Why is someone emailing me about Alec Monopoly, Mr. Brainwash, and Kim Kardashian?

An object by Kim Kardashian, available now on Paddle 8.
An object by Kim Kardashian, available now on Paddle 8.

The following is an open letter to a trio of people (I’ve removed their names) who emailed me about promoting this auction on Paddle 8, and asked for my advice on spreading the word. Despite their C- rating from Charity Intelligence Canada, I am optimistic that the Baycrest Foundation does good work around Alzheimer’s disease and dementia research. You can contribute, without engaging in their auction, here. – RJ Rushmore

Hi X, Y, Z,

So here’s the thing… if you want to promote things made by Mr. Brainwash and Alec Monopoly, I suggest you do it far away from art blogs. Of course, I can’t say what they do is not art, because clearly it technically is an art-like thing, and when something it considered “not art,” it is all too often later regarded as groundbreaking. However, what Alec and Brainwash do is five steps backward. It is, at best, pop art solely for the sake displaying money and celebrity. If Donald Trump collected art (other than, of course, portraits of himself) Brainwash and Alec are the artists that he would collect. They are unabashed displays of wealth, for no other purpose than the display of wealth. These are the guys who show up to your high school reunion wearing a Rolex on both wrists, just because they want to tell everyone that they are wearing a Rolex on each wrist.

Yes, in this particular case, these two artists are choosing to raise money for charity, but have you ever considered why that might be? BP sponsors the TATE in London. Why? Not because they are good people, but because they are looking for a way to look like good people. (Thankfully, Liberate Tate has brought a stop to that.)

I have had Alec tell me to my face that his art is a joke, a money-making/get-laid scheme and nothing more. He knows it.

I have literally threatened to quit two jobs when the question of working with Brainwash was raised, and I was prepared to do it. Actually, one of them I did quit for a few days until they decided not to work with him.

But wait! Perhaps you think: Well, Brainwash is a fun man bringing art to the people. I can’t really convince you otherwise until a recording comes out saying “fuck ‘the people,'” but I don’t think it will because I think that Brainwash is just an idiot and who believes his own hype and doesn’t see how his work is at best misguided and at worst damaging. The one and only time I’ve ever written positively about Mr. Brainwash was when he made a pro-Obama poster, because he accidentally ended up on the right side of history and with a budget to hire a halfway-decent graphic designer to put him there. But with Alec, he’s never hidden it. You may look at Alec and think: He’s “subverting the idea of the Monopoly Man, laughing at Wall Street.” Alec thinks he’s being subversive too, but he doesn’t understand the meaning of the fucking word. Like, he literally believes it means the opposite of what it means. He’s an ostentatiously oblivious piece of shit. Coincidentally, this piece I wrote about Alec a few years back mentions healthcare and elaborates on my perspective.

I could kind of give a fuck about Kim Kardashian and Michael Buble. I mean, if people want to own a thing that a pop star touched and that thing raises money for charity, great. But no art site could possibly care, except for the clicks it would generate.

All the best with the Baycrest Foundation. I can’t quite buy a brain, but I hope that my modest personal contribution is helpful.

– RJ

The objectification of street art

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Alec Monopoly in collaboration with Justin Bieber. Photo from Alec Monopoly’s Instagram.

With the advent of street art as a post graffiti movement, the infiltration of a visual style highly influenced by the fashion industry’s mode of exploitation has taken a hold of an otherwise fertile art movement.

In the early days of graffiti, the visual aesthetic was dominated by a font-based style. This style developed over the course of the first two decades into a scripted freehand-based art form that was recognizable for its lack of outside influence.

By the 2000s, with the rise of the popularity of stencil art, the influence of a visual aesthetic informed by the post-pop movement came to dominate the graffiti and street art scenes. The ease with which an iconic image could be duplicated into a stencil using printers accelerated the spread of street art as a popular art movement.

Yet the narrative of this movement has become increasingly dominated by certain visual techniques, relying on fashion industry imagery to create popularly accessible art that is seen by a wider and more demographically homogenous mainstream audience.

