Originally published on The Upcoming 10th January.
Belying the exhibition’s title, the works of Californian-born street artist Saber have a haunting beauty – richly textured, fastidiously detailed and all graced with sweeping free-flowing strokes. Expressive, swooshing lines abound in typical graffiti style; they are calligraphic without spelling out words. For some, graffiti is distinguished by its use of lettering, for others it’s the context of the street – on both counts the works in The Ugly American are not strictly graffiti. The artist himself concurs: “It’s not graffiti once it’s on the canvas”. And while the pieces on display are once removed from the urgency of the street, they are by no means sanitised. Yes, they are gallery-friendly, but they maintain an air of vibrancy and subtle recalcitrance.
The entire ground floor of the exhibition is dedicated to the artist’s renditions of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes on wooden canvasses, resembling the bottom of shipping crates. This gives them a tactile aesthetic, almost inviting you to touch them; they’re enticing, yet scruffy. Saber’s flags, rather like the societies they represent, aren’t interesting for their geometric uniformity. Instead their vitality lies in their blemishes: burns, scratches and random debris such as staples and scraps of paper.
The rigid lines represent the mainstream of these societies, the sweeping gestural aerosol strokes occur on the margins, like the subculture street art is a big part of. They appear to be just the tip of the iceberg, the fading end of the stroke, hinting that real magic occurs outside of these boxes, hidden and unseen.
Downstairs, the pieces are altogether more abstract. Several look like tags layered up prodigiously, perhaps a comment on America’s (and by extension much of the rest of the world’s) disposable culture of throw-away consumer goods and fleeting fame; there’s always something ready to dub over the top of even the latest gadgets and trends. Others have a metallic sheen, but instead of the clean crispness typically evident when graffiti artists employ chrome paint, these pieces seem to be decaying, deteriorating like the glossy veneer of a corporate logo that vainly attempts to hide filthy secrets.
One work has harsh monochrome lines resembling brutalist architecture, which on closer inspection is crumbling, revealing little windows of vivid colours, lushly layered and inviting, trying to burst through. The Ugly American proves street art can be political without its usual tools of slogans or representational imagery, by subtly critiquing America’s selfish culture but also revealing the chinks in its armour and the beauty of its hidden subcultures.