Baltimore-born, and now, New York City-based, artist Chris Stain has been making use of the built environment as his canvas since the 1980s. His work stems from the simple printmaking method of hand-cut stencils, reflecting inner-city and working class themes, and relating closely to his own upbringing in Baltimore. Stain’s characteristic large-scale murals evolved out of his practice as a graffiti writer, and stand today as a kind of contemporary nod to WPA-era portraiture, featuring the faces and plights of everyday people in all of their affecting, confrontational realism.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
When did you start writing graffiti?
I started writing when I was eleven, right after I saw the movie Beat Street and picked up a copy of Subway Art. My first tag was SAVAGE. But it was long and I couldn’t get it to flow in the Baltimore handstyle standard that was set by Billy ZEK TST/GS, so one year later I started writing STAIN.
Your work comes together through a characteristic stenciling and projection process. It’s very precise work. When you’re planning a mural, how much do you plan ahead?
I like to check out the neighborhood first and see what type of demographic is present. To me it’s important to take into account who lives there and how they might feel about the mural. Of course you can’t please everyone. Based on that information I come up with images that seem to fit. I start out with one or more central figures, then I add elements of urban landscape to tie it together. I have a variety of transparencies that I can experiment with until I get the feel I am looking for.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
Because you’re using a projector to throw your images onto the site of your work, I assume this means that you can really only work at night. Was this a process you decided on because you prefer to work under the cover of night?
Working with the projector is just quicker for me. I can get an outline up in no time and come back the next day to add color. The older I get the harder it is to stay up all night painting then get up early the next day to fulfill my obligations. The other option is to cut huge stencils out of paper, cardboard, or plastic and paint the mural that way. Its very time consuming for me to work like that and I don’t have the freedom that working free hand allows.
You very clearly favor storytelling in your work, often spotlighting culturally disadvantaged, underrepresented individuals and urban landscapes. What is the narrative yarn you’re spinning?
In some ways it’s biographical, somewhat nostalgic, and in others I feel like the children’s book author Ezra Jack Keats just telling stories about inner city kids and common folk.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
How do you think about the relationship between image and text?
Together they give the observer more of a complete picture. Coming from a graffiti background I have always had a relationship with letters. In fact I first began to notice letters while spending time with my grandfather as a child. He carved his name, “ George Kelso,” into all of his tools in script and painted everything red. My mother use to say “If you stand still long enough, Poppie will paint you red.”
Many of your murals include portraits. How do you select specific individuals as subjects?
I look for emotions in the person’s face that I can relate to. One of my favorites is the boy on the bike. He is just staring out into the distance, sitting on his bike. From the image I get a sense of being on your own looking around for the next adventure; the kind of experiences you have at that age.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
Are all of your projects done with permission?
Yes. But even with permission and a signed and dated permit in NYC, you will be harassed. At one wall in Brooklyn I actually had the owner with me and the police wouldn’t let up. I was interrupted six times by different officers in one night while working legally. After they saw the permit they prodded me for information just wanting to see if I knew any of the graffiti writers they were looking for.
There’s a particular kind of learning that happens through the passing down of knowledge in graffiti crews. You hang around, observe, practice, socialize. It’s all part of the process. It’s kind of like an urban folk art.
Yes. But that also happens with other art groups right? I am thinking of the Dadaists in particular.
Do you consider yourself self-taught?
As a graffiti artist, yes. I saw it and wanted to learn so I just practiced and practiced. I Hunted down publications, album covers, recorded music videos with the slightest hint of writing, like the Rolling Stones video “Waiting on a Friend” where for a brief second there is a Futura 2000 tag in-between some wheatpasted Stones advertisement. It sounds crazy but it was the creative spark that I was so attracted to that came by way of graffiti for me. I actually haven’t painted any lettering in quite some time. I miss it but there is a certain energy to it that I haven’t been able to fully embrace in the past few years and that has held me back. I learned stenciling as a part of the screen printing process back in high school in ‘86 or ‘87. Somewhere around 1998 I recalled that process when I was trying to work more figuratively. At that time I was very inspired by the work of Kathe Kollwitz and wanted to draw like her but I couldn’t and didn’t have the time to make the effort. Stenciling allowed me to work quickly and accurately while capturing the emotion of the photograph.
