Monday, May 16, 2011

A problem with street-art, pt. 2

With a little bit of effort and organization I arranged to interview the street artist who I had mentioned in a previous post.  His given name is Angel.  I had made a contact through a local gallery and he offered to help me set up an interview.  I enlisted the help of a friend and we planned on using two video cameras (actually dslr's with video capabilities), and we also had a mountable audio recorder prepared to record his responses.  The idea was that we were going to interview him while he was doing some court ordered retribution work at a local park.  The park is used by two different schools that are housed in the same building and becomes a skate park when the schools close in the afternoon.  

Angel had already completed a few basketball backboards and now he was prepared to do a portion of the wall that lines one side of the park. 

We waited for about an hour, but he never showed.  

I don't think much of Angel's work, what little of it I've seen.  My original intention was to interview him and draw him out a little bit about the "importance" of what he does, to show what an ambitious spud he actually is.  The more thought I gave to it however, the more I saw a different angle emerge, one of a street artist having to give some redress to his community for the charge of vandalism. With so much current attention drawn to people like Banksy I assumed that there was an interesting story to be told, but from the opposite perspective.  

So I considered and reconsidered the opportunity. I lost my interest in vandalizing his reputation and developed a genuine interest in the story.

For those involved in this form of art there are some important distinctions between street art and graffiti.  The main differentiating criteria being that street art is meant to provoke thought while graffiti is just the assertion of the individual's identity over that of their surroundings, often through "tagging."  Others recognize no such distinction between these two approaches and see it all as remorseless vandalism. These are generalizations and the deeper one examines them the greater the differentiating criteria seem to become.

"Remorseless" was the word that my contact used to describe our hero's feelings about his tagging and subsequent arrests.  I had a list of questions that were designed to get to that aspect of what he does and seek some sort of explanation of this feeling, or perhaps reveal an artistic intention of some sort.  If not, then I hoped to show that it is little more than stylized crime and hardly qualifies as art at all. Though I knew this second contention would be difficult to reveal through his words alone. But I was hoping for the best, either way.

I decided to take some pictures of the skateboarders while we waited, without word, from the street genius....

I was tiring of him already but I wanted to be "fair" and see if there was an impulse that could be articulated for what he does.  

He originally emerged in the 80's as a graffiti artist that "worked with" Keith Haring. He was actually commissioned by Haring to do much of what came to be credited as Haring's street graffiti art that could be found in the East Village during and after Haring's success. There were a handful of artists who were hired to do so at the time.  It was not entirely uncommon for the "public work" of Basquiat, Haring, and even Kenny Scharf to be executed by lower level graffiti artists who were less conspicuous and perhaps more willing to get arrested.  The exploitative nature of the relationships that Tony Shafrazi cultivated is well known and documented. 

It has become my understanding through talking with some of the people in and around Angel's circle that there is some resentment over the fact that a gay-white-kid became famous while he, an underprivileged-hispanic-heterosexual, was mainly looked over.  It only takes a glance at the differences in their styles to understand the actualities for one's success and the other's continuing struggles.  Haring's pieces vibrate with much more of a sense of life, an understanding of chromatic relationships and combinations, and better compositional strategies. 

Angel's circle has even suggested that Haring's "vibrating baby" motif was actually Angel's all along and it was something that was "stolen" from him, much to Haring's financial success.  These contentious retellings of pop-art history seem unlikely when one looks at the actual work of the two individuals. Angel's seems much more like a sloppy, crowded and confused imitation of Haring's work, woefully lacking in content and visual context, rather than something that Haring was likely to have drawn from in the manner suggested by Angel's circle.  Angel's symbols are dull, obvious, and poorly rendered while Haring's at least function through a layer of suggestiveness and symbol. 

Haring no longer being here to defend himself also adds an imaginary credence to the claim, for some.

A friend of mine offered to set up an interview with another local street-artist, one that she is in occasional contact with through her work.  I thought that might be useful and I just might follow up on it. There's no reason for me to isolate this emerging interest of mine to one artist alone. This other guy goes by the name of "Dr. Pink" and it is claimed (by him) that he used to be a gynecologist.  

I find this equally hard to believe, but who knows, we live in very topsy-turvy times....