Graffiti and street art invade ‘traditional’ gallery space

Photo: Tomáš Souček, Prague’s City Gallery

Part of Prague’s City Gallery, one of the city’s best-known venues, has been turned inside out, recently launching an exhibition of work not usually restricted by gallery walls. Entitled Stuck on the City, the show brings together work of top international street art and graffiti artists, names like Swoon, Zedz, the Czech Republic’s Pasta Oner and others.

Photo: Tomáš Souček,  Prague’s City Gallery
Until mid-January, visitors will be able to view work traditionally linked with areas on the periphery: where reinforced concrete, rather than the Gothic or Baroque, make up larger parts of the visual landscape. Works in Stuck on the City – from basic writing to more complex installations – vary in both media and technique; curator Radek Wolmuth told me more about the exhibit:

“I have to say we expected criticism from those who say graffiti and this kind of work belongs not in galleries but on the street, and so we wanted the space, at least a little, to evoke the city outside. We also wanted the work, to a large degree, to be done as spontaneously as possible on site. Those were the key goals. Some of the artists taking part had sketches ready and ideas about what they would do, but nobody knew what appearance the final pieces would take.”

According to Radek Wolmuth, many works by artists involved with contrasting styles were purposely juxtaposed: one room might have more abstract, geometric shapes or images, another more naturalistic or comics-inspired work; more calculated technique and more opaque messages contrast with bubbling installations where a cornucopia of ideas and images spills into the space from the corners. It works. Old school graffiti tags (the writing of one’s moniker or ‘handle’) mix with more complex if punkish concoctions, forming a mash-up of different styles; curator Radek Wolmuth describes some of the contrasts:

Photo: Tomáš Souček,  Prague’s City Gallery
“If you take an artist like Swoon, whose work is classic street art, you have pieces that combine drawing, Xerox copying, and linocut printing. Her installations spread out into the surrounding space and contain a social message. She uses gender motifs and imagery of women and children that are atypical in street art.

“By contrast, at the show you can also see plenty of ‘old school’ approaches, including writing and tagging where the lettering and the word is dominant. The basic aim, if I can break it down, is to show graffiti and street art as a kind of living organism: changing, evolving, influencing and being influenced, and there are many different artists and different forms of expression here.”

Some of the artists in Stuck on the City, have been hugely influential for years, ‘style-makers’ like Bates who achieved their fame in the 1980s. Mr Wolmuth points out some are working even at the age of – gasp – 40. Think 40 isn’t ‘old’?

The curator begs to differ:

“When it comes to graffiti or street art, you have to take into account that a lot of people begin at the age of 13; they then achieve perhaps their best work and most fame at 20 and they retire from the world of graffiti at around the age of 30. Of course, there are those who don’t, but only a few continue and they are usually artists who are truly exceptional.”

Point,  photo: Tomáš Souček,  Prague’s City Gallery
So what areas do street artists move into after they toss aside their gear and spray cans?

“Many of the artists remain true to their roots but it varies from country to country. The Czech street artist Point for example has moved more from the letter to more classical geometrical images and it is not a huge difference whether they are 3-D objects or paintings.”

It makes sense that street art and graffiti are to a large degree a young man or woman’s game: gritty, urban, some of it provocative or irreverent as street art probably should be: there is an element of going against the grain, thumbing one’s nose at authority, breaking the law… Can you really have one without the other? Here’s what Radek Wolmuth has to say on the point:

“The illegality of graffiti or street art is a problem that won’t be resolved: in most places such work isn’t allowed. Many of the spots chosen are private property and by definition you are ‘damaging’ someone else’s space if you change it. Under the Czech criminal code since 2001, graffiti artists here risk up to six years in jail.

“There has been no such case, of course, but it is unsettling that you can land a sentence equivalent to grievous bodily harm. When asked, I usually put it like this: the illegality - or the criminalisation – of graffiti is a factor, but is not the dominant motivation for artists at all. It is not like they would stop working in the field if bans everywhere were lifted.”

Tron,  photo: Tomáš Souček,  Prague’s City Gallery
More and more municipalities have recognised the value of graffiti or street art as art – and allowed designated areas where walls are routinely spray-painted over, challenging viewers directly in a manner no gallery can: directly as they go to and fro in their daily lives. According to Wolmuth, Stuck on the City is also for those who may not always recognise that vandalism and art in public are far from the same. There is a world of difference: true artists in the field, work for years to acquire skills and build on their ideas and it isn’t easy. Radek Wolmuth explains that the sub-culture of graffiti and street art is often surprisingly rigid: there’s no question, no matter how skilled or inspired you might be, you have to earn your place.

“The graffiti scene is fairly strict and hierarchic: paradoxically it’s kind of like the army: people think it’s all about freedom but there are rigid rules about behaviour and respect. Respect, the biggest commodity on the graffiti scene, has to be earned. Someone starting out has to work really hard: at first they are just ‘gofers’ or ‘go boys’ who are allowed to do only the most menial of tasks. You have to start at the bottom and work your way up.”

Back to Stuck on the City, viewers will be able to view plenty of work of artists at the height of their power, from Poland’s M-City to Switzerland’s Smash137. Alongside international artists are Czechs Honza Kaláb, or ‘Point’, known for his 3-D sculptures and tags from gypsum and Pasta Oner, whose work was featured this year in Islington on the occasion of the London Olympics. Here’s a bit about their approach; Radek Wolmuth once more:

Pasta Oner,  photo: Anton Kaimakov
“Pasta Oner is strongly influenced by Pop Art and definitely fits more within the street art scene, while Point comes from a graffiti background. Point worked on lettering and fonts for ten years, centred on his ‘handle’, and now he has been moving much more into geometric abstraction. In the work, you can still decipher individual letters – there is a play between the object and shadow – but basically it is geometric abstraction.”

Stuck on the City continues at the City Gallery Prague – Municipal Library until January 13, 2013. Also, keep in the mind there are related outdoor works you’ll want to track down also related to the show. Find out more online.