When street art emerged at the turn of the twenty-first century, it was revolutionary in the sense that it concerns art that is not intended to end up in a white cube – typically a place where an admission fee is charged, where you have to keep your distance to the works exhibited, where attendants keep an eye on you and where taking pictures may not be allowed. Instead, it is art meant for anyone to enjoy without restriction. Anyone who’s on their way to an appointment, the office, the supermarket, or is roaming the streets aimlessly.
Just as groundbreaking was the fact that street art overcomes the barriers put in place by the art world. It simply evades discussions about what is art in the first place, about which works deserve to be displayed and what has historic value. Consider it a revolution of the ordinary. According to critic Martyn Reed, “it’s street art’s call to reclaim and broaden the terms ‘Art’ and ‘Artist’, and to remove the shame that those not privileged with an arts education often feel when employing these terms”. Art should be there for everyone and thus street art “challenges the notion that only a select few people with special talents and understanding can participate in its production and only the moneyed and cultural elite should own and define it”, Reed writes in an essay.
Portraiture has for centuries been the most exclusive (and mercantile) form of art as it used to be reserved primarily to those who could afford being depicted by a painter or sculptor. By creating life-size portraits on the streets, first graffiti artists and, at a later stage, street artists too have helped the faceless and the voiceless move out of the shadows of anonymity. A beautiful example of the potential of art to empower and ennoble people, is a portrait of an illiterate man in Stavanger.
To admire portraiture you can obviously go to a museum, but you may just as well wander around in a place where there’s a lot of artistic activity. Famous writers, singers, actors, politicians, athletes, as well as ordinary people are all represented in the gallery that we call The City. And so, along unsung local heroes we find depictions of the recently deceased mayor of Amsterdam Eberhard van der Laan, of Dutch graffiti pioneer Dr. Rat, of a young Dennis Bergkamp, of Soviet Red Army General Georgy Zhukov, of former French president Charles de Gaulle (his face is always the same, his cap different every time), of a refugee without documents, of a lost toddler and, for instance, of WikiLeaks director Julian Assange. You are bound to bump into Obey the Giant sooner or later too, that much is certain. Admittedly, it doesn’t concern a portrait in the true sense of the word every single time, but some studies of fictitious people (tronies, if you will) are simply too good not to include in this photo series anyway.
There is never a straight answer as to why a certain person has been portrayed in a particular place. Sometimes there’s a clear link between the location and the man or woman depicted, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time it’s arbitrariness more than anything. Street artist Yatzy, to take but one example, must have seen Stephan Vanfleteren’s picture of the pipe-smoking Étienne Davignon and subsequently must have thought that it’d be a good idea to create a remake of that portrait as a paste up (which you will find halfway down the page). It’s not as though Davignon, a big shot from Belgium, has any particular connection to the Norwegian coastal city of Bergen.
The dimensions of the works and the techniques that have been employed to produce them, are divergent. The same goes for the level of detail and the degree of resemblance to those portraited (if there is any such person). In some instances it may seem as though the artist has indiscriminately thrown all available paint on the wall, while in other cases he or she felt subtle black lines were sufficient to do the job. There are three portraits in which one and the same head overlaps itself as it’s rendered from different perspectives. Regardless of the many differences, in all cases below the viewer really does stand eye to eye with a person. A person who’s staring at you with his or her unique look and character, and perhaps message too.
The mural made by Bosoletti in Oostende is a photograpic negative. In order to decrypt it, you have to transform your own picture of it into a negative image too (after all, two minuses make a plus). It’s only then that the visage of the sad-looking girl really comes to fore. The methods of Vhils are equally original. Skillfully, he applies jackhammers, chisels and other tools to the plaster of walls, resulting in highly realistic portraits. For him, the wall functions not just as a resource, but becomes itself the work of art. It’s creation through destruction – a practice not uncommon in street art.
The photo series kicks off with a number of old folks with wrinkled faces and also concludes with someone (imaginary) of mature age. As far as that painting is concerned, it’s not so conspicuous that the French duo Ella & Pitr has used two sides of the same house to make it, which means that it actually features a 90 degree angle and thus ‘goes round the corner’. For the sake of comparison, a few dozen portraits in the middle of the series are accompanied by pictures of the persons concerned (hover the mouse over the images for additional information). There’s no need to bring out your wallet, the entrance to the Urban Portrait Gallery is free.