December 02 2011 . 10:01am

Chicago News Cooperative
Formerly Outlaws, Now Artists of Renown

Before they were in, they were out. Before crowds swamped the galleries and celebrities wrote checks, KC Ortiz and Jordan Nickel wielded spray cans, hopped fences, provoked the citizenry, got arrested — all to make Chicago’s streets, rooftops and el tracks their canvas.

Graffiti is a “selfish, stupid, destructive crime,” declared former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Still, the pair thrived — first as criminals, and eventually as artists.

“Graffiti was the best education,” said Mr. Ortiz, 33, now an award-winning photojournalist. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Time and The Wall Street Journal. “I learned to listen to myself and get around barriers that other people set up against you.”

Mr. Nickel, 31, now a painter and founder of We Are Supervision, a commercial art and design firm based in Chicago, said, “Riding the train as a kid and seeing graffiti was life-changing.” The times he spent traveling the Red Line with his father from their Evanston home to see the Cubs at Wrigley Field revealed “a world that invited me in and accepted me and made me who I am,” he said. “It completely electrified my life.”

If Mr. Nickel had the opportunity, he would tell Mr. Daley: “Lighten up. If I didn’t have that outlet as a kid, I wouldn’t be sitting here. Graffiti saved my life.”

Mr. Nickel and Mr. Ortiz’s exhibition inspired by Chicago’s strict stance on graffiti, entitled “Whitewash,” opened Nov. 19 at Known Gallery in Los Angeles.

And while they are frequently invited to teach art and show their work around the world, Mr. Ortiz and Mr. Nickel have never shown in Chicago, the city that they say made them.

“Graffiti just demands so much of its participants, in terms of work ethic and to stand out in terms of talent and quality,” said Caleb Neelon, co-author of “The History of American Graffiti” (HarperCollins). “To apply those quantity and quality ethics to any chosen field gives good results.”

Mr. Nickel, who goes by the name POSE in both graffiti and fine art, started writing graffiti when he was 12, lured by the colorful letters he saw on rooftops and brick walls. Eventually he went on to art school at the Kansas City Art Institute and dabbled in performance art and conceptual work.

After a few years making art that was separate from his graffiti, Mr. Nickel said, he “realized it was not working anymore.”

“I was denying that graffiti part of me,” he said.

He incorporates graffiti into his newer paintings. His canvases bear splatters, patches, bandages, and marks of paint removal that are known as the buff — all posing the question of what it means to simply paint over graffiti.

“The buff is just a Band-Aid,” Mr. Nickel said. The human problems that came before graffiti — gangs and poverty — remain even after the graffiti is blasted away, he added.

For Mr. Ortiz, finding his way from graffiti to photography was part of his own evolution.

At 21, Mr. Ortiz was sentenced to five and a half years in federal prison for a drug conspiracy conviction. In prison, before ever picking up a camera, Mr. Ortiz found photography. He spent years poring over newspapers and magazines, studying composition and technique.

Listening to inmates grumble about their conditions, he said he thought about their three square meals a day, and the people around the world who were hungry.

“I came out with a totally fresh perspective on life,” Mr. Ortiz said. “I looked at it like I had died and I was being born again. I went through a first-world problem and wanted to help those who had real problems.”

Over the past three years, Mr. Ortiz has traveled around the globe, pointing his lens toward people the world may have forgotten.

“KC is one of the individuals in my life who I’ve seen transform for the better and transform other people around him for the better more than anyone I’ve ever known,” said Pete Wentz, the lead singer for Fall Out Boy and a longtime friend and collector.

Mr. Ortiz spent months in the jungles of Laos with the Hmong people, who after being recruited in the 1960s by the Central Intelligence Agency to fight Communists in the “secret war,” are still engaged in combat with the Vietnamese nearly 40 years after the United States withdrew from the region.

“It’s all about patience,” Mr. Ortiz said of his projects. “I definitely learned about patience in prison. I can outwait anyone. I can sit anywhere. I can sleep anywhere. Prison built me for that.”

