Street Art is one of the most interesting genres in art today. The title encloses a huge spectrum of style, technique, imagery and personalities of a myriad of international artists, whom are still, in majority, quite young. What might work in the street often becomes problematic, once implemented into a gallery context; and the hype surrounding the work often shrouds a serious discussion of this genre and aforementioned problematic of taking such work out of its organic context. Enter AXEL VOID, a young Miami-based mural painter whose canvas works are equally at home in the indoor environment, leading to the question: what makes this guy different? I had the chance to speak with him in Berlin this summer, whilst he was preparing canvas works for his excellent solo exhibition at BC Gallery and thinking about his equally-stunning contribution to Banksy’s ultra-hyped ‚Dismaland’ on view in the UK. Here’s what he had to say…
These wall murals that you’ve done, they’re pretty massive. People always think there has to be a criminal element in street art, sneaking in and doing a wall when no one’s looking… but the wall murals that you’ve done, don’t seem like something somebody snuck in the middle of the night to do. Did you get permission to do them? How do you facilitate it?
There’s a piece I did in Seville at this clubhouse. There was a door in the street from a squat house, so, legally, I can’t paint that. But it is the door of the squat house and the police kind of knew and kind of let us do our thing. When they passed by, they didn’t say anything– but, yeah, I did go in the door and lock it. Usually its things like that, because the work that I am doing is not so much about the fact that it is illegal, it’s more what its’ talking about. Definitely for the big walls, it would be hard. It did happen sometimes that people organize festivals without permission, just because its maybe in a little town and you find out afterwards.
There’s especially a lot of hype around street artists, and the way that the hype is presented, you’re kind of expected to know who they are. If you don’t, you kind of feel like you should pretend to know whom they are talking about. So I have my sort of fact-checking friends, who’re really into street art, and I was asking them about you. First, I asked a big gallerist sort of known for street art, but he had never heard of you. Then, I asked a street artist and he was like ‘Yeah! He did this wall there and this wall there…’ then I asked him how long he already knew about you, and he said about 3-4 years, then I asked if you were somebody he would like to meet, and he was genuinely interested. It felt like you had a good street cred.
(laughs). It’s kind of a weird situation. It is a hype that hasn’t been up for very long. Most of the artists, whom I know, started having it maybe five years ago, max. I mean, I’ve been doing this for 16 years; we’ve been in it very long. But now there’s this momentum, with a lot of festivals, almost every day. You don’t want to say no, because it offers really nice things and everything is paid for…but you also don’t want to say yes to everything– it just gets to be too much. Like, last year, from the full year, there are maybe 23 days that I didn’t paint.
Then you also think, ok. It is a hype, and at some point this hype is going to end, then there’ll only be a couple festivals a year, which I think is good, because the people who really do work a lot will still work, but not that much. And those who just want to take advantage of the hype won’t continue after it.
It’s crazy how with street art, there’s this communication going on all around us, through tagging and graffiti, as the masses flow past in the subway or down the street. It’s this whole conversation that very few pick up on.
I like that. Also the fact that some people can read it, and it’s something they look forward to in their life. And other people read it like we’re fucking shot up. I guess its all taste.
I felt a lot of energy coming into your studio. You’ve been doing this since you were a teenager, but I do feel almost… I’m not saying you’re a gallery artist transitioning into a street artist, but you’re technique in painting is very strong, not to mention the imagery. One thing I like about your work is how it mixes an attention to traditional painting with sort of street art concepts (like large-scale wall painting and the subject matter…) its like a Velázquez painting just put in front of everything. What do you think about this larger ‘stage’, these large murals, which sort of reach out to the masses?
In street art, that’s one of the things I love to use to my advantage. As a classical painter, there are many other classical painters who can do it, too. It’s not a matter of, like, skill or possibility, or being better than others. Really, in the end, it comes to the idea. So, it’s not only classical work, for me, it’s a very classical approach, mixed with a contemporary concept, maybe. But then back to the street, translated to a wall, it has a different reading. While it’s the same process, on a wall you don’t use a brush, you use a roller or compressor.
Sometimes with street artists, it seems like they see their street art and gallery art as separate things, with you it seems to really flow together…
Yes, I kind of carry both together. I don’t really separate them. Like, when I decide to do a wall, whether here in Wedding (Berlin) or in India, I might change the theme, or change why or how I paint, but for me it’s the same to do a canvas as to do a wall, it’s just adapting to the context.
I think it also has something to do with Andalusia, though. Some, or a lot of the street artists there are strongly influenced from classical art, because of all the painters who were there: Velázquez and Goya, for instance, so it kind of comes together. Like, when we paint on walls, even some of the guys who doing more traditional graffiti do it in a more pictorial way. We are more familiar with that certain language, so we apply it—it’s anyway always paint in the end, just a different way of using it. But my personal background is maybe different from other street artists. For example, we organize stuff, so we get a lot of street artists coming from everywhere, and we have a lot of friends coming from Germany. When the Germans come, it’s fun for us to watch because we are so, like, organic and pictorial and they’re so, like, measured and cold and clinical, you can see that in street art, in the walls already. I think it just all depends on the context of where people come from. Also working with the friends and colleagues and developing and taking bits and pieces from everybody.
