Monday, 31 August 2009

La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

If there is a First Lady of Pop Surrealism, then for me, it has to be Niagara.

Born in Detroit, Niagara was apparently a shy child who found an outlet for her inner self through art. She attended art college but dropped out, finding it uninspiring. In 1973 along with fellow art students she formed a seminal experimental noise band, Destroy All Monsters and in turn a whole new extrovert persona began to develop for Niagara.

The band formed at a time when in a parallel universe, not so far away in New York city, a music scene was emerging from a chrysalis, sired by the influences of the New York Dolls, the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. A scene which would soon dry its wings, and butterfly into the original punk movement. There, strong, independent women such as Patti Smith and Deborah Harry were also creating waves unprecedented by women in rock, not just through the medium of music but using their style, attitude and individuality also.

Niagara however didn't just create a unique personality for herself incorporating her looks and her music. She additionally steered the band's image by being responsible for Destroy All Monsters' sleeve art. In time her art would flourish and the characters she depicted would take on a life of their own. That life usually being a hard boiled, feisty, gun toting doll.

During the 80's Niagara joined the band Dark Carnival, with old friend Ron Asheton of the Stooges and continued to tour. However by the early 90's Niagara was showing her art work in the Detroit area and developing a name for herself, upon which she soon built an international reputation. By this time she had also met Colonel Galaxy, the man who would become her soul mate, husband and to this day, deals hands on with the day to day nitty gritty business of exhibiting and selling Niagara's art.

Niagara's body of work and themes have expanded rapidly, her trigger happy beauties shooting from the hip in more ways than one.

Sharp one liners that can cut a cocksure man down are the order of the day.

Niagara's more obvious influences, the often cited Warhol and Lichtenstein, are of course recognisable, but she is much more than a sum of her parts. Her colour palette is modern, vivid and vibrant. Her characters are not just frozen for a moment in time, like some snapshot in which they must stay for all eternity. There is so much momentum present that it's likely the whole escapade probably snaps back into action the minute your back is turned.

And above all, Niagara's liberal up to the minute agenda demands that her ladies are always on top, one way or another.

In the stunning Opium series, Niagara incorporates Asian themed collage into her work with great effect. Using gold and silver foil and Oriental motifs, spoils from shopping trips to Chinatown, to enhance dreamy eyed, dragon chasing girls, it was a bold and successful departure from the regular ballsy broads of old. But despite the more subtle mood in these pictures the ladies are far from being ingenue.

Niagara's women have seduced, scared, shot and sashayed their way around the globe. In recent years Niagara has had successful exhibitions in the UK, Australia, France and Japan. She also collaborated on canvas with Japanese born, now Seattle based, artist Yumiko Kayukawa. Yumiko also primarily paints distinctive signature females, but, accompanied always by an animal friend, they have a more forgiving outlook on the world. The two planets of these talented artists collided harmoniously to create a Yin and Yang like state.

Armed and dangerous as Niagara babes usually are, the artist never underestimates the power of the ultimate weapon - humour.

The viewer will most likely walk away from Niagara's work smiling at the cool, cutting, highly precise feminine damage inflicted on the most painful thing a man can ever have hurt - his pride.

(A big thank you to Niagara and Colonel Galaxy. I hope to post an interview with Niagara in the very near future.)

Friday, 28 August 2009

Lucky strike.

When I was in Bristol overnight for the Banksy show I stayed at a place called the Rock 'n' Bowl Motel, which I hoped might be kitted out all American diner style, with plenty of stainless steel, retro furniture and even a jukebox, who knows. In the event it wasn't, but it was situated above a bowling alley which gives me an easy link to the work of Kirsten Easthope, a Colorado based artist who customizes bowling pins with gorgeous girls; pin up girls, cheesecake girls, burlesque girls, cowgirls, angelic girls and devil girls luxuriating in the flames of hell. Far too sexy to throw a big heavy bowling ball at.

Images of Beauty and Violence.

One art exhibition that I saw on my first visit to Amsterdam in 1992 has always stayed with me. My friend and I did all the city sights, including the Van Gogh museum. I couldn't say that the Van Goghs stirred up any great art awakening within me. But there was a secondary exhibition in the museum and what I saw there blew me away.

It was called Beauty and Violence and was a collection of antique prints by Japanese printmaker Yoshitoshi who was "the last great master - and one of the great innovative and creative geniuses - of the Japanese woodblock print, Ukiyo-e." He lived from 1839 to 1892, producing art in a highly transitional period when Japan was making huge leaps both socially and culturally. The nation was transforming from being a highly traditional and feudal society, to one that became unified under one emperor, the warlords of old being stripped of their power. Japan was also rapidly beginning to embrace new artistic and technological ideas from the West, including previously unknown techniques of mass production. Yoshitoshi devoted himself to preserving the old ways and craftmanship of his art, he was the last of his kind.

I didn't know any of Yoshitoshi's history. For me it was the highly charged scenes that he depicted and the shocking nature of some images, that really affected me. He had produced whole series' of themed works, one of which was called "100 Aspects of the Moon." In each print, picturing a wide range of characters and situations, the moon was always to be seen.