Mr. Ortiz’s work in Laos won him a first-place award for a feature in the prestigious Pictures of the Year International competition. His recent work is from West Papua and Myanmar, where he spent time with opposition forces and rebels.

“You would never think that a graffiti writer would be in the jungles of Burma,” said Casey Zoltan, director of Known Gallery. “But that is what made him a graffiti writer in the first place — to take that next step, to take it to the next level.”

For both Mr. Ortiz and Mr. Nickel there is no clear line between where graffiti ended and fine art began.

“Yes, graffiti is bad and wild,” Mr. Nickel said. “But it’s also just paint.”


Source: nytimes.com

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Roger Gastman | Tag He’s It in NY TIMES

March 12 2011 . 01:31pm

In the first issue of his graffiti and pop-culture magazine While You Were Sleeping, Roger Gastman thanked “Mom for the loot,” and then thanked “everyone who ever told me that graff was a dumb waste of my time.” Gastman, who was 19 at the time, had already been running a graffiti supply business in Bethesda, Md., for three years and was starting to assemble a valuable collection of graffiti ephemera, sourcing discontinued Krylon paint colors at mom-and-pop hardware stores as though he knew, even as a teen, that his obsession would serve him well.

Now 33 and living in Los Angeles, Gastman is still having the last laugh. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, is gearing up for the April opening of “Art in the Streets,” a major graffiti and street-art survey he’s curating along with the museum’s new director, Jeffrey Deitch, and the independent curator Aaron Rose. “The History of American Graffiti” (HarperCollins), written by Gastman and Caleb Neelon, also comes out next month.

While the tattooed, baseball-capped Gastman says he wasn’t expecting the e-mail he received from Deitch about the MoCA show, “I sort of feel like I’ve been training for it my whole life.”

He was introduced to his calling in the streets of Washington, D.C. “Everyone had a tag,” he recalls, sitting under an Adam Wallacavage octopus chandelier in his Los Feliz living room. “It was just what you did.” His skills may have been “average at best,” but he was there — climbing the rooftops, painting the freight train cars and documenting it all. He says his tight network of artists, collaborators and friends is simply a product of being in the right place at the right time — he met the now legendary Saber under a bridge when he was 15 — and an ability to keep his word. “Most people are flaky,” he says with a shrug.

“What I really liked about Roger from the beginning,” says Shepard Fairey, a fixture in the pages of While You Were Sleeping and later Gastman’s partner in Swindle magazine, “was that he seemed really self-motivated, smart, funny and irreverent. But he’s also professional enough to put out a magazine and organize all the moving parts that go into that. It’s a pretty unique blend.”

Swindle — named in honor of the Sex Pistols movie — came out from 2004 to 2008, years that saw seismic shifts in the impact and visibility of street art and graffiti. Banksy’s 2006 “Barely Legal” show in L.A. was heralded on one cover, featuring his spoof of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore. In early 2008, Fairey designed the Obama “Hope” graphic. By the time Gastman was called in to help Mr. Brainwash, a k a Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman obsessed with street art, mount a massive show on Sunset Boulevard, Fairey and Banksy were practically household names.

To everyone’s surprise, the Banksy documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” which explores the street-art phenomenon through the story of Guetta’s unlikely ascent, received lots of mainstream attention. (Gastman was a consulting producer on the film and also has a cameo.) “I keep thinking the bubble’s gonna burst, this can’t get bigger,” he says. “Then somebody pushes something else.”

According to Deitch, graffiti/street art is the most influential art movement since Pop, and the level of interest from the public and from scholars is what necessitated the show. “It’s so big,” he says. “The museum world now has to acknowledge it and look at it from a historical point of view.”

Some may think the two are interchangeable, but Gastman says street art and graffiti are “very different animals.” The former is iconic and message-driven, while graffiti is simply the practice of writing your name over and over again for the sake of fame: “They want to be king of their block.”

