We forget that we are in conversation with public art until something happens.
Then we are reminded that, in a sense, we never stop talking. We never stop admiring or flinching or frowning or wondering or, more likely, not even noticing public works of art anymore (in itself an answer). This is the burden of public art. It’s the wallpaper of our lives, and most of us don’t know we’re in a conversation.
But a week ago a Kanye West mural on Lake Street in Fulton Market was painted by artist Jason M. Peterson, who had created the mural and collaborated with West on projects and was known for his monochrome aesthetic. Peterson was tight-lipped about the alteration, but he told the Tribune that Scott Wilson, the founder of design firm MINIMAL, which owns the building, requested something be done for his north-facing wall. So Peterson painted a silhouette on Kanye’s part. Have you heard of it. He made the news last week, then was just as quickly sucked into the hail of responses to West’s anti-Semitism.
What you haven’t heard is how Peterson gave his work more emotion.
When I visited the mural, the day after it was painted, I looked up and thought, I like this. I loved it more than the 70s Shaggin Waggin, a custom van-style photorealistic portrait of Kanye that had been there. Minus its subject matter, but not the details that surrounded West, it now looked like an American flag overgrown with the ye-olde font of a Yeezy-branded t-shirt. And instead of West, there was only his silhouette, a sad cave entrance to an empty space. It contained anger, melancholy, deep disappointment.
If you’re a West fan — if you’ve been proud that West was a product of Chicago but thought his recent remarks went too far — this new mural seemed more true to the man himself.
Now it contained pride and recent history.
Or rather, love plus rejection.
But then, in the week since Peterson changed his mural, the chatter has only played ping pong. Not about West’s personal digs – many artists and Chicagoans were quick to speak out against him – but about the painting itself. Last weekend, the blocky, bulbous lettering of old-school graffiti was tagged to the bottom of Peterson’s figure.
Now added is a large “F.DUB”, and in lowercase letters, a rebuttal: “West FOREVER…”
The conversation continues.
Indeed, a few blocks down Fulton Street is another piece of Kanye artwork, painted some time ago, which now finds itself in quiet conversation with Kanye’s Lake mural. It was painted by Chris Devins, who, unlike Peterson, was not working on a commission from the building owner. His street art image — Kanye in a dapper suit, with a square handkerchief, a flashing Rolex — is there because Devins had thought of West as many of us have for decades: as an influential whirlwind of creativity and provocation. . His Kanye, he told me, came out of a dinner party with a friend who was collaborating with West on an opera. They were eating at the Time Out Market down the street, and immediately afterwards, inspired, Devins grabbed his paint and created the Kanye. Peterson’s Kanye mural was painted last year and Devins’ mural was painted last summer.
After the silhouette of the Lake Street mural, Devins said he refused to modify his Kanye.
He was uncomfortable with the idea of an artist erasing another artist’s image. He told me, “This guy had a major impact on music, art and fashion, and it’s too significant to hide.” Yet, he added, he was also open to the ongoing conversation about it.
This was wise, because soon after Peterson changed his mural, someone came along and touched up Devins’ painting. It was less dramatic, but like Peterson’s changes, it brought added depth to West’s image that was closer to a lot of conflicted feelings.
Someone painted – vertically, on West’s suit – the word: “TRASH”.
I stood in front of that and called Devins and he said, “Well, that’s too bad. But again he is pretty cool. It is a public conversation that should take place. I’m conflicted because it’s a problem for me, but ‘TRASH’? Vertically no less? It’s kind of interesting…”
Then a day later, Devins painted over “TRASH”.
I wish he hadn’t altered the graffiti that was painted over his own graffiti. Much like Peterson’s silhouette, “TRASH” said more than just a hagiographic act of civic pride. “TRASH” could be read with pride — as a resilient pushback from cancel culture — or more literally, as the value of a once-loved artist who has shrunk to junk status. Additionally, this wall sits on an empty building and is considered a “permission wall” by street artists in Chicago, meaning their paintings and images (sophisticated and often colorful and even soft) are preferable to empty. ; nothing has been done to erase them.
Here is an ongoing dialogue.
One that is resolutely part of the history of art. Artists who paint over the art of other artists – in protest or commentary, usually to create a new work of art – are far from unknown. Even more famously, Robert Rauschenberg erased some of his own drawings to decide that something was missing from the act. He therefore asked Willem de Kooning to lend him a new work which was finished. This was in the early 1950s, when de Kooning was making his greatest pieces, and yet de Kooning agreed and gave Rauschenberg a drawing so dense that de Kooning doubted Rauschenberg could erase it all. But he did, and “Erased de Kooning Drawing” is one of Rauschenberg’s best-known works today. The wealth of examples is bottomless. A few years ago, a cultural heritage scientist from Northwestern University proved that Picasso’s 1902 oil painting “The Crouching Beggar” was not just painted over the work of another Spanish artist, but had incorporated parts of it.
Of course, it’s understandable that MINIMAL — itself a design company full of artists — doesn’t want its facade covered in a billboard of Kanye. Just as it would be understandable if the street performers who find themselves alongside Devins’ Kanye have their doubts. Irony of ironies, the Kanye of Devins rubs shoulders with the familiar street art of Rich Alapackknown for its simple declarative rainbow message of solidarity: “WE ALL LIVE HERE”.
Alapack, who lives in Fulton Market and walks past these walls daily, launched her “WE ALL LIVE HERE” campaign in 2015, partnering with Chicago schools and libraries to spread a sweet note of unity through art audience. This message is now ubiquitous throughout the city, present on the walls of hundreds of places. He calls Devins a talented painter but wasn’t thrilled that Kanye accompanied a “WE ALL LIVE HERE”. Alapack said, “Part of what ‘WE ALL LIVE HERE’ means that different people and different ideas exist and are allowed to exist, and sometimes things happen that we don’t agree with, but we allow it. . That said, when (Kanye) moved on to hate speech, it’s no longer free speech.
He expects the wall and the building to be demolished.
Yet right now, even informally, the results are richer than they were a month ago, when all we had were a few celebrity likenesses splashed at Fulton Market.
As I stood in front of the Lake Street mural, a guy wearing a Blackhawks sweatshirt took a picture of Kanye’s silhouette with his phone; this was before it was tagged. He said he understands why the owners of the building would be upset and wouldn’t want to watch this every day, “but it’s like you can’t say anything anymore. I hate that this is happening, but I feel there is some truth behind what Kanye is saying. Everything is falling apart, but the guy always said outrageous things. I heard he was going to found his own town. Which looks like Kanye.
As he continued, I felt someone behind me.
I turned. It was another guy photographing the figure. He asked me if I was the artist who erased Kanye. I said no. He said, “Oh – because I was going to thank you.”