Moments of transition: a conversation with Cedric Tai

August 19, 2011 · Print This Article

Cedric Tai really came to Detroit’s attention with his Brixel murals, dazzling and colorful pieces of public art funded by a Kresge Arts Fellowship and created, with active community participation, around Midtown Detroit. The murals are meant (in part) to draw attention to the beautiful brickwork that’s all over the city. (Brixel = brick + pixel, and the pieces definitely have a distinctly pixelated look; when I see them, I can’t help but think, delightedly, of late ’80s Nintendo game landscapes.) Creating each mural involves generating a pattern with a specialized computer program, then organizing a team of volunteers to execute it by painting individual bricks according to the pattern. They’re sort of like large-scale paint-by-numbers projects, offering participants who aren’t visual artists the valuable sense of what it feels like to produce public art. (Just don’t call it street art. Click here for an earlier interview I did with Cedric where he explains why he’s uncomfortable using that term to describe his Brixel work.)

Brixel mural in progress

But there’s much more to Cedric’s art than Brixels. He concentrated in painting (and art education) at Michigan State University, where he earned his BFA in 2007. His paintings, mostly executed on acrylic plastic, allow for considerably more fluidity than his Brixel work. Some of them evoke landscapes, others aerial perspectives of natural and man-made systems, and others little more than the materials and gestures used to create them. What unites them, to my eye, is a sense of transformation (nearly each piece seems to represent a moment of transition, arrested) and collision (there are usually several distinct visual languages competing for space on the canvas at once).

"Frontier Baroque," 2008, mixed media on acrylic plastic

Cedric’s about to leave Detroit for Glasgow, where he’ll be pursuing an MFA at the Glasgow School of Art (and most likely branching out into different media). We talked over email about his work, bartering in Detroit, art infrastructure and community, toxic materials, happiness, and his impending move.

"Inset," 2010, stained oak and spray paint on acrylic plastic

Matthew Piper: I recently heard you describe yourself primarily as a painter, with nascent interests in sculpture and installation. Looking at your paintings, though, I can’t help but notice the host of un-painterly materials involved in their creation: silkscreen, marker, iron filings, ink, charcoal powder, etc. You strike me (in that work, anyway) as a multimedia artist working primarily in two dimensions; why do you identify so strongly with the painting tradition?

Cedric Tai: When I refer to myself as a painter, I’m keeping in mind what other people think of what a painting is. To me it gets that ‘what kind of art do you make?’ question out of the way, since I’m actually more interested in using paintings to barter with, which is far more interesting an activity that I engage in as an artist. Painting is also an open term that resonates with people: how you can visually connect with the way materials are applied, combined and represented. When I make a painting, I want to make each material stand on its own, and whether it’s a scrap of fabric or a routed out channel, it can be done in a gesture, a painterly way.

"The Carbon Queen," 2008, silkscreen, ink, spray paint on acrylic plastic

MP: When you say “barter,” you literally mean trading, right? This is such a fascinating aspect of economic life of Detroit. (Well, I think of it as part of life in Detroit, but it sounds like you might think of it more as a tendency among artists.) Do you mostly trade art for art?

CT: I’ve bartered more than once for free stays in hotels, I’ve bartered for a trip for me and [my partner] Rachel to go to Hawaii for two weeks, and I’ve also bartered for getting things constructed for me! It’s really interesting to see how the idea of ‘value’ becomes a negotiable realm where you trade apples for oranges rather than compare apples to oranges.

MP: When did your romance with painting on acrylic plastic begin? Obviously it gives your work a very distinct (and very beautiful) look, but what else draws you to it?

CT:  Acrylic plastic is interesting in that all of the first paintings started with scratched found pieces. I like the idea that perhaps I’m selling people’s recyclables back to them as artwork, and if plastic is going to last forever, it might as well also be artwork then. But in terms of how I paint on the back for it to be seen from the front, it’s quite slick and messier than one would think, I actually have to think in terms of objects turning from liquid to solid and then think about how to protect the finished outcome.

MP: Can you describe your process in a bit more detail? Do you feel any obligation as a contemporary artist to think about the re-use of materials from a sustainability standpoint? I remember when I first helped paint a Brixel mural, I suddenly found myself confronting the environmental (and respiratory!) toll of using so much spray paint. Not having any experience as a painter, it was an unusual position to find myself in, and it made me wonder how you navigate the ethical dimensions of using toxic materials to make (sometimes large-scale) art.

CT:  My process can vary greatly depending on the material, although I think my best work shares certain qualities: its relationship to intuition, creating and disrupting a system/pattern, and the feeling that something much bigger than the piece itself is being referenced. The only ethical dilemma I thought of was when I was trying to decide whether or not I should buy any more acrylic plastic after the BP oil spill, since its chemical makeup is based on petroleum. At that point I made it my goal to never buy any, but use up whatever I had left or get it used from other people. Surprisingly I have more acrylic plastic than I’ve ever had just because I put it out there that I was only using what was already out there and useless to someone else.

"Limitless Economic Growth," 2010, paint and spray paint on routed acrylic plastic

MP: Can you talk a bit about your interest in sculpture and installation? Have you had the chance to work much in these media yet or is that what grad school’s going to be for? What’s a Cedric Tai installation like?

CT: I’m definitely interested in figuring out what exactly is the medium I should be working in while I’m in Glasgow. I feel like I couldn’t just make anything since I like materials to refer to themselves and it’s important to me that the audience can see obvious choices that I’ve made. You can see one of my newest installations below.

