Re:Public

An Experiment in Street Art Criticism

by Hrag Vartanian on March 11, 2010

General view of Baltimore street before Gaia’s intervention (via Google Streetview) (click to enlarge)

The scroll (click to enlarge)

Coming across a work by Gaia on the street is a special experience. His work is intelligent, emotional, well-executed, and informed by the wider world. He looks beyond pop culture, where most street art gets stuck. His linocut prints and drawings, often of animals, are beautifully rendered and react to the intensity of the urbanscape and its manmade fauna.

His latest wheatpaste, “St. John” (2010), was recently unveiled in Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood and is one of his most lyrical to date. When I first saw the image, I didn’t realize it would be the subject of an experiment that I’d been eager to try since first meeting Gaia back in 2008. At the time, I was interviewing him for an article I was writing, and we discussed the possibililty that street art criticism could be directly engaged with art on the street. The excitement over the idea seemed to spring from our mutual interest in exploring the limits of street-based visual dialogue. There are precedents for this type of street level critical engagement, though the existing examples are either anonymous or tongue-in-cheek — neither strategy appealed to me.

Gaia approached me to put our idea into action, and I immediately started working on a piece that would appear next to his work.

It felt daunting at first having never seen the art in person but what became clear to me was not what I wanted my companion piece to be but what it shouldn’t be, namely ironic or sarcastic. I treated this experiment with the utmost seriousness.

From a pedestrian’s angle (click to enlarge)

Good criticism has the same aspirations as art, it seeks to illuminate ideas but only after a process of exploration and reflection.

Street art tends to exist in neglected spaces that are often, according to Gaia, “reactivated with a new kind of attention that does not find its generation from within the delinquent property owner, but instead from the exterior of autonomous artists.” How does the critic fit into this relationship, if at all? Words on the street have a natural association with advertising and , which have trained us to see text in public as a way to sell something. I wanted the art criticism I was preparing to appear removed from the commercial world. It wasn’t going to be a quick and easy read.

Close-up of the top portion (click to enlarge)

Can criticism on the streeet activate the viewer in ways that an art work cannot? I wanted to spend time explaining the historical allusions in the work and propose ways of interpreting it without restricting other ways of seeing the art.

While it is true that street art often lives in neglected spaces, it is also true that these places are also quite volatile. They are transient zones that change based on whim.

There is another reality I was clear about in my mind. I am not a street artist, I am a critic, writer and blogger, my medium is text and images, without both components my work feels incomplete.

What resulted from my exploration is “Natural Apparition.” After the text was complete I decided that it needed to be printed in black and white (which seems well-suited to the nearby wheatpaste) on letter-size pages that should be posted vertically so that they appeared like a scroll robbed of its spindles. It was something that should be revealed all at once and not incrementally.

The document is signed with my Twitter handle. It is filled with art historical references. It places “St. John” in a continuity that emerges from myth. By looking elsewhere for his artistic language, Gaia’s work was well suited to my critical companion piece. I’d like to think of my work as a friend to “St. John,” connecting it to the rest of the world.

A critic friend mentioned to me the other day that Baltimore has excellent art museums (Baltimore Museum of Art, Walters Art Museum) that are very well attended by the local population. It was a fact that makes me curious about the reaction to my text, and how it may impact the reaction to Gaia’s wheatpaste. I wonder if someone will reach out to me via Twitter to ask what it means … probably not, but serious criticism that is draped in secrecy and anonymity can be tiresome. The great thing about the life of art on the street is that there’s never an easy answer but a lot of questions.

Read “Natural Apparition” here.

Gaia’s Juxtapoz post on the collaboration here and on Vandalog here.

Left to right, “Natural Apparition” and Gaia’s “St. John” (2010)

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  • http://twofromtheleft.com Kelly Foote

    Street art and especially guerrilla art always puts a smile on my face. When an artists takes the time to place a work in an unexpected place, and when it is anonymous, it is seems to me to be pure art for only art’s sake. Love it!

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