Monday, October 01, 2007

ImPOSTers, POPaganda and FREEkingdom

Take a look at these envelopes. They look like any other mail one might get, but look a little closer. Do you recognize the faces? The first stamp is of Tony Clifton, a notorious character made famous by Andy Kaufman. The second is Ferdinand Demara, a dude who was famous for impersonating anyone from a lawyer to sherrif to a monk. What you may be asking yourself is why these folks have been honored by being placed on a couple of our United States stamps. Well, they haven't been honored that way, exactly. These are not real stamps. These are a couple of works of art in the collection called "ImPOSTers" by the Chicago street artist known as TEWZ. Tewz is known for the usual street art like spray can stuff, but he also teamed up with other artists to decorate the hideous boxes that hold our various daily papers and magazines. That was the MonsterBox project. However, Tewz has entered new territory with the pseudo-stamps. He has created art in an arena that was formerly determined by our government alone. How often do we get to choose who or what is on our stamps? I've read about votes on this or that stamp; most recently, folks got to decide on a Star Wars-themed stamp, but who got to propose the Star Wars theme to begin with? We have government-chosen art all around us (kind of like the force) but we don't really choose what that art will be. Tewz decided to see if he could make such a decision and I think he made quite a statement in that process.

But public art is not a new idea. People have been tagging since the beginning of time, as Toro so aptly puts in one of his poems: (to paraphrase) the first tagger was Cro-Magnon man. However, for some reason - I assume it is because people don't understand it - public art is often not seen as an art form at all. Vandalism is the word many people use for it. I understand that sentiment, especially as someone who, as a young girl, had to see her father paint over some tagging on the garage. Nonetheless, there are some really interesting things being done in terms of public art. Ron English is famous for his "illegal" billboards, many of which attacked big tobacco and, I believe, contributed to the stance we have on smoking today. He particularly went after the Joe Camel character and how it appealed to children; his public art campaign definitely contributed to the demise of that cartoon. A new version of a documentary that covers his guerilla billboard action goes into the reasons why he thinks public art is necessary. English, and other artists in the film, state that there is no real public space for art and commentary. In theory, we are supposed to have public spaces for our ideas to flourish, but in reality, high fees and connections are what determine whether someone is going to be able to contribute to the public arena.

The street art movement believes that art and commentary should be available to the larger public, both as viewers and participants. In other words, there should be a FREE KINGDOM available to the public. There should be a public domain where we FREAKS can say what we need to say and make the world a prettier place, a smarter place, a more informed place. There should be a FREEkingdom where new visuals and ideas can make statements that may not have crossed the larger public's collective mind. It is easy to say that artists should just work within the gallery system, but we need to ask ourselves how limited that gallery system is. Who controlls it? Who views art in these private spaces? Who decides what is worthy? There is a reason why artists like De La Vega, Keith Haring and Basquiat began with street art.

Latino muralists have beautified ugly buildings; graffiti artists beautified trains and buildings with spray can art; Ron English questions our moral decisions with guerilla billboards; and TEWZ has entered a new arena within our postal system. Here are some other random street artists and some around the world. Look at the art in Tokyo. It looks like vandalism, perhaps, but aren't there works that cause you to think? Would these works have the same effect if they were in a private, sterile space? What happens when these works interact with the actual public?

I remember looking at the graffiti murals when I was taking the Blue Line home from school; I was always excited when the subway came up into the El part of the line, right by Damen Avenue in Chicago. There was a strip of art that made my skin get goose bumps every time I saw it. Why? I'm not sure I understand. Perhaps it made me feel like I was having a conversation with someone who I didn't know. Perhaps it was excited to have a gallery that was controlled by the public. Perhaps the work was just beautiful. Perhaps the work depicted my reality more than the work in the Art Institute. I'm not knocking the Art Institute - Chagall's blue stained glass windows are a part of me forever (the link doesn't do them justice; they are immense) - but street art is something that feels like home. It feels like it is mine.

Street art isn't anything new, hence the wiki-entry, but it is an idea that demands new thought. Just like Andy Kaufman tried to push the limits of entertainment, street art is trying to expand the the limits of the artistic world. I think Tewz has pushed us to think about postage art, something that we have to pay for all the time(!).

Where else might we squeeze some innovative thought in?