Highbrow art institutions have coalesced behind a small recurring collection of well-known graffiti/street artists in recent years, granting them a lot of space and a powerful entrée to blue-check media parties, blue-chip platforms, and blue blood collectors. The bigger (and frequently well-funded) names are often the easiest to explain to an unfamiliar general audience of art viewers and, of course, will appeal to that younger demographic everyone is after. It shouldn’t surprise anyone when even the New York City Ballet spawned a series of collaborations with street artists in the last five years to bolster flagging attendance due to aging and, well, dying fans.
Graffiti and street art have long since become bywords of edgy culture that can be commodified and proudly owned by all strata of incomes and stations, and our interest in all things street abides still. Brands have ironically manipulated pop icons and sprinkle paint splashes, drips, and bubble tags across everything from ladies’ clutches to watches to vapes. Fashion continues to dip into this well of light anarchy as a signal of cool rebellion, as sold across a gamut – from couture Saint Laurent to off-the-rack Walmart. Sometimes the imagery or lettering is easily recognizable as a particular artist’s style on the products for sale. Other times a staff graphic designer has skillfully approximated the stencils, wheat-pastes, and drippy tags without steering into copyright infringement territory.
Street Artist Shepard Fairey is probably best known for making art and commerce symbiotic with the interplay of his screenprints, stickers, vandalism, street art, and the Obey brand, and Keith Haring literally opened his own Pop Shop store in Soho way back in the 1980s; his illegal vandalism in the subway being de facto advertisements for products you could purchase above ground. Banksy’s movie title Exit Through The Gift shop may have been intended as a sarcastic critique, but everyone now considers it a command. Curatorial considerations may not be explicitly tied to the development of product lines, but the discussions of both may happen in the same marketing meeting.
Today, the real power players in the cultural currency game are the artists who can market their own products, sometimes commanding licensing fees simply for being featured on retail platforms and venues. In the case of KAWS: What Partyat the Brooklyn Museum, the sales of the Brooklyn artists’ “Companion” toy collectibles exhausted supply within hours of the opening, and the mania of buying multiples in multi-visit daily shopping trips created lines so long that they backed up into the exhibition. The museum store began posting strict buying limits and regulations of items sold.
On a recent weekday, eager groupings of friends and family arrive into the Brooklyn Museum lobby with palpable excitement, and nearly all pose in front of the towering 18-foot high wooden KAWS sculpture, “Along the Way.” Our guide, Sharon Matt Atkins, Deputy Director for Art, tells us that the response to the show in terms of attendance has been robust. As we wend through the galleries, we see guests in their teens and twenties often posing before sculptures and paintings, imitating the forward bending head, cradling their face in hands with a mocked portrayal of being overwhelmed. The striking of poses in front of artworks is possibly as much a part of the museum experience as excitedly identifying which pop culture character or famous painting had been appropriated for an X-eyed portrait. Those images are spread across social media, and the KAWS character is seen by many more.
After the show, guests queue in line to the store to pick up a catalog, tote bag, lapel pin, or other KAWS product. Artists names like Matt Groenig, Charles Schultz, and Hugh Harman may not trip off the tongue, but their repurposed characters like the Simpsons, Snoopy, and Mickey have all been burned into western mass culture history. Those nostalgic and reassuring associations are captured by KAWS repeatedly and altered with modest modification.
Matt Atkins observes that KAWS discovered the power of pop references to manga and anime in the subculture Otaku were crucial to forming bonds with Japanese people in ways that language would not allow during his trips to Tokyo in the late 1990s. The power of that kind of cross-cultural communication stayed with him and is offered as an explanation for referencing commonly known images. Indeed, this method of reinterpretation of pre-established icons and personalities has been employed on the street for many years, including right now with street artists like The Postman who reworks famous images of celebrities and characters like Syd Vicious, Elton John, Willy Wonka, Boy George, Grace Jones, and Elvis Presley. The contemporary acid-pop treatment he pours on the photographs is eye-catching in doorways or alleys. If you like what you see on the street, you can go to his website store to purchase them as prints or customized aerosol spray cans. Before ‘always on’ connectivity, these bridges between art and collecting were never so seamless.
As new rules in street art and commerce come online daily, perhaps we’ll be developing new terminology to describe and novel ways to define the roles of museums, exhibitions, and stores. Similarly, norms about patronage, fandom, art history, civic engagement, and cultural literacy, no doubt, are evolving at a rapid pace in ways previously unconsidered.
As in the ‘woke’ culture that the art world is trying to enter, we’re having difficult but necessary conversations revolving around identity politics and systemic, historical inequities. Maybe we should also discuss the role of commerce in mediating decisions about which rebellious graffiti or street artists we are heralding or overlooking.
What clinches the final decision when granting a gallery or exhibition replete with all the trimmings? In an art practice born from typically marginalized sectors of the dominant culture originally, who is currently getting the brunt of the attention, and why? What role does consumer culture, pop sensibility, and commodification of our creative commons play when selecting which artists from the graffiti and street art fields are elevated – and which ones are not. As always, there are few obviously correct answers. But the questions may lead us in new directions.
KAWS: WHAT PARTY
February 26–September 5, 2021
Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing and Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery, 5th Floor
For museum’s hours of operation and tickets click HERE
We were happy to speak with journalist Justin Kamp recently about subtle and fine distinctions in terminology surrounding street art as it pertains to street practice, fine art, institutions, and collectors. Here are some out-takes from his recent column on Artsy.
“The ascent of so-called street artists into the moneyed realms of the blue chip is not exactly a new phenomenon—it’s been nearly two years since KAWS skyrocketed to a new auction record of HK$116 million (US$14.8 million) with the sale of The Kaws Album (2005) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, which was followed six months later by the record-breaking sale of Banksy’s Devolved Parliament (2009) for £9.8 million ($12.1 million). These two mononym artists could be seen as the loosely defined category’s twin princes, despite their stylistic differences—KAWS’s vibrant cartoon riffs and Banksy’s wry stencils are two of the most easily recognizable, not to mention consistently lucrative, styles in contemporary art. But as collectors the world over continue to be fascinated with “Companion” figures and Girl With Balloon prints, the exact parameters of what constitutes “street art” remain nebulous. According to Charlotte Raybaud, head of 20th-century evening sales at Phillips in Hong Kong, the category comes with a certain amount of ambiguity baked in. “Street art is inherently hard to define,” Raybaud said. “It is difficult to categorize as sometimes it can feature graffiti, or other times more image-based work. The former oftentimes features alongside the latter, but I would say some uniting elements include the use of stencils and/or elements of reproduction, allusions to and questioning of everyday visuals or slogans, and of course its ‘street’ setting—or indeed proximity to its roots.” When highlighting street art works for potential bidders, Raybaud said she emphasizes both the above aesthetic elements as well as a piece’s conceptual underpinnings, which she said often center on themes of democratization.
Scholars of the category expressed similar views. Jaime Rojo and Steven P. Harrington, co-founders of the online street art community Brooklyn Street Art, stated that while graffiti art should be generally viewed as a distinct category due to its focus on lettering and authorial expression, the bounds of street art are more aesthetically slippery. “It may borrow heavily from advertising, branding, traditional mural making, and pop culture aesthetics or methods of creation and dissemination,” the duo said. While the category may focus more on figuration than graffiti, they said, it’s not limited to pictorial representation—conceptual, sculptural, electronic, and performance practices have been variously incorporated into the porous bounds of street art. Daniel Feral’s Feral Diagram—a riff on Alfred Barr’s similar diagram of the lineages of modernism for the Museum of Modern Art—maps the overlapping historical movements that congealed into street art’s interrelated practices, spinning a complex web of influences from Pop art and action painting to semiotics and the cut-up creations of Beat poetry…
CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE READING “What Qualifies as Street Art?” by Justin Kamp for Artsy.
BSA has been here with you for this entire decade – an honor and a privilege. Reviewing the many interventions and events we witnessed and shared with our readers, we realize that this grassroots people’s art movement is reflecting our society in fundamental ways and reaching deep as well as wide. Here in roughly chronological order we recount for you a Top 10 for BSA that have impacted our way of seeing art on the streets.
The “Girl In The Blue Bra” – December 2011
Oppressive regimes worldwide have a few
commonalities. One of them is patriarchy. Over the last decade we have seen
many female artists rise powerfully to smash it, harnessing their rage and
power and taking their voice to the street.
There were countless images that encapsulated the ferocity and the tenacity of the protesters during the Arab Spring uprisings in Cairo, Egypt in December of 2011. One image, in particular, captured the attention of the media and the public. The image is commonly referred to as the “Girl In The Blue Bra”. The image depicts a young woman, whose identity remains anonymous, being beaten and dragged by soldiers as she was taking part in the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, against Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Her face is veiled and her jeans are still on but as she was being dragged by the soldiers her abaya came undone exposing her bare torso and revealing her blue bra as a soldier was about to kick her in her abdomen.
