URBAN WILD, ACAC 2019
Whether in an urban center, train yard, or an empty lot in a small town, the impulse for artists to make their mark on a community is universal; what is unique is the ways in which they do that. ‘Street art’ has grown in the last generation as a populist, colorful, ambitious, and irreverent counter to the homogenous concrete environments of urban developments. Thanks to world famous graffiti artists and various documentaries, street art has become a globally recognized practice. However, there is no one kind of street art, just as there is no one kind of street.The historical city streets and dirt roads of the Deep South are a whole other kind of backdrop, inspiring art that is as eclectic as it is playful.
Urban Wild is an exhibition that looks for the diversity of art that is practiced throughout the streets, highways, and dirt roads of the South. Taking engagement with public space as the only cue–object making, visual art, collecting, public sculpture and installation abound. These artists draw from graffiti, tattoo, skate, and hip-hop culture, as well as comic book illustration, pop art, folk art, and even old-fashioned sign painting. The traditional dividing lines between high and low art forms are non-existent. This exhibition aims to capture the breadth and diversity of art that makes public place its forum, as the Southern Street becomes a stage and canvas all its own.
309 Punk Museum Project| Butch Anthony | Brandon Barnhart | Douglas Baulos | buZ blurr | Merrilee Challiss | Chris Cumbie | Conz 8000 Bunny Cunningham | Bryan Cunningham | Bill Daniel | DUMB | Madison Faile | Sarah Emerson | Skylar Fein | Famous Gabe | Poppy Garcia Mark George | Priest | R.C. Hagans | Chad Burton Johnson | Duane Knight | 534N L1N320 | Nate Lyle | Michi Meko | Max Morey | MRSA | New Hand Signs | Abe Partridge | Ruth Robinson | Chiharu Roach | Byron Sonnier | Greg Skaggs | Brandin Stallworth | Jeremy Strength | Steven Summersell | John Tindel | Tanner Wilson
Urban Wild is a Southern Folk and Street art exhibition that explores the spaces where Street art and Folk art blur together, and asks the viewer to reconsider their preconceptions of high and low art.
The thing about the South is that the art world rarely has any applicable value to us. The canon of fine art is only as relevant as it’s use-value and our tendency is to look for function rather than pontificate over form. The genres of Street and Folk art hail from the many roads southern souls travel, and the work in this exhibition speaks on some level to the experience of a diverse landscape that we hold as both hallow and problematic ground. Much of the work here has a lot to say about Southernness, but not all of it is kind. That’s okay. Being Southern also means we are quite adept at having difficult conversations. Over like, we are more interested in what might a landscape like ours might inspire?
The work in this exhibition is framed as creative activity that directly responds to place. We have tried to present a diverse range of the kinds of creative output that’s inspired by the many different kinds of landscape we have in our melting pot. There are a few common themes that have jumped out in the process of curating this exhibition, such as DEATH/MORTALITY, RELIGIOUS ICONOGRAPHY, NEON/GLITTER and PLAY. These themes weren’t designed into the exhibition, but rather stood out as reoccurring organic elements in both contemporary Street and Folk art.
A DISMAL FAILURE OF ART HISTORY
There is no standard definition for folk art, and many troubling misconceptions surrounding the term. Art history has trained us to imagine a naive visionary working fervently to accomplish some grand, self-imposed goal that no one but its creator understands. Typically this lone figure is pictured in a log cabin or shed, somewhere in the wilderness. Aspects of the typical definition include no formal art training and working in ignorance to the world of artistic standards and expectations. This definition of folk art focuses on the narrative of artist-identity rather than methods or techniques. Our general understanding of folk art is based on a classist narrative constructed in order to capitalize and exploit the form while preserving and reinforcing the oppressive standards of the classical art world.
ONCE UPON A TIME: The mainstream art world found themselves in a bit of an awkward position after declaring art dead. They starved for something beyond the navel gazing metropolitan gallery works of privileged white men, so they turned to rural communities. There they found a plethora of artists creating work with completely different standards than the mainstream metropolitan gallery artists. These rural creators lived in an environment with limited art world influence, on fringe geography with low economic standing. They created art from the materials at hand, presumably without the thought of a museum or art gallery as their work’s end point. This difference of priorities was interpreted as ignorance by the mainstream art world that seemed incapable of imaging art that simply wasn’t created for their demographic or pristine gallery walls.
Folk art was pitched to the art elites as a testament to the raw, primal creative instinct of humanity that by sheer feeling alone somehow arrived at “true art” despite their lack of education, their poverty, their naiveté, their ignorance. This interpretation stripped the work of its creators’ artistic decisions and instead qualified the work by the artist’s circumstances. In no other area of art do we categorize an artist’s work by their background except in folk art. With folk art, our technical readings of art are suddenly cast aside and we interpret the object we see in front of us through the lens of circumstance, which is a disservice to the work, the creator, and art as a whole. Regardless, the vacuum of information that’s required for the level of naiveté our folk art mythology requires is hardly possible in the internet age.
CONTEMPORARY FOLK ART
Artists still live in rural and remote areas, but now they have smart phones. Even though we may not have a strong definition of folk art that isn’t riddled with the identity politics of status, we still somehow know it when we see it. About half of the artists in this exhibition classify themselves or an aspect of their work as folk art, and not because they don’t have the internet. Whether or not you believe that the legend of the hapless visionary in the wilderness still applies in certain cases, it most certainly does not cover the plethora of creative output now reviving the genre in a new light. Hailing more from the DIY aesthetic of punk, contemporary folk borrows from a craft-centric and straightforward aesthetic language to respond to an immediate environment and challenge the status quo. The one aspect of our preconceptions that does ring true is creating from the materials on-hand. These artists scavenge with great intelligence and savy, and use the debris of their environments to communicate about the word they live in. In the exact same way a street artist sees a concrete wall they’d like to make ‘better’, contemporary folk artists refuse to take their world for granted.
STREET ART & ITS BAGGAGE
Street art, as it hails from graffiti, calls up a slightly different image: that of the scrappy vandal racing through the city streets to gleefully deface public property. Rather than a rough wilderness the landscape is a grey abyss of parking lots and high-rise buildings. Likewise, the art world bemuses from a healthy distance, over the splashy irreverence of such practices without the true consideration of formal quality. Instead of being sublimated into the canon of classical muralists, street artists keep their edge through a set of populist aesthetics. But just like folk art, that set of aesthetics are rarely given the stylistic credit and weight of other genres. (Can you see an art historian yammering on about stenciling the way they might about cubism?) Street art also finds a companion with folk art as another art form that is inherently “low”. It is rarely intended for gallery walls, makes a concerted effort to respond to common bodies of knowledge, and makes no bones about it’s own mortality. Street artists are less concerned with the permanence of their work than the action of leaving a mark in and of itself.
Both Street and Folk art are inherently democratic art forms, that relate to their own site of conception far more than the avenues of the art world. Although it may be a bit ironic to devote an exhibition to the efforts that ultimately challenge the sanctity of our white walls, we hope you see the true effort to corroborate these artists effort rather than steal away that which should belong to everyone. Urban Wild may be an indictment on how we presently view art using Southern Folk and Street art as examples. It is also a celebration of the teaming and diverse creativity that grows naturally here.
-- Written by elizabet elliott with loads of help by Margie Powers (the greatest intern in the world!)