 

Tylonn J. Sawyer, “Pieta”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

You may like