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Are street and graffiti art the same? A conversation with Rutger de Vries

The German artist speaks to STIR about his post-graffiti art practice within the exhibition space that challenges the norms of the institution and conventional forms.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Nov 01, 2022

Rutger de Vries' practice has been described as ‘post-street’ art, in reference to the expanded nature of his grand, colourful paintings that move beyond the confines of the canvas, especially with the use of tools associated with graffiti culture. His paintings that often take the shape of installations, are reminiscent of the bright canvases and colour palettes that speak to the legacy of pop art, hand in hand with the abstract expressionism of Mark Rothko’s canvases. While Rothko’s canvases spoke to a certain imbibed calm and exploration of palette and form, de Vries’ works don’t limit themselves to purely aesthetic explorations, but instead seek to engage in a critique of form and institution, by challenging the boundaries presented by the gallery space. The German artist’s works span across paintings and ‘installative’ deconstructions of paintings, where pigment takes precedence over form.

In conversation with STIR, de Vries reveals that he characterises his work as ‘post-graffiti’ art, and not ‘post-street’ art. Over here, the distinction between the occupation, moulding of and response to public space through street art stands apart from the honing of the graffiti gesture that is ultimately about claiming space, speaking to a sense of anti-establishment disobedience in the face of elitist structures that are upheld through the gallery system and its international network.

“I would describe my work as post-graffiti art. To me there is a difference between street art and graffiti. In street art the public space is seen as an exhibition space, using architectural elements of the urban surroundings as a canvas or gallery. Graffiti, to me, is a mentality. It’s about claiming space. By putting up a “tag” you are trying to own a piece of the public space by marking its territory,” says de Vries.”

Colour Rain III, 2019, Mixed media on canvas, Rutger de Vries | Colour Rain Series | Rutger de Vries | STIRworld
Colour Rain III, 2019, Mixed media on canvas Image: Courtesy of Rutger de Vries

Speaking about the nature of the ‘white cube’ space, the most popular euphemism for the sanitised gallery environment, and taking from the notion of public space put forth by the Situationist International, de Vries says, “The white cube of a museum or gallery is often presented as a space that is public but in reality, this is rarely the case. The institutionalised space is exclusionary. By painting the white cube, using tools which refer to the graffiti subculture, I claim the space as my own. In this way I try to raise questions on the function and role of the institutionalised space.”

Expanding on the subversive gesture of bringing the “tag” into the institutional environment, one questions what it means to stake a claim in the institution or occupy the very same. Can the gesture truly be radical? Rutger de Vries, however, does envision his artistic practice as being inventive and challenging to the norm, at a time when the artist’s agency is further lost to the ready availability of technology as aiding the artistic process, besides the institutional structure itself.

De Vries reflects on the fact that he often makes and innovates on his artistic tools, “When I was young, I was a huge fan of the Spirograph. I was fascinated by the geometrical shapes I could create with just a couple of elements. This inspired me to make my own tools. This curiosity informed my further development. Later, exploring graffiti subculture and art history further, I was wondering what else I could do with the media I had at hand, like a spray can for example. I started combining different elements, which opened up new possibilities and worlds to me. Especially when I started to incorporate mechanical and computer-based elements. To build my own software-driven machines allows me to add another layer to my work.”

Installation view of Circuit 1, 2020, Mixed media, Rutger de Vries | Circuit series | Rutger de Vries | STIRworld
Installation view of Circuit 1, 2020, Mixed media Image: Courtesy of Rutger de Vries

Speaking to the multifarious role that the street artist must take up in order to challenge pre-existing hierarchical forms, de Vries says, “I investigate and question the role of the artist. In a society in which we outsource more and more to technology, is the artwork still my own? Or do I become an inventor who develops the machine, which then creates the artwork? Although unpredictability and irregularity play a big role in my work, I do set and control the parameters in which the artwork exists. The tools I develop and use to implement these parameters have a very strategic nature. Each installation builds on previous works of mine.”

In creating a sense of scale through his installations, de Vries creates immersive experiences for his audience, with an overwhelming, synthetic environment that refers back to the world of artistic production. De Vries seemingly engages with the idea of the cyborg-artist who gestures to the scale of industry, despite creating works of unique art. This harks back to the conception of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the problematisation in the division of labour and authorship, a conversation that continues to this day, with the hyper-commodification of art that spiralled into the assembly line production of artists like Damien Hirst.

Installation view of All Black, 2017, Mixed media installation, Rutger de Vries | Rutger de Vries | STIRworld
Installation view of All Black, 2017, Mixed media installation Image: José Biscaya; Courtesy of Rutger de Vries

“I want my audience to experience the work. Working on a large scale allows them to really become part of it. I am interested in three-dimensional and all-compassing gestures. So naturally, I am a big fan of Rothko. His huge, transcendent paintings really move me. Of course, I am not Rothko, but if I could provoke just a little bit of that kind of emotion in my work, I would be very happy. Next to size, colour also plays an important role in that context. Since colour is so strongly connected to emotion and perception.

Installation view of CMYK Extinguishers, 2016, Mixed media installation, Rutger de Vries | Rutger de Vries | STIRworld
Installation view of CMYK Extinguishers, 2016, Mixed media installation Image: Gert Jan van Rooij; Courtesy of Rutger de Vries

As I said earlier, I deal with questions of authorship and the idea of outsourcing. Which is why I like my work to have an industrial quality. I gain a lot of inspiration for my work by visiting hardware stores and factories. I want my installations to look as if they were mundane and mass-produced items although they are unique pieces of art.”

Installation view of Rubik’s #3, 2022, Mixed media on canvas, Rutger de Vries | Rubik’s series | Rutger de Vries | STIRworld
Installation view of Rubik’s #3, 2022, Mixed media on canvas Image: Courtesy of Rutger de Vries
Creating Capital C Video: Courtesy of Rutger de Vries

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