There are rats in the walls at Belfast Print Workshop. Well, one rat, and he is the most iconic rat in the world.
Curated by Belfast photographer and printer Neil Kerr, Breed is a contemporary art exhibition that brings together some of the most iconic urban artists in the world. Art from Faile, Antony Micallef, Paul Insect and – since, of course, no exhibition of urban art would be complete without him – artist, satirist and political activist, Banksy.
You knew that though, right? I mean, from the moment I mentioned the rat. Who else would it be?
The exhibition is on until 30 November, so there is only a few days left to catch it. Make it a point to go. You don’t want to miss this exhibition.
To be upfront with you, there aren’t a lot of Belfast Print exhibitions that I haven’t enjoyed. I like print, I love all the different techniques and how powerfully simple some of the most stylised works can be. Add in urban art? It would have to really suck for me not to like it, and Breed doesn’t even suck a little bit.
Unlike Street Art, which the Ulster Museum hosted back in 2011/2012, Breed doesn’t just focus on graffiti art. Instead it covers the spectrum of urban art, with graffiti, posters and urban iconography all included under the one roof. Some of it is beautiful, some of it is effective, and some of it is ugly in a compelling way.
Obviously, there’s Banksy. The man is an legend. People buy bits of wall with his work on it. The amount of concept and subtext he can saturate a relatively simple, although technically flawless, image with, is astounding. Breed includes some really nice examples of Banksy’s work, from the iconic Banksy rat to soldiers painting a peace sign. It also includes a print of one of my favourite pieces, with a realistic hoodie walking a stylised dog. There’s just something about it that captures how Banksy’s art works with, or against, the urban environment where it lives.
Because it does. Banksy’s work isn’t static, it interacts with the urban environment and the urban population. It evolves from minute to minute.
I could keep going about Banksy’s art, but do I need to? We’ve all seen it in papers, magazines and the news. You know it’s good, you know it’s worth going to see. So, what about everyone else in the exhibition?
I want there to be one artist who snuck in at the end to make up numbers. You know, who’s ok, but clearly not at the same level as the other artists? Just so I don’t sound ‘ra ra, I love everything’. The problem there is that this is a really well curated exhibition. The work selected by Kerr shows a range of styles and techniques, but it is all powerful, compelling work by established, talented urban artists. There’s nothing in the gallery space that lets the eye track over it on the way to something better. Every canvas gets you to stop and look.
Right at the entrance to the gallery ‘Now and at the Hour of our Death’ by Ravi Zupa is a compelling piece of art right out of the gate. Inspired by the Mexican tradition of La Santa Muerte, the piece eschews the colourful, accessible Day of the Dead sugar skull iteration of the saint. Instead it dips into the traditional Catholic iconography around the saint, creating an eerily serene image. It looks like a stained glass window, in the style of a traditional tattoo. The piece also stands out because in an exhibition dominated by either monotones or bright colours, Zupa uses antique hues that give it an elegant feel.
Then there was Antony Micallef, a Swindon born proponent of crit pop art. His work is a blend of political commentary and almost childlike, colourful expressionism. It looks up-beat and cheerful at first glance, then goes a little nightmare fuel the closer you look at the discrete elements. It’s disturbing and I love it.
Micallef has a few pieces in the exhibition. My favourite is probably the most sketchy, half-done looking piece. ‘Save my $oul’ isn’t framed, it is just an A3 sheet of paper tacked to the wall, and the colour is a blob of yellow and smear of pink. I haven’t looked it up online to see what meaning Micallef attributes to it, because to me it is about feminism. It is what society expects of women, just a shell of a dress in pink shoes with no messy internal life. Then you get to the face – the head – which is a mess of shadows and dark pit eyes. Not tidy or simple at all (I did consider going with consumerism – based on the possible McDonalds bag – but the feminism angle spoke to me more).
My favourite pieces in the exhibition though? Artistic collaboration Faile’s pulp magazine inspired cover iconography. The romance comic style ‘Charles’ made me pause and giggle, and ‘Seduction of the Mask’ is beautiful and looks like it could have a cover from Weird Tales or Black Mask. The other side of that coin is that it is also an example of the orientalism and racial stereotyping that did crop up in a lot of the art and literature from that period. Considering the political awareness demonstrated by Faile elsewhere, I’m willing to trust that was a deliberate and informed choice.
And since I opened with Zupa’s ‘Now and In the Time of our Death’, I’ll close the review with Faile’s ‘Sinful Pleasures’. It’s the Biblical origin story of Eve and her apple, laid out like the cover to a EC horror issue and with a phallic banana standing in for the apple. What’s not to love there? There’s also some great work by Dave Choe (‘Dead Hendrix’ is a gorgeously graphic piece, and only missed being one my favourites because I’m occasionally very literal and a skull shouldn’t have eyebrows or lips) and Paul Insect
There’s only a few days left to catch the exhibition. So if you’re in Belfast this week, make sure to drop into the Belfast Print Workshop. The door is locked, but buzz away. That’s just the building policy, and the Gallery staff are always happy to let you in.