Politics, Madness and Spray-Paint
In Zurich, Switzerland on many canvases and walls, a creepy Swiss man; that resembles the late horror film actor Peter Lorre, is airbrushing a world of crazy textures and creatures that even ones most frightening nightmares wouldn't conjure with thinly veiled messages about life's futile fears, simply using all the shades of gray. Meanwhile in the busiest cities and politically charged environments, a masked man from the UK is spray-painting a stencil-drawn image that is food-for-thought in regards to why we may hate each other or what it means when one is faced with the truth in plain black and white. Every once in a while we are reminded that art isn't limited to the bright and colorful just as much as it isn't held in the boundaries of being on merely canvas, and the works of these two artists are proof. These two craftsmen of the imagination are Hans Rudolph Giger (or H.R. Giger for short) and the United Kingdom’s masked madman, Banksy.
In my younger days I aspired to be an artist but had many inspirations that were more in the world of cartoons and comic books. Many at the time didn't consider those mediums to be very serious art, but when I was a teen, the great Renaissance artists didn't stir my interests. However, the simplicity of spandex-clad superheroes was a lot easier for me absorb visually than cherubs, naked statues, or falsely depicted images of Christ. In those adolescent years the works of Van Gogh and Leonardo didn't really impress me; it all seemed like they were just crafting a world that already existed. I already knew what “Postcard Paris” looked like and seeing it through the mind of Van Gogh's absinthe haze in Starry Nights just looked like a blue, smeary mess. Seeing art and being captivated by it didn’t happen to me until I saw pictures from the film Alien (1979, 20th Century Fox) in a Barnes and Noble comic book section in the mid-nineties.
The creature of the Alien in Ridley Scott's film was designed by H.R. Giger, who was notable at the time for his work displayed in his 1977 compendium Necronomicon. While the “Mom” Barnes and “Pop” Noble I found this book in wasn't well stocked enough to cater to a comic book fan, this coffee table book caught my eye instantly. Giger's imagery is painted with airbrushing and usually isn't very colorful; more often employing just one color and many shades of gray and black. His subjects usually are people that look as if they've been bound into landscapes of wild textures or attached to machines and metal. These portraits are often painted to be realistic and to the more sensitive eye, disturbing. His most notable work is an ink drawn early work known as Birth Machine: A work that shows a cross-section of a handgun, showing all the springs and inter-working gears that operate the weapon, yet instead of bullets- the guns clip in the handle shows three bald, old men that resemble children; one child in the chamber ready to be fired from the barrel. One would gaze at this work and ask themselves: Is it political or just a shockingly cynical view of how life feels like you’ve been shot from a cannon and forced to fall into line?
As a youngster with an interest in art this was an eye opening game-changer. I found an artist that appealed to my senses and as a 1990’s Goth, this was an artist that made paintings that stirred my imagination. Whenever sketching I would try to emulate, this shady world of anatomical landscapes, emaciated figures that seemed to tell their own stories and this whole time I kept in mind just why Giger painted this way:
“I became aware that art is a vital activity that keeps me from falling into madness” (Giger, 1997, p.9).
He paints more for himself it seems than for any audience that might very well turn their heads in disgust; perhaps he enjoys the disturbed reactions of ordinary people more than pandering of art critics. From those days on, I was hooked to this style and showing this work to others my age just to see their eyes open as wide as silver dollars was a joy.
The other end of my artistic tastes points more towards the satirical: Banksy has become my new leaf. His work isn't always on display in museums and if it is, it’s purely for the sake of irony. Banksy is a street graffiti artist and his work has been illegally tagged on walls ranging from the broadsides of warehouses in the UK, alleys in Europe and most notably, the Israeli/Palestine West Bank border wall. Few people have seen this man's face, as he works mostly at night and wears a mask that resembles a Japanese anime monkey. Since his work gets painted on property and is illegal his work has an anonymity that gives each piece an edge; he has no political party that supports him or his work. Banksy embraces and defends his anonymity, once quoting:
“'In the future, everybody will be anonymous for 15 minutes.'' (Trebay, 2011, p.1)
Banksy could either show a brief glimpse on religion, politics, or life on the whole. Some of these images can either portray the ridiculousness or danger of those subjects. Most of his works are spray paints that have been stenciled onto walls and Banksy has to be able to quickly put an image onto a wall, move into the cover of night before the police show up. And in the interest of not repeating himself Banksy has also made larger, sculptural works that show up on the streets of London; one day a red telephone box is missing from London’s SoHo square and a week later it will return to its original location…bent in half (Kent 2006, p.10). Other examples of his pieces spray-painted onto a wall could also be a bandana-masked man posed as if he is about to throw a flaming molotov cocktail bomb but the lit bottle is replaced with a bouquet of flowers. Is he telling us to make peace and not war? Or are we supposed to guffaw at such an idea of throwing flowers towards our aggressors? He tags, you decide and his work allows you to pursue your own conclusion. Regardless of how vague some of the art may be, people’s reactions to Banksy are an array of emotions, varying from the patronizing of people who see the work but really don’t understand it, to genuine perplexing that asks “What the hell does he mean?” My reaction is one where my imagination draws a conclusion: The violence in this image of the Molotov cocktail/FTD-logo-like flower bomber begs for me to ask that for all our aggression towards hate, are we just as zealous with the equally as important emotion, love?
So now one could ask: what do these eccentric figures, separated by countries and cultures, have in common? Giger is leaning on the illusions of an opium addiction, while Banksy is strategically changing the hearts and minds of people who fight over trivial things. One could see the political undertones of Giger in the Birthmachine work, but this doesn’t really hit the eye as much as Banksy’s ideological symbols outlined in his pieces. However, Banksy isn’t fond of high details or texture thanks lack of legality of his craft meaning he can’t stay at the wall painting very long. But the commonality of these two is in the tools of their trade: Air propelled paint. Airbrushing is just the same as spray painting, and vice versa. One comfortably uses the medium in the privacy in his home to disturb the mind while the other uses his cans of Krylon to get the gears in the mind turning. All hail, air propelled paint!
My voluntary exposure to these artists has made me look at the world through not-even-close-to-rose colored glasses. While I haven’t lifted a paint brush since high school, I still take a lot of inspiration from these men; they're works have given me the drive to write with as much creativity as they have painted. As a result, I now can appreciate the Van Gogh paintings and the sculptures of Michelangelo. Perhaps those crazier pieces by Giger and Banksy are gateways to higher art because I once was like many young people and just didn’t quite understand the great Renaissance paintings of old and needed to see the dark or funny side of fine art first; a habit compared to when one begins a wine tasting hobby by starting with cheaper, and easier to enjoy, boxed vino. Perhaps Giger and Banksy are not just artists but rather flavors to the eye to be enjoyed or at the very least, sampled.
Giger, H. R. (1997). Retrospective. (3rd ed.). (p. 9). Beverly Hills, CA, USA: Morpheus International.
Kent, P. (2006, April 8). Calling all conceptual artists. New York Times, p. 1. Retrieved From: http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/resultsadvanced?sid=ddae20de-e90c-486f-94668e8a31d20fdf%40sessionmgr11&vid=2&hid=10&bquery=Calling+AND+all+AND+conceptual+AND+artists&bdata=JmRiPWFwaCZ0eXBlPTEmc2l0ZT1laG9zdC1saXZl
Trebay, G. (2011, January 20). Designers Anonymous. New York Times. p. 1 Retrieved From: http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=3&hid=10&sid=a289468c-d0a04b3aa6cc4a99af122bb5%40sessionmgr12&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=57406303