Saturday, October 18, 2014

Art in the buff

There isn't a week that goes by without a Small Spaces controversy. The public doesn't get to hear every bit of it, but we do. Early on, we made the decision to not broadcast these things because we felt they would detract from the art. We wanted to share our excitement for the project and keep the focus on the art we were bringing downtown. We hid the fact that Zach and Margy take on the tireless task of trying to pacify building owners, addressing the disgruntled public, and going to bat for the artists every. single. week. They've made compromises where compromises could be made, and if not, they've honored the terms of the contract the city signed with building owners.  But on hindsight, it is probably disingenuous to give the impression that things are always going fine with Small Spaces. That would be far from the truth. 

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a little bit about the drama surrounding Sagan Newham's piece on the Haywood Printing building. What I did not share, is the fact that the work drew negative criticisms even before it was complete. Zach had to convince the building owner to reserve his judgement until the piece was done. And after the painting was complete, Zach and Margy both endured countless days of fielding complaints. As usual, they bore the brunt of the objections and outrage so the artist did not have to. Zach had initially managed to talk the building owner into leaving Sagan's piece up till the end of the month. But last week, the city received a request from the building owner to have the piece (and 2 others on the backside) removed immediately. This time, there was no room left for negotiation. Yesterday, with super heavy hearts, Margy and her husband Jerry reluctantly buffed the three pieces off of Haywood Printing building.

Sagan's work is stunning. It is purposefully dark and contemplative. Her figures elaborate a journey in which all of us are caught; this inevitable trek towards aging and dying. They have us confront our mortality even if they do make us uncomfortable. Zach chose a prominent spot for Sagan to paint, a testament to how fond he is of her work. Neither he nor Margy could anticipate the amount of backlash her work would unleash, with more than one person calling for the piece to be removed.

We knew Sagan was not going to react well to seeing her piece buffed. How could she not be? It is understandably hard for any artist who takes pride in their work to receive bad feedback. I feel awful for Sagan. I empathize with her indignation. I am sorry that her side of the story was never shared. But herein lies a problem. Street art is spontaneous. It is cheeky. It is clever. It is challenging. It is, most of all, accessible. Street art is not accompanied by an artist statement. Enjoying art in the public sphere should not be knowledge affair but an affair of living. For the viewers who did not “get” her work, calling it a “zombie” piece is their attempt to understand it. 

Regarding her piece at Haywood, Sagan later stated on Facebook that it is a response to the "factory-style building" she was working on, that

               Men start by working as a unit together. When the work day is over, 
              they go home. But after time they lose their youth and their skin begins 
              to sag in similar fashions. These men work themselves to the bone and 
              lose identity.

I would like to be fully supportive of Sagan, but I think her statement is misleading. If her piece is a response to the "factory-style building" and the figures are to be a portrayal of the working class through the dehumanization and depersonalizing of human agency, then the work is merely a shallow response to the outward appearance of the building, no different from the superficial criticisms that were leveled against her painting. Not only is Haywood not a factory, it is also a longstanding local business with a relatively small staff.  Besides, who amongst us is safe from losing our youth? Who can escape sagging skin? Or if this work is about struggling with an existential crisis, it definitely does not allow for a concept of true identity that is always shifting and fragmented, one that may exists in tensions and conflict in a dialectical relationship with others. In other words, this artist assumes we all possess an integral essence and a static concept of identity. 

On the cultural front, it excites me greatly when a work of art is able to arouse the sleepy public and generate discussions of pressing issues. Molden's piece of the "riot cop" most certainly achieved that. Sagan's piece aroused passionate opinions, but ultimately, her  piece was divisive. No one had much to say beyond whether they liked it or hated it. It is unfortunate that her painting had to be buffed. I celebrated it for the added edge of diversity it brought to the project and am sorry that it had to be taken away from the many people who loved and enjoyed it.    

p.s. check out "Art in the buff" Part 2 here.

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