A warrior creeps through the woods under a full moon, perhaps stalking his enemy.

A bold young princess confronts and banishes a ghost who is haunting the Emperor.

On treacherous seas a sailor attempts to pacify warrior ghosts and calm the storm.

A mysterious girl appears to a prince.

And in a lonely house on an otherwise uninhabited moor an old hag prepares to kill a heavily pregnant woman.

Another series of prints was entitled "New Forms of Thirty Six Ghosts."

The ghost of a young woman, accused of stealing a dish and thrown into a well as punishment.

A woman sitting under a waterfall, praying - offering her life for release of her master.

Yoshitoshi's work made a big impact on me. I never forgot that amazing collection and I never forgot how powerful an experience seeing his art was, perhaps the first time art had really reached out to me and shook me up.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Marry me, Banksy. (The nation's sweetheart.)

Everyone loves Banksy, don't they? Well apart from the people that don't I guess and they do exist.

(Window Hanger - Banksy, located on Park Street, Bristol, one of three of his most well known hometown murals to have been attacked with blue paint recently.)

There certainly didn't seem to be many haters about when I visited Bristol earlier this week to catch the very end of the Banksy vs Bristol Museum exhibition which has run over the Summer attracting capacity crowds daily.

(Unemployed Ronald McDonald.)

Set up in secrecy and only announced publicly the day before it opened, love him or hate him, this was probably a once in a lifetime chance for many people to see so much work by Banksy in one place. And thousands have taken that opportunity. The day before I got there, the queues to get into the free show had been up to five hours in waiting time long.

(This was only the middle bit of the queue which then continued round a corner onto another street.)

In Banksy's words, "This is the first show I've ever done where taxpayers' money is being used to hang my pictures up rather than scrape them off." In actual fact - he had only charged the museum a nominal fee of £1 to show his work, insisting only that any CCTV footage of him installing and dismantling the work be destroyed. I heard he is also covering the costs of extra museum staff and insisted there was minimal merchandise on sale in the museum (only a set of postcards and some posters were available.) Meanwhile the Oxfam charity shop directly across the road from Bristol Museum had received a donation of a load of Banksy merchandise from a local "mystery" benefactor with which they raised £15,000 for their charity.

(Who could it be?)

It was hard not to enjoy the atmosphere - people were even doing Mexican waves in the queue later in the day to pass the time (I got there at 7am and got off lightly with only two and a half hours of waiting as the museum sensibly opened its doors early instead of the advertised 10am.)

Whether Banksy has really done much for anyone else in the outsider art world other than himself, it's hard to tell. True, in the UK, some urban artists are benefiting from a raised profile due to the "Banksy effect" and a raised value of their canvases and prints to boot. Even some of the major British auction houses have dabbled in urban art sales although they possibly had their fingers burnt because after some huge initial profits, in the last sale to feature Banksy and cohorts, a lot of stuff failed to shift.

But I'm not sure a large percentage of visitors to this exhibition would be checking many other street art names out just yet. The grannies, the teenagers, the young kids, the thirty somethings and the inbetweens. They just wanted to see some Banksys. And see Banksys they did. A lot of the work on display was new, but there was a cage - possibly representing the Banksy studio in a tongue in cheek way - with some of his classic stencils on display. And some of his iconic work was in evidence too.

(The artists' pad?)

(Ghetto rat.)

(Lesbian Queen Victoria. Cool to see these stencils.)

(Elephant rocket launcher.)

There was a radio debate being broadcast on the validity of Banksy's art, local councillors defending decisions to paint over his murals and the like. One thing is certain, everyone has an opinion on him.

(Kansas canvas.)

All in all I had fun visiting the show. I think when Banksy gets it right he is spot on and I love his attention to detail. Some of the pieces were great, however some were pretty lazy.

(Poor panda.)

(Improved Spot Painting - Damien Hirst and Local Artist. This made me chuckle.)

(Di Faced Tenners - Banksy of England, featuring the phrase "I promise to pay the bearer on demand the ultimate price." I think these are one of Banksy's best pieces.)

(Cosmetic loving rabbit.)

(Detail from House of Commons.)

It's true that at times you are tempted to think - I could have come up with that. But you didn't. The guy has tapped into the nations' sense of humour saying the kind of things in his work, that most of us often think, but being British, don't want to say them out loud.

Dotted around the museum in its permanent collection you could play hunt the Banksy too.

(Fine bone chillum.)

(Fluffy kitten plate.)

He obviously had a lot of fun in the entrance hall with some of its sculptures.

The centrepiece was a burned-out graffiti covered ice cream van, perhaps the last laugh by someone that the Bristol authorities would, not so long ago, dearly have loved to have caught and prosecuted for vandalism. And probably thrown away the key while they were at it.

On the whole I enjoyed the show and judging by the amount of money left in the perpex donations box, so did most people.

(Adapted from The Mild, Mild West rioting Ted.)

Funnily enough, I got a promotional envelope through my door today, with a quotation by Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory printed on it. It said "A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men." And I can't think of a better way to sum the whole Banksy phenomena and this exhibition, up.

(Animated fish finger in goldfish bowl.)

I think however, as usual, Banksy should have the last word.