Review: ‘Driven to Abstraction,’ starring Patricia Cohen, Martha Parrish, Luke Nikas, M.H. Miller, Hongtu Zhang, Victoria Sears Goldman and Laura Gilbert

August 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Luke Nikas in “Driven to Abstraction” (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

“Driven to Abstraction”

Directed by Daria Price

Culture Representation: The true-crime documentary “Driven to Abstraction” features a predominately white group of people (with a few Asians) discussing the art forgery scandal that shut down Knoedler Gallery in New York City and resulted in lawsuits and criminal prosecution.

Culture Clash: The scandal was an example of how the world of fine art (where one painting can be worth millions) is susceptible to forgeries, with art dealers as knowing or unwitting accomplices to the forgeries.

Culture Audience: “Driven to Abstraction” will mostly appeal to people interested in true-crime stories or the inner workings of the fine-art world.

Patricia Cohen in “Driven to Abstraction” (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

The documentary “Driven to Abstraction” (directed by Daria Price) takes a fascinating look at how greed and the often-secretive world of art dealing collided and exploded into one of the biggest art scandals in history: Knoedler Gallery, which was New York City’s oldest art gallery, was accused of selling about $80 million worth of forged paintings from 1994 to 2009.

The scandal led to the abrupt closure of Knoedler in 2011, after being in business for 165 years. It came out during the investigation that Knoedler had been in serious financial trouble in the final decade before it closed. The money from the forgeries had been keeping the business afloat and was the main reason why the business hadn’t shut down sooner. All of this is such a compelling story that another documentary film has been made about the scandal: director Barry Avrich’s “Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art,” which has been making the rounds at film festivals in 2020 and is expected to be released in 2021.

One of the people at the center of the scandal was Knoedler’s longtime director Anne Freedman, who was accused of selling 40 forged paintings for about $60 million from 1994 to 2009, the year that she resigned from the company. Freedman received these paintings from an obscure art dealer named Glafira Rosales, who was based on New York’s Long Island. Rosales said she was selling these rare paintings on behalf of a wealthy friend who wished to remain anonymous.

This mystery seller claimed that he inherited the paintings, which were bought by one or both of his parents directly from the artists in the artists’ homes in “top secret” sales. The mystery seller also insisted that the paintings be acquired by private collectors, because it was supposedly his parents’ wish as part of the inheritance. Alfonso Ossorio, who died in 1990 at the age of 74, was a well-known artist from the Philippines, whose name was given as the supposed liaison who gave access to the art world to the mystery seller’s parents, whose names were also kept a secret from buyers.

All of the paintings that Rosales sold to Knoedler were forgeries. The artists whose paintings were forged included Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Lee Krasner and Sam Francis. Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, the live-in boyfriend of Rosales, would be exposed as the ringleader for the forgeries, according to law enforcement.

Why did these forgery sales go on for so long? And who was creating these forged paintings? The forgeries turned out to be work of Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese immigrant/former art student who had been in the United States since the early 1980s. At the time of the forgery sales, Qian was living in the New York City borough of Queens, where he created all of the forged paintings in his home.

As news reports, court documents and this documentary point out, there were many red flags that could have prevented these forgery sales from continuing as long as they did. For starters, the story kept changing about the mystery seller. Rosales and Freedman told different people different things about this mystery seller.

The contradictions included that the mystery seller’s country of origin was either the Philippines or Mexico and that he was living in Mexico or Switzerland. One story was that he got the paintings as an inheritance from both of his parents, who were actively involved in buying the paintings directly from the artists. In another story, it was only the father, not the mother, who had anything to do with the paintings.

And even the story kept changing about why this seller wanted to remain anonymous. People heard that the seller wanted to keep his family’s financial situation private. But another story was that the seller’s father had a closeted gay lifestyle that was connected to Ossorio, and the seller didn’t want this secret to be revealed to the public. Ossorio’s longtime partner Ted Dragon, who was still alive when the paintings were sold, was one of the people who sounded an unheeded alarm that the paintings were fake and that the “mystery seller” was lying about Ossorio being connected to the seller’s father.

Another big warning sign that the paintings were fake was that there had been no previous record of these paintings ever existing before. Most of these famous artists kept meticulous records and documentation of their work and had people who’d seen these paintings, even if these paintings were sold directly to a private collector. To suddenly have a large collection of these “lost, never-seen-before” paintings emerging in the possession of one person was very suspicious, to say the least.

However, Freedman was able to convince people that the paintings were real by providing lists of known art experts who vouched for the paintings’ authenticity. Apparently, none of the duped buyers seemed to have checked with the experts themselves before buying these paintings. If they had, they would have found out that the people on Freedman’s lists had only casually looked at the paintings in Freedman’s office but hadn’t authenticated them. Freedman put their names on the list anyway, allegedly without their knowledge or permission. And the buyers trusted Freedman because of her exalted and influential position in the art world.

The scam got exposed as buyers who purchased the forgeries would get them tested by art forensics experts and find things such as a Pollock painting that would have a certain type of paint that wasn’t invented until 1970, which was years after Pollock died in 1956. Another Pollock forgery sold by Knoedler had Pollock’s signature misspelled on the painting. Imagine the embarrassment that these buyers felt that they didn’t have these things checked out before they forked over millions for these paintings.

