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FineArtViews Interview: RJ Rushmore -- Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Vandalog

by Brian Sherwin on 9/21/2011 12:15:32 PM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Conservative Punk, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint, Vandalog, COMPANY and Art Fag City. Disclaimer: This author's views are entirely his/her own and may not reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


Vandalog has quickly risen to become one of the most visited street art blogs in the world. With a stable of contributing and guest writers Vandalog offers up to date information about street art -- as the blog declares, if something matters in the world of street art, you can read about it on Vandalog. From articles that expose clothing companies that have 'ripped off' street artists to interviews with street artists who are making an impact in their communities -- Vandalog is on the story.

 

I recently communicated with RJ Rushmore -- the founder of Vandalog -- in order to ask him some questions about street art in general... and the direction that street art is going.

 

Brian Sherwin: Vandalog started in 2008 -- since that time it has quickly become one of the leading art blogs for street art. If you follow street art online you know Vandalog. With that in mind, can you discuss some of the early history of Vandalog... why did you decide to start Vandalog?

 

RJ Rushmore: There were three reasons for starting Vandalog. First, the particularly childish one: I was a senior in high school when I started Vandalog. I was pretty active in my school newspaper, when I didn't get appointed editor-in-chief and neither did any of my friends, I was sort of bitter. Starting Vandalog was a way to be in charge of something, channel my writing elsewhere and sort of show those guys up.

 

The slightly less childish reason is that my dad and I became interested in street art together, and as many of my critics will point out, he's an art collector. Vandalog was a way to differentiate myself from him. As much as possible, I try to not be "that collector's son." Thanks to Vandalog, most of the artists I interact with now know me as "The Vandalog guy" rather than "that guy who if I'm nice to his dad might buy a painting." It's a way to be involved in a world I'm interested in without being an artist.

 

And the not-childish reason: Vandalog is a way for me and the other contributors to share what we love with a much wider audience than just our friends. We enjoy showing people new things and supporting artists that we believe in.

 

Sherwin: Since the 1980s-- the point at which mainstream galleries started to notice street art-- there has been discussion about the direction of street art as a whole. Some feel that street art, in order to truly be 'street art', should not be surrounded by four walls OR created with galleries -- or merchandise for that matter -- in mind. In recent years the debate has been fueled further. Shepard Fairey's involvement with the Obama campaign in 2008 and MOCA's 'Art in the Streets' exhibit -- specifically the connection to Jeffrey Deitch -- appear to have made the issue hotter than it has ever been. With all of this in mind, what are your thoughts on the issue? Is the continuation of the history of street art being blurred by dollar signs -- and the hunger that some notable street artists have for fame? If so, is that not necessarily a 'bad' thing?

 

Rushmore: If we're getting technical, no I wouldn't say that a Banksy stencil on canvas is "street art," in the same way that something Blade paints on canvas is not "graffiti." Street art and graffiti are defined by a concept which dictates where they are made. But the same stencil that Banksy does on the street and then moves to canvas is still "art" even if it is not "street art." Sometimes that stencil will make more sense outdoors and sometimes it will make more sense indoors.

 

Many modern street artists, particularly in LA at this moment, are completely ruled by the almighty dollar. And some reject it entirely. It's difficult to say if that's a good or a bad thing. Kaws was always thinking about the dollar, and his artwork turned out okay. Alec Monopoly seems very interested in the dollar, and his work suffers massively because of it, but it sells. On the other hand, Troy Lovegates aka Other is a fantastic artist indoors and outdoors who pretty much sells just enough artwork over flickr to survive and travel the world on the cheap.

 

Right now, many street artists seem to expect that doing some wheatpastes will allow them to sell work indoors. That's unfortunate. Basically, we're in a bubble. But I think the basic opportunity for street artists to sell their work is a good thing. It means that their work will be preserved and they will be able to spend more time making art.

 

Let's say, as I do on my more pessimistic days, that Banksy and Shepard Fairey and everyone in street art whose work sells for more than $10,000 per painting are just in it for the money and the fame. Well, who are they harming? In the mean time, their murals, which of course double as advertisements of their art, still make the world a more interesting place, and most people won't see those murals as advertising.

 

There's always a new crop of street artists coming up, many of whom will start out doing street work for the love of it. I don't think that street art will always be as popular as it is now, but I do think there will always be street art and new street artists, some who will be looking to make a buck and some who won't be.

