Archive for the ‘Meggs’ Tag

The Underbelly Project

As is by now well known to almost everybody with an interest in street art (and to quite a few more besides), a massive art project was organised by two individuals in New York City, and carried out with the involvement of more than 100 different artists from a range of countries – The Underbelly Project.

News of Underbelly recently broke in the New York Times and the London Times , and it’s fair to say that there has been quite the media furore about it.

(For many Australian readers, it may come as both a relief and a surprise to learn that ‘Underbelly’ refers to something other than an initially interesting and then subsequently tacky TV show on Channel 9….)

Underbelly, as an art project, is one of great audacity. It displays the work of the 100-plus artists on walls around a disused subway station in New York City. Painting had to be done in secret, during the night, and at some risk to the participants. It involved months of planning, organisation and execution, including documenting the artwork through photography and film. Artists whose work is displayed include Faile, Anthony Lister, Swoon, Indigo, Logan Hicks, Dan Witz, Rone, Meggs, PAC, Stormie Mills, Remi/Rough, Elbow-toe, Roa, Imminent Disaster, Mark Jenkins, Sheone, Smith/Sane, Revok and many more. You can see some of the works on Vandalog among other sites.

In April this year, I spent a few weeks in New York City, and met up with one of the two people behind Underbelly. I watched as he scrolled through dozens of astonishing photographs on his computer, explaining how lights had to be brought into the pitch blackness of the tunnel both for the artists to work and for the documentation of the process to be possible. Once the final piece had been painted, he told me, the entrance to the platform would be sealed off, and the location would be kept secret, so that the art would remain, and the documentation would attest to its existence, but no-one would be able to sell the images or to destroy it (time and the inhospitably humid environment of the tunnel would do that).

Hearing this account and seeing the images, I was quite awestruck. The project is so huge – partly because of the number of artists involved, with many coming from overseas, so even simply the logistics of coordinating visits to the tunnel, and allocating space within it was a major undertaking. It is also huge in that its execution took place over several months, in which the project, its nature and location must have been one of the best kept secrets in street art.

I was also captivated by the idea of taking street art underground, to a location that intersects with the history of graffiti and subway writing. I listened to the account of how the project would be independent of the art market, with the works existing within the tunnel, unable to be sold off afterwards (something that sounded extremely compelling, given that even works placed on the street for public enjoyment have often been removed in order to be sold).

And I must admit what got me the most was the idea that the tunnel would be sealed and no-one would be able to get in to see the artworks. It did give me a slight pang to think that such amazing works would be hidden from all spectators, but that was far outweighed for me by the romance of the idea that the artists would make the works, underground, in secret, in a space that acknowledges street art’s debt to the cultures of subway writing, and then that space, with all its beautiful artworks, would be sealed….

The very motivation behind Underbelly was a romantic one, I think. The project was born in the shared appreciation of two individuals for the empty and forgotten spaces of the city. It remained true to that shared sensibility; and it did not warp into something commercial.

It was one of the most exciting initiatives that I have come across, in all the years I’ve been thinking and researching in this area.

It felt incredibly exciting to see the media coverage of the project, and to see photographs of the works published so that they could be seen by others.

And my admiration for its creators knows no bounds.

But over the last several days, it would seem that, amongst the admiration and appreciation that has been offered, there are those who see Underbelly differently. Some seem to see it as a challenge, as if the organisers are saying, ‘go on, try and find it, bet you can’t…’ (see here for a forum in which some discuss how to find the tunnel and their experience of being arrested in doing so). Others seem to see it as a provocation, as though its existence needs to be condemned: this includes, interestingly, both the police, who are basically stationed at the location at present and arresting anyone who enters it, and individuals who have reportedly entered the tunnel and trashed some of the works. Still others have criticised the project’s creators, accusing them of cashing in,by making a documentary film about the project (this seems like such a bizarre criticism, given that the organisers felt that a film would allow a wider audience to get access to works that would otherwise be hidden from view. Full disclosure: I was interviewed about the project for the film.).

So: is there no romance left in street art? Maybe cynicism has taken hold of many of these commentators and critics, but in my opinion, the very existence of The Underbelly Project is a testament to the fact that some people in the world of street art (from the organisers through the artists who took part to the bloggers who visited the site and kept its secrets) still believe there is a place for hopeless romance amid the commercial imperatives of the market.

