Art

A Detroit Bartender Paints Portraits of Heavy-Drinking Patrons

Painter Thelonius Bone says his new series, called “Alcoholics Anonymous,” is about “wanting to be unknown and unseen, rather than about recovery.”

Thelonius Bone, “Boomin’ Granny” (2018) Gouache on paper. Images courtesy of Playground Detroit, except where indicated.

DETROIT — A particular tenet of the recovery group Alcoholics Anonymous is that the label of “alcoholic” cannot be applied to a person from an external source. Put another way: only you can know (or admit) that you are an alcoholic. Of course, that tenet doesn’t stop many of us from armchair-diagnosing other people as alcoholics, and, labels aside, it’s often easy to spot those for whom drinking is a source of trouble or preoccupation.

Painter Thelonius “T-Bone” Bone supports himself as a bartender at the Bronx Bar — one of the longer-standing watering holes in Detroit’s Cass Corridor neighborhood, before it was rebranded as Midtown — and this creates an excellent vantage point from which to observe many such individuals. In a new body of work, Alcoholics Anonymous, Bone juxtaposes surreal and vivid portraits of bar patrons with object studies of drinks and other bar ephemera.

Both sets of works within these two themes feature text-based messages: each portrait is set in the impenetrable gloom of a dive, with the surrounding darkness punctuated by one- or two-word statements from neon bar signs in the background; the object studies bear painted inscriptions cribbed from AA literature, step work, and symbology.

Installation view of PBR GIFs at Playground Detroit. Image by the author.

This exhibition is one of contrasting interests, beginning with its coincidental installation at Playground Detroit in conjunction with a party that features a set of GIFs specially commissioned through the venue by Pabst Blue Ribbon. Upon entering the gallery, one encounters a desk bearing a neon PBR promotional sign and a bank of televisions that are running a loop of 8 GIFs, presumably intended for repurpose in the promotion of the beer brand following their debut in this fine art setting. Though the synchronicity was unintentional, according to Playground co-director Paulina Petkoski, both the artist and the corporation were amenable to the idea of sharing the space. From the perspective of Bone’s work, it is painfully fitting that one might have to navigate a field of young, polished revelers gathered together around the promise of free booze in order to see portraits of people at the far less glamorous end of the public drinking spectrum. From PBR’s perspective, it’s surprising that the brand so readily agreed to share space with a portrait series that showcases the isolation of later-stage drinking. In fact, their primary concern, according to Petkoski, was that none of the works on display featured the logos of other beer brands.

Thelonius Bone: Alcoholics Anonymous at Playground Detroit, installation view

These odd bedfellows coalesce in a single work by Bone, which is poised at the end of the somewhat mazy area where his works hang, making it the destination point of the gallery area. “Boomin’ Granny” (2018) features the titular figure sitting front and center in the frame, her glass raised in a toast to the viewer. Unlike all of Bone’s other subjects, who look down, away, or into the middle distance, Granny stares directly into the eyes of the viewer, her expression an inscrutable mix — not exactly friendly, but perhaps searching for friendship, solidarity, or simply confirmation of her continued existence. Her proximity enables the rendering of bloodshot veins in her cheeks and hands. In a background embroidered by fuzzy caterpillars of 1980s jewels tones, the sole figurative element is a PBR sign, lit up above her right shoulder.

Even as PBR has, over the last two decades, refashioned itself from a blue-collar working man’s beer to the cheap go-to of broke Millennials and hipsters, Bone has presented a specter at the end of that long road. Cheap beer is for the young, and like GIFs, can only be consumed in a frivolous, compulsive loop for so long; sooner or later it is necessary for our tastes, our bodies, and our addictions to mature.

GIF by Lauren Lund (@lundlau) for PBR. Image by the author.

But conflict and contradiction exists within Bone’s work, installation-fellow notwithstanding. A statement accompanying the exhibit characterizes its invocation of the concept of “Alcoholics Anonymous” as being about “wanting to be unknown and unseen, rather than about recovery”. (One might say, in that case, that a more fitting title might have been “Anonymous Alcoholics.”) There is, of course, something oxymoronic about anonymous portraiture — the act of capturing and preserving the image of someone who wishes to be unrecognized — but there is also the outright contradiction of this negation of the act of recovery, inasmuch as Bone has incorporated and repurposed the language of the AA program. While the 12-step program has taken on international recognition since its official beginnings in 1935, and perhaps most people could, if pressed, call to mind some snippet of its rhetoric, having any kind of in-depth knowledge of program language indicates at least some kind of attempt to engage with a recovery group. An intricate gouache rendering of a scotch on the rocks in a tumbler is headlined with the inscription, “#6: Ready to Remove All These Defects of Character”. Here, Bone is applying the language of AA recovery to the common act of alcoholic recidivism.

Thelonius Bone: Alcoholics Anonymous at Playground Detroit, installation view. Image by the author.
Thelonius Bone, “Thanks To Denial, I’m Immortal” (2018) gouache on paper

The tension between recovery and revelry in self-destruction fairly radiates from Bone’s works, and many of subjects appear to emit colorful smoke or steam — perhaps a literal take on the anachronistic nomenclature of alcohol as “spirits.” The portraits bear poignant titles that hint at this friction between self-awareness and delusion, presumably restating quotes from their subjects: “Time for My Medicine” (2018), or “Thanks to Denial, I’m Immortal” (2018). In a final coda to the exhibition, a set of two small works are hung around the corner in the gallery’s office, much like the motivational posters they impersonate. One presents the artist’s rendering of the iconic kitten hanging from a branch, with the exhortation to “HANG IN THERE DINGUS”, and the other reads “WHEN LIFE GIVE LEMON” [sic], finishing the phrase with an image of a rocks glass adorned with a lemon slice.

Thelonius Bone: Alcoholics Anonymous, installation view

This is a potent body of work, presented with all the sincerity it is possible to muster in an environment fraught with demons and denial. Whether it is the place of a bartender or an artist (or the author of this piece) to identify a subject as an alcoholic, as with so many things, it takes one to know one.

Thelonius Bone, “Cocktails and Dreams” (2018) Gouache on paper.

Alcoholics Anonymous continues at Playground Detroit (2845 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit, MI 48207) through October 6 (viewings by appointment). The exhibition is curated by Playground Detroit.

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