They may be the gritty bad boys and girls of the art world, operating under the cover of darkness and disguise, hiding identities with superhero monikers, and risking arrest by illegally plastering the exteriors of buildings with their work, but street artists, it turns out, have a softer side.
For Ad Hoc Art’s current show, “Behind the Seen,” art skulker Michael De Feo has assembled a varied and revealing collection by asking 40 of his compatriots from around the world to send him something not meant to sit outside— created, in other words, without regard for dodging cops, and most interesting, without the limiting concerns for street cred.
To establish any kind of lasting reputation on the street as an artist, you pretty much have to think (ironically enough) like a corporation’s ad department: Establish a brand, preferably one that’s graphically bold and fairly simple (a figure, a symbol, or a general style), and then make it ubiquitous. Repeat it on as many facades as you can until no one mistakes you for someone else. The method takes time and perseverance and leaves little room for subtlety or experimentation. The successful street artist becomes the brand: De Feo has his iconic flower, Skewville carries authority with those muscled letters, Judith Supine stamps an identity with garish green faces.
But De Feo doesn’t necessarily want to be forever known as the Flower Guy (he works on other projects), and he was correct in assuming other artists would also have interests that didn’t involve the street. The Ad Hoc show reveals some surprises—you mean he did that?—but it’s just as intriguing to see how the signature street styles are reflected, or in some cases anticipated, in these more personal works.
Take Swoon’s entry. Renowned for her graceful paper cutouts of various figures (mystical women, the working class), Swoon has decided to include something entirely different: a series of photos from a trip she made to Cuba. They’re printed on thin squares of paper, several of which are torn or stained, and tacked to the wall with long pins. Like a hastily assembled shrine, the collection seems as far from her familiar work as you could get. But look at the photographs closely (they’re small) and besides noticing that Swoon has a fine eye for composition and color, you’ll see that many of them could be studies for her cutouts. Here’s the same interest in saintly and angelic faces, the expressions of burden, and childhood games—many of the photos giving (also like her cutouts) a shrewdly inconspicuous sense of motion. One photograph of a laughing dark-skinned girl is a virtual twin of one of her more widely known works.
Likewise, the French artist who calls himself L’Atlas has offered a gentler version of his meticulously designed geometric symbols—maze-like enclosures and space-alien hieroglyphics—which are almost mathematical in their precision. He typically affixes them to walls, fences, and (literally) the streets, placing angular compasses on sidewalks and covering manhole lids with enigmatic patterns he calls “cosmic points.” It’s the iron lid, which obviously holds L’Atlas’s affection, that appears in this show. But the work isn’t cosmic at all. Rather, it’s a wonderfully down-to-earth aerosol “rubbing” of a manhole cover in Paris. The lid’s interlocking pattern of grooves, white on black, have almost certainly been an inspiration for the artist’s slick mazes, but here the imprint has diffused the lines into a dreamy, soft-focus glow—an appropriate effect for this tender gesture toward an objet d’amour.
Elbow Toe, too, has created an intimate version of his typical work, those sinuous larger-than-life etchings of figures who seem to writhe in some sort of torment. A portrait of Sara Schiller (who, with hubby Marc, runs the street-art showcase Wooster Collective) flows across the sides of an old bread box. An elegant collage of layered paper strips, it brings to mind the lurid but loving frankness of Alice Neel.
In other parallels between inside and outside, early studio works from Blek le Rat and Shepard Fairey hint at what would later appear on the street. Blek, a 56-year-old Parisian, is the father of the figurative stencil, a style he launched many years ago for his black-and-white characters (everybody from soldiers to piping fawns) by borrowing methods of shading from woodcuts, comic books, and the photographic negative. Solid and realistic, the stencils have always carried the weight and depth of painting. Blek’s contribution to the show is exactly that: a superb rendering in oil, and in color, of a young dark-haired boy before a city wall that’s been tagged here and there with graffiti (including Blek’s first street incarnation, the rat). He stands there a little bewildered, delicately outlined in black, as if he were a stencil who had just emerged from the wall into human form.
From Fairey, there’s a foggy, silk-screened photograph of an antiquated gas pump that’s dominated by a sign stating WARNING NO SMOKING and, right below it, a ghostly shape that resembles a skull. From 1990, it’s an ominous but milder precursor to the retro style and blocky menacing text of Fairey’s infamous Obey Giant campaign, which would later make him a superstar.
There are significant deviations, too. Lister, an Australian street artist whose washed-out palette, restless lines, and cubist tendencies sometimes remind you of cartoonist William Stieg, has constructed a small knobby sculpture of wooden parts, painted all black. A kind of minimalist and introspective folk piece, it would never be noticed on the street. Old-timer Richard Hambleton, notorious in the ’70s and ’80s for his murder outlines and painted shadows that startled even the savviest New Yorkers, presents a lush dark-green landscape (part of his “Beautiful Painting” series) that’s Chinese in form but abstract at the edges with thickly applied enamel; Hambleton has been working on this style for over a decade, but he’s been so reclusive that it seems like a radical shift. For his part, De Feo has fashioned a frightening bust of himself that resembles an African mask, entirely built (don’t tell FDNY) from Black Cat firecrackers, with a central fuse emerging from the top. Clearly, De Feo is eager to destroy the Flower Guy typecasting.
With a couple of exceptions, the show does a similar thing for the artists it features—breaking down that barrier between the public persona (monikers and attitudes) and the sensitive artist behind it. But, in general, the distinctions that street art has implied over the years—defiance versus compliance, underground versus commercial, avenger versus guardian—don’t seem to mean much anymore. These days, what goes up on the side of a building is often less a protest against “the system” than just another means for expression—and a pretty good way of getting serious attention. Taught in schools, launching lucrative careers in design, and fetching high prices at galleries, street art is edging closer to the mainstream, if it hasn’t already arrived.
True, some people are uneasy about that. Aiko, a very successful stencil artist (and former member of Faile, the street-art collective) who’s starting a jewelry line, specifically created a number of small, less expensive paintings for the show to preserve some connection—as gallery director Andrew Ford describes it—to the idea of art for everybody. For better or for worse, that might be as close as today’s art rebels come to rebellion.