I’m so confused about the weather, and nowadays I’m at least six degrees of separation from Al Gore and have no chance of getting the truth, inconvenient or not. The sun is high in the sky but the temperature remains low, and I want the winter that really never was to turn into a spring of boundless possibilities. I don’t know what to wear and everyone I know is in Paris for Fashion Week, trying to find out for themselves. I guess it’s the worst time to go to Le Bain or Le Baron with all those Frenchies having gone home for the spectacle – or maybe not. Le Baron has The Virgins tonight and that might be fun.
By now everybody and their brother’s best friend knows Miami and its adjacent Beach is in the midst of another Art Basel. To know that also means to know the ‘hood known as Wynwood, which serves as the heart of Miami’s art scene. At the heart of the heart is the mural-laden wonder called The Wynwood Walls, where 40 of the world’s very best street artists have thrown up their version of the enduring. Ensuring the Walls is as wowful as possible is former Deitch Projects Director of Operations Meghan Coleman, who left New York (where she also co-founded The Hole in order to core Miami. And core Miami she has, and then some.
The brainchild of the ever visionary developer and collector Tony Goldman, who was an early in on the action in both Soho and South Beach, The Walls features works from the wiliest of urban visualists, including Shepard Fairey (who also walled the site’s Wynwood Kitchen and Bar) and Kenny Scharf (who’s brought a bold embellishing to his founding mural), as well as Ron English (who also unleashed his trademark critters) and Futura 2000 (whose place in the genre’s pantheon hasn’t diminished a bit). For this year’s Basel, Goldman and Coleman (who’s actual title is Goldman Properties’ Art Manager), recruited Medvin Sobio of the visual arts collective Viejas Del Mercado, and between the three put together an array as well-rounded as the wild world-at-large.
Among the new crop of keen-eyed ops is the Ukraine’s Interesni Kazki, Mexico’s Sego/Saner/Neuzz, Spain’s Liqen, Portugal’s Vhils, and Brazil’s Nunca. Naturally the U.S. is also well-repped, most notably by L.A.’s Retna (pictured, and this year’s “It” artist who also muralized the Cosmopolitan Vegas parking garage) Brooklyn’s How and Nosm (twins who actually hail from Spain and were reared in Germany). While amped about everyone who made the cut, Coleman is extra-excited to have the brothers on board for Basel.
“The minute I saw the work of How and Nosm I knew it’d be perfect for the Walls,”says Coleman, “so I made they were among the first certainties among our latest additions. We’ve also got them sited outside the Walls, and I’m hearing all kinds of great feedback.”
Having Brooklyn in the proverbial house serves as a nice counter to the number coming from West Coast, where this past summer’s “Art in the Streets” exhibit broke attendance records at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The MOCA show, which was co-curated by Jeffrey Deitch (with Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose), and featured many of the same city faves (i.e. Fairey, Retna), also included San Francisco-staple Barry McGee. Back in ‘09 the Beautiful Losers alum transformed the entire edifice which now houses neighborhood’s Panther Coffee. At the time the building-wide work was one of the first satellite offerings Outside the Walls. Two years later it remains a veritable landmark in epicenter of everything.
Indeed even before their creation, the Walls were too big to contain themselves, and they continue to burst forth and multiply. In addition to the initial off-site slew, there’s now what’s called Wynwood Doors (which could easily be considered Goldman’s portals) and the newly-opened Shop at the Walls (which way last well beyond its pop-up status).
“The Shop features works from all of the muralists,” adds Coleman, “plus prints, photographs, a limited-edition t-shirt series, and the book The Wynwood Walls and Doors. Not everybody can take home an entire building, right?”
Right. But even without the enviable keepsakes, the Wynwood Walls’ experience itself is eminently collectible. Make sure your memory gets served.
Photo by Martha Cooper
Arriving at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas last Wednesday evening, my friend and designated driver Ted Madsen told me to keep my eyes open for something cool in the parking garage. He was referring to a high-tech system of red and green lights that show which parking spots are unoccupied. The system was impressive, except that the sensors don’t always recognize compact cars, which must be rather rare in Nevada. But after we parked the Infiniti and began walking to the elevators on our way to the Vesper Bar, I spied something much cooler. The walls of the garage were adorned with murals by graffiti artist Retna.
It was one of several sublime moments in Las Vegas, which I was visiting to fête the launch of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey – a smooth, honey-flavored bourbon that’s great as a chilled shot – at the nearby MGM Grand. The moment I saw the walls, I literally stopped in my tracks and said words to the effect of “Oh my god, that’s Retna!”
Retna, for those who haven’t seen his work in galleries or read my BlackBook profile on the man, is a Los Angeles-based graffiti artist who produces paintings, sculptures, and large-scale murals that incorporate stylistic elements of Arabic and Hebrew writing, Asian calligraphy, the Old English style of gang tagging, and Incan and Egyptian hieroglyphics. There’s something truly engaging about his work, as though it imparts a very clear message through its characters – which don’t actually represent any language. And, apparently, it’s amazingly well suited for large, utilitarian spaces like the garage beneath the most exciting new hotel on the Strip.
