West Chelsea Contemporary is the right place for an artist like Blek Le Rat to show for his first solo exhibition in New York because it was in 1971 that the artist (now 40 years into a career) found his seed of inspiration in NYC. “There was an incredible profusion, in the subway, on the walls surrounding basketball courts, graffiti drawn in marker, nestling signatures surmounted by a crown, spray-painted lettering, filled with swirls and colors, everywhere I looked. I was so intrigued by these illuminations I remember asking the inevitable question: “What does all this mean? Why are these people doing this?”
The graffiti I saw in New York remained firmly planted in my memory, though acting out my own graffiti took ten years to hatch.
Studying fine arts and architecture during the 1970s at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Blek Le Rat always had an academic mind for art. Well-versed in etching, lithography, and screen printing, Blek Le Rat had the skill for mastering art. But thrilled by the risk, unpredictability and beauty of street art, he was drawn to the craft. Armed with a study of architecture at the Architectural Teaching Unit #6, he was well-suited to create work around the urban environment. Together, he began applying the principles of fine art to the street in Paris, becoming the pioneer in the place where even the most progressive thinkers dismissed graffiti as a nuisance.
Years later, some of Blek Le Rat’s questions of meaning have been answered, recognizing the symbolic power of graffiti: “I’m here, get used to it.” Over time, Blek Le Rat took advantage of stencils to make his process more efficient but no less individual or beautifully executed. The result has been hundreds of works, all over the world, often composed of human-scale dancers, musicians, common people, and of course, the rat itself, an ever-changing, reoccurring character in Blek Le Rat’s cast of stencils.
Cited as an inspiration for Banksy (who has been welcomed into the world of fine art), it’s an opportunity for Blek Le Rat to reconstitute his street art in the context of a canvas, serving as yet another turn inward and reconsideration of his classical training. The new prints on view continue reveling in the historical references Blak Le Rat has treasured in his work, featuring figures such as Beethoven, Sibyl, Eros, and a tribute to fellow artist Richard Hambleton, as well as new subjects of interest, often superimposed on rustic backgrounds, just as they might be found in the wilds of the urban space.
West Chelsea Contemporary opened in October 2020 under the direction of Lisa Russell, a tastemaker with a unique appreciation for mediums. Showcasing everything from mid-career and emerging artists to legends like KAWS, Yayoi Kusama, Keith Haring, Mr. Brainwash, Takashi Murakami and more, West Chelsea Contemporary was the logical choice to steward such a show in New York.
Blek Le Rat is on view from August 20-September 25, 2022 at West Chelsea Contemporary, located at 231 10th Ave., NY 10011. Free. Learn more at https://wcc.art/