Even a short trip down to any popular “street art gallery” will make the viewer immediately aware of the fashion industry’s overwhelming influence on this nascent art movement. Endless reproduction of women’s bodies and faces, superficially disassociated from their fashion industry roots, has permeated the creation of street art. Images of women in particular have come to be shorthand for catchy, iconic statements. Movie stars, music icons, and models all find themselves endlessly repeated, stenciled and pasted onto shops and walls; instagrammed out into the world, becoming a viral reinforcement of the level of popularity found in recreating a photographer’s work (often without credit). Subsequently pushed onto canvases in order to monetize the popularity of the work, this imagery continually recycles itself into an endless objectification of the female.

Graffiti and street art have long been male dominated practices. Despite the recent “Women on the Walls” program in Miami and other female-centered group shows and mural festivals around the world, there are still much fewer female artists working in the medium when compared to other visual art movements. This male dominance has created an intractable acceptance of exploitative female imagery, the selling of which only reinforces the desire in younger artists to utilize similar imagery within their work.

The image of the human face is something that feeds a very deeply rooted desire for pattern recognition in the mammalian mind. We see faces in even the most abstracted blots of colour, stains of water on walls, bits of burnt toast, dust on the windows of abandoned factories. The mind is wired to react to the recognition of the human face with a sense of pleasure. Once we see the face within some random abstraction, it is likely that we can never “unsee” this imagery as it was before.

As street art has gone mainstream, its popularity has birthed an industry that capitalizes on its pop culture status. Demographically targeted goods from custom graffiti paints to clothes have seen an enormous upswing in the past decade. Far from its modest origins as an illegal art form, street art more often finds itself sponsored by corporations looking to broaden their niche appeal and to cash in on the massively swollen “subculture” that it has given birth to. The culmination of this is the interaction between the fashion industry and the “hot” street artists willing to basically license their brand in order to cash in.

The fashion industry is without a doubt the most exploitative commercial industry on the earth. From the forced gender stereotypes and impossible to achieve body presentation of its models (invariably fictions created in photoshop) to the garment workers’ horrifying work conditions and third world wages, the fashion industry reeks of the blatant disregard for both the welfare of its disposable minions and the crass exploitation of its customers.

Stencil (possibly depicting Kate Moss) by unknown artist. Photo by a_kep.
Stencil (possibly depicting Kate Moss) by unknown artist. Photo by a_kep.

In order for street art to become a truly groundbreaking and self-aware art form, young artists of this generation need to recognize that the exploitation of women through sexualized and objectified imagery is merely a continuation of the corporate stranglehold over young people’s ideas of self worth, societal value and personal gender identity.

Streets artists working in this medium need to take a deeper look at the content of their creations. Given some introspection and forethought, one comes to see that the use of fashion imagery is like a cancer spreading inside of a once independent subculture. Rotting away the core of its value by co-opting its aesthetic techniques in order to market products via the continual appropriation of youth culture that has so long fed the fashion industry. The truth is that these corporations have stolen and co-opted street art and are selling it back to young artists at a retail markup.

Just because that movie star’s face or that fashion model’s body gets an artist shares and likes on social media doesn’t make the work profound or valuable to the dialog of creative practice. We must free ourselves of this insidious institutionalization of objectification that has grown within the street art and graffiti communities and learn to support women in the arts, not just those that paint murals, but all women young and old.

Photos from Alec Monopoly’s Instagram and by a_kep

Miami, Consumerism, and WTF Moments

Gilf! (above) and Jesse Scaturro (below) at Arcilesi & Homberg Fine Art's booth at SCOPE in Miami
Gilf! (above) and Jesse Scaturro (below) at Arcilesi Homberg Fine Art’s booth at SCOPE in Miami

Let my start by saying that I have no inherent problem with artists selling their art or being pro-some-form-of-capitalism, or even pushing an ultra-consumerist agenda. If someone can make a living making art and doing what they love, great. That’s a lot better than working some job that they hate and giving up art or only making art in their spare time. That’s a large part of why I embrace street artists and graffiti writers who want to sell their work in galleries. Hell, I don’t even have a huge problem with art fairs. It’s not the best way to look at art, but I don’t fault artists or galleries for showing there. They can sell a lot of work and find new clients at fairs. Still…

If there’s an anti-consumerist message inherent in your artwork, maybe trying to sell that work at what is effectively a mall for art, where it costs money just to get in the door and have a look, is not the best way to go about things.

