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Painter Steve Locke returns home with evocative solo exhibition

Steve Locke with work, left, and his sculpture titled  “a brief history”, right

Steve Locke with work, left, and his sculpture titled “a brief history”, right

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

Curator Helen Molesworth has called Steve Locke’s paintings on bodiless heads, many with their tongues sticking out, “alternately disturbing, comical, vulnerable and sensual.”

The bright polychrome paintings, part of Locke’s upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit titled, “There’s No One Left to Blame,” are mounted on various pillars and poles, hovering over or looking up at exhibition viewers. The elevation of the heads simultaneously evoke imagery of lynchings and power figures.

Locke remembers sitting at his University of Detroit high school desk and looking up at the picture of the president mounted high on the wall at the front of the classroom next to the clock. “Pictures of powerful people go up high so everybody can see them, it’s almost as if they’re watching you,” he said. I think that’s a common trope that the picture of the leader is up high. I think it’s a powerful trope and I’m not afraid to use it.”

Despite the panoply of contradicting emotions they arouse, Locke insists his paintings are not ambiguous.

“…I don’t want it to feel like the paintings are ambiguous; because I feel like they’re really specific,” Locke told the Michigan Citizen. The placement of the work is a different story he says. “The arrangement of them opens up the ideas of possibility. Maybe the guy in this painting is looking at the guy in that painting, or maybe they’re looking at someone in the room.

Locke, a self-described control freak, meticulously works to position each piece in the gallery space.

“There’s a moment when I walking around the show, when I am a viewer and no longer the maker of the show, and I feel, when I see other people walking through the show, and I feel they might be part of the work.” Locke says he’s trying to create an environment where the difference between the painted thing and the real thing can be blurred a little bit.

Locke currently lives and works in Boston, but he grew up on Detroit’s west side. “When I was a kid, Detroit was beautiful. I have a very distinct, verdant, luminous memory of my childhood in Detroit.” Locke rode his bike through the tree-lined streets and swam in the Butzel park pool.

“When we were kids we used to play basketball over at Gladys Knight’s house over on Outer Drive, and then my mom would go out that night to see Gladys Knight do a solo piano show at Baker’s (Keyboard Lounge),” Locke recalls fondly.

His father was an auto worker and Locke inherited his work ethic from him. “If I have a philosophy, it’s the philosophy of being a working class person. I work. My work just happens to be making art.”

After high school, Locke worked for years as a secretary, saving his money to go to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Locke doesn’t take vacations or lengthy sabbaticals. He rises early each day goes to the studio, where he works long hours transforming his thoughts and feelings about the world into his uniquely vibrant images.

He brings his fond memories of the city’s past and his awareness of the city’s current issues into his work.

“I don’t have to recount Detroit’s problems to you, but those problems are not the making of the people who live there. I didn’t write any subprime mortgages, I didn’t defraud anyone,” Locke says. “I’m just a working class person, so to blame the failure of the banks or all these financial institutions on working people is crazy. But somehow poor people and working class people are treated like it’s their fault.”

Locke’s intellectual critique of current institutions in the U.S. and his reverence for the people making due with and struggling against them will be palpable to all those who amble among the floating tongues in the MOCAD until the end of July.

“There’s No One Left to Blame” opens with a party May 16 at 6 p.m., featuring a performance by Detroit hip hop duo Passalacqua at 9 p.m. at the MOCAD, located at 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit. The show will be on display until July 27. For more information, visit mocadetroit.org or call 313.832.6622.

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