Travels With Gloria

Finding beauty mile by mile.

Category: Street Art

It’s always such a thrill

Pacman street art by Invader. My best guess is that this is Bilbao, but I’m not entirely sure. Photo by kurtxio, via Flickr.

January of 2004 was frigid. There’d just been a huge snowstorm, and the sidewalks of Long Island City — such as they are — were frozen over with a solid layer of ice, like a skating rink. I had just moved into an arts collective called Flux Factory, on 43rd Street between the Sunnyside Rail Yards and the Pathmark supermarket on Northern Boulevard*.

“See that Space Invader looking thing kind of over next to the front door?” my new friend and roommate Phunquey asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“It was made by this French guy who goes around the world putting them up, like graffiti but made of tiles. In any city you can look up in some random place, and you’ll notice one.”

“Cool.”

Close up of the Space Invader at the old Flux Factory space on 43rd Street, Queens. Photo by JoshBousel, via Flickr.

Space Invader, or just Invader, as he’s known around the art world, had done a residency at Flux Factory the previous summer and christened the building with his work. I might have seen them around New York before then, or the tile installations might have been yet another addition to the guerilla public art I was beginning to be fascinated by. People like Banksy or Shepard Fairey, or an artist I dubbed Neck Face after his tags around the East Village. The mysterious phrase “Egg Yolk” was scrawled on the mailbox near my old apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The era of the anonymous street artist had arrived.

Seven years later I was in Rome, visiting my college friend Gillian. We wandered the eternal city, visiting the house of the Vestal Virgins, churches filled with Caravaggio paintings, and a Victorian gelateria decorated like a marble birthday cake. Here and there amid the centuries, Gillian would say, “hey, look, it’s a Space Invader!”

A Space Invader in Manchester, UK. Photo by erokism, via Flickr.

The futuristic pixels of grafitti were a perfect match for Rome’s aggressive pastiche of different millennia. Tile is an old medium, cold and hard but still organic. And the Invader designs themselves are somehow both forward-focused and backwards-looking.

No city is a better setting for an Invader than Paris, however. As the artist’s home base, according to Wikipedia (of all places) it’s “the most Invaded city to date.”  The following video, made by Raphael Haddad with music by Toby Screamer, follows the faceless Invader through the streets of Paris as he installs several new pieces under cover of darkness. It’s weirdly visceral, almost surgical, with quick cuts of Invader applying mortar and caulk, placing his ladder, slapping tiles into place, ripping off the protective plastic coatings, et voila! Paris is Invaded yet again.


Via Booooooom! and TWBE.

*By the way, Flux Factory lives on in a new Long Island City space, on 29th Street. You should check them out!

How to learn another alphabet

Communist graffiti in Kolkata, India. Photo by Sara Clarke.

People say I’m good with languages. On a family trip to Italy when I was in college, I somehow became the de facto group translator even though I do not speak Italian. I was vice-president of the Spanish club in high school despite a total lack of passion for the language of burritos. I have this uncanny ability to say two or three words just well enough to be mistaken for fluent in any language. Me and talking just click, I guess.

I'm so gifted with languages that I managed to decipher this sign after spending all night on an Indian train. Photo by Sara Clarke.

Similarly, I’ve always been big into the written word. I taught myself to read by the time I was four. I have amazing handwriting. The books in my apartment multiply like roaches. I spend an inordinate amount of time working on this here blog.

And yet.

I have never been able to learn to read any alphabet other than the Latin one. I sort get how Greek is supposed to work, and I can grok Cyrillic if it’s a word I already know, like Starbucks or Moscow. That’s the limit of my ability to comprehend other writing systems. This is really embarrassing. In fact, I consider it one of my great failings as a human being. There are people in India who use 4 or 5 different writing systems on a daily basis, and yet here I am with my puny repertoire of one.

The work of a genius, I tell you. Photo/illustration by Ryan Estrada.

Because of this, I’m wildly impressed with the work of illustrator Ryan Estrada. Estrada managed to explain the Korean alphabet in the form of a web comic. An entire writing system in eight panels. And one of those panels is just a big header that says LEARN TO READ KOREAN IN FIFTEEN MINUTES. This guy. I just don’t even. I think I want to marry this dude.

Painting Myself Into A Corner

Untitled, 1982. Sumi ink on paper. Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Keith Haring was an oddly ubiquitous part of my childhood. Oddly because, well, I grew up in a socially and culturally conservative small town where there is little appreciation for art of any kind, let alone the dingy grafitti-inspired oeuvre of a gay painter from the New York underground club scene.

And yet his work was everywhere in my childhood. Maybe it was his later status at the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, a supposedly gentler alternative to controversial artists like David Wojnarovicz and Robert Mapplethorpe. Or it could have had something to do with MTV’s commissions of their trademark astronaut as a Haring cartoon stick figure.

My memory of his work is so cuddly and bland that at first I wasn’t that interested in seeing the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition Keith Haring: 1878-1982. But I was surprised by the work. It’s more raw than the dogs and babies that made Haring famous, oddly violent and often centered on images of penises and men fucking. This is not the ubiquitous Keith Haring of my childhood.

There are two pieces in the show that not only changed my understanding of Haring’s work but, frankly, blew my mind.

Untitled, 1979. Acrylic and ink on paper. Image courtesy haring.com.

The first is a study in abstraction done in 1979 when Haring was at SVA. The swirling figures interlock like puzzle pieces, suggesting a pile of humanity. It’s a bridge between Bruegel and Pollock, a mass of dynamic energy that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). 1950. Enamel on canvas. Image via metmuseum.org.

Pieter Bruegel The Elder, The Wedding Dance. Oil on panel. Image via Wikipedia.

The other piece stood out to me in a much less didactic way. It’s just… perfect. It’s the kind of painting you can’t describe in words. This is a masterpiece in a completely sincere way. It scratches the part of your brain that can find euphoria in a line or a shape. Unfortunately, I can’t find an image of it online. However, I did find a still of a video piece Haring made around the same time that features himself creating a painting that looks very much like the one I’m thinking of. So I’ll give you that, and then you have to go to the Brooklyn Museum to see the piece I’m talking about. Trust me, you’ll recognize it.

Still from Painting Myself Into A Corner video, 1979. Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Also brilliant, and a reason to check out the Haring show at the Brooklyn Museum even if you’re not a huge fan of his work: it’s one of the best curated shows I’ve ever seen. I especially love the choice to feature the music of 70’s and 80’s New York in some of the rooms. It’s rare that museums connect fine art with other artistic forms from the same period, and for Keith Haring, who exhibited work in nightclubs and made drawings on the subway, I thought it was a perfect choice.

UPDATE: Check out this tumblr with scans of Keith Haring’s journals. They start when he was thirteen years old!

To The Walls: Nuria Mora’s Madrid

Let me be honest with you.

I discovered the work of Nuria Mora through a poster she made for Cirque du Solieil. I have a lot of cynical critiques of Cirque du Soleil, but that’s not the subject of this post. Digging down to the bottom of my insecurities about this, let me just lay it out: I’m afraid of the circus. Seriously, I’m surprised I finished Water For Elephants. Anyway, we’re rapidly veering off-topic. The point is that, despite my dislike for circuses in general and Cirque du Soleil in specific, I was so enchanted by Nuria Mora’s poster that I felt compelled to check out more of her work. I think I was hoping that she also designed rock concert posters, which I collect. Sadly, she does not.

Happily, she does this instead:

Calle Del Espino, Madrid

 

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