Thursday, 27 October 2011

Review of Mr Brainwash at the Opera Gallery

Mr Brainwash
Opera Gallery London
6 – 31 October 2011

Thierry Guetta, better known to the public as Mr Brainwash, or simply MBW, first shot to fame as the unlikely filmmaker whose documentary footage of street artists at work ended up being turned into a film, Exit through the Gift Shop (2010), directed by the elusive subject whom Guetta had initially set out to record, Britain’s own Banksy. During his days and months spent filming and helping out the likes of Shepard Fairey and Invader (Guetta’s cousin, through whom he was first introduced to street art), the alter ego MBW was born and effectively acquired training as a street artist in his own right. Debuting with his first show, Life is Beautiful, in Los Angeles in June 2008, MBW has since gone on to be commissioned by the likes of Madonna (for the cover of her greatest hits album, Celebration, 2009) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (for the launch of their 2011 album I’m with You). Baku magazine recently went so far as to dub him “the new Jackson Pollock” (autumn 2011 issue, p.18).

Street art might have existed since the 1980s, with the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York and Blek le Rat in Paris, and, indeed, in 2008, Tate Modern held a groundbreaking exhibition bringing this outdoors genre inside the gallery space, but it remains, nevertheless, something of a surprise to find it making its way on to the walls of a Bond Street gallery. For Opera Gallery’s current exhibition, however, this is precisely what has happened, as MBW was given “carte blanche” to do just as he wished within the space.

In some ways, the outcome is a bit of a disappointment, since the hang is sparse and sedate, with neat labels, and not a drop of paint touching the actual walls themselves. Nevertheless, most boxes of expectation have been duly ticked. There is, of course, a token Banksy, albeit rather tiny at just 30 x 25cm, in the form of a stencilled canvas of an elephant with a torpedo strapped to its back, Heavy Weaponry. A nod is also made to earlier days with Blek le Rat’s life-sized stencil of a fully armoured and helmeted Paintball Cop, armed with baton, and pictured against a wall decorated with paintball explosions. Perhaps teetering on the edge of what is and isn’t street art in its strictest sense, Scottish sculptor and installation artist David Mach’s Full Stop, a collage of the Piccadilly Circus tube station sign, can be seen as a gesture to the London location of the show, despite its range of international artists.

Unsurprisingly there are a fair few of MBW’s own works on display, including his broken record collages of The Beatles, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Bob Marley. Kate Moss, on the other hand, is made up from six repeated images, torn like advertising billboards to reveal a layer of graffiti underneath, with a distinct Warholian element in the painting over of the eyebrows, hair and lips in different bright colours. Next to this hangs Italian artist Mimmo Rotella’s Marilyn Incredula, a similar idea in the form of a torn poster, this time of the iconic Marilyn Monroe. Does its title suggest the underlying conceit that these media celebrities have become the incarnations of our modern day Madonna?

For me, the work most fitting to the location is MBW’s Chocolate Vandal, an oil on canvas of an old fashioned maid, very much in the style of Vermeer, except that she is wearing a gas mask and paint-splattered apron, carrying a tray of spray cans and household paint, and standing with a graffiti-covered wall behind her. Perhaps this is MBW’s way of commenting on the tradition and value of the graffiti and street art genres, and of justifying such curatorial experiments, suggesting that these works should be seen as equally as worthy as, say, the 17th century Dutch masters? Jean-David Malat, director of the Opera Gallery, seems, for one, to concur: “There is no doubt that [street art] is now becoming the movement of the 21st century.” As to whether or not his faith is warranted, I guess only time will tell.

Photograph from the Mr. Brainwash preview, © Daniel Barnett Photography, 2011.

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