Art Nouveau Magazine
By Niko Nelson
What often happens when different worlds collide is a misplaced case of panic, chaos and calamity. Said parties often work in spite of each other, crazed for attention and yearning for validation. What if everyone worked in harmony to satisfy the healthy competition that comes hand in hand with success? While that obviously isn't going to happen anytime soon, because this is America after all, there is at least some hope left for cohesive unity between those in the art world.
Hionas Gallery in New York City, owned and operated by Peter and Maria Hionas, is just over a year old and is already making a name for itself. Hionas is a space that features artists from all walks of life who represent a myriad of mediums to showcase their works in month long solo exhibits. As of July 2012, 12 talented artists have shown at Hionas and on July 11, 2012 the gallery held their first year commemorative show, Year One. The exhibit features new work by each of the artists who have shown in the last year, creating an interesting mix of artists and the alluring blend of their exquisite creations. This past week I caught up with three artists who have shown at Hionas Gallery. The eclectic mix included Mr Kaves, the self proclaimed renaissance man who made his New York solo exhibit debut at Hionas Gallery in 2011, Burton Machen the bicoastal photographer who often lets the streets do the talking for his photos, and Karlos Cárcamo an ex-break dancer with a penchant for abstraction. These artists use entirely different mediums and have varying views on life, but their works capture the spirit of the urban culture, a culture all too familiar to many yet understood by few.
Street art and urban culture are hard concepts to grapple, I'm pretty sure I still can't give an accurate definition for either. Sure, there are thin lines that some artists just won't cross for fear of a faltering career at the hands of an tyrannical audience, but where exactly is this so-called “line” drawn when a curator, collector and gallery owner aren’t your only potential nemeses? What happens when your art is at the hands of the general public to deliberate on and god forbid make adjustments to? This is what I'd like to call street art, the expression of an ever developing culture that seems to endlessly decode concepts that are permanently up for interpretation.
Lets all take a trip down memory lane, circa the 1980's. The good days, when New York was actually bad (not just because the rats were bigger than the size of most dogs now), when it was actually cool to be cool, when people wore reading glasses, well to read; yeah, its a throwback. This was also a time when graffiti and street art was really beginning to make a name for itself, catching the eye of many in the formal art world. But once an outlaw art, always an outlaw art, and soon after its rise to international fame, the graffiti scene seemed to drop off the map. Even if it wasn’t profiting monetarily, graffiti and street art was persistent in making young kids all over the world superstars, both hometown and abroad.
One of these young and unknown artists was a pint-sized kid from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, by the name of Michael McLeer a.k.a Mr. Kaves. Kaves had an unmatched loyalty to his hometown and a shockingly natural way of transforming anything he could get his hands on into a masterpiece. Inheriting his name from the retired sibling of an older writer, Kaves began making waves and building his place in the New York graffiti world with his raw talent as a inexperienced adolescent. As a kid with a big ego who didn’t see writing that resembled anything from his block, Kaves started to develop a style of his own. “My style was always big and my lettering always wild and large scale…because you had to pretend you were a giant and that’s what I tried to do.” As a teenager, being featured in the book Spraycan Art by Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff catapulted Kaves into a determined artist, given the ambition to say to himself, “okay, this is where it begins, now you're gonna have to step it up, keep making it happen.”
Kaves is now not only a world renowned graffiti artist and painter, but also owns Brooklyn Tattoo Shop, is in a hip-hop group The Lordz and continues to explore numerous other ventures. As Kaves will always love to paint, heʼs currently finding that film and acting are another place to evoke emotion. No matter what avenue it's through, “…it's all about evoking the emotion, putting yourself out there and pouring your guts out…so I just keep throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks.” An expert in innumerable art fields, Kaves understands that as an artist you don't have to be one thing, you should always want to keep growing. “In the renaissance period there were philosophers who were inventors, artists and poets…I live so many lives through these different mediums…for a Brooklyn street kid to go there it was because I was able to wear so many different hats.”
With all this cultural stimulation spurting from street and graffiti art, its a strange occurrence this expressive form is still not respected by many. Kaves commented on this dilemma all too accurately with an astute solution, “…people always say [graffiti] encourages more vandalism but the funny thing is if you give kids a place to do things and be creative, they will eventually say this is the place to go do it. Now they have no place so its going to be all over…there should be parks for art…so start in the little neighborhoods, start in my little neighborhood.”
The uncanny charm that accompanies Kaves ultra-swag is felt by everyone in his presence, as his genuine curiosity for the world has no boundaries. Kaves believes everybody's life is filled with thought, effort and conscious art, and he's interested in it all. His everlasting enthusiasm shines through as he explained with excitement his work in the Year One exhibit, “this new work we’re… showing is cool because its taking the past of what I used to do on the trains and its also stepping into the future…the graffiti writing on the train was my name in lights when I was a child, so we incorporated that as almost a sculpture and now I'm stepping into that area.” Fortunately, the one thing that won't change about Kaves work, regardless of what artistic avenue he decides to trod down next, is the inclusion of his running story about what he's going through in his life that surely captivates all.
