Recap Photos of Cruel Summer at Jonathan Levine Gallery curated by Roger Gastman

August 22 2014 . 08:48pm

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Summer is the season where new art gets discovered as many group shows pop up when most of the art industry goes on vacation before things pick up again in September. Jonathan LeVine Gallery worked with renowned curator Roger Gastman to bring together a bold grouping of graffiti & urban artists both old and new. Entitled Cruel Summer, this great exhibition showcased a new level of work from each artist. There was some familiar imagery, but the work comes off fresh to attendees who were clamoring for something new for their senses. Gastman has been working in the scene for decades and it showed as it seemed like every writer & artist in town was in attendance.

The large scale show was held at both gallery locations, which were needed for the battalion of fine artists involved including Ben Venom, Blade, Caleb Neelon, Cleon Peterson, Cope2, Dabs Myla, Eric Haze, Finok, Freedom, Horfe, HuskMitNavn, Mark Bode, Maya Hayuk, Mike Ballard (Cept), Mike Giant, Niagara, Pose, Revok, Rime, Risk, Sam Friedman, Shepard Fairey, Tim Conlon and Victor Reyes.

Photo credit: Joe Russo

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Roger Gastman and Jonathan LeVine | Cruel Summer video

August 13 2014 . 12:52am


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The History of American Graffiti by Roger Gastman & Caleb Neelon

April 14 2011 . 03:30pm

The History of American Graffiti co-author Caleb Neelon
Interview by Yetkin Nural / BANT
So, the process of writing, editing, finding, researching, interviewing has all ended and the book is finally out there! So first of all, congratulations! The result seems quite comprehensive and fresh, to say the least. But when and how did this book process all begin? What kind of ideas gave way to the book?
CN: Thank you!  The book began with an interest and a need, I think.  Lots of people have wanted to write a history of graffiti.  Lots more have wanted someone else to write one, so they could read it.  There has also been a big public interest in graffiti in the past ten years, which has led to a lot of books about it.  Because Roger and I had done a bunch of books before, people started asking us if we wanted to try a comprehensive history of American graffiti, and the conversations became serious around five years ago.
Early on, we decided that we wanted to make the book distinctive, in a way, by being very traditional.  We wanted to adhere to a chronological order instead of vague themes.  We wanted to have formal, readable text, not just a bunch of floating quotes.  We wanted a formal design presentation, not corny overspray and drips and other dumb shit.  We wanted to make the book sufficiently serious that a university professor could show it to their fussy department head and not get laughed at.  All of these things called for a very traditional presentation.
The book documents the 200-year-old history of American graffiti with its all rich, creative and colorful urban culture connections.  The material is immense, and one would expect the field to be long exhausted by authors and urban culture researchers.  Yet, to the contrary, the historical background of urban graffiti in USA has been relatively untouched until this book. What, do you think, are the reasons behind this?
CN: Well, the research is tough.  There are cities like New York or San Francisco, which have been written about in graffiti history terms before, but there are a whole lot more like Boston, Chicago, Albuquerque, San Diego, Seattle, etc, which are barely, if at all, explored in any book before.  It’s a lot easier to revise and expand upon an existing historical story than to sketch it for the first time. But that was the whole point: most people who are knowledgeable about graffiti know the NYC story, their own city, and maybe one or two others.  We wanted to make a book that every single graffiti writer, no matter how knowledgeable, could learn from – as well as the general public.  So many graffiti books were coming out that I didn’t learn anything new from!
Can you tell us about the partnership you have with Roger Gastman? What was the division of labor?
CN: Roger and I have worked together for a long time, so it’s not too confusing for us, even though we live 3,000 miles from one another.  It helped to be on opposite coasts near different big cities and different people to talk to, and it also kept us from getting sick of one another.  We had fun trying to top each other with the new stuff we each dug up.
I am sure there have been amazing discoveries and surprises during the research and interviews.  Would you like to share one memory with us?
CN: There were so many.  But things like getting to spend hours and hours with TAKI 183, figuring out the month-by-month progression of his high school life were fun – really trying to get the root of the whole story.
We did more than 500 interviews, which meant we did a lot with people who had given hundreds of interviews in their lives – someone like CRASH, for example – but many more interviews with people who hadn’t really ever been sat down and asked all this stuff, or been willing to sit down and talk.  Many of my favorites were simply interviewing people for the first time, watching it sink in that what they did and were a part of was important.
Did everything run smoothly throughout the project? Very few things are… What were the major obstacles and hardships you faced?
CN: Dealing with limited pages was torture, and that would have been the case even if we had made a 2,000-page book rather than a 408-page one.  Graffiti doesn’t do space restrictions, so that sucked.
The other constant challenge was of course making money with our other work along the way, since books don’t make money.  That also sucked.
In the press releases it says that almost 90% of the art in the book is being published for the first time, which is amazing and hard to believe! Can you tell us a bit about the visuals in the book? Who chose and photographed them?
CN: Well, that was just us trying to do our homework.  Who wants to see images that are all over the internet or other books?  That was the fun part for us – finding the people all over the country that still had some photos that had never been scanned before.  Lots more work, but lots more fun.
I am sure this has been a learning process for you too. What was new for you? What kind of things about urban graffiti you found out about?
CN: We learned a ton.  What was especially interesting to me was to connect the development of individual graffiti scenes with the social and cultural events of the cities they took place in.  American cities have certainly not all been equal over the past decades: this is a huge, diverse country.  Some cities were becoming more prosperous, and some were declining.  Some were quiet and some were in the news all the time; some were marked by racial tension and others were the opposite.  All of these things affected the graffiti scenes.  Graffiti has a depth and breadth to its story that will continue to reveal itself to researchers, fans, and the public for decades to come.  We tried to share some of this depth and breadth in the book.
In the book you go through a diversity of styles, trends, periods and landscapes of graffiti. Did you have favorites among them, some style or period that has impressed or touched you more than others?
CN: My favorite stuff is of course the magical period between 1971 and 1975 in New York City when graffiti went from being simple signatures to elaborate murals, all by kids, all against the law, all with media that weren’t meant to be art supplies, and for no other reason than it was fun.  Nothing like those five years has ever happened in art history before or since.