And, now you’re an art teacher. How do you approach teaching?
I just try to share what I have learned and experienced. Graffiti, despite its negative connotations, was and still is my gateway to a broader world of self-expression and creativity. So in the classroom I first talk about my experience and how that ties into the various avenues of art. If it wasn’t for graffiti the majority of the artwork I now appreciate would not make as much sense because I now understand the importance of having enough passion to dedicate so much time, what to speak of your personal freedom, to making art.
This is the second year in a row that you’ve been to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center through a partnership with the Wooster Collective for The Sheboygan Project. That means the city of Sheboygan now boasts two Chris Stain murals. What was the experience like?
The good folks at the Wooster Collective and The Kohler Arts Center have been very supportive and I have to say thank you again to everyone involved. The arts center is a gold mine for vernacular art. This year I was given a special tour into their collections. It’s one thing to see the work in a book but to see it in person, it radiates the artists mood and emotion much more. So I was blown away by the experience. The work housed in their collection by the likes of Emory Blagden and Eugene Von Bruchenhein, reveal creativity in a very pure form in my opinion. As far as my work there, last year I taught a stencil class and painted a mural. This year some of the people I met prior returned to help out on a large 40 x 20 foot mural on an underpass. It’s nice to be able to share work and the process but even better when people take something away from it to the point that they begin the practice themselves.
Photo by Caroline Voagen
How have you seen graffiti change since you started in the 80’s? Do you differentiate graffiti from what is now being called “street art?”
In one sense it’s all art but there are different energies to what is known as “graffiti,” mostly lettering based primarily using aerosol paint, and “street art” which runs the gamut of various mediums. As for the letter-based movement, it has changed quite a bit since the 80’s. Technically, its reached levels unimagined back then through the help of all the newer spray paints on the market with lower pressure and cap options. The introduction of the internet helped styles develop more rapidly as it was easier to access photos from all over the world, get new ideas, and spark creativity.
Can you talk a bit about the translation of graffiti and street murals into the gallery and museum context. As artists who typically use the street as their canvas move their work indoors, it seems to me that there is a very different kind of relationship to and experience of the work – for both the artist and the audience.
Again it comes down to the energy that goes into it. You can compare it to running. If you go running one morning in the park as your daily exercise it’s one type of experience of running. On the other hand if you are being chased and you have to run from danger it’s another type of experience of running, with different emotions and intensity. Both involve a need to accomplish the task but the energy and emotion that go into each are slightly different and produce different results.
Imagine that a writer named Judith H. Dobrzynski boards a plane. She’s ambivalent about her recent op-ed for the New York Times, “High Culture Goes Hands-On,” in which she mourned the loss of a classic, passive museum experience. The response was decent (63 comments and a spot on the “most-emailed” list), and the negative response didn’t go much beyond baseless ad hominems (“crank,” “elitist”). But real-world impact? Judy sighs. She tries not to think about institutions these days, their obsequious rush to digitize, crowdsource, and create a “fun experience” for all. Instead, she thinks about real change: about her upcoming fellowship at the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria, and how she helped influence the country’s new Holocaust restitution laws. Judy sinks back into her business class seat (being a Fellow has perks!), orders a tomato juice and relaxes, thinking of all the reading she’ll be able to catch up on in the air.
Imagine that a writer named James Durston is excited. He’s boarding the brand new Boeing 797 Dreamliner and is going to be live tweeting the experience from business class (dimming windows PLUS free booze!). He’s got way too much editing to do, but right now he’s feeling good about his latest op-ed for CNN Travel, “Why I hate museums.” Sure, only 400 comments (something like 10 times that many for the “fat tax” piece) but he did score official responses from the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Alliance of Museums. He makes a mental note to re-stir the pot with a follow-up in early December. James tosses his bag in the overhead and sits down, mentally composing a tweet about the woman beside him and WHY anyone drinks tomato juice on planes?? Still, he did use SeatID–they must have something in common. He’ll save the introduction for later when he runs out of content for his posts.