While the image exposed the abusive practices and of power of the military in Egypt – it also swiftly sparked ferocious reactions around the globe, particularly with women who subsequently staged their own march in Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand the end of military rule.
Among the artists who carried the Blue Bra theme to the streets was one artist, Bahia Shehab, whom BSA and its readers helped to get a movie made about Street Artists in the Arab Spring, called Nefertiti’s Daughters, directed by Mark Nicolas. Later we were the first to debut a scene from it at the Nuart Festival in Norway (“#Activism on the Street Now”), and years after that Nuart actually hosted professor Shehab. This is a small world, this Street Art community.
The actions of the young woman, the
violent response of the military, and the overwhelming support of the public,
in general, sparked a new wave of feminism in Egypt and inspired artists to
create and display their artworks on the streets in protest.
“Art In The Streets” Opens at LA MOCA – April 2011
Art in the Streets was the first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art, curated by MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch and Associate Curators Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose, an exhibition tracing the development of graffiti and street art from the 1970s to the global movement it had evolved to. BSA was there to capture and share some of what was happening.
“Yes, Banksy is here. The giant ‘Art in the Streets’ show opening this weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles gives a patch of real estate to the international man of mystery who has contributed greatly to the worldwide profile of what is soon to be, maybe already is, a mainstream phenomenon known as street art. A smattering of his pranksterism is an absolute must for any show staking claim to the mantle of comprehensive survey and an excellent way to garner attention. But “Streets” gets its momentum by presenting a multi-torch colorful and explosive people’s history that began way before Banksy was born and likely will continue for a while after.
The show is an audacious multi-platform, colorful endeavor; part history lesson and part theme park bringing about 50 years of graffiti and street art history, it’s influences and influencers, under one roof. Then there is the stuff outside. Engaging and educational, “Art in the Streets” makes sure visitors have the opportunity to learn how certain tributaries lead to this one river of swirling urban goo, mapping connections between cultural movements, communities, and relationships within it. When it does this, the museum system effectively differentiates its value apart from a mere gallery show. “
Banksy’s NYC Residency – “Better Out Than In” – October 2013
An unprecedented city-wide near daily installation of works in New York established a new high-water mark in the flood of Street Art that took many cities in the 2010s. The British Street Artist played to a media capital in such an effective campaign that even the least interested residents became familiar with the elusive prankster.
A Genuine October Surprise for New York Street Art Friends and Foes Alike.
“In a series of communiqués beamed from his website, the global Street Artist Banksy gave graffiti and Street Art followers a near-daily jolt of mystery and mouse clicking that had people looking at every street scene as a possible Banksy by the time it ended. While few can confirm the exact level of involvement the actual artist had in the five boroughs, if any, none will deny that the Banksy brand underwent a major “refresh” this month that again put his name on the lips of those who had begun to forget him and many who had never heard of him.
Thanks to this masterful marketing campaign billed as a month-long ‘residency’ on New York’s streets, many thousands were talking about him daily on the street, on television, radio, social media, in galleries, studios, office cubicles, art parties, and the mayors’ office. By effectively combining the sport of treasure hunting with humor and populism, each new cryptic appearance of something-anything gradually conditioned some grand art doyennes and the plainer mongrels amongst us to drool on command and lift a leg in salute to the curiously still anonymous artist and the team who helped him pull it off.”
The Brooklyn Museum’s Exhibitions with Swoon, Faile, BÄST, Haring, Basquiat, ESPO, JR Expand Knowledge, Appreciation
One cultural institution in New York City and indeed in the United States has been notable throughout the decade for its commitment to organizing exhibitions where graffiti, street art, and the artists whom have shaped it are given recognition for their contribution to the arts. The Brooklyn Museum’s leadership, including former director Arnold L. Lehman, current director Anne Pasternak, and Sharon Matt Atkins, Director of Exhibitions and Strategic Initiatives have been channeling resources and focus to the study, promotion, and exhibition of the works of important figures in the contemporary graffiti and Street Art movement. It notable that the museum has in its permanent collection the works of distinguished graffiti and Street Artists dating back to the dawn of the modern scene; something that other important cultural institutions in New York City that are dedicated to the preservation and promotion of modern, contemporary, and American art lack in their collections.
It’s for this reason that we
have selected the Brooklyn Museum as one of the top ten graffiti and street art
movers of the decade. Predated by 2006’s “Graffiti” exhibition the museum has
mounted several important presentations during this decade that have not only
been blockbusters but they have contributed to the cultural enrichment of all
New Yorkers and the expanded discussion of the relevance of these art forms to
established canons. Here are some highlights:
“Keith Haring: 1978-1982, a traveling exhibition first shown in Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna and The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, introduces a period of his work not often examined, taking you up to the edge of the seemingly sudden international fame he experienced as artist, activist and public figure through the rest of the 1980s.
… At a time when the small-town boy was developing his visual vocabulary as an artist, Haring was also discovering himself as a man in the world and in a city that he found endlessly fascinating and worthy of exploration. Capturing his spirit of hands-on experimentation, the show is almost entirely comprised of works on paper with one collaborative piece on plywood with his contemporary Jean Michel Basquiat, paper collage, video, and documentary photos.”
“Sharon brought me in here and said, ‘What is interesting to you in the building?’ and I really love that because the thing about working on the street is that you are always thinking site-specifically. And so that thinking has to translate into your work in all places. For me, if I make something in a museum I want it to be very site-specific and this is probably one of the most site-specific pieces I’ve ever done,” explains Swoon.
Under the advice and guidance of an engineer, the artist also modified her design process to allow for foundational considerations like truss sections and lift points. “I showed him an initial model and he showed me an engineered system and then I built another model based on the system that he engineered.”
It is probably unusual for a grand museum to be so amenable to the requests of an artist for a site-specific piece that literally inhabits the furthest reaches of space, and Swoon says she recognizes the leeway she received. “You know, they have been really adventurous in letting us create this. We’ve been sort of pushing a lot with the creation of this piece.”
For Matt Atkins, the opportunity to bring an internationally known street artist and neighbor into the museum has been the result of just over two years of planning. ‘It’s been so wonderful working with Swoon to realize her vision for this project. This is the first time we’ve really used the full height of the 72-foot dome, so it’s quite spectacular. I am thrilled to see her boats back in New York and for them to have this new life. The underlying ideas about climate change in the installation also make this project an appropriate tie into the Museum’s focus on activism with our other exhibitions and collections,’ she says.”
“In Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, now running at The Brooklyn Museum until August 23rd, the genius of his fragmenting logic is revealed as a direct relationship between his private journals and his prolific and personally published aerosol missives on the streets of Manhattan’s Soho and Lower East Side neighborhoods in the late 1970s and 1980s.
These notebooks were for capturing ideas and concepts, preparing them, transmuting them, revising them, pounding them into refrains. In the same way his text (and glyphic) pieces on the street were not necessarily finished products each time; imparted on the run and often in haste, these unpolished missives didn’t require such preciousness.”
“FAILE may be a religious experience this summer at the Brooklyn Museum, but only one of the hallowed installations is called Temple. The seedier, more dimly lit venue will surely have the larger number of congregants by far, bless their sacred hearts.
Celebrating the duality and appropriation of words, slogans, and images have been the bailiwick of the duo since they first began hitting Brooklyn streets at the turn of the century with their stencils and wheat-pastes on illegal spots and neglected spaces. In FAILE: Savage/Sacred Young Minds, their new attention-commanding/refracting exhibit organized by Sharon Matt Atkins at the Brooklyn Museum, these guys pour it on, compelling you into a complex panoply of possible re-imaginings of meaning that reference pop, pulp, myth, art history, 50s sci-fi, 60s advertising, comics, punk zines, consumer culture and their own pure artistic and branded fiction.”
Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull) is one of 3 new exhibits inspired by the historic attractions of Brooklyn’s seaside.
“Graffiti artist-turned-sign painter Stephen Powers is dreaming of Coney Island and he is bringing a colorful collection of found and freshly produced signage that evokes a forgotten era to climb the columns of a Brooklyn Museum gallery.
Given the boisterous parade of brands and logos into museums that is happening as part of the institutional funding and programming mix, it’s fun to see the ninth episodic installation of this traveling ICY SIGNS shop here; its simplicity and guile recalling amusing persuasive techniques from the mid-century American advertising lexicon. Simultaneously, for those who have been lucky enough to sicken themselves on cotton candy and The Wonder Wheel, the new show imparts a rather reassuring and seedy nostalgia for Coney Island, complete with an inexplicable hankering for a thick beef hot dog.”
“A retrospective at Brooklyn Museum currently showcases the photographic works and public projects envisioned and created by French Street Artist JR. Covering roughly two decades of work, JR: Chronicles dedicates an in-depth examination into his practices and personal philosophies when creating – as evidenced by this collection of his murals, photographs, videos, films, dioramas, and archival materials.
