Stash interviewed in his studio, Brooklyn, NY. 11th Feb 2008 for Elms Lesters Painting Rooms
This essay was first published in the ELMS LESTERS book
“Isn’t it odd that, whenever we’re on the verge of a recession, art becomes a really good commodity because it’s the only thing that’s solid at that point. On Wall Street when the Dow is low, art becomes predominant and art is really strong right now.”
The week before meeting Stash in his Brooklyn studio, strong sales at the first auction in London exclusively to feature work by international graffiti and street artists led a Financial Times’ headline to proclaim “Urban art enters mainstream”.
“I don’t agree with that, but that’s okay. It will never happen because we’ll never be accepted as anything more than that. They called us a subculture, like ‘you’re not even part of culture – you’re below’. I took that and named my first company Subware to say to whoever they are that label us, okay I make clothes for us.”
Stash is clear on definitions and although he doesn’t like the labels society has for people, people love his labels. His Subware and Recon clothing lines are synonymous with urbanite sartorial edge. He is categorical, though, that he doesn’t make “urban art” and neither is he a “street artist”. “I’m a graffiti subway artist”, he says, and has been since he was 14. As a New York kid travelling the subway to school he became inspired by the visual punch of graffiti artists at the beginning of the Eighties. “I started reading it like hieroglyphics – wow, this guy Skeme, he’s all over the place, I want in! I’m still blown away and excited by it.”
The hieroglyph idea offers a useful way into Stash’s own work. Its dictionary definition – “a stylised picture of an object representing a word” – sets up the multi-layered interplay within a typical Stash spray painting between image, object and language.
Stash doesn’t make notes, there’s no pre-prepared sketch. He’s all-in or nothing (in art as in life). “I put the line up, the skeleton, and that’s pretty clean.” In other words, minimal alterations are required to his instinctive graphic layout. The skeleton of a word laid down in 2-D black and white then takes on the flesh of colour. In this way, the initial image becomes object and the word takes 3-D shape. The complexity lies in the way the artist sets up a series of dynamic tensions in the composition between (il)legibility and pure visual impact.
Stash uses the arrow, for example, in two ways: both to heighten the linear flow of his picture whilst simultaneously disrupting the recognisability of the word he’s depicting. It makes for a stronger painting. Just as the avant-garde Italian Futurist artists a century ago used the chevron, Stash employs the arrow as a pictorial building block, a kind of interactive symbol which denotes concentrated dynamic power whilst at the same time being graphically strong enough to break free of narrative associations. Whether the root of the word-picture is the artist’s name or a verbal message to the viewer, the overall effect of the work remains instantly recognisable as an accumulation of graphic signs that is distinctively Stash, his signature style without having to work literally as a written signature. That makes for a stronger identity.
The density and solidity of the Stash graphic style derive in part from the restrictions on manual control that the subway graffiti painter has to overcome when “bombing” a location under severe constraints of lighting, positioning and time.
“When you’re in a dark tunnel and you’re on a platform maybe a foot and a half deep and you’re painting something 12 feet long and you can’t step back far enough to look at it and then when the subway train moves away the perspective is so on, it’s like – kerpow! That bowled me over immediately, still does.”
It’s down to such physical limitations that Stash sees the subway graffiti artist’s mural as representing “a certain romantic twist on street art”, distinctly different to the output of a “street artist” like, say, Keith Haring. Composition and aesthetic effect are as much bound up with the situation in which the work is made as the intention behind it.
Conventional art historical discussions on “how a picture works” are rooted in the Italian Renaissance where an ongoing debate between artists focused on the relative merits and strengths within composition of disegno versus colorito, art theory terms whose meaning went far beyond their literal translation (in this respect, perhaps, like a graffiti subway painting). Put simply, disegno – meaning “drawing”, and related to our word “design” – carried with it the connotation of invention and intellect as opposed to colorito – meaning “colouring” – but signifying sensory, transient effects at odds with the instinctive creativity of disegno’s line.
Putting this to Stash, he sees the historical link straightaway, acknowledging that this creative tension between line and colour has always been intrinsic to the graffiti artist’s way of working.
“As a young artist you’re a ‘toy’ until you’ve got your name. To get out of that, people used to battle each other, challenge each other: ‘I will give you every colour on the Krylon chart and I will burn you with a silver and a black. All I need is two colours and I’ll show you my thing.’”
The graphic toughness of Stash’s Eighties’ graffiti apprenticeship is borne out by such anecdotes, where the underlying distillation of linear technique, alongside the exclusion of colour effects for their own sake, lies at the heart of a subway artist’s technical development.
“We become colourists in order to make the hard rigidity, the graphic intensity, more digestible. Colour relationships in the end are three-quarters of what you do, because for those who can’t read it they’ll respond to the aesthetic.”
Moving away from the spray-painted pictogram in the recent Untitled series of silkscreen prints on canvas, Stash sets up elegant aesthetic oppositions using repeat background patterns of monochromatic spray-can nozzles overlaid with vibrant colour “splat” drips. There’s a quirky conceptualism to the clean-edged, decorative simplicity with which Stash depicts the dripping, leaking tools of his trade using a clinical machine-printing technique.
“If it bends it’s funny, if it breaks it’s not funny. I like to bend everything. The spray nozzle is an important icon for me – I’ve always used it. It’s all about spray control, can you use the nozzle?”
Pushing this paradox of depicting via mechanical process the accidental spatter and spurt of paints that were originally intended for lawn furniture and automobiles, Stash has gone on to experiment with stills photography, making stark representations of the iconic cans themselves. On virtually every surface in Stash’s studio stands a vintage Krylon or Rustoleum can, brands which he continues to collect for their historical value and sentimental significance. Even though Stash celebrates the technological advances that the Montana brand have since made in making available every single hue – “comes out amazingly, ready to go” – he still exudes the personal excitement the vintage paint containers bring out in him sighing, “Man, that Rusto purple….”
Stash’s experimentation with materials only continues a trend he established early on, notably at the 1983 Fun Gallery exhibition where his works combined spray, acrylic and marker on canvas. Although this mixed-media approach was criticised by some in the graffiti-writing community at that time, these paintings were smaller and for the shift in scale Stash saw the need to gear-shift some of the disegno down to a thinner pen mark written into the thicker spray. “The marker will do this line and you follow it”, like Paul Klee taking a line for a walk perhaps, except here the mark-making wrist played off against arc-making elbow, manual dexterity brought under the control of a formidable mental energy which constantly seeks out the next pictorial challenge:
“What’s the favourite piece I’ve done? The next one I didn’t do yet”.
Ben Jones, April 2008