Friday, 13 June 2008

Thieves Ladder

Installation show by Armsrock, Chris Stain and Poncho,
Black Rat Press, Rivington Street, London
12th June

Thieves and ladders are two words many might associate with graffiti and street art. Put them together and show them to a multi-national trio of street artists and the meaning transforms to the collaboration of people lifting each other up from the bottom of the shaft of economic, political, intellectual or social dysfunctionality .

Armsrock comes from Denmark via Bremmen and is a small and wiry bundle of energy. Exactly the kind of guy you'd imagine shinning up a drain pipe with a paint roller and some Dulux hanging off his back.

His previous visits left London with some original paste ups on walls and doors.


Chris Stains is a Queens, NY legend and is making his first visit to London, probably Poncho is too but the gallery wallah’s Spanish was even worse than Poncho’s English.

Armsrock's signature contribution to the installation occupies two ends of one wall and the whole of the back wall. If you prefer your art installations instantly accessible rather than deep and conceptual, then Armsrock provides the element which defines the whole installation, the key to comprehension, an enormous red lifeboat transporting a cargo of refugees. All lifeboats present a dual nature, a dichotomy between hope and despair, between salvation and desperation, anyone embarking into a lifeboat is doing so under threat imminent death yet the lifeboat is the last throw of the dice, possibly leading to safety or to doom.


Within the lifeboat a flotilla’s worth of boat people sail towards the promised land, an urban society which at first superficial glance appears built of orderly, stately architecture but closer scrutiny of this man made utopia-apparent reveal areas of dirtier city ghettos harbouring squalor, deceit, dirt, and despair. This paint on layered cardboard cityscape is a new departure for Armsrock.



Shanty town constructions, reinforced by a pallet built shack in the centre of this room rather than art deco apartment blocks are the reality awaiting this county's tired and huddled masses.

Poncho/Chris Stain

Even the gallery toilet door is integrated into the piece, urgent requirements to spend a penny can be critically delayed seeking this door which is disguised in the layered paper city, a bit like a library door disguised as a bookcase in some kind of scruffy stately pile.

Bathroom access by Armsrock (its there –honest)

Key themes explored by all three artists are the invisible boundaries between hope and desperation in a de-facto apartheid riddled segregated urban system. The features of the refuges may be caricatures but there is no pandering to any racial stereotype which would suggest Africans setting out from Morocco to Spain or Albanians crossing the Adriatic. They are symbolic of a universe of marginalised and oppressed, human beings with feelings, history, emotion but no voice.


Stain and Armsrock have constructed a universal metaphor for flight, desperation, salvation, but at the same time, our voyeuristic view is from the perspective of a more cynical civilisation, we are aware that the dream these people have been fed is illusory, the nirvana the media has force-fed them is fake, not everyone has a full mod-con house, not every girl shakes her hair like she lives in a silvikrin hairspray ad, rare is the happy family with contented wage-earner, beaming home-keeper and clean healthy smiling children. Armsrock sees an invisible barrier preventing these aspirants, the economic and political refugees from attaining their illusory goal.

Armsrock (subsequently installed in window)

It may be reasonable to ponder similarities between Armsrock’s craft and the weatherworn, gnarled faces of Swoon’s native Americans or her subway riding metropolitans, also though perhaps more remotely there might be some similarities to Elbow-Toe’s life size anguished and distorted humanity but Armsrock firmly believes the comparison is not to be taken too far. No further than the figurative style employed from time to time by all three. The derricks or coal pit wheel houses sting atop the city heaven-hell do however appear to resonate with the barrios/ghetto visions blended into the fabric of the clothing in some of Swoon's work.

Quite specifically, Armsrock rejects repetition; no woodcuts or linos capable of producing multiple images, every single piece whether on the street or here in the gallery has been produced as an original.

Armsrock frequently works life-size, and the crafting of the figures is exactly the same here in the gallery as he uses on the streets, brushed acrylic on paper, though in the gallery it is Japanese rice paper whereas on the streets it is any kind of newsprint or rough paper. Every one an original.


The theme of escape, transport and relocation is continued by Chris Stain through an enormous train profile painted on cardboard on another wall. The US railroad system has a much broader symbolism for migration than British Rail could ever sustain. Beyond the obvious freight and commuting functionality, the US system has been imbued with the romance associated with the railroad pioneering into the mid-west, and the romance of a hobo sub-culture. Also, for the past 20 years or so an sub-culture of train painting has developed among graffiti artists which involves ornate old skool tagging with an adjacent graff character, and its not un-usual for artists thousands of miles apart to admire and be inspired by the train graff as it travels north-south and east-west throughout the network.

Chris Stain/Armsrock

Stain has used this form, although he not conventionally a train tagger, to doff his cap in the direction of fellow NY street art legend Swoon with some bubble writing and a blonde bouffant smurfette. Niiiice.

Chris Stain (this graff was scruffed to simulate a well travelled carriage)

The first and most basic instincts of mankind relate to eating, shelter and sleeping, and using a pair of life size unlit shanty shacks Poncho has re-created the basic kind of shelter many Mexicans are forced to endure as they lever themselves up societies lower strata. These shacks contain many small scale Stain originals on wood and steel and many slogans, anyone using Crass slogans (among others) cannot be accused of political apathy.

Chris Stain

Apart from the shacks, in contrast to the energetic and informal installation pieces of Stain and Armsrock, Poncho has gone for a more structured and conventional approach in producing a series of stencilled images on board. The detail and sharpness of of the stencils, the texture in the image and the emotion are top class, whilst thematically they are as one with the rest of the piece, they look a bit out of place among the chaos. Not to complain, some of the complex images such as the gun belt Madonna treading on societies un-fortunates are stunning. But big.



As an end thought, no prints and no canvasses puts the BRP crew out there on a limb, doing this more or less for love, likewise the artists. This was a brave move following the patchiness of the Ellis/Swoon Canilao Heap Show installation and for mind and eye satisfaction it has paid off.

More pictures are in the flickr link in the signature below, it must be said that the lighting tonight made some of the pieces difficult to photograph or even see properly, BRP is set up for the most stunning illumination of wall mounted canvasses and prints but the gloomy lighting, whilst in keeping with the show theme still could have been brighter

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