It’s art fair week in Miami right now, which means a good chunk of the art world there partying and buying and selling and painting and hustling. I wish I was there, but I’m in Philadelphia working on my final exams. However, I’m still getting plenty of emails from people in Miami about what’s going on and what I might want to be covering on Vandalog.

The other day, I got an email from Gilf! that included a photo of one of her new pieces accompanied by the following caption:

“This work, continues my exploration within the realms of advertising and its subversive means to propagate consumption. By stealing steel and pallet wood, two materials deeply rooted in the production and transportation of consumer goods, I am choosing to step out of the monetary system of consumption. I use these materials to ask the viewer to rethink his or her place in this unsustainable economy through subliminal ideas through typography. You will find Evolve, along with 3 other similar pieces with Arcilesi Homberg Fine Art at Scope Art Fair in booth J25.”

Two of those three similar pieces are in the photo at the top of this post.

Now, when I read that caption, two things came to mind:

  1. I don’t know where Gilf! stole those materials from, but I’m curious: Did she steal them from Walmart, or from some small warehouse in Brooklyn with unionized labor? It’s just $10-15 worth of materials, but if the act of the theft matters to Gilf!, then the victim matters to me, especially since the work is now for sale for presumably thousands of dollars through Arcilesi Homberg Fine Art (booth J25 at SCOPE).
  2. If Gilf! is going to make an artwork where the production of the work plays into its meaning, I think it’s fair to ask what role the sale of the work has on its meaning as well. Here Gilf! is hoping that the work will be sold at a venue that is all about “the monetary system of consumption” which she claims to be removing herself from. The most recent post-fair press release from SCOPE (for their Basel fair in June) is all about sales. On her own Instagram, Gilf! called Art Basel Miami Beach (the main art fair going on at the moment) “Black Friday for the 1%.” It’s naive to think SCOPE is any different, even if prices are lower. So, for me, seeing Gilf! show these pieces at SCOPE pretty much negates any anti-consumerist message that the work may have. The situation reminds me of the scene in this classic screenprint by Banksy.

Let’s compare this move by Gilf! to what Alec Monopoly has been up to this week. Last night, Alec held “a VIP-only exhibition located aboard a 151-foot yacht” in Miami. Sort of a hilarious setting for an artist whom I always assumed was at least pretending to use The Monopoly Man to critique out of control capitalism, the super-rich and the finance industry, but I recently realized that I’ve actually been looking at Alec’s work all wrong for years.

When have you seen a street artist appropriate Mickey Mouse or Ronald McDonald or The Monopoly Man in order to say, “Let’s go watch a Disney movie, eat at McDonald’s and give high-fives to the folks at Goldman Sachs”? Usually, it seems like street artists using those symbols are more likely to be saying, “Let’s question our obsession with pop culture figures, remember that McDonald’s pays low wages and eating there too much might make you fat and reform our current economic system.” And Alec’s bio on his website states that he “subversively depict[s] various iconic pop culture characters.” A piece with a meaning like “Mickey Mouse is awesome” does not subvert Mickey Mouse, so I figured that his subversion of The Monopoly Man would be about subverting the capitalist system that the character represents. Makes sense, right?

If you actually read interviews with Alec (like this one) or read press releases for his shows (like this one), it turns out that he isn’t making a critique at all. He’s actually celebrating capitalism by using The Monopoly Man character. He has said, “I feel that Mr. Monopoly, Rich “Uncle” Pennybags, represents capitalism, but my use of his image is more about reminding the general population that we are all a part of game that anyone of us can win.” Try telling that to someone without health insurance who’s just been diagnosed with cancer or a student graduating college with $100,000 in debt and no job prospects.

So, I guess I was confused as a result of Alec not understanding what the word “subvert” means. Maybe I am the only one who thought Alec was pretending to critique capitalism. Just in case anyone else was under that impression too, I thought I’d bring it up.

I’m still not a fan of Alec’s work and I find his take on the world to be somewhat naive, but at least he’s not being hypocritical.

I’m not one to see things in black and white. I know people who are upset that Banksy sells his work at all, or that Shepard Fairey has a clothing line or who hate all art fairs, but I don’t have a problem with any of that. I think one of the great things about being an artist today is the potential to make a living and basically be your own boss. Yes, the artist is still participating in a consumerist/capitalist economy and their work may critique that world, but as Gilf! suggests, they can perhaps keep themselves at least a step removed from the worst parts of capitalism. But Banksy selling prints through Pictures on Walls or Shepard selling shirts with a message of “I’m not saying consumerism is good or bad, just that you shouldn’t follow blindly,” is quite a bit different from selling explicitly anti-consumerist art in the midst of an art mall and simultaneously claiming that you’re removing yourself from that system by your actions. That claim is just false. The question is whether or not Gilf! realizes it.

