Thursday, July 29, 2010

Andrew Hem's Haunting Mythos

All you lucky New Yorkers, make sure to head on over to Jonathan LeVine Gallery on Wednesday, August 4th for the Annual Summer Invitational Group Exhibition, where you will have the opportunity to enjoy three marvelous new paintings by Andrew Hem, amongst other work from the promising young lights of the new contemporary scene. I have seen the pieces that Andrew is sending your way, and can assure you that viewing them in person will be very rewarding.

"Get Right Back Up"

Andrew's work is otherworldly and introspective, yet simultaneously current and dynamic. Among his many sources of inspiration are Asian ghost stories, landscape painting, graffiti, architecture, traveling, ninjas, b-boying, Alex Kanevsy, Van Gogh and Henry Darger — fascinations that lead him to strange and heart-wrenchingly beautiful places. You can dig deeper into his world if you venture into my archives.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Graffiti and the Art of the Gesture

While observing the reactions to the graffiti pieces the legendary Barry "Twist" McGee introduced into the streets of San Diego for "Viva La Revolución: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape," the street art exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, I was struck by the number of intelligent people who were unable to see the traditional graffiti forms McGee employed as an artistic or sociological statement, or indeed as anything more than vandalism.

It really says something about the enduring power of graffiti that a coherent, flowing wall of handstyles — written onto a previously-tagged permission wall in conjunction with a museum exhibit — still has the power to enrage so many people. Forty years after the The New York Times first documented the seminal tagger Taki 183, the ritualistic repetition of that calligraphic artform as practiced by McGee and his crew attracted such a volatile response that the roll call was clumsily buffed by museum staffers within 24 hours.

(Photo courtesy of Mike Maxwell)

One tag is an annoyance — a thousand, exuberantly building atop one another, is a deliberate provocation. But it would be a wan revolution indeed that didn't agitate the populace and incite them into defending their beliefs. Accomplishing that with the most elementary — yet deceptively challenging — form of graffiti is a stroke of elegance worthy of a Zen master. At this level, the tag is more than mere self-expression — it becomes something like a mantra, the writing of which is a spiritual practice in itself.

(Photo courtesy of Arturo Juarez)

Graffiti is performance art with a dimension greater than its simple meaning. It captures the skills and emotions of a writer at a particular moment in time, and allows the essence of that moment to be shared by others who understand that visual language, just as the movements of a dance can be read by an empathetic eye.

(Photo courtesy of Steve Rotman)
(Photo courtesy of All Seeing)

(Photo courtesy of Tiro Fijo)

No form of graffiti is purer than the handstyles, which epitomize gesture. At its most profound level, a tag lives and breathes in much the same way as a great example of Chinese calligraphy communicates meaning even to those who cannot read the language. Gesture transforms the essence of a writer's personality, experience and talent into something that has its own life and spirit.

(Photo courtesy of All Seeing)

Yet ephemerality is essential to the soul of graffiti, as well — a writer is always aware that he may risk life and limb to put up a piece one night, only to go back in the morning to photograph his work and find it's already been buffed. McGee once said, "I believe to a certain degree, [destruction is] the only thing left that shakes the public from its daily ritual of working and consuming. It is a fabulous joy to work on something so hard, only to see it destroyed in a blink of an eye."

(Photo courtesy of Michael Herana)

McGee's second affront to the civic order of San Diego, which has thus far survived unmolested, could be interpreted as another type of gesture. Using the sanction of a museum show to paint two huge throw-ups in broad daylight on the streets of downtown San Diego was another audacious challenge to the forces of uniformity. Doing it on a dilapidated, long-abandoned structure has evoked consternation from preservationists, who decry such disrespect being paid to a historic movie theater. Yet until these giant letters appeared on its face, the empty building was handily ignored by everyone in San Diego for 20 years.

(Photo courtesy of Michael Herana)

Even the basest graffiti can serve the function of drawing attention to societal ills. Seminal Los Angeles graffiti writer Chaz Bojórquez once said, "I feel that if the city was a body, graffiti would tell us where it hurts." This can be via a subtle, even inadvertent act of civil protest, or a more direct yet insidious manipulation of the powers that be.

(Photo courtesy of Banksy)

For instance, a few months ago Banksy painted a lonely boy writing "I remember when all this was trees" in the ruins of Detroit's long-abandoned Packard factory. Once the piece was spotted, a nonprofit gallery in Detroit asked the property foreman for permission to remove the decrepit wall, and carried it away for safekeeping. When the shadowy owners of the factory materialized to lay claim to the valuable artwork, the city of Detroit pounced — they had been trying to track down the delinquent owner of the property for years. Now they know whom to tap for the $20 million demolition and cleanup of one of the world's most famous sites of urban decay, not to mention years' worth of back taxes. Sounds like Banksy deserves a letter of commendation from the City of Detroit.

