Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Art of Vhils

There is street art and then there is street art.

You know, the kind you use explosives to create?

That's all right. I had not heard of the artistic method either until I saw Vhils featured on CNN's "Ones to Watch." Then I was captivated.

Vhils (real name Alexandre Farto, you can see his web site here) is a Portuguese artist who chisels new portraits out of old walls. The depictions are usually those of ordinary people he has met in the course of a day but there are also a few famous figures thrown into the mix as well. As previously mentioned, Vhils uses controlled blasts from explosive charges to carve the facial features out of the plaster and concrete. As he says

“I remember when I was growing up that you could see the development of the city like a bomb that had fallen… and I started to look at a wall as something that absorbs the history.”

To a certain degree, Vhils appears to be making efforts to free or release that history from the material via a method comparable to how Mount Rushmore was created. By destroying the building in part, it is recreated. Vhils does this, he says, to "expose the fragility of what we take for granted and regard as indestructible and unchangeable."

In his hands, the walls of derelict buildings are transformed. While the small explosions are certainly the most dramatic part of this artistic process, much time is also spent doing plain chiseling, scraping, and power drilling upon the concrete canvas. The revelation of darker spaces in contrast with the outer layer of the walls (which appear to most typically be white in the gallery pics I've seen) creates the effect of variant shading. Vhils' work with concrete is not always portraits, however, and sometimes carries a message such as the photo above and this one below from Russia:

Take that, Putin.

Vhils seems equally innovative in the studio as well. He is known for taking cast aside materials and repurposing them into works of art. For example, old styrofoam pieces were reworked into a cityscape that forms a face when viewed from above. He has also just completed a video of U2's single, "Raised by Wolves." I'm very disappointed in that recent record from one of my favorite bands, but I'll overlook that and keep an open mind for video art of Vhils. Maybe I'll watch it with the sound off (hey, it worked for me with Jessica Alba's Honey.)

What are my thoughts on the art? Embarrassingly, I have none that do not recapitulate what other fans and art critics have already said. My other notions are rendered to cliche. "Good art strips away the layers of a dirty surface to show us something wonderful that was always there." "You can't go home again," and all that.

After all, one may recreate an old building in an effort to hold on to the past. Don't tear down waste a beautiful old structure, repurpose it. But in doing so, you change it. It won't be the way that it once was, whether that be for the worse or the better (in the case of Vhils' touch, it's obviously the latter.) In fact it never will be again. But there it still stands.

Trying to hold on to the past may indeed be a zero sum game at best.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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