I sell a rat

Pub date December 18, 2012
SectionVisual Art

STREET SEEN Like many of his Bay Area art world peers, the beret-wearing rat that Banksy stenciled on the side of Haight Street’s Red Victorian hotel in 2010 was in Miami for Art Basel week.

But sadly, our stenciled friend wasn’t available for air-kisses. The rodent-adorned chunk of wall hung behind a velvet rope and its own security guard in the VIP lounge at Context, a new-this-year contemporary wing of the sprawling Art Miami art fair.

The rodent was one of five reappropriated Banksy walls being shown in an exhibition that was controversial even by the standards of Basel week’s art-star-big-money whirligig. A local weekly newspaper helpfully pointed out that the wheelings-and-dealings in Miami during Basel involve art worth roughly the GDP of Guyana. (Check out the Guardian’s Pixel Vision blog for our full report on the week’s best showings, scenes, stilettos.)

The galleries documented the removal of the West Bank murals with this promotional video (?)

It’s not clear how the rat got there. (SEE OUR UPDATE ON THE HAIGHT STREET RAT HERE) Red Vic owner Sami Sunchild wouldn’t comment when I called her to ask, besides to decry the art as vandalism on her property. But given that I had just seen the Banksy rodent presiding over $15 cocktails and Asian noodle salads in Miami, one imagines that somewhere along the way, she realized that the unauthorized art had its audience. The wall appears to be in the possession of a gallery in the Hamptons that has already run afoul of Banksy, the cheeky-mysterious Bristol-born street artist whose immense popularity has helped explode the street art genre.

“When artists like Picasso traded paintings with his barber for haircuts, or when he gave them as gifts to friends, he did not do so with any intention other than that they enjoy those works and view them as a sign of his appreciation,” Hampton-based gallery owner Stephen Keszler wrote me in a rather irate email when he learned of my intentions to write about his exhibit. “Now Picasso’s works sell at auction for millions of dollars, and not a single collector cares about the original intention.”

In addition to the Bay’s rat-friend, Keszler’s show included “Stop and Search” and “Wet Dog,” two Palestine walls that had been completed during Banksy’s trip to the West Bank to focus international attention on a region that the artist calls “the world’s largest open-air prison.”

Their price tags hovered around $400,000 at Keszler’s Southampton gallery this summer, though now they are said to be off the market. Although the gallerist has insinuated to the media that the walls might be destined for a museum, he may just be waiting until some decidedly negative reactions to their attempted sale die down. “We have no doubt that these works will come back to haunt Mr. Keszler,” Pest Control, Banksy’s representative agency, said in a statement largely credited with scaring off potential buyers for the walls.

Keszler’s camp refused to give me any detail of how the walls were acquired, or who owns them now — though they assured me the process was legal. The online art marketplace Artnet has reported that the pieces were removed by some Bethlehem entrepreneurs who tried to sell them on eBay before Keszler, in a project with London’s Bankrobber gallery, picked them up. The gallerists say they’re preserving the murals, and making them available to a larger audience.

Selling Banksys has become a veritable cottage industry — In Easton, England, a couple attempted to hawk a stencil for hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the house it was painted on thrown in for good measure — complicated by the fact that the artist doesn’t sign or authenticate his illegal street art.

Gallery owners should hardly be surprised when attempts to capitalize off of public art are taken to task, particularly works as site-specific and political as the Bethlehem walls. They should stay away language like that which appeared at the “Banksy Out of Context” exhibit in Miami: “The exhibition aims to provide public access to these walls and create a platform where they can be reevaluated as artworks in themselves.”

Because an event that costs $20 to enter is hardly more public than the streets of Palestine. And maybe separating the walls from their intended audience allow some people to better evaluate their artistic meaning — but only those who need a hefty pricetag to recognize creativity.