Dustin Spagnola has studied art history, but the inspiration for his work doesn’t come from Da Vinci or Manet or even Jackson Pollock — it comes from the streets.
He can’t understand, he says, “why a serious new international art movement should be criminalized and marginalized.”
That’s because he’s too young to remember that, back in the early ’80s, New York art dealers pulled in graffiti artists off the streets and sold their work for lots of money. Now the only two we remember are Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, both dead.
Spagnola says he taught himself to use spray paints. “The caps [nozzles attached to the can that determine the size and shape of the paint stream] are extremely important,” he instructs. “You buy them in bags of 100, and you go through the first 80 or so real quick, then towards the end, you find yourself in a panic, because you’re almost out of caps. Good, dependable equipment and materials are vital to the graffiti artist — you have to work fast!
“Doing graffiti work is so much fun,” the artist continues. “It seems ridiculous to jail someone for making art on the walls of a boarded-up building when people are sleeping in the rain and cold.” Spagnola says he’s only gotten in trouble once for making his art on something he didn’t own. “I went down with a friend to paint under a bridge. There was already a lot of work on the spot, and I sat for a long time trying to decide where to paint — the work already there was so good.
“I finally decided on an area and started to work, when a cop walked over the overpass and yelled to ask what we were doing. [I said], ‘I’m just covering up what someone else did.’ The cop just yelled back that we should get the hell out of there.”
Spagnola believes that people who get hysterical about graffiti and property rights are missing a real opportunity for conversation with Asheville’s artists.
Ever the idealist, he muses, “there could be a real dialogue, not just between artists and property owners, but with the workers who come to cover up the artists’ work. This is, after all, our visual landscape. There are those who say that tourists won’t come if there is graffiti — but the most visited cities in the world are alive with ever-changing graffiti.
“Others,” he intones, “say that graffiti is an indication of gang activity — [but] it’s really just an indication that we live in a vibrant, creative community.”
The new paintings at Bo Bo are true to Spagnola’s ideas, and to his respect for the rich surfaces found on old urban walls. Illusions of history are created with layer after layer of paint applied to surfaces textured with bits and pieces of detritus from the artist’s environment. Colors are soft and seductive — pale blues, grays and an orangey-pink, almost a flesh color. Spontaneous brushstrokes in white push back dynamic spray-can marks, only to have them repeated, then pushed back, over and over.
The paintings all carry the title “Form/Function,” with each piece numbered. New to this show is Spagnola’s use of the street artist’s stenciling technique. In “Form/Function 4,” a stenciled portrait of George W. Bush appears in the upper-left-hand corner. The painting is horizontal, layered and textured, with energetic spray marks rising in dynamic, curved, diagonal lines from the lower edge.
“Form/Function 3” is slightly vertical and just as political, featuring an almost obscured self-portrait in the upper-right-hand corner stenciled over a more visible portrait of Saddam Hussein. Bush reappears, this time with Bin Laden, in “5.” Spagnola believes that having his own image juxtaposed with those of the international figures gives them more humanity. “They aren’t just faces on the TV news anymore.” For Spagnola, it’s all about communication.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer whose work can currently be seen at the Meadows Museum in Shreveport, La.]
Dustin Spagnola’s Form/Function is on view at BOBO (20 Lexington Ave.) through this month. Opening reception is Saturday, April 8. 712-4424.