Carl Demeulenaere isn't trying to be cool.
"The kind of work I do, being a miniaturist and doing technically skilled work and having a narrative attached to virtually everything I do — that doesn't necessarily put me on the map right now," he says. "I'm not the 'golden child' right now, or one of the darlings. I'm not trendy."
He says he was one of the "daddies" of large-scale installation work in Detroit, building large structures inside galleries to host his drawings and paintings — like an entire Southern Baptist church in the case of a 1993 Detroit Institutes of Arts exhibit.
Born and raised on Detroit's east side, Demeulenaere, now in his 50s, resides in Grosse Pointe. After studying fine art at Wayne State University, his professional career as an artist took off when he showed his first installation in '92. The DIA exhibit was his third installation.
Lately, though, Demeulenaere is thinking small — really small. His latest show, Labyrinth: The Circuitous Life of a Miniaturist, now on display at the Flint Institute of Arts, showcases individual artworks from more than 15 installations that Demeulenaere has built throughout the years. The exhibit also features Demeulenaere's flair for building custom structures to house his art (that's the "labyrinth" part in the title), but the focus this time is on his small drawings. In all, the exhibit features 122 separate works of art.
Of the name he chose for the show, Demeulenaere says it's simple: He's had a circuitous life. "It's been up and down and sideways," he says. "It hasn't been the wildly bohemian, jovial, drinking happy party life that people tend to perceive artists lives as being. It's been a moody, oftentimes somber life."
He says he started as a "purist," and describes his early work as "very militant." "(It was) very much about gay perspective on family, religion, and art history," he says, drawing influences come from Italian Renaissance, French Neoclassical painters, and the British Pre-Raphaelites paintings.
One drawing in particular was acquired by the DIA but never publicly shown, depicting two men who have conceived a baby out of their love — "the equivalent of the new Christ child," Demeulenaere explains. He believes the subject matter is why the DIA has declined to exhibit the art.
The smallest drawing on display is smaller than an Oreo cookie — an image only three-fourths of an inch in diameter. The work is so small that Demeulenaere eschewed displaying typical labels under each piece — "In some cases, the labels would be larger than the artwork!" he says. To help viewers identify the art, the FIA has made booklets with accompanying photographs.
Demeulenaere describes his work primarily as that of a painter and draftsman. "At this point, people have seen more drawings than paintings," he says. "My drawings are saturated with a lot of color. I don't use a lot of line in my drawing, and as a result it doesn't look like a typical drawing."
"I don't give that drawing element away — when you look at my drawings they resemble paintings," he says. "Even my old painting instructors from my Wayne State years in the early '70s, they'll look at my drawings and automatically call them paintings and I won't correct them."
He admits most people probably wouldn't notice the difference. "I must say that I demand more from viewers than what most artists demand," he says. "I am, and have always been, a person who enters a gallery and almost inevitably the voice comes on over the (P.A.) system in the museum — 'Please step back from the painting!'" Demeulenaere says that even as a teenager, he would try and get as close as possible to artwork in museums. "I'd want to see the texture and I'd want to see what the work looks like under close scrutiny," he says. "That's what I want viewers to do when they look at my work."
Demeulenaere says American audiences tend to stand about 10 feet away from art in museums. It would be impossible to see Demeulenaere's work at that distance. "You have to kind of bend down with my show," he says. "You're welcome to get pretty close to the work."
Demeulenaere says his exhibit is running alongside the Smithsonian-organized The Art of Video Games, and offers an interesting contrast to the flashier exhibit. "A lot of families go to see that, and they're all revved up, and then they come to see my show and have to calm themselves down," he says, laughing. "The kids love the cases that I have my artwork inside of. They don't quite understand the work hanging on the walls, but the pieces inside the cases are so small but they look like toys, or pieces of candy." — mt
Labyrinth: The Circuitous Life of a Miniaturist is on display at The Flint Institute of Arts, 1120 E. Kearsley St., Flint; 810-234-1695; flintarts.org. Runs until Jan. 4, 2015.Check out a slideshow of 31 images from the show here.