A new exhibit, UNCONTAINABLE | Urban Art from Vandalism to Movement, sheds a whole new light on an art style that has its roots in graffiti and hip hop. The show opens Friday at the Thomas Center Galleries.
Who could have imagined almost a half-century ago, when spray-painted words and images began appearing on public buildings and subway trains in large cities, that the rebellious youths responsible for those acts were laying the foundation for a global art movement?
Beginning Friday night, the City of Gainesville Thomas Center Galleries explore the multifaceted and eye-popping world of street art in a new exhibit, UNCONTAINABLE | Urban Art from Vandalism to Movement. The free exhibit, in partnership with the National Institute of Urban Art, continues through September 9 in both the first-floor Main Gallery and the Mezzanine Gallery of the Historic Thomas Center, 302 NE 6th Ave.
The groundbreaking exhibit is an extension of the 352walls/Gainesville Urban Art Initiative project that began in 2015 and includes murals by world-class street artists on two dozen walls and surfaces throughout downtown Gainesville.
UNCONTAINABLE co-curator Craig M. O’Neil, founder of the National Institute of Urban Art, said that visitors to the Thomas Center Galleries can expect a provocative exhibit.
“It’s art, it’s raw and it’s real,” he said. “It’s the first post-internet art movement that’s global. There’s never been an art movement like that in history.”
The public is invited to the gallery opening on Friday from 5-8:30 p.m. Visitors to the opening reception may join a bus tour introduction to the 352walls/Gainesville Urban Art Initiative from 5:30-6:30. This tour of the urban art walls in and near downtown is free, but seating is limited. (Bus tour sign-up sheets will be available at the gallery starting at 5 p.m.)
Anne E. Gilroy, curator of the Thomas Center Galleries and co-curator of UNCONTAINABLE, said the exhibit is the first of its kind in North Central Florida. Twenty-six artists will be represented by 44 pieces covering a myriad of styles of street art spanning the past two decades. Some of the work is being exhibited for the first time.
“This art movement really did begin with aerosol paint and adolescents,” Gilroy said. “The ‘tagging’ of the 1970s was done covertly, considered vandalism, and prosecuted as such. Today, urban artists are invited to towns and given sanctioned walls or ‘permission walls’ of significance and scale.
“It’s the evolution of the art form that we are trying to explore in this exhibition.”
Some of the biggest names from the urban art world will be represented in UNCONTAINABLE, including Logan Hicks, Shepard Fairey and up-and-comer Michael Reeder. Other artists, known by their street names, include Axel Void, Ahol Sniffs Glue, Doze Green, Mars-1, REVOK, Retna, Elbow Toe, Invader, Risk, and Swoon.
Some of the artists exhibited in UNCONTAINABLE work in crews under a single name, such as Os Gemeos, Etam Cru, Faile, and The London Police.
Swoon, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is best known for her illustrative portraiture and specializes in life-size wheat-paste prints. O’Neil said that Swoon will have a large-scale woodcut panel in UNCONTAINABLE that he considers “a Holy Grail type of piece” carved early in her career.
The piece by REVOK, a celebrated graffiti and studio artist whose legal name is Jason Williams, will be from what O’Neil calls his “assemblage” period. REVOK is also notorious for his wall work that has landed him in legal trouble on the west coast.
“The guy basically can’t own a spray can in the state of California,” O’Neil said. “His assemblage pieces from found objects are amazing.”
Invader is the pseudonym of a Frenchman whose distinctive ceramic tile work is modeled on the crude pixelation of Pac-Man and other 8-bit video games. He took his street name from the Space Invaders arcade game.
Meanwhile, UNCONTAINABLE will have numerous early silk-screen pieces from Shepard Fairey that are on loan from Hicks. The work includes Fairey’s iconic Andre the Giant Has a Posse and Obey campaigns. Fairey is perhaps best known for his Barack Obama HOPE poster.
Also on loan from Fairey will be a poster presented with the hand-cut, multi-layer acetate sheets — rubylith and amberlith — illustrating the pre-digital-age method of how the artist produced the final print.
O’Neil is also proud of a piece by Os Gemeos, the street name used by twin brothers from Brazil best known for their huge murals depicting oblong-shaped, yellow-skinned characters. The piece on display for UNCONTAINABLE is an 18-layer lithograph with rich gradients.
“This rare piece, in particular, is masterful,” O’Neil said. “The pattern work in the clothing on their characters is technically difficult to achieve. Their work speaks to the reality of Brazil’s underclass.”
Four artists featured in UNCONTAINABLE already have work on display in downtown Gainesville through the 352walls/Gainesville Urban Art Initiative project that began in 2015.
Evoca1 (Elio Mercado) from the Dominican Republic has a four-story mural titled “Innocence” on a corner of the Southwest Parking Garage. Axel Void (Alejandro Dorda Mevs) has a mural on the side of The Bull depicting the Gainesville cityscape from a photograph he took. Elbow Toe (Brian Adam Douglas) has a painting of a woman on the back wall of the old Market Street Pub building. And Juan Travieso recently painted a “digital zoo” mural (along with Miguel Machado) off Main Street at Northwest 8th Avenue.
