Street art exhibit has people talking
New Hampshire museum absorbs public criticism
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - A rather large mouth is painted on the aqua-blue wall of a prominent, centrally located building here. Part of a new indoor-outdoor exhibition mounted in May by the Portsmouth Museum of Art, the mouth has inspired many community members to open theirs.
About 50 residents signed a letter of protest, presenting it to the City Council last month. The 10 murals painted on privately owned buildings are “graffiti-like abominations,’’ the letter claims, that have no place in a historic city.
The debate has continued on the Internet. “How long before someone decides to feed that mouth a few tomatoes?’’ asked one detractor.
In fact, at least one disgruntled resident has taken matters into his or her own hands, whitewashing a large mural painted by the Los Angeles artist known as Bumblebee on a shuttered gas station on the edge of downtown. A smaller work on a nearby train trestle has been splashed with red paint.
The idea of graffiti carries a negative connotation, acknowledged museum director Cathy Sununu. As a result, the museum has taken pains to characterize the outdoor art in its “Street A.K.A. Museum’’ exhibition, running through Sept. 11, not as graffiti but a collection of murals.
The City of Portsmouth website includes information about whom to call for graffiti removal, Sununu noted. “It’s sort of controversial around here. Portsmouth is known for its historical buildings, and there are people who feel any art that gets put in the public domain should be historical.’’
But the city is changing, she said, and the art museum, which is privately funded, wants to reflect that.
“The demographics have changed a lot in the last 10 years,’’ Sununu said. “We have a lot of creative young people moving in, and there are cutting-edge companies coming to the area.’’
Jane James, a real estate broker at Marple and James, agreed to have Alexandros Vasmoulakis paint “Tomorrow Man,’’ the pop-art image with the huge mouth at its center, on the side of the agency’s building. Though she was smitten with the artist - “He was as lovely and pleasant as could be,’’ she said - it took her a while to warm up to the artwork.
“Now that it’s here, it’s like a treasured friend,’’ said James, a past chair of Art-Speak, the city’s cultural commission.
One of the exhibition’s opponents, James claimed, walked into the office while the artist was working on his mural and berated an employee.
“That was completely inappropriate,’’ she said. “You’re welcome to your opinion, but don’t come into a place of business and start screaming.’’
Clearly, street art has a unique ability to draw the wrath of a certain segment of the public. The poster artist Shepard Fairey was arrested for vandalism in Boston while promoting a major show at the Institute of Contemporary Art two years ago. The Brooklyn Museum, which is funded in part by the City of New York, has just backed out of an agreement to present “Art in the Streets,’’ a historical overview of street art that is currently on view in Los Angeles.
The artists in the Portsmouth show - three from Germany, two from LA, and one (Vasmoulakis) from Greece - created their murals and installations inside the museum earlier in May. One of the artists, who goes by the name Shark Toof, left his “tag’’ on a few street signs at the time. When the Police Department called the museum, the artist was obliged to go out and buff the signs.
As for the murals, the city has no ordinance on the books delineating how property owners can or cannot paint their buildings.
“Nobody objected on the grounds that the paintings were obscene or offensive,’’ said Sununu. “It really is about someone’s personal taste.’’
She called the criticism “a slippery-slope area. Do you want to start legislating the color of paint, or [which art can be deemed] appropriate? That would be exercising censorship, and I don’t think that’s a comfortable position for the city to be in.’’
In the meantime, the show has had the intended effect: It has the city talking about art. Students have been posing for pictures with their heads inside the jaws of Shark Toof’s iconic shark paintings.
“Shark Toof is their idol now,’’ said James.
She has yet to decide whether her business will keep the “Tomorrow Man’’ mural up after the show ends. Already, she has been queried by another exhibitor about using the space.
“I could continue to be a canvas,’’ she said.
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.