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Daily Archives: August 3, 2008

The Goods vs Bad Rebels

Stencil artist John Koleszar asked me polemically at the Melbourne Stencil Festival, “Why are there so few stencil artist in the big galleries?” and then mentioned some exhibition in a US public gallery where the artist had displayed no skill, technique or imagination.

Stencil artists reject of the mainstream contemporary art institutions (galleries and art schools). Banksy even played pranks on them. The typical stencil artist has a commercial art background. There is a lot of pride in the street art world for skill and technical ability. Koleszar’s own experience as a commercial printer provided many of the technical concepts, like registration marks, necessary for stencil art.

Banksy is not an art school drop out. Ha Ha was a security guard before he was a street artist. Street art, unlike punks, have few art school connections and was, therefore alienated from the art institutions both personally and geographically. Unlike punk, street artists were not trained in the current art theories and so did not provide a reflection of them in their work.

Punks were inspired by Gustav Metzger’s destructive art and other modern art.  Early The Clash performed in Pollock inspired paint splattered overalls. Punk’s do-it-yourself no skills required attitude was the culmination of generations of modern artists seeking inspiration in the primitive, the child-like and the street. And punk created another generation of artists, like Judy Watson, who aspired to bad painting and art that looked crude and unskilled.

Street art and stencil art is, in part, a reaction against punk; even if Malcolm McLaren had a hand in marketing both the Sex Pistols and Buffalo Gals. There are so many contrasts between punk and hip-hop: aesthetic, social and commercial.

Although some street artists have successfully bridged the gap between the street and art galleries most do not attempt this. About half of street artists are anonymous even to their peers; Russell Howze said that he was only able to credit about half of the artists whose work appears in his book Stencil Nation. Even successful street artists will use alternative methods of selling their art (e.g. internet sales) and, alternative products and multi-level marketing (e.g. t-shirts, limited editions vinyl toys and original art). And the major art galleries are institutionally unused to dealing with alternate marketing and prefer to look at art school graduates exhibiting at established commercial galleries.

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Conversations at the Stencil Festival

Conversations with the international stencil artists at the stencil festival. Talking with John Koleszar, a stencil artist in a conservative town in Arizona and with Russell Howze from San Francisco, author of Stencil Nation. I wasn’t really interviewing them; I didn’t have any questions prepared like the other journalist at the gallery. I wasn’t in a journalist mode as I was taking a break from preparing the gallery for the exhibition. I was just listening to what they had to say about the art in the exhibition. Russell Howze tells me about that stencil art is common on the sidewalks in San Francisco and New York rather than on the walls.

I learnt a new term “spaghetti style stencils”; as a critic I am interested in term to describe images. Ralf Kempken’s recent work uses spaghetti style stencils, long thin lines of contrasting color that form an image. Kempken has cut the strips right out of the canvas, using the white gallery wall for contrast. We are all very impressed with Kempken’s series of images made from long lines cut out of the canvas that form a picture a right distance.

John Koleszar and Russell Howze talked about the love of hand-cutting stencils and spray-cans. This love of stencil cutting is evident in Koleszar’s multi-layered work, that take months to cut and resemble color photograph except for the differences in paint sheen and very slight over-sprays. Even when there are commercial mechanical means of producing stencils that are accessible to the serious stencil artist and airbrushes that use mixed colors Koleszar and Howze both prefer hand-cut stencils and spray-cans for reasons of “soul”. It seems an odd concern to me in some ways given how many mechanical or digital means are used to produce stencils. In some ways stencil artists are like woodcarvers whittling away with their knives to produce what plastic injection molding could mass-produce.

I haven’t really spoken to A1one from Iran, a quite guy with a moustache; I’ve just said hello. His paintings include images on wide paintbrushes bristles, 12-inch records and canvases. I hope that I can catch up with him before the end of the festival.


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