BSMT Space launched a new gallery in Dalston this month, with Underhand, a Street Art exhibition, curated by Greg Key, and drawing from the global community of Street Art. Artists from Los Angeles, New York, London, Chile, Greece, Norway, France, Poland and the UK are among those represented in the show.
The Community of Street Art
Street Art, a particular passion of BSMT Space, is very much a global community. Although associated with vandalism and the gang violence of a few American cities, in the minds of many, the Street Artists represented at BSMT Space are a thoughtful, articulate, sensitive and creative group of individuals.
Academics and lawmakers continue to debate whether Street Art is to be viewed as a crime, or as an art form. In London, we understand that many legal walls and tunnels exist for the practice of Street Art and graffiti letter writing and so, this magazine leaves aside the legal debate and does not condone or promote illegal activity. Where illegal painting does occur, (in the absence of any other additional crime), it seems that the marking of a wall entails damage to property, rather than assault to individuals, and so perhaps the punishment might be best aligned with other forms of property damage.
With motives and messages as diverse as the number of individuals, all share a common drive to exercise freedom of thought and freedom of expression at a time when these very freedoms are at risk. Some may paint illegally; many paint only legal walls – but all seem to attract the label of “outsider” artists who view the street as a place to reclaim and remake the city, community and society.
Street Art often takes as it’s subject the poor, the homeless, and the marginalised, and reclaims and proclaims the difficult aspects of life that consumer culture represses with a plethora of glossy images of perfection. Street Art often expresses uncomfortable truths. Within this urban artists’ salon (the street), art works both eschew and comment upon the hierarchical structures of power politics in modern society, including those that exist within the art world, itself.
As outsiders to the mainstream art world, a sense of community and mutual support appears to be a central value of most Street Artists one meets. Arrive in most towns wanting to paint or paste-up works and the Street Art community will help newcomers find safe and legal spaces for expression. Far from a closed and self-serving network, Street Artists are often charitable and many walk the talk of local community activism, donating their time and their art to community projects.
As a repository for both our spiritual and shadow selves, Street Art offers a beacon to help us return wholeness to the psyche of the urban communities of mankind.
The first piece to sell at the opening night was “Self Portrait,” by Los Angeles based artist Monsù Plin.
Similar in style to the characters painted by Plin on the streets, the piece draws upon a global art history with hints of expressionism, cubism and the indigenous and folk art of Central and South America.
The piece depicts three states of being, leaving the viewer to question if this is three perspectives of the same object or whether it represents three emotional states in a given space and time, or indeed, whether this is a reference to the indigenous view of time as circular, where each episode of life is a repetition of a former moment and a precursor of the future.
Like Plin’s street work, the piece strips away the artifice of ego, leaving the viewer facing the primal essence within us all. The powerful figure conjures the notion of the spirit totem which protects the keeper from evil and evokes the concept of the community Shaman who exists at once, in all times, states of consciousness and places.
With this piece, the exhibition summons and includes both threatened indigenous communities and mankind’s ancestors and future generations.
Like that of Monsù Plin, the work of UK artist, 616, evokes tribal and indigenous memory from the collective unconscious.
Repetition of line hypnotizes the viewer and leaves one unable to discern the origins of the patterns from any particular culture. The art suggests African, Polynesian, South American and Aboriginal tribal markings and speaks to the commonality of symbolic language found around the globe.
With a subtle witticism characteristic of the works of 616, the painting on handsaw reminds us that for all our technical advancement and urban amenities, we are all still essentially cave dwellers who have evolved little from our leap of advancement: the hand tool.
The unspecified origin of the markings coupled with the reminder of our origins confirms our membership in a single tribe: Mankind.
In his own 3-faced piece, spirituality and transformation are central themes of the art of New York based artist, Pyramid Oracle. “Evocations Revolve” infuses the show with an otherworldly spirit that is characteristic of the artist’s street pieces.
The surrealism of the piece seems to call forth a dream from the collective unconsciousness which binds all of humanity in a community of image and myth. Like Pyramid Oracle’s street pieces, “Evocations Revolve” highlights our struggle to maintain the veneer of an unchanging yet false story of the meaning of “reality”.
The man’s face is weathered, wild and weary, and one face melts into the next. Two faces gaze directly at the viewer, while the central one gazes heavenward, drawing our attention to the unseen. It is this unseen essence that links each to the community of souls. And, it is this, which lies just beyond our cognition, which seems to infuse light into Pyramid Oracle’s weathered faces, filling them with their profound beauty.
As in many of his works, Pyramid Oracle celebrates the sacred in what we have otherwise discarded – the elderly and the poor. In seeing them thus restored, the viewer participates in welcoming the marginalised back into “community.”
The theme of myth, legend and collective need for meaning is echoed by artists like Captain Kris, SpZero76, and the Real Dill whose character based artwork takes us into the world of storytelling.
