Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Figuration and Reconfiguration in the Mission
"Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity. I don't see a different purpose for it now [post 9/11]"--Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning, 2002
Note: Norm's Market refers to the mural by Sirron Norris located at 20th and Bryant Streets; "Generator" refers to the mural by Andrew Schoultz and Aaron Noble on Lexington Street at 18th Street. Both are located in San Francisco's Mission District.
In these murals one can see reflections of various artistic schools. As in some of the paintings of Surrealists Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo, architecture functions as more than setting or detail; it has a presence that is essential to the meaning. These murals also have in common with the Surrealists the presence of hybrid creatures: combinations of humans, animals, buildings and machines. Norm's Market and Generator depict the next stages of the corrupt societies represented in the work of Flemish painters Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch. Norm's Market shows the machinations while Generator shows the resulting despair caused by politics, greed and corruption. Like Bosch, Dr. Suess and the Surrealists, they warp space and species. As in comics, cartoons and the work of Dr. Seuss, black outlines and flat areas of color are the main visual elements. In Generator, Andrew Schoultz shares with Dr. Seuss the use of hatching to model shapes
and a wonderful, precarious feeling of movement in the depiction of buildings, characters and space. Many people mention Dr. Seuss in reference to these murals. All of the aforementioned artists transmute the figurative (straightforward representation) to the "figural", DeLeuze's term for figure painting which is not understood simply by prescribed definition and reading, but felt on many conflicting levels. This is compelling because it touches on,-and sometimes celebrates-the danger lurking just under the orderly facade of human reality.
Like most murals, these are different from paintings because they are created and remain in-situ and are therefore site-specific. The architecture on which they are painted does not frame the images. Instead the images are incorporated into the architecture (Norm's Market) or the architecture is incorporated into the mural (Generator). Unlike paintings, they themselves cannot be transported elsewhere as messengers; they function in their immediate surroundings as a reflection or comment. Each mural's scale and its physical and sociological relationship to its surrounding space is integral to its function and cannot be reproduced elsewhere. The form and content acquire meaning from the social setting in which the mural exists. These murals in particular resonate with the circumstances of the communities they are in.
In the beginning there was the word. Then the word became a picture, Written on a rock, then the carved hearts and initials, Kilroy peeking over, to "F**k You." In 1968, when the world was shrugging off the old bosses, the name of a kid, Julio 204, was showing up on subway walls from to Wall Street, having ridden in from 204th Street. Now, a quarter of a century after chalked his humanitarian messages on blank NYC subway ad panels, a major corporation has been driven underground to the subway walls of San Francisco's shopping district. We see pictograms of kids alongside Sony's tag, "PSP," (Play Station Portable) occupying prime advertising wall space after San Francisco City officials barred them and other corporations from co-opting public walls for its faux graffiti ad campaign.
The San Francisco Examiner wrote, "In recent years, The City has caught NBC, IBM and the makers of 'Zorro' resorting to such advertisements, [Department of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru] said. NBC and IBM both paid The City more than $100,000 to clean up street stencils for a Linux program and a science fiction miniseries that appeared on the USA Network, which is owned by NBC."
That $100,000 is chump-change in the pockets and margins of those corporate advertising budgets.
Back in the early daze of the Graffiti age, Keith Haring appropriated blank advertising spaces on the walls of New York City subways and drew on them. Today, in San Francisco's subways we have text-free panels with images of graf-style kids playing with digital media games. They are sanctioned and legal; nobody chased Sony out of the subways like they did Haring. Sony was, however, chased out of low-income neighborhoods like the Mission District, and others in large cities when they hired spray can artists to paint their stealth ads on buildings. Sony paid the wall owners but did not bother to get city permits, which are needed for advertising (and conversely - or perversely as it may be - media giant Clear Channel recently waged a battle in Portland, Oregon to create legislation such that murals would be subject to similar permit fees...).
In some sort of semiotic mobius strip, logo becomes tag becomes simulated fringe becomes logo, all within a particular class context; Sony wouldn't even dream, let alone scheme, of spray painting ads on the sidewalls of upper crust neighborhoods or business districts.
