Exclusive: The Street Art Scene is like One Big Block Party
If you’ve walked the streets of New York, you’re already familiar with the artists now showing in Ad Hoc Art’s Brooklyn Block Party. Outside of the five boroughs, you may have become acquainted with them online through sites like Streetsy or Fecal Face — they’re some of the biggest names in printmaking and street art ranging from recently-deceased Richard Mock to 20-year-old art-school-prodigy, Gaia. Swoon, Martin Mazorra and Mike Houston of Cannonball Press, Imminent Disaster, David Ellis, Dennis McNett, Judith Supine, Elbow-Toe and c. damage fill out the roster, and we had the privilege of interviewing most of them about it.
Many of these artists have worked together before and or long admired each others’ work. McNett remembers Mock as an inspiration because of his 18 years of politically-charged prints for the New York Times and his lifestyle: “[I] went to [Richard Mock’s] studio…an old SPCA building that he had converted into a live/work space and I remember going ‘man, this guy’s the real deal’ because over on that corner was his bed and over here was his printing press and everywhere you looked was just knee deep in linoleum blocks he had done over the years.” For Gaia, who assisted Swoon in her studio and interned for Judith Supine, being included in such company is simply “surreal.” Imminent Disaster was Mazorra’s student at Parsons and participated in Swoon’s Miss Rockaway Armada project.
No wonder Ellis calls this show “a family reunion.”
Each artist in BBP is exhibiting a new print alongside the wood or linoleum block they used to make it. Showing the blocks is an unconventional move, but McNett approves: “Carving these things is several hours worth of work and it’s not just drawn onto a block, it’s drawn and then carved. A lot of people don’t even realize what they’re looking at when they see a relief cut.” Elbow-Toe agrees: “[Blocks] look really beautiful before they get inked…it’s very sensual…it makes the drawing seem much more delicate because you’ve got all this raw wood around it.”
The work varies in content. Mazorra and Houston’s collaborative collage piece, according to Houston is “on one level just a big, stupid picture of a party just because that’s fun stuff to draw, but on another it’s commentary about the big binge America’s been on for awhile. This particular piece is also an homage to those old Dutch, peasant party paintings, dudes like Moleaner.” Elbow-Toe’s Nature Study is inspired by another old master, Albrecht Durer, but instead of providing social commentary, he aims to inspire optimism: “I made it specifically to put out in the wintertime when everything else is dead, to have these nice flowers popping up around the city.”
Ellis uses coal to reflect the local mining industry in West Virginia where he’s currently working and employs swirling arabesque patterns. “For me it refers to rivers or lava flow…it’s so freeing because it can be about any number of things and it starts to really become about movement and the natural arcs and curves of my own movement as I make it,” he says. “It’s really spontaneous.”
Gaia uses animals in his work because “there are these understood conceptions of what these animals are that might not even register as a cognizant thought, but it has that very visceral message.” Similarly, McNett explains, “I’m attracted to animals as characters because of how alive they are. You know when a wolf is pissed because it can show you, and you know when it’s at ease because it looks like it’s in a meditative state. If you ever watch an animal, they live to the fullest.”
While he doesn’t consider himself a street artist, McNett is somewhat disappointed with the current crop of talent: “Some of the people who were doing this stuff before it became the hip thing to do, they just wanted to put some work up. They wanted people to see it. To me, it was a ‘fuck you’ to the gallery system. I see some, not all, of these younger artists doing very similar work to, say, Swoon, and I feel like they’re doing it for a different reason. They see that it got some notoriety and they were like, ‘Oh man, I’m going to be a street artist,’ instead of looking at it and going, ‘Wow, you know, this is really cool…and I’m going to take it to another level.’”
Ellis thinks that “both directions are formulaic…it’s not about those words, gallery or street, it’s about the work and the spirit in the work.” That said, he admits: “I love the constant grind to innovate that comes from putting your work up without any kind of filter…I think that really forces you to evolve more rapidly and purely than if it was some kind of commercial thing.” c. damage agrees — sort of: “Street art is limitless in its possibilities…at the same time, it has clearly established serious credibility in galleries, and a market for collectors…the possibility of showing publicly on the streets and privately in galleries creates interesting creative opportunities for me.” For him, the street is a fertile testing ground.
For others, like Gaia, it plays an absolutely central role in his work: “It wouldn’t have nearly as much value personally and in the art world if it wasn’t on the street…if it wasn’t participating with society. I really could never just leave the street. It is inherent within my work.” He plans to begin pushing the boundaries of street art by producing work in new mediums: “I want my work to do something. I’ve been considering what it means to truly become a part of an environment or re-activate space. I really wanted this piece to be a point of departure, sort of a farewell [to printmaking]. A poster, while it’s a part of someone’s life, it’s not really engaging them as a participant. There isn’t a dialogue.”
So perhaps the party isn’t over McNett — it’s just time for the next generation to find a new way to throw it.
Brooklyn Block Party is on view at Ad Hoc Art through January 4th.
– Natalya Krimgold