It's no secret that Street Art as a promotional tool is effective. It just works. Effortlessly cool, eye-catching, memorable, brand-effective, cost-effective... need I go on? After writing about Michael Savoie's new piece for Bombay Sapphire last week, I was struck by how clever it is to make an event out of an ad. You wouldn't show up to the unveiling of a billboard would you? But the coveted mural unveiling at Smith & Elgin this week is sure to attract just about every big name in Houston's art and journalism scene. In the lead up to its unveiling, Savoie's creative process was covered by Fox. It's kind of insane when you look at this work in the context of advertising. And by insane I mean ridiculously smart.
Sure, the piece does not speak overtly of the Bombay Sapphire brand, but that's somewhat because it is part of the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series Mural Project which seeks to promote the artists first, and the brand purely by association. But take a look at murals that are commissioned specifically as marketing tools (like, for example the Converse campaign pictured above) and it's a whole different story. There's still that creative energy, but they are a lot more brand-centric.
Let's take a quick look at the history of advertising. In the decades that preceded the tech-boom advertising was, in essence, very boring. It was fairly tightly controlled, centralized, and safe. The only exposure to advertising outside of televisions and newspapers came from the occasional billboard. With the rise of technology and of course the internet, advertising has been allowed to invade every aspect of our lives. We are bombarded with it from morning to night, whether it be the constant interruptions to your music streaming, the irritating pop-ups on your Facebook feed, or the 450 billion digital billboards that line your route to work. Street Art is arguably just another face of this change, albeit a much more attractive one. But it's different, and it's positive - and here's why.
The Journal of Advertising published a paper in 2013 as the street art movement was already gathering speed as an advertising motif, and it rightly states: “Street art has the visual and cognitive effect of commercial advertising, and many of its brand dynamics, but carries messages of enjoyment, ideological critique, and activist exhortation rather than of commercial consumption.” In other words, Street Art offers marketing execs a pretty good cover for more traditionally in your face self-promotional techniques. You look at the art - you feel cultured and happy in the knowledge that visual art is all around us, but you leave craving a PBR, what dark magic is this??
Great is what it is! I'm sure there are plenty of people moaning about the commercialization of art, or the lowering of cultural standards etc etc.. But the line between art and commercialism became blurred long before even the oldest, wrinkliest, and most dour of those people were born. This has been going on at least since the late 19th Century, when Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned by the Moulin Rouge to design a series of posters to promote the famous Bohemian hangout (which by the way now reach 6 figures at auction). In the 1920s, Shell commissioned a poster campaign featuring the most influential artists of the time, including Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland - and so began the trend of real artists creating good quality art that - gasp - serves a purpose beyond its aesthetic attraction.
Well everyone needs to calm down, because it's clear that Street Art in advertising is an extension of something that has been going on for a lot longer than many people realize. And in the context of Street Art, selling a few pairs of sneakers is a small price to pay for promoting the movement, encouraging creativity, and beatifying our streets. Campaigns such as the Houston Zoo Gorilla Murals are producing original art while at the same time gaining coverage that would - according to one of the artists Mr. D - have cost ten times the amount to gain using traditional paid advertising. Commercialism supports the arts, the arts support commercialism. It's too late to separate the two, and if we have to be bombarded by advertising 24 hours a day, why can't it at least be beautiful?
BRAND NEW MURAL ALERT!!
Here stands Dallas-based artist Michael Savoie in front of his very nearly completed mural on Elgin and Smith St. I was lucky enough to catch Savoie at work and get a little insight into his work before it has even been officially unveiled - lucky me. Shout out to him for being very gracious and accommodating in spite of being accosted by a flustered British girl fresh out of the gym and demanding that he pose for photos.
So a little background on this piece. Savoie was one of three winners of the 2014 Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series competition, which for the past 5 years has partnered with media mogul Russell Simmons and his RUSH Philanthropic Arts Foundation to find the best mural artists nationally. The annual contest sees thousands of artists compete for a chance to exhibit at the Scope Miami Beach Art Show, and the top three exhibitors are selected to participate in the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series Mural Project , where the artists have the chance to create a mural in their hometown. Just when you thought Gin couldn't get any cooler right? This year's winners were Michael Savoie (obviously), San Francisco Artist Kristine Mays, and New Orleans Artist Ti-Rock Moore, whose contribution is a particularly poignant dedication to the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Savoie's work has been featured on the hit show Empire and (somewhat randomly) the Real Housewives of Atlanta. He has a BFA from Burlington College in Vermont, but actually taught himself to paint after moving from San Francisco back to his native Texas. Savoie's background in graphic design, illustration, and particularly fashion are all clearly referenced throughout his works, and this piece is no exception. Surprisingly though, this is his first ever mural. In fact, according to the man himself, his largest works up to this point have been 66"x66" acrylic on canvases.
