Street Art comes in from the cold 

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

[Image: Cosimo Casoni, Untitled, 2021, oil, acrylic, spray paint, fingerprints on canvas, 230 x 200 cm (90 x 78 in)]

New exhibition “Post-Vandalism” blends Street Art and fine art in a vigorous, discordant blend.

As Matt McMurry shows me around the gallery he co-founded, he speaks passionately and eloquently about the art around us, which blend fine-art detachment and Street-Art attitude. McMurry talks about the boldness and grasp of colour that graffiti artists acquire and says this is what excited him about the work he chose for Post-Vandalism (Omni Gallery, 56-7 Eastcastle Street, London, W1, 20 October-12 November 2022).

“These artists have gone beyond the street. They’ve left that behind but you can see it even though these are definitely gallery pieces.” We are standing in front of Moses & Taps’s spraypainted tarpaulin concertinaed over a metal footstep that you would find on a van. It has the appearance of a graffer’s intervention in a haulage yard but after contemplation seems more of a knowing reference to John Chamberlain’s crushed-car sculptures of the Sixties.

[Image: Moses & Taps, Shimms XXV, 2022, steel and spray paint, 212 x 120 cm (83 x 47 in)]

Occupying territory, promoting personal brands

McCurry talks about Street Artists occupying territory and promoting personal brands. In his previously gallery (in Seattle) he collaborated with Street Artists; in Omni, located just north of Oxford Street and split over two floors, he sees the opportunity to display art that is more ambitious and considered than what is usually found on the street.

The artists selected here carry a punchy no-holds-barred attitude but apply it to work that is more reflective and allusive than what is limited by temporary surface or hasty execution. Openness to material is apparent in the use of found objects and repurposed grounds. Most of the work bridges the space between sculpture and painting. Bram Bram has taken a slice of wall with bathroom tiles and applied paint and stickers; the printed text has degraded to the equivalent of visual static or Francis Bacon’s meaningless Letraset characters. In this piece – as in many of the others – there is a wilful distancing effect. The artists do not hit you with messages or theses, preferring to remain indirect. There is as much obscured, scoured and eroded on these surfaces as there is assertive paintwork.     

When political references come, they are oblique. Ricardo Passaporte’s spraypainted scene of politicians fighting in parliament takes the specificity out of the situation, laconically reducing the struggling figures to fuzzy flat shapes. This instance of sordid degeneration of civic life acquires a comforting decorative quality. His painting of cartoon children dancing in a circle appears like a food dye sprayed on to cake icing. Distanced by not diminished, it still has the charm of an illustration of an idealised childhood. A ceramic bust of a Putin-like figure sports a Pinocchio liar’s nose. Perhaps an understandable swipe – the artist is a Ukrainian refugee, now based in France.

Industrial Rococo

Alexandre Mosa Bavard’s Double Goose (2019) is a cement and resin cast of a puffer jacket, part-horror-movie effect, part rococo ceramic. The rococo comes to the fore in Stephen Burke’s freestanding painting-sculpture This Guy Loves His Job 2 (2022), which is equally playful and aggressive. A simple geometric painting is mounted in a section of railing; around the outside are different repelling devices (spikes, hooks, bladed wheels) that act like decorative flourishes one can find in rococo panels or picture frames. McMurry could have easily named this exhibition “Industrial Rococo”.  

[Image: Stephen Burke, This Guy Loves His Job 2, 2022, Steel, oil, spray paint, canvas and anti-climb guards, 200 x 400 cm (78 x 157 in)]

In another wall piece by Bram Bram – chain-link and tubular steel enlivened with applied stickers – seems a raffish take-off of 1980s Neo-Geo abstraction. More patterning comes in Bavard’s Auber (2022), which has sprayed paint recording where a (now absent) mesh had been draped as a distorted stencil over the canvas surface. Christopher Stead (part of a South London collective) appropriates Jackson Pollock’s spatter in an assemblage that affixes swatches of linen to the support canvas with eyelets. It is as if the artist is making survival raft out of the revered wreckage of Abstract Expressionism, not at all mocking.

Matt McCormick’s 2001 short film The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal presents us with a proposition more outright humorous. The film follows the work of municipal workmen overpainting graffiti in Portland, Oregon. The simple effacement of vandalism is presented as an art movement, which – in its deployment of rough, floating patches of paint – echoes the High Modernism of Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann and the Russian Constructivists. It is thought-provoking in its thesis that the creative drive emerges unconsciously even in the act of covering vandalism and that these blocks of colour have their own muted poetry.

[Image: Nils Jendri, Ying Ying (2022), spray paint, acrylic on canvas, 155 x 120 cm (60 x 47 in) ]

Abstract Expressionism echoed

A more involved engagement with the Abstract Expressionism (in particular, Willem de Kooning’s black period of the 1940s) comes in Nils Jendri’s Ying Ying (2022). Jendri has used areas of black-and-white spray paint, partially masked to introduce unsettling optical effects. The patches, similarity of marks and consistent palette of black and white combine to fool the mind and eye. The calligraphic tautness and austerity make this the most rewarding picture in the exhibition.

Moritz Neuhoff’s large canvas of gestural space-filling is the least successful piece here, precisely because it seems preoccupied with the abstract painting of the 1990s and 2000s. It fills space rather than occupying it.

Post-Vandalism gathers a very wide array of artists from many countries, including Germany, France, Italy, the USA, Ukraine and the UK. It may not be a movement but it has real vitality and edge and that alone is valuable. On top of which, the art itself is playful and striking. It makes a strong overall impression, one not of unity but of shared attitudes. Omni is a gallery to keep an eye on.