Brooklyn Street Art: JR created a new digital collage for this exhibition featuring a thousand or so people individually interviewed and photographed. Can you tell us about what criterion he used for selecting his subjects? Sharon Matt Atkins: JR’s main focus was on capturing the rich diversity of New York City. As such, he photographed people in all five boroughs of the city, including many neighborhoods that were new to him. While he did invite some guests to participate, most of the people were passersby or business owners and workers of local stores. “
Blu and Street Art – Banksy & Co.
Curated by Christian Omodeo, Luca Cinacabilla, and Sean Corcoran. March 2016
BLU buffing his own works in Bologna took the news cycle, his legion of compatriots armed with rollers and bucket paint. But it was the show that he was reacting to that brought thousands to the museum space to discuss the rightful place of Street Art, graffiti, and the relevance of preserving it for posterity.
“The contested Banksy and Co. exhibition contains, among many other works, walls removed from a privately owned abandoned building in Bologna that were painted by BLU. Displaying the walls and his artwork without his consent so angered the painter that he rallied artists and activists to help him snuff out all his remaining murals and paintings in this Northern Italian city last week. (See A BLU Buffer Talks About the Grey Action in Bologna)
The heavily attended Friday night opening of Street Art – Banksy & Co. at Palazzo Pepoli – Museo della Storia di Bologna was curated by Luca Ciancabilla, Christian Omodeo, and Sean Corcoran and features roughly 250 historical and contemporary works spanning about fifty years and highlighting a number of movements within the so-called Urban Art genre. On balance it appears that 90 percent of the works are studio works, paintings, sculpture, videos, original sketches, and ephermera and were probably collected in a more conventional way and the tagged posters, stickers, metal doors, and wall fragments are viewed in the context of the whole scene.”
“Reality TV is usually completely devoid of reality. That isn’t the exact comparison Andreco said on his Facebook page but we thought it was a fitting analogy. Street Art in a museum or gallery can sometimes feel like taxidermy.
Andreco actually said ‘Deciding which wall to paint or not to paint has always been one of our free choices. This operation, to uncork the walls and move them elsewhere, oversteps this freedom.’ Fair enough.
Of course, that is not the primary reason why activists and Street Artists joined in to help BLU paint over the many murals that he completed on Bologna city walls over the last two decades or so. In an English titled press release on the Italian website Wumingfoundation the artist lays out a multi-layered justification for destroying his own murals, many of which have become beloved landmarks around the city and which have helped make him an art star in some circles.”
American conceptual, activist and street artist John Fekner, whose art and his art partner Don Leicht were represented in the exhibition Street Art: Bansky & Co weighs in the controversy by saying:
The bottom line is: what’s done in public-doesn’t remain in public. There’s no protection for artists who trespass. It’s the chance one takes outdoors.
If you create illegal art murals, street rules are always in effect:
You can’t stop a drunk in the middle of the night from pissing on your wall.
You can’t stop a bulldozer from razing your work.
You can’t stop a neighborhood anti-graffiti squad from painting over your work.
You can’t stop a well-dressed thief in a suit, or their hired slug with a chisel from removing your wall work and hauling it off to their laird, garage, museum or art market.
“Under any circumstances, don’t immediately and irrationally react. If your original aspirations were to be an artist- then just do what you were meant to do: be an artist. Don’t double shift and be a night watchman patrolling the streets to try and thwart thieves of your work. Unique temporary outdoor creations engender a public conversation that includes everyone: art lovers and art haters, lowbrow and highbrow, and everyone who interacts with your public work.”
Urban Nation Museum for Urban Contemporary Art Opens in Berlin – September 2017
We had the unique perspective of being two of the foundational curators who made this exhibition happen and made the doors fly open to thousands of visitors, so it only made sense that we covered the opening that brought much promise to the institutional recognition of Street Art, graffiti, and its move into Urban Contemporary.
“This week is Art Week in Berlin, and you just stole Art Week,” said a handsome and intensely opinionated German to us as we leaned on the arm rail of the M.C. Escher-inspired walkway before a Carlos Mare139 sculpture and above the capacity crowd on Saturday night at the Urban Nation Museum of Urban Contemporary Art (UN).
Not sure if that was the exact goal, but we get his larger point; the UN has just made a massive entry into a number of societally and culturally influential minds when it comes to the relevancy of Street Art and graffiti to visual culture and art history. This movement into so-called Contemporary began as early as the 1970s and has overcome and weathered cultural and market ebbs and flows – persisted, if you will – yet somehow institutions have been wary of this work and these artists and unable to fully embrace their importance, you decide why.”
Five Pointz: A Legal Case For Urban Artists Shifts the Focus – February 2018
“In a ruling that many graffiti and Street Artists interpret as a validation of their artwork and which may spawn further legal claims by artists in the future, Brooklyn Judge Frederic Block, a United States Federal Judge for the Eastern District of New York, awarded $6.7 million in damages to a group of 21 artists in the high profile case of the former graffiti holy place in Queens called 5 Pointz.
Under the leadership of artist and organizer Jonathan “Meres One” Cohen, also a plaintiff, the award is in response to a suit that cried foul on the overnight destruction of multiple artworks on building walls without consultation or notification of the artists.
Citing provisions of the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act that grants artists certain “moral” rights, the artists claimed that their artworks on the 5 Pointz compound that was owned by real estate developer Jerry Wykoff were protected and should be afforded certain rights and considerations.
Arts and intellectual property lawyers and judges will now be examining the implications of the ruling and citing it as an example in arguments about art created on walls legally and possibly those created illegally as well. In a city that prides itself as being a birthplace of graffiti and Street Art, many artists and wall owners must ask themselves if there will need to be an additional layer of the agreement before an aerosol can is held aloft.”
The New York Times Publishes DONDI’S Obituary – February 2019
In an unprecedented posthumous publication of an obituary, this year The Times acknowledged something that it had so far failed to do; the contribution of graffiti writers to the cultural and art canons deserves serious recognition. By publishing the iconic image of DONDI taken by Martha Cooper that burned “Subway Art” into the mind’s eye of many generations of graffiti writers, the “paper of record” caught up with one the the scene’s leaders and heroes.
“First things first – Full disclosure; we are featured in the movie and we are close friends with both the subject of the doc and the director and we first suggested to the director that she was the perfect candidate to make a film about Martha Cooper. Now that we have that out of the way here are a number of shots from the premiere and our review of the movie:
Martha: A Picture Story had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this Thursday to an enthusiastic crowd that included big graffiti, Street Art, international press and film industry names, to see the highly anticipated documentary about the venerable photographer Martha Cooper by the Sydney director Selina Miles.
The electricity was in the air as Director Miles and producer Daniel Joyce along with the just-arrived Australian members of the “Martha” crew looked for their seats in the Village East Cinema. After a brief introduction by Miles, who told the audience that the film had been a great pleasure to make, the curtain went up to reveal the mother of the superstar art twins Os Gemeos on the big screen. She is sitting at her kitchen table in São Paulo remarking how her boys used to draw on everything, including fruit, and how Cooper and Chalfant’s 1984 book “Subway Art” changed their lives forever. With their story as a backbone for the film, the theme of personal transformation is repeated in a hundred large and small ways for the next hour and twenty minutes. “
Street Art and Activism Takes Larger Share of the Cultural Stage
decade that is coming to an end has seen its share of natural disasters, human
rights violations, atrocities of large scale against humanity, corruption at
the highest levels, the reversal of hard-fought policies to protect the planet
and keep our air and water clean. We have witnessed with despair the
renaissance of hatred based on people’s nationalities, their skin color, their
religion, their choice of attire, their level of material affluence and their
have seen progress as well. Women around the world have been freer to speak
their mind against oppression and abuse of power thanks to social movements
that have flourished around the world in big cities and small towns. Our LGBT
brothers and sisters have scored numerous legal battles in their favor thanks
to enlightened lawmakers and judges who have searched deep inside their
intellect to find the right answer to make sure everybody is treated equally.
Likewise, our peers whom we need to advance our cause have taken seriously the
responsibility at the ballot box to make the correct choice with policies that
will bring relief to those who have less than we do.
and artists have often reflected back to us the world we live in, it is for
this reason that we have chosen Street Art and Activism as an important action
in this decade. We have always championed the work of artists who imbued their
art with a strong sense of social urgency. It is with their art that they talk
to us in the hopes to change one mind, one action, one concept, one attitude
towards the goal creating a common good. There are many of them currently
active on the streets. This wouldn’t be the appropriate space to list all of
them but we would like to give you some highlights:
“This past Sunday, February 17 at La Plaza de las Tres Chimeneas (Three Smokestacks Square) in Barcelona an international group of artists participated in the first ‘No Borders Festival.’
NO BORDERS is a grassroots organization that was created to raise awareness about the refugees, to demand their acceptance, and to raise funds through debates, art, and documentaries.