Now back to the 80's. Meet Karlos Cárcamo, raised in Queens, NY, a die hard break dancer who assured me he tried out for every break dance scene in any movie you could think of. The young Cárcamo soon emerged as a graffiti artist, influenced by the comprehensive writing styles of his peers. As a budding writer, Cárcamo got his first exposure to the mainstream art world after becoming thoroughly impressed by Robert Rauschenberg's “Combines” series that he saw in a traveling pop art exhibit during a class trip. Immediately after the exhibit Cárcamo ransacked the local Pro Paint art store, went to work on making his own work and hasn't stopped painting ever since. Nowadays Cárcamo is a trained painter working in various mediums and a current artist part of the “Year One” exhibit at Hionas Gallery. It wasn’t until Cárcamo started working with mediums outside of graffiti that he grew interested in the early history of graffiti that he wasn’t exposed to when he was writing. His interest was on the writers that created the start of graffiti culture in the 60 and 70's, the ones least known who often don't get recognized but deserve the most credit and praise.
Influenced by the expressive and creative way that street art comments on society and gives people a voice, Cárcamo doesn't make his “…art about art, it's life, nature, that's what I speak about…I can only see art through the lens of my own experiences, which is growing up in an urban culture.” Cárcamo sees this culture as one composed of a codified vocabulary, and he uses his interest in abstraction to scratch away at the elements within its layers to understand and speak about it in different bodies of work. Cárcamo's work is dense and coated with meaning, looking at one of his paintings from his “Microphone Check” exhibit you can say "oh, this is talking about the history of graffiti, but at the same time it can be talking about identity. In graffiti you create an identity, like the names of artists, this is not their real name, these are identities they've created, a play on concealment.”
As Cárcamo redefines the role of appropriation, he also plays with the idea of interchangeable concepts and worth, by giving the term that is commonly used in the art world for issues of originality or authorship a new meaning, by using it the way a “…DJ uses it, you take a sample, totally change it and make something new”. Cárcamo takes pride in the fact that often times you can look at a work of his and not know where he's appropriating from. “…Its not necessary for someone to know that the tinted limousine glass I use in the pieces [various mixed media from “Microphone Check”] originally came from looking at a painting of Andy Warhol.”
The paintings in Cárcamo's Microphone Check blend together his writing styles and features the names of various graffiti artists, DJs and others who have contributed to the development of urban culture. The Microphone Check exhibit is also a debut of paintings on which Cárcamo used a computer to help form the colors in his works. This winning combination is Cárcamo's attempt at telling multiple stories in one form as he talks about both historical aspects and formal qualities such as color, form and space, allowing the creation of an “open ended language where people can bring their own associations to the work, so its not didactic.”
Speaking of open ended languages and over enthusiastic strangers, if you ever wondered what people think of Andy Warhol, Princess Diana or Mick Jagger, all you have to do is put up a poster of them on the street in any of the busiest cities in America and watch what happens. This is what photographer Burton Machen did for his exhibit Urban Evolution: PORTRAITS PROJECT at Hionas Gallery. “PORTRAITS PROJECT” is a supplementary expansion of his series “Urban Evolution” that explores the evolution of found art and collage on the streets.
Machen moved to New York City in 1987 and became enthralled by the Urban Decay of the Lower East Side and the East Village. The pictorial representations of the New York way of life would forever stick in Machen's mind and eventually encourage him to start shooting his own photographs to share his experiences with the world. This shared world soon came to include anyone who has something to say, giving a “voice to everyone who chooses to participate in the conversation.”
Urban Evolution is Machen's version of Urban Decay, the kind prevalent in inner cities throughout America that “…seem as if they are run down and deteriorating but in reality they are evolving, becoming something else, as is the art on the walls of the city.” Through the Urban Evolution series, Machen lends a listening ear to the many voices that echo far beyond these seemingly broken communities. The PORTRAITS PROJECT stemmed from this Urban Evolution series as Machen decided to take the project into his own hands. Machen put up portraits of different individuals from varying levels of prominence around different cities and let the public have at their faces, artistically speaking. But why care what the general public thinks, openly inviting them to produce the final outcome of a work of art? It is because most artists that “post, paint, etc. on a wall are consciously participating in creating their own…piece but are unconscious to the fact that they are actually collaborating with each other and the elements to create an amazing…work.” This open-hearted attitude towards the completion of works depends on and often dictates the perception of the viewer, which Machen says is a main factor in what separates street art from its more “conventional” counterparts. Upon first glance, one might think that Machen's original posted street portraits were the only real art in the piece, when in reality these portraits are purposed to serve as conversation starters. This is the focus of Machen's work, for this silent but pulsating conversation to tie the recognition of his work as art pieces together with the unconscious creations that people inadvertently produce.
As these three ingenious artists join nine others to celebrate a gallery that has given them the chance to use their works to speak a long and entangled dialogue, countless others will respond in unprecedented and positive ways. This unpretentious and organic conversation will continue on as increasing amounts of people express their voices from within the walls of the new and firmly established Hionas Gallery.
YEAR ONE a commemorative group exhibition featuring new works by Kaves, Burton Machen, Karlos Cárcamo and more is on view until August 11.