EssaysWeekend

Street Art Is a Period. Period. Or the Emergence of Intermural Art

Brad Downey, detail from “Inside Out, Upside Down”, Nun Gallery, Berlin 2014 (photo © Brad Downey) (click to enlarge)

PART I

What’s in a name?

Let’s start off with a clear contention. Street Art, as I see it, is a period. Period. It is today just one of the many sub-groups housed within the larger category of Art, a period — much like Mannerism, Minimalism, Modernism, Maximalism and the like — that defines a practice with distinct members and distinct timeframes, with distinct styles and settings, distinct techniques and ideologies. I say this not to attempt to validate or legitimate Street Art, something that it no longer needs anyone to do. Rather my claim of periodicity aims to make clear the radical divergence between what is widely understood as Street Art today and what was understood as Street Art in its infancy. Ultimately, and perhaps initially paradoxically, it aims to move us past this now misleading term, to lay the body of Street Art to rest and give life (or rather, give name) to the body of another, a practice I call Intermural Art.

Brad Downey, detail from “Inside Out, Upside Down”, Nun Gallery, Berlin 2014 (photo © Brad Downey) (click to enlarge)

But why is this act of naming so important? What’s really in a name? Well from an anthropological perspective, the basic urge to classify, to order and arrange the world is one of the very few human universals. It is mankind’s way of forming social and conceptual coherence from the mass of data we encounter on a daily basis, classifying out the universe, as Claude Lévi-Strauss called it, so as to cleave the wood from the trees. Within the mass of material culture we today define as Art (something itself classified in distinction to “craft”), this imperative to classify is accompanied by the concept of the period. Informally termed the “isms,” these terms codify the various subdivisions housed within the larger structure, the particular forms, particular methodologies, and particular styles that mark out this type from that, that temporally and theoretically bind them as distinct, ordered practices.

Yet the period also defines characteristics which are more than just material. It comes, in fact, to define both the wider moral world in which these works are set as well as the overarching framework from within which they are understood. The period thus not only impacts how the work is received by the viewer — where it is understood to be situated in ethical and relational terms — but determines our very ability to receive and perceive it in itself, enabling and constraining its interpretation within the same moment.

Today, regrettably however, from my perspective as a researcher, writer, and curator within this subgenre of Art, what has become abundantly clear is that the term Street Art, Street Art as period, Street Art as material has become entirely untenable. It is a period in a categorically ambiguous position, defining a now inapposite ethic, providing a now misleading frame of reference. The need for a movement away from this initial term and for the foundation of another has thus become, in my opinion, inescapable.

John Fekner, “My Ad Is No Ad” (1980), Sunnyside, New York (photo © John Fekner) (click to enlarge)

Assimilative not Interruptive

Perhaps it is best to work backward in order to move forward. As a defined artistic milieu, I would argue that Street Art was operative and, crucially, innovative, between approximately the years of 1998 and 2008 (the time period of our period). Although Street Art practices as such were seen prior to 1998 (anticipatory, proto-Street Art works being quite visible in the poetic messages of John Fekner and the graffiti abstractions of Futura2000 in the 1970s, in the eponymous stencils of Blek le Rat in the 1980s, and in the stickers, posters and roll-ups of REVS & COST in the 1990s for example), the critical mass of practices began occurring at this date.

By 1998 a core group of artists had thus begun to explore new ways of assimilating and integrating themselves within the city. This group of approximately 100–200 artists worldwide, mainly from Europe, North America and Latin America, came, primarily, from a background within the wider graffiti culture. Yet many had also received a more classical art or design-based education alongside their independent, illicit one, possibly the first generation of graffiti practitioners to have received this twofold training en masse. Many artists at this point felt that graffiti had become too authoritarian, too restrictive, or merely felt that they wanted to push their practice into a new direction. They were looking for ways of continuing their work in the street — the critical medium and location for their practice — yet exploring new ways of modeling their message, ways of continuing their public engagement yet changing their communicative reach.

Swoon, Untitled (2007), New York City (via Flickr/editrrix) (click to enlarge)

1998 was thus the year in which Parisian artist STAK (known today as Olivier Kosta-Théfaine) began bringing his logos, pictograms and text-based slogans to the streets of the French capital, the year in which Invader undertook his first ceramic tile “invasion” of the same city. It was the year in which New York collective Faile formed, the year in which Philadelphia’s Steve Powers (then ESPO) began his Exterior Surface Painting Outreach project, in which Swoon began installing her wheat-paste posters on the street. 1998 was the year in which the work of Brazilian twins Os Gemeos became internationally visible (thanks to the all-important 12oz Prophet Magazine), the year in which StudioChu and the DOMA collective started their work on the streets of Buenos Aires. It was the year when Banksy (yes, I must mention him), began to focus solely on stencils and leave his previous freehand approach behind.

