John Tsombikos, an American artist currently based in New York and who used to live and practice in D.C., presents his new solo exhibition in London hosted by Lazarides Gallery on Rathbone Place. The exhibition, which started last week and will be open until the 20th of December, is titled just “BORF show” after the nick/tag name of the graffiti artist who is better known as BORF.
Tsombikos, who started his career as street artist when was a teenager, was initially moved towards graffiti art after his friend Bobby L Fisher passed away committing suicide. In fact, was further to such event that Tsombikos embraced a political engagement which drives his work. Convinced to react and raise awareness towards capitalist worthlessness through his street art practice, BORF has also engaged in a graffiti campaign which took place in Washington in 2004 and 2005. Despite his graffiti early career Tsombikos is currently producing a studio-based work in his atelier in New York.
His studio works especially, showcased in this solo exhibition, are characterized by the strong reference and inheritance of Abstract Expressionism and therefore inspired by artists like Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Lucio Fontana as some of the painting’s titles explicitly quote, such as: “Fontana of Youth” and “Rothko’s Modern Life”.
The techniques used by the artist in the work displayed include primitive mark-making, acid etching on metal sheets, carving of train seat backs and spray-paint on canvas. Differently from most of his godfathers and beloved painters, BORF looting from the urban environment is an attitude that can be rather put alongside Neo-Dada’s practice of later years even if the fragments of reality captured here are taken from “every day graffiti life”.
The type of works showcased can be classified in big and medium size canvases – usually realized in Acrylic spray-paint and paint stripper – and train back seats which are an explicit quote of Fontana’s canvases with a touch of Pop and Dada attitude given by the ready-made support and the bright orange color. The latter are also the occasion for the artist to challenge the medium of painting with a tridimensional support where chiaroscuro contrasts are essential aesthetic ingredients.
In addition, again differently from its Abstract Expressionist precedents, Tsombikos’ work is hardly introspective and tautological. It brings together the more lyrical aspects of this historical reference such as use of bright colors and random gestures on the canvas with the more neo-realistic experience rendered through the overlapping and stripping of layers of “history” over the canvas, typical of Pop Art paintings and which evokes the street wall as original painting surface. In this sense BORF both reproduces and extracts fragments and memories of those walls from the real world.
According to this approach the artist achieves his best with the works made out of sheets of metal and engraved with acid. One of the two works which composes the diptych displayed shows a verse of a song by The Smiths turning it into a strange consumed street label. Here the text fragment, deprived by its original meaning and context, makes sense only as a pictorial tool.
The show is an interesting moment of meeting between the gallery environment or mainstream art culture and business with the world of street art as both political expression and pictorial technique. BORF – who was sentenced for his graffiti practice and blamed by the judge of being part of the crowd and system he was contesting – seems to embrace, entering the gallery system, an attitude which is assertive with the capitalist opportunity of selling art.
Nevertheless, the gallery – which used to be the favorite designated spot for Abstract Expressionist painters who found in the space of the white cube the perfect partner – interprets here, the real protagonist of the show as a contested territory. Instead of being swallowed by the art business BORF wishes to manipulate its dynamics. He is in search, in this privileged space, of the same kind of appropriation he exercised on private properties with his graffiti. If the attempt is successful, is hard to tell and maybe just the public can be the right judge, this time, to sentence Tsombikos artistic and political action.
What is BORF bringing into the gallery which makes the show more innovative with this artwork?