Jerry Vile Unveils ‘Tomb of the Unarmed Suspect’

The new book Re-Entry: The Orbit Magazine Anthology begins with a quote from magazine founder and publisher Jerry Vile:

“I really, really enjoy making people upset. I think that is my art.”

By that benchmark, Vile’s entry in this year’s edition of ArtPrize may well be his masterpiece.

Titled “The Tomb of the Unarmed Suspect,” the piece will feature an ancient Grecian-style tomb, with an added performance component that involves the construction of a gallows to serve as “a historical bridge to link the present with the past.”

“It’s always been a form of entertainment, watching them build the gallows before they hang somebody,” Vile said. “Although it’s a crowd of people that seek art, I think they also deserve to be entertained — and what’s more entertaining than hanging somebody on the town square?”

Vile expects his piece will be erected in the closest thing Grand Rapids has to a town square — Calder Plaza. That is, “unless the shit really hits the fan,” he said.

One might be tempted to imagine the work as his attempt to inject some dark humor into the ripped-from-today’s-headlines issue of state violence, but Vile said it’s all humor.

“The idea of people sitting around watching somebody build a gallows is hilarious to me,” he said. “The idea of people watching somebody getting hung is hilarious, but I have a really twisted moral compass.”

In a career that has spanned four decades and disciplines that include visual art, magazine publishing and music, Vile has made a life out of following that twisted moral compass to provoke and offend. But over the four years author Rob St. Mary spent immersed in Peterson’s work writing the Orbit book, he said he came to realize that Jerry is “one of the most important underground figures in Detroit culture in the past 30-35 years.”

“Here’s a guy who started in the Detroit punk rock scene,” St. Mary said. “He had a band called the Boners, he was in that scene with Destroy All Monsters, with the remnants of the MC5 and the Stooges, all these other great bands that didn’t get the attention they deserved.”

Capturing that punk energy in his work, Vile founded a succession of magazines, culminating in Orbit’s decade-long run. He also launched the annual Dirty Show of erotic art that has been the highlight of the ribald aesthete’s cultural calendar for the past 16 years.

One of his best-known recent works, “Crisco Fist (Vessel of Hope)” was unveiled when Detroit declared bankruptcy. It featured a giant can of Crisco beneath the Joe Louis fist sculpture in downtown Detroit. The real artistic strength of the work came in Peterson’s ability to confuse some of the more gullible members of the local media, who missed the some of the piece’s fetishistic connotations.

“The Crisco fist is subtle. If you’re a grandmother or a little kid, you don’t know what that means. In fact, if you don’t have a perverted bone in your body, it might not mean something to you,” Vile said. “It meant a lot of things to a lot of different people. To my young daughter, I was able to explain that politicians are slippery and greasy, just like Crisco.”

Of course, he added, “some people interpreted it as fistf******, of all things. That one never dawned on me.”

This won’t be Vile’s first appearance at ArtPrize. His entry last year featured a McMansion made out of cardboard boxes, “like a really fancy Hooverville,” Vile said.

“It was like living in refrigerator and stove boxes, but really, really wasting a lot of space with a great room and a master bedroom and a master bath and an open-air kitchen,” he said.

Vile said he loves ArtPrize, and that it brings him “that joy that there’s only a German word for.”

“I would rather look at a really crappy piece of art than a mediocre piece of art. Of course, I always like to look at a really nice piece of art, but it’s just fun to see any art,” Vile said.

Which brings us back to this year’s piece. How does Vile think his it will be received?

“I don’t know if the piece will be used to lynch me,” he said. “It could go over horribly.”