They say they want to raise the uncomfortable questions – which will undoubtedly lead to uncomfortable answers as well. To paraphrase the text on their website:
‘Do we settle for a society that violates its moral and legal obligations to refugees? A refugee is a person who flees – Flees because he is on the losing side. Because he thinks, feels or prays differently than those who point him with their weapons.’
As usual, artists are bringing these matters to the street for the vox populi to debate.”
An Art, Science and Climate Action project by Andreco
“And the statement isn’t hyperbole, according to AIR-Ink, the company that made his ink, which is “the first ink made entirely out of air pollution,” they explain on their website.
The unique art-making material is part of the Italian Street Artist / Activist’s most recent installment of his Climate Art Project, which he orchestrated on the streets here in New Delhi for the St+Art Festival this year. Part of a global, multi-city installation and demonstration, ‘Climate 05 – Reclaiming Air and Water’.”
” ‘Actions Speak Louder Than Ass Ads,’ says a new stencil-style printed poster by New York’s epic, if sometimes cryptic, street commentator of four decades, John Fekner. Anyway, who will argue with that?
“Post-posters is a cooperative proposition about
public billposting,” says French conceptual street anarchist
Matthew Tremblin about his new project with hit-and-run situationist street
posterer Antonio Gallego. Together they reclaim space
with individually produced posters and they invite artists from around the
world to do the same.
Over a two month period the creative place-makers are facilitating an international crew of artists to post posters on the occasion of the double exhibition by Banlieue-Banlieue group* (°1982, Poissy) taking place in Strasbourg, at both AEDAEN and the Syndicat Potentiel. “
“By putting these images of people of color, women, LGBTQ+ folks on the street with their blunt-force sentiments addressed to would-be harassers, she not only stands with them, but Tatyana has also used her work and vision to give them the courage to stand proud, assert their voice and to take public space.
After all, it belongs to the public.
“Women are not outside for your entertainment”, a startling
truth for some guys that pointedly highlights abusive behavior toward women on
the streets of Brooklyn and many cities around the world. Brooklyn Street
Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh has been targeting daily oppressive experiences of
marginalized people with her campaigns of art on the streets – and in the
Addressing themes of social justice, racism, LGBTQ+ rights, and sexist street harassment, her beautifully drawn campaigns on wheat-pasted posters and painted murals across the globe have brought attention to issues sorely in need of addressing during hostile rhetoric from some men in the highest offices.”
“This spill and these events did not happen in San Diego or Palm Beach. The story doesn’t affect wealthy white families and cannot be used to sell shampoo or real estate. That’s probably why we don’t see it in the press and never on the talking-head news. Street Artist Jetsonorama is not only a photographer who has been wheat-pasting his stunning images of people and nature on desert buildings for over a decade, he is also a doctor on the Navajo reservation, a human-rights activist, and an erudite scholar of American history as it pertains to the poisoning of this land and these people. Today we’re pleased to bring you this long-form examination from Jetsonorama’s perspective on a complicated and tragic US story of environmental poisoning and blight that affects generations of native peoples, miners, military personnel, and everyday people – and has no end in sight.
Most alarming is the news the current White House administration is endeavoring to mine uranium here again.
‘Private companies hired thousands of Navajo men to work the uranium mines and disregarded recommendations to protect miners and mill workers. In 1950 the U.S. Public Health Service began a human testing experiment on Navajo miners without their informed consent during the federal government’s study of the long-term health effects from radiation poisoning. This study followed the same violation of human rights protocol as the US Public Health Service study on the long-term effects of syphilis on humans by experimenting on non-consenting African American men in what is known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment from 1932 – 1972.’ ~ Jetsonorama”
“As part of our core commitment as a non-commercial platform that has helped hundreds of artists over the last decade+, BSA significantly helped Escif to raise money for his Indiegogo fundraiser in Spring 2017 when we promoted his “Breath-Time” horticultural project heavily as he planted trees to reforest Mount Olivella in Southern Italy.
Today BSA debuts REWILD, a new
tree-related project by the Spanish Street Artists – just as the Global Climate
March is spreading to cities around the world, including New York.
The concept of the short film is
simple: can’t we just push the “Rewind” button?
‘The narrative runs in reverse, rewinding the clock on deforestation to undo the damage caused by the unsustainable production of one of the world’s most versatile commodities. Beyond the industrialisation of the land, we end at the beginning, a thriving ecosystem alive with wildlife. The concept mirrors the real world action of the Sumatran Orangutan Society and their partners in reclaiming land on the borders of the Leuser rainforests to rewild them with indigenous trees, expanding the boundaries of one of the most biodiverse places on earth.’
Finally, a stunning custom soundtrack by Indonesian composer Nursalim
Yadi Anugerah captures and carries this into another world, which is
A retrospective at Brooklyn Museum currently showcases the photographic works and public projects envisioned and created by French Street Artist JR. Covering roughly two decades of work, JR: Chronicles dedicates an in-depth examination into his practices and personal philosophies when creating – as evidenced by this collection of his murals, photographs, videos, films, dioramas, and archival materials.
His most recent and one of his most original ideas has been to use the techniques of professional film compositing to impart a permanent, living aura for what may otherwise be static collaged works. With high res digital works working in concert, the life of the subject takes on an additional dimension, juxtaposed as it is with other figures they may or may not have ever interacted with.
Often in these recent projects you have the opportunity to see and/or hear personal recordings of the person through interviews for the piece. The centerpiece and partial namesake of this show is the new large-scale mural of more than one thousand New Yorkers whom he chose to feature, accompanied by audio recordings of each person’s story as told to him and his team.
Many of these concepts and philosophical observations, including sociopolitical commentary on a number of hot-button issues of the day, may feel familiar to fans and Street Artists around the world – particularly over the last decade and a half. Here you can see that with the number of resources and teams that he can amass, JR is able to create the ideas with a sense of largesse and garner greater audiences, putting many of his works before many more.
Epic is a word often used to describe the projects, and when you see the JR: Chronicles exhibition you can understand why.
We spoke with the curators of the exhibition Sharon Matt Atkins and Drew
Sawyer about their experience with this exhibition and how JR is defining new
areas of photography with his use of it in public space.
Brooklyn Street Art:JR created a new digital collage for this exhibition featuring a thousand or so people individually interviewed and photographed. Can you tell us about what criterion he used for selecting his subjects? Sharon Matt Atkins: JR’s main focus was on capturing the rich diversity of New York City. As such, he photographed people in all five boroughs of the city, including many neighborhoods that were new to him. While he did invite some guests to participate, most of the people were passersby, or business owners and workers of local stores.
Brooklyn Street Art:It may be that there has been a return to
black and white photography in
the last decade – so much so that one may not register the significance
that JR employs it for expression almost exclusively. How do you think
the limited palette aids his work in telling his narratives? Drew Sawyer: In
many ways, JR’s use of black and white photographs is in direct
opposition to contemporary photojournalism and the digital circulation
is images. His close-up portraits may recall the work of earlier
documentarians, such as Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange in the United
States, but JR’s decision to print them on inexpensive paper and paste
them nearby counters they ways in which images often circulate in the
global media far away from the places where his collaborators live. Also,
the monochromatic images certainly stand out against the colorful built
environments in which JR typically installs them.
Brooklyn Street Art:As you deeply analyzed his career and its
various phases, what would you
say is one of the through-lines that you see in his practice as it
evolved? Sharon Matt Atkins:
Our show is centered on his projects that have been created in
collaboration with communities. From his earliest photographs
documenting his graffiti writer friends to Inside Out with more
than 400,000 participants in 141 countries to his most recent mural The
Chronicles of New York City, JR has sought to give visibility to those
often underrepresented or misrepresented.
Brooklyn Street Art: How has JR used his work in a new way that may prove to be inspiring to photographers and fans of photography? Drew Sawyer: For JR, photography is just one part of his collaborative process. His work is really about bringing people together, lifting the voices of others who rarely have control over their own representation, countering narratives in the global media, and shifting the discourse around specific issues and events. He started his practice before there were social media apps like Instagram, which now provide platforms for many people to do the same in a digital form. Since then, JR has explored how new technologies can help him tell and share more stories. I hope his process inspires other artists to use photography in similar and new ways.
“Since 2017 JR has been creating participatory murals inspired by the work of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera in the first half of the twentieth century. In the summer of 2018, JR and his team spent a month roaming all five boroughs of New York City, parking their 53- foot-long trailer truck in numerous locations and taking photographs of passersby who wished to participate. Each was photographed in front of a green screen, and then the images were collaged into a New York City setting featuring architectural landmarks. More than a thousand people were photographed for the resulting mural, The Chronicles of New York City. The participants chose how they personally wanted to be represented and were asked to share their stories, which are now available on a free mobile app.”
