Working in collaboration with cities, art foundations and nonprofits, studio artists and street artists are changing the visual landscape of city spaces.
These meaningful large-scale murals are in various, often unexpected styles. Ancient Greek frescoes, Byzantine iconography, archetypal symbols and the realism of the Hellenistic period populate paintings by Fikos, a Greek street artist who aims to revive ancient painting traditions in the contemporary art world. For South African artist Ricky Lee Gordon who recently completed a classical work in Berlin, site-specific context is important. ‘I want to draw a reference to the environment or history of the place,’ he says. ‘I want the people who live with the work to actually like the work.’ ELLE Deco spoke to Jake Aikman, Sten Lex, Fikos, Peter Phobia and Ricky Lee Gordon about their methods, and missions for their murals.
What method do you use to create your murals?
JAKE AIKMAN: This was the first mural I’ve attempted. I work almost exclusively in oil paint on canvases. For the mural, I made a roughly sketched giant grid on the wall, and then applied the same methodology that I use for my studio paintings. I painted with large brushes and rollers that were occasionally attached to an adjustable pole. The paint was a relatively fast-drying external wall paint (acrylic), which proved essential to cope with the occasional thundershowers when the humidity rose in Kiev.
STEN LEX: We’ve worked with stencils since 2001. In 2010, we developed a process combining posters and stencils – what we call a ‘stencil poster’. We glue a poster on the wall, cut out the paper, paint it and pull off the matrix. The matrix is destroyed and its scraps become part of the work.
In your opinion, and as artists who work in both spaces, what is the difference between street art and art within an ‘artworld’ or gallery context?
JAKE AIKMAN: I can only speak from my limited experience working publicly. There was the obvious and immediate experience of being seen and having what is usually a very private practice scrutinized publicly. There were some angry early reactions to my rough sketch/underpainting. People shouted at me in Ukrainian, saying that it was too dark, depressing and not pretty. Only once the painting started getting closer to a finished state did the responses change.
The painting was referred to as ‘The Black Sea’ as soon as it started to resemble a seascape. TV stations arrived unannounced to interview me and ask me why I had chosen The Black Sea as my subject. I felt more like a co-author of the work and that the mural was definitely not mine alone. From my vantage point perched on a Soviet-era cherry-picker lift, I was acutely aware that I wasn’t painting a work for the ‘artworld’. Vast numbers of people walk and drive past that wall daily, and that broad reach that a street art platform gives really appealed to me. The public response was overwhelmingly positive towards the end and I felt that I had added or transformed a neutral wall into a talking point.
STEN LEX: ‘Street art’ is a term that we don’t like anymore because is becoming a cliché. Most street artists are ‘revolutionary’ in a political sense, but only a few create real artworks about a social condition. The illegality of street art is also a boring cliché – it made sense in the ’70’s, but today it’s possible to paint everywhere thanks to festivals and city permissions. The aesthetics and ethics of most works on the street made by our generation are too similar – the language is poor, boring and repetitive. It’s important to understand that a 30-metres painting is not beautiful just because it is a 30-metre high colourful painting. All the rhetorics about street art vs institutional art world is no longer credible and we don’t see any revolution in it. The only important thing is the artwork – it can be on a street, in a museum or in a gallery. If it’s a masterpiece, it doesn’t matter where it’s located – time will decide the best location for it in the history of art.
FIKOS: Street art has a more public role in society as it is presented in the public shere. I think the difference is that street artists have to be careful about what they paint; for example, I live in Athens and I have been exposed to political street art that both me and many other people don’t like at all. It’s different when you have a show in a gallery. There you can expose yourself and anyone who likes you can come to see it. When it comes to street art, you have to respect the fact that people will live with your art every day and it’s going to affect their lives in a positive or negative way.
I prefer the term ‘muralist’ as I think that what I do is more fine art rather graffiti. I’m happy to see many emerging artists with the same ideology shaping a new movement that could be named ‘neo-muralism’.
PETER PHOBIA: I wouldn’t consider myself a street artist, even though I also work in the public sphere. My aim is to communicate to as many people as possible and if painting a 400m2 mural, like the one I recently completed in Berlin helps me with that vision, I’ll do that. An aspect I really like about the public space is that you’re able to reach out to a totally different audience. People who wouldn’t normally go to my gallery openings get in direct contact with my work and don’t feel a barrier to start a discussion with me or the people in their neighbourhood.
What is the function of street art?
JAKE AIKMAN: There are so many different forms of street art that perform different functions in the same way that different forms of art inside a gallery space do. I don’t think street art should be burdened with having to perform a role distinct from any other art form.
PETER PHOBIA: Personally, art in general, whether street art, fine art, music or film, should communicate a message to the viewer and ultimately evoke emotions.
RICKY LEE GORDON: My murals always take into consideration and have a connection with the people and place where I’m painting. This is an influence from growing up and painting in South Africa, as I don’t just want to place my art in a public space with no meaning. I want to consider what people would like in their space and draw a reference to the environment or history of the place. I want the people who live with the work to actually like the work. My studio work allows me to consider and investigate a more personal emotion for my own expression. My work is inspired by my experiences in meditation and Buddhist Dharma (law of nature) and therefore my paintings explore the nature of non-duality and interconnectedness focusing on bringing to light relevant social issues and universal truths. This is explored in both murals and studio work.
STEN LEX: An artist that works in public spaces must be honest with himself or herself and not try to gratify the public. We hope the function of street art will just be art.