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Exclusive: Redefining Urban Art at the Auction House

Since the early ’90s we’ve seen the emergence of what some have been calling “outsider” and “urban” art — artists who used the street as their canvas and non-traditional mediums as their tools, but weren’t practicing what we’d normally title graffiti. On April 25th the work of many of these artists (including Shepard Fairey, Barry McGee, KAWS, Mike Giant, FAILE, Banksy, Neck Face, and many more) will be featured at Phillips De Pury auction house in their Saturday@Phillips series. We caught up with Ken Miller (auction art consultant, ex-editor in chief of Tokion Magazine, and publisher of Revisionaries: A Decade of Art in Tokion) and Alex Smith (auction curator and Contemporary and Urban Art Specialist at Phillips de Pury & Co.) so we can get an insider’s point of view on the rise and relevance of this movement.

Flavorwire: The word “urban” or “street” is often used in describing much of the art available on the 25th. Where is the line drawn between “urban” art and graffiti?

Ken Miller: To me, “urban” art is kind of a misnomer at this point. I think youth art might be more accurate, since it speaks to a youthful pop sensibility and a range of influences from youth culture. This includes graffiti and street art, but also punk rock, graphic design, advertising and more.

Alex Smith: Graffiti is as old as time and could be defined as unsolicited expression and a type of urban folk art or vandalism found mainly in public areas. It’s typically made by unseen, youthful forces. Graffiti is urban but urban is not graffiti. Urban [art] has quickly become the umbrella term for anything with even the loosest ties to and origins with graffiti and street art. I think the corporations (and perhaps the auction houses) are the easiest ones to blame for this. It’s a convenient blanket term that has become frequently misused of a certain graphic style, and as a byproduct [the term] has been stigmatized by the many of the artists associated with it.

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FW: Does the illegality of street art in the end become a great part of its value? Is an image more significant because it’s put where it shouldn’t be?

KM: It reinforces the outlaw image of some artists, but the only way I can think it adds value is by making the artist better known. It’s a free gallery space for those who might not be able to exhibit elsewhere.

AS: There’s definitely street cred and sexiness to work that’s forbidden by law but I think the value is more in where the work is placed as a site-specific piece and the materials used. Street artists (vs. graffiti artists) typically make works that are impermanent and don’t harm the public space thus questioning whether it’s illegal at all. I enjoy recognizing street artists’ styles in cities that I visit. There’s something very comforting when faced with an unknown and intimidating concrete jungle to spot an artist’s work, such as a color mosaic by Invader or an Obey sticker with that familiar face.

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FW: How did you feel about the arrest of Shepard Fairey in Boston?

AS: It was clearly a publicity stunt to send a message to dissuade graffiti writers but I doubt it had any real impact. It only gives the artist greater recognition. I felt like it was in poor taste to arrest him on the opening night of his retrospective.

FW: Many critics ignored some of the artists featured at this auction initially, due to their use of non-traditional and non-archival mediums. Are crayons and construction paper any less viable than oil paints and canvas?

KM: Nope, just as viable. In some cases, there’s the concern about whether the work is of archival quality, which might affect the price.

AS: An artist like Basquiat’s work using oil crayons and collage can fetch millions of dollars. Tom Friedman builds entire [installations] out of construction paper and sells out shows at Gagosian. As far as value vs. demand you never know. In some ways, these types of works are more valuable based on their fragility, accessibility and everyday qualities.

FW: Some of the artists in this auction actually had no significant gallery representation what so ever while they became known. Is the idea of the gallery as middleman between artist and collector becoming obsolete?

KM: I find the idea that you can’t be a well-known artist without NY gallery representation to be absurd. If you are an artist with a following, why not go directly to your audience? We’ve seen this happen in other media, so why not art? Galleries will remain the dominant venues for promoting artists, but they will not be the exclusive means for reaching your audience. Galleries are helpful for building and maintaining a career, but these artists already have a global network of fans and have received tons of media attention, so why not capitalize on that directly? My main goal in consulting on the Saturday@Phillips auctions was to see that artists, whenever possible, profited directly from the sale of their work.

AS: I foresee that the galleries will continue to be the dominant venue for promoting artists but as with other mediums like music, there are new opportunities to buy art whether it’s through an auction house, Web site, or through a boutique store. I noticed Amazon is starting to sell limited-edition prints on their site. At Phillips, we are definitely pushing the edge of the secondary market, at times working directly with artists, offering unique contemporary works that often can only be found here. The democratic thing about the auction house is that you don’t have to wait in line or hobnob to get the best piece in the show. You just have to be the highest bidder.

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FW: Has the involvement of some these artists with corporate America (such as designing for apparel companies and advertising agencies) watered down the overall impact and value of their work?

KM: It can, but also, corporate American is drawn to work that is easily packaged and reproduced. But to paraphrase something Jeffrey Deitch once said, Michelangelo worked for the Medicis. Is that really any different from working for a corporate client today?

FW: Who’s on the horizon when we are talking about these “outsider” artists? Anyone in particular making a mark on the asphalt we should look out for?

AS: For outsider [art], I think of street artist Judith Supine as a personal favorite although he’s becoming a star in Europe. He recently kind of dropped out of the growing spotlight to continue his work pasting painted collages on the street. Looking forward to his next show at English Kills in Bushwick. I love Bjorn Copeland’s collage paintings and related album imagery for his band Black Dice.  There’s also the Brooklyn-based painter Adam Sipe. He does amazing things with oil paint that rival De Kooning.

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