“If you are dirty, insignificant and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model.” — Banksy
How does a street artist stay relevant for more than 25 years? It’s a particularly important question to ask, as a monumental dual retrospective of Banksy’s work has just taken over two Amsterdam galleries.
Though he first gained attention when his stenciled rats and monkeys began showing up on walls and signs across England in the 90s, he has since proven himself to be a master of mixing social commentary with arresting images. Bluntly anti-war and anti-establishment, Banksy’s work calls out the power and ineffectiveness of governments in confrontational yet often humorous ways. (He once placed a life-sized replica of a Guantanamo Bay detainee inside a Disneyland ride.)
His commentaries on middle-class consumerism are as fresh and incisive as ever: “Christ with Shopping Bags,” with a crucified Jesus holding ribbon-wrapped gift boxes, is perhaps his most pointed. And though boldfaced names snap up his work—Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera among them—he can’t resist poking fun at the cult of celebrity (Kate Moss, for instance); though ironically, he’s the only graffiti artist to make Time magazine’s list of The 100 Most Influential People.
The girl with the heart-shaped balloon, the British cop brandishing his middle finger, Churchill with a fluorescent green mohawk, a rat with a paintbrush: these iconic Banksy images are now fixtures in the street art lexicon. But not until now have so many of his works—150 prints, paintings, sculptures and original graffiti—been seen together at one time, and never in a museum setting. Indeed, two major Banksy exhibitions simultaneously mounted in Amsterdam, at the Beurs van Berlage and the Modern Contemporary (Moco) Museum, offer the most comprehensive view of the artist’s work to date.
It may seem contradictory that a guerilla street artist would exhibit in such highly curated spaces. Especially since Banksy, whose identity remains unknown, taunted the established art world by illegally hanging his own paintings—a framed image of a woman in a gas mask, a can of tomato soup—in the Louvre, the Tate Modern and the Brooklyn Museum back in the early oughts. But in fact, his graffiti has become so valuable that the images can no longer survive in their original setting: people cut them out of the walls to sell at auction; those that do remain are typically covered in Plexiglas. (The artist himself condemned the 2014 Stealing Banksy exhibition.) And if you consider that many Banksy pieces aren’t executed in spray paint but rather in traditional oil on canvas—though the subjects are just as controversial—perhaps it’s not such a stretch that they’ve been moved indoors.
At the Moco Museum, Laugh Now is the first Banksy exhibition in such a formal space. It runs concurrently with an Andy Warhol show, and it’s a clever conceit, as the similarities between the two—one the master of street art, the other of pop art—are apparent. Curators have hung Banksy’s Kate Moss portrait near its obvious homage, Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe; a Campbell’s Soup can painting from the 1960s clearly inspired Banksy’s rendition of a Tesco-brand soup can.
The 50-odd Banksy works on two floors include “Tortoise Helmet,” a rare stencil on metal; “Cardinal Sin,” a bust of a man with his face covered in tiles; and several spray-painted rats—on a traffic cone, a bus sign and a chunk of wall. The standout is found on the mezzanine: the eight-foot x four-foot “Forgive Us for Our Trespassing,” a work of spray paint on glass that depicts a young boy praying in front of a graffitied wall. Surrounded by stained-glass windows, the painting takes on a distinctly churchlike aura.
The bigger of the two shows, The Art of Banksy, is set in the city’s former stock exchange, Beurs van Berlage, an ornate 19th Century red brick building. Nearly 100 works on are view on the vast lower level; you’re guided through reconstructed London streets by black bootprints (modeled on Banksy’s perhaps?) superimposed on the floor. The show includes two key pieces that established the elusive artist’s reputation: “Flag Wall” and “Media Canvas.” The former is a play on the infamous Iwo Jima flag-raising photo, with children climbing atop an abandoned car; in the latter, a crying girl holds a teddy bear on a bombed-out street as a cameraman dispassionately films the scene. Neither painting has been shown publicly for a decade.
Among the well-known rat and monkey images and still-powerful “Girl with Balloon” prints are several pieces that won’t fail to shock; namely “Barely Legal,” depicting a pregnant Demi Moore from the famous Vanity Fair cover, her face replaced by a smoking “Simpsons”-like character.
And after you’ve toured the exhibit, wouldn’t you know? You will, indeed, have to exit through the gift shop.