Posts Tagged ‘Swoon’

After reading my joint review of Stations of the Elevated and Style Wars, Tony, a longtime friend of mine, asked me a very good question (I bet you thought I forgot about it!). After assuring me that he understood my stance on graffiti and street art, and the importance of various artistic modes of expression, he asked where we should draw the line between self-expression and vandalism. This question actually made me pause, because I didn’t have a good answer that didn’t make me sound like an anarchist trying to overthrow the government or a complete hippie who believed that we should just do what makes us happy, man.

With illicit forms of self-expression, it’s hard to logically explain why I’m such a proponent when clearly it’s both illegal and will need to be removed at the taxpayer’s/owner’s expense. Especially now, as I am training to be a conservator (and taking a masonry conservation/architectural restoration course), I find it more and more difficult to justify my passion for an inherently illegal and aesthetically damaging mode of expression to my colleagues.

Growing up in New York City, I was exposed to both murals and graffiti. However, as a child, it never occurred to me that the artists who created these beautiful works had never gotten permission to paint on the walls that they covered. Even then, I abhorred toys and tags, thinking that they were childish attempts at self-glorification. When I first started this blog, I wanted to draw a line between street art and graffiti and stay as far away from the subject of graffiti as possible, instead sticking with the works resulting from the street art scene (hence the name of this blog), as these were the more “acceptable” and usually more “artistic” form of guerrilla art.

But, as I started researching the roots that street art had in graffiti, my understanding of graffiti’s history and culture evolved, and so did my acceptance. Not only did I come to accept and appreciate graffiti as a valid form of urban expression, I came to look for it in my own life and love its presence as well. The truth is that my dialectic has been based on a constantly evolving personal opinion about the importance and significance of how these guerilla acts of expression affect our urban visual landscape. Now, I want to differentiate between graffiti artists (those who create elaborate burners) and tagger/toys writers (who typically practice aerosol scrawl), even though I feel that their presence is still a significant mark upon the urban visual landscape (even if for the sheer reason of “brand name” recognition), I think that it is no more than a self-absorbed indulgence by disenfranchised or egotistical youth rather than artistic expression. So I suppose that tagging and sticker slapping is now where I draw the line in terms of urban guerilla modes of expression that I am not a proponent of.

So, even though my opinion is constantly evolving the more I learn and am exposed to, I think that ultimately taggers and sticker slappers must learn some form of restraint. Gone are the days of “more is better” and the irony of being a ubiquitous brand name is dated. Now, graffiti artists are experiencing the pressure of being just that: artists. But as we push for legality as a means of justification for illicit forms of self-expression, a different question is raised, which is that of legitimacy. Does taking the illicit out of an inherently illicit form of urban artistic expression affect the authenticity of the artwork?

Artists like Swoon, who work with inherently ephemeral materials face less controversy and public animosity specifically because the works they put up are made of ephemeral materials. As I have written previously, Swoon’s prints can most frequently be found in the forgotten corners of otherwise obvious public spaces. She does not consider what she is doing illegal, and instead pastes her prints up unabashedly, sometimes in the middle of the day, which allows passersby to interact with her as she is hanging them. In spite of this impermanent aspect of her work, is it classified under the same category as permanent defacement of property and is still considered as illegal as art made with more permanent materials, such as aerosol spray or markers. Even street artists who work with less ephemeral materials, face less scrutiny than graffiti artists, if simply because what they do oftentimes just seems more artistic. This degree of acceptance is less felt towards graffiti artists, even if what they put up are artistic burners (which do require a lot of skill). This could be because of the remaining anti-graffiti sentiment resulting from the late 1980s, when former NYC mayor Ed Koch argued the Broken Window Theory in order to promote stricter anti-graffiti laws.

When UK artist Hush was in New York City during his weekend debut exhibition “Found” at the Angel Orensanz Foundation back in November, I ran into him by way of crazy random happenstance as I was out and about searching for some of the other work he had put up on buildings around downtown Manhattan (seriously, it’s a good story, you should ask me about it sometime). Once introduced, we got to chatting for about half an hour about his experiences and the whirlwind time he was having in NYC while I desperately tried to repress my desire to hop around squealing like a fan-girl. When we started talking about the issue of authenticity and whether showing in a gallery would de-legitimize his work, Hush said, “people ask me that all the time. I don’t think that it needs to be criminal to be authentic. Sometimes I’ll feel naughty and pull out a pen and tag something up, but I rarely do anything illegal. I’m not a criminal. It’s not like I ruin property- I revitalize areas that are already ignored and wrecked.” And indeed, Hush had gotten permission from the three locations that he had put up his work up outside the gallery.

And his is a sentiment I can get behind. I think to justify an inherently illegal act, it is the first instinct of the connoisseur to frame these works and put them into a gallery or cut them from the wall and auction them to the highest bidder. Many argue that removing a form of expression so closely tied with the urban environment and putting it into a stark white setting undermines the legitimacy of the piece by destroying its context. However, like Hush, I do not believe that this is the case. In recent years, as graffiti has started to become recognized as a legitimate form of artistic expression, and as street art (as I mentioned before, the “third generation graffiti”) has coming into prominence, it is more common for artists to seek permission, take part in legal exhibitions, or show their work in galleries. Even public opinion has started to ease up somewhat in regards to this form of expression.