Imagine that now, today, both look back and still wonder what happened. They remember the start—the Eyjafjallajokull volcano waking up, their flight being grounded in Greenland, the nervous stewardesses plying them with drinks, and more, and more. The introductions, the argument, and then the gradual, dizzy belief that their two opinions needed to be reconciled. Had to be, in fact. What if this was the end of world? Reconciliation–for humanity, for the future. So they set about writing the op-ed of op-eds, tapping out the characters on James’s phone. Finally an op-ed truly for everyone. The Dobrzynski/Durston piece appeared on a brand new WordPress site, shocking the likes of Robert Connolly, Dana Allen-Griel, Dennis Kois, Ed Rodley, and all the other voices of studied moderation stuck further back in economy, sipping orange juice, thoughtfully biding their time. As Judith and James know, sometimes the world needs action. We should thank them for reminding us of that. Below is the full transcript of the Dobrzynski-Durston article.
The Greatest Proposal for hi-fiving high culture
The current institutional climate is unsustainable. And no fun. Most museums are in grave financial straits, mostly because there are better things to spend money on. It’s time for institutions to become the friendly, self-supporting, no-gift-shop entities they always should have been. The following is a list of proposals we urgently urge to be effected.
1. We’ve heard about museums, especially smaller, local ones, creating wonderful exhibitions on tight budgets. Maybe so. Those people sitting back in economy can really chew your ear off with examples. We both enjoy periodic visits to the provinces, and writing about them too, but let’s be honest—it needs to start in New York or Hong Kong. Trickle-down culture is real.
2. Institutions claim to generate 7 public dollars for every $1 invested. (Right. Where’d they get those numbers?) The people of Detroit did vote to raise their own taxes to support the DIA—it’s called millage, James—but that’s an exceptional case. Ann Arbor residents were forward-thinking enough to reject a new art tax. Bleeding heart art lovers need to be realistic: public funding = not the answer. Private funding = yes.
3. Museums do need to sell off work—that’s called deaccessioning (thanks, Judy). Some call up the auction houses and rush the work out the door on a stretcher. Others are models of ethical responsibility–the Indianapolis Museum of Art, for example, lists all the work being sold on its site along with reasons for each sale. That’s good, but not good enough. They should show their reasons, not just tell us about them. Imagine if the DIA did something like: [pic of Diego Rivera mural] = [pic of 25 million open lunchboxes with PB&J, apple, milk]. #Prioritize.
4. Old vases are boring (especially ones from Iran, imo). They should be sold to established patrons of the arts and other old rich people. Who else cares about/truly appreciates them anyway? Same goes for anything more than 30 years old or that doesn’t inspire transcendence. If in doubt, just tweet us a pic.
5. In the spirit of compromise, museums should divide their days between different audiences. On Wednesdays through Saturdays they should distribute free popcorn and edamame, fill the gallery with animals from a local petting zoo, and encourage full interaction—touching, smelling, licking—with the entire collection. On Sundays through Tuesdays, the cicerones will make sure that no more than four people are in any one room at the same time, monitor how fast individuals walk, and confiscate any and all electronic devices. Individuals will be required to spend set minimum amounts of time contemplating each piece. If any individual fails to adhere to these measures, they will be required to write an essay explaining why.
6. Eliminate gift shops and cafes. They’re so bourgeois.
7. To generate revenue, offer paid chances to feed the animals and the option to limit the gallery to even less than the standard four people (on respective days, of course). Employ local actors who will alternate between impersonating art world authorities, historical figures, and general celebrities.
8. Reenact the creation and history of items throughout the week. It will be a little like Dante’s Inferno, each actor trapped in a different area, telling his story over and over again (Judy’s description, my idea). For example, one of the actors can be Leonardo da Vinci: put the Mona Lisa on an easel in front of him and have him paint and tell the sad story of Lisa over and over to the general audience. Add drama when appropriate, regardless of accuracy. Reach out to Hollywood and book publishers, offering to add their narratives to the “official” institutional version in exchange for sponsorship.
9. Fully integrate work on display with life by created rentable, themed rooms, e.g. The Birth Room, The Death Room, etc. True art lovers will be able to pass with their eyes locked on an original Georgia O’Keeffe, or to bring a new being into the world under Van Gogh’s sunflowers, or to make love under the Venus de Milo. Anyone attending that day will be able to watch. Both sides will pay—
Phone’s about to die, got to post now. Whatever happens, this is the truth. Follow me online!