Patricia Cohen, the journalist who broke the story for The New York Times, says in the documentary: “If it hadn’t been for Jack Flam [president/CEO] of the Dedalus Foundation, none of this scandal would have come to light.” The foundation was launched by Motherwell, who kept such detailed records of his own work that Flam knew immediately that the suspicious Motherwell paintings being sold by Knoedler were forgeries. Flam sounded the alarm, which set off a chain of events leading to buyers taking closer looks at the paintings they purchased from Knoedler.

Not surprisingly, Freedman and all the other defendants who faced lawsuits or criminal charges in this scandal are not interviewed in the documentary. Billionaire couple Domenico and Eleanore De Sole’s lawsuit against Freedman and Knoedler (whose owner Michael Hammer was a defendant) went to trial. One of the centerpieces of the lawsuit was that Domenico De Sole—a chairman of Tom Ford International and Sotheby’s and a former president/CEO of the Gucci Group—had unknowingly purchased a fake Rothko painting in 2004 for $8 million from Knoedler, which refused to give him a refund when he discovered it was a forgery.

Although cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, the documentary includes a few courtroom illustrations, as well as brief video clips of Freedman, Hammer and the De Soles outside the courtroom. The plaintiffs and defendants make no comments in these archival video clips, but Freedman’s attorney and the De Soles’ attorneys who were involved in the trial are interviewed in the documentary. Even though the outcomes of these cases have been widely reported, they won’t be revealed in this review, in case people who see “Driven to Abstraction” want to find out what the outcomes were by seeing the documentary.

However, it’s enough to say that Freedman has maintained all along that she did not knowingly sell forgeries. It’s a denial that many people interviewed in the documentary say they find hard to believe, given that these paintings seemed to come from out of nowhere and there were no records that they had existed before this “mystery seller” wanted to unload these paintings. Freedman also fell under suspicion for being part of the scam because she purchased these paintings from Rosales for well below what would have been the paintings’ market value.

The documentary’s production notes have a director’s statement, in which Price comments: “Attending the De Sole v Freedman/Knoedler trial, I met all the players and later interviewed witnesses who were willing to go public. But I also encountered the same reluctance to go on the record that the trial itself exposed—the very same silence that allowed this scam to continue for 15 years. While there are brave insiders, like art consultant and witness Martha Parrish, willing to spill the beans in this film, there are others for whom legal or just plain embarrassing predicaments inhibited their participation.”

However, “Driven to Abstraction” does round up a good range of people from the art world to interview for a lot of insightful perspectives. Parrish, a former board member of the Art Dealers Association of America, comments on the forgeries and why any legitimate art expert should have suspected from the beginning that these paintings were fake: “There were no reproductions in any books. There were no exhibition records. There were no records with any of the dealers that represented those artists. There were no shipping receipts to show how these works … got back to the United States. There was nothing.”

In addition to The New York Times’ Cohen, the documentary’s interviewees include several journalists, such as The Art Newspaper’s Laura Gilbert; ArtNet senior market editor Eileen Kinsella; Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Shnayerson; Art and Auction and Robb Report writer Judd Tully; art critic/author Blake Gopnik; The Art Newspaper writer Bill Glass; and M.H. Miller of The New York Times and formerly of Art News Magazine.

Hongtu Zhang and Andy Chen—two artists and former friends of forger Qian—are interviewed in the documentary and offer some insight into why he turned to a life of crime. Zhang attended the Art Students League (an art school in New York City) with Qian in the early 1980s. He says that Qian was very talented and thought his art education would lead to professional opportunities, but Qian became frustrated and disillusioned when he found it difficult to make a living as an artist. At one point, Qian (who is described as quiet and introverted) was selling his art on the street for very little money.

Chen says he noticed that Qian became more content over time when Qian’s financial situation improved enough that he was able to buy a house. Qian told people, including Chen, that a gallery was paying for his artwork. In essence, that was true. But what Qian left out of those stories was that his art that the gallery was buying were all forged paintings.

The documentary also mentions that after the scam was exposed, Qian claimed that he was making commissioned “tribute” paintings and wasn’t aware that it was illegal. “Tribute art” is common in Chinese culture. However, it’s pointed out that because the artist’s signatures were being forged on paintings, those forged signatures crossed a line into illegal territory. And because Qian received his art education in the U.S., it would be hard for him to convince people that he was a naïve Chinese immigrant who didn’t know that what he was doing was illegal.

Several people in the documentary marvel at how closely Qian was able to convincingly replicate the styles of so many diverse artists. Ironically, the forger who made it possible for these fake paintings to be sold for millions per painting was the one who got paid the least out of all the people accused of being involved in the scam. Qian reportedly got paid only a few thousand dollars per painting. It was only after the scammers got busted that he found out what his forgeries had been sold for, and Qian was reportedly very shocked.

The documentary’s interviews include several experts in art deals, such as art dealer/art advisor James Kelly, provenance researcher Victoria Sears Goldman, gallerist Doug Walla and Center for Art Law founder Irina Tarsis. Kelly had recommended that the De Soles buy the Rothko painting that turned out to be a forgery and the center of the De Soles’ lawsuit. In the documentary, Kelly admits he was fooled because Freedman showed him a list of known art experts whom she said had authenticated the painting. “Nothing really struck me that it was not an authentic painting,” Kelly comments in retrospect. “It was a beautiful classic.”