“The concept to do UNCONTAINABLE came out of conversations about the 352walls,” Gilroy said. “Craig became aware when Gainesville’s walls project burst upon the scene. The urban art community is keenly aware of what is going on with walls projects with their colleagues around the world at any time. Craig actually wrote to us with a critique — and that led to conversations, then collaboration.”
According to organizers, the 352walls/Gainesville Urban Art Initiative’s mission is to position Gainesville as a vibrant cultural destination, stimulate urban renewal, foster cultural tourism and economic development, beautify the urban landscape, boost community pride, and serve as a platform for urban art studies. UNCONTAINABLE is a natural extension of that vision.
There are thousands of people all over the planet participating in this art movement all at once.”
— Craig O’Neil, co-curator of UNCONTAINABLE
Having O’Neil and his wife, Charo, involved through their National Institute of Urban Art, based in Boca Raton, has given UNCONTAINABLE credibility — not to mention an impressive collection of artwork that reflects the historical arc of street art from its earliest roots to today.
“All too often, people see tags as blight and destruction not worthy of merit,” Craig O’Neil said. “The truth is, without that period of early vandalism, none of this show exists.”
O’Neil added that the urban art movement is so fragmented that it’s hard to encapsulate everything in a single exhibit.
“Graffiti has its own history that could exist on its own and not even get into muralism,” he said. “There are thousands of people all over the planet participating in this art movement all at once.”
There has not been an exhibit quite like UNCONTAINABLE in the Thomas Center Galleries’ 38-year history.
“It’s easily one of the most important exhibits we’ve ever done,” said Russell Etling, City of Gainesville Cultural Affairs Manager. “From the city’s point of view, it provides context for the 352walls exhibit and enhances an appreciation for the genre.”
“We’re already getting widespread attention via the internet,” Gilroy said about UNCONTAINABLE. “I’ve had emails from across the country about it.”
She added that the exhibit is not intended to cover every aspect of urban art. However, visitors will certainly get a strong introduction to the genre.
The artwork on exhibit in UNCONTAINABLE also includes a 12-foot-wide-by-4-foot-high rendition of the renowned Bowery Wall mural by Logan Hicks, a master of stencil art. The Bowery Wall is a curated outdoor exhibition space along a bustling thoroughfare on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Titled Story of My Life, the piece depicts what the corner of Spring and Greene streets would look like if everyone important to Hicks happened to be strolling down the New York City street at the same time.
“Logan produced the smaller-scale piece specifically for this show,” said O’Neil, who happens to be one of the dozens of figures visible in the mural.
A huge challenge for Gilroy was to get as many examples of urban art into UNCONTAINABLE as possible.
“I’m pretty much using every inch of wall space from top to bottom and upstairs and downstairs to get the point across that this art movement is larger than life, so to speak,” she said. “I sort of want the exhibit to crowd the space and make people actually feel the scale of it. It’s very different than many of the exhibits I’ve done where I wanted a lot of breathing space to surround each piece.”
“It’s very much a group exhibit,” she said. “In fact, we passed on some smaller pieces by particularly renowned artists because we didn’t just want to capitalize on their fame or draw people to the exhibit that way.”
Perhaps the most famous street artist of all, the mystery-shrouded Brit known simply as Banksy, will not be represented. Ownership of his public art is a matter of some controversy, a topic explored in the 2017 documentary Saving Banksy. However, Saving Banksy will be shown during the opening reception on June 9 at 7 p.m. and again at the Hippodrome Cinema on June 12 and June 19.
Released early this year, Saving Banksy tells the story of how one misguided art collector attempted to save a Banksy painting from destruction and the auction block. The documentary includes UNCONTAINABLE artists Risk, Doze Green and REVOK, among others.
And what about the exhibit’s intriguing title?
“We messed around with a lot of titles,” Gilroy said. “We settled on one that hints at the fact that this art arises from an uncontained drive — artists who may not have had the means or opportunity to follow a more traditional track of art success can rise to the top of the game.”
She compared it to an athlete who first gets noticed on the neighborhood court or field or street, then other neighborhood kids come to challenge him or her, then players from a town over, then a reputation gets built and maybe opportunities get bigger and bigger.
“This art form erupts from both an energy and, in the beginning, an aerosol can,” she said. “It doesn’t follow a track through art school or award programs. It has the same kind of competitiveness, but with its own hierarchy of recognition.
“I’d like people to leave the exhibit understanding that and seeing art on the street with new eyes.”
Craig O’Neil also wants people unfamiliar with urban art to let UNCONTAINABLE | Urban Art from Vandalism to Movement sink in.
“I hope this show is like that one bottle of wine you open, drink and say ‘Now I get it!'”
— Noel Leroux
UNCONTAINABLE | Urban Art
from Vandalism to Movement
Thomas Center Galleries
302 NE 6th Ave.
Gainesville, FL 32601
Dates: June 9-September 9, 2017
Hours: Monday through Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturdays 1-4 p.m.