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Shane Pomajambo with works by Trevor Young, left, and Jessica Van Brakle.
It’s an unfortunate pitfall of hosting hundreds of street artists: Chances are, some of them might be inclined to take their art to the streets. And so it was that “G40: The Summit” in Crystal City, an exhibit of “New Brow” art curated by the Art Whino gallery, found itself in the awkward position of having two of its participants hauled off to the hoosegow after they, perhaps channeling the spirit of G-20 protests before them, tagged the roof of Plaza Five, at 223 S. 23rd St.,where the exhibit was scheduled to open.
When Shane Pomajambo, the director of Art Whino, learned about the incident, he had the graffiti painted over immediately and ejected the artists, and their work, from the show.
Evlalio Alvarez III, 32, who goes by the handle Scotch, and Ryan Sanchez, 22, who goes by Jik, say they were invited to “G40” from San Antonio to paint a mural in the show, and they were the first artists to arrive. Given a key to the building, they saw the whole abandoned edifice as their canvas, and wanted to paint a tribute on the outside that would call attention to the show.
“There was never a yes or no on where we could or could not paint, and there was no contract,” says Alvarez. “We explored the building because it was abandoned, and we went to the rooftop. We were going to do something in the spirit of the show that said ‘G40.'”
The artists say they stopped painting when it began to snow. They slept in the building (they say they had prior permission, which Pomajambo denies)—and were awoken by the Arlington police on Monday, Feb. 1.
“They tagged numerous pieces of property with ‘JIK’ and ‘SCOTCH’ and were found sleeping on the property. And by numerous, I mean firmly over the $1,000 requirement for felony charges, including almost all the pillars supporting the roof, and the walls on the 6th floor,” says Det. Crystal Nosal of the Arlington Police in an e-mail.
They were charged with felony destruction of property. They spent four days in jail in Arlington and have been assigned a public defender.
“I didn’t intend to do anything to hurt the show,” says Sanchez.
Pomajambo declined to answer many questions about Alvarez and Sanchez and did not even want to provide the artists’ names.
“I don’t want to reward bad behavior,” he says. “Just mentioning it,” he says, “would be a disservice to the whole show.”
This is not how Pomajambo saw “G40” kicking off. For a guy who’s been relentlessly positive in his pursuit to elevate the local arts scene, the largest curated local art event in recent memory is not just a way to bring together artists, musicians, performers, and community members—it’s an opportunity to harness and define a global movement.
You might know “New Brow” as lowbrow, DIY, pop surrealism, or street art. Decades ago, cartoonists and graffiti artists with no formal training or entry to the gallery system began to show in alternative spaces or simply wheatpaste their work on the streets until collectors and the press began to notice. Juxtapoz magazine, founded in 1994, chronicled the loose movement and the personalities within it. In 2004, the Cincinnati Museum of Art curated the traveling exhibition “Beautiful Losers,” which brought mainstream validation and spawned a book and documentary film.
Pomajambo prefers the term “New Brow.”
“Lowbrow has been used over and over again and it’s too broad. They’ve been doing lowbrow since the ’70s,” he says. “New Brow plays up the whole lowbrow thing with a new generation.”
These days, New Brow artists can find fame as easily as artists who begin their careers indoors. Street artists, especially, are closely followed by bloggers who post photos of their work as soon as it is discovered.
Shepard Fairey, one of the “Beautiful Losers” and more recently, the creator of the iconic Obama poster, may be the poster child of New Brow. Last year, his work joined the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. While there’s no one as acclaimed in “G40,” some of the better-known artists in the show include Gaia, Casey Weldon, Molly Crabapple, b, and Reuben Rude. There’s also a famous last name from the canon of American art: Daisy Rockwell, granddaughter of Norman, who works under the alias Lapata and whose work will be displayed at an event on March 25.
Pomajambo has arranged the artists by their geographic origin, dividing them into four floors: D.C., New York, California, and the rest of the world, from Arizona to New Zealand. Grouping them this way, it’s easy to see that New Brow artists aren’t just punks. They can be formally trained fine artists with sophisticated, though unconventional, techniques. New York artist JoKa, for example, creates richly detailed pointillist paintings using toothpicks as his only instrument. Puerto Rico’s Adrian Viajero Roman built an installation reminiscent of his grandmother’s house. Gaia is known for his intricate wheatpastes of animals and people, but for “G40,” he decided to use spray paint for what Pomajambo says is the first time.
Pomajambo, naturally, wanted a strong presence from the District. Scott G. Brooks, Decoy, Ben Tolman, and Chris Bishop are showing at “G40.” Pomajambo insisted the work at the show be affordable, to encourage visitors to collect pieces by emerging artists, like 18-year-old Nils Westergard, a stencil artist and senior at George Mason High School in Falls Church, who is displaying several pieces in the show.
But despite the show’s title and tagline, “Where arts and politics collide,” there’s strangely little political art. Pomajambo says that the title came from the show’s location inside the Beltway, and the 40 artists who were originally assigned interior walls for murals. There’s overlap between some of the artists and works in “G40” and last year’s inauguration-timed “Manifest Hope,” which had themes of health-care reform, workers’ rights, and the green economy.
It turned out that “G40″’s most significant collision of art and politics will occur today in an Arlington courthouse, where Sanchez and Alvarez will become another vignette in the longtime struggle between municipalities and the artists they go to great lengths, and costs, to prosecute—a cost that can exceed the amount of property that has been damaged. An arrest can bolster an artist’s work, too—Fairey’s arrest for defacing property in Boston last year made national news. In art, just as with celebrities, “bad” behavior is rewarded with publicity. Regarding their actions, Sanchez and Alvarez agree: They have no regrets.
For Pomajambo, it’s a trickier line to tread. Perhaps that’s why, when pressed on whether he’d given Sanchez and Alvarez permission to sleep inside the exhibition building, and whether he’d called the police, Pomajambo demurred, telling Arts Desk he would now speak through his lawyer. As of press time, Pomajambo’s counsel hasn’t called.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery