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Tag Archives: Vexta

Graffiti and Street Art by Anna Wacławek

All art history students would be familiar with the Thames & Hudson World of Art series. These paperback books with their black spines are authoritative accounts of various art movements, styles and histories. When Thames & Hudson launched its World of Art series in 1958 it aimed to produce low cost, high quality art books. Now with over 300 titles in the series ranging from Aboriginal Art to Internet Art it is not surprising that there is Anna Wacławek Graffiti and Street Art (Thames & Hudson, 2011, London).

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In the book’s introduction Wacławek notes that: “a major study of graffiti and street art grounded in visual art analysis has yet to be published,” and that she intends this book to fill that gap. Most of the words about graffiti and street art have being written in sociology or criminology rather than from the discipline of visual arts. The lack of a serious book on the art of graffiti and street art is surprising given that in 1984 Thames and Hudson published the some of the first documentation of graffiti art, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s Subway Art. But Subway Art, like most of the earlier books on graffiti, is a collection of photographs.

Graffiti and Street Art certainly fills that gap. After reading so many short articles and interviews with artists it was relief to read in an organised and systematic order in one book rather than gleaming the same information from diverse sources. Wacławek’s precise language can pack many ideas into a single sentence. The many photographs in the book are used as examples and each one is referred to in the text.

The first question about such a book is if graffiti writers do not consider their work art then what is point of an art book is actually an irrelevant question. Apart from some contemporary English speaking artists the same can be said about almost everyone currently called an artist. But trivial categorisation disputes aside the art of graffiti needs to be included in this book. Describing the structure of graffiti writing and the genealogy of graffiti is necessary, at the very least to distinguish it from street art.

Later the question, ‘is graffiti art?’, allows Wacławek to distinguish art history from visual culture studies. Distinguish between art history and visual culture history removes the aura of excellence around in art history and allows the examination of  popular images. This is an important distinctions not just for graffiti and street art but for any examination of popular images.

The popularity of graffiti and street art is not dismissed but examined. It is looked at in the collaboration of the public in the creation of street art. When Wacławek examines the dissemination of street art in photographs and online she raises the question: where do you see the most street art and graffiti on the streets or online?

Examining graffiti and street art from the perspective of art history is important that issues of style, subject and signature key to both art history and graffiti. Wacławek gives context to Haring and Basquiat as a sidetrack in the history of graffiti. There are also occasionally references to contemporary artists, like Andy Goldsmith, in perspective with street art

Sometimes I felt that Wacławek was being too subtle with both her arguments and the examples that accompanied them rather than doing something more obvious. Vexta and Nick Walker are the examples in the section titled “Identity Politics”. However, if the average reader can think of the more obvious arguments and examples is it necessary to writing them?

At the University of Melbourne has CCDP20001 Street Art can now be studied as part of the breadth subjects for undergraduates studying Science, Music, Commerce, Biomedicine and Arts. I am surprised that this book is not one of the prescribed texts.

The prescribed texts for the subject are:

Cubrilo, Duro et al (2010), King’s Way: The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti – Melbourne 1983-1993 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press)

Schacter, Rafael (ed.) (2013) The World Atlas of Graffiti and Street Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press)

Alison Young’s Street Art, Public City: Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination.

Anna Wacławek Graffiti and Street Art is a book that is needed by the many high school students and university students who are and will be studying graffiti and street art.

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Vexta’s Wildness

Veteran Melbourne street artist Vexta is now based in Brooklyn, New York, but is currently back where she started her street art career, painting a police station wall and exhibiting at Mars Gallery in Windsor.

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Earlier this week The Age reported on Vexta painting a wall on the St Kilda police station. The level of contradictions in this act, part of the City of Port Phillip program to reduce graffiti, would be mind boggling if I wasn’t, at least partially, immersed in Melbourne’s graffiti and street art scene. So for me it is just more of the spectacle and the situation of street art. For Vexta it was just another wall.

Street artists exhibiting in a gallery is a different challenge to the street. Basically it is an issue of managing expectations; in the street we are surprised by street art because we didn’t expect any whereas we do expect art in an art gallery. Off the street the same images can appear limited, repetitious, or otherwise lose their charm. Despite this many of Melbourne’s commercial galleries have one or two street artists in their stable.

Fortunately Vexta for her exhibition, The Wildness Beneath, at Mars Gallery has more than figures painted with mix of a brushes and spray cans in her psychedelic palette of black and florescent colours. The paintings on canvas are hung as diamonds, their corners emphasising the round form within. On one wall they are framed with florescent builder’s twine creating geometric patterns around them.

The women in Vexta’s paintings stare out at the viewer. Are they powerful witches with animal familiars or are they nymphs and victims, like Leda and the swan?

Silk screen images of cicadas feature on several of the paintings reminding me of the cryptic nature of cicadas. The long underground life of 13 or 17 years of cicadas reminded me of the development of an artist.  Vexta must have done that many years, so perhaps it is time for her to emerge from the underground.

Vexta explained that the exhibition was getting back to her roots in collage. All of the images started as collages before being translated into paint, even the painting the cut-out words and phrases.

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Vexta’s painted copies of collaged words have a strong sense of poetics of the nocturnal urban world of street art missions or psychedelic trips. Not everything worked the decorated skulls hanging from the ceiling looked hackneyed and odd (skulls are so common in art and especially street art, see my post Melbourne Skull).


Platform – April 2010

Vexta “Extinction in Technicolour” occupies the main set of cabinets at Platform with paintings of flying figures that Vexta is famous for and installation elements.

Who are these figures? Is their extinction from our distant past or the near future? The painted animal skulls and bones made me think of an archaic cult. The animal skulls are often decorated creating a new zoology, where beaks protrude from skulls as if all creatures had the potential to transform into birds. In the paintings I kept on seeing myths from archaic Crete: Icarus with his wings, and Pasiphaë, the mother of the Minator. But that might just because I’m immersed in that mythology.

The images could also be from our future. The psychedelic colours, the scatter of broken glass and mirror cubes that adorn the animal skulls reminded me of the remains of a rave. Those little mirror cubes are so fashionable right now, decorating so many accessories. Is the wax that holds our civilization together melting like the wax holding the feathers onto Icarus’s wings?

Although Vexta comes from a street art stencil background, in Vexta’s images are mostly brush painted. However, the colour separation and design techniques used are common stencil art techniques. There are a few stencils and lots of aerosol spray dots. The paint drips from the aerosol dots and the paint drips from the run down across the black ground. Referencing her street art background Vexta’s large unframed paintings are propped up on aerosol cans, like Chris Ofili’s using elephant dung props for his paintings.

At first I thought that Jordan Wood’s untitled installation in Vitrine was part of Vexta’s show. The scatter of black objects matched the black bones and black background in her exhibition. The objects, the melted black plastic, the black ritual artifacts made from the remains of our own culture, like the cluster of golf clubs, are both threatening and useless.

In the Sample cabinet there is an installation of digital prints by Kumiko Michishita. Conversational phrases are painted in white on the glass of the display cabinet, like “It’s getting cold and harder to get up in the morning”. In the background amidst the mosaic of color digital prints are more eccentric statements: “sleep in blue”, “wear orange”, “breath in green”, and “eat red”.

In the two glasses cases at the Majorca Building there are two enlarged photocopies of a hand making a V sign in both directions. One is palm front, a symbol for “peace” the other, with the back of the hand, a symbol for “fuck”. It is Carl Scrase’s work “The Generative Power of Opposites” – crude but effective.


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