So perhaps McGee's "defacement" of the California Theater — which after all only consists of another layer in the dozens of coats of paint the building already carries upon its façade — will serve to finally shake San Diego from its indifference to the grand old movie palace. Otherwise, when the colossal lettering is eventually painted over, the building will likely return to the limbo in which it has hung for the past 20 years.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Acorn's "Planetes"

Two years ago, I encountered Acorn's enigmatic little drawings at an exhibit of "Ink Advance," one stop on the world tour of a set of drawings by Acorn, Ghostpatrol and Miso. You may have read about Acorn here a while back, when I profiled him after falling for his work hook, line and sinker. Since then, he has traveled all over the planet as if on some sort of elusive quest, the nature of which even he doesn't fully comprehend.

"forr_t (the cat healer)"

In his drawings, Acorn depicts a strangely compelling race of people with vaguely Asiatic characteristics, usually bundled in highly embellished padded clothing, extraordinarily intricate armor or expressive, barbaric masks. They appear to be a northern race, perhaps existing on a hidden island on the Arctic Circle, near Iceland or the Bering Strait. Close to nature and the animal kingdom, they often seem to possess a sort of shamanistic forest magic, yet their presentation is nonetheless slightly futuristic, as if they are a forthcoming evolution of our urban peoples into some exotic breed of tech-savvy woodland warrior-magicians.

"5th Reflection"

Acorn's penwork is characterized by its deftness and incredibly fine detail, so minute that it's almost impossible to appreciate fully from more than a few inches away. He achieves this unique aesthetic by obtaining the thinnest fine liners available in any place he visits, and tinting the resulting intricate drawings with brush markers. When viewing his drawings online, keep in mind that many of them — including the entire forest series — were drafted on 6x8-inch sheets of paper.


Over the past couple of years, we've engaged in a lengthy correspondence which has culminated in this intriguing little interview. Hopefully it will shed some light on the work he will be exhibiting in "Planetes," his show at No Vacancy Gallery in Melbourne on August 12th. "Planetes" is Greek for "wanderers," which is a perfect description for the nomadic tribespeople who journey through Acorn's endless forest, like planets wandering across the sky.


Erratic Phenomena: Tell me a little about your childhood. From your imagery, one could imagine that you were either raised by itinerant anthropologists, or immersed in back issues of National Geographic. Where did you actually grow up, and how did that environment influence you? Were you exposed to exotic cultures and costume when you were young, or did that fascination come later on? When did you first realize that making art was something you needed to do?

Acorn: Really, I grew up all along the North American western seaboard and random places in interior Canada and America. As far as places that I've lived in that may have had a influence on me growing up, I would say that British Columbia would had the most impact, with the traditional Coastal Salish culture being in abundance.

I didn't really meet any artists or start to think about drawing as "art" until I moved to Vancouver to finish school. I wish I came from a more traditional background, with history and whatnot, but I grew up with a natural interest in foreign cultures and got my fix through picture books at the library. I guess it was in my senior year, when I was making decisions about what was next, that I started really focusing on drawing. That said, I have a love-hate relationship with drawing and art, and go in and out of striving for it and at other times completely loathing it.


EP: For the past few years, you've been a bit of a vagabond, traveling the world, sleeping where you can, and making art as you go along — both on the streets and on paper. Just in the past couple of years, you've stopped off in Vancouver, Edinburgh, Vienna, Barcelona, Melbourne, New Zealand and Japan. What drives this wanderlust? Is the instability and random chance that arises from being always on the move exhilarating or exhausting? How do you think it's influenced your work?

Acorn: I have absolutely no idea how I've gotten away with it for so long, or really why I did it. I left Vancouver for Edinburgh on a very quick decision after quitting school, and now I've been away for almost three and a half years. Traveling just seems to be the one thing I know best, because I've been doing it since I was a tyke. I tend to get bugged out once I've stayed somewhere too long.

The instability and chance that come with the way I travel are both good and bad, I guess — it makes living like a glorified hobo seem not so bad, and living in luxury is then really appreciated. I guess for someone like me, who would prefer to drink, smoke, and draw in a small room in the mountains, it's also a good way to force yourself to experience things you normally don't go for, and learn? Something like that.

I think my work has been influenced by my travels — through the other people and artists I've met, and being exposed to and gaining access to new materials from country to country. Sometimes it's helped me to think of new ideas or push myself more when survival is seeming very important.


EP: Looking at your drawings, one might infer that you value living a simple life, as you often draw delicate people overwhelmed by the massive accretions of ornate armor and complex costume they wear, which seem to represent being weighed down both by experiences and possessions. What do these encumbered people signify for you?

Acorn: While I do value the idea of living a simple life, dream of it, and envy those who do, I don't think I make a conscious effort to portray that in my work. I'm not sure what my characters mean to other people or even to myself — it's just something that flows out. It'd be nice to live in the world of my characters — I think I'd prefer it. So maybe that's why I draw those types of things.

