Signal Gallery, London
19 June – 11 July
There are only a few people in any art niche who can be said to set benchmarks, who are the constellation in the heavens that every looks up and points at. In the world of street art stencilism, C215 is one of those novas.
Hailing from France with a background that might described as challenged, C215 first came to wider attention in London when he bombed spots east to west and across the centre with his trademark monochromatic stencil portraits featuring grizzly men, suffering but saintly women and portraits of his young daughter pouting moodily.
C215 almost always marries the subject to the location, the rough grimy street corners provide a natural habitat for gentleman wearing the crude, un-kempt look of a life on the road on their faces. From Morroco to New York, Istanbul to Sao Paolo, C215’s forte is seeking locations off the beaten track and not blessed by an over-abundance of first world consumer luxury (like Hackney Wick).
c215, Delhi, Oct 2008. Photo: Romanywg
C215 was one of the original stencillists showcased by invitation at Banksy’s Cans Festival in May 08 and his spot was one of the highlights of the best street art show of the year. The hyperactive and swift working C215 had by year end visited the UK several times and ran dangerously close to stepping over into excessive bombing which, unlike tagging, isn’t such a good look for street art.
However, after a break from these shores, C215 has returned to London for this his first London solo show. The intimate space afforded by Signal Gallery has given C215 a great opportunity to demonstrate his art without the stress of limited time (he generally gets his street pieces done in less than 30 secs).
The most striking observation upon entering the gallery is how much richer the images become when C215 is able to introduce multiple layers, acrylics and a broader pallete into his work. C215 combines lush colours and characteristic detail in the stencil with a strong eye for composition, not one of his images fails not hang together in a realistic manner.
C215 at Signal Gallery, photo: Romanywg
Though the show C21 has been inspired by locations as diverse as Morroco, India, Afghanistan, Delhi and London, the core matter of this show is one man’s diary of international adventures
Afghan woman has an ambiguity of possibly being a girl or young women with a wide eyed beauty yet her face suggests a calm serenity or perhaps a maturity derived from the responsibilities of running a household from a young age. C215’s pictures convey a emotional depth rendering almost all other stencil artists flat by comparison.
The time afforded C215 in studio work allows him to broaden his subjects to the wider scene and context of his portrait subjects. Apart from a rather oddly twee vintage London scene, C215’s grittily realistic life scenes are at their best when he is focussed on the working environment of his subjects from less developed parts of the world. In Painting In Mirleft we see a working artist but in a rather rough cast studio reflecting characteristically spartan accommodation but at the same time capturing the nobility of honest endeavour and a sense that even in outside the high tech consumerist society we take for granted, there is still call for artists producing beauty and culture.
Anyone who has seen C215’s online collection of photographs may have spotted that in Delhi in particular, C215 was captivated by the numbers of very young shoeshine boys working the streets. This feeds into the show n the form of several shoe-shine boxes with the personalities of their possible owners painted onto the fabric of their livelihood. If plight is an appropriate word to describe their condition, then the plight of the shoeshine boy feeds C215’s concerns. The work of the shoeshine boy brings someone on a very low income right into the society of the well off middle class, places him kneeling at the feet of his betters in society, indulging the shoe-wearer the luxury of a shiny shoe, a seemingly trivial pre-occupation in comparison with the knife edge hard fought survival of the rag-shod urchin at his feet. Pennies scattered around the box emphasise the in-equality of incomes and the scraps from which the shoe-shine boys must make their lives.
Shoeshine Box 1, photo: Artbleat
The nature of the image on distressed wood of the shoe-shine boxes revisited the collaborative sawn up cello done with his friend the photographer and street art documenter Romanywg and shown at Corked last year.
The show includes several landscape pictures. In the various trackside and train station images C215 seems to be responding to the very similar compositions done by stencil master Logan Hicks (see also Cans festival).
Several images of street scenes showcase C215’s mastery of a certain kind of urban clutter, a dishevelment common to back street locations where functionality and economy are the priorities and pretty privet hedges and civic pride area long way down the list.
In Five Star Carting above which is based upon a trip to NY last year and wittily including a street C215 left at the scene , the observant may spy a cheeky nod to the reigning queen of the current crop of street art documenters which definitely wasn’t in the original street scene.
In the scenes which incorporate a vehicle, the ability to render a totally convincing metal sheen and the sculptural bodywork detail is quite incredible. The detail of the wrinkled clothing of the market porter and the detail of the toppled wooden crates and the street scenery visible though what may be railway arches brings in a phenomenal level of realism.
My favourite piece was probably one of the least characteristic of the show, a seascape with a view of rippling waves passing through the end of a (British?) pier, breaking towards rocks in the foreground and coming in from the horizon behind. The image don on found board dissolves and softens towards the edges creating a sort of sun falling into the sea with encroaching darkness looming overhead. There is only one thing to quibble within this image and this is the case in several of the pictures, the C215 stencil looks in-appropriately heavy and oversize.
There are only a limited number of stencillists – Logan Hicks, Artiste Ouvrier among others, who can cut a stencil with the intricacy and realism of C215 and the art of his images probably surpasses even those masters. I thought my days of being wowed by stencil artists had passed so this collection is not only a delight to behold but is a pleasant surprise too.