From street to studio

By Brianna Wellen

Walking past the pop-up gallery on Adams Street, a mushroom stem can be seen creeping out from behind the newly constructed wall. Behind the wall, the whole mushroom painting remains intact. Above a nondescript door in the heart of Wicker Park, a group of carefully executed kiwi fruit adorns a boarded-up window. Beneath layers of city sanctified paint on the back of a North Side stop sign, the memory of a mango paste-up lingers. A blue circle on each painted piece of produce clearly signifies who’s been there. The Grocer has left his mark.

While his work started on the street, The Grocer brought his signature blue sticker and fruit and vegetable theme to the studio. Now, his paintings are done on canvas, his work is sold online and his street paste-ups serve as exhibition pieces in non-conventional galleries. And it’s not just The Grocer. Artists who worked on the streets in the ‘80s are now critically acclaimed muralists. Graffiti artists trained in classical painting are moving to studio work and anonymous artists are compromising their principles and becoming involved in group exhibitions. Thanks to avant-garde venues and a growing cultural following, street art is making its way more and more into the gallery system.

For The Grocer, the entire process of putting art on the street was fascinating. He began seeing pieces that were not only graffiti-like tags but also wheat-paste paintings where the artist could spend hours painting a piece at home and then put it up in locations around the city. With a degree in painting and print making from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, The Grocer grew curious about the world of street art, he said. Three years ago, he worked obsessively on his fruit and vegetable work and put it up all around Chicago in Wicker Park, Pilsen and the downtown area.

“Street artists and graffiti artists will often talk about getting addicted to it,” The Grocer said. “[It’s like] you’re a tagger, and you want to get up more. Everywhere in the city you can’t stop thinking about it, and you never go anywhere without your paint markers. I kind of got addicted to it, and I put a ton of stuff up that summer.”

The art’s immediacy and the wide exposure draw a lot of artists to the street. An artist works on a painting one day, then the next day millions of people in Chicago see it. Unfortunately for these artists, graffiti and paste-ups are illegal in Chicago and often work that takes days to create is taken down or painted over after just a few hours on the street. Artists tend to remain anonymous, using tag names and personal secrecy to protect themselves not only from jail time, but also to protect their reputation at work, home, etc.

Chris Silva, who began doing graffiti in the city in 1986 at a young age, found a different outlet to display his street style without this fear. Working with graffiti type and urban-stylized forms, he used color to bring life and inspiration to dark spaces. He assumes his original street work is long gone as other artists paint over it or the city cleans it up, but after getting involved with the Chicago Public Art Group, his mural work will remain a part of the city’s landscape for a long time. In doing so, he collaborated with other street artists in the group on many projects that maintained the street style without anonymity or any illegal implications.

“[The Chicago Public Art Group] felt good about handing projects my way when something seemed appropriate to my style,” Silva said. “Some street artists might have no concern about being paid for their artwork, and it just might be something they do with their free time and they have another job, but anybody who wants to work as an artist is going to definitely benefit from having organizations like [The Chicago Public Art Group] to help them transition into that world.”

Much like The Grocer, Silva moved to the studio with his work and is now highly acclaimed in the gallery circuit. In 2011, he will be featured at the Chicago Urban Art Society, 2229 S. Halsted St., a gallery that reaches out to its connections in the street and urban art world to feature artists in its gallery alongside classic photographers and oil painters. Peter Kepha and Lauren Pacheco, the brother-sister team who run the gallery, accommodate the street artists who show their work there, but they want these artists to be able to sell their work first and foremost.

“Some people don’t want to [sell work], they don’t have any interest in gallery work; it’s all about the thrill of the street and they’re happy with that,” Kepha said. “Some people obviously want to make the change but there’s something very different about putting work up on the street and bringing that work into the gallery. You can’t do the same kind of quality work on the street as you do in a gallery. Sometimes there’s a little gap that they can’t fill.”

The Grocer agrees the transition isn’t always easy. According to him, many street artists in their studio work will bring in boards from the trash to paint on instead of a canvas, and the level of craftsmanship isn’t always up to gallery standards. Even if the style remains the same, the quality needs to go up or people won’t be interested in buying work they can easily admire on the street. This reputation causes problems in the gallery system, he said.

“One of the things about street art and urban art is that it has this weird undervalue nature to it,” The Grocer said. “I would say a good example of how it’s undervalued by institutions or gallery spaces, if you look at pricing even, there’s always this kind of drive for this kind of work to be priced lower and lower.”

At the Chicago Urban Art Society, for example, Kepha realizes a lot of the urban artists have a strong street following who won’t necessarily be able to afford thousand-dollar artworks. Its gallery tries to offer smaller reprints or screen prints at a lower price point and the larger-scale pieces in the upper thousands so as to not undervalue the quality of work in the hopes someone will make an investment. For Chicago Artists Month in October, a pop-up gallery will be set up at State and Adams streets featuring and selling the works of local, national and international street artists at varying price points.

“Translating those little street things into a really nice screen-printed poster, someone’s definitely going to jump on that,” Kepha said. “You need to offer something that you can get for $25 but also something that is priced at $5,000 or $10,000.”

Hot Box, a mobile gallery designed specifically for street artists, connects more to the demographic of artists who don’t want to sell their work. Many involved are still active on the street and Hot Box owner, Tara Lynch (known in the art world as Tara D.), faces challenges setting up her shows with artists who aren’t fully ready to leave the street and commit to the gallery artist lifestyle.

“They’re just as elusive as you would think,” Lynch said. “Right now I think they all know each other, so if I bug one enough they all bug each other enough for me. It’s all going to work.”

The Grocer and five other street artists will participate in Hot Box’s “Corner Store” show starting Oct. 7 at Wabash Avenue and Adams Street. The inside of Lynch’s Hot Box truck will feature local artists’ paste-up work all pertaining to the “Corner Store” theme and the outside of the truck will be painted in a graffiti style.

“Even though it’s a gallery, it functions in that same vein of street art in a lot of ways because it’s putting the art in a public space, an unexpected public space,” Lynch said.

She sees her space as an easier transition for street artists to make into a gallery setting without entering the typical system of buying and selling work.

“I personally think the whole movement to the gallery or the underground gallery kind of thing isn’t really about, ‘Oh I don’t want my work to get buffed,’” Lynch said. “It’s more about what I’m doing is important and I want to share it with people who actually think it is important. It’s part of their life, and they appreciate it. It’s not seen in the same scale as the commercial gallery world, but there is obviously a huge culture who does appreciate it.”

Even with alternative galleries popping up across the city, The Grocer said he will return his work to the street soon. In the end for him, and many other street artists alike, it’s about producing art.

“Whether you’re doing it on the street or part of this urban art show system, you’re not doing it for money,” he said. “You’ve got to be doing it for love.”