Love Letter by Steven Powers, 2010. Photo: Adam Wallacavage
I have heard that Paul Gauguin once said, "There are only two kinds of artists- revolutionaries and plagiarists." Not being a person that is fond of flippant 'there are two kinds of people in the world' dichotomy statements I did not give much thought to Gauguin's statement until attending the opening of Beyond the Paint: Philadelphia's Mural Arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In each era, there is a kind of established art form and in many cases, an oppositional or 'outsider' art of the same era. Sometimes art from the outside brought inside for display in artistic academic circles comes across as disingenuous, but sometimes art from the outside brought in marks a transformation from era to era.
Just a month prior to Beyond the Paint opening in Philadelphia, much of the outsider art world and those who follow it were preoccupied with the graffiti artist Banksy and his 'residency' called Better out than in in New York City. The artist, whose actual identity is a mystery but is rumored to hail from the UK, garnered international attention for his work, causing the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to make a statement. Part of his statement struck me. "I just think there are some places for art and some places where - no art."
Part of what intrigued me about this statement, and his longer version, was that whether or not graffiti was art was not in question. According to Bloomberg it may well be, but the issue was property and that transforming your environment, even if for the better (consider the estimated hundreds of thousands of dollars a 'Banksy original' goes for) is not always endorsed by a locality and its leaders.
"Instead of thinking about where art should be and should not be, Mural Arts focused on what art can do to impact our world," said Jane Golden, Philadelphia Mural Arts Program director, and one of the original founders. Beyond the Paint is a highly contextualized show. Set amid reflections on the 30 years of Mural Arts in Philadelphia it is arranged to showcase the impact of the program itself, and the possibilities of art in practical application, on a city.
The beginnings of Mural Arts, first called the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, and its transformation from opposition to particular kinds of art to advocating for community affirmed and created public art, encouraging vast affiliations, is evident throughout the show. The entrance to the gallery has a corner section painted a stark red with graffiti written in styles from the past few decades all over it. At the very top, near the ceiling, is written 'North Philly' and as you progress through the show, you can occasionally look up and from almost any angle, see the words scrawled across the wall. Golden said, "We always keep an eye on where we come from." The show keeps the viewers eye there as well.
Three additional artist organizations were chosen to supplement the show, including Megawords, an outfit that originated in Philadelphia and includes the work of French artist Fette Sans, and print artist Josh MacPhee, who is based in New York City. MacPhee will be creating large scale prints, called broadsheets, throughout the show within the gallery space. "One of the ideas behind the broadsheets," MacPhee said, "is to bring together the voices of all the people in Philadelphia who have been part of 30 year s of Mural Arts work. To take the expressions off discreet neighborhood walls and bring them together on one sheet, one giant community newspaper, and then have those broadsheets redistributed back into the communities where the voices came from."
The show finishes with passing by MacPhee's printing area and walking into an area plastered with yellow, blue, green, and pink paper printed with news about art and social movements from around the world, in varying languages. Anthony Smyrski, one of the founders of Megawords, said the purpose of their collaborative installation within Beyond the Paint is "interested in this idea of what can happen and what has happened. When people, the state, institutions, corporations, engage creativity in a public space." Using art as a way to address particular conflict. Golden herself witnessed how "art changed the conversation" in economically depressed and violent areas across Philadelphia. All involved in Beyond the Paint are working in that same vein.
"Just as Philadelphia has come to embrace community focused art through its Mural Arts Program, PAFA invites a new kind of community participation through this collaboration with the Mural Arts Program. The focus is less on the appreciation of a particular art object, and more on the process of involving a community in a transformative experience." Heike Rass, Executive Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, said of the show. Beyond the paint is more than a show you visit a single time, it is about the social impact of public art, leaving those galleries feeling empowered to create a place for art in every community, in particular needy communities, and that art belongs everywhere.