From the Back Streets to Main Street
Street art comes of age
By Peter Freeman • Photographs by Amy Freeman
I haven’t been able to shake a hangover from a recent art exhibit. No, I didn’t overindulge on wine and cheese, but weeks after the show, I still wake up at night, dazed from deliberating over the images I have seen. I feel anxious as I mentally retrace my steps through the exhibit space. I find myself reconsidering the pieces deliriously. With a slight headache, I realize that many of the works possess the power to transform the spaces for which they are intended. But to the casual observer, isn’t this just graffiti?
The delightful exhibit that haunts me is Urban Expressions, a show consisting of 34 graffiti- and street-inspired images by 21 artists that was on view during the summer at the Theatre Art Galleries in High Point. Under the supervision of Jeff Horney and a supportive TAG staff, the event showcased designs “photo-collaged” onto blank walls to demonstrate how street-inspired concepts can change the character of a cityscape. I was humbled to have been selected to judge the recent juried event. As captivating as it was, why, I still wonder, did it leave me so unsettled?
For the winning entry, I had voted for Brian Lewis’s mural of the yawning dog . . . you know, the one wearing Converse Chuck Taylors, walking nonchalantly off the dilapidated brick wall of High Point’s Center Theater Building. For me, the image was, as Yogi Berra once said, “déjà vu all over again,” for the artist had captured a familiar sentiment I had experienced in this very place. The scale of the work fit the context. The mood of Lewis’s mural was spot-on. The dog was subtly defiant — and a little bored — that this underused space had failed to meet its potential.
The Urban Expressions show was not merely an exercise in what could be, but also reflects a larger trend: graffiti and street art have found their way into the mainstream. The urban art form was born of the young and disenfranchised, sometimes drawing from hip-hop and gang cultures, and eager for expression. Graffiti and street art started appearing on city walls and freight cars, and were considered a public nuisance in the 1970s and ’80s. Most cities today still maintain strict anti-grafitti ordinances against offenders and generally go to a lot of trouble to paint over it.
But the defiant and illicitly executed genre has found its way into the realm of commercial art galleries, collectors and museums. Banksy, Keith Haring and Marc Ecko have become familiar names in the art and design industry after gaining notoriety “tagging” city walls and creating street art. And who can forget the famous “Hope” poster for the 2008 Obama campaign by Shepard Fairley, a street artist who almost instantly gained international attention?
In many places, the public perception of street art has come full circle. Graffiti, murals and other forms of public art are now considered catalysts for urban revitalization. Wynwood, the edgy remade Miami neighborhood, and Highline Park, an abandoned freight line-turned-elevated-public-park, perched over Chelsea and the Meatpacking District in New York City, are just a couple of celebrated examples. In both locales, the street art echoed the unique personality of the neighborhood. Additional programs in Portland, Oregon, Seattle and San Francisco encourage public art with events promoting rotating public art walls, live paintings, murals, alternative signage, pasting, stenciling, 3-D sidewalk chalk art and organized tours of installations. The American Planning Association (APA), the world’s largest such organization, recognized Wynwood as one of the country’s Great Places for 2015 through its national program, Great Places in America (www.planning.org/greatplaces).
Closer to home, and reflecting the character of the small towns of the Piedmont, are the painted barns of Cameron in Moore County that delight inquisitive public art seekers. Found along Highway 24-27 west of the tiny town, an allied group of artists under the invitation of David Ellis, a Brooklyn-based artist, painted graffiti and murals on a number of dilapidated tobacco barns, farming equipment and trailers. The initiative, admittedly, may have contributed little to urban renewal, but the result is a whimsical and curious assemblage of public art. Hailing from the likes of New York and Tokyo, the group was nicknamed “the Barnstormers” by local residents, who, to this day, maintain an unexpected kinship with the artists.
In High Point, the Theatre Arts Gallery exhibit is but one of several projects signaling a vibrant interest in murals and street art. High Point artist Brian Davis has been a common thread in promoting the art form and providing fellow public artists with forums for their works. Not only was he instrumental in the success of the TAG exhibit as an artist and organizer, but he is also hatching plans for expanded installments. Additionally, he painted striking murals sponsored by the Southwest Renewal Foundation, giving a much-deserved boost to a neglected area of town. The High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau has awarded grants to several public artists, including Davis, who have been unrelenting in bringing the large-scale mural projects into public focus with projects along Main Street and the city core. There is no doubt that graffiti-inspired art has made the jump from underground to mainstream via Main Street, which raises the question: what will Main Street think of next?
Peter Freeman is a local architect with Freeman Kennett Architects and has been associated with several illicit embellishments in his hometown of High Point.