Legality and aesthetics are always debatable, but as far as pure spectacle goes, watching Keith Mendak brave the rain to scale the Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue and perch his devotional altars to the new president at the feet of the Confederacy's only president was pretty swell.
Mendak, a Virginia Commonwealth University grad student, modified dresser drawers into little hutches containing flowers, tangerines and Barack Obama's likeness printed on transparency paper and stuck to votive candles. The altars were conceived as Mendak's thesis for a master's degree in fine arts, part of a collection of quasi-religious constructions devoted, however tongue-in-cheek, to the new president. His altars range in size from large cabinets on wheels to smaller hutches, like the one Mendak delivered to the much larger monument on that rainy afternoon.
Before moving to Richmond, Mendak lived in Obama's old state senate district in Chicago and was in the habit of pasting political posters around town. Since arriving here, he befriended a neighborhood coin-laundry attendant with a felony on his record that prevented him from voting in this historic election.
“Many people were excluded from what should have been their time to stand up,” he says. He did it for them.
Nestled at Jeff Davis' feet, something colorful, handmade and pulled from the trash offered the perfect call-and-response to the massive, gray, formal tomb of a cultural viewpoint still jarring to those of us who occasionally entertain guests from the West Coast. But it also illustrates the two radically different lines from which art in the public square emerges — sanctioned with the city's money and permission versus that which operates without such municipal blessing.
But which represents Richmond better?
Certainly, the heavy statuary still chaperoning Monument Avenue memorializes for many a tragic moment in history. But in our modern, majority-black city, it can seem shockingly out of place. It's hard for the system to encourage its own opposition, so the kind of unfettered, un-committee-approved art of the altars provides an avenue for an update — scrawled evidence announcing we were here, too.
The bureaucratic sailor's knots of city-sponsored art have always been countered by a small batch of artists who eschew councils and approval boards and periodically take their art right to the wall. Sometimes on public buildings, sometimes on private homes. These are folks whose basic mantra is: If I have to look at your billboard for Viagra, you can look at my lavender penis. And so the controversy around this unsanctioned art extends right up to calling the stuff art in the first place.
An active graffiti community is a badge of honor for any city that considers itself one, but with VCU's world-class art school in the center of town, local bars and low-rent apartments are overrun with 20-somethings lamenting the damaging strictures of “the white box” — that's mainstream gallery space, to the uninitiated. Teaching students to push beyond the curatorial norms is now de rigueur, so a whole segment of the population is being deputized to view the city as a canvas. They push the disorder of the living city.
The town can make a case for its guerrilla art pedigree. The ubiquitous Ed Trask (the painter of the Princess Diana mural) launched his now legitimate artistic career as painter and muralist bolting his plywood canvases to construction sites. (He graciously designed one of the Style Weekly outboxes for this paper's own stab at public art.) Now-famous scribbler Dalek got kicked out of VCU and left a legacy of proud taggers behind; although, thanks to an unwanted audience of police officers, that most recent wave of artists — or vandals, depending on your point of view — have split.
Recently, as in other cities, there's also been an evolution of the kinds of public expression occurring in nature — art as fungus. The artist HOPE, for example (who also transformed an outbox for us) came to our attention with his painted wooden tablets screwed into the stems of street signs and clustered on the boarded-up surface of a burned-out pizza place. That petered out. A burst of pasting from last year ground to a halt. Someone recently spotted a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stenciled near Byrd Park, but that's about it.
So through apathy or public resentment or just a lack of ideas, unsanctioned art in Richmond is at low ebb. Mendak's dangerous ascent up the granite face of Mount Jeff — and he's placed a handful of others since, collect them all! — becomes a metaphor for the difficulty of putting art out in a city that litters the thoroughfares with icons of the Recent Unpleasantness.
But maybe it just takes organization. Bizhan Khodabandeh, husband of Gallery5 director Amanda Robinson, has set up a guerrilla art training Web site, www.thereoncewasarebellion.org, and hopes to launch collective public-art activities. He says public art is an indicator of a city's sophistication. Round one will involve a series of screen-printed sweatshirts bearing the message “I Once Was Lost, But Now Am Fresh,” distributed to the city. Hey, it's a start.