Two shows with a lot in common opened last weekend: Jason Alper’s “It’s All Back On” at the Guy Hepner gallery in Los Angeles and guerrilla graffiti artist Banksy’s new film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”
Alpsy (not previously known as such) is a friend of mine, Banksy not so much. Or, at least, if Banksy is a friend of mine I don’t know that he’s Banksy. Notorious for his secrecy, Banksy has managed to produce a film that preserve his anonymity. Insofar as the world knows Jason, they know him as Sacha Baron Cohen’s long-suffering, long-splendid costume designer. This current show is a labor of love, but it’s also an attempt to break out of the wardrobe.
What the two artists have in common, apart from strange men in fedoras enabling them, is bags of self-belief and a particularly British distrust of American motives and glitter. In both cases the irony comes across as humor. But, whereas Alpsy is, as the L.A. Times points out, tongue in cheek, Banksy is finger out of fist.
The differences between the two illustrate Clement Greenberg’s famous distinction between kitsch and Avant-Garde art. The latter offers a critique of previously existing society and art, kitsch merely repackages it with style.
Despite his recent museum acclaim, Banksy comes from a street art background. While making art he had to dodge the police to make, at times, brutal social interventions. Although his anonymity now seems to serve a useful personal and marketing function, it comes from a situation of necessity: He broke laws, he destroyed or defaced property.
Alpsy, on the other hand, is self-consciously a stylist. He has a strong enough sense of style to poke fun at fashion while staying stylish himself — Louis Vuitton horses on antiqued oil paintings, pink playboy Star Wars stormtroopers. But it’s tame art, the sort that Hollywood would, and is about to, happily use as decoration. It’s more Jon Stewart than Abbie Hoffman. There’s a mild railing at society’s relentless commodification (Chanel lego anyone?) but does “My America” (Old Glory done in grenades and rifles) really add anything to the artistic debate around Jasper Johns or the political debates around George Bush?
But perhaps comparisons are a critical red herring. Both of these British artists are doing what they want to do. Banksy is putting his work onto the street, and Alpsy (with all but 3 pieces sold) is moving his work into Hollywood houses. From Alpsy to Banksy, the British are here!
Watch the trailer for “Exit Through the Gift Shop” below.