Archive for category Subject: Street art
Pete “the street” Brown is an engaging presenter who has a nice line in self-analysis. At the same time, he is not a chatty painter. Most of his aperçus appear in voiceover, the nicely-judged wild track filling the gaps and providing a welcome sense of place and atmosphere.
His casual approach to painting (“I’m an old git who does what he wants”) is belied by a throwaway line, “I’ve been here a week and painted [this scene] a couple of times” – he clearly does a fair bit of research and immerses himself in a place before embarking on full-scale work. This makes one of the demonstrations, a quiet alley in evening light, all the more interesting. Working in unfamiliar surroundings where he has to interpret the location against fading and constantly changing light, we can see Pete thinking on his feet, and it’s a nimble performance.
The Arles that Peter paints is not that of Van Gogh or the tourist trail. That research and immersion leads him to places that are, while not completely off the beaten track, more domestic than grand. He begins with the Roman amphitheatre, but chooses to paint just three high arches, working from the basic shape to tone and shading, all in the almost monotone warm limestone of its construction. As an exercise in control and observation, this simple-seeming work is a masterclass in its own right and the magician’s reveal is the addition of the bright blue sky right at the end that brings the whole thing suddenly to life, “Like putting in a red letterbox at the end”.
The other major demonstration is a backstreet with a variety of buildings, trees and more Roman remains. Again, Peter works from shapes to tones and then brings in detail. Of interest here is the way he works with figures. As we watch the painting develop, people pass, but rarely in great numbers. They barely get a mention and don’t appear until near the end, when it turns out that Peter has been observing them all the time and they come both from immediate memory and a personal library based on constant drawing – “I do a lot of drawing”. It’s the same in a quiet square where the day starts overcast and then brightens. “Do I follow the light?” leads to a discussion of the practicalities of plein air painting: “It’s a confidence thing, painting … the more you nail it in one, the better”.
If you want a guide to painting Arles, this is perhaps not it. However, if you want a masterclass in observation and working alla prima, as well as a pleasant hour and a half spent in the company of an engaging and informative demonstrator, step right up.
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Serendipity and the happy (or not-so-happy) accident can have remarkable and often unintended consequences that can spark major changes and movements in history.
In 1977, a power blackout in New York triggered widespread looting and fires. The spoils from the looting included large amounts of spray paint and electronic equipment. And so began street art and the rise of hip-hop. If you want to trace different origins for the growth of these two styles, this was also the year that Henry Chalfant started to photograph the subway art that had started appearing, becoming a first-hand witness to what was happening.
In 1980, a subway strike provided an opportunity for the graffiti artists to work undisturbed on stationary canvases (let’s call them) and thus the movement burgeoned. Like I said, serendipity and happy accidents.
You’re entitled to ask, “What took you so long?” This book is, after all, appearing more than thirty years after the event. That, I think, is explained by a general rediscovery of the period around the early 1980’s, reassessments of bands such as Blondie and The Ramones – what was once current affairs that come and go are just far enough off to start being history.
But let’s not cavil (he said, having cavilled). Let’s evaluate the book. Well, the first thing is that, although it includes a lot of Chalfant’s photographs, it’s not a showcase of them (see 1984’s Subway Art for that). Rather, it’s an account of the work of some dozen artists working in the medium of spray paint on, um, unofficial surfaces. This is a dynamic form and the book attempts to capture some of that, with first-hand descriptions by the artists of their backgrounds and how they work. It’s not exclusively street slang, but they are lively stories excitingly told and they span subway art from its inception to the present day.
The blurb says that the book “captures all the raw, explosive creativity of the late 70’s and early 80’s … a captivating and inspiring book for all”. And it is all that, though I suspect that, like a lot of grassroots movements, you had to be there to appreciate it fully. Nevertheless, it’s something that’s worth documenting while the voices can be recorded live and this is a thorough account that avoids the trap of being over-academic about it all.
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