Are we that insensible of our urban environment, to the presence of unexpected beauty, that we don’t notice two guys installing pregnant stop signs in broad daylight?
I met Brad Downey in Vienna, March 2010 when he was a resident artist at the Museums Quartier, WEIN, one of the largest and most forward thinking museums of contemporary art in the world. Although it was over a year ago, I have never forgotten the impression his work left on me. As conversation on art has once again steered itself back onto the streets and into street art, grafitti art, graffiti un-art and everything related, I have found myself thinking of Brad Downey’s work and our meeting often. Nostalgia. Street art is and always has been a touchy subject. For some, it is an indication of youth and society in decline. For others, it heralds the dawn of a new and more enlightened age, an anti-capitalistic utopia in which the traditional conventions of private property, ownership and social responsibility crumble in the pursuit of a more enlightened and inclusive model.
Downey’s work was the first to reconcile my mind to the concept of street art as “art.” I never understood how a person could simply create something only to give away, to just leave a work of art on an unnamed street for a wayward pedestrian to either appropriate for him or her self, destroy, or simply ignore. Downey’s urban installations breathe life into the static signposts of everday urban life; a man made of the day’s detritus spews from a public trash bin, a black stenciled pedestrian tumbles from the heights of his yield sign, and the stop sign you pass by every day is unexpectedly expecting. All of these pieces silently spring from the day lit city streets, often going unnoticed by older passers by too intent on moving forward, seeing only what they expect to see than what is actually there—to Downey’s deep chagrin. “As a public,” Downey writes on his site, “we are acclimatized to these signs and beacons, and their subtle manipulation and proliferation can go undetected…by wider awareness of these controls, [the] viewing public will gain greater understanding of his own urban and social situation.”
I recall seeing images of his work, and feeling startled, stunned, at their effect. I recall entering his residence and seeing three objects: a large poster laying on the floor—”I FORGOT WHAT I WAS GOING TO SAY”—, an off-white photo collage cum sculpture constructed of pages from VICE magazine and an immense stainless steel “tower” reminiscent of Brancusi’s “Endless Column,” upended beside his desk.
And then I recall Downey informing me of what I really saw, with an activity of speech and expression that betrayed a brilliant mind. The “poster” was Downey’s concept for a commissioned advertisement: “I liked the idea of having nothing to say;” the ceramic sculpture was a paper collage, cemented together with copious amounts of clear tape that Downey found on the streets of Vienna: “I don’t know who made it. I don’t care. I try to challenge myself with bullshit street things… an object with no author becomes mine.” And the “Endless Column?” Ashtrays, stacked upon one another and filled with sand and cigarettes: “Brancusi represented Heaven and Earth, the connection between the Spiritual and the Physical world. I throw the ashtrays in a pile, it’s like the body of an artist within his work, but this one is dead.”
It’s time to resurrect the ghosts of memory; hello again, Brad Downey.