Street Art Goes Commercial

A mural of Hillary Clinton in front of the American flag.

West Los Angeles street art.
Photo credit: Hayk_Shalunts / Shutterstock

Street art is a controversial topic; some view it as vandalism while others view it as craftsmanship. But instead of condemning the practice, perhaps New York City ought to take a few pointers from Los Angeles.

An increasing number of businesses in LA are reaching out to artists and asking them to create art that encourages people to stop and look—and maybe enter the shops and buy something. Yoga and spin studios, as well as bars and restaurants, are forming partnerships with artists to display their work commercially.

Outside the Line Hotel in Koreatown, for example, visitors can see the “Peace Tree” mural by Shepard Fairey (probably best known for designing to Barack Obama “Hope” poster). Gabriel Ratner, vice president of operations at Sydell Group, the hotel’s owner, is pleased with the reactions of the passers-by when they see the mural.

“People stop by to grab a photo and then end up coming into the hotel lobby for a cup of coffee or a cocktail,” said Ratner.

As Ratner noted, these partnerships are particularly effective in the age of social media, when plenty of tourists want to get a selfie and post it on Instagram or other social media platforms.

The relationship between street art and Los Angeles has a somewhat checkered past. In 2002, even as businesses hired artists to turn brick walls into billboards, the city banned murals on private property as part of an effort to cut down on street art that was just commercial advertising in disguise. The City Council ultimately lifted the ban in 2013—with the caveat that murals couldn’t contain any commercial messaging.

Of course, there are philosophical complications as well, even now. Street art is an offshoot of graffiti, which is all about counterculture and dissent—something street artists still hold onto today. For example, even though Fairey’s work is highly commercialized in some respects, his website proudly proclaims that he has been “manufacturing quality dissent since 1989.” So if street artists are being paid for their work, does that somehow detract from the outsider mentality of the modality’s origins?

Leaving aside the ideology of whether or not artists deserve to be paid for their work (spoilers: they absolutely do), the question of commercialization troubles many street artists, including Colette Miller. Miller has produced some of the most popular LA backdrops on social media today. Her Global Angel Wings 2012 project began as an illegal mural painted in the Arts District in 2012. After her initial success, she started accepting some commissions for offshoot work, including from businesses.

“I know people are trying to make money off my art,” Miller told The LA Times. “But the goal of the wings is to remind people that we are angels of the earth. Whether it’s in a mall, prison, or hospital, it doesn’t matter. We’re divine souls wherever we are, so why be snobby?”

Miller does have her limits, however. When Angel City Brewery commissioned her to paint a set of wings on their building, she agreed—until she returned to find that the company had added its own branding to her work. “This isn’t an advertisement, it’s an experience,” Miller said.

Wherever you stand on the idea of the commercialization of street art, the fact is that it’s a movement continuing to grow in LA—in large part to the opportunities offered by area businesses.

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Feeling Uncomfortable? Good.

An image of a woman's head with a very strange headpiece wrapped around it. Everything is obscured but her nose, mouth, and cheeks.

Image credit: Shutterstock

As odd as it sounds, there are a lot of good reasons to spend some time with art that makes us uncomfortable. Pushing boundaries can change the way we think about the world and each other. Whether it makes us consider our social responsibility, work on our ability to really observe, or just make us laugh at the absurdity, uncomfortable art does us a service.

At the last PNCA MFA exhibit, students explored some of these uncomfortable elements with their thesis work. Savanna Youngquist’s Being Half and Whole looks serene at first glance: just some pieces of a bedroom. But as you progress through the installation, it becomes apparent that the simplicity—the rumpled pillows, the two facing mirrors—tell a story about complicated relationships and feelings of abandonment.

Fellow PNCA student Aruni Dharmakirthi’s Fissures of the In-Between has a similar sort of motif: something that seems benign on the surface but is far more uncomfortable underneath. At first, the tattered sari fabric hanging from the ceiling combines with the colorful animations to inspire a sense of beauty. But everything gets creepier when you notice that patterns contain hidden images of disembodied heads.

“I believe being made uncomfortable is a powerful way for us to learn what we care most about, where our boundaries really are,” writes editor Miki Johnson. “Most people see something like Kohei Yoshiyuki’s The Park or Tierney Gearon’s Daddy, Where Are You? and think, ‘Ew, I don’t like this. This makes me feel weird. This makes me sad.’ My reaction starts there, but includes a follow-up question that makes all the difference: ‘Why don’t I like this? Why does this make me feel weird and sad?’”

Johnson notes that difficult art can make us feel uncomfortable. Whereas it’s easier to judge—which makes us feel in control—uncomfortable art makes us second-guess our initial reactions and what we take away from looking at a piece.

There’s another reason to look at art that makes us uncomfortable: It challenges us to see things as they really are. As Amy Herman writes for Quartz Media, “We learn the value of looking closely at things that we don’t like or understand…In the age of Photoshop perfection and Snapchat ephemera, I want more people to practice looking at what appears ungainly, misshapen, disturbing, and cruel…Learning to thoughtfully move past these reactions can teach us more effective ways to contend with the economic, political, and cultural injustices that we face today.”

