You should be taking Jerry Vile seriously.
It is easy to let this Detroit legend’s tongue-in-cheek antics, low-culture references, and sometimes-crude style lead to the conclusion that Vile is conducting little more than an exercise in making people uncomfortable. Of course, it is equally easy to argue that destabilization of the mainstream through provocative social commentary is the most crucial and fundamental role of art in society, and therefore Jerry Vile is one of Detroit’s most critical art practitioners.
Whatever your perspective, there are few with lukewarm feelings for Jerry Vile’s cult of personality. As the man best known until recently as the organizational force behind the longstanding annual erotic art spectacle, The Dirty Show, Vile expanded his horizons in August of 2013 with a controversial piece titled “Crisco Fist (the Vessel of Hope)”—a giant-sized can of Crisco which he placed in juxtaposition with the famous Joe Louis Fist statue downtown, in response to the announcement of last year’s Detroit bankruptcy filing. Crass, perhaps. But also a cheeky and eloquent summation of the feeling shared by many Detroiters surrounding the less-than-welcome imposition of the bankruptcy proceedings. And in a city notorious for a lack of functioning services that can leave trash moldering on residential streets for months on end, it is telling that the piece, and its unwelcome commentary, was removed by city workers within 6 hours.
Vile followed this opening salvo with an exhibition of work at Inner State Gallery, in May of 2014.
The show was heavily promoted in Vile’s signature carnival-barker style, including a strong contender for best press release of all time, and featured an array of disorienting works, including the unveiling of a new piece that stretched the line between art and pornography to its breaking point. The opening night gala brought the central conflict of Vile’s work to the forefront: elements designed to attract (sex appeal, slick promotions, merchandising) in a visceral struggle with those designed to repel (obscenity, counter-culture, and sheer gross-out factor). Vile is on a mission to marry the highbrow to the lowbrow, and like most forms of class warfare, his work is sometimes met with discomfort, resistance, and condemnation. Indeed, staring down the opening’s refreshment table, with the shrimp cocktail that was promoted comedic fanfare accompanied by edible grubs and taxidermied rats, it is impossible to recognize twin elements of mystique and hostility underlying Vile’s every move. With a mission as ambitious and ambiguous as this, it is tempting to turn to the artist himself for clues to his intention, but Vile’s personality is shrouded in a highly cultivated persona that stands as evidence of his complete dedication to the battle royale he has wrought between high and low culture.
Whether the artist bites his thumb at the trappings of high art while secretly nursing a desire for acceptance therein or is merely celebrating in his role as ringmaster of the freakshow, such imbroglio between insider/outsider status raises too many questions to be written off as a gimmick or shock-jock artmaking. Many a truth, they say, is told in jest; as Detroit’s resident court jester, it remains to be seen if Jerry Vile will get the last laugh.
Words by Rosie Sharp | Nov ’14