The style, associated with comics, ‘zines and graphic novels throughout the world, expresses the need for myth and joins a tradition dating to ancient times where symbolic language and image helped define ourselves, our gods, heroes, and communities, through storytelling.
It is through our stories that mankind has handed down our histories and linked successive generations to their ancestors.
Like ‘zines, which are sometimes sexually explicit and associated with bawdy humour, Saki and Bitches presents voluptuous and sensuous women in poses and situations one might associate with the male gaze and erotica. Rather than objectify these women, the viewer is challenged to integrate the image of raw feminine sexuality.
In a similar way to Captain Kris, SpZero76 and the Real Dill, these works – whether on the street or inside the cover of ‘zines – reclaim the repressed shadow side of our collective unconsciousness as a part of our heroic visions of ourselves.
As a community of mankind, we are made whole by being able to witness these projections of our baser instincts and to accept them as part of ourselves.
With a stylistic nod to late New York Street Artist, Basquiat, Skeleton Cardboard’s style of paint and drawing on reclaimed and found objects adds a further international flavour to the show.
Like Basquiat, Skeleton Cardboard uses social commentary as a springboard to deeper truths about the individual in society through dichotomies such as wealth versus poverty, connection versus disconnection, and self awareness versus self image. Skeleton Cardboard’s art challenges and dismantles our assumptions of the good life. His merry skeletons seem blissfully unaware that they are dead, just as a culture of media munching, socially networked individuals have forgotten how to think independently and to connect to one another.
A darker view of community is communicated. Yet, by holding up a mirror to society, Skeleton Cardboard’s work offers an alternative way forward to connection.
The marriage of image with text and symbols, drawing, and painting, goes well beyond the heyday of graffiti in New York, evoking ancient and prehistoric times and reminds us that we are, indeed, a link in the DNA chain of a mankind struggling to form and maintain structures of clan, tribe and community.
UK artist, Fanakapan has long worked with the dichotomy of innocence and violence, with his balloon and candy characters that evoke memories of our own childhoods. Sometimes playful and joyous and sometimes violent and macabre, his works challenge viewers to consider the ways in which we gloss over uncomfortable truths and sometimes re-invent “false memories” of happier times.
Whether the “Inflatable horse children of the apocalypse” series encourages us to throw off the veils of illusion of the re-invented childhoods that we, as adults, have used to cope with our pasts, or indeed whether we are meant to be encouraged to live our short lives to the fullest, one thing is certain: Fanakapan conveys the one universal truth which links all of mankind – the inevitability that birth is always chased by death.
Death looms in much of the work of Chilean born artist, Otto Schade. “Extreme Fishing” is part of the artist’s oeuvre which focuses on the dichotomy between innocence (or ignorance) and violence at the societal level.
Familiar images of children at play are disrupted, as weapons – most often weapons of war – replace familiar objects of play. The children continue playing, ignorant of the deadly nature of the game.
Otto Schade challenges the viewer to question the way in which we have come to see war as a game. We have become desensitized to the brutality of killing, from playing violent and realistic virtual war games and from accepting the convoluted and dispassionate language of the killing machinery of modern warfare. The death of a human being is described as as a “win” when an enemy is killed (“target acquired”) and as a “clerical error” when our own soldiers die (“collateral damage”).
The artist confronts the viewer with the blood on our own hands as we turn a blind eye to the reality of the game. In “Extreme Fishing” the gun that is hooked by the boy’s fishing line points towards the boy. Death is a moment away, and calls into question the very future of humanity if we fail to stop playing the game.
The future of humanity is called into question as well in Illuzina’s piece, “Gaia”. In the piece, the mother goddess, Gaia, is represented with reference to images of early feminism, particularly the black lesbian feminist who was, for a long time, marginalised in a movement that had been dominated by the perspective of white middle class, Northern privilege.
The painting portrays woman as a powerful agent and offers positive racial and queer imagery. Referencing the 1970s Black Exploitation genre of Northern cinema, it also calls forth and embraces the global South which has been exploited by the global North for her natural resource riches.
It is the obsession with excessive consumption in the North which has already triggered unpredictable and destructive impacts of man-made climate change. The global South, with its inability to adapt to these changes, stands to suffer most.
Despite historical geo-politics, we are reminded that the population of the global South constitutes the majority of mankind. The work not only gives prominence to the South in planetary dialogue but positions the planet as the centre of the discourse.
Illuzina’s work reminds us that there is no future for the community of mankind if we destroy the planet. If She dies, we all die, and we will all join the voices of our ancestors in a community of the dead.
Yet, the piece offers hope. Gaia sits in a state of potential – unplugged and disconnected to her power.
The message of the piece, and perhaps an underlying theme in much of the Street Art in the Underhand exhibition is this: the marginalised are the majority. This majority, once awakened and connected to their power as a community, can create positive social, environmental, political and spiritual change.
Many other talented artists not already mentioned have outstanding works in the show, making this exhibition well worth the visit.
Underhand runs at BSMT Space until 21 September.