Of course we should be consuming art we enjoy. But there’s merit in taking the time to explore the art we don’t enjoy as well—and asking why we don’t enjoy it. And what we can learn from it.

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Today Marks the Grand Opening of Africa’s First Contemporary Art Museum

A photo taken from the outside of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. The glass museum is built on top of concrete silos.

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.
Photo credit: Frank Gaertner / Shutterstock

After more than ten years in the making, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa has finally opened. Based in Cape Town, South Africa, the museum is an architectural masterpiece with strong historical roots.

Built at the site of a 1920s grain silo, the museum has 42 concrete tubes protruding from its edifice. Glass windows stand atop each of the silos. But even though it is a magnificent site to see from the outside, the true highlight of the building is its 10-story high atrium. The stunning entry way was carved out of the original silo tubes.

Preserving the landmark’s historic value was a top priority for designer Thomas Heatherwick. But Heatherwick admits that it was challenging to make the inside just as beautiful as the outside.

“There was a real worry with his project about whether we could get people to come inside,” Heatherwick said in an interview with Dezeen. “Museum-going isn’t a normal thing here, and there was a great risk that people would come, have their photograph taken outside, and then go home saying they had been.”

That’s what inspired Heatherwick’s iconic atrium, which resembles an exploded grain husk.

“We’re used to buildings having their iconicity on the outside, whether it’s an Opera House or a Gherkin or a Shard,” Heatherwick explained. “These building have very powerful identities, but it felt like there was already a structure like that here. We were interested in how we could give a heart to the building and whether that heart could be compelling enough that you couldn’t say you’d been to the museum unless you’d gone inside it.”

And even though the museum just opened, it’s already been dubbed “Africa’s Tate Modern.” But more important than its outward appeal is its inwards appeal; a place where Africans can have their artistic contributions celebrated and revered.

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The Quinquennial documenta* Art Exhibition

A creepy bronze statue of a cloaked figure. The photo was taken at documenta.

A photo taken at documenta.
Photo credit: Diane Chehab

The first documenta took place in Kassel, Germany in 1955 as a means to bring Germany back into a dialogue with other nations after World War II. The Kassel painter and academy professor Arnold Bode (who had been banned from practicing art in 1933) was the founder of this exhibition. One of his goals was to show 20th century art and connect with the international art world. About 130,000 visitors attended the first exhibition. There was truly a hunger for this type of event.

documenta does not take place every year. In the first few decades, it was every four or five years, and starting in 1972, it entered the current quinquennial rhythm. Also in 1972, the board decided to have an international jury elect an artistic director for each cycle who puts their personal imprint on the character of the exhibition.

This year (2017) brought a new paradigm for documenta 14, showing in Kassel from June 10 through September 9: the event partnered with the city of Athens, Greece, which held its own documenta from April 8 through July 16.

Visitors can purchase tickets for one day, two days, or the entire season. However, one day is insufficient to see everything shown. It’s best to wear comfortable shoes, as visitors walk from one building to the next. Some exhibitions are shown outside in public places and in gardens.

Migrations and refugees are one of the main themes throughout this year’s event.

The main documenta 14 space at the Fridericianum is dedicated to contemporary Greek artists, many pieces on loan from the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. One room is dedicated to photos, including memories of the years of the junta (military rule) in Greece. In the entrance hall, visitors can frolic in patterned colored lights, forming a “painting” on the floor.

Right in front of the historic Museum Fridericianum is the “Parthenon of Books,” an edifice entirely built of books from around the world.

There is no information as of yet on documenta 15, presumably to be held in 2022.

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de Young Offers a Peek into Regional Art

A photo taken of the outside of the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

The De Young Museum, located in San Francisco.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

San Francisco’s de Young Museum has been part of the city since 1895, connecting visitors with art from around the world. Particularly since its redesign in October of 2005, it’s been a welcoming way to experience regional art, in particular art that originated in the Americas, Africa, and Oceania. Several of its upcoming exhibits, including Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire (opening in September), Beyond the Surface: Worldwide Embroidery Traditions (opening in December), and Revelations: Art from the African American South (currently running through April) provide visitors with a look into other cultures and their art.

One of the biggest sources of the de Young’s multicultural offerings is the Thomas W. Weisel Family Collection, made up of donations from Silicon Valley businessman Thom Weisel. While he’s mostly known for his business dealings over the years, Weisel is also a longtime collector and advocate of Native American art. The Weisel Family Collection includes 200 objects, from 11th-century Mimbres ceramics to masterworks of Navajo weaving. They originate from a variety of cultures and include the first Plains ledger drawings to become part of the museum’s collection.

In addition to this more permanent resource, the de Young will be showing several exhibits that focus on regional art from different cultures.

