Street art – visceral, gravity-defying and at times thrillingly illicit – has been a fixture of the champagne-downing art world since the riotous scrawls of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring took the New York gallery scene by storm in the early 1980s.
But despite São Paulo’s buoyant and longstanding adoption of the art form, with local talent like Alex Vallauri and Rui Amaral blazing a trail now followed by countless young SP contemporary graffitists, it’s only recently that the city’s major institutions can be said to have truly embraced the genre.
The Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) continues to set things right with the second installment of its street-art show, ‘De Dentro e De Fora’ (Inside Out / Outside In). It follows on from last year’s ‘De dentro para fora / De fora para dentro’ (From the inside out / From the outside in), which featured the vibrant works of six of the city’s top urban artists including Zezão, Titi Freak and Daniel Melim.
This year, the works of eight international street artists are showcased not only in the MASP’s lower-level gallery, but also in the streets behind the museum – if city authorities can be persuaded to grant the right permits, that is.
Despite a federal law enacted in late May 2011 that decriminalises street art (though not its lesser cousin, pixação, a unique local strain of tagging), obtaining the necessary approval from as many as half a dozen slow-to-move municipal organs to legally create this art in public spaces is the sort of exercise that expends as much patience as it does red tape.
Bridging the street-to-gallery gap
Conceived by Teixeira Coelho, the MASP’s chief curator, the show is curated by Mariana Martins, Baixo Ribeiro and Eduardo Saretta, co-owners of the city’s premier street-art gallery, Choque Cultural. The gallery has made a speciality of straddling the gap between street and gallery for some of the most talented artists on the scene.
A case in point was the 2011 show at Choque, featuring the lyrical work of Daniel Melim. To complement his gallery show, the graffitist painted a vivid 33m-high Pop Art panel of a wary-looking blonde on the side of a downtown residential building on Avenida Prestes Maia, a stone’s throw from Luz station.
As an instantly iconic urban art piece, it joins Os Gêmeos’s dreamlike yellow man mural further downtown in Anhangabaú – for now. The latter mural is in the process of being torn down along with the building it’s painted on, to make way for a new mega-cultural centre, Praça das Artes.
But despite a growing acceptance of the art form in São Paulo, street art’s status is still in doubt for some. Referring to last year’s show, ‘There were some among our traditional audience,’ says Teixeira Coelho, ‘who still asked, “Is this really art – does it belong in a museum?”’
The public displayed few such qualms: 140,000 visitors streamed into the MASP during the three months the show was on. Just as importantly, the show lured in a younger crowd than the museum’s usual mix. Emboldened, Coelho and Choque’s Baixo Ribeiro began planning for the complementary second show before the first one had even ended.
The who's who of the street art world
Colour – in wild Miró-esque scrawls, whimsical cartoon figures and jewelled shades – will predominate in this exhibition, with lively works by the Argentinian artists Tec, Defi and Chu. The Czech artist Point is known for his bold geometries in 2D murals as well as 3D installations, while France’s Remed creates elegant, Art Deco-inspired forms that convey, at their best, a child’s joyful abandon in kaleidoscopic patterns.
And the French artist JR shot into the global limelight for the immense black-and-white photo-graffiti projects he has installed all over the world, including in the West Bank, on bridges in Africa, in India, and here in Brazil. As part of his ‘Women are Heroes’ project, the artist plastered huge images of local women’s faces and eyes on the facades of houses in Rio’s Morro da Providência favela.
In March, the twentysomething artist became the winner of a US$100,000 TED Prize, whose former recipients include Bill Clinton, Bono and Jamie Oliver, for his transformative art projects that aim to involve locals in often embattled communities to, as he puts it, use art to ‘turn the world inside out’.
JR’s countryman Invader has also won a global following for his intimate, signature act of slyly putting up small, coloured tiles that depict characters from early Space Invaders games. Since 1998, the artist has surreptitiously placed his invaders in cities from New York to Katmandu, and also played a key role in last year’s film by graffiti star Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Last but not least, US street artist Swoon – famed for her life-sized woodblock-and-cut-paper portraits and other urban interventions – will participate in both the group show and, with local collective Comboio, in the creation of a site-specific ‘living sculpture/fair’ in the museum’s open-air space in September.
In recent years, Swoon has gatecrashed the 2009 Venice Biennale with seven junkyard rafts and a crew of thirty, helped to build new homes and community spaces in Haiti after the earthquake, and is in the midst of constructing a musical sculpture-of-a-house in New Orleans.
Reclaiming public spaces
Beyond the show, the curatorial team ultimately has a larger, more ambitious – call it civic goal for its joint exhibition. ‘I want visitors to look with more affection at public spaces, and think about the way, in this city, they are behind walls all day,’ says Choque’s Martins. Ribeiro adds, ‘We need more public art in this city. There are a lot of monuments, but very little public art. Art’s a central part of the conversation about how to get people here more actively involved in public spaces.’
For the section of society living a somewhat insulated life in this sprawling megalopolis, complete with gated compounds, armed guards, bulletproof cars and helipads, the idea of reclaiming public spaces might seem novel, even shocking. But as some of these artists can attest, simple paint and paper, photographs, glue and a little will can and do enact change, one stroke or one city block at a time.