I have previously written about the revitalization of third spaces (areas clearly owned but otherwise unkempt), the rationale of making art available everywhere everyday to everyone, and the importance of reclaiming the urban landscape from the corporate machine. Permission is sometimes obtained for murals and more complex and artistic-looking graffiti. However, whether due to the aversion of the public to accept graffiti as an authentic means of artistic expression or to the aversion of grafiteros to find legal alternatives or the futility of attempting to separate urban art from the urban situation that it usually arises out of in the first place, permission is not usually granted or even asked for.

Once it is understood that legality is necessary to legitimize this body of work, the main concern becomes authenticity. After all, separating these pieces from the environments that spawned them and putting them into sterile environments that may destroy the intent of the work becomes a worry. However there is another alternative available for consideration. In fact, I think that a true solution for both these issues can come from grafiteros asking permission to practice their craft as well as through the generation of legal projects and creation of more legal spaces to work on.

Legal walls and spaces have been around for as long as graffiti has been in existence, though it is important to check if the location is curated and requires a submission for consideration or only open to locals. Two very interesting sites have worked to document the legal wall spaces around the world and the USA. I have seen and experienced a variety of spaces, from mutually understood spaces for street art, such as Wooster Street, closed wall spaces, such as the 106 Street Wall of Kings, institutions showcasing multiple artists’ works, such as 5 Pointz and ABC No Rio, institutions that offer outdoor space to one artist at a time, such as Deitch and Woodward Gallery, and institutions that have exhibited the works of street artists in interior spaces, such as 112 Greene Street and Angel Orensanz Gallery (to name only a few of each!), as well as the host of privately and public owned walls that have proudly exhibited murals and artists’ works. Additionally, organizations such as No Longer Empty work to revitalize third spaces with artwork and make art available to a wider public by connecting owners of derelict spaces with artists. Each type of space has its pros and cons, but I think that it is important to have these types of spaces for artists and writers to exhibit their work on.

So in the end, I suppose the best argument I can come up with is that since graffiti is here anyway, why not embrace it and push for legal spots rather than relegating it to the rooftops and alley, or worse, the starkness of an institutionalized space? No matter what, I remain a proponent for the legitimization of this urban form of artistic expression and will continue writing in my own attempt to legitimize this form of urban outsider art as a well-received and widely-recognized form of artistic expression. Therefore, I strongly urge artists and writers to keep expressing their creativity, but to ask owners for permission or seek legal projects. By moving this form of urban expression to the light of day, we can work to legitimize this beautiful art together.

I first encountered Swoon peering out at me from a black doorway near the corner of Chambers Street and West Broadway during my senior year of high school (2005) on the way to my afterschool job. It was a print of a thin man who sort of stared out at the street from the corner of his eyes; a man who looked as if he were simultaneously emerging from and receding into the doorway. Amid the pedestrian traffic, I stopped and stepped closer. Even more impressive, I was delighted to discover, was the intricate level of detail in the print: a Chinese imperial roofed building had been integrated into his shoulder, and opened up further down into a street scene with dozens of people where his torso and legs should have been. The detail was stunning and the piece poignantly echoed the Chinatown community less than a mile away. Every day for about a week, I would cast admiring glances in its direction, stopping to look more closely if I had a few minutes to spare. Part of me hoped that other pedestrians would see me stopped and take a few moments themselves to look at this work of art (but aside from a few rather suspicious sideways glances, that never happened).

The paste-up became more and more ragged until one day, some thoughtless tagger scrawled a red mark across the man’s face and chest, completely blocking the intricate details that I had fallen in love with. I was almost relieved when, two days later, natural conditions left it in tatters and barely recognizable as the work it once was. After four years, I still couldn’t stop thinking about that man in the doorway. And so, during my senior year of university four years later (2009), for my Folk and Outsider Art History Seminar, I decided to finally figure out who the mysterious figure in the doorway was, and that I would do my research paper on his equally mysterious creator.

Google led me to Swoon, an artist who had moved to New York City for art school, and had become inspired by the rich street art scene. Her objection to the sedentary, institutionalized, and archival nature of academic art fueled her decision to create art using non-archival materials within a context that not only promoted the decay of the piece but allowed it to interact with its environment and reflect its community. Since 1999, Swoon has been a prolific street artist, and her wheatpaste newspaper prints and intricate paper cutouts could be found in various corners of New York City, as well as in Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Cuba, London, Berlin, and a number of other European cities. Swoon has worked with various artist groups and collectives including Toy Shop, Glowlab, Black Label, Change Agent, the Madagascar Institute, the Barnstormers, Justseeds, and is a founding member of Miss Rockaway Armada.