Freedman’s attorney Luke Nikas says about Freedman in the documentary: “Not a single person in the art-dealing world came to her and said to her: ‘These are fakes. You can’t sell them.'” As far as Freedman was concerned, Nikas says, she thought that the paintings from Rosales really were long-lost paintings that had been kept a secret from the public.

De Sole attorneys Emily Reisbaum, Gregory Clarick and Aaron Crowell (who are all interviewed in the documentary) obviously disagree. The say that even if Freedman believed that the paintings were real, she just took Rosales’ word for it, which is highly irresponsible for a gallery director on Freedman’s level. And the amounts she paid Rosales were suspiciously low (in some cases, less than $1 million per painting) for these “rare” art pieces.

The Art Newspaper’s Gilbert says that Freedman did get several warnings that the paintings were forgeries but that Freedman was “extremely resistant” to those warnings. Gilbert got the first exclusive interview with Freedman after Freedman’s trial. Gilbert says that Freedman insisted that the interview (which was published in April 2016) be a conversation instead a rehash of the trial. Gilbert describes Freedman having this attitude about the accusations against her: “It’s the art world. Get over it. I didn’t slay anyone’s first-born.”

Art forensic specialist Jeffrey Taylor gives his opinion in the documentary on why Freedman sold forgeries for so many years, regardless of whether or not she knew they were forgeries at the time of the sales: “Hubris is a good word. She began to believe in her own infallibility. Before her fall, she really was the queen bee of the art world.”

When it comes buying and selling fine art, the real price isn’t the market value but rather what someone is willing to pay for it. Anonymous buyers and sellers are not unusual. The business of art dealing at the highest level is fueled by the possibility that wealthy buyers will pay above and beyond what would be considered a reasonable asking price—and it’s the same reason why the business is so susceptible to forgeries. Cohen sums it up in the documentary by saying of the Knoedler scandal: “To pull off a forgery like this, it takes a village … The art world lacks transparency.”

“Driven to Abstraction” director Price also wrote and edited this documentary, which does a very good job of bringing the story together in a cohesive and engaging style. The main area where the documentary needed improving is the sound mixing, which is at times very uneven. However, you don’t have to be an art collector or a fan of these painters to enjoy this movie, because the documentary shows the pitfalls of being dazzled by a famous name and assuming that the name automatically equals authenticity.

Grasshopper Film released “Driven to Abstraction” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on August 28, 2020.

Review: ‘Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own,’ starring Ursula von Rydinsgvard

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ursula von Rydingsvard in “Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” (Photo courtesy of Icarus Films)

“Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own”

Directed by Daniel Traub

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and other parts of the world, this documentary about sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard features a predominantly white group of people (with some Asians) talking about von Rydingsvard’s life and career.

Culture Clash: Coming to America as a child from a large immigrant family, von Rydingsvard overcame childhood abuse, poverty and self-doubt to become one of the leading sculptors in the art world.

Culture Audience: “Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” will appeal primarily to enthusiasts of fine art.

Ursula von Rydingsvard in “Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” (Photo courtesy of Icarus Films)

Whether or not sculpture is someone’s preferred art form, the documentary “Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” offers a compelling look into the life and artistic process of notable sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard. The movie would be worth seeing, even if it only showed her creativity, but New York City-based von Rydingsvard (who participated in the documentary) also opens up about how she overcame personal and professional obstacles to get where she is now.

Throughout the film (skillfully directed by Daniel Traub), von Rydingsvard and her team of assistants are shown creating what was one of her most ambitious pieces up to that point: “Uroda,” a copper sculpture commissioned by Princeton University in New Jersey, where the sculpture currently stands outside the university’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. The massive sculpture (which includes steel and bronze) was completed in 2015, and the documentary shows the two-year journey in creating it.

“Uroda” was somewhat outside of von Rydingsvard’s comfort zone, since she made a name for herself as a sculptor whose specialty was cedar wood. She remembers in the documentary that her preference for cedar wood came about when a monk artist named Michael Mulhern gave her cedar wood to work with when she was a young artist. She was immediately struck by the “soft” and “sensuous” feel of the cedar wood and the feeling that she “could really get carried away” with working with this material.

In the documentary, von Rydingsvard also explains why wood has a big emotional connection for her. Born in 1942, she grew up Germany with her Ukranian father and Polish mother, who were peasant famers forced to work for the Nazis. (Her parents had had nine children, including Ursula.) After Germany was defeated in World War II, the family lived in Displaced Persons camps. She remembers that at those camps, “Everything was made of wood … in a rough, rugged way. There was a kind of safety that the wood gave me.”

But things weren’t always safe in the family household, since von Rydingsvard and her younger brother Stas Karoliszyn say in the documentary that their father was physically and emotionally abusive to all of his children. The children would endure vicious beatings and degrading insults from heir father. The abuse got worse after the family immigrated to the United States in 1950, because von Rydingsvard believes that her father had an inferiority complex about being an immigrant.

According to von Rydingsvard, art was an outlet to express her emotions: “I’m so glad I did something with that anger and pain.” Her brother agrees: “Her artwork is her driving force, always.” He adds that their mother was a source of healing strength for the family: “We would not have survived the camps.”