In part, I suppose I was pleased with myself for recognizing his work. But I’m far more impressed that somebody at the Cosmopolitan was prescient enough to hire Retna to do the murals. Whoever was ultimately responsible for the commission deserves a major pat on the back. More than 99% of the people who see the murals will have no idea who painted them, but that hardly matters. They represent contemporary art at its finest, the polar opposite of the oversized Grecian urns and clown paintings that pass as art in some of the resorts. With the Retna murals, even if you don’t quite know what you’re looking at, you know you’re seeing something real.
Better still, the Cosmopolitan doesn’t even make a big deal about it. The only mention of it on its website is a news release about its Wallworks series. (I regret that I missed the works by Shepard Fairey, Kenny Scharf, and Shinique Smith.) With Retna’s murals, the Cosmopolitan achieves something so many resorts in Las Vegas aspire to but rarely attain: class.
An inscrutable message in powerful white letters is scrawled in the center of a square canvas, leaping out from a dark, cross-hatched background of Arabic-style writing. A gallery floor is covered with white dots, circles, and checks, while massive black vertical and diagonal banners cleave the walls into a chaotic series of geometric shapes. An abandoned house is spray painted with a seemingly infinite series of X’s and boxes, making it look as if it’s caged in wire mesh. Writing is more than just words on a page to Los Angeles-based artist Retna. The curves and angles of letters represent another medium for the 31-year-old graffiti virtuoso, who covers small canvases and enormous warehouses alike with intricate designs based on Asian calligraphy, Incan and Egyptian hieroglyphics, Hebrew and Arabic script, and the Old English style of gang tagging. “The Hallelujah World Tour,” Retna’s first New York solo presentation, opens at 560 Washington Street on Friday, February 11.
Retna, whose real name is Marquis Lewis, began incorporating writing-influenced design patterns into his work in the mid- to late-’90s, as a steady stream of news about tension in the Middle East exposed him to the beauty of Arabic and Hebrew writing. His early works featured patterns based on both languages, often surrounding stylized portraits. Over time, he incorporated Asian calligraphy and South American and Egyptian glyphs, transforming the written languages of ancient cultures into an intriguing new form of contemporary art.
This show, which is presented by Andy Valmorbida and Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld and sponsored by Bombardier Business Aircraft and VistaJet, features more than 30 of Retna’s pieces, many of which deal with death and the lives of people he’s been inspired by. In a telephone interview last week, Retna discussed his influences, goals, and the true meaning of Hallelujah.
BlackBook: How did you start using foreign writing in your paintings? Retna: I’m a graffiti writer, so I’m a fan of writing and I find it very beautiful. A lot of my earlier work had to do with what was happening in the news about the Middle East, so the Arabic and Hebrew writing found its way into my work.
What kind of work can people expect at 560 Washington Street? It’s a collection of paintings I brought with me. A lot of what I write has to do with death and waiting for that time, and for people who have passed away. They’re reminders, conversations that I have with myself. They’re not meant to scare people, but at the same time they’re not meant for too many people to understand. I acknowledge things that have happened.
This is the first stop on your world tour. Will other cities get the same collection of paintings? Each city gets their own batch of paintings. I think New York is a strong city so I give you the stronger shit, the stuff that means the most to me. It has to do with death, pain, and struggle. Friends of mine who have been killed or killed themselves. I give New York what I expect New York to give me back.
Your work shows influences from many different cultures, often in the same piece. Where does your own culture come in? I’ve been influenced by the world, really, but I never completely fit in anywhere myself. I want people to take away something from their own culture in my work.
This collection doesn’t feature any portraits, but I was wondering how you decide who to feature and how to paint them. It’s kind of hard for me to answer that. They’re spiritual, they’re strong. There’s a little bit of vulnerability but not too much. A lot of them deal with women who are powerful and elegant. I’m influenced by Art Nouveau and Gustav Klimpt, and what I do is a stylized version of that. I’ll also paint homeless people or gangsters because I’m just attracted to people in general. If something about them fascinates me I’ll paint a portrait or a mural.
So there’s a lot of pain in this collection? It’s text-based conversations about death, yeah. You can tell New York I apologize for that. I don’t mean it in a bad way, but it’s something that means a lot to me, something I’m working through, a meditation process where I tell these people I won’t ever forget what they meant to me and the impact they’ve had on my life. I don’t expect my pain to be someone else’s burden, but I can’t help if people take it that way.
Do you believe in an afterlife? No one really has the answer, but I want to think that there’s an afterlife, and I do. I plan on getting back with a couple of friends. We have some things to attend to. Maybe if I believe it strongly enough, I’ll actually get it.
Where did the name come from? What does Hallelujah mean to you? I actually didn’t come up with it, it’s from the show organizers. The “Hallelujah World Tour” sounded strange to me at first because the world tour part was weird. But hallelujah means joy and thanks, and I have taken a lot from this world and this culture, so it was time I acknowledged it. You can’t take take take all the time. At some point you have to give back. And maybe it was to make people happy. Hallelujah. It’s a good word and I didn’t want to do it a disservice. If I can be honest in the work I can have the good fortune to use that word as the title of the show.
What have you been doing in New York besides working on this installation? I went to the George Condo show at the New Museum, which was good. And other than that I’ve been absorbing all the great arts and culture that the city has to offer. And I did go to the Rose Bar & Jade Bar the other night at the Gramercy Park Hotel which was cool, with Basquiats and Hirsts on the walls. I like lounges because they’re mellow. I’m so tired by the end of the day I just want to have a drink and chill.