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Art November, 16 2009

Curated Q&A | Michael “RJ” Rushmore

Michael “RJ” Rushmore has already had a bit of space on Curated in the last week. Apart from providing a guest post, his The Thousands exhibition and Vandalog site have been noted. The street art show opens this week (tomorrow to be exact).

At 18, I was also just getting into art and had served my first museum internship (working on 18th-century furniture). RJ is curating an exhibition, releasing a related catalog through Drago, and slowly becoming a name associated with coverage and dissemination of information about a new breed of artist. I’m always pleased to find young people heavily engaged in art, what ever the subject matter, and felt it appropriate to pick RJ’s mind about the show and his thoughts on street art generally.

The interview follows, many thanks to RJ for his time and taking a few moments to discuss his projects with me over the last few weeks.

Photo credit to Sonia Bertacchini.

It’s quite well documented on both your site and in other interviews that you’ve just recently become engaged in street art. What are the key components that drew you to the work you cover?

At first, it was just a series of coincidences. My dad decided that he wanted to start buying a bit of artwork for our house, and at the suggestion of a friend, the first piece he bought was a small original by Faile. So that got the ball rolling. From there, he and I both fell in love with street art.

Most of the time, street art just happens to be the art that I connect with best. It is (generally) unpretentious and accessible, it can’t hurt that most street artists are people my age or a half-generation older who get the same pop culture reference and this may or may not be true, but I think that good street art and “low-brow” art generally relies on some basic artistic abilities like knowing how to paint or cut woodblocks. These are very important skills, but they seem to have fallen out of favor in the rest of the art world.

The folks at Wooster Collective have a rather strict definition of street art in contrast to graffiti. Do you hold similar notions? Should there be strict definition?

For The Thousands, I’ve generally stuck to the traditionally strict boundaries between street art and graffiti, but my reasoning behind that was that Paris has had two major exhibitions this year focusing on graffiti (Le Tag and the show at Fondation Cartier) and I wanted to show work that might have been excluded from those shows.

In the coming years though, I think that street art and graffiti are going to more or less merge into one thing, or those strict definitions are at least going to become very blurry. Artists and writers like Barry McGee and Todd James have tried to have a foot in both camps for years and that has mostly required having two separate bodies of work and Kaws had to transition from graffiti to street art to pop art, but now people like The ADHD Kids crew and Revs in New York City are getting simultaneous praise from the graffiti and street art communities for pieces that contain elements from both worlds. So while it might be possible to differentiate between to the two groups today, I think it will become progressively harder to do so, and that’s going to be pretty awesome.

The Thousands comes at a time where several “street artists” are getting their first museum shows (from the big names of Shepard to guys like Greg “Crayola” Simpkins) and major museums (like Tate Modern) have introduced the, for lack of better term, genre to a wider audience. What’s your impetus behind the show?

Shepard Fairey’s Supply and Demand show is a giant leap forward for the “genre”, and Banksy versus The Bristol Museum is equally important, but I disagree that the Tate Modern show was a huge deal. Yes, it was cool to see and exposed the work to a lot of people, and I applaud their curator Cedar Lewisohn for his work, but the show took place entirely outdoors, and that’s what’s wrong with how museums seem to look at street art today.

I would like to see a major museum like the Tate Modern, the Boston ICA or MoMA put on a group exhibition of street artists that takes place indoors (or outdoors and indoors). So that’s what I went into this project trying to create a miniature version of. The Thousands isn’t perfect, but I think it’s a good stepping-stone towards what I would like to see happen in a public institution some day soon.

In fact, I just heard about a small urban art exhibition at the Warrington Museum in the UK opening later this month, so I have to congratulate them on being on the cutting edge.

How did you go about putting it together? What’s your end goal?

I suppose I went about this like anybody else would. I started with things like finding a space and looking for artwork, and just went from there. I don’t have anybody else officially helping me, but I’ve found plenty of amazing support in friends, family and galleries around the world. I regularly chat with a few gallery types to make sure I’m not doing anything completely wrong (like trying to frame prints in my bedroom to save money on hiring a proper framer when it turns out that my friend has the exact same set of prints and they are already framed…).

Personally, my end goal is to use The Thousands to get some variety of paying gigs in order to pay off all the debts I’m going to incur putting this show on.

On a slightly less personal level, my generation couldn’t give a crap about seeing Damien Hirst release another spot painting or diamond skull, so I would am trying to use The Thousands to promote street art over the current trends in contemporary art. It’s time for something new, and people my age care about Shepard Fairey and Banksy, not the YBAs.

You have the support of some good names in contemporary art, and I wonder how you’ve been able to make your mark so quickly?

At first, it probably had a lot to do with the fact that my dad is a collector of street art and people were being nice to me to impress him. But now I’m hopeful that more people know me than him and most of what I do is on my own merits.

It’s definitely taken a lot of hard work to make it that way though. Last year, I had two options every school night: do my homework, or blog about street art. Guess which one I chose. And this year I’m taking a gap year to focus on street art. So I think at this point the most important components to my success have been putting in the hours and the fantastic people who have supported me and given me a chance to succeed.

One little side note though. I don’t want anybody to be confused. With The Thousands, because most of the artwork is on loan to me from private collections, I did not have to go to the artists for their approval. Of course, I did that when possible and nobody said that they didn’t want to be included, but I was only to get in touch with about 2/3rds of the artist whose artwork I’m showing.

As a collector of street art, what do you look for in pieces that are, obviously, not on the street?

My dad and I tend to collect together, so while we each have our own tastes, most of the collection consists of pieces we both love. For him, he is into artists with that extra level of technical skill and craftsmanship like Judith Supine and Swoon. Me, I don’t really know how to describe my taste, but I’ve noticed a very odd tendency to love things that include a lot of red or black (and yet, I’m not a fan of Shepard Fairey’s prints, just his originals).

Honestly, I don’t know what it is about street art that I also happen to love in the gallery, but at the Frieze Art Fair 2008, there was only one artist that I really came away excited about: Stelios Faitakis. Turns out, and this is not at all apparent in his gallery work and only something I learned months later, Faitakis is a street artist. So that probably says something both about street art and my own personal taste.

Tell me a little more about the blog. How did you begin to frame how you would cover street art? And, how did you start thinking about how it would differentiate itself from other blogs produced about the subject?

I could compare Vandalog to Wooster Collective or Curated or Arrested Motion, and those are all great blogs, but I pretty much write about the things in street art that I think my dad should be reading about because I think Vandalog is the only blog he reads. And I like to voice an opinion, because a lot of art blogs make it sound like every piece of art ever made is a masterpiece, but most art is terrible and it’s only the rare pieces that are truly special, so I try to get that across on occasion.

Given you are on a gap year and are headed to university, has Vandalog changed what you’ve considered for a course of study?

For sure. When I first applied to university, I thought that I would study business, engineering or computer science. Now I’m headed to Haverford College, a liberal arts school. And I was almost headed to the Pratt Institute to study creative writing until I realized that if I lived in Brooklyn, I would never get any studying done.

And even when I was looking at liberal arts schools like Haverford and Reed College, I was thinking about studying political science or maybe English. I’m still not sure what I was to major in, but I will almost definitely minor in art history now.

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