"forr_s (onsen hoy)"

EP: You just came back from a trip to Tokyo and Hokkaido, where you had some unusual adventures, which included sleeping in a Tokyo park, working on a volunteer farm, and breaking your collarbone. While you were there, your work seemed to take a big leap forward conceptually, and some of the drawings you made in Japan, like "onsen" and "forr_u," referred directly to these experiences. Tell me a bit about what you learned while you were traveling there. Are your drawings usually so directly related to your life, or was this a departure for you?

Acorn: The work I produced while in Japan is probably the first time I've noticed some sort of step forward with my work, and how it can mirror my life. I don't set out with my drawings to make a visual diary of my life, but it seems whenever I sat down to draw, after I finished the drawing, that's when I noticed how linked the two could sometimes be. Being in Japan for two months also meant I would be missing certain elements from my usual day-to-day life, which seemed to be for the best.

I noticed myself visually cataloging things I saw during my hitchhiking, walking, and train adventures. The mixed bowl of stress, with my Australian visa problems, a fractured collarbone without travel or health insurance, and working on the farm with that collarbone, all seemed to keep me focused on my drawing, and it just seemed to go in a new direction naturally. I think my work usually takes a step forward in the worst of my mental states, when I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel and I feel the need to really step it up.

As far as learning goes, I wouldn't know where to start or how to explain it. I had a lot of time to think, and I did it in some of the most beautiful and relaxing places I've ever been to. I naturally explored my mind, found the problems, and solved them.


EP: The forest in your alphabetical series seems somehow urban, teeming with a diverse array of characters who live among the trees almost as if they were buildings in a city. How did the idea of drawing these strange forest dwellers come to you? Has the concept evolved since you first began drawing the series, back in 2007? Do you still intend to create a book from the collected forest drawings?

Acorn: A group exhibition came up a few years ago with Analogue Books in Edinburgh that was themed "Take to the Woods," which sort of gave me a chance to start drawing trees. From there, after the discovery of being able to illustrate trees nicely, I just kept going with the series and sticking to the same paper and same materials.

The concept hasn't changed much from the original — people who buy the originals have helped me sustain myself, so in return, when it's finished, each person will receive a book of the compiled series. The style of the series has changed a lot, though, but in a pretty interesting way. It seems the characters, colors, and trees seem to change based on where I am at the time, the materials I have access to, etc. And increasingly as of late, some of the drawings are even topical to my life — but not done in a purposeful way. I like that a lot — a series about a forest and its inhabitants, all growing and changing, much like a forest itself in reality.


EP: Recently, you've begun to draw increasingly realistic figures, such as "owles" and "caribouotl" — exquisite character studies of feral peasant girls from some exotic and undiscovered northern culture. What inspired you to turn in this direction? Do you think you'll be creating more of these compelling women in the future?

Acorn: Personally, I think drawing realistic figures is actually sometimes a bit easier, because you have more elements to focus on to help shape the character. Whereas the more simple the character, the more difficult it is to express the emotion or personality in fewer lines. It's been really enjoyable using reference photos I find — from friends' photography, and my own — and pretty much tripping them out beyond recognition. I think the boredom with my own more simple characters pushed me in this direction, and it's been helping me to go back and forth between the styles.

During my trip to Japan recently, I did a lot of hitchhiking, and took a lot of portraits of my drivers and the homeless people I slept in parks with. I plan on doing a big series with drawing them all again. A skate photographer friend from Scotland, Graham Tait, has a awesome series from his visit to Coney Island that I want to play with, as well. See how it goes, though.


EP: Are there particular illustrators or painters from the past whom you look to for inspiration?

Acorn: Most of the work I see from the past that really gets me tends to be one-offs, or by no-names. Things like old etchings, technical drawings of classical buildings, topography, and old scientific/element drawings are really nice, but I wouldn't have any name association with any of the works I've seen. I guess what I like most about that type of work is the craftsmanship, though. It's ridiculous how under-appreciated a lot of those technical drawings are, as they're probably better than most artists exhibiting in my generation.

A couple of artists I can think of, though, are Winsor McCay and Moebius, both comic illustrators. McCay stands out a lot for me with his Little Nemo in Slumberland series — it's really dark and magical, and like a lot of other old comics, it has a lot of hidden political agenda elements in it, but they're fairly easy to ignore and not so critical with his work. Moebius is just someone who harbors all of my envy...

"Without Nimbus"

EP: What's on the horizon for you? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

Acorn: I've got a solo exhibition coming up here in Melbourne this August, which will focus more on the installation and the environment than the drawings on the walls. I'm working on a pop-up book series with a friend of mine who's starting his own publishing company — I'm pretty excited about that. I'm considering seriously some long-term plans of living in Melbourne, too, which is a pretty nice and calming thought. I've started writing down all my ideas, finally... so now it's just a matter of ticking them off one by one and having a good time while doing it.


Acorn's next solo exhibit, "Planetes," will open on August 12th at No Vacancy Gallery in Melbourne.