White dudes with afros, chics with no hair, live tattooing and art, oh my!
That was just a bit of what was going on at Lab Art Gallery on La Brea this past Saturday when I stopped by for a brief gander.
There were a lot of cool pieces in the gallery featuring everything from spray-paint on canvas to mixed media. Pop cultural icons were featured frequently on a number of the pieces, and I found [randomly] that renditions of Jack Nicholson seemed to be eyeing me from just about every wall. What struck me most about the event though was not necessarily the art, but the people. I’ve been living in or near L.A. for the entire 22 years of my existence and I can honestly say that I’ve never been to anything “so L.A.” in my life. From the live painting to the bearded dudes who outnumbered non-bearded dudes 3 to 1, this scene felt a lot like what you’d see in movies. I guess that’s part of what felt so strange about it for me: it almost seemed as if the people weren’t real, as if they were cast to appear if only for a moment before taking off to smoke another cigarette.
I was admiring the live tattooer’s work, but when he stood up he brushed through me like I was Casper, leaving me with the urge to yell out a sarcastic “Sorry, bro!” The screen-printing guy was a sweetheart but didn’t know much about the image that he was printing onto his shirts, other than it “looked cool.” I overheard people admiring particular pieces around the room, a common repetative critique being “Wow, that’s so Warhol.”
In general, these attitudes reminded me so much of what I love and simultaneously hate about street art in itself. “Street art” can be playful, it can be ironic, it can be subtle or aggressively upfront. Some street art can be incredibly intelligent. It can take on a new or different meaning depending on where it is placed. Carboard shoes thrown over a wire can mean something vastly different depending upon if that wire is located on a street in South Central or in front of a mansion in Beverly Hills.
Yet that is simultaneously what drives me crazy about street art: that so many of its spectators refuse to admit that a lot of it is just bullshit; luck of the draw dependent on the viewers’ gullibility. If the same image is created with spray-paint instead of chalk pastel, we call it street art. If the same words are “tagged” instead of written, for some reason we are more quick to accept it as valid social criticism. Street art is a style, granted, but should we really keep calling it street art if it’s never been on the street? Ins’t that an inherent part of why street art has any meaning– less because of the technical ability involved but instead because of the risk taken to create it?
In thinking about this I recall my experience of watching Banksy’s film Exit Through the Giftshop. Part of the reason I enjoyed the film is because I’m convinced it was all a hoax. In the film, street-art newcomer “Mr. Brainwash” is hugely successful despite the fact that he clearly has no idea what he is doing. His art is copy-cat like and mass produced– the exact opposite of what the core values of street art dictate his work should be. Even worse is how easily so-called fans of street art literally buy into Mr. Brainwash’s persona by spending thousands of dollars at his show. Instead of holding him accountable for his obvious rehashing of other people’s work, they attribute this as being part of his genius.
This to me is why the whole film is a joke, a ruse being played on the population by Banksy and friends asking us “What is art and how can we use it?”
So while I may sound like I’m hating on the Lab Art gallery, don’t get me wrong. I had a fabulous time. The hosts were kind and there was a lot to appreciate. I have my reasons for liking the art to an extent, but nonetheless I can’t help but wonder what makes other people love street art so much– and so suddenly. What makes someone willing to pay several hundred dollars for a collection of used up spray cans that have motivational words painted onto them in simple acrylic paint? Maybe I’ll understand more one day when I actually have that several hundred dollars to spare. Or maybe I’ll be the artist myself. I once sold a bag of my trash to someone for 75 cents. Maybe this is just an extension of the same thing.