From September to February, the de Young will host Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, an exhibit focusing on artwork from the ancient Mexican city. Teotihuacan is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as the most-visited archaeological dig in Mexico. The exhibit will feature never-before-seen discoveries and loans from both Mexican and US cultural organizations. Ritual objects, mural paintings, ceramics, and stone sculptures will give visitosr an inkling of what the city might have been like during its heyday.

Then in December, Beyond the Surface: Worldwide Embroidery Traditions will open, offering a closer look at embroidery from around the world. The exhibit will offer both a look at the intricate stitches and the connections between the work and the cultures that inspired it.

And if visitors don’t want to wait for insight into other cultures, they can visit the de Young now through April and get to know a subculture closer to home. In Revelations: Art from the African American South, major acquisitions from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta will be showcased. These include contemporary art by African American artists from the Southern US, including paintings, drawings, and quilts. Many of these works were never allowed to see the light of day until the civil rights movement; instead they were hidden away in personal collections and later released only to commercial galleries. Together, they will provide insight into racism, African American music, and the use of folk art traditions in modern art forms.

For more than 100 years, the de Young has offered visitors a chance to see and connect with art they might otherwise not have the chance to experience. In these latest exhibits, the museum goes a step further and encourages visitors to broaden their horizons and take a look at art originating in cultures that may or may not be their own.

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Rei Kawakubo Exhibit at The Met

Katy Perry dawns a fashionable red outfit at the "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art Of The In-Between" Costume Institute Gala at The Met.

Katy Perry at the “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art Of The In-Between” Costume Institute Gala at The Met.
Photo credit: Ovidiu Hrubaru / Shutterstock

Rei Kawakubo, originally an artist from Tokyo, grew up in a household that enjoyed Western culture as an aesthetic, on the grounds of Keio University where her father worked. It was a fertile upbringing, blending art styles from around the world. In the 60s, when Kawakubo attended Keio, that blend was popular worldwide.

Kawakubo established her first fashion line in 1969, and made it a company four years later. Comme des Garçons, French for “like some boys,” began in Tokyo and expanded with meteoric speed. By the time she opened a boutique in Paris in ’82, Comme des Garçons had more than 150 shops, reporting profits upwards of $30 million.

And all of this on the back of Kawakubo’s striking, trendsetting visuals. Her clothes were dark, frayed, and asymmetrical, earning her followers the nickname of “The Crows.”

That aesthetic sense is a part of what is being featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer. Hosted by the Met’s Costume Institute, 140 pieces of Kawakubo’s fashion art will be featured in a themed show. The works are sorted into nine “aesthetic expressions of interstitiality,” according to the Met’s website. Alongside her “crow” garments are incredible architectures of color and texture.

“Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Anti-Fashion, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes,” are the nine categories. Since all featured works are runway pieces, rather than part of Kawakubo’s wearable fashion line, it could be argued that they all lie on the “Not Clothes” side of that particular dichotomy. Many of them are massive, dwarfing models or mannequins, especially while accompanied by the wigs designed for this display by Julien d’Ys.

This exhibition, which will be on view at the Met Fifth Avenue in their Gallery 999 space until September 4th, 2017, is free with admission to the museum. It’s made possible by sponsorship from Cond Nast and other sponsors.

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Remembering Iconic Photographer Arlene Gottfried

A photograph of a man and an older woman at a beach. The photograph was taken by Arlene Gottfried.

A photograph taken by Arlene Gottfried and displayed at her “Sometimes Overwhelming” exhibition.
Image courtesy of Jack Szwergold via Flickr Creative Commons.

The Gothamist describes Arlene Gottfried as a “singing photographer and NYC treasure.” That seems like an epitaph to be proud of. The Brooklyn-born artist, sister to actor Gilbert Gottfried, passed away on Tuesday, August 8th, 2017. Her name may not have been a household one, but many of her photographs were.

“Arlene was a soulful person who followed her heart in her work and in her daily life. In many ways I think that is the best any of us can do. Her photographs fill people with joy and with tears. She made art from her heart and that’s what people respond to when they see it,” said Daniel Cooney, owner of the gallery through which she sold her art.

A parade of girls in their white confirmation dresses being escorted by nuns and mothers past TVs set up on an abandoned Chevy Vega. A can-can dancer in makeup never meant for a close-up. A make-shift pig roast being watched over by a pair of boys in an alley of crumbling brick. Her photographs are New York City from the bottom up, behind the scenes, past the curtain.

“She always photographed the people she identified with—the underdogs, the unsung heroes, and the people living on the fringe,” said Cooney. “I think that’s why people loved her work so much, there was always something to relate to.”

In 2008, Gottfried released Sometimes Overwhelming, a book with many of her favorite photographs from New York’s ’70s and ’80s. The originals of those prints are part of the collection the Brooklyn Museum of Art today, except for those that she donated to the New York Public Library.

No one drags their TV into the street to plug it into the bottom of a street lamp and watch the fight with their neighbors anymore. But Gottfried’s photographs will remember that time for us.

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