Walls come tumbling down
Has street art finally gone mainstream? A plethora of recent shows might suggest so
By Anny Shaw. Features, Issue 226, July-August 2011
Published online: 04 July 2011
The cancellation of the New York leg of “Art in the Streets” (at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art until 8 August, see p16) suggests that street art still faces some resistance from the mainstream art world. In a letter leaked to the LA Weekly blog, Arnold Lehman, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, which has a history of hosting graffiti exhibitions and where the show was due to travel next March, said the museum had been unable to secure any “major funding”. Meanwhile, speculation has mounted that the exhibition could attract a rise in vandalism and negative press.
“Art in the Streets”, however, despite drawing criticism from some sections of the media, has proved popular with visitors at the Los Angeles museum—which counts philanthropist Eli Broad among its supporters. This, together with several other dedicated museum shows, art fairs and biennales, and consistently high prices at auction, have all served to suggest that street art has grown up (a solo show by street artist Caledonia “Callie” Curry, aka Swoon, opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, on 3 September, until December 2012). But for many involved in the scene—from artists to art dealers and museum curators—the phenomenon is nothing new, with the distinction between street art and contemporary art, and the dialogue about street art joining the establishment, becoming all but redundant. “It’s old hat to say that street art is entering the mainstream,” says Nick Olney, the director of Paul Kasmin gallery which represents US painter and street art pioneer Kenny Scharf. “[Street artists] are not very comfortable with that label, they are not street artists who crossed into the gallery, they are artists who work in different ways.”
The origins of contemporary street art can be traced back to the graffiti movement that first grabbed attention in New York in the early 1970s. But, as Olney points out, New York in the 1970s was a time of innovation for contemporary art as a whole, with artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark and Trisha Brown producing performances and staging interventions in abandoned warehouses in the city. “There was so much happening in visual culture at that time, subway trains were being painted all around the city and [artists] were looking for alternative ways to show their art, which they would make in the street or in clubs,” says Olney. “In the 1970s that was the ethos—the whole city was a canvas.”
While art burst out of the confines of the gallery and into the city landscape during the 1960s and 1970s, objects and images from the street burrowed their way into art over the course of the 20th century, from Marcel Duchamp’s found objects, to the comic book characters that infiltrated pop art and the mass media photography that provided material for the appropriation artists of the 1980s. Indeed, in much the same way that the distinction between street art and contemporary art has been eroded, the difference between high and low art becomes ever more obsolete.
“Most street artists look to Warhol and other pop artists and use popular images as the basis of their work,” says British street artist Ben Eine, whose work, Twenty-First-Century City, 2008, was presented to Barack Obama by David Cameron last summer. “Street art is a culture of appropriation,” he added. Los Angeles-based artist Shepard Fairey, who shot to fame after his 2008 Obama “Hope” poster campaign (the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC acquired the stencilled portrait of the US president in 2009) says that it is the democratic context of the street rather than being a street artist that defines his practice. “I just consider myself an artist, and I make stuff to communicate with people in multiple contexts, one of which—a very important one—is the street because of how direct it is, how democratic and populist it is. It’s not elitist,” he says. (Fairey has a solo show at Copenhagen’s V1 gallery from 5 July to 3 August.)
The idea of a democratic museum that could exist outside of the physical confines and conventions of the traditional museum was explored in André Malraux’s 1947 essay, the “Museum Without Walls”, in which the French writer expounded the virtues of a museum that was readily accessible to everyone, not just an elite few, through photographic reproductions of works of art. The practice of Paris-based street artist and photographer, JR, who produces what he calls “photograffiti”—giant photographic portraits that he pastes onto city walls—takes its cue from this egalitarian spirit. “JR is a photographer, whose work has social and political meaning, rather than a street artist. He considers the street as the largest museum in the world,” says art dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, who represents JR and had three photographs of the French artist’s street work—which Perrotin describes as “the memory of his ephemeral actions”—on his stand at Art Basel this year, priced between €28,000-€36,000. British street art dealer Steve Lazarides agrees: “Someone like JR is not really a street artist, he is a photographer who uses the street as a medium to get his message across.” Indeed, JR has a high profile in the art world. His work currently features in two museum shows: “Paris-Delhi-Bombay” at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (until 19 September) and “Art in the Streets”.
