Saturday, 26 March 2011

Skewville - Slow Your Roll

High Roller Society

Unit 10 Palmers Road,
London E2 0SY
(Click for map)

19 March – 24 April 2011

photos: NoLionsInEngland

New York twin brother street art legends Skewville are bombing London for their first solo show at High Roller Society gallery. Fame on the streets worldwide has been secured thanks to their sneaker mission but Skewville are never shy of exploring ways to subvert the normal paste up- stencil-gallery show limitations of street art convention.

Trainers over telegraph wires have been around basically since trainers started wearing out, there’s nothing new in dangling sneakers from telephone wires but surrounded by a vast noise of stickers, stencils and paste-ups Skewville sought what they termed “next levelism” for street art techniques and so the trademark silk screened hand cut laced wooden sneakers mission kicked off. Wherever they go they take a few wooden sneakers and leave their “tag” by throwing pairs up over lampposts and telephone wires where they can hang more or less un-touchable. By their estimate they have done over 6,000 pairs in the past 11 years, Graffoto knows of 1 in London which has been there since 2004.

London, 2011

Skewville came to London in 2004 with a mission to do break the mould in putting up repeated simple images on the streets. London was in the grip of the stencil mafia and if stencils weren’t simple enough already, why not get up using a refinement of the old primary school potato print technique. Seeking an edge and discovering easy repeatability, Droo Skewville developed the sneaker stamp, in essence cutting a fresh pattern into the sole of old sneakers. The example below was buffed only last month and others still thrive nearby.

Skewville’s next refinement was to cut the image into a roller pad and hey presto, believe the Hype!

Less long-lived were some quirky sculptural grill signage from 2008.

The current trip has resulted in some more thrown dogs but don’t mark Skewville as street art one trick ponies, this year they have pulled off at least four shutters around the East End. On the streets of New York and wherever two bad ass jive talking yoots from the home counties meet, the greeting of choice is a YO! On opposite sides of an East London high street two shutters greet each other with a YO! before each working day commences, they then disappear and at the end of the shift they re-appear to salute each other.

YO! - YO backatcha!

On to the main reason for Skewvilles’s presence in London, the show at High Roller Society. It takes two to have a conversation and a duality is a recurring theme in this show. There are two parts to the show, one side of the room is older Skewville, the other is new stuff. Skewville has neatly bisected the room with the show’s Slow Your Roll mantra to mark this out as a show of two halves. The over-size stamp used to create the slogan down the middle forms part of a sculptural installation, the tyre rolling out Skewville’s message not to get too impressed with themselves.

In the more colourful half, we see some a Skewville staple, a collection of silkscreened collaged slogans and pop imagery which might have come from the classifieds in a Brooklyn butcher’s trade magazine.

Honey I shrunk The Kids/Brooklyn Flavor/Open Daily

An about turn to the opposite side of the room yields examples of the more recent Skewville direction. Stained, painted and etched images on wood is used to create these intriguing figurative paintings which hint at more meaningful significance.

One theme common to most of the work looks like an expression of regret at the inevitable compromises made on the passage to adulthood drawn from the perspective of the free spirited outsider looking on. It’s the blind stumble downwards from the pursuit of fame and fortune to having to take jobs to fund the dream to then finding life is passing by and yet another sucker has fallen into the trap. A shady spiv [N. Am: flim-flam merchant] employer in All In A Days Work lures the 9-5 work drone with a series of false hopes, fame, fortune, desire and hope ... and then the hidden truth...”Day Job Sucker”.

All In A Day's Work

You have to wonder whether the artist’s sentiments are first person regret or third person teasing. A further series of monochromatic compositions represents the working life as a fast vehicle now decrepit and propped up on bricks, graffiti painted on the vehicles’ side captures the dilemmas – 9-five, “fake a death”, “no return”, “Day Job Sucker”.

Love East Hate West/Fake A Death/Day Job Sucker

This theme of compromises continues through many of the more recent paintings and even some of the older coloured works, check out Vicious Cycle, Sucks Either Way, Side Deals, not to mention the deadly contemporary vices immortalised on various bottles and mousetraps including Envy, Desire, Lust, Desire, Fame, Fortune. Of course pursuing a gallery career doesn’t make the idealistic artist immune from those character traits either. Perhaps the paintings are signalling the start of a quest for liberation from the crushing work-eat-sleep drudge or an early warning to avoid this trap.