For the background Savoie swapped his palette knife for a paint roller, staying true to the vivid style of portraiture he calls "abstract realism" while blowing up his work to epic proportions. During our brief chat, Savoie said that he projected the portrait onto the wall rather than using stencil, and used spray paint to create the smooth depth of the figure, finishing it all up with a hefty amount of freehand detail. Did I mention that even with a day of rain preventing him from working, this mural was created in just one week??
Savoie's training as a photographer is evident in his striking handling of portraiture, while abstract backgrounds and a preoccupation with color make his work aesthetically appealing and just fun to look at in general. The trademark blindfold, a recurring motif throughout the artist's recent Blind Ambition series, is also present here, creating cohesion between his fine art and his mural work. It's an intriguing device that I think helps to separate his works from the standard pop art portraits that focus exclusively on physical beauty and pop culture figures. Savoie covers the eyes because he wants to remove the “who” and leave the “why”.
In his bio, Savoie writes that "The camera connects [him] with people, bringing [him] out of the studio and into nature, while the canvas isolates [him] in [his] own thoughts". Reading this while researching and writing about a mural that is inextricably connected to the outdoors, the public, and the urban landscape of Houston gives me an interesting thought. Savoie is a fine artist, thus this piece, regardless of the low brow connotations of Street Art, is fine art. Now fine art created in a studio, as Savoie suggests, can be kind of insular, whereas any type of art created outdoors has a more open quality- it reacts to its surroundings just as the people around it react to it. I made a point last week about Street Art and fine art being separated by a chasm of snobbery, and I think that organizations like RUSH, which bring fine artists to the streets and street artists to the gallery are making this gap a little narrower every day. I don't have much a point here, mind, but it's food for thought.
The mural's official unveiling will take place at its location (duh) on May 28th at 6pm. So go meet this lovely chap for yourself!
I've had a lot of feedback since beginning my blogging journey, and it has brought an interesting point to my attention. No matter how much coverage Street Art gets in the media, the standard for assessing it remains steadfastly mediocre. It may seem counterproductive, but subjecting urban art to actual academic criticism (negative included) is a necessary step in bringing it to the same level as fine art.
Although I don't like to be negative in general, I do think that street art needs to be told off occasionally for its cliches and occasionally mediocre execution. If it is true that critical discernment can be applied to all cultural activities, Street Art included, then what is holding it back? Of course the fact that it is displayed and enjoyed outside of the conventional gallery setting is a contributing factor, but so are a lot of sculptural pieces, and let's not forget the traditional frescos of say, the Renaissance. Have they escaped criticism? Of course not, a fact that can be corroborated by anyone who has ever taken an art history class.
It really boils down to a few things in my humble opinion. Lack of access and exposure, and a good pinch of snobbery. Because legitimate critics are unwilling to do it, criticism is left to the amateurs, like me.. And even I feel a bit silly approaching Street Art in terms of line, composition, or social context as I would a painting, so what we are left with is a lot of shallow drivel, and Street Art's status as an art form is yet to be elevated to its true potential as a result.
A handful of graffiti artists have garnered recognition in major museums, so many believe that Street Art criticism is on the rise too.. but here's the problem: the Street Art in museums isn't really Street Art in the majority of cases. These are professionally trained artists creating works inspired by graffiti, and even when legitimate Street Artists exhibit, it's not exactly Street Art in its purest and most original form is it? Manipulated onto a canvas or carefully transcribed onto pristine (and more importantly sanctioned) gallery walls, it loses its edge, and the distinction between genuine street art and the legitimized Street Art has become irrevocably blurred over time as a result.
So we're left with a quandary.. inaccessibility and lack of exposure leads in turn to a lack of useful criticism, but displaying this particular art form in a gallery undermines the genre, making it unworthy of criticism in the first place. Equally problematic, moving art outside of the gallery confuses the already ridiculously confusing issue of "what qualifies as art". I don't think Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes would have got very far if they had been stacked against the back wall of a Walmart, for example. So what chance does an unsolicited mural have in the same location? At least in a museum we feel safe in the knowledge that someone else has already established these objects as worthy of criticism. And that's the very issue: nobody of significant cultural importance has done that yet.
The hype and celebrity culture of Street Art, coupled with the illegality of it, qualifies it as a "low art form" to most academic art critics, while the six-figure sales of Banksy murals at auction certainly suggest its growing commercial appeal, further damning Street Art as a pop-culture fad. Yes, Street Art upsets a lot of the more traditional among us, but hey Michelangelo pissed a lot of people off painting naked men all over the Sistine Chapel. What is art if it doesn't divide opinions and get people talking?
So here's the solution: keep talking about it, keep looking at it, and someone for gods sake make the first step towards real, useful, and formal criticism. Art is only as important as its last write up, and remember that if nobody had bothered to write earnest evaluations of say, Paul Branca's artwork, then a cleaning lady might just have thrown it out. Oh wait....
British-born arts blogger living in Houston, Tx. A mixture of Street Art, Fine Art, Installation, and anything weird and wonderful. Follow me if that sounds like your cup of tea.