For years we’ve debated the identity of Banksy, a notoriously anonymous British graffiti artist. But Gary Moskowitz is tired of fetishising the man's incongruities (if Banksy is a man) ...
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Whenever I catch a bus from my London flat heading down Essex Road to the Angel tube, I ride past a big stencilled image on the side of a wall. It is of three children standing at the base of a flagpole, two holding their hands over their hearts and the third hoisting a flag that says "Tesco", a British supermarket chain. It’s a Banksy piece called “Very Little Helps”, and I glance at it every time I go by.
The piece is funny, even political. Whomever Banksy is and whatever the public thinks of his work, this particular use of about ten feet of public space is fine by me.
But the Banksy buzz is getting old. For years, we’ve debated the identity of this British graffiti artist, whose work began appearing on Bristol streets in 1993 and now sells for record prices. (Though his auction prices have fallen between 30-50% in the recession.) Is he a talented prankster from Bristol? A subversive art collective? A dinner guest at Joan Collins’s house? A man named Robin Gunningham? Did he just paint his own self-portrait? And what do his spray-painted stencils really mean, anyway? Do we give him too much credit? Not enough? These riddles have long been fascinating, largely for their Rorschach-worthiness: Banksy's anonymity has allowed us to turn him into what we want him to be.
The Banksy show now on at the Andipa Gallery in posh Chelsea, until May 16th, rekindles the conversation. Acoris Andipa, director of the tiny gallery, has gathered his personal collection of 35 Banksy originals (some signed) together with several more common prints. Andipa told me he’s paid up to six figures for Bansky works, which he describes as “brilliant” with a “poignant social narrative.”
The show includes familiar pieces such as “Love is in the Air (Flower Thrower)”, in which a man dressed like a street terrorist throws a bouquet as if it was a grenade (pictured, top). And there are a few gems, such as “Lenin on Rollerblades” (pictured, right), stencilled on six two-by-fours; “Horse on Steel”, a spray-painted stencil of a praying horse; and “Untitled (Policeman and Spliff)”, which depicts a police officer lighting up with a young girl, stencilled onto a piece of brown grocery-bag paper. This last piece sold for £120,000 ($183,000) the day of my visit.
But all of this has driven it home: I’m bored of Banksy. Sure, I enjoy stumbling across his work in alleys and splashed on buildings throughout London. And occasionally the artist has created work both bracingly timely and incisive (”NOLA", is a particularly good example). But it is impossible to contain the raw energy of street art in a formal art space, where any anti-establishment strains in his work are bled away beneath the expensive track lighting.
In the New Yorker in 2007 Lauren Collins considered the incongruities of Banksy's persona, which the artist clearly revels in:
“The art world is the biggest joke going,” he has said. “It’s a rest home for the overprivileged, the pretentious, and the weak.” Although he once declared that “every other type of art compared to graffiti is a step down,” in recent years he has produced his share of traditional works on canvas and on paper, suitable for hanging indoors, above a couch ... Ralph Taylor, a specialist in the Sotheby’s contemporary-art department, said of Banksy, “He is the quickest-growing artist anyone has ever seen of all time.” Banksy responded to the Sotheby’s sale by posting a painting on his Web site. It featured an auctioneer presiding over a crowd of rapt bidders, with the caption “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”
It's hard not to be both irked and impressed. It takes real cleverness to have it both ways. But this juggling act seems to have exhausted itself. In late April, when anti-graffiti volunteers in Glastonbury accidentally painted over a Banksy original--an image of Paddington Bear with the caption "Migration is not a crime", worth £5,000--there were almost too many punchlines to know when to laugh (a very post-modern problem). (The town council has agreed to remove the layer of paint and have conservators look at it.)
I'm ready to move on. On my way home from the Chelsea show, I saw that someone had spray-painted the words “Bad News” on the side of an Evening Standard newspaper bin, where a stack of newspapers spilled out onto the sidewalk. Just underneath this graffiti someone else wrote “Bears” in green ink. Evoking "Bad News Bears", a ridiculous Walter Mathau film from 1976, did not make for a polished piece of street art, but I found the scrawled commentary refreshing: it was funny, timely, improvised and real.
Banksy from the Collection of Andipa Gallery, London, until May 16th