In school, von Rydingsvard’s artist talent was recognized from an early age. She remembers being someone who was often chosen to do artwork for the school, such as make posters or Christmas decorations. “It gave me special attention that was positive,” she says. She says later in the film about art: “It helped enable me to figure myself out as something other than lazy and stupid and worthless.”

But growing up in working-class Plainview, Connecticut, there weren’t any professional artists that she knew about, so it never crossed her mind that she could make a career out of being a professional artist. She comments, “I have a tremendous yearning to be an artist. And somehow, I thought that I really didn’t deserve that. And it took most of my life, actually, to gain confidence.”

The journey to become a professional artist wasn’t an easy one for von Rydingsvard. Despite knowing from an early age that she liked making art, she was confined by traditional gender roles (in an era when it was much harder for women to be accepted into the art world than men) and was trapped in a bad marriage to a violent schizophrenic. She ended the marriage after nine years because she said she could no longer help her husband and she feared for the safety of herself and their daughter Ursie.

At the age of 33, von Rydingsvard moved from Oakland, California, to New York City, where she says she felt reborn. Even though she was a financially struggling divorced mother, she felt inspired to become a professional artist for the first time because the New York artist scene was filled with a variety of women who helped pave the way for her to find her place in the art world. She also says that nature has always been her biggest art inspiration.

Her daughter Ursie remembers growing up at that time in a “raw” SoHo loft “before living in a loft was cool.” And Ursie says that even though she and her mother were poor and living off of food stamps, it was a time of great freedom and artistic discovery for her mother. Ursie recalls the one main rule she had when she was growing up: “‘Do what you want. Just don’t set off the sprinklers.’ That was my childhood.”

Ursie also remembers that because of her mother’s decision to be a wood sculptor, “I would go to sleep to the sound of chainsaws,” which Ursie says almost had a “lullaby” effect on her. Living under financial hardship brought mother and daughter closer together. “It was a very tight, close relationship,” Ursie says.

One of the first pieces by von Rydingsvard that got attention in New York City was 1980’s “St. Martin’s Dream, a wood sculpture in Battery Park that resembled birds perched on a long fence. Several other von Rydingsvard pieces are seen and mentioned in the documentary including “Ona,” “Uroda,””Dumma,” “St. Eulalia,” “Sunken Shadow and Echo,” “Ocean Floor,” “Mama Your Legs,” “Ene Du Rabe,” “For Paul,” “Bent Lace” and “Scientia.”

Several people from the New York City art world are interviewed in the documentary about von Rydingsvard, including artist Sarah Sze and art patrons Agnes Gund and Lole Harp McGovern. Adam Weinberg, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Alice Pratt Brown director, comments that “the essence of her work is touch.” Galerie Lelong president Mary Sabatino adds, “Her process is laborious. Her process is almost medieval.” Fellow artist Judy Pfaff calls von Rydingsvard “very driven,” “focused” and “very disciplined.”

Studio owner Elka Krajewska comments that part of von Rydingsvard’s identity that comes through in her art is “definitely the immigrant story, coming into this world that’s very new, and trying to figure out how … to deal with it” Art writer Patricia C. Phillips says, “I think Ursula loves beauty, but I don’t think she’s really setting out to make beautiful things. And I think she’s also setting out to make things that unsettle us a little bit. It’s why I think people find it fascinating.”

As for what von Rydingsvard thinks about beauty, she comments in a conversation with her second husband, Paul Greengard, a Nobel Prize-winning brain scientist/researcher from Yale University. (Greengard and von Rydingsvard got married in 1985. He died in 2019, at the age of 93.) “I actually hate the word ‘beauty,'” von Rydingsvard says. “I feel very uncomfortable using it because nobody actually knows what it means.”

She continues in her thoughts on beauty: “Everybody has their own understanding of it. It’s kind of an idealized state, and I’m not even sure anything like that exists. There’s  no criteria for beauty. There’s no criteria to art, to begin with. You can’t define it.”

Greengard then smiles and says to her, “I started going out with you because of your beauty.” She smiles back and indicates that she’s flattered. It’s an endearing moment in the film that shows how much these two still loved each other after decades of being married.

Some of the documentary’s footage is at Richard Webber Studio in Brooklyn, where much of her art is constructed. Richard Webber and von Rydingsvard have been longtime colleagues. She gives credit to the team of workers who assist her in building her visions. Far from being an aloof leader, von Rydingsvard is hands-on by doing a lot of the labor too, and she eats meals with her team, whom she calls “superb.”

“I like them all so much,” von Rydingsvard says. “The fact that we have lunches together every day—all of that’s an important part of the mix. We’re always extremely respectful. That’s an atmosphere that we created that works to help make the art.” Members of von Rydingsvard’s team are interviewed in the film include studio manager Sean Weeks-Earp, cutter Ted Springer and cutter/studio assistant Morgan Daly, who echo the camaraderie spirit.

One of the best aspects of “Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” is the excellent cinematography from Traub, with assistance from cinematographer Michelle Zarbafian. From the lingering closeups to the rapturous views, the movie provides a visual feast of an experience, which is the next best thing to seeing von Rydingsvard’s art in person. The neo-classical musical score from Simon Taufique also complements each scene in a mood-perfect way.

“Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” isn’t a long film (the total running time is only 57 minutes), but it packs in a meaningful chronicle of von Rydingsvard’s lifetime of art and experiences. The movie is bound to please fans of the artist, as well as win over new admirers of her unique talent.

Icarus Films released “Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” through the virtual cinema program of Film Forum in New York City on May 29, 2020. The movie’s virtual cinema release in other U.S. cities begins on June 5, 2020.

Review: ‘Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art,’ starring Steve Lazarides, Ben Eine and John Nation

February 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Banksy in “Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art” (Photo courtesy of Vision Films)

“Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art”

Directed by Elio España

Culture Representation: This male-centric documentary explores the history of graffiti and other street art in the United States and Europe, with a particular focus on British artist Banksy, who has kept his real identity anonymous to the public while experiencing worldwide fame.

Culture Clash: The artists often break the law, and there are constant conflicts over how much commercialism and mainstream acceptance that artists can and should achieve.

Culture Audience: “Banksy and the Rise of Underground Art” will appeal mostly to people interested in street art and the artists who’ve made their mark on pop culture.

Banksy art in “Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art” (Photo courtesy of Vision Films)

The intriguing documentary “Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art” (written and directed by Elio España) begins with what is perhaps the most famous stunt ever pulled by the mysterious artist who calls himself Banksy: At a Sotheby’s auction in 2018, after Banksy’s painting “Girl With a Balloon” sold for more than £1 million, the picture in the frame descended from the frame and began to be shredded, as if the frame had been activated to become a shredder. As the stunned audience looked on, it became apparent that the sale of the painting was yet another one of Banksy’s notorious pranks, and it became a viral moment on the Internet. Instead of the shredded picture being devalued, the price of “Girl With a Balloon” more than doubled after the shredding.

This stunt is a microcosm of the uneasy relationship that street artists have with mainstream acceptance and commercialism. Many artists want to have an aura of being underground and “edgy,” but at the same time they want recognition, and being too underground doesn’t get the type of recognition that many artists want. And then there’s the matter of being able to make a living from art. How popular does an artist have to get before the artist is considered “uncool” or a “sellout”?

It’s a tricky dilemma that Banksy has faced since he emerged in the art scene in Bristol, England, in the early 2000s. He’s famous for his mystique—he refuses to reveal his true identity, although there are plenty of theories about who he really is—but at the same time, he courts worldwide attention with his publicity stunts. Banksy started out as a graffiti artist, and then helped make stenciling art “cool” again to buy for mainstream audiences, before expanding to bigger art platforms and elaborate performance-art installations.

Although Banksy is the main focus of this documentary (which is narrated by British actor Mark Holgate), the movie also takes a look at the origins of modern street art that began in the late 1960s with the graffiti movements in Philadelphia and New York City. By the late 1970s, graffiti was the leading form of street art in big cities, particularly in the United States and Europe, where the artists (who were almost always young people) had easy access to numerous cans of spray paint. According to the unwritten code of graffiti artists, the cans of paint that they used had to be stolen—the more stolen paint cans, the better. And in order to avoid detection, graffiti artists almost never used their real names, since most of their work was considered illegal vandalism.

The rise of hip-hop was tied in to graffiti art, which peaked in the 1980s. Tony Silver’s 1983 documentary “Style Wars” and Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s 1984 book “Subway Art” were also hugely influential for countless graffiti artists and other street artists. Banksy came of age when graffiti art was at its peak. The most basic form of this art is a “tag” (a name scrawled on something), while a “piece” is a more elaborate form of graffiti art, such as a mural.

In New York City, street artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring became known to the mainstream and took graffiti art to a whole different level in pop culture. Unlike many artists who used aliases to remain anonymous, Basquiat and Haring used their real names and became famous beyond the art world, as they appeared in TV shows and had a lot of other media coverage. (And as is the case with most famous artists, their work increased in value after their untimely deaths.) It was that level of mainstream fame that many graffiti artists went to great lengths to avoid, but Banksy is the rare artist who’s been able to straddle both contradictory worlds of anonymity and fame.

A considerable chunk of the documentary covers the history of graffiti in England, particularly in Banksy’s work-class hometown of Bristol. (Banksy’s “The Mild Mild West” piece is considered an unofficial “welcome sign” in Bristol.) Whereas hip-hop was the home-grown soundtrack of American graffiti artists and became a worldwide phenomenon in the 1980s, the British music scene that heavily influenced graffiti artists included the Wild Bunch collective of DJs and rappers, which included Massive Attack and Nellee Hooper. (Massive Attack member 3D is widely considered one the U.K.’s first well-known graffiti artist.) Later, in the 1990s, house music and rave culture became closely associated with street artists, particularly those in Great Britain.

The Barton Hill area of Bristol was one of the few places in England where graffiti was legal, so it became a haven for graffiti artists such as Banksy, Inky, Felix and Chaos. One of the key figures in the Bristol graffiti scene was artist John Nation, who was one of the leaders of the Barton Hill Youth Centre during this era. In the documentary, Nation says that when he first got involved in the Barton Hill Youth Centre, it was mostly a place for the “white working-class” who were “hostile to outsiders, into football hooliganism and the right-wing National Front.” After graffiti culture became more influential in the neighborhood, the youth center began to see a different kind of rebellious youth—ones that were more artistic and open-minded.