In the summer of 2005, Swoon was granted her first solo exhibition at Deitch Projects, where she installed her collection of wheatpaste prints and cutouts and transformed the façade of the building into a sprawling cityscape. Since then, she has shown internationally, both inside the institution and out on the street, and has become widely recognized as one of the foremost female influences in the international street art scene. More recently, her 2008 exhibition of paper cutouts called “Portrait of Sylvia Elena” in alternative Chelsea exhibition area Honey Space memorialized one of the first victims in the widespread killings of young women in Juárez, Mexico. Aside from her prints and cutouts, she has taken part in several homemade flotilla projects, including “Swimming Cities of Serenissima” in 2007 down the Mississippi; “Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea” in 2008 down the Hudson River and up the East River from Troy to Deitch Studios (at which she had an accompanying installation); and “the Clutchess of Cuckoo” in 2009 from Slovenia (in boats made of New York City garbage) to crash the Vienna Biennale. But most recently, Swoon has returned to her roots in street art by posting up her wheatpaste cutouts on the streets of northern Philadelphia for Philagrafika 2010, a printmaking festival.

Her recent publication Swoon (released May 2010 with an accompanying exhibition at Urban Art Projects in Brooklyn), which documents her prints as a street artist, finally revealed her real name to the world (it’s Caledonia “Callie” Dance Curry). Additionally, several of her pieces have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City. But throughout her success, her mission remains to make her art available to the public and to create a community in which its occupants are in constant dialogue with one another, or at least taking an active interest in their public spaces.

Although she has partaken in numerous projects since her arrival on the street art scene, it is her life-sized wheatpaste newspaper prints and intricate cutouts that initially gained the attention of the art world. Swoon’s prints can most frequently be found in the forgotten corners of otherwise obvious public spaces. Despite this, she picks her spots carefully, exploring neglected space and walls with interesting textures. Her backdrops include abandoned buildings, rundown warehouses, and broken-looking walls. Because she is interested in the history and texture of the wall, this feature is not hidden, but rather enhanced by the thin newsprint paper. Also, with her cutouts, the figures are intricately cut to reveal the wall that they rest on. This opens up a dialogue between the artwork and the wall, as it works to reveal the wall’s material and history (previous tags and works).

When she first began creating her block print posters, Swoon was heavily influenced by Gordon Matta-Clark, an American artist best known for his temporary site-specific works, specifically his “building cuts,” a series of for which he removed various sections of floors, ceilings, and walls in abandoned buildings in the 1970s. Because these buildings were slated for demolition, only a limited number of people would be able to see it. Similarly, Swoon’s wheatstarch newspaper prints can only survive for a relatively brief period, as they are exposed to the elements. Swoon understands that because of the fragility of her materials and the exposure to weather conditions, the pieces will soon disappear completely from the wall space.

The classification of Swoon’s art by its materials (newspaper and wheatstarch paste) are of particular importance because they stress the temporary quality of the work. She does not consider what she is doing illegal, and instead pastes her prints up unabashedly, sometimes in the middle of the day, which allows passersby to interact with her as she is hanging them, inviting a performance aspect to her piece. In spite of this impermanent aspect of her work, is it classified under the same category as permanent defacement of property.

But for the brief time that the print does remain, Swoon wants them to become part of the space they inhabit, and to interact with its community in “a human way.” And so, these life-size prints of people work to reclaim the visual landscape and to create dialogue and interest in the community through their presence. Additionally, because the works are based on snapshots of everyday city life, they create a dialogue between the viewer and the happenings of the city around them. For example, one piece with the man sitting on the box is based on a time that Swoon saw a man ticketed for the illegal use of a milk crate, which he was sitting on in the middle of the street. Swoon thought this was ridiculous, because people should be able to use the streets as public spaces. This, she feels, is equivalent to encouraging the people to not use the streets as public spaces. With this in mind, she immediately went to work pasting up men on milkcrates around the city.

It has been argued that community has been a casualty of the contemporary urban lifestyle. In urban settings, most people live without any sense of rootedness or belonging. Therefore, many cities seem not to be communities at all, but mere agglomerations of transient strangers. As with prison populations, those of us who live in cities have perfected the art of minding our own business, being disinterested, not making a fuss, and not maintaining eye contact for long. This disassociation is reflected in our lack of use and care of our public spaces.

Street art works to defy this mentality that we’ve created for ourselves. It challenges us to take back our space and become active participants in the public realm. It challenges us to stop and stare. Swoon has long been one of my favorite street artists because she uses her paper people to revitalize the communities that they inhabit. Through her artistic vision and expression, Swoon attempts to create a dialogue among community members about urban living, space, life, and meaning. Through the dynamic materiality of her life-sized subjects, she creates a dialogue between herself and her audience, and between her audience and her works. In this way, Swoon transforms disassociated and ignored public spaces into places and increases interaction with aspects of the urban landscape which would otherwise go unnoticed. By adding a temporary character to places we otherwise might have overlooked, she simultaneously reminds us to not take our surroundings for granted and that we have the right to enjoy our public spaces.

I haven’t provided many links to particular sites because Swoon’s been pretty widely written about. There are tons of photologs, articles, and interviews out there, so if you’re interested, get Googling!