Mother and Brick Madonna by James De La Vega courtesy Ray Kass
A special issue of Smithsonian Magazine recently profiled 37 American innovators (in arts and sciences) under the age of 36. One person featured is James De La Vega, who makes his art in Manhattan, both inside his storefront gallery and outside all over the city. Outside, he makes his mark with paint, chalk, or tape, on sidewalks, benches, walls. Inside, he sells fine art paintings and also t-shirts of his designs.
The New York Times described De La Vega as “a hybrid between a street kid and an Ivy League-educated guerrilla performance artist.” (He graduated from Cornell University.) He has been arrested more than once for vandalism, but Christie’s has sold his art for thousands of dollars. The terms the Smithsonian article used to describe him are street muralist, performance artist, guerrilla artist, renegade graffitist; vandal is perhaps implied. The keywords on his own website are “Graffiti Artist, Painter, Photographer, Educator, Activist, Thinker”.
The magazine quotes him saying, “I like the idea of the artist going out in the world and creating a dialogue. So I try to write something I think people need to hear, or rehear. Something to make them think, to be in that moment… For some people, its a confrontation. But I think for most, it reassures them — it gives them something to reflect on. Art is interacting with people.” In a 2005 interview, he says, “I like doing permanent works sometimes. But I’ve found that my message is more effective in its impermanence.”
image by James De La Vega of Justice courtesy www.pixelpixie.net/vega/
In the same interview, when asked about his artistic influences he responded, “Picasso teaches us freedom. Keith Herring and Andy Warhol, that’s marketing and promotion. Salvador Dali was into that too, Paul Klee, the line drawings in The New Yorker.” When asked the same by the Smithsonian writer, De La Vega added Norman Rockwell, because he likes artists “who speak to people, who can get through to a lot of people.” He also enjoys John Wayne films for the colorful cinematography. Here is a guy who isn’t easy to pigeonhole.
image by James De La Vega of St Sebastian courtesy www.pixelpixie.net/vega/
Some of his adages that appear as part of his art:
- Fate is moving you toward your destiny.
- The rich control the destiny of the poor, but an intelligent man controls his own.
- Be mindful even if your mind is full.
- Become your dream.
- Remember, The Devil Was Once A Beautiful Angel.
I don’t find anything much more profound than can be found in a fortune cookie in the list.
- What effect does the venue have on the art? For example, would the work made with tape about “justice” cause a different reaction if hung as a painting inside a gallery? Does the shock value graffiti gets by its placement in public enhance any artistic qualities that might otherwise be perceived as lacking — such as the text De La Vega often places with his drawings?
- Should respect for the venue be something the artist considers; is graffiti above the law because it is art?
- Is De La Vega successful in his aim to create a dialog with those who view his art? Or is it a monologue, or even a diatribe? For it to be a dialog, how would the viewer be able to respond to him? If he considers art to be interacting with people, does graffiti cause a negative interaction despite the best intentions of the artist? (His intention seems to be to inspire positive reactions in his viewers’ lives and thoughts.)