Advertisements are a nuisance. The giant ones plastered on billboards and buildings all over major cities – those are eyesores. However, in the new short documentary “Up There,” director Michael Murray may have just articulated a compelling reason for their existence.
“Up There” follows a group of commercial painters as they work on an ad campaign for Stella Artois. Their livelihood — hand-painting giant pictures on the sides of buildings — has been decimated by the ubiquity of hanging vinyl ads, which are cheaper, quicker, and less dangerous to put up. Factoring in competition from electronic signage, it’s easy to understand why these guys are a dying breed.
If you’re like me and thought it’s been decades since advertisements were painted on buildings, you’ll need to start reexamining the advertising that towers over you. Look at the glass of beer against a brick façade. If you didn’t know, Would you ever guess that someone painted that? That it isn’t just a massive photograph hung up there? The idea of a couple of guys suspended high above New York City on ropes, painting only a few square feet at a time, is like pointillism a la Gulliver’s Travels, with Lilliputians on platforms gradually completing a work of art that will ultimately dwarf them. As one of the painters in “Up There” observes, it’s actually like what Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel.
It’s already a bit surreal that we treat our buildings as if they were rock formations to carve messages into, or naked landscapes begging to be clothed. Seeing it happen is even weirder, and the film evokes a startling amount of sympathy for these painters and their impressive, totally-ignored craft. The story is almost heartbreaking and the work is amazing. Sure, it’s just advertising; but for all the gaudiness of huge commercial images, somehow these don’t make my eyes sore.
When I came across the work of the painter Thomas Kinkade, almost a decade ago, I was fascinated and appalled. As you know if you listen to the show, I’m really not a snob — I loved The Hangover, for instance, and don’t really get opera.
But the popularity of Kinkade’s ultra-treacly landscape paintings, produced by the thousand, and the penumbra of religious sanctimony and all-Americanism around their marketing, just staggered me. So I did a rant on the air that you can hear here:
His images seemed to beg for German adjectives — völkisch, kitschy — and now comes the news that another German word is in order: schadenfreude. Because Thomas Kinkade, unable to pay his debts (reportedly in the millions) due to people who say he “used his Christian faith to fraudulently persuade them to open one of the artist’s ‘signature’ galleries,” has declared bankruptcy.
Kehinde Wiley creates big, bold paintings of young black men that are a throwback to 18th century classical portraiture. His sitters strike regal poses against vibrant, ornate patterns, wearing colorful T-shirts, caps and baggy jeans. It’s like Baroque gone day-glo. Opening today at the Deitch Projects gallery in New York is a new exhibit of Wiley’s portraits called “Black Light.”
The exhibit presents an interesting twist on Wiley’s work — the figures are photographs; only the backgrounds are painted. Wiley’s other portraits are originally based on photos, so it’s interesting to see one layer peeled away from his process. The end result is equally striking.
Last summer, Kurt visited Wiley in his Brooklyn studio. He was working on a series of paintings of African men from Dakar and Lagos.
Kurt and Kehinde in the artist's studio, July 2008
Kehinde told Kurt how, as a kid, he was inspired by the British portraiture at the Huntington Library in California, and at the same moment realized, “there weren’t people who happened to look like me. By and large I was the black kid there.” You can listen to the interview here: