Graffiti and street art invade ‘traditional’ gallery space
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.
“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:
“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.”
“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.”
“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:
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.