The last two years have been very much about exploring as many different tools and materials as I could get access to, and now I’m more interested in letting the material find me. For example, I’m really interested in exploring the different definitions of happiness, such as the difference between working towards an optimal experience, ‘flow,’ and how that’s different from ‘zen’, which is something I feel like is about not trying. I’m also really nerdy about art education and I feel like my best work is about facilitation, so who knows? After grad school I might stop making tangible objects.

MP: That installation looks so fun and wondrous. Did anybody sit or stand in the middle of it? (That’s what I want to do, watching the video.) It’s a little darker than that, though, too, isn’t it? There’s something Sisyphean about the task of gathering and releasing all the foam. Would you say you’re working out ideas of happiness in this piece? Ben Gaydos’s video element seems to achieve a certain contentedness amid the whirlwind.

CT: I didn’t get to stay when more people came in to interact with the work. I’ve heard that some people absolutely loved it and started to dive into the foam while other people stood and gazed for long periods of time while their friends played inside of it. I feel like I somehow captured people’s attention span with a real-life, interactive screensaver. My initial idea was that phase 2 of this project would be to actually try to be something of a storm chaser and project a video onto a tornado. In this piece I wouldn’t say I was working on those happiness tangents, but that it was closer to the idea that I was trying as many things as possible: interactivity, collaborative work where the other person isn’t present, as well as using fans and foam. One thing the video doesn’t capture is that there is a quick rainbow where the pieces are moving so fast that they kind of split up the RGB midair as they reflect into your eye.

MP:  At this point, how much of your work is created with the use of computer technology? Would you say that this is a result of a natural inclination toward new technologies on your part, or do you use computers of out necessity to create particular kinds of work?

CT:  Computer technology is a staple of our generation. I use free internet programs not just for their aesthetics but also to reference the fact that the people who have made very thoughtful, complex programs have decided somehow that they should be free and accessible. The technology I use, whether it’s used in industrial practices or not, tell a story about the kinds of tools we have at our fingertips; it’s a reflection of the times we live in.

"Digit," 2010, latex paint and ink on acrylic plastic

MP: What programs do you use? Are they mostly designed for artists or do you find new uses for programs from other fields?

CT: My programs for now are a secret. I’m talking with more programmers that I know as well, instead of researching free online programs. I’ve actually tried to turn my Brixels into a tapestry using a computerized loom, and that has its own program making tool as well, but I’ll have to consult more experts about how to translate how I come up with my designs with how to input them into the computer.

MP:  The Kresge Arts Fellowship and the Brixel murals that resulted from it cast you in the public eye as a something of a street artist, which is not your background. What’s that been like? Have the Brixels whetted your appetite for future incarnations of the public version of your practice, or are you happier in the studio?

CT:  I am very pleased with how the Brixels have come along; in a way it’s almost like my first major known work, which is fantastic. Everything has worked out to my greatest expectations. Also, I’ve talked with you about this before, but I don’t feel like I make street art as much as I feel like I make generative art, or perhaps community-based artwork.

Cedric, with brixels

(I don’t know how to fully describe being ‘happy’ in the studio, to be honest. I’m happier with how I live my life than how I spend my hours making things. I’m sure it’s like exercise, where you get endorphins as you work your body out, but somehow to me, artwork is always tough, and with each time I stand back to look at what I made I feel on edge, as if I’ve barely made it work.)

In terms of the attention I get from being a Kresge Fellow, I’ve become that much more of an advocate for the arts. Specifically for the art scene in Detroit, the Kresge Foundation, and especially for supporting artists to do what they do. The best example of that are my entries on thedetroiter.com. I’m taking the bullhorn that they have given me to shout my praises of my other favorite artists who have been absolutely supportive. Speaking of which, In no particular order those people are Andrew Thompson, Megan Heeres, Ian Swanson, Simone DeSousa and Faina Lerman.

MP: About that: in addition to being a Detroit artist, you’ve also been committed to enriching the somewhat impoverished information infrastructure surrounding Detroit art. You’ve made a database of current exhibitions available to artists and arts writers, created The Detroiter, a website devoted to covering the art scene, and built webpages for artists who don’t have them. This is such important work, and there’s still so much more to be done. What’s drawn you to it, and if someone’s reading this who thinks they could contribute to improving the conversation about Detroit art, what can they do?

CT:  I consider conversations about Detroit Art to be tied to the larger need for an infrastructure for artists, and The Detroiter gives me a lot of excuses to see other people’s studios and to be opinionated and really to improve my own art practice. Perhaps I believe in karma here: the more energy I put out into showing how much of a fan I am of other people, the more I’ll be closer to the creating the work I was meant to make. I’m very proactive about creating the kind of community I would want to be in. I’d like to think that it’s part of being a well rounded artist by engaging in curating, writing, attending, critiquing and promoting. If someone wants to contribute to improving the conversation, it might be as simple as being honest with yourself and not being anonymous about your opinions. I’d like to see more people really own their positions and argue them for the sake of their own practice, not for reaching any compromise, necessarily, but to present as many perspectives as exist.

MP: You’re about to start grad school in Glasgow. You said recently that you were going from Detroit to the “Detroit of Europe.” What are you looking forward to about working in Glasglow? What are you going to miss about Detroit?

CT:  Well, maybe not the Detroit of Europe, but it definitely shares a post-industrial past and a new identity as a must-see place for artists. There are a lot of artists I really like in Glasgow, from Martin Creed to Belle and Sebastian. I look forward to not really knowing what I’m getting myself into and getting away from the very real possibility of doing the same thing for years in Detroit. I will, however, miss all the outsider art that is in Detroit (here’s a bunch), the diversity of practically living in Hamtramck [a Detroit enclave and the most internationally diverse city in Michigan], and the comforting feeling that Detroit is home.

Matthew Piper is a Detroit-based librarian and writer.

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