Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Oregonian vs. Stash

Bell'articolo su Stash:

Stash & Sense trace graffiti's sway in art

If you could travel back in time to the South Bronx during the late 1970s or early '80s, it might seem more like today's Baghdad than the Big Apple. But amid the burned-out buildings, drug abuse and joblessness began what is now the most popular youth culture in the world: hip-hop.

It wasn't just music. While the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash were gaining fame and audiences as the first rappers, break dancers were creating new moves, clothing designers took inspiration from the movement's wild colors and baggy forms, and artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat traded painting on subway cars and buildings for art-world stardom.

The 39-year-old artist known as Stash, whose work is showing at Compound Gallery through March 31, also gained notoriety in the '80s for his murals on New York subway cars and track walls. In the ensuing years, his paintings have been displayed all over the world; so have his T-shirts and sneakers, the latter of which he's created for Nike. Not only has Stash emerged from the underground, but he's also quite the entrepreneur.

Of course, graffiti didn't originate in the 1970s. In ancient Greece and Rome, artists scratched symbols onto walls. The preserved ruins of Pompeii revealed graffiti in the form of poems and bawdy phrases, not unlike today's public bathrooms. The Vikings and Mayans also wrote graffiti.

During the early 20th century, graffiti attracted the art world's gaze. In 1920s Paris, Brassai photographed local graffiti, inspiring the Surrealists such as Salvador Dali and, later in the 1950s, the more socially conscious Situationist movement.

"They saw it as a kind of wild, anti-bourgeois statement, an authentic means of expression," says James van Dyke, an art history professor at Reed College. "Graffiti artists perform in dangerous spaces, and transgressing the law at night fulfills a kind of desire for adventure, of danger, of an authentic existence that other people in their 9-to-5 jobs -- and their fears of breaking the law -- can't realize."

Stash's work incorporates the blunt, curving forms reminiscent of a graffiti artist's sacred tool -- the ordinary spray-paint can -- even as it incorporates other art history antecedents. For example, "Untitled #3," a mixed-media painting on two canvases, clearly recalls the drip-painting method of Jackson Pollack. Stash also cites San Francisco artist Robert Griffin as an influence.

But many other works, such as "Untitled #1 (blue and grey)," offers a tangle of arrows that seems to represent abstractly the tension of urban traffic jams and, with its decaying layers of color, the grit of crumbling infrastructure. It's not graffiti, but it feels similar.

"When I got the opportunity to work on canvas," Stash says by phone from his home in Brooklyn, "I had one can of paint, a marker and a tube of paint. I learned early to mix mediums and influences. It didn't matter what you had but how you played with it."

The other artist featured at Compound, a 35-year-old New Yorker known as Sense, also creates intersecting lines and symbols that recall spray-painted street art, but in a much more controlled manner. Sense, who has hand-drawn murals on the Compound Gallery walls in addition to his paintings, casts his forms against pristine white backgrounds, isolating them where Stash prefers to set them against layers of background color and competing shapes.

At the same time, Stash and Sense's paintings share the spotlight with their other works. In addition to Stash's Nike shoe, Sense has designed a new G-Shock watch for Casio debuting this spring in Japan. Another artist who began with graffiti, Futura, helped design the graphics for Lance Armstrong's most recent Tour de France bike.

Do they risk the perception of having somehow cashed in on their underground-renegade origins to move merchandise? Have they sold out?

"You will always have a split community on that issue," says John Jay, executive creative director at Wieden+Kennedy, which co-sponsors the Stash & Sense show. "It's just like what happens in indie rock or punk. Some young artists refuse what in their minds is being co-opted. But for these very accomplished guys like Stash, I think people understand that they have to move on and evolve. Rather than having lost credibility, I think he has shown a lot of young people how to really take that personal expression and make it into a positive. It's heroic to these kids that artists like Stash and Sense have been able to use the system and still be themselves."

"To me, I'm buying in, not selling out," Stash says. "Graffiti art, to a degree, is a selfish sort of movement, because it's you, your name, how big and beautiful can you get your name up and get recognized by your peer group. But even when I was still painting subways, I was going to see friends of mine in galleries going, 'OK, so that's how it works.'

"I had the good fortune to meet people like Haring and Basquiat, to see their works both in the subway and in the gallery. I wanted to support myself with my art like they did. Now you fast-forward to the present, and I have two kids and a wife. I need to support my family on a bigger level. I have a bigger vision than getting my name up on the 6 Train for you to see."

Stash and Sense are far from sellouts because their works retain the crucial fingerprint of personal expression. If the tightrope these graffiti gods walk between art and commerce appears as tenuous as sneaking out with a spray can in the middle of the night, there's no mistaking that the perfect storm of music, painting and style that gave birth to hip-hop culture is still blowing strong.

©2006 The Oregonian

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