What are Titian and Rembrandt doing out on the streets, while Banksy and his fellow taggers take over the museums and auction houses? Yolanda Zappaterra wonders what’s going on in the topsy-turvy world of fine art
THERE’S something strange happening in the art world. Art meant for galleries – paintings, and installations we associate with the hallowed halls of the Tate and The National Gallery – is escaping on to the street, while art from the street is moving into the galleries.
Last summer, The National Gallery’s Grand Tour project by The Partners saw reproductions of some of the most familiar old masters hung outdoors on walls in the capital. This summer, there’s a flurry of retailers hosting art events, including London fashion store Matches, which is holding the first in a series of artists’ collaborations, For Your Pleasure by Abigail Lane, at its Marylebone High Street outlet. Another is the recently opened Primrose Hill beauty shop Lost in Beauty, which plans to feature art shows in its shop and studios, beginning with Vanity Case, an exhibition by painter and gallery owner Cathy Lomax.
Lomax says there are a number of reasons for art’s bolt for the gallery doors. ‘Partly it’s about the art boom – it’s fashionable, it’s a sound investment, it’s attracting huge prices at auction and so more venues are keen to associate themselves with it,’ she explains. ‘This can work really well as long as the venue thinks about how the art relates to it,’ she continues. Lomax’s paintings at the shop feature iconic beauty images from fashion magazines with an art-historical ambience. ‘They were made specifically for the venue and refer to its status as a shop selling beauty products,’ she says. Lane’s project at Matches is equally apposite. As Matches director Tony Chapman sees it, ‘fashion, art and design all form part of the sensory experience, and inviting artist Abigail Lane to collaborate with us fits perfectly with our philosophy’.
But gallery fans shouldn’t worry about the demise of the white space just yet. Art abhors a vacuum, and as traditional work moves out of the galleries, street art is moving in. Over the past few months, the work of taggers and grafs has been shown at such venerable institutes as Tate Modern and the Baltic in Gateshead, while auction house Bonhams has had two recent sales of street art, with work by Banksy topping £228 000 – much less than an old master, but still a considerable sum.
We’ve been here before, of course, when the art boom of the 1980s fuelled a New York street art scene that saw the work of artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat (aka infamous Brooklyn tagger Samo) and Keith Haring make the transition from street illegality to gallery superstardom within months. Back then, an art world awash with money successfully tapped into the hyper-cool world of hip hop and street fashion. By contrast, today’s renaissance is driven by a more complex convergence.
As street artist Eine sees it, the street art boom comes from a combination of elements. ‘One of them is the presence and work of the Wooster Collective,’ he says. ‘Its picture blog is one of the best places to see street art. It – and the Internet generally – has an immediacy that’s compelling, and it’s definitely helping drive the interest in street art. Another is the way artists have had to learn how to promote themselves. Most of us didn’t go to art college, which has worked to our advantage in the sense that we haven’t been told what we can’t do. We think anything’s possible, so we happily set up organisations and galleries dedicated to street art, like Pictures on Walls, which has had a lot to do with the rise of street art by creating and generating a whole army of buyers and collectors.’
An important element to the success of street art in galleries is the genre’s growing sophistication. Materials and techniques can incorporate everything from stencils and cardboard to deconstructed ads and photographs, and from illustration and installation to interventions and appropriation. Dissemination, too, is more inventive than it was, and the work is often coming from an intellectual basis and political complexity that are a long way on from the days of rude boys with spray cans. The result is art that’s eminently sellable.
What does this crossover mean in the long term? For Eine, a gallery portfolio has meant the continuing ability to create genuine street art, but also the chance to experiment with new materials, new techniques and new styles. ‘Street art requires stealth and speed, neither of which leave much room for showing off skills and imagination without constraints. Canvases allow me to do that, and enable me to be a full-time artist. It’s a dream scenario,’ he enthuses.
The Partners won a Black Pencil for its work on The National Gallery’s Grand Tour project at the D&AD Awards on 15 May