The art they couldn't lock down
- Credit: Aida Wilde
With galleries badly affected by Covid restrictions, street art has come to the fore to chronicle coronavirus.
It’s a year or so now since the first lockdown. While many of us have been stranded indoors during this time artists and visual activists for whom the streets are both canvas and in part medium have managed to keep our cities vibrant.
The Spanish artist Pejac magically made work that appeared to be outside while in reality remained bound by the same four walls as its maker. His deftly executed window drawings planted figures onto rooftops opposite his apartment. One plays a tee shot across the city, a second appears to be standing before an easel painting a bird in the sky. The bird outside is real. The figure painting it is locked in like the rest of us.
During a rare opportunity when the artist was allowed out, Pejac applied his trompe l’oeil skills to achieve a very canny mural painting titled Social Distancing for the university hospital in his home-town of Santander. What from a distance looks like a deep, dark fissure in a concrete wall is close up revealed to be thousands of tiny silhouetted figures. Some are trying to escape the gaping chasm. Others are posed to suggest scenes of reunion, love, care and empathy. “Out of respect and solidarity towards both health workers and the pandemic’s victims I wanted to represent the social wound this pandemic has caused but also offer glimpses of hope,” Pejac commented.
If Pejac’s work veers toward the plaintive the same could never be said of Bortusk Leer. This British-born, Amsterdam-based artist paints monsters. Lots of them. Sometimes onto sheets of newsprint to paste up in the streets. Whether this qualifies as legitimate exercise during times of restricted movement is a moot point.
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What’s certainly true is seeing his dayglo, boggle-eyed, elastic-limbed, sausage-fingered creations holding up signs that say: 'You’re The Best'; 'Love Every Day'; 'Smiling Is Contagious'; etc. is a tonic. Leer’s monsters, and the way they’re so freely, inventively and energetically painted, glow with anarchic joie de vivre. They can’t not bring a smile to the face of anyone who happens across one. Though the artist’s Insta bio, posted long before Covid-19 – 'Art’s not serious. Being dead is' – has gained a newfound poignancy.
Closer to home Jeremy Deller pipped the first lockdown by a day or so which meant that his 'Tax Avoidance Kills' poster could be seen eerily lingering across London while we adjusted to a very different world. A signed edition, made available through 2020's virtual Art Car Boot Fair, raised money for the Trussell Trust which tackles food poverty. Likewise, in collaboration with designer Fraser Muggeridge, during the second lockdown Deller released another poster bearing the words 'Thank God For Immigrants'. “We wanted to make something pretty cheap that people could stick in the window rather than buy and put somewhere safe,” Deller said.
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'Thank God For Immigrants' appeared on hospital notice boards, in shopfronts, workplaces and most prominently domestic windows everywhere. This pandemic has caused the countless street windows we used to pass by without pause to morph into messaging services and pocket galleries.
Sticking for now with the more socio-politically concerned end of the art in the street spectrum, early last year kennardphillipps – Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps – pulled off a cracking trio of their series of works, initially rendered on the stocks and shares pages of the FT.
Bumped up to billboard size posters, their Study for a Head 7 (2016), Profit (2017) and Spaffed (2020) serve as a critical potted history of recent PMs. It’s safe to say that the art/activist duo are not overly impressed with Tory policies nor the party’s leaders. Rage and indignation leap out from these portraits that appeared in London’s Shoreditch.
By chance, an adjacent intervention is a textile work by the inveterate subvertiser Dr.D. The mood capturing phrase Panicky in the UK (2020) is appliquéd across a Union flag. Of course, the piece referred initially to our collective pandemic psyche but more and more it speaks to the fragility of the United Kingdom. On top of Brexit related discord the contagion has shown up stark differences between how the devolved governments have managed this crisis.
During the course of lockdown year Dr.D went on to produce plenty more sharp visual appraisals of the state we’re in. His SHAME (Prince Andrew) and GREED (Philip Green) – the latter pasted up before Arcadia finally collapsed affecting 13,000 jobs – were scathing critiques. They dared to boil down to a single word the exasperation felt by so many of us at these arrogant men who persist in fronting out behaviours that are beyond the pale.
