Michael Fels, professor of art and chair of the Art and Art History Department, is not the type to sit down in his workspace and start painting or sculpting from scratch. The details might evolve as the work progresses, but each piece is meticulously planned and sketched before he brings it to life because his art is a direct reflection of his research.

Fels studies contemporary critical theory – the modern state of art, how it works in the public spectrum and how viewers engage with it from a scholarly approach versus a decorative approach. But his analysis of the subject manifests not in the form of scholarly articles but paintings, sculptures and other visual media.

He regularly consults a bevy of articles and websites to stay informed about the current trends and research in the field, information that influences his classroom teaching as well as his own scholarship. After reading each piece, he asks questions. For example, if the current trends in painting are X, why is this important? How can he work with it? Does he disagree with it, and why?

Fels’ background is in painting, printmaking and sculpture, but as his scholarship has evolved, the specific medium he uses to convey his analysis became a secondary consideration. He starts with his response to contemporary critical theory, and subsequently determines which medium is most conducive to communicating his ideas.

In addition to painting, printmaking and stationary sculpture, Fels creates mixed media works and collaborates with engineers to develop electronic kinetic sculpture. A painting takes anywhere from a week to a month to create, while developing a large-scale sculpture might take two years.

A lot of the ideas for my work are generated from arguments I have in my head as I read articles. I’ll start to bring those ideas back to my work and ask how they relate.

His current work in public sculpture addresses what he views as problems with modern public sculpture. He spent the summer at his gallery studio space in Michigan working on a large-scale piece that explores how the opposite of the current trends in sculpture function in a public space. A lot of traditional public sculpture is tall, heavy and obstructive, blocking the environment that surrounds it. Fels’ latest work incorporates unexpected materials such as latex and rubber instead of concrete or steel, and features a lot of open areas that encourage viewers to engage with the landscape through the piece.

Fels also hopes his work resonates with people beyond fellow art scholars. Because his work is not traditionally decorative, he wants to capture viewers’ attention long enough that they will pause and ask themselves what is going on in each piece. The average viewer looks at a work in a gallery for 6 to 8 seconds, so Fels considers how to motivate them to stay with the piece longer.

Fels’ work has appeared in more than 75 peer-reviewed solo and group exhibitions throughout his career. He has also presented at several national conferences, visiting artist workshops, residencies and artist talks.