 

Sherwin: When I interviewed Blek le Rat for FineArtViews he suggested how anyone can claim to be -- and gain exposure as -- a street artist today simply by documenting the work -- even if minimal -- online. Blek said, "This is the price to be paid for the fact that street art has become mainstream.". He also made it clear that it is not enough to say, "I am a street artist", to be one. I got the sense that he felt that many so-called street artists are getting credit for their work without earning their dues on the streets -- and that some are embracing 'street artist' as an opportunistic way to 'fit' themselves within the mainstream art world and art culture in general. Based on your experiences -- is this a problem? What are your thoughts? 

 

Rushmore: This is going to sound a bit egotistical, but I know for a fact that there are galleries where the first thing they do every morning is read Vandalog, Wooster Collective and maybe a couple other sites. And I've seen artists get promoted on blogs who soon find themselves showing in galleries because of those blog posts. Artists who have never shown indoors are suddenly selling thousands of dollars worth of work overnight. That freaks me out.

 

I'm not going to give you some look at street art through rose-colored glasses. A very large chunk of street artists who appear on blogs or have flickr accounts or facebook pages or whatever else are trying to use their street art to promote a gallery career. And there are definitely artists who simply do a few pieces and then document the work really well so that it spreads online. But I'm not sure I completely agree with Blek about saying that these artists aren't really street artists.

 

This is something I've been thinking about a lot recently and I'm still working through it, but it seems to me that the internet is as valid a place for art as the street. And the advantage of increased documentation of street art is that talented street artists in places like Brussels or Valencia or New Mexico who actually do get up can have their work noticed by people outside of their cities. The market for street art in Barcelona is surprisingly small, but because Ripo documents his pieces really well, he is able to get up in Barcelona, show his work online and sell canvases to people in London or New York.

 

Even if some artists are "using" the street solely as a way of jumping on a bandwagon and hoping that their work will get seen now that it's painted on a wall, what these artists don't realize is that the Internet is a giant playground for art too. So if the photos of their murals spread virally on tumblr or facebook, that's not too different from people seeing their work on the street and telling their friends to check it out.

 

Sherwin: Blek also mentioned that he feels that street art is currently at a turning point -- that street art will either return to the direction of its roots or continue on a direction that is more focused on fame and fortune than on offering "true" visual messages. In his criticism he mentioned that it will be difficult for street art, as he knows it, to survive if there are "ten thousand pseudo-street artists whose only aim is to get fame and money." That said, he also offered that "if there are talented people who have a true message and choose to share this on the walls, then street art is heading for good days.". Based on what you've observed... is street art at a turning point? If so, what do you think the outcome will be?

 

Rushmore: Most of the street artists based in LA fall blatantly into the fame and fortune camp. Most street artists getting up today probably fall into that camp, but it's particularly bad and blatant in LA. But I believe that there are always going to be people who are doing street art for more than fame and money, and those artists will shine through in the long run.

 

For a few artists who are doing street art for love, check out the line ups for the Living Walls conferences in Atlanta and Albany. I don't believe street art is at so much of a turning point because even if fame and money become the motivation for 99% of the world's active street artists, there will always be that young kid with a new stencil, balls and a good heart. Well, maybe it's a turning point, but not a point of no return. 

 

Sherwin: The idea of "pseudo-street artists" is interesting. I can see how an artist may pursue street art simply to 'fit' within a historical context of art -- as in, the only motivation for starting is to fit in a category that happens to be trending within the mainstream art world at this time. However, I will take this further -- would you say that a legitimate street artist, if you will, can lose his or her direction due to mainstream success and in turn become a "pseudo-street artist". For example, if a successful street artist no longer creates art on the streets -- and instead focuses on gallery works, merchandizing, and hiring others to do the actual 'street art' -- has he or she become, as Blek would put it, a "pseudo-street artist"? Or is it a bit more complicated than that in your opinion?

 

Rushmore: Street art is about a concept or a spiritual drive that unites artists across so many different mediums and styles. If that concept is no longer there, the work isn't really street art. Instead, it becomes pseudo-street art or often just advertising pretending to be street art. The concept that unites almost all street art is a need communicate with people or change an environment for the benefit of others without being constricted by a bureaucracy.

 

If that concept no longer applies, the work probably isn't good street art, and it may not be street art at all, although it may still be good art. So now I guess the next question is, "Does Shepard Fairey still follow that concept with his work?" If he's abandoned that concept, he is a pseudo-street artist. If not, he's still a street artist.

