Jumping from the tracks, we scrambled up the shale hillside into the blue shadow of an open-grate steel bridge just in time to witness the approaching locomotive flatten the first of five copper pennies Timmy and I had carefully placed on the rails moments before. As the engine passed under the bridge, the conductor waived, sounding the horn with deafening result. I was not sure if this was a warning or a reward for playing along the tracks, but it also was not the first time I witnessed this, nor would it be the last. Mom often told stories about children playing around trains, jumping onto boxcars and losing limbs in the process. An impressionable nine-year-old, I found this profound enough to avoid any contact with a moving train, but it did little to dispel my desire to get close, and Timmy was one of several childhood friends who lifted the veil of danger easily. He knew how to appeal to my deep-seated curiosity, especially if I could add a train-flattened penny to the collection of fossils, rocks and scrap metal treasures hidden in the drawer under my bed.
In retrospect, I believe the root of my sense of agency in gathering objects to share with others began then, a marriage of inquisitive interest and didactic possibility. I gravitate toward prints, drawings and paintings in much the same way my colleagues find the latest reconfiguration of pedagogic practice alluring enough to buy the book. We all believe we can do better than we do right now. And whether it is object-based learning or mastery transcript, there are times each of us dives in simply to fertilize our own garden, so that we can do history, do science, do math, or do art in a way that extends our personal answer to why we choose to be who we are. Such is the reason for my recent interest in Street Art, and my decision to buy several works not just to bring to my students, but also to teach me the language of the work.
Visually primed by city walls freshly inscribed with attacks on the war, capitalism and the military industrial complex in the late 1960’s, I found graffiti unignorable. Lacking insight into how it might broaden my visual toolbox, however, I initially dismissed it as too random and too much in debt to a violation of property; something my growing empathy for the space of others would not allow. In the 1980’s, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s disquieting combination of raw intellect and artistic practice challenged this perception. Basquiat, along with Keith Haring, Kenny Scharff and others, brought the ephemeral yet necessary language of the streets into the controlled air of the gallery experience. Graffiti, being a prerogative of human culture for many millennia, finds its necessity born in a mix of skeptical and anonymous frustration with being heard. Basquiat himself painted as SAMOS, until his aesthetically subversive fusing of image and language caught the interest of the brilliant art dealer Mary Boone. It is a testament to the power of Basquiat’s studio efforts that the vitality of his presence continues to influence living artists, thirty-some years after his passing.
Street art and graffiti, as a whole, are virulently cynical in their critique of contemporary values, and that is how it should be. Graffiti alone, though, can also be highly self-referential and often formally derivative. This is one reason the brilliance of someone like a Basquiat, Banksy, Haring, or Swoon so challengingly begs to cross over to other platforms for viewing. Anyone who has ever endured a chain of transcontinental freight cars streaking through a crossing in a cacophony of colors cannot help but be amused by the nakedly egocentric grasp at stardom evident in a seemingly ceaseless number of human-sized tags, throw-ups and blockbusters.
When the artwork is simply the font, Formalism wins. The walls, alleys and over-passes where graffiti artists risk more time to play out their relationship with the culture can often carry deeper resonance, and civic or private support for a safe space to engage, as witnessed in Rapid City, South Dakota, benefits the practice.
Graffiti is at its visual best when it acts and reacts in challenge to a prevailing culture. Gang-turf tags aside, it benefits from an environment of territorial struggle; painted advertisements, altered by graffiti, sprayed over by landowners, sometimes being covered and recovered by several artists at once. Amusingly, when Warhol and Basquiat agreed to collaborate on joint canvasses, Warhol was amazed when Basquiat painted him out. What did he expect? Graffiti artists know this visual interplay too well. Nothing is so sacred in the world of graffiti that it cannot be reborn, though well-earned street cred is rarely touched. The surface itself is part of the struggle. With the scraping, sandblasting and attempted cover-ups, beyond all else, graffiti is subversive in the mere act of execution, regardless of meaning and content.