The figures in the paintings frequently incorporate a composite of architectural features, outdoor spaces, ambiguous signs and signals all pointing towards an individual’s bewilderment and sense of being overwhelmed by his urban surroundings. Alternatively a viewer could be excused for seeing a person who appears to dominate the environment, the fabric of the community appears to be internalised within the subject who appears to be bigger than the external world, perhaps Skewville really are the High Rollers of their universe, who knows?

Sucks Either Way (Detail)

Some of the symbols didn’t register for cultural reasons, for instance, the rectangles with a cross apparently are painted in playgrounds in NY to represent a pitcher’s target area for a game of “stick ball”, but then it’s quite likely someone from Brooklyn is going to wonder why three vertical lines and two horizontals at the top might get drawn on walls in the UK. This “intelligent pictogram” side of the show is full of interesting aspects and innuendoes derived from Skewville’s lives, home culture and influences but equally they can speak to the circumstances of most viewers, the symbolism is fine.

Between and within the various paintings are dotted lines and crosses creating divisions, links and groupings, Ad of Skewville gave us some cock and bull about them representing paths around their childhood clubhouse and X marking the spot where ye treasure may be found, the story was a good ‘un about notes they used to leave to remember where they’d hidden weapons they’d need to fend off bigger kids out to kick their arses . Another interpretation might be that Skewville could be using a draughtsman’s drawing convention to denote a section or another view through a drawing, as if begging the viewer to take a lateral view to discover the meaning within in the picture.

One thing noticeably absent from the show are sneakers, none. Whilst Skewville have put sneakers in shows in the past – their earlier shows were self promoted and curated – now their gut feel is to react against the exploitation by too many of the streets for commercial promotion by separating the street from the gallery, though Skewville will never resist a YO! or a BEEF, indoors or out.

At the top of this story we found lots of evidence of Skewville's longevity with street pieces surviving in London for the best part of more than half a decade which is no mean achievement in this place. Based on the interesting collection of work in this compact gallery space there is no sign that Skewville aren’t going to continue rolling for long time to come. The show raises fascinating questions about he possibility that the sentiments may be a personal exchange between the twin components of Skewville and you are compelled to appreciate that these concerns engage us all and the art reflects equally into our lives. Ok, it’s fun to contemplate the art in that way but at the end of the day the work has a fascinating and intelligent charm, we just like it !

For a selection of other images from Slow Your Roll and a few other Recent London streetpieces, click here.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Brian Adam Douglas - Due Date

Black Rat Projects
Rivington Street,

10 Mar - 7 April 2011

photos: NoLionsInEngland

I first came across Brian Adam Douglas’ gallery work in a project room installation at The Leonard Street Gallery in 2007 and was knocked out by it. Poo-Tee-Weet from that show remains one of my favourite pieces art.

Poo-Tee-Weet, London 2007

Brian Adam Douglas has made many visits to London and under his alter moniker Elbow Toe frequently gets up on the streets with pastel drawings, short poem stanzas but most notably paste- up original art of stunning quality and beauty. I have a fond memory of Elbow Toe several years ago comparing the tension of even wheatpasting in New York to chilled out daytime high street pasting in London.

London, 2007

Brian Adam Douglas’ latest UK show at Black Rat is his first London solo show, having already been exhibited in almost this form up north at Warrington Museum late last year. There are 17 original paintings and 12 preparatory sketches. The originals fall into two distinct formats, those on paper with negative space background and those on wood panels with generally full colour background, the artistic style is virtually identical in both forms.

Previously, Brian Adam Douglas’ distinctive studio work was based upon intricate lino cut images featuring twisted figures with multiple jointed limbs and stylistic references to classical forms of figurative painting . Often the work would be confused with art from Swoon or Denmark’s Armsrock. Now we are more familiar with his “trick” of creating collages of finely cut shreds of coloured paper in such a way that from any distance greater than about 12 inches the result looks like a beautiful traditional brush painting. The device is stunningly executed but no mere gimmick.

After Goya
(titled “The Family Pet” when shown at the Warrington Museum. Curious)

The title of the show clearly defines the core theme throughout the work (with one exception), something which the artist ambiguously describes on the night as grappling with the issues of trying to become a parent. We can’t be sure whether this alludes to the mechanics of the formative processes or the lifelong struggle of nurturing a baby human from smeared greasy new-born to first wage slip, but the distinction isn’t that significant when it comes to reading each of the paintings, a label that we will stick to for convenience.

