Sunday, May 9, 2010

Conservation of Public and Street Art: Wall Paintings of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Keith Haring, Banksy

“The only way art lives is through the experience of the observer.” –Keith Haring

Public artworks are defined not only by their location and accessibility, but also by their function within the community. When an artist chooses or is commissioned to integrate a work into a public space, they engage directly with the neighborhood and promote a forum for discussion and criticism. The three artists I examined in my paper have made works that increase public awareness of contemporary social and political issues and consider the act of artistic creation equal in importance to the finished work: David Alfaro Siqueiros, a Mexican muralist; Keith Haring, an American artist inspired by graffiti culture; and the pseudonymous British graffiti artist known as Banksy.

With Siqueiros and Haring, I examined a specific case study documenting a conservation treatment of their work and evaluated the success of the treatment based on the conservators’ faithfulness to artistic intent. Using statements from these artists, I determined that they both valued the performative aspect of creating artwork and the participation of the viewer and community in creating meaning.

Siqueiros, David Alfaro. Black and white photo of América Tropical after its completion.

Photo: El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.

Siqueiros, David Alfaro. América Tropical. The uncovered mural, 2002. Photo: Leslie Rainer.

La América Tropical (1932) is the single remaining public mural in the United States created by Siqueiros. For this mural, Siqueiros employed a modern fresco technique. Using cement and airbrushed paint application, his experimental method was intended to withstand the harsh weather of southern California, but the paint surface began to deteriorate within a few months after completion. The political and anti-American theme of this mural upset local civic authorities who had the mural whitewashed soon after the paint began to fade. According to writings by Siqueiros, he was pleased by the results of this mural despite the fact that it did not last. I feel that, though the aesthetic value of this mural is lost, the Getty conservators have preserved its significant historical and political value by removing the remaining whitewash and making the ideas behind the work accessible to the public once again. The conservation treatment is still in progress.

Haring, Keith. Drawing on Elevator, 1986. In the Art Academy Utrecht.

Conservation, before (at top) and in progress. Photo: Lydia Beerkens, 2005.

Keith Haring follows the thinking of Siqueiros stating, “From the beginning, one of my main incentives was this contact with people […] even if the drawing remained up for only one day, enough people saw it to make it worth my effort.” In 1986 he created an impromptu graffiti work in black spray paint on one of the elevators in the main hall at the Utrecht Art Academy. Soon after he made this work, a janitor (thinking it was student graffiti) managed to scrape away the head of the main figure before a staff member stopped his cleaning. The piece remained in this state until conservators from the Stedelijk Museum were approached in 2003. Though many of the art professors felt that this work was intended to be ephemeral and should not be restored, the board asked the conservators to proceed with the major intervention. The lost head was inpainted and the work was cleaned. Despite the fact that the authenticity of the object has been compromised, I think that this was a successful treatment because the act of conserving this public work (just like the performance of creating it) refreshed the work in the eyes of the community and got people talking.

Banksy, on the other hand, is a different animal than Haring and Siqueiros, but I used their case studies to inform my opinion of the amateur “preservation” attempts on his stencil graffiti published in popular media sources. These stencil graffiti pieces have become highly sought after on the art market and citizens are resorting to cutting them out of walls and buildings to sell at auction. While the commoditization of the artist’s works does not mesh with his espoused anti-consumerist stance, there are no published statements from the artist condemning the actions of these individuals. The conservator could simply regard the removal of his paintings as just another act of vandalism or even a critical judgment of Banksy’s art. Banksy, wearing the mask of his pseudonym, has entirely relinquished authority of his public artistic works to the populace. While “preservation” of Banksy’s works will save them for future generations, I think that that in order for a Banksy to retain its subversive value and authenticity, the work must be left unaltered and in its original context.

Top: Banksy, stencil of a rat.
Bottom: Gloucester Gardens wall, after the stencil and sign were removed for sale on eBay.

1 comment:

  1. I like street art, in my opinion, it has a soul! link explaines can we name graffiti an act of vandalism or not!