O Superman

Sometimes travel provides an occasion to reflect upon the place you’ve left behind… While I was in New York recently, there were two different kinds of ‘home’ that I felt conscious of having left.

One was England (or Britain, I suppose). I left Britain in 1995, when I moved to Melbourne, but New York this April was full of buzz about the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy’s movie, which I have written about here and here already, and I certainly think of Banksy as a quintessentially English (or British) artist…

New York was also full of visual reminders of Melbourne, the city that became my adopted home. As I mentioned before, one of them was Meggs’s stickers, which I saw in many places around New York.

I’ve written about Meggs before (see here), and in that entry I was discussing his work in conjunction with that of Anthony Lister, an Australian artist from Brisbane, living in New York these last several years. There are several different consonances between these two in terms of their artistic preoccupations, but in terms of simple coincidence it was amusing that while I was in New York, Anthony Lister was paying a visit to Melbourne, where he had a show at Metro Gallery.

But it’s not as though Lister was entirely gone from New York. His stickers are still very much present on the streets:

And the front of Faile’s studio was adorned with this wonderful Lister painting:

Lister also had a solo show, How to Catch a Time-Traveller, at Lyons Wier Gallery in April, running simultaneously with the Melbourne show.

Meggs and Lister are linked by more than a common nationality; there’s a strong thematic link in their fascination with the superheroes of popular culture, and comics in particular. Both create painted works as well as their own versions of action figures, miniatures and busts. Both Meggs and Lister show superheroes as figures of crisis, barely holding themselves together in the face of unknown assailants or obligations.

But in representing these highly familiar figures away from the context of comics, their methods with paint are very different, however. Meggs uses a combination of stencils and techniques from graffiti art; Lister is evolving a style that recalls Francis Bacon’s way of blurring the painted figure to create a sense both of movement and of the disintegration of the self.

In Lister’s show at Lyons Wier, its title alludes to the idea that these figures are in motion – the artist is the one with the power to stop time, to freeze the disintegrating superhero for an instant, for our scrutiny. Lister’s had a prolific career on the street for a long time, and it’s fantastic to see his painterly skills evolving. Maybe Lister’s thematic will start to broaden a little so that it is no longer simply the superhero which is subject to examination. Charlie Isoe’s current show at Lazarides in London, while containing a lot of works that seemed to me to be somewhat similar, disappointingly, to Lister’s style, showed at least what can be achieved when a wider range of objects are brought into the paintings.

What next, Mr Lister? Can’t wait to see.

Lapse of time II

As mentioned in the previous post, when I visited New York in 2005, I spent a lot of time walking around the Lower East Side, the East Village, and SoHo, and there was, as you can see in the photos, a vibrant street art culture taking place there. Arriving here two weeks ago, I knew that the scene had shifted, that gentrification had caused many artists to move out of Manhattan and into areas like Williamsburg in Brooklyn, but on my first day here I took a walk around the areas that had been so filled with artworks five years ago.

My memories of that previous visits are so clear (and the photographs I took are much treasured), so it felt quite disorienting to discover how much those areas of the city have changed. I know that cities don’t stay the same, of course, that they are constantly engaged in a process of transformation and redefinition. This process is often imperceptible when you live in the city, but when you make occasional visits separated by a gap of several years, sometimes the differences are striking.

And so in 2010 I discovered that the Orchard Street Gallery was no more (but I was relieved to find out that Ali Ha and Ad DeVille have opened Factory Fresh in Bushwick instead). I couldn’t see many stencils or paste-ups. There were loads of tags, and a huge amount of sticker action, especially on phone booths, mail boxes and doorways. The desire to exploit the adhesive nature of certain surfaces leads to some pleasing accidental patterns, as you can see below:

I also came across a nice dripped portrait:

New to me also was this massive piece by WK Interact, which you can see up on the rooftop, below the billboard for Marina Abramovic’s show at MoMA:

There were also some works by artists who were not on the scene 5 years ago, such as Elbow-Toe:

And, late on my first day in New York, while I was still feeling as though I was somewhat in between two cities, I came across an image from home.