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The History of American Graffiti video interview

April 06 2011 . 02:16am

Art Beat talks to Caleb Neelon and Roger Gastman, authors of "The History of American Graffiti," a book that charts the history of the art form in the United States.

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CALEB NEELON speaks on why prosecuting Shepard Fairey is bad for Boston

April 08 2009 . 08:18pm

Hi folks. I’m taking another moment on my soapbox here. This time, I’d like to talk about the Boston trial of Shepard Fairey, and why it is bad for Boston, regardless of whether you hate or love him and his work.

This was adapted from a talk that I gave at the Boston ICA on April 4. A large number of people there asked me to publish it or make it somehow available, so as it is a current event, I’m putting on my site so as to make it available quickly.

I was supposed to give attendees of the talk a basic introduction to Shepard Fairey, but took a detour. We have an unusual circumstance. I want to talk about Shepard Fairey and your money; and to start, I’d like to show you a small bit of a poem by Walt Whitman. Just what you expected in a talk about Shepard Fairey, right? Don’t worry, it’s short.

I do not ask who you are, that is not important to me, 
You can do nothing and be nothing but what I will infold you.

To cotton-field drudge or cleaner of privies I lean, 
On his right cheek I put the family kiss, 
And in my soul I swear I never will deny him.

On women fit for conception I start bigger and nimbler babes. 
(This day I am jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics.)

To any one dying, thither I speed and twist the knob of the door. 
Turn the bed-clothes toward the foot of the bed, 
Let the physician and the priest go home.

That was a tiny section from Walt Whitman’s famous epic poem, Song of Myself, which was published in his masterwork, Leaves of Grass. In 1882, on its publication, Boston authorities banned the book for indecency. They singled out the section I just quoted, presumably because of its veiled references to kissing a dude. Boston authorities would go on to ban Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1891. In the 20th Century, Boston authorities would go on to ban, or do their best to ban, works by H.L. Mencken, Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, and even Voltaire’s Candide, nearly two hundred years after its publication. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was removed, successfully, as well.

These books were all banned because they were in violation of local law. Their works were removed from shelves because they were illegal.

Yet when you all were in grade school, you probably read some of these works in English class. What was once illegal and obscene became something teenagers have to write a book reports on.

So why am I giving you this little American Literature lesson? Because there’s an elephant in the room today: Shepard Fairey will on April 14 again appear in Boston court on vandalism charges for works he allegedly installed in Boston streets. While here preparing for his show here inside the walls of the ICA, he did work in a number of Boston locations, including a banner hanging on City Hall, and many less high-profile spaces.

After posing with none other than Boston Mayor Tom Menino under his banner at City Hall, at the public opening of this show, Shepard was arrested on his way into the building. A small number of Boston police, at the urging of a small activist group from Boston’s wealthiest neighborhood, dug up an eight year old bench warrant – given for putting a sticker on a sign pole – tailed him, and moved in. Shepard was made to fly back from his Los Angeles home to face an arraignment a week later. He is charged with 29 felony counts.

29 felony counts.

Neither Whitman, Hemingway, Hardy, or Remarque ever felt Boston police handcuffs. They never faced a penalty of decades of jail time. Shepard has, and does, here and today, this very month, right here in our own home town, while his portraits of the sitting United States President loom next to those of our very own nation’s founding fathers in the Smithsonian and upstairs here at the Boston ICA. It’s a lot more comfortable to talk about the prosecution of artists when it happened in Whitman’s time, but here we are.

29 felony counts.

I mention this today because, at least in my original audience at the Boston ICA, you are all here as art and design professionals and fans of art in our city. We’re here because this is our passion, but just as important, our livelihood. We make our money through art and design. And we all know what each of us are up against in Boston. We all know the pay cut that each of us takes to stay here for reasons of loyalty to family or birthplace. And we as a group need to spread the word to all who will hear it that this arrest is destructive to the Massachusetts creative economy.

