I have great respect for street artists. It takes initiative, bravery, and detachment to be an indie visual producer in the public realm. There’s no money in it, only the potential for fame. Wildflowers of the urban meadows, these works offer a freshness and a spirit of freedom that is rather impossible to replicate in sanctioned public art. The sheer act of marking large spaces without permission drives the foundation of the work; indeed, many of the tags we see are an example of this: an attempt at taking back territory and announcing the presence of an underground voice. One such well-known local tag, BORN is a word that has been showing up on the bridges, underpasses, and industrial walls of Atlanta for quite some time. As the artist enters his mid-career, he has chosen to venture into the contrasting space of the gallery.
I kind of cringe when I hear that a gallery will present a street artist, and I admit, I had low expectations for BORN’s current show, Accidental at Beep Beep Gallery. It’s not that I think street artists shouldn’t show in galleries; I’m just so often disappointed when the white walls are left untouched by spray paint, sweat, and wheat paste, as if the walls themselves could only sustain works that are neatly framed, spaced, and priced. The domesticated products that end up in the gallery are lame cousins to the unsolicited street works that hover over us on empty billboards and abandoned factory windows. Why don’t these honored outsiders bring the wilderness of the streets into the gallery? Is the gallery so mired in its traditional associations with ready–to-purchase, fine works of art that street artists feel they must adapt their grit and glower to the space’s seemingly refined aura? This seems to be the case, as so many of them revert to an almost farcical parody of fine art when asked to bring their work through the pearly gates.
BORN, however, addresses this concern immediately. Not only does he use the gallery wall directly; he destroys it, dismantling the Sheetrock at the tiny entrance of Beep Beep Gallery. The two-dimensional surface, a feature familiar to all artists, has been ripped asunder. What’s revealed is a constellation of wires, nails, books, bones, and nostalgic junk. How profound, and even amusing it is to expose what’s behind the proverbial wall.
BORN does not wish to be a master over the intellectual content. The artist statement acknowledges this process of “unconscious artmaking,” and this explains the meaning behind the title. The artworks in the show are “an accident.” The artist gives up his authority, prefering to let the materials collide in random arrangements so that they speak for themselves. Often, as founding Depth Psychologist Carl Jung theorized, information gathered in unconscious ways circumvents the ego, surprising us and revealing hidden truths of which we are otherwise unaware. When artists follow strictly preconceived designs, they can hinder the unexpected, accidental, and even psychic outcome. Clearly BORN invites this element of chance and partial blindness into his work.
Most of the works in this exhibition are assemblages, comprised of wall sculptures made of found objects. Apart from the exhibition’s two framed pieces (which I think end up looking more contrived amidst the show’s interest in objects), the consistent materials and colors bring the overall show into aesthetic union. The formal, finished objects are tightly constructed, though some jagged edges are purposely included. What is to be gleaned from BORN’s divinations of detritus, jumbled together as art? The collage-like style of pre-communications-age technology and a heavy dependence on wood harkens back to classic twentieth-century artmakers. Indeed, the bio mentions such influences: Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Vladimir Tatlin, and Kurt Schwitters. These nostalgic overtones suggest a romanticism in old things, now destroyed. I also notice the influence of local artist Michi Meko, who BORN collaborated with last year. Michi’s trademark light green and mauve seem to have infiltrated these pieces, as well as his use of southern-tinged materials like the weathered beadboard and colored wire.
BORN’s independent work, however, is a lot less decorative than Michi’s. In fact, I find a restraint in some of the works that is quite sophisticated. My favorite sculptures are the ones made of simple stripes of color. In addition to the presence of a deconstructed porch, I detect musical themes: One construction has the shape of a lap harp or harmonica, even though the title is Wisdom Tooth; another mimics the curve of a music clef. What truly makes these assemblages compelling, however, is an abstract sense of good shape, texture, and color. A few compositions even somewhat resemble Donald Judd’s boxes.
His lack of conscious control must be a long standing philosophy for BORN, who after all, chose a name that represents an in-between state of human consciousness. As a street artist since the mid-90s, I’m sure he has taken great pleasure in combing over and plucking rustic gems out of the urban waste. Things are somewhat unclear, yet magical for the newly born. The nom de plume might easily reference the archetype of the phoenix, our favorite city symbol of resilience and rebirth. And, when plastered on decaying buildings and nominal spaces, it doubles as a sinister joke and a sincere homage. Open-ended symbols are the language of the unconscious mind. But, even as his work matures, BORN continues to prefer expressions of naiveté and innocence. This is the gift of staying outside of the trappings of professionalism. He permits us to simply enjoy the work as oddly familiar collections. We can look at them like clouds passing by in the sky; this one could be a snowman, this one a dragon. He’s saved us from another obtuse, and often pompous artist statement. Cool.
I am pleased by the progression of this artist’s collection of works, which is appropriate to the gallery, but not condescending to the change of venue. Somehow, the drama instilled in the act of climbing a ladder to hang a giant graphic in the middle of the night, makes its way across the the institutional barrier and into the gallery with a provocative measure of elegance, spirit, and charm.
BORN’s exhibition, Accidental, will remain up at Beep Beep Gallery through Wednesday, September 28, 2011.