– text courtesy Brooklyn Museum
“In January 2009 JR carried out another iteration of Women Are Heroes in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa. Following close dialogue with the community, JR covered rooftops with water-resistant vinyl printed with photographs of the eyes and faces of local women. The images both transformed the landscape and provided protection from the rain.
The train that ran along the Kibera line was also covered with photographs of the eyes of women who lived directly below, and images of the lower halves of their faces were pasted on the slope beneath the tracks so that as the train passed, their faces were completed for a few seconds. The idea was to celebrate, or at the very least to acknowledge their presence. Of his projects, JR has said, ‘I search with my art to install the work in improbable places, to create with the communities projects that promote questioning. . . and to offer alternative images to those of the global media.’ ”
– text courtesy Brooklyn Museum
“On October 8, 2017, for the last day of the Kikito installation at the U.S.-Mexico border, JR organized a gigantic picnic on both sides of the wall. Kikito, his family, and dozens of guests came from the United States and Mexico to share a meal. People at both sides of the border gathered around the eyes of Mayra, a ‘Dreamer,’ eating the same food, sharing the same water, and enjoying the same live music (with half the band’s musicians playing on either side). “
– text courtesy Brooklyn Museum
JR: Chronicles is curated by Sharon Matt Atkins, Director of Exhibitions and Strategic Initiatives, and Drew Sawyer, Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Curator, Photography, Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition is now open to the public. Click HERE for dates, times and directions.
Image Description A (see earlier in article) “As the first photograph in what would become JR’s Portrait of a Generation, this image launched his career. The series was initiated when Ladj Ly, a filmmaker, and resident of Cité des Bosquets (called “Les Bosquets”), a public housing complex in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, invited JR to collaborate on a project in the neighborhood.
JR said of the image: ‘I took this picture when I was eighteen. It was the first time I went to Les Bosquets. If you look carefully in the back, you can see small posters from Expo 2 Rue—and I wrote ‘Expo D Boske.’ The kids asked me if I could take a picture of them. This photo of Ladj Ly filming me was the first one on the roll of film, and I felt something special had happened. This image is very emblematic of my work and of the message of this project with Ladj.’
This photograph was also the first large-scale image that JR and his friends wheat-pasted in the neighborhood prior to the riots there in 2005. It appeared as the backdrop in photographs accompanying newspaper articles and television footage about the uprising, thereby becoming JR’s first published work. “
– text courtesy Brooklyn Museum
Image Description B (see earlier in article) “In 2013 JR learned that the housing towers in Les Bosquets were going to be demolished, so he revisited the Portrait of a Generation project. Using images from the original series, he and a team pasted portraits in the building before it was destroyed. He recalled, ‘We couldn’t get authorization to paste inside. So we got plans from the former inhabitants, and we entered at night, twenty-five of us, and spread out over all the different floors. We pasted eyes in someone’s kitchen, a nose in someone else’s bathroom, and a mouth in a living room. . . . When we came down, the police arrested us, but they couldn’t understand why we had just spent hours in this building that was about to be destroyed. The pastings were so big that they couldn’t see what they were. The next day, when workers started the demolition, the portraits were revealed, little by little, while the cranes were ‘eating’ the building. Only the people who were in the neighborhood that day witnessed the gigantic spectacle unfold.’ “
While the branches on the trees in front of the Brooklyn Museum are not quite popping with buds it is a short time until they will be flushed with blossoms and then leaves, obscuring the view of some of the new site-specific signs just installed by Stephen Powers.
The signs on the plaza, many humorous and coded, were originally created for a project he did with the New York City Department of Transportation a couple of years ago and they follow a theme of “emotional wayfinding” that he has been playing with in much of his sign-themed work for a while.
The effect is almost decorative, to see so many of these clustered in one area – and a reminder that Street Artists have been using all variety of street poles as a means of expression for at least the last 20 years with regularity. This may be the first time we have heard of a museum acknowledging this means of communicating in public space, and Powers is a good ambassador for the technique of communication practiced by so many.
Of course this installation is in concert with the announce extension of his show inside the museum, Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull), which was going to close this week but has been extended until August 21. The show, which features Powers and other sign painters occasionally in person painting (check museum schedules) is organized by Sharon Matt Atkins, Vice Director for Exhibitions and Collections Management, Brooklyn Museum.
Today at the invitation of Christie’s Education we’ll be participating in a panel discussion about Street Art and how it is being embraced by the art market, museums, and galleries. We’re honored to share the stage with Dr. Sharon Matt Atkins, Vice-Director of Exhibitions and Collections at Brooklyn Museum and with Jonathan LeVine, owner of Jonathan LeVine Gallery in Manhattan.
The panel is organized by Christie’s Academic Director Dr. Véronique Chagnon-Burke and Dr. Matt Atkins.
The space is limited for this event so you must RSVP if you are going to attend. Can’t wait to see you there!
BSA galavanted through the streets last year and here we re-paste our recent newsletter to BSA readers. Sign up for it if you like. Here’s the original.
Happy New Year from BSA!
From Berlin to Norway to Rochester and Mexico, Faile to Swoon to Ron English to Dan Witz and Gilf!, BSA was in museums, galleries, artists studios, at festivals, on panel discussions, on stages, on TV, radio, in theaters, and of course in the street.
Here are some highlights of the some of the amazing things BSA did with you in 2015. We sincerely thank you for your support and send love to you and yours in the new year!
In ’15 BSA Created “Persons of Interest” with UN in Berlin
Brought 12 Brooklyn Street Artists to Berlin with “Persons of Interest” show for Urban Nation Museum (UN)/ProjectM7
BSA Presented “On the Radar” in Coney Island
With Jeffrey Dietch’s Coney Art Walls program at Coney Island Museum for Coney Art Walls, we presented 12 artist to watch who are on our radar.
BSA Presented Faile at the Brooklyn Museum
A beautiful experience to be a part of the FAILE exhibition from its earliest planning stages to its full summer run at Brooklyn Museum, the cherry on top was to host an in-depth presentation and conversation with Faile’s Patrick Miller and Patrick McNeil and BKM curator Sharon Matt Atkins in front of an enthusiastic Brooklyn audience.
Aside from The Pope landing in New York at the exact time people were traveling to the show and some microphone difficulties at the beginning of the show, it was a complete and total thrill for us. See the full video on LiveStream here.
BSA Joined Swoon to Inaugurate Her New Heliotrope Foundation
The tenacious and visionary Street Artist grounded her dreams in a formal foundation in 2015, allowing her to pursue even greater reach in her growing projects in New Orleans, Haiti, and Braddock, PA. We were honored to interview her and to help celebrate the official beginning of The Heliotrope Foundation with the help of special guest and board member Kaseem Dean aka Swizz Beatz.
Callie Curry (aka Swoon), Kasseem Dean (aka Swizz Beatz), Jaime Rojo, Steven P. Harrington inaugurate The Heliotrope Foundation
BSA Hosted Martha Cooper, Bortusk Leer, and Herman De Hoop at Nuart Plus
For presentations from each of the guests and panel discussion on the intersection of “Play” and public space at NUART 2015 in Stavanger, Norway.
Banksy Does New York Took Us to Theaters Around the World Good News: The movie got on NetFlix, iTunes, in festivals, and in theaters in cities around the globe Bad News: People think we have a museum
We Flew Over World’s Largest Mural
Flew by helicopter above the world’s largest mural by Ella and Pitr in Stavanger, Norway with two of our most admired photographers; Martha Cooper and Ian Cox. Thanks Nuart!
We presented BSA Film Friday Live at MAG Gallery
Under the direction of Jonathan Binstock at University of Rochester Museum the MAG Gallery hosted us during the Wall\Therapy festival.
This is the grassroots sort of festival that rings true to us these days and the down-to-earth volunteers and organizers of this event, along with those of our associates at Urban Nation (UN), made this a highlight of the summer.
BSA in Berlin Radio Interview with Vantage Point
We talked about Jay-Z, Bowie, Bushwick, the democratization of Street Art, cultural imperialism, the UN and what it is like to bust out a blog seven days a week and still keep your mind and heart open to discovery. Listen to it here on Vantage Point and Soundcloud:
▪ BSA completed its fifth year in partnership with The Huffington Post in June 2015 (225+ articles) and was translated in Spanish on El Huffington Post, in French on Le Huffington Post, in Italian on L’Huffington Post, in Korean on Huff Post Korea, in Portuguese on Brasil Post, and in Greek for Huffington Post Greece. ▪ BSA posted every single day and did 23 interviews and studio visits and published articles about street art in 103 cities ▪ BSA was reference or appeared in the media in The New York Times, The Today Show, Le Monde, Agence France Press, German Rbb Tv, Borås Tidning, El Diario, El Heraldo, ArtNet News, Juxtapoz, VNA, Hi-Fructose, and others. ▪ BSA’s Director of Photography Jaime Rojo took more than 10,000 images and we picked 143 as BSA 2015 Images of the Year.
