DETROIT — While it takes more than a few encounters with Jonathan Rajewski to begin to unravel a sense of him as a person, one instinctively and immediately recognizes his art as the work of a virtuoso. Real-time encounters with the 28-year old North Dakotan, Detroit-based artist are as likely to find him stoic as effusive, as he was during a recent run-in at the Cass Café, where he likes to combine work and passive socializing with the old guard of the Detroit art scene. He enthusiastically enumerated a few of his countless activities, walking me through plans for City Sculpture, the ambitious sculpture park project of Cass Corridor legacy artist Robert Sestok, of which Rajewski sits on the board. Switching gears, he debated whether his tone was too enigmatic in the exhibition statement for Creative Expressions, an upcoming group show that opens March 20 at the College for Creative Studies. As the organizer, Rajewski has drawn together visiting artists from Canada and New York with some of the most quietly cutting-edge characters from the wilds of Hamtramck, including Dylan Spaysky and Chris Riddell.
Riddell, a close friend and collaborator of Rajewski’s, was on hand when I dropped in at Klinger Street Studios, an artist compound in Hamtramck that Rajewski manages, housing a number of artist studio spaces including his own. The two were busy in the yard, creating an extension of the poured concrete columns that Rajewski showed in a recently closed group show at Re:View Contemporary Gallery in Detroit. The artist had elaborated on his standard uniform of white t-shirt, black jeans, and paint-splattered work boots, adding extra protection, he explained, because the colorful striations he was seeking were achieved by incorporating expired lead paint into the sculptural forms. “Just look at those colors — you can’t get colors like that anymore,” he said.
A great deal of mythos exists around the “true artist” character. One envisions a paint-splattered and slightly disheveled figure, prone to fits of passion, enigmatic visionary statements, and anti-establishment rhetoric, and one is perhaps a bit inclined to roll one’s eyes. But there is nothing contrived about Rajewski’s artistic impulses, even as he leverages his creative energy in the service of social progress — a far cry from the more basic, economic imperatives that drive most career artists.
In addition to Klinger Studios, City Sculpture, and whatever art shows may be on tap — including recent participation in the three-person Detroit show at Jack Hanley Gallery in New York — Rajewski also stands at the helm of Soft Sculpture Press, a small publishing entity. Lately this press has supported Rajewski’s fierce determination to bring to light the lost voices of juvenile lifers in the Michigan prison system, specifically the men involved in the Writer’s Block workshop, a writing group that the artist has been co-facilitating in the Macomb Regional Correctional Facility for the last two years. His efforts have included publishing art and written works, as well as recording performances by men who received life sentences without parole as young as at the age of 15 and culminating recently in a reading that took place in the Diego Rivera Courtyard at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Against the backdrop of Rivera’s iconic Detroit Industry Murals, the words of these men were read by family members or workshop facilitators standing in their stead.
Writer’s Block is just one of the astonishing range of philosophical and practical offerings within the umbrella of The Free School, a hierarchy-free educational collaborative in which Rajewski plays a crucial supporting role. In crashing a Free School class, one will discover a highly reflective aspect to Rajewski’s personality, drawn perhaps from his background as a Philosophy major at Michigan State University. The Free School’s youth-focused open studio is a springboard for Rajewski’s ideals that art should be tactile and democratic. “We can all have some cake,” as he puts it.
Rajewski’s drive for justice and his imperative to facilitate meaningful social progress leave him sometimes quick to dismiss his own artwork — I can easily imagine his discomfort at reading words of praise regarding his efforts. More often than not, he attempts to put the spotlight elsewhere, but it is clear that his personal practice is a natural release mechanism for the chaos of ideals and impulses that lies beneath the surface of this charming, if typically disheveled, young artist.
Because, remember, in addition to all this — not to mention his day job as exhibitions assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit — he’s also a painter, sculptor, and installation artist of rare caliber. While Rajewski’s passion for collaboration and engagement in the world around him is formidable, it pales in comparison to the kinetic energy he communicates in his solo work. He likens his impulse to create work as, “The same way you roll the window down on the first day of spring.” Rajewski takes nothing for granted, packing everything canvas can hold into its surface — and when canvas fails, he stretches blankets, Astroturf, fabric, and anything else he can get his hands on. The weight of texture and layers is excruciating, and one gets the sense in viewing them that the surfaces of Rajewski’s paintings act as physical surrogates for his own internal states — as prone to mercurial change as their maker, and reflecting multitudinous obsessions and pursuits.
Whether Rajewski stands out from the field through his inborn gifts of creative enterprise and magnetism, his powerhouse work ethic, or his dedication to a range of communities, it’s impossible not to look at his accomplishments and label him as anything but an artist in the truest sense. With Rajewski’s Detroit third-shift work ethic and unique vision unraveling in so many directions, the trend-spotters among us would do well not to roll their eyes, instead keeping them firmly fixed on this star on the rise.