Archive for October, 2010

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!

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Dear reader, I have a terrible confession to make: I have been putting off writing this post for as long as this blog has been in existence. I had first discovered Deitch in 2008, while researching street artist Swoon for a seminar class at University, and promptly fell in love with their whimsical website and unique mission. Soon after returning to New York City in June 2009, I went to visit their exhibition spaces and was instantly impressed with everything about Deitch. Imagine my intense sadness when I heard the announcement in January 2010: Jeffrey Deitch, founder and proprietor of Deitch Projects, would be closing up shop in June 2010 to become director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. It couldn’t be! It wasn’t fair! I had just returned to New York City and I was eager to revel in urban art and Deitch Projects was to be one of the mythical gateways that would allow me to better glimpse SoHo’s legendary contemporary art scene.

It was only with terrible longing that came the realization that I really couldn’t put this post off any longer, especially since Deitch’s last associated project had just recently ended. And so, a few days ago, I finally sat down to write this post. After my hiatus, it seems only appropriate that I open with both a tearful goodbye and a thoughtful reminiscence. I apologize in advance for the lengthiness of this post (and the lack of pictures in it), but there was no way, in good conscious, that I could minimize the importance of Deitch Projects. Therefore, dear reader, this post will be my testament and farewell letter to Deitch.

June 1, 2010 marked the end of an era. Mr. Deitch closed the doors of his remaining private galleries, and on October 3, 2010, the last event associated with Deitch Projects came to an end. Having once boasted three primary exhibition spaces on Wooster Street, on Grand Street, and in Long Island City (by 2010, this number had dropped to two shortly before Deitch Projects had closed, as the Grand Street location had closed earlier than the other locations), a wall space on the corner of Houston and Bowery Streets, as well as numerous other temporary installation sites around the city, Deitch Projects, for the past 13 years, has been synonymous with SoHo’s contemporary art scene. For over a decade, Deitch has been associated with the names of prominent contemporary performance and urban artists such as Yoko Ono, Vanessa Beecroft, Barry McGee (aka Twist), Jeff Koons, Dash Snow, Swoon, and most recently, Keith Haring, Os Gêmeos, and Shepard Fairey (these last three actually had magnificent projects exhibited with Deitch just this past year, and believe me, dear reader, I am sorry that I didn’t tell you to go see them as they were happening).

As is to be expected, Mr. Jeffrey Deitch is himself quite the character. Aside from his trademark designer spectacles, he had starred in the 2006 reality TV show Artstar (which, having lacked the personal drama and eliminations that characterize reality TV show competitions, would have been more appropriately billed as a Deitch Project art documentary/infomercial in 8 parts), and is well-known for his eccentricity and enthusiasm for hosting the most fabulously flashy and chaotic events.

The term “revolutionary” tends to be thrown around a lot in the art world (mostly in reference to artists, so I feel a little less guilty about using the word in this context), so trust me, I thought long and hard before deciding to use that word in my writings. However, Jeffery Deitch’s vision for Deitch Projects could indeed be characterized as such. Let me spin you a story: once upon a time in the 1960s and 70s in happenin’ New York City, art was being appropriated by a radical bunch of artists who regarded art as a vibrant expression and reflection of life itself. These artists were seeking non-traditional media with which to represent their radical modern ideas. They were looking to change the very meaning of the word and were inviting everyone to discover the true meaning of art with them. Artists did what they wanted, dammit. Meanwhile, art was springing up in unexpected places and was getting attention from everybody. Throughout the 80s, art became widely celebrated as a spectacle that was no longer confined to museums and as a constantly evolving force that both affected and actively engaged its viewers.

Sometime in between then and now, alternative exhibition spaces and workshops that reflected the lively nature of the art began dwindling in numbers (since NEA funding dried up in the 90s and rent throughout the city began drastically increasing), and the wild art scene matured into a relatively tame fixture in New York City, giving birth to the hundreds of private galleries which now inhabit the Lower East Side in the process. Although they provided a departure from traditional spaces, such as larger museums, the atmospheres offered by these institutions were very much the same (albeit commercialized). The galleries no longer gave the artist total control. In galleries, no matter how contemporary the art, they have invariably come to be entombed in their bland prison cells…I mean, positioned carefully in spotless exhibition spaces that boast pictures in frames and objects on pedestals…which is of course, where they belong.

Deitch however, was no such white box. Deitch Projects realized that the best art came from unrestricted artists, and this made it a good time for everyone in the process. The physical gallery spaces comprised simply of a single white room, true, but it wasn’t just what was in the exhibition space that made Deitch Projects a pillar in the SoHo contemporary art world. The room was merely an anchor, a base of operation, for the numerous projects sponsored by Deitch. In the past, Deitch Projects has collaborated with musicians to create shows (such as Björk, Scissor Sisters, and Fischerspooner), sponsored extravagant annual art parades (seriously, Google some pictures), and affected the aesthetics of the neighborhood by inviting artists to utilize their façade and an otherwise broken-down wall less than a mile away.

Understandably, Deitch Projects attracted the attention not just of the art-lovers of high society and established contemporary artists, but simultaneously engaged a more radical and diverse audience and group of artists. The focus at Deitch was not only on the artwork(s) that inhabited the gallery space and the artist(s) who created it, but in actively rejoicing in the very idea of art through performances and events. By involving those working on the outskirts of mainstream contemporary art scene, Deitch Projects stepped out of the gallery and added a new dimension to the contemporary art scene. Also, by not limiting itself to its gallery space, Deitch Projects had invited a whole new audience to share the experience of art.

So the question remains as to who will champion the contemporary art scene in New York City now that Deitch is gone. Sure, Mr. Deitch has made sure that the artists whom he has represented have found alternative representation, and sure, anyone who has spent more than five minutes wandering around the Lower East Side will realize that there is no shortage of contemporary art galleries to continue propagating the well established and newcomers to the contemporary art scene alike. But as art critic and Paper Magazine senior editor Carlo McCormick has said, Mr. Deitch “understands how a T-shirt can be a signifier, or how being a skateboarder gives you a particular view of the world, or what it means to be a graffiti artist, and…[that] studio practice that isn’t just a shitty, watered-down version of what you do on the street.” And that, my friend, is the keen eye that the SoHo contemporary art scene is now without.

Unfortunately, some don’t appreciate the importance of Deitch’s work in New York City. Critic Bruce Hackney (who was previously the managing director of the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Chelsea and now runs his own management company for artists) has accused Mr. Deitch of simply creating a brand name for himself and his gallery. And that brand says “young, hip, trendy, cool: lots of chaos and irreverence.” Apparently, Mr. Hackney believes that radicalism in contemporary art is no longer necessary or relevant. But what you seem to be focusing on, Mr. Hackney, is the style of the creators without the context of their culture. What you seem to be forgetting, Mr. Hackney, is that art isn’t limited to the gallery, and that it is precisely for the reason that art can come from anywhere (even the L train, as much as it pains me to admit) and can affect everyone.

Mary Boone (of Mary Boone Gallery, est. 1977 on Fifth Avenue) has stated that she doesn’t believe downtown’s art scene will change much, despite the departing of this legendary figure. But I think Stephan Stoyanov (of Stephan Stoyanov Gallery in SoHo) understands it best: “It’s going to leave a void. He took a lot of risks over the years- I can’t say that for a lot of our colleagues in Chelsea. For the last several years, if you went to Chelsea, it’s always just painting, painting, painting. Jeffrey was never afraid.” And it’s true, because no matter how you spin it, through his unique collaborations and sponsorships, Mr. Deitch had spent over a decade striving to bring outsider art to the mainstream of the contemporary art scene, and to bring a new audience into the art world. Mr. Deitch was, in essence, redefining contemporary art the way the radical artists of the 60s had done. Through his chaotic events, Jeffrey Deitch was breathing a new life into the New York City art scene. And there is a distinct flavor that will be lost once the remnants of Mr. Deitch’s galleries stop functioning for good.

However, despite what I’ve made it sound like, Mary Boone was right after all: Deitch hasn’t died, he’s just moved on. The artists of New York City will continue to create art and the contemporary art scene will continue to evolve without his patronage. I know that Mr. Deitch will bring his unique energy and revolutionary vision with him to the Museum of Contemporary Art and to Los Angeles, and we wish him nothing but the best of luck there. It’s just that it must be said: Mr. Deitch, New York City will never be the same without you.

Please note, quotes were taken from The Observer article “Dear Jeffrey Deitch: Thanks for Never Being Boring!” from January 12, 2010.

A Note on My Lengthy Hiatus

Posted: October 11, 2010 in Uncategorized

While I do want to refrain from becoming overly personal in this blog (aside from interjecting my opinions on the urban landscape and artists, of course), I must admit that it’s become somewhat difficult to ignore the fact that I’ve taken a rather long hiatus relatively early into this blog’s lifespan. So let me take a moment to quickly explain: what with interviews for graduate schools in London in the Spring (I’ve been accepted and will be moving there in time for Fall 2011, just so you know), getting sucked into the World Cup this Summer (shoutout to Unsere Jungs, DFB ’10), and starting a new full-time job this Fall, as well as trying to actively engage in some semblance of a social life (I am, after all, leaving my lifelong home of NYC in less than a year), I’ve been rather busy. Therefore, my idealism in regards to updating this blog every week with an in-depth and somewhat academic review (and not merely “check this out” or picture posts) had been long since blasted to smithereens.

Each time I did get an urge to update this blog during one of life’s brief pauses, I became painfully disheartened by the fact that I hadn’t updated in such a long while, and soon gave up hope entirely for this now-defunct blog. However, as things came to settle down in my life (probably the calm before another storm), and with the gentle urging from a good friend from University whom I saw this past weekend, I have become excited to post once more, especially now that I have fully accepted that there is no way I will be able to update as often as I would like, and that I will nearly never be able to stay one step ahead of the urban art scene…

Unfortunately, in the course of this hiatus, I have missed a host of exhibitions, book releases, new documentaries, and events that I did want to discuss as they occurred, such as the closing of Deitch galleries this past summer, the reopening of 5 Pointz and their International Meeting of Styles this past fall, the release of Banksy’s movie “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” as well as a host of events from just this past weekend, such as the Trespass book launch, the “stickers” launch party, the Art In Odd Places lecture, the Conflux festival, the re:form school…NYC being the delta of the urban art scene that it is…the list goes on and on. Because I still want to discuss them, future articles posted will be more of a retrospective rather than current news.

So, dear friend, please excuse my extended absence, and know that I haven’t forgotten about the ever-changing street art scene, and that I am currently researching some articles to go up as soon as possible!