What are you celebrating this season? We’re celebrating BSA readers and fans with a holiday assorted chocolate box of 15 of the smartest and tastiest people we know. Each day until the new year we ask a guest to take a moment to reflect on 2015 and to tell us about one photograph that best captures the year for him or her. It’s our way of sharing the sweetness of the season and saying ‘thank you’ for inspiring us throughout the year.
I took this photograph on May 22, 2015, just as the Coney Art Walls project was really just getting underway. Many of the artists were early in the process of painting their murals.
While I admire some of the Street Art today, my area of interest and research has always been for the train era graffiti writing, and to be there when this amazing contingent of artists got together – DAZE, CRASH, LADY PINK, FUTURA, and LEE – there seemed to be an electricity in the air. Complaints about the real estate developer who sponsored the project aside, the project combined several of my passions – Coney Island in the summer, great art and good food.
Inside a historic museum which houses one of the most significant collections of American Art a wide range of patrons gather. Some are still learning how to tie their shoes while others have likely built a lifetime of things with out the aid of an internet tutorial look on at works that seem to speak universally. What they are gazing upon is Street Talk: Chris “Daze” Ellis’s exhibition featuring his recent work in a dialogue with the Addison Gallery of American Arts expansive collection.
One observer is Maria Muller, Deputy Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “I feel like the practical need to work quickly on the trains in his early career seems to be reflected in the dynamic style and sense of motion and speed in his images.”
As Daze gets mobbed up for photo ops in front of his piece entitled “View to the Other Side”, he reflects upon his identity and the initial spark that has led up to this moment. “People don’t realize when I was painting trains that it wasn’t a cool thing to do and it wasn’t socially acceptable,” he says.
“I began painting in 1976 after meeting a bunch of writers at The High School of Art and Design in New York. I was learning things in school but this was something outside of art school that was completely unconventional that I found incredibly creative and exciting. It is something that still fascinates me to this day. There is something very addictive about it.”
This graffiti addiction seems to be spreading to museums as well. Since 2011’s “Art in the Streets” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Los Angeles, which was billed as “the first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art”, more museums have begun to embrace this movement. Current exhibitions like “City as Canvas: The Martin Wong Graffiti Collection” at the Museum of the City of New York and the Addison’s “Loisaida: New York’s Lower East Side in the 80’s” also both prominently feature the work of Daze, for example.
Allison Kemmerer, The Addison’s Curator of Photography and Art after 1950, explains what is bringing these two worlds together. “One of the strengths of the Addison’s collection is its wealth of urban imagery from all periods and in all media.”
“Daze’s drawing from the vocabulary of both the contemporary world of graffiti and street art and the tradition of urban realism, this is exactly what attracts the Addison to him. We are always mindful of the continuum that exists between historic and contemporary art and the way objects speak back and forth to each other across media and time.”
Daze’s journey to lead up to this point has clearly been an evolving process. “Almost all my paintings now are a mixture of mediums, each medium has it own characteristics and its own kind of history attached to it and you have to be patient to be able to deal with and find a way for them to all coexist in one picture frame. I had to work with them for a long time separately before I felt like I could combine them and come up with something that looked new.
As Daze has matured as an artist, he has also discovered there is more to being a successful artist than just painting a ruggedly pretty picture. “The art world was and still is a really hard place to navigate through and some people are able to do a better job at grasping it then others,” he explains.
“I think in a lot of cases collectors have a lot more power with museums than even artists and play a very important role in all of this, somebody like John Axelrod who is very passionate about this art form, has the ability to start dialogs with these museums and I’m grateful he’s chosen to amplify voices like mine.”
As the crowd begins to thin out, Daze expresses the magnitude of this personal milestone “Even at a young age, I was always going to the library or museums so now it’s kind of mind boggling having my work in them because I still remember what it felt like to be that kid walking through the Brooklyn Museum.”
Last night the graffiti and early Street Art history from New York’s 1970s and 80s was celebrated by the City of New York – at least in its museum. Criminals and outlaws then, art stars and legends today, many of the aerosol actors and their documentarians were on display and discussed over white wine under warm, forgiving, indirect lighting.
“City as Canvas: New York City Graffiti From the Martin Wong Collection” is an exhibition as well as a book released last fall written by Carlo McCormick and Sean Corcoran, with contributions by Lee Quinones, Sacha Jenkins and Christopher Daze Ellis, and all the aforementioned were in attendance. Also spotted were artists, photographers, curators, writers (both kinds), art dealers, historians, family, friends, peers and loyal fans – naturally most fell into a few of these categories at the same time.
“City as Canvas” is possible thanks to the foresight, eye, and wallet of collector Martin Wong, an openly gay Chinese-American artist transplanted to New York from San Francisco, which is remarkable not only because of the rampant homophobia and near hysterical AIDS phobia at the time he was collecting but because the graffiti / Street Art scene even today throws the term “fag” around pretty easily. A trained ceramacist and painter whose professional work has gained in recognition since his death of AIDS related complications in 1999, Wong is said to have met and befriended a great number of New York graffiti artists like Lady Pink, LEE, DAZE and Futura 2000, who were picking up art supplies where he worked at the Pearl Paint store – a four story holy place on Canal Street that thrived at that time.
The show contains black books full of tags and drawings as well as canvasses and mixed media Wong purchased, commissioned, and painted, including a portrait of graffiti artist Sharp wearing a respirator and standing before a canvas he’s working on entitled Sharp Paints a Picture (1997-98).
The mood at the museum was celebratory as guests looked at the 140+ works from Wong’s collection; a cross between an art opening and a graffiti trade show, with enthusiastic peers and fans waiting patiently to speak with, pose for pictures with, and gain autographs or tags in their black books from artists in attendance. The only officers that could be seen were holding back the line of guests to make sure there was no overcrowding of the exhibit.