But what some people consider to be graffiti art, many others see as vandalism. Police and other government officials began cracking down on graffiti in the late 1980s. In 1989, the British Transport Police launched Operation Anderson, the biggest anti-graffiti operation in U.K. history. Several graffiti artists in the Bristol area were arrested, but Barton Hill Youth Centre’s Nation refused to snitch and reveal the identities of more graffiti artists for police to arrest. Because he refused to cooperate with police by naming names, Nation was jailed for conspiracy. The documentary singles him out as an unsung hero who helped change the course of graffiti art in England because he prevented a lot of artists from being arrested.

In 1994, John Major, who was the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister at the time, launched the Criminal Justice and Order Act, which cracked down on raves but also racially targeted gypsies and other members of traveling communities. The Criminal Justice and Order Act further clamped down on graffiti art, which had been on a decline. That led in part to Banksy and other street artists to transition more into doing stenciled art and more art installations. (French graffiti artist Blek le Rat is cited as Banksy’s biggest influence in stencil art.)

The 1990s were also the decade of the rise of the Young British Artists, most of whom were centered in London and unabashedly embraced commercialism. In the art world, this was exemplified by Damien Hirst, who went from being an underground artist to being firmly entrenched in the upper echelons of high-priced fine art. The documentary points out that Hirst is the kind of artist who’s the antithesis of what street artists want to become. Street artists who want to maintain their artistic credibility among their peers go to great lengths to make their art affordable and accessible.

Not surprisingly, Banksy is not interviewed for this documentary. However, the movie does have a rare clip from the 1995 BBC documentary “Shadow People” that interviewed Banksy in 1993, very early in his career. (In the interview, he covered his lower face with a scarf in the interview, but his eyes, hair and voice are not hidden.) “Banksy and the Rise of Underground Art” also has an actor narrate excerpts of some print-media interviews that Banksy has done over the years.

“Banksy and the Rise of Underground Art” doesn’t have any new interviews with Banksy, but the film does interview several people who know him very well. They include art promoter/photographer/curator Steve Lazarides (who’s worked with Banksy since 1997) and artist Ben Eine, who’s collaborated with Banksy on many projects, including the annual Santa’s Ghetto Party (launched in 2002) and one of Banky’s most famous projects: painting murals on the West Bank wall in Palestine in 2005.

In the documentary, Eine remembers that the biggest challenge for the West Bank murals wasn’t avoiding arrest by the soldiers who were guarding the wall but it was getting all the equipment there (ladders, paint, etc.) in the first place. When they were stopped by customs agents or other security people, the artists were able to get past them by saying that they were there for educational purposes. (And the artists did do some mentoring to local youth.) Eine says that the soldiers at the wall weren’t as difficult as people might think because if any soldiers stopped what the artists were doing and told them to leave, the artists would just move to another section of the wall, out of sight from the soldiers, and repeat the pattern until they were caught again.

The documentary interviews other artists, such as Scape Martinez, Risk and Felix “Flx” Braun. And there’s mention of how Banksy’s unorthodox path to art stardom paved the way for other underground street artists who became mainstream too, such as Shepard Fairey, OSGEMEOS, Swoon, RETNA and Invader. In London, the Shoreditch area became a hot spot for street art, and the Dragon Bar emerged as a popular hangout for artists.

As Banksy gained more notoriety, so too did the size of his art installations and pranks. His breakthrough art installation was 2003’s “Turf War,” which included live cows that were painted with animal-safe paint. In the mid-2000s, he began secretly (and illegally) putting up his own art at famous art museums around the world, including the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The documentary includes video footage of Banksy committing this act with his face blurred out—a clear indication that Banksy had at least one accomplice with a video camera ready to record him in the act and release the footage.

He also didn’t forget his Bristol roots. In 2009, his art legitimately took over the Bristol museum in the “Banksy vs. Bristol Museum” exhibit,” which had several Banksy pieces displayed side-by-side with the Bristol Museum’s resident art. Many of the themes in Banksy’s art is about the entities representing the powerless and oppressed (whether they’re children, mice, monkeys or other animals) rising up, taking over and/or outsmarting those in power.

And Banksy went further than showing his art in museums and galleries. His Dismaland art installation (at the seaside resort town of Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, England) was a social commentary on what Disneyland would look like if it were taken over by cynical people with a dark outlook on life. In 2017, he created the Walled Off Hotel, built alongside the Israeli West Bank barrier in Bethelem, which displays a great deal of his work.

Banksy promoter Lazarides openly admits that he prices much of Banksy’s art based on how desperately people seem to want it. Lazarides says that people offer to buy the art for much larger sums than the price quote that the seller was going to give, which is why he often lets the buyers be the first one to name the price. (It’s an open secret that art dealers always use this “smoke and mirrors” technique.) And the more that art is perceived as being desired by society’s rich and famous, the more money can be charged to buy it.

When celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jude Law and Christina Aguilera began attending Banksy exhibits and buying his art, naturally the prices for Banksy’s art increased dramatically. However, the documentary mentions that during one high-profile exhibit that Banksy did in Los Angeles, he sold much of his original art at a nearby anonymous street stand at cheap prices. And the art at the street stand didn’t sell very well. If the same art from the street stand had been put on display in the high-profile Banksy exhibit nearby, it would have sold for thousands more. It’s an example of how presentation, marketing and perception are the driving forces in how art is priced and sold.

“Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art” does a very good and comprehensive job of immersing viewers into the culture of street art and how the artists can have a love/hate relationship with the mainstream. The documentary is essential viewing not just for people who like street art but also for anyone who’s fascinated to see how this part of culture is dealing with the age-old debates of art versus commerce.

Vision Films released “Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art” on digital and VOD on February 18, 2020.

Kathy Ireland Worldwide teams with Larson-Juhl and the Buffalo Works for branded art and wall decor

April 20, 2017

Photographed among the collection of a Kathy Ireland Worldwide design studio. (Photo courtesy of Larson-Juhl)
Photographed among the collection of a Kathy Ireland Worldwide design studio. (Photo courtesy of Larson-Juhl)

The following is a press release from Larson-Juhl:

Kathy Ireland Worldwide  (KIWW) has inked an agreement to design a wide-ranging collection of branded art and wall decor for the home with Larson-Juhl and The Buffalo Works.  The Buffalo Works will work with KIWW to curate, develop and market the art program, partnering with Larson-Juhl as the exclusive supplier for the branded program.

Larson-Juhl CEO Drew Van Pelt says, “We are honored to partner with Kathy Ireland Worldwide and bring Kathy’s new line of art and wall decor products to life.  Larson-Juhl’s history of fine craftsmanship and dedication to innovative design pair well with the classic, trend-forward style the Kathy Ireland Home brand represents.  We look forward to bringing these tasteful, distinctive artworks to market for the Kathy Ireland Home client.”

“The Buffalo Works is thrilled to be appointed, in partnership with Larson-Juhl, as a brand partner to extend the Kathy Ireland brand into a full-scale licensed art program.  Kathy’s brand is synonymous with fashionable design solutions for the home and we look forward to curating and marketing an art program with her exceptionally talented and creative team, that customers will enjoy throughout every room in their home,” says Joanne Olds, President of The Buffalo Works.

“This is a great and exciting pleasure for our entire team at Kathy Ireland Worldwide,” says Kathy Ireland, KIWW’s Chair, CEO and Chief Designer, whose firm was ranked this week at #26 in License Global’s 2017 Top 150 Global Licensors. “Our creative department is inspired by these great works of art every season.  To finally join forces with Larson-Juhl and The Buffalo Works is a dream come true for many reasons.  Larson-Juhl is a member of the Berkshire Hathaway business family.  We began our kathy ireland® Home collection with a Berkshire Hathaway flooring company.  Our first retail client was Irv Blumkin and Nebraska Furniture Mart, still clients and dear friends, all these years later.  To join Larson-Juhl and The Buffalo Works means we are collaborating with some of the Berkshire Hathaway best!  We will celebrate together at the Annual Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Meeting where our new artwork will be on display,” she adds.

2017 Vivid Sydney: expanded programming announced; Shepard Fairey, Air, Dianne Reeves among featured artists

March 13, 2017

Audio Creatures, Lighting the Sails artist impression by Ash Bolland, one of the installations at Vivid Sydney 2017

The annual art, light and music festival Vivid Sydney has announced big changes for its 2017 edition, including a new precinct at Barangaroo, an expanded light walk through the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, and imaginary creatures that will transform the Sails of the Sydney Opera House. Vivid Sydney is owned, managed and produced by the NSW Government’s tourism and major events agency, Destination NSW.  This year’s festival will take place from May 26 to June 17.

The following is an excerpt from a Vivid Sydney press release:

Vivid Light

For the first time, Vivid Sydney’s vibrant kaleidoscope will stream into a new precinct at Barangaroo, with a trail of installations winding through intimate laneways, past waterfront vistas and into a foodie paradise. Visitors will be immersed in A Day in the Light, an outdoor theatre of light and sound that lets them become part of the artwork, and treated to optical illusions at Trapdoor, which tells the stories of Barangaroo’s past.

Birds of Lumos artist impression by Amigo and Amigo, one of the installations at Vivid Sydney 2017

The festival’s bright lights will return to the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney with an expanded trail that will take visitors through the heart of the beautiful harbourside oasis. Here, Birds of Lumos, inspired by the rare Rowi species of the New Zealand kiwi, will come to life as they glow and pulse with color. The nostalgic Dipping Birds, giant 2.5 metre illuminated sculptures, will change color as they dip back and forth into a pond, and quirky installation “You lookin’ at me?will turn heads as big glaring eyes follow passers-by. A pop-up landmark celebrating our Harbour City, Sydneyland, will provide a beautiful and iconic photo backdrop for visitors and locals.

At the heart of the Vivid Sydney light walk, the Sails of the World-Heritage listed Sydney Opera House will be bought to life by a series of imaginary creatures curated and designed by acclaimed cinematographer, editor, and graphic designer Ash Bolland. Audio Creatures will show creatures interacting with the environment, morphing and moving between each other across the iconic Sails.

