Poster Boy's 'Street Alchemy 2.0' Loses Its Impact In Gallery
Exhibit Once Rejected By Trinity College
November 08, 2011
Poster Boy entered Hartford quietly, was ejected spectacularly and re-entered victoriously.
The New York-based street artist's exhibit — originally planned for Trinity College in September, and then canceled at the last minute — has been re-mounted at Real Art Ways, and will stand until Jan. 30.
The exhibit, "Street Alchemy 2.0," is a demonstration of how manipulative advertising messages can be manipulated themselves, cast askew creatively in order to attack the advertiser. To mash up the advertising messages, Poster Boy uses pieces of stolen billboards sliced up with a razor. This illegal method of procurement was the reason for the Trinity cancellation.
But it seems ironic: When Trinity College booted Poster Boy into the street, it actually was sending him back to where his work is likely to have its intended impact. And when Real Art Ways opened its arms to him, it may have expanded his platform, but at the same time it watered down his message by sealing it in a gallery.
Street art's great strength is surprise, the discovery, by average people on an average day, of art where none is expected. In Poster Boy's case, the artworks are created to provoke thought, stoke outrage and promote conversation among random crowds who otherwise might be seduced by the slick advertising. When inspiring this kind of reflection, street art is subversive, challenging the conventional wisdoms held by unsuspecting people. (If those people think at first that their eyes are playing tricks on them, so much the better.)
In an art gallery, however, the surprise factor is gone. Nobody going to an alternative venue to see an exhibit of subversive art will be shocked when faced with that art. In addition, if that person is attracted to that sort of art in the first place, the provocation factor is gone, too. When placed among the crowd that Real Art Ways attracts, Poster Boy to a large extent preaches to the converted. Those converted may enjoy the show and appreciate the technique, but will anybody be shocked? Will any minds be changed?
The defaced billboards in the show by Poster Boy (the masked alter ego of Hartford native Henry Matyjewicz) go after ripe targets: the National Guard and — especially relevant in the Insurance City — the insurance industry, in the form of State Farm. Also included in the exhibit is a video installation, "Poster Boy: The Razor's Edge." It shows the artist taking down his show at Trinity's Austin Arts Center and explaining his feelings about the cancellation. It also shows him defacing two billboards on Hamilton Street in Hartford.
The National Guard work takes a typical recruitment poster and alters the organization's name to read " 'NTER NATIONAL WARS," with a scrawled subhead: "ERRORISM." A phone receiver is connected to a cartoon of a bound, unconscious Captain America, with a plea to "don't answer the call." In a three-dimensional flourish, cartoonish bullets fly across the entire work.
In an interview in September, Poster Boy said "the National Guard work reflects on the placement of that billboard in the inner city, where the people live who are most proven to be recruited." That's a legitimate observation, and the bullets are an energetic touch, but outside of those inner-city neighborhoods, the work's message isn't reaching its target audience.
The State Farm work takes its "stimulate your own economy, discounts up to 40%" billboard and drops in a rainbow, and a cartoon of the mustachioed Monopoly man, shrugging in befuddlement with a four-leaf clover stuck in his hat. On the other side of the billboard, clouds surround the words "bell curve." The State Farm corporate logo offering "auto, life, fire" insurance is changed to "gamble your life away insurgance." Three-dimensionality comes in the form of video-game-style game pieces scattered on the floor.
About the State Farm work, Poster Boy said that the corporation "makes light of the bad shape of the economy to sell insurance." That message of cockeyed optimism comes through, but one suspects that the collage would inspire more thought — outrage, even — if it appeared out of nowhere one morning, on a billboard facing the windows of the Travelers, Hartford or Aetna buildings.
Real Art Ways is to be praised for showcasing art rejected by other venues; this philosophy of welcoming the unwelcome is artistically affirming, regardless of the content of the work. That said, when removed from its natural in-your-face public environment, Poster Boy's work may gain dimension, but it loses focus. There's nothing wrong with these works, but they're in the wrong place. Street art belongs in the street.
>>STREET ALCHEMY 2.0 will be on display at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., in Hartford, until Sunday, Jan. 30. Gallery hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 2 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 2 to 11 p.m. A suggested donation of $3 is requested; free for members and cinema ticketholders. Details: http://www.realartways.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at