The specifics of Shepard Fairey’s case, what he did, and even what we think of him and his work on an individual basis – these are all irrelevant. Whether you adore his work or feel it is overexposed, plagiarized hipster wallpaper is beside the point. I dislike several things he’s done, and several of my closest artist friends abhor the guy. But like or hate, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that his arrest is taking money away from Boston. What is relevant is the effect that his arrest and gratuitous prosecution has on every creative professional here by only reinforcing Boston’s reputation as a terrible place to do creative business. What matters is the reputation of our city as an artistic base, because reputation, writ large, is the soil in which our collective businesses grow.

When an institution like the ICA hosts a major show by the most famous artist of the moment at the height of his fame; the eyes of the creative world settle on Boston to gauge if it is where they wish to invest. Shows like this are job interviews for the city. They are Boston’s chance to show the world what it is are made of, while the world’s eyes have settled on it while we play host to a successful, known quantity. Shepard’s opening at the Boston ICA brought substantial numbers of visitors of substantial wealth and influence to town – just in my own small personal circle, I entertained visitors from California, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Mississippi, Germany, and Turkey, all of whom were well-to-do people who had traveled to Boston specifically for the show, stayed in Boston hotels, shopped at Boston shops, and ate at Boston restaurants. I even sold a few of my own paintings. These are all taxable dollars coming into our economy, but the legal action taken against Shepard sent every one of these well-to-do, well-connected visitors home shaking their heads at what a culturally backward city Boston is. And you can bet that they will tell their well-to-do, well-connected friends as well.

I can cheerlead for my hometown until my face is blue, but outside investment is fickle and squeamish and does not like uncertainty. And Shepard’s arrest gave every brand director, location scout, art collector, ad buyer, and trend spotter reason to be wary of doing business in our city – all the while snickering into their hand and shaking their heads at us. People laugh at Boston for being a city of culturally clueless Puritans, and because of that, business that depends on an audience to the contrary, avoids Boston. This arrest has renewed our subscription to this unfortunate perception.

History invariably excoriates those who prosecute art of any stripe. There is no escape from history’s mockery. There’s no way around it. History will laugh at us. The details of present – day illegality simply dissolve in the mocking laughter of years down the line.

But what do last are the black eyes on the local creative economy. What lasts is the cloud of hostile uncertainty that any business doing anything creative must operate within in Boston. What lasts is a stench of clueless Puritanism that repels outside investment in our creative businesses. What lasts is the long trail left by the motivated and creative people – young adults raised and educated here with the investment of our own tax dollars – who move away, because making a living in the creative fields in this town is revealed to be a false promise.

This is about money – but it isn’t about money we in Boston have, or that others in Boston have that we do not. This is about money that passes Boston by on its way to a better home.

Here’s a specific example of how: Immediately after his show opening at the Boston ICA, Shepard appeared in Boston court and returned to Los Angeles for one week until he needed to return to Boston for his arraignment. During that week in Los Angeles, Shepard executed a monumental mural on the side of a theater; a mural featuring Lance Armstrong the great cyclist (and well-respected art collector, I might add) in a project developed by the Nike corporation and Lance’s cancer research and awareness foundation Livestrong, of those ubiquitous bracelets. It was a massive media event, and a great thing for all parties, with lots of money moving around.

This is how Los Angeles incorporates an artist like Shepard into its economy when it has one week to do so. But if we in Boston were as forward-thinking, every single dollar that moved around in Los Angeles could have been doing so in Boston. You may not know this, but Boston is actually one of the biggest footwear hubs in the world, with Reebok, Converse, Clarks, Puma, New Balance, and Saucony all calling eastern Massachusetts home, at least for their United States headquarters. Nike’s role and the visibility they gained could have been one of theirs. And cancer research? Come on. On one side of the Charles, there’s Dana Farber and MGH, among dozens, and on the other, there’s Novartis and so many biotech giants operating so far outside of my sphere of knowledge that I can’t even pretend to know their areas of research. But I do know that we in Boston sure as heck could have put the world’s most famous artist of the moment to better civic and commercial use than adding to the B.O. stink in our holding cells. Did you know Shepard is a diabetic? Well, he is. Could we maybe have teased out a connection there to create a project with any of those health care giants to an end that would be more productive to our local economy instead of cuffing Shepard? I’m just brainstorming here, but I bet we could have.

Instead, we have 29 felony charges. Those 29 felony charges are Shepard’s to bear and to deal with, and he will. He has good counsel and plenty of money to address those with. But what begins as an attempt to make an example of Shepard as a vandal who met the law only makes an example of Boston as a city to avoid when investing any culture dollar.

Those charges against Shepard are what keep investors in our businesses – people who we will never meet, people far from Boston – renewing their negative impression of our city. It’s those charges’ black eyes that we all in this room must live with and do business around. And it’s the mockery of students future that we all live in; no different than that with which we look back on in Boston’s dealings with Whitman and the artists that followed.

For remember, Whitman’s work, and that poem in particular – was illegal by the letter of Boston law as well.

Caleb Neelon

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