Special thank you to photographer Martha Cooper and Nuart Festival director Martyn Reed for the banner image from this years festival.
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.
Times Square, New York City
August 17, 2015
Photograph by Sharon Matt Atkins
My pick for 2015 has to be FAILE-related! I had the great pleasure working with them on their Brooklyn Museum exhibition, FAILE: Savage/Sacred Young Minds, which was on view July 10th – October 4th (big thanks to BSA for making the introduction years ago!).
FAILE’s exhibition featured their Temple along with their collaboration with BÄST, The FAILE and BÄST Deluxx Fluxx Arcade. They also created new paintings and sculptures for the exhibition. As if this wasn’t enough to keep them busy, they also worked with Times Square Arts on Wishing on You, a monumental, hand-carved, painted, and interactive prayer wheel situated in the heart of Times Square.
On view to coincide with the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, this project created the perfect synergy between their indoor installations and their ongoing commitment to creating surprising and captivating experiences in our urban environment.
Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull) is one of 3 new exhibits inspired by the historic attractions of Brooklyn’s seaside
Graffiti artist-turned-sign painter Stephen Powers is dreaming of Coney Island and he is bringing a colorful collection of found and freshly produced signage that evokes a forgotten era to climb the columns of a Brooklyn Museum gallery.
Given the boisterous parade of brands and logos into museums that is happening as part of the institutional funding and programming mix, its fun to see the ninth episodic installation of this traveling ICY SIGNS shop here; its simplicity and guile recalling amusing persuasive techniques from the mid-century American advertising lexicon. Simultaneously, for those who have been lucky enough to sicken themselves on cotton candy and The Wonder Wheel, the new show imparts a rather reassuring and seedy nostalgia for Coney Island, complete with an inexplicable hankering for a thick beef hot dog.
Just as warm weather recedes and late autumn’s chill darkens that historic city seaside amusement park, the popsicles and sand and titillating oddities are all rushing inside for the winter at Brooklyn Museum. Here and in adjacent galleries, the stage-directing showfolks at BKM are offering conjoined triplets for you to gawk at: Stephen Powers:Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull), Coney Island: Visions of An American Dreamland, 1861-2008 and Forever Coney: Photographs from the Brooklyn Museum Collection.
In tandem with his merry band of mostly reformed graffiti writers-turned-sign painters, Powers’ installation pops up and outward chaotically like nighttime fireworks seen from the boardwalk on the 4th. The fast talking Philadelphia-born Powers is a natural carnival barker, showman, and punny word player, and this textual chorus of messages invites you to consider the tantalizing language of the pitch as well.
While you tumble layer upon layer, feel free to revel in the clever permutations of implorative doublespeak delivered with non-linear panache, a cluster of colorful visual cues here cut from their tether and flying above your head. Rather than actually selling you something, however, it’s the method of delivery that Powers is celebrating. It’s a joyride of icons that trumpets the juxtaposition of the graphic, the selection of the symbol, the wink of an eye, the turn of the word, the jocular joust.
Just like any rollercoaster or peeping attraction, its a thrill best enjoyed by holding on tight, alternately letting go completely, blurring your eyes and drinking in the candied, fried, salty sweetness. And just like any tourist attraction that helps those yearning for a closer view, a classic binocular tower viewer is sited center stage for you to gaze further than the human eye.
In a city that is quickly stamping out the last remaining handmade signage that was once ubiquitous on bodegas, candy shops, record stores, laundromats, restaurants, bars, pizza joints, and hot dog stands, it is ironic that these new signs recalling that communication vernacular are being brought into the museum. If any of these signs remain in public space today, they are faded glories overlooked, often called “ghost signs”. Powers brings the language back to life, inverting the expected, cleverly blending in his own sense of Coney Island romance, heavily salted and smothered in ketchup.
Anne Pasternak, the new director of this encyclopedic institution, saw the value in preserving this particular character of New York when she was President and Artistic Director of Creative Time and the organization collaborated with Powers for the first time in 2004 and 2005 on The Dreamland Artists Club in Coney Island. Those first two projects were the genesis of their collaboration in Coney Island again in 2008 with The Waterboard Thrill Ride. Emblazoned by Powers’ hand painted wit the darkly satirical project was sited in a Coney Island peeing booth/grindhouse that stirred controversy for its animatronic depiction of torture.
More often Powers’ installations in a dozen or more cities are affectionately referred to as Love Letters, including massive text-based projects that cover walls and neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Syracuse and 2011’s Love Letter to Brooklyn, which wrapped a building with city inspired phrases of 250 or so words in downtown BK.
Here at the museum you are best served to get in close and go full bore into the jumbled chaos of words always at play in Power’s work and mind. The installation features the twisted phraseology of a country baked in advertising jingles, slogans, and blustery bromides and each of the artists (Justin Green, Matt Wright, Mike Levy, Dan Murphy, Mike Lee, Mimi Gross, Alexis Ross, Sean Barton, Eric Davis, and Tim Curtis) bring their own handstyles and witticism to these conversations, a playful and sarcastic examination that bubbles and splashes like waterfalls of words beneath the rotunda.
As Powers and team completed their installation this week for Friday’s opening we spoke with curator Sharon Matt Atkins, Vice Director of Exhibitions and Collections Management, to see if the newest iteration of ICY SIGNS has been the fun house that it appears to be.
Brooklyn Street Art: Can you talk about the intersection of the three exhibits here as expressed in the signage of Powers? Sharon Matt Atkins: Our three Coney Island exhibitions capture the spirit of the seaside community and give a feeling for how the place has inspired generations of artists. Powers’ installation in particular brings the visual language of Coney Island to the Museum by recalling the great tradition of hand-painted signs.
Brooklyn Street Art: How much of the exhibit is specific to this installation and how much is heritage pieces from its pre-iterations? Sharon Matt Atkins: This installation combines found signs alongside those created by Powers and ICY SIGNS. The works by Powers and ICY SIGNS include both earlier work as well as new signs and paintings created for this exhibition.
Brooklyn Street Art: Brooklyn Museum is once again embracing the language of Brooklyn streets and public space, bringing it into a gallery and presenting it as vital and worthy of consideration. How does this one compare to the shows you organized for Swoon and Faile? Sharon Matt Atkins: I have loved seeing the Cantor Gallery transformed with each artist’s installation, and also with recent exhibitions like Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic and Crossing Brooklyn. It’s a beautiful space that lends itself to different kinds of experiences.
Brooklyn Street Art: How does the space lend to or present a challenge for the displaying of the multiple signs?
Sharon Matt Atkins: Powers and team really wanted to respond to the architecture, much in keeping with how signage becomes layered in cities and places like Coney Island. Working with the piers of the Museum’s Cantor Gallery, they built layers and stretched upward about 40 feet, creating these soaring towers of signs that are anchored by sign benches at their bases. Providing a lively and educational element to the exhibition, we will also have sign painters at work here on Thursday evenings, and afternoons on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
Steve Powers’ site specific installation “Stephen Powers:Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull)” is presented in conjunction with “Coney Island: Visions of An American Dreamland, 1861-2008”. Both exhibitions will open to the public this Friday, November 20th and will run until March 13, 2016. Click HERE for more details.
Yes, it was a big deal for us so we want to share it with you. A few years after we introduced Faile to the Brooklyn Museum we have been blown away by the success of their exhibition Savage/Sacred Young Minds all summer long, as well as the long lines of people who have flowed through both of their immersive environments (Temple, and Deluxx Fluxx with Bäst). Under the guidance of curator Sharon Matt Atkins, Vice Director, Exhibitions and Collections, the museum has again produced a relevant, modern and dynamic show that brings in the street and resonates strongly with the local Brooklyn community and academics as well.
You must have seen (or been a part of) the ocean of people here one night in July when Swizz Beatz and Faile celebrated art and art-making with many of the youth who gave birth to this current Street Art movement in New York. A central tenet of this encyclopedic museum for the last decade and a half has been to produce exhibits and events that involve the community, that are relevant and impactful and the audience at our event in the auditorium attests to the success of exhibitions like Faile’s in this respect.
Following their work on the street since the late 1990s when Faile began making Street Art, we didn’t actually get to meet them in person until many years later, but we’ve always admired their tenacity and risk-taking and experimentation with their work. The crowning event for us was to interview them on the stage of the museum with the show’s curator Sharon Matt Atkins and to introduce some new people to them live and online; along with a bunch of stalwart longtime fans, collectors, gallerists, art students, and journalists.
The pre-show began with some collaged video of commercials and TV/movie excerpts inspired by Faile’s personal history as youth growing up in the 1980s. Our presentation momentum hit a few speed bumps at the beginning because of microphone outages and we almost lost the rhythm but eventually we got it back and we had a great time with the guests and the audience members, who were so astute and amazing and articulate in their questions and during the conversations we had later with them at the reception.