Aware of the inherent irony of a curated museum show celebrating mostly illegal, temporary outdoor art, Deitch and Gastman have chosen to focus on those artists who have gone on to build serious careers. A large part of the exhibition will be installations by mythic outlaws like the subway painter and “Wild Style” star Lee Quiñones and Chaz Bojórquez, whose style draws from cholo gang graffiti and Asian calligraphy. There will also be works by still-rising stars like Miss Van and Revok. Fun Gallery, the East Village storefront where Patti Astor showcased graffiti and gave early shows to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, will be recreated on-site.

Fairey, who will also be doing an installation, says Gastman’s presence is a buffer. “With a crowd of people so inherently suspicious of the wielders of power — the gatekeepers — to have somebody like Roger involved is extremely important.”

Still, Gastman, who has curated art shows for clients like Scion and Sanrio, knows that a stamp of approval from the establishment only carries so much weight for artists who have chosen the street as their gallery. “They’re excited to be in a museum setting,” he says, “but they’re also still really excited to go paint a huge wall off the freeway.”

nytimes.com x RogerGastman.com

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KC Ortiz | Pictures Of The Year International (POYi) award

February 26 2011 . 02:01pm

Congrats to Known Gallery artist KC Ortiz for winning the prestigious Pictures Of The Year International (POYi) award for his photograph from Forced Rebellion!

Read more at: nytimes.com

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Fight Club | Danielle Levitt’s Pride of Lowell in NY Times

February 17 2011 . 11:10pm

The photographer Danielle Levitt has an eye for disaffected youth. Her 2008 monograph “We Are Experienced” compiled more than 100 portraits of American teenagers taken over several years as Levitt hopscotched across the country shooting features and fashion editorials for Interview, Arena Homme Plus and The New York Times Magazine, among many others. Levitt began her career shooting a street style column for The Wall Street Journal, a natural window onto the downtown scene, and her work has evolved to include “werewolves” in Texas for Dazed & Confused and sissy bouncers for Arena Homme Plus. This fall, she was sent to Lowell, Mass., to shoot Mickey Ward and Dicky Eklund, the real-life characters behind David O. Russell’s Oscar-nominated film “The Fighter”; the magazine assignment turned into a new series of portraits and a collection of short films. “Pride of Lowell,” curated by Naheed Simjee, will opened on Wednesday at Los Angeles’s Known Gallery. T caught up with Levitt via e-mail to talk about the show.


What did you find in the people of Lowell that engaged your curiosity/affection?


It’s a town with incredible perseverance, a wonderful strength of spirit, focused desire to overcome adversity, but it also shows fragility of the human spirit, and how quickly one can lose themselves if they don’t remain focused.

There is plainly a deeper, richer narrative in these images and characters’ lives — something bigger about America, about drugs and employment and the culture of the former factory town. How conscious of that story were you when you were taking these photographs?
Typically when I am drawn to a subject, there are broader cultural implications that exist beyond my initial interest, but I am not driven consciously by that larger story, but instead by the story at hand. It is powerful when the localized story reaches beyond its immediate region.

You really do get to know the people you photograph. Is it a case of needing to love your subjects?
I have a great affinity and respect for most of my subjects, and this enables me to connect intimately with them.

How does this series connect with your studies of teenagers, werewolves and sissy bouncers?
They all share a sense of community. no matter how unusual your interest in activities may be, these people have found like-minded souls in their respective communities.

Where does your eye for the fringe come from?
While my interest in culture is not limited to the fringe, there is a certain attraction or appeal that I feel toward members of society who have been marginalized for one reason or another.

You seem to be adding a new dimension to your work with the video. How does that fit in to your still work? What are the advantages of the moving image?
The videos provide another dimension to the portraiture as there are aspects to a character/subject that are only understood in a moving image. The still photographs are a distillation of my entire experience and understanding of my subject.

So … did you know anything about boxing or this culture before you went to Lowell?
Not more than anyone else. It brings me great pleasure to learn while immersed in a scene.

I imagine the Hollywood version is very valuable to the people fictionalized therein — there is serious mythmaking that is central to our national character going on there. But there is something else, something unique, in these pieces. How do you think these add to “The Fighter”?
My photographs provide an opportunity to meet the real people behind the story. Who knew Dicky Eklund was such a great dancer?

