Saturday, February 14th 2015
In Floating books and wall art (1), I showed you the floating books or, rather, the Word on the Water barge bookshop and skipped over the wall art. In this part I will show you some of the wall art that we saw on our ramble.
A few words on street art
When we first started photographing what is variously called wall art, street art, graffiti art and a lot of other names, we would occasionally come across another person taking photographs of the art works. Nowadays, we almost always encounter other photographers and often have to wait a while before we can get a clear shot of something. This is a sign that street art has gained recognition and has started to impinge on the awareness of the public. The comic-serious “guerrilla paintings” of Banksy have of course played a large part in this. His works have been criticised, praised, defended against destruction and, published in magazines and books. But Banksy is not alone: there are others, many others – how many, it is impossible to say – and they are becoming ever better known, both as a group and individually. Some sign their works, others do not; some stay in their home city, others travel widely; some accept paid commissions, others do not; some are amateurish, others highly professional. Their works vary widely in style, form and content and I think it is quite possible that new art movements are being born on the streets. It is an ephemeral art form because paintings are soon overlaid with other paintings. This is because space, though more of it is becoming available as boroughs set aside temporary or permanent areas for painters to use, it is still finite. The painters accept this and, even while knowing that their carefully created art will soon disappear, they continue painting. Every time we pay a visit to an area like Shoreditch, there are new works to enjoy while others that we saw and photographed on previous visits have disappeared for ever.
Whereas as “graffiti artists” once worked at night and in a hurry to avoid detection, street artists today work openly, during daylight hours. You can watch them at work and talk to them. You soon learn that they are serious artists – often students or graduates of art school – and believe in what they do. They know and respect other artists – even if they later paint over their works! For the art lover, it is fun discovering, enjoying and photographing street art and learning to recognize the handiwork of particular artists, even if you do not always manage to fit a name to them.
Graffiti was once considered something that degraded the environment and was fit only to be scrubbed off – preferably by those convicted of producing it. The clumsy and inartistic tags of gangs and self-obsessed individuals still do belong to the category of rubbish but they are only part of the scene and the least important. Street art is blossoming and becoming recognized as a genre in its own right. Personally, I think it enhances the environment and adds interest to our surroundings.
The earlier part of our walk produced little art and none that was remarkable. That may have been because we simply missed it but I think it is more likely that street art was discouraged in those areas. It wasn’t until we reached Heneage Street that we saw our first major painting of the ramble. A children’s playground had exposed the end wall of a building and the whole of this had been used as an artist’s canvas. Because of its size and obstacles such as railings and trees, the painting was difficult to photograph. You have a slightly obstructed view of it above.
Above is one section of it.
In the above detail, you can see how the artist has used pre-existing features of the building to add a three-dimensional element to the painting.
Even though the work is on a grand scale, there are small elements like the above group which is found in the lower right corner.
This garage door painting introduces another topic and type of “street” painting. The increasing popularity of street art has led to many retailers commissioning painters to paint the shutters exposed when the shops are closed. I find that these works are often more formal and less “edgy” (to use a word much in vogue at the moment) than paintings found “in the wild”. I am not sure about this one: commissioned or “wild”?
This dragon’s head decorates a gate further down Heneage Street. Its relationship with graffiti is interesting: it has been overwritten with tags but has itself also superseded tags that were already present as can be seen from some that are half-revealed above the head.
Most of the front doors of the houses in the street were as originally made, except perhaps for a coat of paint or varnish. This one at number 15 is very different: it has been completely covered with a street art painting so that it is hardly recognizable as a door. The flap of the letterbox bears the initials “UH”, written, I am guessing, by someone other than the artist. We know the latter’s name, or at least his street name, because this appears at bottom left on the painting: BAILON.
Nearby is another of his paintings, a bird’s head. Bailon is from Brazil and you will find something about him on his Facebook page. (I mentioned above that street artists often travel widely. London is a popular destination for them.)
We found ourselves in Brick Lane, today the heart of Banglatown, the area chosen as their new home by Bangladeshi immigrants and their descendants. In a doorway, I spotted the above portrait of a girl. The artist obviously needed less room in which to paint than I did to photograph it because I could only do so at an angle. Note too, the tiny picture of a man at floor level. Such miniature paintings also abound.
The Brick Lane pub called the Seven Stars has been closed and derelict for some time. Beside it runs an alleyway that leads to an open space that I assume was once the pub yard. (There has been a pub here since the middle of the 18th century so a yard for horses and carriages is to be expected.) The walls of the passage have been covered with paintings and, if that were not enough, activity within tempted us to enter.
