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Gilding the eyesore with Thea Duskin

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"It's free to speak, but it's expensive to be heard," quotes Thea Duskin, remembering these words from the wall of Gallery5 -- an especially fitting aphorism for the day.

Friday, March 14, Duskin is the instructor of a stencil workshop held at Gallery5, but most days you will find her at Ghostprint Gallery, tending to her duties as co-owner.

It's a bit ironic to hold a stencil workshop in an old police station like Gallery5, since stencils are becoming the preferred medium with street artists -- that obscure realm between expression and vandalism. The easily repeatable image of the stencil has come to represent the collected voice of dissent.

The stencil workshop was held as a component of Gallery5's current exhibit, "Repressed3," consisting of work by John Hitchcock, Marwin Begaye and George Gregory. All works present themes of social consciousness, and a sense of repression woven throughout contemporary American life.

Duskin's workshop falls as the first of three, all designed to provide people with tools to voice dissent and command their own images. Stencil art seeks to subvert the high cost of getting heard -- at least at the entry level.

Duskin sets a long table with half a dozen cutting mats, Mylar sheets, knives, pencils, tape, a few wood burners, spray adhesive, spray paint -- everything essential to the stencil artist's toolbox (and all available from any arts and crafts store).

The stencils created in today's workshop are easy-going in nature -- most participants creating an image of a flower from the base-photo Duskin provides. Though later, Thea admits that even this flower, "if placed on, say, a Defense Department building, could be viewed as an image of dissent."

Duskin's own stencil art is evidence of the medium's potential to be elaborate and experimental. She creates images that range from photo-quality realism to digitally rendered surrealism -- though always produced by stencil, by spraying ink through cut-out sheets onto a surface. Let's just say that her flower stencil looked a bit more pro than mine.

When the stencil is employed as an instrument of dissent, Duskin says, it often points to a trend of "stripped down images," such as cartoon bombs or stylized representations of political figures.

"These simplified images reach the widest possible audience; they are accessible for everyone," she says.

Often, the placement of an image provides context and informs meaning. The simplified image is preferred for messages of dissent due to versatility -- an image can have multiple meanings, depending on where it's placed. Imagine an image of a hamburger with fangs. If this image were applied to a stop sign, it would say little more than a PETA advertisement. If situated on the front door of a McDonalds, though, this image could speak to the detriment of fast food on our society, the less agreeable aspects of the meat industry, or even a statement on the minimum wage.

According to Duskin, the placement of an image says everything, "unless it's overtly political." Thea outlines the general response to political images, saying that "people are either really uncomfortable about political imagery, or they can't get enough of it."

Duskin explains further: "I think that most people don't even take it that seriously. The sheer number of, for example, anti-Bush stencils that you'll see -- Josh MacPhee actually did a really interesting introduction for his book ["Stencil Pirates"] of collected George Bush propaganda stencils, like anti-George Bush graffiti in general, and I think he just makes a really great point that it's sort of numbing. I mean, what are we doing? Are we adding to people's awareness of a situation? Shouldn't we maybe be considering alternative things to look at, instead of stuff that's for or against all the time? Political imagery can become stuck in time -- immediately relevant if it's some kind of current event, and then it's no longer relatable."

When images are reproduced ubiquitously, the message changes. The repetition of a symbol or image submits the stencil to a "branding process." The image "becomes a logo, something the artist is known for," says Duskin.

Of course, there is a limit to what she believes is fair-game for the street artist's "canvas."

A few weeks back I spoke to another artist about a concept called the Third Space: public or private property that is no longer in active use -- the unused and forgotten places. Abandoned lots, run-down buildings, signposts and walls: Those urban eyesores that might well be improved by an industrious artist, and which open the debate over who's got the right to reface (or deface) another person's property.

While Duskin agreed that these Third Spaces are the most appropriate canvas for street artists to use, she cautions, "It's rude to paint on someone's home or a historic building -- that makes people hate graffiti art."

When attempting to define a code of conduct for the placement of street art -- to outline an appropriate canvas -- Duskin admits, "There are just too many people doing it. You can't necessarily unite graffiti artists into a collective mindset on anything because you've got so many different attitudes of people doing it."

The relative nature of beauty seems to be the issue here. Some street artists see beauty in images of flowers, others find art or beauty in a broken window, while many find nothing pretty in any of it.

Duskin's concept of the appropriate canvas is as simple as it comes: "It should be common sense -- areas that are underutilized, industrial wasteland areas, areas by the side of the highway -- they're just, they're basically eyesores anyway. I don't really see why anyone should resist their decoration, whatever that is. Often they talk about the worry that it will be gang-related stuff, but that's really just an excuse to eradicate all of it. Most people are just trying to express themselves. Limiting that just seems counterproductive"

In order for the messages of street artists to be viewed as legitimate, the placement of an image must represent a higher moral standard. This has led many street artists to move their paintings from the avenue to the art gallery.

The walls of Duskin's Ghostprint Gallery are a testimony to the relocation of street art. Works by Klutch, Josh MacPhee, Barrett Gordon and Matthew Adamson line the walls for this month's show, a collection of works representing the art of the street in its myriad forms and mediums. Gordon produces images through rubbing techniques -- going into the street with a crayon and some paper and reproducing textures of just about anything. Klutch's art aligns most closely with what you would expect from a street artist, often producing trippy graf-style cartoons that are reminiscent of the work of Blaine Fontana.

Duskin reminds us that more people are included when street art is placed in a gallery. Rather than housing this art in alleyways and atop the run-down portions of our landscape -- in places many people are unwilling to visit -- the gallery space offers a neutral ground for considering the message without distraction.

"I believe that art should be accessible, inclusive," says Duskin. She's achieving that by housing street art in her own gallery, Ghostprint, and by training others in the art of the stencil.



For more information about Repressed3 workshops, visit www.gallery5arts.org.

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