When art escapes anything happens

Lately I’ve been entertaining some of the Big Questions about Life, The Universe And Everything.

Is it art, or just a rotting whale?

Is war still hell if Felix The Cat, Wiley E. Coyote and Homer Simpson are committing the atrocities?

And if “The Starry Night” jumps off canvas and onto a house is that a mortal sin against conformity and the property tax valuation we all hold sacred?

That first question is a tough one. These days Gainesville is busting out all over in Urban Art, i.e. formerly known as graffiti. 

Spurred by the city’s 352Walls project, artists from around the world have been coming to town to paint their visions on formerly blank walls, mostly in the downtown area, but as far afield as Santa Fe College. 

Now we’ve got a mystical woman holding a ball of galaxy, surrealistic city scapes, a Bengal tiger, Tom Petty tributes and other images that nearly defy description popping up all over town. 

It’s cool. It’s hip. It’s edgy. It’s so Gville.

And then there’s the rotting whale on NW 4th Street, around the corner from Cypress & Grove Brewery.

Ribs poking out, flesh hanging in shreds, vultures perched and daisies sprouting through the gaps. 

Personally I love it as a sort of circle-of-life message that they didn’t quite capture in “The Lion King.” But when I show it to visitors I get mixed reviews. Some can’t stand to look at it.

Which I suppose is the very definition of art. Something I read in a gallery in Asheville’s River Arts District recently comes to mind: “It’s not what you see, it’s what you make others see.”

Speaking of arts districts I was wandering the Eau Gallie Arts District (EGAD) in Melbourne, and stopped to ponder Matt Gondek’s contribution to the district’s 2017 Anti-Gravity mural wall painting project. 

It’s kind of a traffic stopper. An “exploding” cartoon in which icons like Homer, Felix and Wiley cheerily wage bloody mayhem on each other in gaudy primary colors.

To say that the Gondek’s take on “Guernica,” Picasso’s epic interpretation of Nazi atrocities in the Spanish Civil War, has raised a few eyebrows would be an understatement.

“The city commission rewrote the mural ordinance over it,” Lisa Packard, director of EGAD, told me. “The town went nuts.”

True, seeing Sponge Bob with one eye gouged out is a bit jarring. But Pepe LePew’s got a rose clenched in his teeth, so it’s not all gore and guts. 

And here’s the other thing. This deconstructed vision of critters’ inhumanity to critters graces the wall of a small strip shopping plaza that would otherwise be all but invisible in its bland sameness. 

They’re all over Florida, but you never really see them at all.

You’ve gotta be blind to miss this one though.

Which brings us to Mt. Dora’s “Starry Night” house.

You’ve probably read about it. A Mt. Dora couple noticed their autistic son’s fascination with Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpiece. So they had it reproduced all over the outside of their house.

Prompting the City to threaten $100 a day fines until they returned their home to its former, municipally-approved blandness.

But the couple went to court instead, and a federal judge ruled Mt. Dora out of order.

So now can we expect to see house-sized replicas of great masterpieces popping up in neighborhoods all over Florida? Will art anarchy swamp homeowners associations in a sea of surrealism?

I dunno. When art escapes the studio to spread out across the landscape, anything can happen. A lot of cities like Gainesville are busting out in murals precisely because it makes the urban landscape so visually arresting that people want to come from all over to see it – and argue about it. 

But the lines of artistic expression can get blurred. In Asheville’s art district a colorful orange and blue house flouts a large mural of Bob Dylan smoking a cigarette. Very cool, but I can’t imagine they would welcome that abode in a tonier section of town. 

On the other hand perhaps we are entering into an age where conformity and uniformity is becoming overrated. 

I’m ok with the rotting whale and one-eyed Sponge Bob and smokin’ Dylan and the Starry Night house (which is now a Mt. Dora tourist draw). 

What a Brave New World has such images in it.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in the Sun on Sept. 11, 2018.stars2.001.jpeg

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