A mural by Os Gemeos (2005), Sao Paulo (via Flickr/Thomas Hobbs) (click to enlarge)

While quite clearly different from each other stylistically and or conceptually, these artists can all be argued to have been attempting to work in dialogue with rather than in opposition to surrounding architectural forms (the formal basis of the period), being intentionally attentive rather than purposefully disruptive to the context which they inhabited. These artists were all moving away from typography and the letter-form and intent on creating a more open, more accessible from of visuality (the stylistic basic of the period), stripping their work of the menace that Graffiti had been imbued with by the media and anti-graffiti authorities since the early 1980s. These artists were all moving away from the ubiquity of the spray-can (the technical basis of the period), utilizing media such as stencils or posters, producing forms such as sculptures or installations, methods that transformed the viewership of the practice from an exclusive to a more inclusive public. Yet these same artists all held on to the DIY, self-sufficient spirit of Graffiti culture (the ideological basis of the period), they held on to the autonomy and independence that gave its artists opportunities that institutions would never have allowed: They retained graffiti’s refusal to be professionalized or standardized, they retained the belief that spontaneity and fidelity would always trump permissibility and legality.

Street art as it emerged in 1998 thus contained all the key elements of what we would see as a traditional artistic period: a time, a place, a style, a technique, an ethic, an ideology. Yet by the latter date of 2008, these specificities began to unravel. What had been ten years of innovation, evolution and maturation began to transform into repetition, imitation and simulation.

Google Images Street Art screengrab (first 24 results) (click to enlarge)

Street Art on Steroids

After 2008 the practice became more renowned, more refined, but not necessarily more experimental or pioneering. Much of this may simply be due to the natural cycle of the period (as with all good things) coming to an end, the boundaries having been pushed, the artists having moved on. Yet more alarmingly, it was around this time that the term itself came to mean something very different to that originally intended, that it came to be abused, misused, on a widespread level.

By 2008 then, the very term Street Art had come to be radically reattributed by the market, the media, and municipal authority. In the first case, almost inconceivably, the term was commonly used to denote a type of artwork produced, exhibited, and sold inside. Not only a basic category error and entirely (oxy)moronic — as long as the works looked “street” or urban (with the requisite drippy paint) the appellation “street” could apparently be added — but the key element of Street Art, the street of its very name, became entirely irrelevant. In the second case of the media, however, Street Art came to be used as a term for institutionally authorized, legally sanctioned murals. The Tate Modern’s Street Art exhibition of 2008 (which I should note that I partly co-curated) stands as a key boundary marker here. The massive global prominence of this event, both in terms of international media attention and institutional validation, began, I believe, to steer public perceptions of Street Art in a particular and quite singular direction. Street Art was identified with big, colourful, exterior wall paintings; it became known as an “edgy” form of popular muralism. All the other diverse practices, the installations, the actions, the “minor”, small-scale works, came to be excluded from the term. Moreover, the success of the exhibition (in a quantitative sense at the least) led to the promulgation of what are today the thousands of Street Art Festivals that have spread across the globe. These municipally initiated festivals, our third element, produced at the behest of urban planners and publics servants rather than critics and curators, have not only today become the dominant mode whereby Street Art is encountered (in particular through its digital distribution), but have been a key element in both the recuperation of Street Art and its contemporary complicity within processes of gentrification. It has become a (relatively) cheap way of “bringing in culture” to a site, of locating it within the (much critiqued) Creative City model of city planning. It has turned art into a project of branding (of place, of lifestyle), it has turned artistic value into financial rather than cultural or societal gain.

As such, much of what is called Street Art today should, in my opinion, simply be termed neo-Muralism (or even Creative City Art). Neo-Muralism is Street Art turned professional, Street Art on steroids. Entranced by the belief that bigger is always better, this “more is more,” Maximalist attitude has today come to act as the overwhelmingly dominant framing of Street Art. What’s more, alongside this neo-Muralist pursuit, Street Art has also taken a clear turn toward Kitsch. Mickey Mouse snorting cocaine and seductive female depictions. Colourful caricatures and saccharine sentiments. Surface effects and art as advertising. It is as if the utmost parody of what Street Art once was has become the norm.