 

Sherwin: Speaking of Shepard Fairey -- some within the street art community are very protective of how their fellow artists are presented by art writers. Certain individuals seem to only expect positive accolades from the media. For example, the graffiti / street artist -- and self-described "living legend", SABER recently took offense to some of my criticism of his friend Shepard Fairey -- whom he has collaborated with in the past. In fact, he threatened me on Twitter of all places -- stating, "If you are not careful the south side will come to you". He then suggested that I only write about street art because it is trending -- even though I've written on and off about street art since at least 2005. Obviously I'm not that concerned -- but I must ask you... have you ever faced anger from street artists you have discussed on Vandalog?

 

Rushmore: Definitely. One thing that I most respect in an artist is the ability to take criticism. Some artists can, and some artists can't. I've criticized Ben Eine's work on Vandalog, but I've also praised him. Some artists would be confused or upset, but every personal interaction I've ever had with Ben has been overwhelmingly positive. Same thing with Retna. And surprisingly, when I met Mr. Brainwash, he was happy to sign my black book even though he seemed to know that I have a strong dislike of his artwork. By all accounts, he is a stand-up guy outside of his art-making.

 

I don't want to call out any artists in particular who have become angry at me after a bad review or lack of coverage though, since most of those negative interactions happen privately. An exception to that was last year when C215 did react quite strongly and publicly to a negative review I gave of one of his solo shows, but we've since made up and the first thing he did when I last saw him, the first time I'd seen him since that negative review, was give me a hug. Other artists/people who are mad at me (and there are plenty) should identify themselves in the comments of this post. 

 

Sherwin: Over the years I've interviewed a number of street artists -- or artists associated with street art, such as -- Mark Jenkins, Cleon Peterson (who at the time was working with Shepard Fairey), D*Face and Poster Boy. I'm certain your knowledge of who's who in street art is far greater than mine. That said, can you point our readers to street artists that they may not have heard of... up and comers who you feel deserve some attention? 

 

Rushmore: There are a lot of names I could go on and on about, but I'll stick to just two. Jordan Seiler is largely responsible for a recent renewed interested, around the world, in billboard and advertisement take-overs. Like Poster Boy, whom he has collaborated with, Jordan's work messes with advertising in public spaces, particularly ads that are put up illegally by large companies that don't need to break the law to advertise their products.

 

His artwork, his blog (publicadcampaign.org) and the art projects he organizes are educating people and getting them excited about taking the streets back from advertisers. Last year, I brought Jordan to my college and he ran a workshop that ended with about 10 of us covering up small billboards at two Pennsylvania trains stations. It was an eye-opening experience for the participants, many of whom just hadn't known before how easy it is to change the environment in which you live.

 

And Troy Lovegates aka Other is an artist who has been around for a while, but he's only recently getting the success that he deserves. His drawings and paintings are like folk art portraiture on acid.

 

Sherwin: In closing, at this specific time... who do you think are the trailblazers of street art in general? Artists who are taking their work beyond what people normally associate as the materials used for creation of art on the streets. For example, the street installations by Mark Jenkins are a departure from what people would normally expect... can you name any others?

 

Rushmore: What really fascinates me are projects like KATSU's fake graffiti videos and Letterbombing. These artists bring street art and graffiti to a new digital frontier. Saber is doing something similar with his upside-down flags on Twitter, where he adds hashtags like "#foxnews" in order to pollute their twitter steam with anti-Fox messages. I think it's possible that the future for a lot of street art and graffiti lies in the digital realm.

 

Sticking to just the physical world, interactive pieces seem to be one way forward. Faile, NohJColey, El Tono and others have made street art that encourage viewer participation. Swoon is still working on something like this; it's a house in New Orleans that will be able to be played as a musical instrument. These interactive pieces (usually movable sculptures, but not always) are better than a poster at creating a connection between the viewer and the object, and if there's a connection between the viewer and the object, it may encourage a connection between the viewer and their environment. Most importantly though, interactive pieces are often just more fun than more static street art.

 

One thing I think artists need to be careful of is moving too far in a conceptual direction. Most conceptual street art and some abstract street art gets lost in the outdoor environment to the point where it is unseen and/or incomprehensible to anyone who isn't looking at documentation of the work online or in a book alongside an artist statement explaining the piece. To me, that's not street art. That's artists utilizing public space for their art, but it isn't street art.

 

Take care, Stay true

 

Brian Sherwin



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Topics: art appreciation | art criticism | art history | Art World | Brian Sherwin | FineArtViews | FineArtViews Interview Series | street art | Think Tank 

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