Our sincere thanks to Ms. Matt Atkins, Patrick McNeil, Patrick Miller, Director Anne Pasternak and The Brooklyn Museum for hosting us, Alicia Boone the Adult Programs Manager for helping put it all together, previous Director Arnold Lehman for his support, as well as Brooke Baldeschwiler, Shelly Bernstein, Emily Annis, Radiah Harper, Patrice Capobianchi, Matthew Branch, Osaro Hemenez, Robert Nardi, Tim, Emily Liebowitz, Paul Bessire, Meryl Cooper, Fatima Kafele, Lauren Zelaya, Margo Cohen Ristorucci, Sally Williams, and all of the staff and folks at the museum with whom we have been working with over these past few years and Chris Jordan, Doc Gregory, and Ray Cross. It is an honor and a privilege to be a Brooklyn neighbor and a part of The Brooklyn Museum family.
FAILE may be a religious experience this summer at the Brooklyn Museum, but only one of the hallowed installations is called Temple. The seedier, more dimly lit venue will surely have the larger number of congregants by far, bless their sacred hearts.
Celebrating the duality and appropriation of words, slogans, and images has been the baliwick of the duo since they first began hitting Brooklyn streets at the turn of the century with their stencils and wheat-pastes on illegal spots and neglected spaces. In FAILE: Savage/Sacred Young Minds, their new attention commanding/refracting exhibit organized by Sharon Matt Atkins at the Brooklyn Museum, these guys pour it on, compelling you into a complex panoply of possible re-imaginings of meaning that reference pop, pulp, myth, art history, 50s sci-fi, 60s advertising, comics, punk zines, consumer culture and their own pure artistic and branded fiction.
For fans of this collaboration between artists Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller, Savage/Sacred is a joyride swerving through the visual vocabulary and terminology they’ve been emblazoning across walls, doorways, canvasses, stickers, sculptures, prayer wheels, wood blocks, paintings, prints, toys, and a museum façade in their steady ascendance from anonymous art school students and Street Artists to a highly collected top tier name in contemporary art.
Offering you a full immersion and opportunity for titillating interaction, this show provides an unambiguous sense of the industry that is backing the Faile fantasy. Throughout their work and your imagination and assumed role, you may be villain, distressed damsel, wolfman, fairey, vandal, wrestler, hot-rodder, madonna, whore, supplicant, avenger, surfing horse or simply an arcade hero who is whiling away windowless hours punching buttons, popping flippers and pumping Faile tokens into tantalizing art machines.
Central to the formative Faile story is an image of the teenage Patricks piecing together clues about the world in these dark dens of possibility and teenage angst, awash in fantasy, aggression, testosterone and communal alienation.
Miller talks about the arcade atmosphere with a certain reverence, “All through Middle School, especially on the weekends, you’d just get dropped off at the mall and be there all day. There is something about the idea of this being a somewhat sacred space as a teenager in arcades. They are sort of a “Candyland” – a magical space mixed with a little seediness. You had kind of a large age range in there. You could get in trouble if you wanted but through the video games you could live out these crazy fantasy experiences. Historically arcades have been like that – very much with the Times Square notion. They’ve always had that connection to an underbelly of things.”
BSA:Do you think New York is still seedy? Patrick Miller: It seems like it is getting harder to find, in a way. BSA:So really you might say that this is a public service, this installation. Patrick Miller: There are so many young people who have never had this experience today. Not only are we trying to share what that was like, it is something that shaped the way we are inspired as artists and the way we make imagery, the way we make icons. The roots of video-game culture are there and now that has sort of bled out today – but also we’re interested in the shared experience because so much of the video game experience is now mobile or is just had on your couch, I think people have forgotten that there used to be these places were you congregated to do this.
For the 5th public offering of FAILE BÄST Deluxx Fluxx Arcade and the first in a museum setting, Faile extends the scope and adds a handful of new NYC-centric scenarios to the mix and again partners with fellow Brooklyn street artist and spin-cycle collage mutator-in-chief BÄST, whose stylistic counterplay alerts undercurrents of tension with a punk-naïve primal hand painting and humoristic Dada collaging.
BSA: Can you describe the working dynamic with Faile and BÄST? Patrick Miller: We’ve always been really inspired by BÄSTs work because we start from a similar place but we end up totally differently. BSA:Yeah the end result is very different Patrick Miller: Ours are probably more structured and narrative.
Patrick McNeil: I think over time we have tried not to step on each others’ toes. He generally controls the half-tone territory and we control the line-drawing territory. BSA:So his are more photography-based and yours tend more toward the illustration. Patrick McNeil: Yep Patrick Miller: I think the work comes from the same place but his is just turned up to “11”. Patrick McNeil: Yeah his is more put into a blender. Patrick Miller: But that has always been what makes us work well together, the styles mix and marry really well and they kind of bring the best out of both. BSA:And he has become even more abstract recently – more lo-fi outsider artish…., although you guys have delved into children’s coloring books for inspiration as well McNeil: I think BÄST would like to call it more “outsider art”. BSA:Why has it been important to keep Deluxx Fluxx a Faile-BÄST collaboration over the last five years thoughout its various iterations? McNeil: We started this project as a collaboration and we’ve been collaborating with BÄST for fifteen years. We’ve always enjoyed working with him because we just love the friendship and we love the product of our collaborations. I think having the opportunity to be at the Brooklyn Museum and to do it together with him is really special.
Twenty-two in all, the custom designed variations on arcade video and pinball games from the 1970s and 80s alert competitive urges and quests for domination alongside more mundane tasks like alternate side of the street parking and completing atypical digital art-making sessions where “winning” is defined entirely differently.
Social, sexual, comical, criminal, and environmental concerns all pop and parry while you nearly mindlessly and repetitively punch buttons and fire guns at herky-jerky 2-D motion graphics that transport you to the hi-charged arcade experience rumbling in malls and sketchier parts of town before the Internet. Get a taste for those darkened caves where you racked up points while quarters were sucked from your pockets; you are the favored hero at home in this seductive lair, surrounded by an ear pounding audio-musical triumphalist barrage of hypnotic hormonal victory and id-shattering explosions.
The adjoining cavernous black-light illuminated fluorescent foosball room is papered with mind-popping illustrations derived and sutured from comics, pulp and smarmy back-pages advertising that once stirred secret desires. Walking in on this teen temple you may feel like looking for dirty magazines sandwiched between mattresses; surely a hyped up juvenile would choose these alternating graphic “floor tiles” in radiation yellow, sugar coated pink and neon orange, giving your footsteps a spongey depth perception test on your way to a round of table football.
The floor-to-ceiling hand painted posters took four people six months to complete, both Patricks tell us, and they all compete for your attention, each a narrative re-configured and augmenting secret storylines, myths, and plenty of white lies.
Somehow it is here in the day-glo madness that we see the closest approximation to the original Street Art experience passersby had in the early 2000s with Faile’s work when they were still a trio that included artist AIKO and in those years just after her departure. These are the bold, familiar graphic punches thrown in a direction you weren’t expecting and can make you laugh.
In a media- and advertising-saturated society our tools of discernment and reason are compromised, deliberately so. Faile is recognizing some symptoms of this compromise and is examining the stories and the narratives that are told, crafting their own dramatic nomenclature from the pile. You might say that their stories are melding with an idealized simplification of North American white dude history, a heroic paranoid absolutism that lays bare the prejudices behind it.
These are Faile stories, reconfigured with a slicing knife down the middle of the belly, an idiosyncratic collaged pop/pulp style that owes as much to the Dadaist Hannah Höch and pop collage originator Richard Hamilton as it does to Lichtenstein’s sense of storybook romance and Warhol’s repetitive emotional distance.
In the book accompanying the exhibit, Sharon Matt Atkins, Vice Director for Exhibitions and Collections Management, who organized the exhibition, says the presentation of the arcade in a museum setting “highlights how the present work relates to the art of the past and expands our expectations of the use of public spaces dedicated to art.” Here, she says, “Deluxx Fluxx’s arcade machines, which are simultaneously sculptures and functioning games, may call to mind Surrealism, Dada, and Fluxus, as well as the enigmatic boxed assemblages of Joseph Cornell.”
Similarly, the signature Temple project has not been presented in its entirety in museum settings previously, and it feels like it is a bit of inspired genius when you are standing in its shadow beneath the soaring sky light at the Brooklyn Museum. The full scale church in ruins was presented out of doors in Praça dos Restauradores Square in Lisbon in conjunction with Portugal Arte in 2010. Echoing its surroundings in Lisbon, the Temple here is also a willful remix of the epic and the rather lesser so.
Culture-jamming at its height, it’s a punk subversion in ceramic, marble and iron that simultaneously genuflects and gives the finger to antiquity and to our soulless consumer culture. By casting reliefs of stylized font-work, romance novelette themes, and ads for call girls in puzzling non-sequitors, the Temple ridicules vapidity while honoring connections to age-old themes, sort of humbling all involved. Here again Faile is questioning the received wisdom of art history, religious customs, and tales of great societies we’ve learned to be reverent of, or maybe just questioning our true knowledge of history altogether.