Your subject matter is bears this utter beauty, yet then there’s also a definite edge to it. For instance, the pieces in the BC Gallery show. It’s rather classical portraiture, but all the people are suffocating.
It’s funny. It’s true that like a close majority of my work is dark, or has an edge to it, but like 40 % isn’t. And that 40 % gets kind of forgotten. If I put up an exhibition, where two pieces are pictures of hangmen, and the rest of the show is this softer story of a person: she was with her mom, she went to the park, she graduated school, etc. People are really going to remember the hangmen. They’ll be like, “Oh, the show that had men dying.”’ It kind of erases everything else.
Some things, I do do with that approach of kind of edge or awkwardness, because its what I want to campaign, what I want to say. I want people to see it, and to enjoy the imagery not just have like a decorative pleasure, but to think ‘Oh, ok, this is nice, but something’s also happening.’ To exercise the question: why are they suffocating? Or why do they have this plastic?, or why does it not look THAT negative? (It’s like they’re posing for a photo still.) So, to me, it’s always that play, this mixing. It’s a game with emotions, I guess. And often they’re intense.
FM: Yeah, they are intense, but I think pictures need this kind of ugliness, too. You need something ugly in it to make it good. So, when you’re coming up with a show, like, a gallery show, are you coming up with a main theme and the pictures play a role? Is there a story between them?
There’s always a story, which I like to have as a method. First, what I want to say, and then, how to say it. For example, just a few weeks ago in Montréal, I did a wall of a shelter (or, it wasn’t really a ‘shelter’, maybe a residency for homeless people). It pretty much gives them the right to have a house. The government has given up on them, but they have no restrictions. They can do drugs, do whatever they want, but they get a room for free. So I did a video, like a little movie, on the wall about it. And it’s very clear. The portrait is a portrait of one of the guy who’s been living there the longest, so he’s kind of iconic, and the video talks about them and their experiences. There is an element of thought in it. And there’s space for you to interpret. But it’s talking about it in this kind of direction.
Is the show at BC gallery also the case?
It’s a show that’s NOT extremely clear. This series is one of my only series where I have my interpretation of it, but there are very different interpretations to be had. Some people see it as sexual. Some see the figures all just dead. Some people see ‘society’ suffocating them, whatever it is.
Do you really want that with this show? That people come in and think what they think, and put their own connotation into it?
I like to give people in this case, more information to at least ask the right questions, so they’re going in the right direction. And then, yes, interpret whatever they want. The plastic wrapping could be a metaphor for the product or part of us we want to protect and keep in a good environment, like meat or vegetables from germs. But it could also be that you can’t breathe; you’re kind of blindfolded. But if I go ahead and say that, say ‘this is what it is’, I feel like people would be like ‘ah, ok’, and then they go home. Like there’s no space for them. There’s just me saying ‘you should think this way.’ Even though I have my strong opinions about things, I don’t feel that me or my work are entitled to say ‘this is what you should think, or this is what I want to tell you.‘ It’s more having people interpret on their own, even though I know it sounds cheesy.
I think the only sad part about that statement is that I see your vision, but sometimes stuff like that’s been used so much that when somebody finally comes and really means it, people just brush it off.
I guess I’m quite pessimistic, but in a way, maybe that’s what has to happen. I’m not trying to change the world or make it a better place, maybe that’s the natural occurrence of this species– that they just don’t see the difference or interpret difference.
Nature’s given us this capacity to reason and question and have this existentialist doubt, that we don’t have an apothacation of a giraffe has a long neck so it can eat from the tree, we don’t do anything with this. There’s no real purpose to us, its no there isn’t a clear path or meaning or purpose for our life.
I like messing with the fact that we always need some sort of clearness and an end to everything when really there is no end to anything sure, we can become a doctor or, like, make out life longer and maybe in 300 years we’ll live 150 years and which ok. Or you can become a great politician and influence the life of people, for many many years, but after that, it’s all going to be forgotten—it’s more a matter of the community now or the people now. This ‘real’ changes; it’s not perpetual.
The world is constantly looking for that perpetual thing so, I guess its nihilist because just doing it because there is no other thing that I should be doing and that’s what I want to do.
BC GALLERY SHOW CLOSES 26. SEPTEMBER 2015
Axel Void — Sehnsucht
16. July – 26. September 2015
BC Gallery / Libauer Strasse 14 / 10245 Berlin / We – Sa 13 – 18
All Photos Courtesy of Axel Void and BC Gallery, Berlin.