Find out more at: nytimes.com

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JR gets 2011 TED prize | Giving slums a human face

October 20 2010 . 04:47pm

It’s not common for important philanthropic prizes to go to people whose work involves criminal trespass and who make statements like the following: “You never know who’s part of the police and who’s not.”

But the TED conference, the California lecture series named for its roots in technology, entertainment and design, said on Tuesday that it planned to give its annual $100,000 prize for 2011 — awarded in the past to figures like Bill Clinton, Bono and the biologist E. O. Wilson — to the Parisian street artist known as J R, a shadowy figure who has made a name for himself by plastering colossal photographs in downtrodden neighborhoods around the world. The images usually extol local residents, to whom he has become a Robin Hood-like hero.

For most recipients, the value of the six-year-old award has less to do with the money than with the opportunity it grants the winner to make a “wish”: to devote the funds to a humanitarian project that will almost inevitably draw donations and other help from the organization’s corporate partners and influential supporters. The chef Jamie Oliver, the 2010 prize winner, recently proposed setting up an international effort to further his campaign against obesity; Mr. Clinton’s wish has channeled significant resources toward the creation of a rural health system in Rwanda.

Reached by telephone on Wednesday morning on a bus in Shanghai, where he was headed to work on a largely unauthorized photo-pasting project to draw attention to the city’s demolition of historic neighborhoods, J R said that he had learned of the prize only two weeks ago and that he had not yet had time to think of a wish.

But he said that it would undoubtedly involve his kind of guerrilla art, which he has been creating with the help of volunteers in slums in Brazil, Cambodia and Kenya — where the outsize photographs, printed on waterproof vinyl, doubled as new roofs for ramshackle houses. “I’m kind of stunned,” he said of the prize. “I’ve never applied for an award in my life and didn’t know that somebody had nominated me for this.”

At a time when street art is being embraced not only by the art world but also by branding interests, J R, who dislikes being called a street artist, preferring the term “photograffeur” (graffeur is French for graffiti artist) has become known for rejecting corporate sponsorship offers and other outside help. He said that he reinvested most of the money he makes by selling his art in galleries and at auction — one piece went for more than $35,000 at Sotheby’s in 2009 — into creating more ambitious projects, and that he would use the TED prize money for the same purpose.

“If there’s one thing I’ve always taken care of with my work, it’s that it’s never an advertisement for anything other than the work itself and for the people it’s about — no ‘Coca-Cola presents,’ he said, speaking in English. “I think the TED people knew that that was one of my main concerns, and I feel pretty sure that we can come up with a project that works that way.”

Amy Novogratz, the director of the prize, said that picking an artist like JR — he is 27 and fiercely protective of his anonymity, identifying himself only by his initials — was an unusual choice but that the prize committee felt that his work could “catalyze the whole TED community” to support an art-centered philanthropic project, which will be announced at the organization’s next conference in March.

“One of my concerns at first was that he wasn’t going to be accessible or available, which could be off-putting when you’re trying to get partners to get excited about a project,” she added. And, in fact, the first time prize officials had a Skype conversation with the artist, he appeared in sunglasses with a hat pulled low over his forehead.

“But then he said, ‘You know, I trust you guys,’ and he took them off,” Ms. Novogratz said, “and we just had a regular old conversation.”

During the interview on Wednesday morning, J R said that he had not been nearly as trusting of Chinese officials, as he and a crew of helpers erect towering pictures of elderly Shanghai residents on the walls of a neighborhood that is now more than three-quarters demolished.

“I keep thinking we are going to get into trouble,” he said, adding that anyone he talks to might be an undercover police officer. But then he described an illegal act: pasting a 20-foot-tall wrinkled face around the facade of an old water tower he spotted from the highway.

“We went into the building next door, and it was empty, and we went up to the tower, and nobody stopped us, so we just started working,” he said. “It’s crazy. This city is so huge and overgrown, the more you’re in the middle of things, the more you feel transparent.”

Source: nytimes.com

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