What is crucial to say, however, is not whether these works are “good” or “bad” per se; rather, it is simply that they no longer function as Street Art, that they contradict its basic periodistic prerequisites. Much of this “Street Art” fails to assimilate with its surroundings, rather coming to directly dominate it. Much of it is institutional, not independent, sacrificing autonomy yet feigning subversion. Much of it is strategic, existing for reasons of gain rather than art. Much of it fails to act consensually and rather embraces the fatuity of sentimentality or “cool.” What is today called Street Art thus provides a quite misleading frame of reference. It no longer reflects the material and ideological categories that it once stood for. It is not simply that Street Art no longer exists, but that it is in a state of radical, utter confusion.

Brad Downey, detail from “Inside Out, Upside Down”, Nun Gallery, Berlin 2014 (photo © Brad Downey) (click to enlarge)

The Limits of the Category

While the above may seem overly harsh (and there are of course many exceptions to this straw-mannish depiction), the situation for those working in Street Art today is a truly confusing, frustrating one. When much of what is termed Street Art fails to comply with the primary premises of the form, those who are caught within its terminology can quickly become enemies to themselves.

And it is this, I believe, that leads us to the key point of this essay. It is not merely that what exists within the term Street Art fails to live up to the original principles of the form, but equally that the artists at the vanguard are pushing at the very limits of the category, engaging and inhabiting the outside limits of the Street Art terrain while still, for want of a better term, being housed within it. These are artists who are emerging from the Street Art and Graffiti arenas, but who are developing practices that now both exceed and are tarnished by this previous designation. These are artists occupying the vital space between the street and the studio, between the independent and the intuitional, artists who are moving between the outside and the inside in highly conscious ways. These are artists occupying the spaces in between in disruptive, innovative, boundary shifting ways.

As such, the need for a terminological transformation, for a movement away from Street Art and towards something new, has become imperative. It has become imperative so as to be able to successfully explicate what this work now is. It has become imperative to enable people to materially and morally decipher these new aesthetic forms. It had become imperative so as to create a new platform from which these artists can both speak and be heard.

PART II

Intermural Art

The term I am proposing for this new practice is Intermural Art. In literal terms, Intermural Art means Art in between the walls. Not art inside the walls (intramural), nor outside them (extramural), but art between these same walls. The relationship between inside and outside is key to Intermural Art – the way in which the inside can affect the out and the outside the in. The way the internal can critique the external and, in the same manner, the external the in.

Intermural Art emerged directly from both Graffiti and Street Art. Yet it is an art form that — due to its time-frame (emerging as a wider discourse post-2008), to its location (both in the street and the gallery) as well as its basic material qualities (its visual divergence from both these earlier forms) — can no longer productively reside within these previous terminologies. Likewise, Intermural Art is a practice often simply labeled Contemporary Art, yet while it is influenced by the myriad of practices that come under the term, is obscured by its breadth (it meaning so much that it denotes almost naught).

Although commonly a practice occurring within an institutional frame, Intermural Art is not merely a movement transplanting Graffiti or Street Art into the permissible realm of the gallery or museum. It is, rather, a practice utilizing these previous visual styles in one or more of three key ways: First, as a conceptual foundation — artistically investigating, dissecting and exploring the aesthetic and culture of Graffiti and Street Art; second, as a methodological tool — using the techniques and methods of Graffiti and Street Art yet subverting their traditional regulations and codes; and third, as an ethical imperative — using the independent ethic (rather than aesthetic) of Graffiti and Street Art, as a way of understanding the world, appreciating one’s environment rather than as a simple visual regime.

There are a number of individuals who, for me, exemplify the conceptual, methodological and ethical approaches of Intermural Art. Within this essay, however, I will discuss just two, the Berlin-based, American-born artist Brad Downey and the Parisian artist Antwan Horfee.

Brad Downey, installation view of “Inside Out, Upside Down”, Nun Gallery, Berlin 2014 (photo © Brad Downey) (click to enlarge)

Downey, for me, represents one of the central figures within Intermural Art, with an expert understanding of both the theories and practices of Contemporary Art and the theories and practices of Street and Graffiti Art. His recent work “Inside Out, Upside Down” (2014), produced at the gallery nun in Berlin’s Neukölln district, is a particularly pertinent example. Working with everyday, commonplace wall plugs in a variety of colors and sizes, Downey created a series of unique, site-specific patterns and designs over the entirety of the gallery space. Including nothing else within the space but these simple plugs, objects normally used to install more conventional artworks (and thus remaining invisible while being crucial to the final display), he produced a minimalist, highly decorative installation, a playful intervention on and in the gallery walls.