In the midst of other stickers and tags on this doorway, there’s a sticker which says ‘Damn You Meggs’ – Meggs is a member of the Everfresh collective in Melbourne (and I’ve written here previously about his work in connection with that of D*face and Anthony Lister).

Seeing this sticker reminded me how important travel is in the world of street art – that artists can circulate around different cities, bringing their images from one to another, and that the result is a strong community, so that you can feel at home, even when you are 12,000 miles away.

Superheroes forever…?

I’ve been thinking a lot about superheroes lately. This might sound odd, but they seem to be in the cultural (and political) air at the moment.

Superheroes have featured in recent shows by three artists: Anthony Lister, an artist from Brisbane who now lives and works in Brooklyn; D*Face, one of the mainstays of the London street art scene; and Meggs, based in Melbourne. All of them feature superhero figures in their work – and all of these superheroic figures are in some way twisted, or subverted, or undercut in the way they are depicted by the artists.

Lister has had two shows recently, one at Elms Lesters in London (with WK Interact), and ‘This Won’t Change Anything’ at metro 5 gallery in Melbourne. I only got the briefest glimpse of the Melbourne show, but I think there are some really interesting things going on in his work right now. The figures in his works emerge out of the paint, alluded to rather than rendered in explicit detail.. Colours are sometimes thin, pale or insubstantial, almost gauzy. The combination of these inchoate figures and Lister’s ethereal brushstrokes creates a superhero who is rather less than heroic – a fleeting character rather than one with the definitive qualities of the hero.

In D*Face’s current show ‘Apopcalypse’, at Black Rat Press in London, several works feature superheroes. In one, Batman is shown hanging by the neck from a noose; in another, part of Superman’s face has been replaced by a ghastly skull. These characters, usually associated with strength, invincibility and power, are in this show made problematic. Their presence seems less to do with ‘saving the world’ (as superheroes conventionally do) and more to do with (the evils of) capitalism.

Many of the works in this show take a swipe at the institutions of capitalism (see for example ‘American Depress’, an ‘altered’, expanded replica of the Amex credit card). What then should we make of an image such as Batman hanged by the neck? Is he the victim of a corrupt system? Or is he a part of that corruption? The link between superheroes and capitalism does not, in these strange times, seem at all strained: merchant bankers have previously shown, in their uncritical adoption of Tom Wolfe’s critical epithet ‘masters of the universe’, that they are not averse to viewing themselves as all-powerful superheroes. And I write this entry on a day when I read in the London newspapers that the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is being described as ‘a superhero’ by European financiers for his bailout of the banks. Perhaps the current global financial crisis gives D*Face’s critique of capitalist superheroes an unexpectedly topical edge.

in Meggs’ recent work, the ‘Own Worst Enemy’  show at Dont Come gallery in Melbourne and which can be seen here, there’s no critique of capitalism, but it’s possible to read the works as a critique of powerful masculinity. The images draw heavily on comics and their rendition of the superhero, but rather than depicting singular characters (a ‘Batman’, a ‘Phantom’ and so on), these works feature a figure who is an uncomfortable hybrid of several superheroes. His costume sometimes shows the pointed ears of Batman, sometimes the purple colours of the Phantom, sometimes a winged helmet, sometimes the features of He-Man, and so on. In looking at the figures we recognize each of these as markers of the various superheroes, and thus subscribe to the idea that by means of such markers we can identify them – only to find that the figures resist easy identification, always presenting themselves as uncertain amalgamations and alternatives.

And ‘uncertain’ is a key word here. The figure embodies uncertainty. In a number of images his face grimaces in pain or distress; in others, he cowers away from an unseen threat or attacker. In one series (‘Don’t Know, Don’t Care’), he turns his head away, eyes closed, saying, ‘Don’t…’. The depiction of a superhero in postures of distress, uncertainty, powerlessness or injury radically undercuts the standard associations we have for such figures, converting them from figurs of salvation and rescue, into characters who may need rescue themselves.

Which means that, adapting the classic question ‘who guards the guards’, we should ask, ‘who is there to save a saviour?’. When ‘white knights’ and superheroes are incomplete, corruptible, or vulnerable, it may well be time to reconsider our cultural and political assumption that there will always be someone to rescue us.

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