Rites Of Spring

My own allergy to negative space is blown away by the works on paper in this show. In most cases the absence of background throws focus on the form and content of the central image, whereas the full colour compositions tend to have as much intrigue, meaning and food for thought as the painting subject itself. Look at the McGee-esque background to PTW from 2007 above.

One of the beauties of the art is that each picture has picks out a doubt, concern or paranoia that every well intentioned parent feels at some point or another but doesn’t articulate anything like as well as Brian Adam Douglas paints it. In “Tradition” below, the point seems to be paradox between the new parent feels himself blindly stumbling into parenthood without a route map blind to the guiding hand of his immediate forbearers.

Tradition (detail)

Assume Crash Position is a gentle humorous allegory on the notion that whilst life starts with parenthood, at the same time there is a part of existence that ends with a crash. Give the man oxygen

Assume Crash Position

With the meaning being a matter of one’s own interpretation what one sees in an image, Sweet Dreams provides a dilemma, is this tender nurturing of a loved one, or an insidious implanting of the seed of an idea into the woman, or even literally the seed? Both messages sit happily alongside each other in my mind and doubtless you can come up with other different interpretations. It’s a beautiful painting whatever it means to you. In Sweet Dreams you can also see the artist's charcoal construction lines, it's probably no accident that where these remain a feature of the finished piece they add hints of motion.

Sweet Dreams (detail)

Looking at a couple of the full colour collage on birch panel paintings, Bears shows a couple of parents struggling with a beast, an inconvenient clumsy oversize un-cooperative helpless beast, which just about hits the nail on the head. The microphones suggest paranoia, the sense that one is under scrutiny and making ones mistakes in full public gaze. Avoid that by not slapping your kids in the supermarket aisle;-) One thing I found un-necessary in this picture was the spilled paint, it may be another significant detail whose meaning I miss but I’m afraid I just see an art cliché specially beloved by the urban fraternity. Brian gives us another interesting conundrum by pluralising the title.


In a show of constant delights, the stand-out canvas is “The Memory of You is Never Lost On Me”. Measuring an enormous 2.1m by 1.4m. The central character, recently bereaved (I was told) is engaged in a kind of memorabilia purging and we see across the painting the echoes of various key moments in his life. Immediately to his right, a woman I take to be his wife embroiders a beautiful tablecloth on which sit boxes, possibly piles of note and further right again in diminishing scale denoting reducing significance to the narrative, we see a child playing with a piñata, nursery toys and curiously positioned, almost slightly surreal old fashioned toys like the stick and hoop. The beekeeper is a motif which comes up several times in the work, in this case the young lover is becoming married and his new wife enacts a Greek wedding ritual by dipping her hand into a pot of honey symbolising sweetness and fertility. The bees swarm up and through the smoke from the burning of the man’s reconciled memories, where of course they would become drowsy. Would it be too obvious to suppose that it all starts with the birds and the bees?

The picture explores a theme similar to the novel “Any Human Heart” by William Boyd though it was evident this is happy coincidence. The last time I felt a similar desire to just stand and absorb and ponder the many different facets of a painting was in front of Picasso’s Guernica in Madrid.

The Memory of You is Never Lost On Me

Visiting American street artists bring to the London urban art honey-pot a rare level of intelligence and intrigue and occasional new world migrant to mention in this context would be Swoon and Judith Supine. Less often mentioned is Brian Adam Douglas, a.k.a Elbow Toe though on the basis of this show that ought to change. Due Date is a truly epic show, one of those rare occasions where engaging with the art at the opening took precedence over the socialising.

Graffoto could and would love to go on and on sharing its thoughts on each and every single painting but that would spoil things, as well as being rather tedious. Instead, check out the full photo set on flickr, let Graffoto know your insights.

Postscript for anyone curious regarding Elbow Toe, Elbow Toe is alive and well and before the show opened placed a new piece of hand coloured art on the streets, or the tow-path to be more accurate. In case anyone should question the taste - these photos were taken before the natural disaster (and Fukushima man-made disaster) in Japan. Very clairvoyant.

There is an ever increasing gap in style between Elbow Toe and Brian Adam Douglas and we hear there are unlikely to be any Elbow Toe prints in future.

This Too Shall Pass

This Too Shall Pass (context)