03/15/2012 11:24 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Great Food and Good Art -- Review: 'New Work,' M. Saffell Gardner and Tylonn J. Sawyer

One of the best places in Detroit to grab lunch is Cass Café.  First, it has great food.  Two of my favorite offerings are the Spanish vegetarian burrito and the artichoke-pesto melt.  Second, Cass Café works hard to support local artists.  It uses its walls as a gallery -- I am not sure who curates the work, but it is always a treat to visit, especially with someone who has never been there before.  One of my favorite shows this past year was when the Slippery Weasel Society took over the entire restaurant, which included one artist creating a metal snake sculpture that floated and turned (not literally) through the space.

Cass Café Gallery's current show is New Work by M. Saffell Gardner and Tylonn J. Sawyer.  This show runs through March 17.  These are two very different artists, and the Gallery highlights certain weaknesses of both artists by showing them together.  Tylonn falls into an ever growing group of artists that focus on large portraits (Chuck Close followers).  He has strong technical skills, yet many of his pieces lack the soulful mark of the artist.  That is, some of the portraits come across as a dutiful rendering for class project; rather than an outpouring of the artist's unique voice.

I believe this small criticism points only to an artist mastering his technique as he progresses in his career.  I believe this because some of the portraits exhibit a skill and an insightfulness of a master artist.  For example, Mr. Sawyer's "The Child" Day and "The Child" Night are hauntingly beautiful portraits that greet patrons when they first walk into the restaurant.  These portraits immediately grabbed me.  I was lost in the child's eyes, and I searched for the back-story of this serious child going through his life experience under the artist's caring eye.

In contrast, I was not able to get lost in any of Mr. Gardner's pieces.  Mr. Gardner's pieces are colorful and energetic, which highlights some of the undue tightness of Mr. Sawyer's work.  However, I found several of Mr. Gardner's paintings overworked, which caused the pieces to be too busy and difficult to look at for a long period of time.  I do appreciate that he experiments with texture and materials; however, I believe he tries to say too much with each individual piece.

I also believe each of these artists can grow through viewing each other's work.