Local Artist Profiles
Nine profiles of local artists
(page 1 of 9)
Collaborations on Canvas
By Monica Mercer // Photographs by Justin Maconochie
Bowen Kline and Tony Roko in their studio
Despite the acclaim that Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat achieved individually, any attempt to impress the art world with their collaborative pieces was a bust. Their 1985 show at a New York art gallery, in fact, was universally panned, leaving critics to wonder about the pair’s motives.
That’s not exactly an encouraging precedent for local artists Tony Roko and Bowen Kline, whose show of collaborative works opened last month at the Jewish Community Center of Metro Detroit. Still, they might have pulled it off — a year’s worth of haunting, emotional, and expressive figures on canvas, each painted at the hands of both artists at the same time.
One Saturday afternoon at Kline’s farmhouse in Romeo, the two discussed famous collaborative failures — well aware of the inherent risks of trying to fuse inner worlds.
“That’s where I think a lot of collaborations have failed,” Kline says. “When artists can’t let go of their own egos.”
“Compartmentalization” has also been a roadblock to collaborations, Roko says, recalling examples of artists who’ve divided the elements of a piece instead of working toward a cohesive look and feel.
By contrast, Roko and Kline don’t use verbal cues. They no longer seek validation from each other. The process, seemingly impossible or gimmicky to an onlooker, just seems to work.
Both Roko and Kline spent years developing their own styles before meeting each other a few years ago. Roko has spent much of his career as a resident artist at Ford Motor Co., gaining recognition for his murals “in the bowels” of Michigan auto factories. Kline has kept his self-taught art more low key, but the Southfield native’s friendship with Roko opened him up to the possibility of wider recognition.
At their core, they remain outsider artists. Because of their mutual admiration for each other’s work, they say their collaborations have evolved into learning processes that have only made them stronger in their individual art.
“As an artist, you always have to be learning and evolving,” Kline says. “In this situation when you’re painting with someone else, you’re forced to grow.”
Pictured at right: frame detail in the studio of Tony Roko and Bowen Kline