Imagine that that this is how the op-ed ends. The volcano went back to sleep and the sky over the Atlantic cleared. Fifteen hours later the Boeing landed at Heathrow, the passengers half drunk and half hung-over, but otherwise unscathed. There, Judith H. Dobrzynski and James Durston seem to have parted ways, never to collaborate again. Judy went back to lucid commentary on the art world, James to commissioning and writing popular travel articles.
What further op-ed wisdom could we have learned from? We can only imagine.
James Pepper Kelly likes words, images, and the plants in his apartment. He writes for ArtSlant and Bad at Sports, and he serves as Managing Director of Filter Photo. He is currently studying to be a pataphysicist. For a little while, back in the early ‘00s, he was really good at Ms. Pac-man.
The sole page of Proteus’ help screen begins “Move with WASD. Look around with the mouse.”
No other controls exist, besides the space bar. Instead of offering a traditional jump, it commands the player’s avatar to sit, peacefully, for as long as they might. The help screen’s final instructions begin with what seems like half of a warning: “Each island is unique, but familiar.”
To move past the title screen and into the game, you begin by clicking the silhouette of a distant island. After fading, the screen opens from a murky black into a gently disappearing elliptical shape, as though you were slowly opening your eyelids. You’ve awoken in what appears to be an endless ocean, a muted sea-green punctuated by the gentle lapping of white reflections. In the distance, you begin to make out the outline of a shrouded landmass. As you trudge towards it, the only anchor in the game’s ceaseless sea, you can practically feel the sunlight of the raincoat-yellow orb shining in the sky.
Everything in Proteus is rendered in a blocky, colorful style that should be familiar to everyone who’s ever seen an early pixelated video game. (Think the “ball” of pong, or the sharp edges of Mario.) But the style isn’t due to a lack of processing power or graphical method; instead, the world’s lack of texture translates into a picturesque canvas of flat colors, almost as though you were gazing directly into a visual interpretation of one of Brian Eno’s ambient tracks.
As you climb onto the shores of your island and walk past the flat browns of tree trunks and across the rolling green hills dotted with single-color flowers and blocks representing dandelions, an ambient soundtrack erupts. These are the changing environs and characters, and your interactions with them feel as though they were entirely up to you.
When somebody completes any video game, they tend to have finished a universal experience. Though the person playing it might have preferred a different gun, or tactic, or motorcycle, their journey is usually one shared by all other players. Certain blockbuster titles, usually role-playing games, offer choice and varied game paths as a selling point. There, you might choose to be a thieving elf that sneaks through danger, or a devil-may-care warrior slaying all in your path. Ultimately, however, the same challenges are present.
Proteus doesn’t exactly offer a challenge. There are no tests of dexterity or hand-eye coordination; there is only your movement through and consideration of the world, your journey. Pass by a stone obelisk and hear a great deep bass noise burst and fade slowly into a background of crickets. Chase a frog and hear its hops become the staccato twang of a distant guitar, or reach a mountainous peak above a plateau of raining clouds and listen to an uplifting crescendo.
Some sound origins are obvious. The crickets cricket, and leaves fall like soft glass. Still, there are other tones I’m uncertain about. Perhaps it was my position on a specific hill, or maybe it was the shadow of a pink-tufted tree. Proteus’ soundtrack—a constant soothing orchestration of hidden instruments—is only one of the complex machinations behind deceitfully simple visuals.
Each island in Proteus is procedurally generated. Algorithmically, one comes together in a way that is unique, but familiar, placed together by a machine, or equation.
At a certain point, the boxy sun sets and is replaced by the moon. Night arrives, marked by a deep blue and a subdued soundtrack. Slowly, the bright dots of the island’s airspace—be they fireflies, wisps, spots of cotton—swirl and gather, until finally, they culminate in a furious whirlwind at the center of a circle of stones. As you approach it, time speeds up. Clouds and stars race above you, the trees around you begin to shudder and dance. The music, now faster, eggs them on. Enter the circle and soon, the screen fades to white, almost as if signaling an end to your time on the island, a quiet release from the frenzied energy. But then island returns, rewarding a patient moment of darkness in the same way a morning welcomes those just stirring from sleep.