In the alley, two stone bollards had been transformed into decorative heads. Such stones are common in the entrances of older buildings where they were installed to fend off the wheels of carriages which might damage the walls. Here, the survivors have been given a modern twist.
Above is a panorama of the yard (click for an enlargement). It has already been extensively used by artists and near the middle, you can see one at work, preparing his “canvas” by painting it uniformly white. He told us that he is Italian and visiting London. He paints on walls but prefers to paint at home “with a cup of tea”. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask his name.
Here are closer views of a couple of sections of the wall.
We entered Princelet Street, in the heart of the old Huguenot quarter and immediately found a couple of paintings, one by an artist whose style I recognized.
I don’t know which artist painted the above. What is it about? I am tempted to entitled it “Real world takes fairy tale hostage” but that may not be what it’s about according to the artist. Street art does this: it opens a continual debate as to how a work of art is to be interpreted or whether it is to be interpreted at all.
I recognize the style of this one. It is by Stik whose figures sport rectangular bodies, round heads in single-line limbs. This painting has an extra resonance in that the female member of the pair is wearing a burqa and a niqab. The two are holding hands, suggesting an affectionate relationship. Does the painting have a message and, if so, what is it?
While painting for now dominates the street art scene, other media have made their appearance. There are some examples here: paper, card or other pre-painted materials can be attached to the wall; small objects, alone or in groups, can also be attached; relief work and sculpture (forms that easily shade into one another) are seen more and more often. Art works necessarily inhabit the same space as structural features and street furniture. Sometimes art uses these features and sometimes it ignores them. What is the case here? The art works surround the street name plate when they could as easily have been placed elsewhere.
I gave this picture of a dog’s head the mouse-over title Baying at the moon but that is no more appropriate than any other title you might devise. Relevant to what I said above about structural features obtruding into art works, note the door in the middle of this painting. It reminds me of the “invisible” doors in grand houses that the servants used in their discreet comings and goings but which were ignored by the gentry.
Human faces and figures are often whimsically drawn or presented in abstract modes. More lifelike portraits do appear. Sometimes these are of famous people or are imaginary representation of fictional characters. Now and then, a portrait of what can only be a living subject catches your attention with startling realism. The temporary nature of this world is always to be remembered and neighbouring forms are already beginning to encroach on this portrait. How long before it is entirely engulfed?
In Sclater Street, this tattered building, an old warehouse perhaps, sits locked up and awaiting demolition. Such structures are quickly “colonized” by street artists though the surface of this one is not very suitable for large scale paintings. Attempts have been made, however, and it impresses me how artists manage to use what would seem to be inaccessible areas of surface, perhaps having climbed up the façade.
The door and ground floor windows of this building have been protected by bars (no doubt to deter squatters). In addition, wooden panels close off the windows. This has provided artists with canvases to paint on. I don’t know whether this artist pulled out the panel to paint on it and then replaced it or whether he painted through (and around) the bars. Either way, the result uses the bars in this portrait of a caged (human) leopard.
This is not street art – or, at least, I don’t think so, but, then again, who knows? – but I was captivated by the picture the white lion made with the red window and the metal lamp stand. It seems to express abandonment and loneliness. The lion should be on the front steps of a grand mansion or in a beautiful garden. Instead, he is abandoned here and no one knows his eventual fate. (Yes, I would take him home if I had room…)
In Whitby Street I saw a couple of portraits, one fanciful and this one that looks as though it is taken from life. The point of the subject’s hood goes up between the two windows in order to give the artist the largest possible area to paint on. The expression on the portrait’s face is expectant, as though he is waiting for me to say something.
On the corner of Club Row with Redchurch Street is a handy area of wall that is popular with street artists. It currently hosts this dramatic picture of a warrior queen who looks as though she may be a character out of a graphic novel. This is not the first time I have photographed this piece of wall and the last time I did so, it bore a very different picture (see here).
Near the Warrior Queen is this unusual piece of art. I mentioned above that relief work and sculpture were appearing more and more often, both as small pieces and as larger works. This one is unusually large, though there may be a reason for this as we shall see. This has to be defined as a sculpture and is by an artist called Cityzen Kane, who specializes in works in this medium, polymer clay. The work is intricate, as the following detail shows.
A huge amount of imagination and care has gone into the production of this work which would be a challenging project for any artist. We might spend a long time seeking the meaning of the work but we do not have to. An inscription at bottom left is self-explanatory:
This reminds us, if we needed reminding, that art and life are intertwined and cannot be disentangled. If art is a game, it is a serious game, and whatever our art works are made of, there are also laughter and tears in the mix.