In McArthur Binion’s paintings, there is always more than meets the eye. Beneath a seemingly minimalist grid of colorful blocks created with oil stick and ink lies what the artist calls the “under-conscious” of the work, a layer often composed of autobiographical elements such as Binion’s decades-old address book, copies of his birth certificate and other government documents, sheet music, personal photographs, and more. Taken together, they seek to generate a unique level of familiarity with his audience.
Currently on view at Library Street Collective in Detroit until February 23, “Self:Portraits” is Binion’s first exhibition in the Motor City in nearly two decades. This new series of paintings that, as the show’s title suggests, focuses predominantly on the use of photographs of the artist to create his characteristic layers.
“This exhibition is very personal, as it shows a more intimate side of me,” Binion recently told ARTnews. With his forthcoming part-time move to Detroit later this year, the artist hopes this intimate series of works will serve as his “formal introduction to the arts community” in the city, which he says is entirely different from the one he experienced while growing up there.
Binion, now in his late 70s, moved from Macon, Mississippi, to Detroit in 1951 when he was four years old. He came of age in the city and stayed there through college, earning his BFA from Wayne State University in 1971. He soon left, moving to New York and, decades later, to Chicago, where he has resided until now. “I haven’t lived in Detroit since 1973. Back then, [the city] was culturally flat, except for music and style. Visual artists had no local support and the goal for us was to just get a good teaching job,” Binion said.
In some pieces of the “Self: Portrait” series, viewers can identify images of Binion as an infant, crawling outside his Macon home, while in others, images of the artist’s hand and a portrait at age 32 are revealed upon a close look.
Also visible in some works is sheet music. A longtime admirer of pioneering jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, Binion had wanted for some time to introduce jazz scores into his paintings. At first, that proved difficult, since he would have had to license or own the legal rights to the compositions to use them in his pieces. To get around this, Binion commissioned his close friend Pulitzer Prize–winning jazz musician Henry Threadgill to create a new composition, “Black Brown X,” which he then incorporated into several of the “Self: Portrait” works. (“Black Brown X” debuted at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra last summer.)
About half the 13 paintings in the exhibition were created in 2016, while the rest were completed in 2022, illustrating how Binion continues to develop and evolve his art.
“I’ve gotten to a place where I don’t have to be smart anymore—I can just make art,” Binion said, reflecting on his five-decade career. Still, he finds there to be an inherent “ultra-competitive” nature to his art-making. “Every painter wants to be the best living painter. That’s why you wake up every day and get to it again and again,” he added.
Binion’s reconnection with Detroit has been solidified over the past few years by his relationship with JJ Curis and Anthony Curis, the duo behind Library Street Collective, as well as the creation, in 2019, of his own foundation Modern, Ancient, Brown in 2019. Seeking to uplift and support BIPOC artists and writers through grants and residency programs, the foundation will open a headquarters later this year in Detroit’s East Village.
The impetus to create Modern, Ancient, Brown, Binion said, was brought about by his memories of being incentivized to follow his dreams by “really smart, hard-working people” in the city—and wanting to give back, spurred on by a sharp observation from his daughter. “The idea for the foundation began when my youngest daughter said to me, you can’t make all this money and not help people,” Binion said.
The totality of Binion’s proceeds from “Self: Portraits” will directly support the work of Modern, Ancient, Brown, while Library Street Collective will donate a part of its profits from the show to continue developing a public skatepark, also in Detroit’s East Village, designed by celebrity skateboarder Tony Hawk in alliance with Binion. “I was excited to work alongside McArthur and combine our worlds on a public project. I was very impressed by his commitment to his craft and his community throughout our collaboration on the skatepark—his dedication is inspiring,” Hawk recently told ARTnews.
With his new foundation and his move back to Detroit, Binion wants to make a real impact in the city’s arts and culture scene. “I’m looking for a young version of me, female or male. Someone with the drive, the work ethic, the smarts. Someone who just needs a little support to rise,” he said. “That’s where I want to make a difference in Detroit. This city is sort of a virgin [arts] territory, and it’s also a place where I can have some influence, so I believe this is the best legacy that I can leave.”