Now they are relegated to printed posters of the faux-graf art comprised of a wood-grain background to indicate a fence or wall, adorned by the sprayed figures. It could have all been digitally created for print, a simulation of a simulated counter-media guerilla communique taken, not borrowed from the prolific and popular current visual voicing of disenfranchised youth.
Keith Haring's chalk drawings on the black paper panel demarcations of subway advertising space have been likened to school room blackboard lessons. They depicted, among other things, people being irradiated by TVs--the media. His was a voice of the young in us, warning, instructive. Sony and other corporate giants who employ the technique of street/graf messaging subvert this type of identity expression into capital
directives. Whereas graffiti is employed by those who do it as a way of voicing their existence to one another and claiming visual real estate, corporate graf and stencil ads employ that need for identity to garner sales.
The co-opting of counter-cultural art is nothing new; it has long been done by mass culture with music, film and fashion, a built-in way of controlling society through culture. This is not necessarily a planned, implemented conspiracy but rather it is a systemic mechanism of our capitalism; revolutionary thought and expression is simultaneously co-opted and marginalized. The main reason for this is because it is so very lucrative. It just happens to support the system. Occurring ever more rapidly, brazenly and on a widespread scale, it is probably successful because the members of mainstream society are enamored with rebels as long as they are safely contained. It resonates with the natural wish for expressiveness, and for the freedom lost with the imposition of adult, social decorum. Aimed at children, or the child within, these images have a logo tag, "PSP" for Play Station Portable, but the distinctive shape of the digital game devices is probably more than enough information for the target audience. Sony's simulated co-opted graffiti ads that eat kids, show kids who are playing with and even eating media.
c 2006 Claire Bain
Sources, resources, and images related to this post coming soon…
La Llorona on
At the beginning of this evening I noticed that the moon was getting large and bright against the powdery layers of turquoise and pink dusk. I decided it was time to see La Llorona, the crying woman. La Llorona is the new mural painted by Juana Alicia deep in my neighborhood. I thought early night right at the end of dusk would be a good time to see it, because the La Llorona of where I come from is a scary weeping spirit who wanders the desert. She wails or floats silently in the form of a blue light over the arroyos (stream beds) in the foothills of
I thought that seeing the La Llorona mural at night would be scary, but walking on bustling
I got to La Llorona's corner on York at 24th Street, and looked at her from the sidewalk below. If I stepped all the way back to the curb, or in the street, then I could see people inside through the windows in the mural. Someone turned off a light. They didn't close their shades to keep the evil spirits out; those are painted on the outside: the little corporate fat cats who take over world water supplies perch on top of the windows like gargoyles. Back home in
Juana Alicia has turned the legend of La Llorona around, and provided some pre-history for it, too. The weeping woman is now protecting her child near the stream which flows from under the Aztec goddess in the middle - Chalchiuhtlicue - the goddess of ground waters. Legend has it that in 1502 the goddess Cihuacoatl manifested as a beautiful woman in white flowing garments In the Aztec city of
There was nothing scary about my walk home tonight from seeing La Llorona. I liked looking into the doorways of bars, pupuserias and even the sad, sad recovery meeting in its grayly fluorescent lit room. I had to laugh about the nutty guy on a bicycle in the crosswalk at
Now, hours later, the moon hasn't travelled very far but it is still very bright. I cannot see or hear La Llorona the infanticidal banshee-- she is mixed into the din and streetlights, but I feel the ruin of the greed which created her. I think she turned back into the evil god, a little up and left of the center of the mural, the one who curses those below, the one we view from under water as he treads upon us: we see the soulless bottoms of his shoes with the logo of Bechtel emblazoned on them. If you think of La Llorona as a personification of evil or a metaphor for a society that has done violence to its children, then you understand that the Mexican women in the mural holding photos of their disappeared and murdered daughters near the border factories are one part of the separation: they are the mothers looking for their lost children and the story of an infanticidal, vain madwoman is just a foil for the real demons. Juana Alicia’s La Llorona is now the women whose tears irrigate their courage: look at them in the mural, protecting their people's rights to water in
The following Sunday I return to see how the mural looks in the daytime. Even in daylight it is still a night mural. La Llorona's reflection is flowing into the window glass of the nearby storefronts; her spirit is present in the early autumn shadows.
Claire Bain c2005