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RAC opens its doors, literally, to 9 artists

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 9, 2010 - At the Regional Arts Commission, nine artists are blurring the line between gallery floor and sidewalk. Milk crates and overturned paint buckets sit on the threshold, where the guys catch a break to chat, smoke a cigarette, have a beer. Behind them is their mural in progress, art exposed and open, still laced with ladders and drop cloth.

Music energizes the entire space, as laptops and turntables push out beats onto the block. Between paintbrushes and energy gum, spray cans and female mannequins, life flows from the walls onto the floor and then steps out onto the street. But the concrete is where the collective energy thrives, as thoughtful discussions, jokes, beat-boxes, and conversations with passers-by weave their way back into the paint. Creativity is oozing at RAC -- the visual and the auditory encompassing the block.

RAC opens its doors a second time for "Screwed Again," a collaborative piece going further than the prequel: 2008's "Screwed In." This time around, with five returning artists and four new guys, the gallery has given the artists full rein for spatial manipulation. Whereas the 2008 exhibit was limited to wood boards screwed to the walls of the main gallery, this time, as co-curator Chris Burch explains, the group was given "100 percent creative freedom by RAC." This led to the construction of a more free-form structure that includes movement and shape, contrasted with the artists' decision to only use a black, white and grey palette.

The nine artists -- Christopher Burch, Daniel Burnett, Stan Chisholm, Daniel Jefferson, Kris Mosby, Chris Sabatino, Jason Spencer, Justin Tolentino and Bryan Walsh -- met through ARTDimensions. The non-profit art organization's mission statement of "showing the public as much art as possible" plays into the goals of "Screwed Again." And with the front doors of RAC open daily (and nightly), the public is encouraged to stop by and check out the process and progress of the artists until the Aug. 13 opening.

Each of the nine artists carries his own bag of styles and influences -- surrealism, pop art, abstract expressionism, even renaissance portraiture -- yet all relate under a similar aesthetic and appreciation of street art.

Justin Tolentino says, "When you have artists working together, each brings their own sensibility. Some just do it, others are more in the middle, and others are planners. We all have similar outlooks on life, so that's how it all ties together. We just make it happen. We have ideas and ideals, and we know what we want to do. But we bounce off each other; it's a freeform, freestyle way of doing things."

And the collaboration is not without its conscious changes and re-paints, of course. Chris Sabatino described it like a war, "The rules are that people can go over anything. But it better be hotter than what was there before."

Still the guys work harmoniously, without quilted blocks of designation, feeding off of each other's characters, while getting motivation from the sounds that bounce off the gallery's walls. The element of freestyle that Torentino describes laces the piece, both in the literal collaboration and in the movement that the mural already exudes. Burch describes the process as organic and uncontrived, and, as Walsh added, the group often derives their inspiration from simply "vibin' off what's going on and the feel of a particular night."

With that spirit, the artists consciously chose not to work under an established theme. Co-curator, Bryan Walsh explained, "We did not designate an umbrella theme for two main reasons: the difficulty of doing so and the possibility that it could limit us."

Time and scale also influenced the decision to keep the subject matter open. As Burch described, "Time gives layers and meaning," and within those layers is the concept of memory, "What gets covered up, what exists, and what no longer exists." The limitless nature of the mural also allows the artists to bring the outside in, the life of the two weeks spent in the space seeping from mind to hand.

Along with the installation, each of the artists will present individual work in adjacent studio space, along with video of the mural's creation process. The elements of hip-hop, beer, and community in the production of the piece will come together to celebrate, in the words of Chris Sabatino, "the rebirth of Screwed In, which is Screwed Again."

For some, that has been an emotional pouring. Kris Mosby, for instance, has been adding tributes to his friend "Handsome" Dave Hagerty, who passed away in a car accident at the start of the project. Angels can be seen on the wall, along with Mosby's drip work that spells out Hagerty's name. Mosby describes the experience as emotional, but says being and working with his artist friends has taken him out of his own head.

Themes are certainly emerging in the piece. Where they will be taken, and how they will be expanded will have to wait until the opening. As of now, most of the artists describe the work as a bit dark. Jason Spencer explains, "The grey scale makes it seem kind of grim, there's not a lot of cutesy happiness," while Chris Sabatino elaborates, "It's a dim piece, but it still has a softness."

No matter how it turns out, the artists are confident the mural will be memorable. Sabatino explains, "When people see it, they're not going to forget it. People can walk by and say I've thought about that or I've dreamed about that. The piece sticks with you."

And with the wide open doors, music and artists sitting on the threshold of the mural in-progress passers-by are certainly invited to stop and see what is going on in the space. The collaborate process is inclusive, engaging onlookers through the sounds of laughter and hip-hop music and the smell of cigarettes and aerosol paint that float down the block, drawing people in who perhaps would not normally visit an art gallery. 

The artists relish viewer curiosity, as they hand out cards for the opening and willingly answer questions to those who are lured in. And not all visitors are unknown to the group: friends, fellow artists, even parents stop in to appreciate the constant changes to the mural through the rhythmic layering of paint. The socialization with and among the artists is part of the creative process.

What also encourages people to pause at the space is the accessibility of the work. The graffiti and cartoon aesthetic attracts a broad range of visitors, which Burch explained was due to the "familiarity of the graphics which allows them to immediately enter the space," adding that the "graphic quality creates an immediate connection with the viewer."

Burch specifically expressed pride in the connection the piece has with youth. "Young people come up and say, 'my sketchbook looks like this,' which is hella dope, you know, like it creates a lineage."

Burch says that the viewer essentially plays the same role as the artist: "Looks close, takes a step back, surveys the whole wall. The viewer re-enacts the performance of the artist." This interaction, between a viewer and the work of art, is a unique experience that, according to Daniel Burnett, does not happen often enough. Screwed Again fulfills his idea of the value of art by "affecting a person going from point A to point B."

The essence of Screwed Again is the collaboration of nine artists in a space feeling the collective dynamic. Spencer describes it well, "It's fun, a lot of comaraderie: Burch rapping, Stan making beats, Daniel on the turntables, and everyone drinking beers."

While it remains a mural in-progress, the work is already imbedded with the energy that infuses the space both inside the gallery and out. In Screwed Again, collaboration has turned into a community.

Rebecca Lowell, a student at Columbia University, and Rachel Heidenry, a student at Bard College, are Beacon interns.