The colors have changed slightly, and the music with it. In the air before you dances a swarm of bees. Above you the calm sphere of the sun now has flaring tendrils, shining down harder than before. Vibrant collections of flowers have sprouted up since you walked into the mystical circle of stones and its swirling puffs.
Usually when a game environment transforms, dangers arrive. Night might reveal prowling tigers, shambling zombies, or some spooky other. Proteus remains peaceful, instead signaling the end of its day and condensed season with frenetic motion. Though you act as a catalyst in the seasonal change by entering that swirling circle, you can’t help but feel a small component of a greater cycle; a piece in an action that comes from a living, breathing land mass. The whole island, player included, enters a chrysalis and emerges anew.
Often, a game’s digital world exists solely as a static landscape with one-sided interaction. Usually, it is up to us as individual players to act as the experimental component or the dynamic instrument. But though we, as individuals in a programmed world, might be dynamic, we all fulfill the same role. We are the same cog that fits into a developer’s machine, makes it turn linearly through its universal paces. This tends to result in an identical experience for all who play the same game.
There are pieces of Proteus that hint at an identical experience. You awake in an ocean; you climb ashore a distant island; you swirl through the seasons. But since each island is procedurally generated, no two islands or games will ever truly be the same.
At a certain point during my night in Proteus, a white owl appeared in a tree, staring at me before taking off and flying to the next tree; later, I walked towards the crude ruins of a tower to find myself teleported to another crumbling monument.
I learned later that others retelling their experiences on the game’s forums had not encountered the owl. Instead, one account was dominated by a dark figure that appeared after the night sky had turned red, only to run off, while making sure the player was following. Some played with constellations; some sat in solemn graveyards. While we had all played Proteus, it became clear that we did not share the same experiences; we all wandered through different worlds, encountering familiar aspects in a unique way.
The main difference between unique play in Proteus and role-playing games is agency. In a massive fantasy or space world, the player is given what appears to be wide path to play how they wish. They move through a static world and sculpt it in a pre-designed fashion. Ultimately, the developers of these games give players the gift of agency, the ability to move through that world and shape it.
This also forces the game to be reliant upon the player. Even if a game’s narrative is linear, it depends on the player to advance it. For example, a programmed character within a game may walk a programmed path, forever, until a player enters and engages its route. By interacting with that non-player character (NPC), the player has helped it fulfill its destiny, and furthered the action of the world. The expectation is that the world exists at the behest of the player, and the player is often imbued with the power of a god who may alter the world.
While Proteus as a game—and product— exists for the player, its world isn’t reliant upon a specific player experience. Because it isn’t static, differences occur, many and obviously, around the player. Because the world is produced dynamically, the player must act as a static element with practically no control. And though each player may in turn approach the game in an identical capacity, once the island is generated, it is a fresh, dynamic world each time, reducing the potential for a homogenized experience.
The largest contributor to this success is the way in which Proteus plays with music. The endless cacophony (both aural and visual) that permeates the atmosphere is so incredibly active. As a player explores, animals or flowers don’t change course like an NPC. Instead, they react naturally, not as though they were born for your experience, but almost as if the opposite were true. When you approach an area that produces a sine wave—be it a tree, a slope, or some other mystery—the feeling isn’t that Proteus or the object in Proteus has begun to play for you, but that the sound, or owl, or structure was always there, and you just happened, through a chance generation, to wander into it. Starting a game of Proteus is not like listening to a pre-recorded album, but like listening to the chaotic throng of generative music. And though you might begin and stop Proteus at will, there’s no guarantee that the island’s music will follow.
Paul King is a poet, writer, and video game enthusiast currently living in Chicago, IL. He grew up in Austin, TX and graduated from Bard College with a BA in Liberal and Written Arts.
