REVIEW: Unexpected beauty at the Diana Felber GalleryMore Info
West Stockbridge –– Is it vandalism? A gang’s territorial insignia? A revolutionary communiqué? A postmodern rune of urban heraldry? An afterschool pastime for Beavis and Butt-head? Yes. Graffiti can be all of these things. But when it graces the pristine walls of Diana Felber’s gallery in West Stockbridge, it is Fine Art. En Mass, on exhibit through February 27, features new works by three Western Massachusetts graffiti “writers” (their preferred designation) whose studio pieces and commentary provide an unprecedented glimpse into the shadowy world of the outlaw street artist.
The show’s three contributors enjoy de facto membership in an international coterie of famous-but-anonymous artists who rely on single-syllable nom de plumes like “Banksy” and “Crash” and “Daze” to protect their identities and avoid incarceration. Ranging in age from twenty-something to forty-something, the artists of “En Mass” are known publicly as “Farce,” “Limer,” and “Wane.” And, yes, they all have arrest records.
What could possibly have compelled Diana Felber to cover the walls of her upscale gallery with the works of three outlaw street artists? Only beauty. “You will be delighted and surprised,” she says, “by how beautiful their work is.” And she’s right:
These artists have produced works of startling beauty that not even Felber herself could have anticipated. And she’s in good company: Examples of unexpectedly beautiful graffiti have popped up in urban centers around the world, putting local law enforcement authorities in a peculiar quandary: Property owners want to see anti-graffiti laws enforced, but not when the unauthorized scribblings prove to be exceptionally beautiful works of art. Thus, from the Bronx to Tehran to Singapore, many works of illegal street art have received such critical accolades that no one has been willing to destroy them. Instead, the best have received official protection and become part of their community’s cultural heritage. As a result, we now see, in many parts of the world, accommodations being made in the way of legal “graffiti zones,” “permission walls,” and other schemes intended to give graffiti artists a legitimate canvas for their art. Of course, this approach doesn’t always work, because, as adolescents throughout history have always known, legitimacy can take the fun out of almost any prohibited activity. More than a few adrenaline-fueled graffiti writers will admit: when graffiti goes legit, the thrill is gone.
Notwithstanding graffiti’s improved reputation in many parts of the world, Felber realizes En Mass will challenge the aesthetic limits of many viewers: “A graffiti show is definitely pushing the envelope of comfort in the Gallery world,” she says.
While all of the En Mass pieces are, as Felber puts it, “from, about, and within Western Massachusetts,” there’s nothing provincial about any of them. In fact, many pieces are clearly the product of far-flung stylistic influences that only a global perspective can provide. (These guys travel the world.)
Farce had been writing graffiti for over five years when he enrolled in Hampshire College as a Studio Arts major. Now sojourning in the inscrutable wonderland of academia, Farce is working to expand the outermost boundaries of fine art but is determined to remain true to his roots as a street artist. His works on canvas give little hint of their origins, but their simplicity of form and color stems in part from the urban environments of his early practice. A must-see Farce work in this exhibit is “Overlay — 30” x 30” Spray Paint and Acrylic on Canvas.”
Limer started writing graffiti as an adolescent growing up in New York City. After several arrests, he withdrew from the world of street art to earn a college degree. But, in the course of taking courses, he never lost his passion for graffiti. So now he divides his time between graffiti and studio work.
Limer’s cut-paper pieces look like the daydreams of a Martian highway engineer. By suggesting symmetry without actually being symmetrical, these works offer a sense of order, stability, and, above all, balance. For example, “Reflect” (48” x 48” Cut Paper), gives first-time viewers a few seconds to rest their eyes before they lose themselves in its intricate web of avenues, byways, and cul-de-sacs. Children, especially, will be captivated by Limer’s cut-paper pieces, because the works are reminiscent of the spontaneous designs kids make on their book covers when they’re supposed to be doing their homework. (Plus, Limer’s cut-paper designs look like perfect places to operate toy motor vehicles.)
The magazines Graphotism, Train-Gang, and Studio International have published features about Limer, and galleries in South Korea, Massachusetts, and New York (most notably the Leila Heller Gallery in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City) have shown his work. Meanwhile, it’s still possible to catch glimpses of his graffiti on walls and trains at various undisclosed locations throughout Asia and the United States.
Wane https://waneone.com is the eldest and most entrepreneurially advanced of the three En Mass artists. Of all the pieces in this show, Wane’s are most recognizable as works created by a graffiti artist.
Having lived in the United Kingdom until the age of seven, Wane moved with his family to the North Bronx area of New York City, birthplace of the hip-hop movement and home to countless graffiti-writing legends. The year was 1978, and graffiti was already well established as an important ingredient in hip-hop culture. Also, unfortunately, graffiti in Wane’s neighborhood had a long history of association with gangs. Graffiti marked their territorial boundaries, and their disputes were often bloody affairs. But not everyone wants to die in a gang shootout.
Before long, Wane found camaraderie and respect within a circle of South Bronx graffiti writers whose aspirations were wholly artistic. For Wane, the act of painting subway cars and train walls was a creative end in itself, a purely artistic endeavor. He painted his first train in 1984.
In 1988, Wane started painting on canvas and, soon after, on articles of clothing. By the time he started using airbrush to paint on T-shirts, Wane was cooking with gas: He had evolved into a professional graphic designer with clients like Nike, Sean John Menswear, and Reebok. His company, Writers Bench https://freshpaintnyc.com, has documented everything one could ever want to know about the history of graffiti in New York City.
Wane still resides in the Bronx.
The practice of illegally scribbling text in public places is, by any measure, nothing new. It predates the cuneiform script of ancient Mesopotamia. It has plagued property owners for millennia while entertaining, informing, encouraging, and empowering others. Even the Bible talks about it (No joke: Ever hear the expression, “writing on the wall”?) Graffiti’s standing in the fine art world goes back decades. We’d best learn to appreciate its artistic merits, because it won’t be going away anytime soon.
En Mass will be on exhibit at the Diana Felber Gallery through February 27.
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The Diana Felber Gallery is located in West Stockbridge, right behind Rouge bistro and just a stone’s throw from Six Depot Roastery and Cafe. If those places are unfamiliar to you, then look for the map at the bottom of Felber’s home page https://dianafelbergallery.com.
The Diana Felber Gallery
6 Harris Street,
West Stockbridge, MA 01266