Organic Vibrations artist impression of the Museum of Contemporary Art by Julia Gorman and Danny Rose, one of the installations at Vivid Sydney 2017

The City’s icons will once again be transformed, including the facade of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia with Organic Vibrations, a collaboration between Australian artist Julia Gorman and the Paris-based creative and artistic collective, Danny Rose. Interactive lighting display Dreamscape will let visitors put their own colourful mark on the city’s skyline from Circular Quay along the Cahill Expressway to the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Popular precincts Chatswood, Taronga Zoo, Martin Place and Darling Harbour will return in 2017. The buildings, shopping malls, streets and laneways of Chatswood CBD will be reinvented as a retro-futuristic smart city called Future City, Smart City with ingenious installations and light sculptures inspired by the ‘Steampunk’ design aesthetic of 19th century steam-powered machinery.

Lights for the Wild at Taronga Zoo, will return featuring giant animal light sculptures that wowed visitors when they made their debut last year. A few new characters and surprises will join the 2016 favorites, including a swarm of buzzing bees, and a giant interactive Port Jackson shark.

Urban Tree 2.0, artist impression by Ample Projects, one of the installations at Vivid Sydney 2017

Martin Place will be home to Sydney’s most popular food and beverage purveyors, alongside grand, interactive light installations. Highlights include a new version of the multi-award winning 3D mapped projection Urban Tree 2.0, and Deep Forest, an urban jungle for feasting featuring an open flame fire-pit with barbeque treats from Porteno and some of NSW’s best fire chefs.

Twenty-eight  tonnes of water will be thrown into the air every minute, whilst lasers, flame jets, music and fireworks combine in a celebration of the power of creativity and innovation at Darling Harbour. Magicians of the Mist water theatre will be a spectacular display of technology and art defining the digital era.

Vivid Music

The beat of the Vivid Music program is stronger than ever with over 250 events in this year’s line-up. Highlights include an Australian exclusive performance by electronic pop duo Goldfrapp and the return of Curve Ball —a large-scale live music and art event created by Fuzzy Music, both at Carriageworks.

Popular Vivid Music events return including Heaps Gay, Soul of Sydney, Purple Sneakers and The Argyle’s Tokyo Disco.

Vivid LIVE at the Sydney Opera House will deliver an eclectic suite of not-to-be-missed performances from influential American folk-rock band Fleet Foxes, French electronic superheroes AIR, British singer and songwriter Laura Marling, and producer and bonafide hit-maker, Australia’s Nick Murphy.

City Recital Hall breaks from its classical roots with an incredible program—Metamorphosis—serving up everything from jazz and dance anthems, to multisensory masterpieces. Sydney based indie rock band Dappled Cities will launch their new album “IIIII” (pronounced “five”), Grammy award-winning jazz singer Dianne Reeves will take to the stage in a special one-off performance, and Paul Mac will host a Sound Bubble Sound Party.

Cake Wines Cellar Door (Photo courtesy of Vivid Sydney)

In a Vivid Music first, Vivid Sydney has partnered with the City of Sydney to deliver a program across a multitude of city venues. Showcasing grassroots and emerging local music talent, highlights will include a new rooftop festival from Cake Wines, Pie in the Sky, and a showcase of Women in Electronic Music at Oxford Art Factory.

Kings Cross returns with an exciting line-up of performance music, art, Avant Cabaret and cutting-edge, independent and immersive theatre with a bohemian flavor, part of the Vivid KX program.

Vivid Ideas

The Vivid Ideas program will continue to challenge and inspire with more than 200 events exploring the changing face of the creative industries. Iconic American artist Shepard Fairey, who blurs the boundaries of art and design, headlines the Vivid Ideas line-up. His body of work includes his Barack Obama HOPE campaign, the OBEY GIANT art project, and this year’s ubiquitous ‘We The People’ initiative.

In a Vivid Sydney exclusive, Fairey will share his do-it-yourself approach, career highlights and how he managed to turn his creativity into an authentic voice about street culture. He will also create a large scale public mural live on a wall in Sydney’s CBD, and some of his most famous works to date will be part of a pop-up exhibition at the Darling Quarter.

Shepard Fairey (Photo by Johnathan Furlong)

Throughout the city, a series of conferences will connect start-ups, emerging talent, practitioners and entrepreneurs with world-class creators and thought-leaders. Highlights include The Sunrise, which connects start-ups with successful founders; Semi Permanent, returning with a series of interactive, immersive experiences featuring leaders from Getty Images, NIKE, Google and more; and family-favorite, Robowars, where some of the country’s best engineers and robotic experts put their self-built robots to battle.

The Vivid Ideas Exchange at the Museum of Contemporary Art also boasts a diverse line-up of talks presented by Creative Practitioners covering topics from fashion to placemaking, storytelling, ageism, marketing pitching, health, innovation, big data and mixed reality.

Vivid Sydney Sponsors 

Vivid Sydney thanks its sponsors for their support of the festival in 2017 including Partners Huawei, Ford and American Express, and Supporters: Allianz, Canon, City of Sydney, NSW Department of Industry, Google, Oracle Liquid, Property NSW, Sensis, Sydney Airport, Sydney Opera House, TAFE NSW, Technical Direction Company and 32 Hundred Lighting. Vivid Sydney’s Access and Inclusion partner is Cushman and Wakefield and the festival continues its sustainability partnership with the Banksia Foundation.