By: Angela Guardiani
Some of the best conversations I’ve had are about art — or really, what art is. Is it a framed painting of dogs playing poker? A multi-million dollar canvas that’s nothing but three stripes of solid colour? Anonymous street art? How about street art credited to the world’s most famous underground celebrity? Is Banksy’s graffiti art?
Banksy is the street name of an anonymous graffiti artist who has built up an unlikely empire of cheeky, anti-establishment pieces. His earliest and best-known pieces are stenciled onto walls on city corners in Bristol, England, but very soon he expanded into selling screenprints and canvasses. The sale of those prints funded more ambitious projects — wildly popular shows in the UK and US, collaborations with musicians, performance art pieces — and now Banksy is well-known for huge, satirical installations, like Dismaland (the most miserable place on earth) and the Walled Off Hotel (a hotel with the “worst view in the world,” looking over the Israeli-Palestine border). There are a few Banksy pieces scattered around Toronto, but if you’re interested in seeing more than eighty pieces in a funky, industrial setting, you can head over to 213 Sterling Road and the retrospective, The Art of Banksy.
The exhibit is not organized by Banksy — it’s not thematically connected. Instead, the show’s been curated by Steve Lazarides, a photographer who became Banksy’s friend and agent in the late 1990s. The story that unfolds at the spectacular space of 213 Sterling is one of Banksy’s rise to prominence as seen through the eyes of someone who’s tagging along for the ride of his life. Thanks to his relationship with Banksy, Lazarides has become a prominent agent in the modern art world, although he admits that he hasn’t spoken to Banksy in years.
So — is it art? Corey Ross, president of Starvox (the company that’s brought the show to Toronto) is enthusiastic in his answer. It’s not so much that the art has some kind of intrinsic value, but it’s that it sparks lively conversation and debate. Ross shares that he brought his own teenage daughter to a smaller Banksy show in Amersterdam and later spent hours discussing what they’d seen, and it’s true that Banksy’s raison d’être is to be provocative.
Rude Copper portrays a very English bobbie giving the viewer the bird, and there are also pieces showing English authority figures with a visual twist — Winston Churchill with a bright green mohawk, for example, or Queen Victoria sitting proudly on the splayed legs of a woman wearing heels and a garter belt. But there are also some genuinely playful pieces, too. I’ve always enjoyed Banksy’s Pulp Fiction tribute, showing John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson holding bananas instead of guns.
Banksy makes a lot of art about art, as in the examples I’ve mentioned — he uses figures and images that are already part of the collective awareness. In the first half of the exhibit, you’ll see screenprints and canvases of his better-known street art pieces. As Lazarides tracks Banksy’s rise through a major Los Angeles exhibit, though, you’ll start to see pieces from shows (a winged soldier with an emoji-happy face, unsettling and ambiguous) and museums (an absolutely spectacular “stained-glass” window, several stories high, at the very end of the show.)
There’s been a lot of criticism about the perceived commercialism of The Art of Banksy. As in the title of his film, you indeed exit through the gift shop. But as Corey points out, it simply isn’t possible to see this much Banksy in one place at one time any other way. And I feel that it adds another layer to the questions I asked above — if you can see it elsewhere for free, is it art? Does how much we spend on it affect how valuable it is? After seeing The Art of Banksy, I can promise that you’ll have some very interesting questions to think about afterwards.
The Art of Banksy shows at 213 Sterling Road until August 19. Tickets are $35 ($32.50 for students and seniors, and free for children under 5) and are available at the door or online at banksyexhibit.com.