Her hair is an eruption of spray-painted squiggles. The shadow of exoticness creeps across her face, the secret of her origin secure behind black lips. A streak of white binds her eyes, which are substituted with a scrawl of graffiti – a tag. Except it’s not a tag, it’s the same name etched onto the gallery window.
The exhibition is for UK artist Hush. If you’re interested in the origins of his graffiti geishas, you can read the exhibition program. If you’re interested in his methods or materials, you can read the little plaque on the wall, where the price of After Study 18 is also printed.
But if you’re looking to purchase you’re too late. Hush’s Sirens exhibition, at Melbourne’s Metro Gallery in May 2012, sold out before the gallery opened its doors. On opening night DJs played, small and large works adorned the whitewashed walls while denim-vested dudes mixed with Armadale’s young elite. There’s a nod to the artwork’s street heritage, a large women pasted-up and painted on one of the gallery walls, but primarily it’s a posh affair, conspicuously divorced from grimy graffiti-covered alleyways, the traditional base from which guerrilla artists wage their war for public space.
‘Public space is a battleground, with the government, advertisers and artists all mixing and mashing,’ American street artist Mark Jenkins summed up succinctly.
Graffiti, the primordial ooze of all street art, is one of the first instances of civil disobedience. Typically, public space is the domain of the establishment, crowded by government and commercial buildings and billboards. These symbolise authority and mainstream society, and the artistic act of defiance, through spray-paint or paste-up, proposes individual, anonymous resistance. You might own the building, it supposes, but you don’t own me or the environment—at least not entirely.
‘If I entered a city and the first thing I saw was that city decorated with all different kinds of art, figures etched onto buildings, spiralling up and down skyscrapers, I would believe that to be a progressive city with values other than narrow financial gain or blind bureaucratic obedience,’ street artist Baby Guerrilla says.
A graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and Monash University, Baby Guerrilla’s iconic paste-ups can be found throughout Melbourne, from CBD alleyways to suburban streets. Her whimsical images of floating people, often grasping tenuously to one another or the air, suggests citizens swept away by the brick structures they’re swathed across. These artistic punctuations are welcome distractions from landscapes permeated by concrete.
‘I would like people to get a thrill or lift from seeing a blank wall transformed into something else. I would like to give them the sense that there is more to shaping our environment than market forces.’
But how long can street art resist market forces?
If you consider street artists the frontline against the everyday, seeing imagery typically found on rusted roller-shutters hanging in galleries makes you wonder – have the rebels of the art world surrendered their spray-cans, folded their middle-fingers and waved the white flag?
When we asked Canberra-born Luke Cornish, the Archibald-nominated street artist formerly known as ELK, what the difference was between exhibiting in galleries and being active on the street, he was to the point: ‘One I get paid for and one I don’t.’
The simplicity of the answer belies a far more complex consideration. Is having your work accepted into the gallery system betraying the defiant ethos of street art? Why should talented artists not be recognised and remunerated for their work?
‘Purist graffiti writers would argue that commercial success is selling out while others would see financial rewards as validation for your hard work,’ Cornish says.
He knows about hard work. Beginning with the traditional street art trope of stencilling, Cornish has devised a method of photorealism in his practice by building works from up to 80 layers of stencils. The culmination of this technique was his portrait of Father Bob Maguire, a finalist in the 2012 Archibald Prize.
Exposure like being accepted into the Archibald inevitably generates commercial interest, which in turn assists the creation of new work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and Cornish and Hush aren’t the first street artists to evolve into contemporary artists active in the market– just look at Basquiat.
Still, there’s something unsettling about seeing street art fussed over by collectors looking to make an acquisition between canapés. Add to this the proliferation of street art elements in advertising, as well as council commissioned muralism, and you get the sense that street art, like a circus lion, has dulled its claws on the cage floor. Taken from its natural habitat, it winks rather than roars, licking its lips mid-yawn.
Baby Guerrilla doesn’t agree. ‘A good work of art, whether it’s in the gallery or the street, has the potential to alter all our perspectives a little.’
Cornish has experienced a different altering of perspective after going through the gallery system. ‘Putting the words “Archibald finalist” after your name on CVs and applications really changes people’s perception of you as an artist. I’m no different as a person to who I was before; I just get taken a lot more seriously.’
So commercial sector acceptance doesn’t dilute the art’s potency, and recognition allows wider audiences.
