Books

Reading Poster Boy’s The War of Art

by Kyle Chayka on October 20, 2010

The second in our series of Wednesday Book Reviews! This week we check out the law-provoking media sensation Poster Boy’s new sellout book.

Poster Boy, The War of Art, 2010 (Mark Batty Publisher)

You might remember Poster Boy from his days wreaking havoc on the New York City (Brooklyn) subways, slicing up vinyl-adhesive posters with a pocketed razor and remixing them at will. The prankster switched up celebrity bodies, rearranged words, got big in the blogosphere, profiled in New York Magazine, got questionably arrested, and has now put out a book of his works. It remains a mystery to most people who Poster Boy is, though the smart guess would be a collective of like-minded street artists, and the War of Art book doesn’t do anything to clear the mystery up. What the slim volume does do well is to document Poster Boy’s work, a collection previously only visible on Flickr.

“The Art of War” reveals the sources of some of Poster Boy’s mashups. (click to enlarge)

One of street (or guerrilla, or whatever) art’s central paradoxes is its own ephemerality: the wheatpaste you saw up last month might not be there anymore, or it might be a faded shade of its former self. Photographs fix the pieces in place, provide a lasting document of work that’s more likely to be torn down by cops than put in a museum. So with The War of Art we get a nicely produced retrospective of Poster Boy’s work that lets us make our own considered judgments about its quality, and that’s an opportunity Im grateful for. High-quality, well-printed photos are devoted to each of Poster Boy’s posters, depicting both the finished product and the source posters that he sliced from for collage materials (this is an unexpected treat). A baseball poster plus a Nurse Jackie becomes an ad for sports steroids. Two Snickers ads become a rebellion against mainstream media: “READ CHOMPSKY!

There’s not much in the way of text in the book. A short foreword proclaims it to be a “piece of hypocrisy,” but then explains that really the book is just a continuation of the artist’s practice of using the media as a venue for his viral art. The War of Art is fine as a document, in fact, the quality of the book itself is far and away better than most street art books, but as guerrilla warfare, The War of Art doesn’t cut it. It’s great to see the posters that the remixes are made from, and in many examples seeing the before and after adds even more cynical humor to the final piece. I particularly like “Eat your words. -ZAGAT” turned into “Eat your turds. MAGAT!” (Maggot, get it?) The detailed shots of Poster Boy’s collaborations with Aakash Nihalani, among other street artists, are also appreciated. These are pretty, poppy, hip, and at times edgy images. Again, the quality of the product is there. For a viewership so utterly desensitized to both media and the tropes of street art alike, though, the images are more fun than they are revolutionary. They break us out of our reveries, but instead of teaching they just visually entertain in a different way.

Of interest are the remixed Museum of Modern Art ads in the later part of the book. Filed under “Exhibitions,” these pieces were actually commissioned by an outside ad team hired by MoMA … though the institutional giant seemed to have been unaware of the unorthodox hire. It’s pretty great to see a Fiat race car crash into a sea of Monet’s “Lillies,” topped off by a few drowning tropical figures from Matisse’s late collage period. Humor is a side of art history too rarely seen. But what ends up being annoying about The War of Art is its juvenile tone. The twee-punk captions to the images are sarcastic asides that at times end up casting the artist as a 14-year-old boy. The work succeeds when its seriousness of purpose exceeds its dick-joke and anal-sex visual puns.

Poster Boy’s The Art of War is available on Amazon.

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