On a lighter note I recently bumped into the poet and muralist known as Angry Dan. It’s a misnomer. He’s a nifty wordsmith who makes eye-catching work. Dan was out and about during the period last summer when there was a pause in strict rules on movement. Nine of his thoughtful, witty and cleverly crafted limericks appeared on public facing walls as part of Waltham Forest’s year as London Borough of Culture.
The design of the murals variously reflect the subject matter of each poem. For example, on the different sections of an oversized phrenologist’s cranial diagram painted on Walthamstow High Street: 'Oh how I adore a good word / Whether written, read, spoken or heard / Slang or vernacular / Blunt or spectacular / Reasoned or downright absurd.'
Dan mentioned that it was a chance meeting with Global Street Art co-founder Lee Bofkin that gave him his first break in painting murals in public spaces. And it was the GSA agency who had the unenviable task of staging the first ever London Mural Festival in August 2020.
This was a pretty incredible feat given the circumstances. More than 150 local, national and international artists from around the world were gifted space to create murals featuring a design and subject of the artists’ choosing.
The assortment of painting styles on display throughout the capital and huge variety of imagery offered a visual treat. Stand out pieces for me ranged from the modest in scale but exquisitely rendered work of eco-campaigning ATM who draws attention to the plight of endangered wildlife. You don’t expect to see a European Bison in Tottenham.
Then there’s the The Blind Exit, an epic history painting by Conor Harrington. This gobsmackingly impressive mural in Greenwich addresses so many concerns that were amplified in 2020. It pictures a man wearing breeches and beautiful blue silk bow tied shoes. He’s seated in an empire chair with the Union Jack flag flung over his head. Beside him the flag of Europe and a desktop globe partly spattered with red. Colonialism, imperialism, global trade, misinformation, divide and rule as well as… Well there’s a clue in the title. So many references both ancient and contemporary in a work that’s formally exciting and sumptuous to view.
But not everyone is a fan of murals. Especially works that seem parachuted into a site with little regard to local preference in terms of aesthetics or subject matter. Iran-born London-based printmaker, visual artist and educator Aida Wilde made her feelings known on the subject. Her mural intervention in Shoreditch was a blistering riposte to the worst of muralism.
When interviewed by the outdoor agency BUILDHOLLYWOOD’s Your Space Or Mine project Wilde explained the thinking behind her Lousy Mural in Shoreditch: “I want us to be more conscious of what we’re putting out there, who we are working for and with and the wider implications of what we do. And I want us to question the effect our creations have on local communities and their attitudes.”
With a dearth of commercial work for those professionally involved in dressing our urban environment this last year has been a rough ride. BUILDHOLLYWOOD appear to have done pretty well in turning this pandemic pig’s ear into a silk purse opportunity for artists, poets and other creatives to share their work on the streets.
They’ve also collaborated with many groups to promote local and national concerns relating to living and coping with the fallout from Covid-19. Artist Magda Archer’s Is It Over Yet? painting appearing on numerous poster sites recently both delights and gratifies. Bright, beaming colours, a kid peeking out from under her chunky green duvet beneath a phrase that flashes through our minds a hundred times a day. Of course, we know it’s not over. Not by a long shot. We have to hang in there. But while we do it’s been great to see art in our cities that brings a wry smile and reminds us that the pandemic situation is one we share and that it’s okay to admit feeling a bit overwhelmed sometimes.
Catching unexpected sights on our curtailed travels during these strange and trying times has consoled, enchanted, amused, informed and called out misdeeds. I’ll leave the last word to Doug Gillen of fifthwalltv. A tireless film maker and commentator regarding art in the streets, his round-ups of work produced in the past year are scrupulously informed and brilliantly communicated across a number of platforms.
Gillen talks movingly about the dual challenges of Covid-19 locking us down and Black Lives Matter demanding we hit the streets in protest and solidarity. Both issues reveal the huge imbalance in wealth, health and opportunities to live our best lives in the UK and across the globe. “I can’t help but wonder what the world is going to look like when we re-emerge in the coming months or even years. Will we show that we’ve been listening? That we’ve been actively trying to find more meaningful ways to engage with the subjects and communities that are close to us? Because there will always be a need for beauty in this chaos. But it’s increasingly important that those willing to speak up and to speak out are heard. For many of us 2020 was a year we faced loss but through that hardship we found a universal commonality.” The best art in the street? Like any other time, yes, it can afford visual pleasure, or foster a smile but it can also offer pause for thought and speak to social justice.
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