Brad Downey “House of Cards #3” (2007), Berlin (photo © Brad Downey) (click to enlarge)

Physically situated amid and between the walls of the gallery, “Inside Out, Upside Down” moves beyond Intermural Art as metaphor: it acts as intermural art in the most literal of senses. Yet like our description of Intermural Art above, Downey’s work can also be seen to relocate the conceptual, methodological and ethical frameworks he institutes on the street within the site of the gallery itself. Just as his public practice of interventionism, of re-appropriation and re-use, comes to explore and critique the customs and conventions of the street, here Downey brings the same process into the interior realm. As can be seen in public works such as “House of Cards” This is, quite clearly, no longer Street Art. It is both literally and conceptually Intermural. It is infected and inflected by his public practice, a conduit between the city and the street.

Brad Downey “Misunderstood Lovers (Square)” (2013), Denmark (photo © Brad Downey)

For Antwan Horfee, the aim is not specifically to question our surroundings, but rather to continue experimenting with medium and form in the institutional realm as he has in the public. As one of the world’s most esteemed graffiti artists, responsible for a paradigm shift within the movement over the last ten years alongside his Paris collective PAL, Horfee has formed a richly naïve style of graffiti production, a chaotic amalgamation of letter and image, of colour and form, in which purity of line and an improvisational freedom are key. Studying at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris, however, and with a passion for contemporary art to match his obsession with painting in the street, Horfee has never seen the need to restrict himself to one site: he treats all images and spaces as “fields of research,” both his objects and his sites understood as things that are truly “alive”.

Antwan Horfee, “Mattresses” installation view, London, 2016 (photo © Rafael Schacter) (click to enlarge)

For his recent residency and exhibition with Russell Maurice at Somerset House in London, Horfee chose what at first may seem an odd artistic surface, six queen-size inflatable mattresses. Painting these objects with the shapes and forms that have become key to his visual vocabulary — fungi, palm trees, plants, snakes — the final works contain, in themselves, a quite formal beauty, a careful balance of colour and form, sharpness and brutal confidence of line. Yet these works are also implicitly Intermural, following a clear trajectory from graffiti to gallery, from street to studio, and are difficult to fully comprehend without awareness of this journey. As within graffiti, the works use an impoverished, non-art surface on which to produce art, a surface that is uneven and indented, much like the shop shutters these artists so commonly use. As within graffiti, the works are subject to an inevitable process of destruction (through their slow yet inescapable deflation), a process mirroring the latent ephemerality of the graffiti in our streets. As within graffiti, the works embrace a refusal to work within normative boundaries, resisting the tyranny of canvas, resisting the rules of conventional practice. Yet these works take much influence from the history of Contemporary Art, from the “soft” sculptures of Claes Oldenburg for example, his method of making hard into soft, of rejecting the exalted and embracing the everyday. Horfee’s works thus not only create a direct link between these two realms, but they push the boundaries of each of them. They embrace the fine line, the frictions that this border zone presents.

Antwan Horfee, Untitled (2016), Paris (photo © Gues) (click to enlarge)

Street Art is a Period. PERIOD!

Of course, Graffiti and Street Art have both appeared in galleries and museums before, since their very genesis in fact. But Intermural Art — as seen not only in the works outlined above but in the generative abstractions of Eltono, the sculptural installations of Clemens Behr, and the projects and performances of Filippo Minelli for example — takes the Graffiti and Street Art model, as concept, as method, as ethic, and translates it into a new form of art. An art that may not look like Graffiti or Street Art but smells like it. An art venturing beyond and between the gaps in these previous terminologies, exploring the space in between the walls.

As Intermural Art this work can be identified and interpreted. As Intermural Art its frame of references can be read, its concepts rather than just its locations or mediums deciphered. And, perhaps more importantly, as Intermural Art it can start to encourage a new descriptive and conceptual language for other practices working within the same milieu. It can start to bind, and thus develop, the practices working both inside and outside the institution, the practices that those at the very edge of what was termed Street Art are now exploring.

Antwan Horfee, Untitled (2016), Paris (photo © Gues) (click to enlarge)

People often criticise the pigeonholing of (art) practices. They say “it’s just a name”, “it’s just a category.” They say we should spend less time thinking and more time acting. Yet these terms, these words, are hugely powerful. Names, genres, periods matter. And Street Art, as a period, is something that we must now move past. Street Art is a period. Period. A period whose radical mantle can be seen continued today within the category of Intermural Art.

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