So what should Gilf! do? I would like to say that there’s some way to salvage these artworks, but I’m not sure. Maybe selling them in a less money-centric environment would be a step in the right direction, but I dunno. At the very least, Gilf! needs to acknowledge that selling these artworks in the way she is trying to does not allow her “to step out of the monetary system of consumption” in any significant way. Stealing $10 worth of materials to sell a product in a mall for thousands of dollars? That sounds to me more like the worst parts of capitalism and consumerism than a removal from those systems.

Photo from Arcilesi Homberg Fine Art’s Instagram

An introduction to Toronto’s street art and graffiti

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Toronto is a vibrant, culturally diverse, and immensely creative city, with a strong arts community. Graffiti culture started growing in the 80’s, with the most notable artist being Ren, who is still considered a pioneer in our city and beyond. Since then, Graffiti has been a visible and established part of Toronto. For as long as I can remember, Rush Lane aka Graff Alley has always been comprised of blocks of walls coated in paint, full of new and exciting pieces to find.

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Young Jarus and Skam

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Continue reading “An introduction to Toronto’s street art and graffiti”

Art – Substance = ?

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Alec Monopoly. Photo by savagecats.

Note from the editor: This is a guest post by Nico Glaude, who will hopefully be contributing more to Vandalog in the future. – RJ Rushmore

RJ tweeted this a few days ago “Alec Monopoly is in the latest issue of @JuxtapozMag. Seriously? Come on Evan. I know you’re better than that!” Which got me thinking; what exactly is going on to the state of street art culture? For those that don’t know, Alec Monopoly is a street artist who “lightly” appropriates the Mr. Monopoly character in the streets, sometimes he’s playing a keyboard or even playing the turntables. His interior work follows the same guidelines of appropriation; Mr. Monopoly on canvas either pasted with monopoly money or news paper articles related to the economic state of the U.S. The point of it all? Maybe there is none.

Alec Monopoly
Alec Monopoly. Photo by Birdman.

Meaningless art is something that will always plagued the art world, and most definitely plays it’s part in the streets. Yes there will forever be the debate of subjectivity, but let’s just be closed minded for a minute and examine things. What’s make Alec’s art pointless? The lack of effort in it all, the irony of taking on the economic state as a message, yet selling his art for thousands upon thousands of dollars. There’s no sense of real purpose or substance in his work, no evolution. If you take a minute to think about it, the same can be said about countless other “artists” who are getting rewarded even though they’re in a constant state of mediocrity.

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Love Me x Vans Sk8-Hi Slim. Photo courtesy of Vans.

Another case of substance abuse can be latched on to Curtis Kulig’s overly redundant “Love Me” campaign. It’s grown from a simple tag to becoming nothing more than a brand. In terms of marketing, it’s pretty genius, but at what point does it not become art anymore? Like with Alec’s work, Kulig’s work doesn’t evolve, what once had some substance, is now replaced with something that is lost in the world of pure redundancy. “Love Me” is now found on tee-shirts, skateboards, and sneakers. The slogan has become meaningless because the message is gone. It’s now become simply a marketing tool. Maybe, that’s all it ever was.

Love Me collection from Smashbox. Photo courtesy of Smashbox.
Love Me collection from Smashbox. Photo courtesy of Smashbox.

The point to all of this? Well just like Alec’s and Kulig’s art, maybe there is none. Yes meaningless art will forever be inescapable, this article won’t change that, and as I mentioned Alec and Kulig are only two cases of many. But we, as a culture, need stop validating such pointless attempts at attention, and realize that it is simply that, artists trying to get noticed by pawning off pretentious, uninspiring and empty art.  This fact will be true until the end of time, but we need to stop letting artists off so easy, stop granting them a “Get out of jail free” card, and make them realize that in order to gain our attention,they need to start making art that isn’t so meaningless.

Photos by savagecats and Birdman and courtesy of Vans and Smashbox