Yet despite street art being increasingly seen as a sub-set of contemporary art, there still remain noteable distinctions, particularly in terms of the interaction between street artists and the commercial sector. Some chose to follow street art’s DIY ethic to the letter and shun gallery representation in favour of going it alone. “There will always be the artists who want to stay true and have no representation in galleries, have no affiliations with museums, who maybe wouldn’t even sell a piece of art or make a t-shirt for someone,” says Roger Gastman, a former graffiti artist from Washington, DC who co-curated “Art in the Streets”. “There are some purists in the culture who just want to do their own thing.”
Mexican curator Pedro Alonzo, who organised “Spank the Monkey” at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England, in 2006 and who joined the ICA, Boston, last November as an adjunct curator, where he is currently organising the “Swoon” show, says street artists are adept at creating their own systems outside of the art world. “They don’t depend on galleries as much as other artists do, they don’t depend on the art world in the same way,” he says. “If street artists want to do a show, they go out and do it in the street and in some cases they get a lot more media attention than the museum shows.”
Indeed, many street artists have historically managed to bypass the whole gallery system. “The main difference is that when most students leave art school with their degrees, which many street artists have, they get onto this art world track of looking for a gallery, looking for a show and that whole networking that prepares you for Hauser & Wirth, or the other big galleries,” says Alonzo. “[Street artists] have dedicated very little to that and they can function outside of that.”
Street artists, however, are increasingly finding gallery representation, either with blue-chip galleries such as Perrotin (JR and Kaws) and Kasmin (Scharf), or with specialist street art galleries such as Lazarides or the Los Angeles-based White Walls or in previous years, before Jeffrey Deitch left New York to head up LA Moca, Deitch Projects. “The street art world initially developed independently of the gallery system against what was perceived as the elitist and stuffy attitude of the galleries,” says Alonzo. “But that is definitely changing. Street artists are becoming more familiar with the art world, they are engaging with it.” Gastman says many of the artists in “Art in the Streets” are represented at some level by a gallery. “If they don’t have gallery representation in the traditional way, they at least have galleries that they often work with,” he says. “The gallery world and art dealers are not a foreign language to them, they understand it.”
Lazarides, who set up his first gallery, The Outsiders (Lazarides prefers to call his artists “outsiders” or “innovators” rather than street artists), in London’s Soho in 2006, and whose stable of artists includes Antony Micallef, Blu, Faile, Invader, Jonathan Yeo and Vhils, says that art dealers are necessary to help street artists develop their careers. “To a degree, street artists represent themselves,” he says. “But when you’re trying to move up to the next level, there needs to be a certain amount of professionalism about where things are going and it’s very difficult for street artists to do that themselves.” Ironically, Banksy—arguably Lazarides’ most successful artist (Banksy’s work regularly achieves six-figure sums at auction)—parted company with Lazarides in 2007, ten years after the pair first met, to go it alone, setting up his own company, Pest Control, which authenticates his work and acts as his broker.
Not a fan of the traditional booth format of art fairs—including Moniker, the first fair dedicated entirely to street art that launched to coincide with Frieze Art Fair in London last year—Lazarides, whose clients have in the past included celebrities such as Christina Aguilera, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, as well as collectors including Aby Rosen and Anita Zabludowicz, is returning for the second time to the Old Vic Tunnels by London’s Waterloo station to produce an exhibition of installations and performances during Frieze week this year. Lazarides is also planning a $2m festival of street art, film and music to run alongside Art Basel Miami Beach in December.
Despite gaining market legitimacy—Bonhams held its first ever dedicated sale of street art in 2008 and more recently, Artnet held “Urban Scrawl: Graffiti and Street” from 21 to 28 June which featured works by JR and Kaws—the relationship between street art and the commercial sector remains a tricky one. For some street artists, any negotiation with the private sector is a sign of selling out. And for a movement that has its roots in what is mostly, by legal definition, vandalism, it seems there will always be some resistance to entering the mainstream. “The great thing about street art is that it’s an act of defiance,” says Fairey, who has been arrested a number of times during his career. “No matter how many forms street art takes, and how accepted it is by the art world, it can’t be altogether institutionalised because it is in itself an illegal act.”
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