This subversion exists even when ‘the words of the prophets are written on the gallery walls,’ because it continues to challenge the aesthetic literacy and self-knowledge of the viewer. It may seem like a sell-out to capitalism – gallery presence does monetize the creative act, making it naïve to ignore the effect of market forces – but it also allows development and expansion of the artform’s influence. If the visual language is vital enough to speak in the streets, it is essential to the living and social spaces where art feeds the spirit of humanity. Additionally, lifting the limited access of graffiti’s site-dependency opens it to the possibility of cross-fertilization, potentially expanding its influence to the global community.
Graffiti and Street artists are not unlike their studio and “plein-air” colleagues. Every painter knows the challenge of a blank surface never quiets, and keeping one’s practice vital and necessary never stops. This is why I periodically peruse Etsy, E-bay, Instagram and Catawiki to see what these street-infused studio artists are offering. Catawiki, operating in the European Union, has a Street Art category under Modern and Contemporary Art, where every seven to ten days individual artists and small galleries offer work. It is exciting to walk through so many images at one time, marking any piece worthy of a second or third look. This is how I first saw the paintings of Kill the Sofa.
Kill the Sofa, if you accept the image data attached to the work, is an artist living and working in Great Britain. Though I knew little more about the artist’s biography than the tag name Kill the Sofa, an unpretentious sense of honesty about the work engaged with my sense of wonder. I emailed Big Vision Artists, the gallery offering the work, to find more information about Kill the Sofa. They were most kind and told me he only recently moved from small mixed media work to larger acrylic canvases, and has developed a following in Europe and America. Primarily self-taught, Kill the Sofa clearly absorbs a wide-range of visual stimuli, and the influence of the international clandestine street-art/graffiti movement is everywhere present.
One painting fortunately brought to my students, and now hanging in the gallery, is an acrylic titled Rodeo (Mansion of the Sky). Working to balance an internal dialogue with the visually cacophonous image laden landscape of contemporary urban culture, Kill the Sofa transparently self-edits through comment, strike, and scratch; cutting a diffuse visual path through the painted surface to open and expose layers of chatter emanating from the unrecognizable entities floating among us. This visual sifting occurs through strata of blue, red, pink and yellow strung together with a warp and weft of line spelling out calls and comments as if the characters in Bosch’s Temptation of Saint Anthony were singing their part in discordant harmony.
Lighthouse (Shadow of Doubt), another work finding its way onto the wall of our gallery, pulsates with contested space: scratching, revealing, burying and unearthing, as if the grey matted surface of the canvas was as malleable as clay. Here line plays a consuming role, structuring and directing the eye to jump between five face-like entities revealed through a loose tracery that brushes and bites its way through shards of space, defining everything but revealing nothing. The face in the lower right-hand corner is worthy of Giacometti: alone, sequestered, peering listlessly beyond the picture plane. What Kill the Sofa has to say in Lighthouse has more to do with the flip-side of light, as the words “Fiction,” “Doubt” and “Lie” align toward the mid-line of the canvas, Shadow of Doubt indeed! Holding in consideration both sides of the coin makes Kill the Sofa’s work standout.
There is much to unfold in viewing Kill the Sofa’s paintings, and much to anticipate. As artists, we all learn from each other, and this makes seeing the actual work paramount. I tell my students, “No flat screen or page image is capable of replacing the physical presence of a work of art. Art is relational; it can only be fully present to you when you are fully present to it.” Prioritizing first person encounters with art is good for my students and good for me. Therefore, I will return to each of Kill the Sofa’s paintings as long as they hang on the gallery walls, and continue to track his activity online. I appreciate the accessibility afforded by works posted for sale, and feel it important to encourage future growth through bidding. I do not mind placing the occasional penny on the track in anticipation of adding one more treasure to the proverbial drawer under my bed.