We are accustomed to the idea of authorised art, commissioned and sanctioned by Church, state or that private individual with the deep Armani pocket.
Such art is entirely within the control of the poker-faced man with the serious purse. This is the story behind the story of the marvels of the Renaissance and after. In his oil sketches, you can see how Rubens danced to the not-so-delicate tunes of his ecclesiastical paylords, aggrandising a donor here, taking an unloved saint down a peg or two.
Street art, on the other hand, is paid for by no one, and it is not for re-sale in the marketplace. It often comes into being thanks to some nocturnal daredevil with a taste for what is often regarded as criminal behaviour. This is art made on the run. The studio is the artist’s pocket. The canvas on which he works is entirely unprimed and unready for his assault. The fact that it is at odds with the authorities means that art of this kind often feels hectic in mood, hasty in execution, urgently political in its impulses, and prepared for the fact that it may disappear again just as quickly as it has appeared because those who see it may regard it as an offence to the eye.
Such art has an air of wild chancing about it. It flails out at consumerism, greed, hypocrisy, and the money-fuelled, jibbering nonsense of the art establishment. In a world at the visual mercy of corporate branding, street artists such as Ron English, for example, re-make brand images. His is an art of disruption and violation, an art which exists to do harm to the seductive global culture of corporate advertising.
The best of graffiti art, such as this example by Zevs, often plays with ideas of danger and prohibition. It seems to laugh at what gives offence to those who dislike it so much. Zevs has made this work with the aid of a high-pressure jet. He has cleaned this stretch of unlovely, unacknowledged urban brick wall in Copenhagen in such a way that what emerges from a century’s accretion of grime and pollution is an image of wave upon wave of destructively engulfing flames, of which you can see just a fragment on this page. (This can be one of the problems with capturing an image of street art: it is often difficult to contain on the page of a newspaper). No one was ever burnt by an image of a fire. Can you deface a building by cleaning it? Surely not. And yet violence has surely been done to its surface.
Zevs is working with the grain of what exists, the uneven surface of a red brick wall, and what such a material seems to evoke – the wall of a factory building; terraced housing in a poor district. The modulation of tones – black, ochre, red, yellow and many points in between – is replicated in the flames themselves, which seem to emerge from the wall as if they were some spiritual embodiment of its essential nature. This ghostly lashing of flames suggests the vanished might of industry. This lovely, unexpected lash of near-patterning also feels like a heartfelt, no-holds-barred expression of the fundamental energies of art beyond the tamed space of the gallery, art which has the freedom to be and to do whatever it so wishes at a moment of its own choosing.
What is more, it could be endless, boundless, this image. It has no definable, containable dimensions. It could go on and on. It has no beginning and no end. It has taken possession, appropriated this section of wall in defiance of its original relatively humdrum purpose, which was nothing other than to be a wall, that which keeps in and that which keeps out. Now it is both a wall and a space of decorative ardour, engulfed by this greedily licking, fleeting image. We rather wish it to go on and on.
The whole thing feels like a great, anarchic roaring, a wild flinging out of the hands, Rumpelstiltskin’s crazy, enraged stamping for the sheer hell of living.
About the artist: Zevs
The French graffiti artist and “urban guerilla” Zevs has disrupted many civic spaces in Europe and elsewhere. His projects have included the “liquidating” of famous brand logos by re-painting them and allowing the paint to drip, thus creating the illusion that the logo is melting. In July, 2009, he was arrested in Hong Kong after a Chanel logo on the facade of a building was given such a makeover.
By Michael Glover