Still, not every street artist agrees. CDH has not only never sold a piece of work, he never intends to, rallying against the gallery system one guerrilla installation and paste-up at a time.
The street art we see in galleries has slightly different chromosomes to what we see in the public space. Cornish’s incredible stencils are labour intensive, culminating in a finished, polished product.
‘Normally you think of art as a final product, but in street art, because the final product might only last a number of days, the process is more important,’ CDH says.
He reveals this after being asked about his Atlas piece. John Robinson’s sculpture, The Pathfinder sits opposite Melbourne’s NGV, and over the years has fallen into disrepair. Depicting a hammer thrower, the hammer itself has repeatedly been stolen. The City of Melbourne no longer replaces it, so CDH took it upon himself, substituting the hammer for a metal globe, and renaming the sculpture Atlas.
‘I basically had no metal working skills, then I had to learn those, and then I did the artwork,’ he explains. The entire process took six months, from learning to weld to ambushing the sculpture with his addition. ‘It took a really long time but it was a really cool process to be involved in, a really rewarding process.’
Though it only lasted a week CDH was proud of his work, and it typifies his difference in approach to other street artists. With councils perceiving illicit street art as vandalism, they’re forced to restore areas affected by street art to their original state. With the statue already ‘in a state of extreme disrepair’, CDH’s vandalism was actually restoration. With the council forced to undo his artistic repair, ‘they’re forced into the role of vandal by taking out the restoration’.
‘That’s one of the fun things about street art, putting these objects in the path of these big institutions and forcing them to confront their own hypocrisies.’
This impermanent kind of street art cannot exist inside a gallery because it can’t be collected or displayed without losing its intention and thus its meaning; however, this is a rather intellectual approach uncommon among most street artists.
‘Most street artists don’t have an awareness of art history. Lots of the time people call it street art, but it’s more accurate to call it street design. There’s no understanding of art history, there’s no attempt to comment on the zeitgeist, there’s no overarching concept. It’s really just about an aesthetic that looks cool,’ says CDH.
One example of council-approved street art that serves a purely aesthetic purpose happened this February when Melbourne’s City Square was yarn bombed. While this ambush method can transform perceptions of public space, CDH believes this kind of work is created outside of a true street context.
‘It’s all sanctioned and commissioned, so there’s no audacity in the work. When you go out and paint something illegally, it has that audacity. You’ve got to appreciate that the artist took this big personal risk.’
We’re presented with two camps of street artist – those that work outside institutions and those that work within them. CDH proposes the former is the avant-garde, and the latter more akin to designers, reproducing decorative images bankrupt of cultural currency.
‘The decorative street art is what gets big prices at private galleries, and its ultra derivative, image wise, and it doesn’t add to cultural production. The avant-garde art is stuff that’s pushing the context. It’s never going to be popular because its progressive, but conceptually it’s more interesting.’
While one artist might nail a figurine made from trash to a light pole, which has little hope of being exhibited on High St, another might paste up a beautiful comic woman. CDH believes the latter is one of the exhausted hallmarks of decorative street art.
‘It’s a really mass appeal image, from porn to advertising to fashion photography to anime. It’s ultra derivative, it’s boring and it’s dangerous, this is kind of how art movements come to an end and run out of steam, they die in this mainstream blandness.’
Though he’s not suggesting it’s the end of street art. ‘People have been saying that for a decade and they’ve been consistently wrong—I’m saying it’s the end of this type of art, people doing this really derivative portraiture. They’re running out of room to go and I’m hearing heaps of people complain about it.’
To an extent, Cornish agrees, ‘Historically any movement will lose momentum once the trendies latch on and suck the life out of it, get in quick before it’s not cool anymore.
The ubiquity of street art and mainstream acceptance makes it easy to believe that street art has sold out. But that’s far too simple and demonstrates the risk of thinking of all street art and artists as part of one, unified movement.
This time, Baby Guerrilla agrees. ‘It is such a diverse scene with so many mediums and viewpoints that it is impossible to generalise.’
While Western street artists enjoy gallery success, Egyptian street artists exercise their right to dissent, establishing the artform’s dual-existence and elasticity. Contemporary artists like Cornish, often self-trained in alleyways, are moving into the art market, taking their street style and swag, but their compatriots continue working under the cover of darkness.
‘To me good art is something that slaps you across the face and makes you look at the world from a different perspective,’ Baby Guerrilla says.
That slap can happen in a gallery or a gutter.
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This article was first published on March 5 2012 on artsHub.