There has been something of an explosion of young British street art over the last year or so. Partly fuelled by the stratospheric rise of Banksy from agit-art prankster selling ¬£40 prints to mainstream gallery artist with six-figure sales in major auction houses.
In Banksy's wake are a whole host of graffiti artists‚Äìcum‚Äîgraphic designers fuelling an art-buying/ print-buying boom mainly through London based silkscreen company Pictures On Walls. Undoubtedly most of these artists will fade rather more quickly than the ink on their screenprints but there are a few who are offering some truly extraordinary work and are reaping the benefits of eager new art lovers who are once again looking at street based art on gallery walls.
Hidden in an alleyway off one of London's prime West End retail streets - and almost in sight of the giant glittering Freddie Mercury statue that has reigned for the past five years from above the Dominion theatre (that golden favourite of all Outsideleft regular readers) - is one of London's most interesting commercial galleries.
Originally built in 1904 as a place to create theatrical scenic paintings Elms Lesters Painting Rooms has built a reputation as an important space for street and graffiti inspired artists. The gallery has been exhibiting the likes of Phil Frost, Stash, Futura and Kaws since the 1990s. As the owner will tell you with a wry smile, they were exhibiting graffiti inspired artists a long time before anybody actually realised they should be buying any of it. The gallery recently hosted "In Selected Stores Only... a group show with work by Frost, WK Interact, Space Invader, Anthony Lister and Adam Neate.
Adam Neate is probably the most interesting of this new wave of British artists. A painter who is classed as a street artist in as much as he began by leaving his paintings on the street for anybody to take
Back in 1997, after years of painting and painting, so much so that he no longer had any space in his flat, Neate decided to gift a bunch of paintings to his local charity shop. The shop was closed so he left them by the door. The next day on his way home from work he discovered his paintings had been left out with the rubbish.
"To preserve my paintings dignity from being charity shop rejects I quickly bundled them together to carry back home", remembers Neate. "But I realised my flat didn't have enough space for the paintings and I didn't want them anymore. It was then I had the idea to just leave them in the street, hanging them on walls and lampposts. To begin with it looked kind of funny and surreal to see a street with paintings like a gallery"
Now with an outlet for his work Neate began to paint prolifically and staged impromptu exhibitions outside the Tate and around the streets of East London. Exhibitions where all the work was available for anybody to pick up and take away.
Neate became aware of other artist through seeing their stencils and stickers on the walls as he walked around his neighbourhood.
"All of this was completely new to me", he says. "I had never really thought of what I was doing as "street art". No one else was doing what I was doing. It became an obsession. I would paint 10-20 paintings a night, wake up the next day and
leave them in the streets. 100 a week! I had made something my own thing and created my own personal art movement with no real rules other than it was to be found in the streets".
Neate came to the attention of Elms Lesters and he was offered a show. His gallery work is different to his free street paintings. More developed, more intense.
"I wanted to keep my street work separate from anything I did in a
conventional gallery space but somehow translate the feeling of the
work and what it means to me. Cardboard had been my canvas for
so long in a different way so I decided to try and sculpt with the cardboard. I would paint, or use found objects or materials. It became a mixture of everything I had learnt on the streets all mixed into one - painting, expressionism, cubism, surrealism, fauvism and just raw feelings."
It's hard to appreciate how vibrant and alive Neate's work is without seeing it in the flesh. A small computer image barely conveys the depth of the pieces. The larger than life figures loom out of the box frames. The artwork is audacious, ambitious and very much alive.
"I want the gallery work to have the same smack in the face impact than if
you were walking down the street and found one of my smaller
cardboard pieces", says Neate. "I'll continue leaving work in the streets as it's a very big part of what I do; it's my inspiration to what happens on the gallery walls. One hand washes the other."
Information on Neate and Elms Lesters Painting Rooms can be found here
Kirk Lake is a writer, musician and filmmaker. His published books include Mickey The Mimic (2015) and The Last Night of the Leamington Licker (2018). His films include the feature films Piercing Brightness (2014) and The World We Knew (2020) and a number of award winning shorts.
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