During the last months while it was being unpacked and assembled we heard the Temple also called a tomb, a mausoleum, a chapel – the differences shared by their ties to the architecture and sculpture and tiled mosaics and ceramic under one roof. The roof in this case is destroyed – possibly because it caved in or because it was ripped off by an angry god who said, “You have missed my point entirely!”
In any case it is a formidable structure allowing meditation, reflection, confusion. In an act of ultimate bait and switch, Faile has deliberately played with what you are supposed to be paying attention to, substituting the associated original intended and inferred meanings of a religious institution and its power. You approach with reverence, looking perhaps for an allegorical means to access the transcendental, but expected symbols have been supplanted by the shallow relics of a culture you may have intended to escape.
Ultimately Faile is not unlike a lot of the world’s great religions; Comforting, reassuring, challenging, mysterious, inpenetrable. Sometimes you have the feeling that there are other people who understand it much better than you. Oh, ye of little Faile. Lean not upon your own understanding. Failes ways are not necessarily our ways. Whether these words and narratives are written by man or handed down from a higher power, why sweat it? It’s a holy good show.
With FAILE: Savage/Sacred Young Minds the Brooklyn museum is once again meaningfully invested in the present and jumped ahead in the examination of what clearly is the first global grassroots art movement, giving the stage to the current century’s voices of the street – perhaps because it has engaged with the city’s artists and communities.
With an enormous new Kaws sculpture in the lobby, Basquiat’s notebooks and Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition in the same year, Faile adds an important voice to the local/global narrative and to the dialogue about the appropriate role of art in the public sphere and major institutions in the cultural life of the community they a part of.
As lines continue to blur in fields of art and technology (and everything else) it is easier to see Street Art as an online/on-street diary, a forum for speech making, a laboratory for testing ideas, a publishing platform for the dispersing of truths and lies and theories and maxims and slogans and aphorisms. A timely new exhibition of personal notebooks by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat further affirms the direct relationship between the personal and the public voice of one New York expressionist, revealing lesser-known aspects of him as artist and individual.
A teenage poet on New York streets, Basquiat used his own brand of graffiti to pursue his own brand of fame. His text was intended in part as a visual element but unlike graffiti writers who produced ever more expressive tags during that heated moment in New York graffiti history, Basquiat also sought an audience who may be hip to his cerebral wordplay of poetry that puzzled and enticed – a foxy style of William Burroughs-inspired automatic writing he adapted for his own uses.
In Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, now running at The Brooklyn Museum until August 23rd, the genius of his fragmenting logic is revealed as a direct relationship between his private journals and his prolific and personally published aerosol missives on the streets of Manhattan’s Soho and Lower East Side neighborhoods in the late 1970s and 1980s.
These notebooks were for capturing ideas and concepts, preparing them, transmuting them, revising them, pounding them into refrains. In the same way his text (and glyphic) pieces on the street were not necessarily finished products each time; imparted on the run and often in haste, these unpolished missives didn’t require such preciousness.
The art collector Larry Warsh lends these eight notebooks that span 1981-1987, 160 pages in all, for you to scan and contemplate. New to most audiences, they also feel familiar. While they do not provide a play-by-play account of his daily affairs, they do provide insight into his state of mind, interests, and creative process. Knowing his reputation for being very aware of his public perception, you may wonder how private these were in his mind – if he was at least partially writing for a greater audience here sometimes as well.
But these are definitely his voice. Even in lengthier poetry pieces, Basquiats’ reductive approach to writing produces the same clipped cadences that appeared on walls and gallery paintings, a process of addition and subtraction that he could eventually pare down to one word that would command a canvas.
A two sided, free standing piece from 1982 midway through the gallery space gives a bittersweet focus to one of his aspirations, as well as to his application of photocopies of his own work in multiples on the canvas – a replication/repetition technique from commercial wildposting that was popularized on walls and lamp posts by graffiti writer/street artists like Revs and Cost in New York in the 90s.
“I think this show points out that the conceptual and poetic side of JMB’s work is central to and integrated with his more overtly visual and expressionistic paintings,” says Tricia Laughlin Bloom, who worked in collaboration with Dieter Bucchart, Guest Curator in organizing this exhibition. “He enjoyed exploring the play between text as visual sign or symbol and the layers of historical, sociological, personal meaning that words activate. Some of the very restrained word drawings and notebook entries are intensely expressionistic, for instance, without the use of gesture or color.”
Most riveting for the new generation of writers may be the film clips shot in 1980-81 during the filming of New York Beat (released in 2000 as Downtown 81). Not true documentary footage, it nevertheless captures the artist outside mark-making in a determined, self-aware, sometimes hesitating manner across walls with letters and lines of simple black aerosol.
Moving into “the City” from his middle class Brooklyn home as a teenager in the late 70s, you have to wonder how or if his street practice with friend Al Diaz had been influenced by the students and workers who wrote slogans, epigrams, maxims, in black aerosol letters during the Paris uprisings of 1968. Quick passages on the street then like “Sous les paves, la plage” (under the paving stones, the beach) also played with text and sometimes cryptic meaning in ways similar to his on city walls and in these notebooks. Neatly penned, his was a deliberate meditation and experiment with words – a process that allowed you to see the deletions and additions, fully part of the finished product.
“We were presented with the rare opportunity to exhibit Basquiat’s notebooks, which offer fascinating access to his thoughts and process,” says Sharon Matt Atkins, Vice Director for Exhibitions and Collections Management, when talking about the decision to mount Notebooks.
Of course its not the first time Street Artists have been featured meaningfully here. Under the guidance of Director Arnold L. Lehman the Brooklyn Museum has shown a serious and committed interest in highlighting the contributions of artists whose practice comes directly from the streets of New York and its graffiti/Street Art traditions; including the huge Basquiat show a decade ago, the Graffiti show in 2006, the more recent Keith Haring show, Swoon’s Submerged Motherlands last year, Olek’s display at the annual Artist’s Ball, and the upcoming Faile exhibit this July, which will also feature their collaboration with Bäst. For Matt Atkins, this show is in perfect alignment.
“The Brooklyn Museum has had a commitment to showing artists whose work embraces contemporary culture. Basquiat seamlessly synthesized the world around him in his art, including elements culled from the streets, music, literature, history, and more,” she says.
It has been 27 years since Basquiat died at the age of 27. Somehow you can imagine that mathematical equation appearing here on one of the larger canvases; dense with symbols, sentence fragments, lists and formulas. Sifting through the tenuously connected word constellation it occurs to you that people like Basquiat and Burroughs and the Beats were forebears of the post-Gutenberg dislocation of text from its moorings – one that we all swim in – with passages and words and texts floating to us and past us from multiple screens of varying sizes throughout each day.
As this stream of messages blurs from the intensely personal to the public spheres, this show confirms how the art-making process for the street has always been rich with storytelling, even if not evident at first. A show of this moment, seeing these notebooks first hand will complete a cycle for many.
We had an opportunity to speak further with one of the curators, Tricia Laughlin Bloom, about Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks.
Brooklyn Street Art:Often we think of the work we see on the street as part of a continuum, a conversation back and forth between the artist and the passerby. How does this exhibition illustrate the continuum that extends from private neatly penned journals to public aerosol missives? Tricia Laughlin Bloom: Going through the exhibition you find a lot of similarity between the voice he used in his street writing and in his notebooks, that also extends to his word paintings. Fragments of SAMO text recur in larger scale works that we have included, and many of his notebook passages read like they could have been SAMO texts.
Brooklyn Street Art:Can you describe the dynamic between yourself and the guest curator Dieter Buchhart and how it informed some of your joint decisions for presenting the work? Tricia Laughlin Bloom: Dieter brought the initial checklist together as Guest Curator, and we shaped it together from there. We both felt it was important that the show be about the notebooks—that the paintings and drawings should be carefully selected to compliment the notebooks and not overwhelm, and to highlight Basquiat the poet and thinker AND visual artist. Getting the right number of works and the precise balance was a long process, and many conversations.
Brooklyn Street Art:How has preparing this exhibition changed or affected your perception of his work in the intervening ten years since the “Basquiat” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, if at all? Tricia Laughlin Bloom: I was always a fan, and I loved the 2005 show, but I feel I understand him better and my admiration has deepened after the opportunity to work with the notebooks. It’s more intimate in scale and the whole experience feels more personal.
Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks is organized by Dieter Buchhart, Guest Curator, with Tricia Laughlin Bloom, former Associate Curator of Exhibitions, Brooklyn Museum and current Curator of American art at the Newark Museum.
With special thanks to Tricia Laughlin Bloom, Sharon Matt Atkins, and Sally Williams.
Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks at the Brooklyn Museum opens on April 3, 2015 to the general public. Click HERE for further details.