Tha Occasional Collector: A PLACE ON THE WALL
By Susan Amis
Editor’s Note: Aeqai has asked Susan Amis, a free-lance writer and art enthusiast in Cincinnati, to write about art that she sees and which interests her in her travels around town and other places she finds herself. In future issues of aeqai, Susan Amis will become aeqai’s flaneur; she will serve as our Baudelaire, wandering through cities and other areas noting artistic phenomena; Ms. Amis is also an occasional collector, and aeqai is interested in learning what interests a person in whose life art may not be central but matters sporadically: she will inform us how and when and why artwork or an aesthetic environment interests or intrigues her.
While recently traveling to London, my husband and I found ourselves strolling through a weekend festival along the River Thames. It was a crowded, sticky, junky-crafts and junky-food sort of affair. As we passed under a bridge, we noticed what at first appeared to be a bustling skateboard park. Quickly the visual vitality of the colorfully graffitied walls overwhelmed the noise and activity around me. In the distance was a young man, fast at work on these grandiose walls.
This was my chance. My opportunity to talk with a graffiti artist. (I have no problem talking with anyone!) So I left my husband–happily eating his vanilla (always vanilla) ice cream cone–hopped over the concrete wall, and dodged skateboarders en route to meet the artist.
He gave me a smile as I got near, having noticed just how many daredevils I had circumvented on my approach. There were no formal introductions, I just put myself in his world. And by his world, I mean: I had long known that “art speaks to us,” but prior to the oppressive aroma of the spray cans, I had not been aware that “art makes you high.” I knew this would be a short-lived experience.
I asked if it was legal to paint on this public wall. He told me it was, and that some of the greatest graffiti artists have come to display their talent here. I was thinking as I glanced around: talent?…yes, indeed, talent! (You might want to re-visit your opinion of graffiti art, and notice what you find yourself thinking.) He said he had been there numerous times just to watch the PROS . He was self-taught and had learned from visiting and revisiting several walls in London. His admiration for the artists who have made a name for themselves was his motivation.
Today was a special day because he had been given a place on this wall. With his sketch in one hand and a spray can in the other he stepped back up to the wall to finish. I asked him when he had drawn the sketch? He said “just this morning before I left home.”
Have you ever really watched how unpredictably spray paint comes out of the can? Despite this, his control and precise detail seemed effortless. The can was an extension of his arm. His was not the body language of an artist in a warm studio with a tiny paintbrush. He was exposed to all the elements. Yet his energy was unmistakably that of all artists as they give life to creativity.
As I stood there taking all this in I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some parallel between graffiti artists and some former art method. When I returned home I decided to look into this matter a bit more critically. What I found was the striking similarities in these graffiti paintings to the work of American abstract expressionist painters, Jackson Pollock in particular. Both graffiti artists and Pollock paint with their entire bodies, not just with the wrist commonly used in Western painting. Jackson Pollock became famous for what critic Harold Rosenberg called “action painting”, where the artist uses his whole physical being to apply—actually throw–paint onto the canvas. Since Pollock’s canvases were almost always spread out on the floor of his studio, it seems remarkably similar to the way these graffiti artists work: an entire cement wall seemed equivalent to the floor of Pollock’s studio. So maybe we should consider graffiti art as a more contemporary type of action painting; both graffiti art and abstract expressionism seem to induce strong emotion in the artists and the viewers alike.
As I stood there and watched this young artist in London paint, it reminded me of the 2000 film of Pollock throwing paint on his canvases, creating those famous drips; spray paint must be just as difficult to control as cans of paint were to fling.
Getting back to my young artist, he changed to another color and said “I’m almost done.” I asked “how do you know?” “When it feels right.” Of course…when it feels right. That is the humanity of an artist!
I left before he had finished…remember the smell. I knew I had just experienced the new art gallery. Not the art gallery in a sheltered building with pristine white walls. No: the gallery that’s a place in the world around us…a place on the wall.
Susan Amis, freelance writer, Loveland, Ohio