Rogers Park was the place to be Saturday night with killer back to back openings taking place within blocks of one another. The weather couldn’t have been better and both shows had robust turn outs. Unioned Labors at the aptly named Bike Room featured not one but three different collaborative projects from duos. Small and whimsical, this show packed a big punch. Alberto Aguilar & Alex Bradley Cohen filled the space’s hallway with a mural pieced together with delightfully bold and colorful paintings on cardboard and complimented by a playful soundtrack. Inside the gallery itself a video of Aguliar’s & Cohen workin’ it out in the Bike Room’s backyard that shared a similar soundtrack. Amanda Ross-Ho and her father, Ruyell, used one of his playful abstractions that reads “Less is Not More” to adorn one of Ross-Ho’s signature oversized t-shirts. The most somber offering, Frank Piyatec & Judith Geitchman‘s rhythmic black and white text and abstractions were arranged into a giant checkerboard.
Oren Pinhassi, Untitled, 2013.
Naama Arad, Marfa, 2013.
Rhoades Scholar, curated by New Capital‘s Chelsea Culp and Ben Foch at Iceburg Projects, was similarly sparse yet arresting featuring one piece each from young guns Murat Adash, Naama Arad, Marie Alice BrandNer-Wolfszahn, and Oren Pinhassi. Adash also staged a performance where sightseers focused attention on various objects and people in the Iceberg space during the opening. Particularly mind blowing were Arad’s and Pinhassi’s work. Pinhassi’s backpack looked like it was dipped in papier-mâché and wrapped in a chalk-covered blackboard. The mutant backpack was placed open and empty on the floor revealing that crappy red nylon that’s suppose to be water proof but never really keeps anything safe. Despite all this there was definitely something magnetic about this unassuming backpack combining school daze nostalgia with the sculptural sensibility of Rachel Harrison and Kate Ruggeri. Naama’s sumptuous oil pastel drawing also pulled on our heartstrings by pairing a technique learned in grade school with stunning use of color and line. This rug inspired work was not your grandma’s tapestry.
Work by the family Ho.
Definitely recommend going to the ends of the Red Line to check out these shows. Also recommended: beef patties from the Caribbean American Bakery on the way.
Caribbean American Bakery located at 1539 W Howard Street.
The Weatherman Report
For Chicago IL
Max Ernst, Humboldt Current, 1951-52. Oil on canvas, 36 x 61 cm. Photo: Foundation Beyeler.
The scene at Iceberg Projects Saturday.
Better Luck Next Time leads to Hilarity, Danger
Game show pilot debuts in Steuben, WI
Fed up with the lack of cable television at the Steuben Lodge, ACRE residents and staff took matters into their own hands last weekend recording live the first ever episode of “Better Luck Next Time,” a newlyweds-style game show for artistic duos. Hosted by Carlos Danger and Vanna Ruffino, collaborators were pitted against each other to see who’s vibin’ the hardest.
Hosts Carlos Danger and Vanna Ruffino.
Carlos Danger valiantly and hilariously lead the unwilling contestants to reveal some of their deepest gripes with one another. Points were awarded on a somewhat unconventional basis after the audience mutinied against the show and its producers, demanding sympathetic half-points for weary contestants. Danger and Ruffino were ultimately able to win over the unruly mob and the pilot was a huge live success.
Live from the Chalet Studio.
Lucky to see this early preview, WWT? has heard that there are plans to put the show into syndication in Chicago.
On the podcast this week, Bad at Sports celebrates 8 years, wrapping up the latest season with the Artist as Arbiter panel from CAA 2013. Featuring moderators: Duncan Mackenzie and Shannon R. Stratton, along with panelists: Anthea Black, Laurie Beth Clark & Michael Peterson, E. G. Crichton, Reni Gower, and Philip Von Zweck. That’s all right here.
Samantha Bittman, The Longest Distance Between Two Points, 2011, Acrylic on hand-woven textile
The week began with a great essay by Robert Burnier on the subject of bodies in space, beginning with minimalism, reflecting on Hesse, Samantha Bittman and more as a way to reflect on Burnier’s own artistic practice:
I always think of San Francisco as a place built on idealistic fancy. With its identity still fixed to the 60s, combined with the more recent influence of dotcom entrepreneurs make it a specific site with a specific history. But also, it is simply as far west as one can get before crossing a sea. News from San Francisco via Jeffrey Songco who walks and talks the Mission neighborhood, covering a variety of exhibits currently on view: