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The Word on the Street

When I learned that Magda Danysz would be curating a street art exhibition here in Singapore, I decided that I had to see it in its opening week. The influential female gallerist has played a key role in the of understanding street art within the art market context. I went with the desire to be confronted with important works; works that have captured the imagination of multiple generations and have earned a place in our consciousness despite having roots in the forgotten back alleys of large cities. Here are the highlights of my visit.

The exhibition is broken down into 6 sections and it is a very holistic experience.

It begins with the works of the founders of street art – the graffiti artists in Philadelphia and New York in the 1970s. Blade (b.1958) and Seen (b.1961) are considered the ‘godfathers of graffiti’ and their works are amongst the ones displayed in the first room. These personalities tagged public transportation vehicles and created canvases passionately and innovatively. Lettering, which uses the alphabet to create graffiti art, does not get more iconic than in the works created by these featured artists.

Left: Seen, Deep Blue (2010), acrylic paint on canvas. Right: Blade, Distant Traveller(1987), spray paint and marker on canvas

The wall in the front lobby shows, among other things, the invention of spray paint cans. The question ‘why is art from the streets of 1970s New York an important instance of artistic expression?’ can partially be answered through noting the parallel progression of art techniques, together with science and industry. The addition of this historical tidbit, and the placement of this exhibit right by a monitor screening the documentary film ‘Style Wars,’ helps larger audiences to connect to art from the streets.

Rust-Oleum spray paint cans, an innovation in protective paints

The exhibition is organised in a loose chronological manner – each section is meant to show an important development in the street art movement. Section 2 is a wonderful place to be for lovers of conceptual art. The urban artists featured here used images and faces from pop culture often to highlight socio-political issues. In the 1990s, Zhang Dali created works on the walls of Beijing’s condemned structures, as a form of protest against the rate of destruction of traditional buildings in the city. On a personal note, this section features the works of artists that first drew me to enjoy street art and engage with it on a deeper level.

Fans of the artist Shepard Fairey (aka Obey) have a number of delightful works to look forward to including the Middle East Mural (2009). Shepard Fairey is the artist who created Barack Obama’s HOPE poster, which is also a part of this exhibition. The thing about the HOPE poster is, it will look pretty unremarkable if you happen to have googled it, or seen it online. Fairey’s 8-meter tall mural however…perhaps not so much.

Exhibition view of works by Shepard Fairey (aka Obey), Invader and Zevs

The works by street artist Invader are presented subversively, much like how his works, or “invasions” as he has termed them, exist in urban spaces across the world. Both the vitrines in the centre of the image above contain documentation of Invader’s projects across the world, including a map of ‘world invasions.’

One of my absolute favourite memories of London is walking from the British Museum to Tottenham Court Road station. For no particular reason other than to escape the morbid weather, I was moving in a mad rush when I noticed in the distance, a little pixel-styled character. If I am not mistaken, I had found myself looking at a Pac-Man mosaic. It was a delightful feeling of chancing upon unexpected beauty. That same feeling is recreated to a certain extent when you spot a mosaic in the top corner of Shepard Fairey’s very arresting mural. When you visit the show, see if you are able to spot all 4 micro mosaics that are in the room.

The exhibition dedicates an entire section to stencilling- it’s a very insightful way of understanding street art as a movement or practice. As mentioned in the exhibition guide, art born of the street ‘is almost impossible to fix and categorise as it continues to grow and evolve’. Knowing the process of production makes a difference in how we see street art. As the art movement grew in visibility and strength globally, various local authorities took to patrolling their localities to stop these unsanctioned works. Stenciling allowed artists to operate quickly while still creating meaningful works. In this case, the technique developed as a political response to escape from authorities looking to prosecute street artists.

The stencilling section features a  Banksy work, beautifully encased and lit in the centre of the room. However, I urge you to pay attention to the art on the surrounding walls. The works of Dface, M City and Blek le Rat are all too intelligent and aesthetically appealing to overlook.

I must admit here that I did not entirely understand what Section 4 was about at first.

The themes are not obvious, and I had to read up on the artists and groups after my visit in order to understand the content. Section 4 is about artists who were seeking to deliver a critical response to fellow street artists and to the idea of ‘street art’ which was at the time,  beginning to get institutionalised. The thing about street art is, in all its colours and boldness and beauty, it is quite possible that the uninformed viewer will miss the conceptual intricacies of this particular display.

Scale and context are the overriding themes of the works found in the next two rooms. These artworks mark the point in the art movement when walls and space became central to the works themselves. There is an important connection here to the Singaporean art community, regarding the role of institutions. What does street art really mean for us, where institutional recognition and validation play a disproportionately large role in the art we are exposed to? Does the act of licensing and commissioning art on the street, make the finished product any less authentic in terms of artistic expression? (An interesting commentary can be found here).

This section is also where you will find the work BP Liquidated Logo by Zevs. If you would like to know about the ongoing protests against oil companies’ patronage of art institutions, check out this article.

Zevs, BP Liquidated Logo (2018), created on-site at the ArtScience Museum

Avant-garde works in Section 6 leave the visitor with an understanding of just how rapidly art has grown and evolved on the streets. There is the work of notable artist Felipe Pantone here called Chromadynamica (2018). Pantone uses striking colours, lines and sharp edges to create his signature aesthetic. Watching him create a similar mural at Gillman Barracks in Singapore just a couple of weeks ago was incredibly cool. Check out the work on his Instagram account.

Felipe Pantone, Chromadynamica (2018), created on-site at the ArtScience Museum

Yet another Singapore connection is revealed through the inclusion of our very own Speak Cryptic, in Section 5 of this diverse showing:

Speak Cryptic, A State of Decline (2018), created on-site at the ArtScience Museum

If you take the opportunity to visit this show, do go to the trouble of reading the exhibition guide. It is well-written and steers clear of the vocabulary that often makes people feel alienated in art galleries, provoking them either consciously or subconsciously to rush to the exit.

Art from the Streets is a blockbuster exhibition, especially with the numerous commissioned works created on-site. If you are interested in learning about the form of art that has captured the spirit and imagination of so many demographics, this exhibition can certainly fast-track your education. Thankfully, you have until 3 June 2018 to plan your visit.

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