There is an overwhelming spectre haunting street art and it goes by the name of Banksy. Whilst understandably adulated for raising the profile of public, uncommissioned art to the status of, well, art, the unfortunate fact is there are few people who would know anyone else currently excelling in the problematised arena. In the same way that musical sub-genres are often characterised by artists who have attained some measure of fame due to good luck or good marketing, whilst a vast sea of talent starves from lack of promotion, street art is now synonymous with the stencilled hyper-realism that Banksy helped to pioneer, a form that has been mimicked ceaselessly around the globe, and with his Academy Award-nominated film Exit Through the Gift Shop winning extensive praise last year, he was effectively launched into the mainstream. Now this is obviously good, insofar as it erases the decades-old characterisation of all public artistic expression as illegal graffiti, but the problem with any formerly-transgressive art form attaining acceptability through the pre-eminence of a single artist is that the other work being done in the area, perhaps some of it more imaginative, more satisfying from a complexly conceptual standpoint, is either simply compared to the pre-eminence in a patronising manner or disregarded entirely.
In contrast to the hyper-realist style and underlying political motives that characterise the contemporaneously most dominant practitioner of street art, Sydney artist Brad Eastman, who goes by the name Beastman, has produced an impressive body of work that is deeply reflective and emotionally symbolic in scope. Over a career that has spanned a relatively short 6 years, Beastman has developed a style that is nothing if not diametrically opposed to social concerns more generally. Brisbanites may be familiar with the massive wall he painted for the radio station 4zzz, featuring his trademark symbolic characters and colouring. This is a wonderful example of the work in general, which gestures towards fluidity and transfiguration, highlighting the symbiotic inter-connections found in nature.
“My work is inspired by nature’s repetitive, symmetrical and organic lines and forms,” he says, but at the same time, the work also reflects uniquely emotional concerns, conveying the depths of human pathos through symbolic creatures that inhabit a haunting universe of darkly connotative hues.
Typically, I suppose, of artists in general, and specifically of those artists engaged in less mainstream forms of art, there is precious little information available on Beastman, and the interview we conducted rightly focussed on the work as opposed to the life of the artist. As such, I shall try to give in what follows an overview of the work as it spoke to me, interspersed with the artist’s comments as necessary.
In the works accessible on the artist’s website, one is confronted with repetitive motifs of sadness and seeming regret, which are contrasted with uplifting vistas that imply vast landscapes of beauty. A consistently recurring being that has the form of a sea cucumber and precisely human emotive capacity populates his work and calls the viewer to question the trials and tribulations it has witnessed or experienced. The prevalent motif of the eye, in many works depicted singularly, deploys a certain double surveillance – we are appreciating the form of the thing we are simultaneously using to appreciate the form – and this engages the viewer in a form of meditative circularity. These are works of a particularly Aristotlean beauty, where delicate symmetry inspires the viewer to feel approbation for the forms created, allowing one to abide in reflection of their nobility.
The American philosopher Crispin Sartwell writes, in Six Names of Beauty, his seminal work on aesthetics, that “The Greek words for beautiful (kalos) and beauty (to kalon) have moral as well as aesthetic force. They refer to “nobility” as well as what we would think of as a direct visual beauty.” I cannot suggest that Beastman has any moral ambition in creating his works, indeed there seems to be a distinct lack of ethical explication in those works I have seen, but there is, doubtless, a certain nobility, here fragile, elsewhere powerful, that takes the beauty of mathematically generated fractals and upon this background paints resolutely emotional schemas.
Dispassionately, by contrast, I could also understand a viewer who greeted Beastman’s works as some sort of hellish nightmarescape, replete as they are with monstrous visages that may be benign or may indeed be malicious, and with beings that seem alone and afraid, separated from connection and friendship by an seemingly insurmountable void. The Call of Cthulhu, one of his paintings, for instance, places a monstrous and nebulous sun-like being between creatures who seem anxious to placate it, lest it undertake some violent act against them. In another of the paintings, simply titled The Storm, the cucumber being once more plays protagonist, this time lost in a tiny vessel upon an endless sea; above him are the jagged lines of the storm that appear to be pressing down, perhaps some analogy for the wider terror of an alienated existence. It is this interpretive dissonance, more specifically, the open-endedness of the work that is one of its great strengths.
“That’s one of the things I love about the artwork I create, everyone looks at it differently and finds their own meaning or relevance in the work,” says Eastman.
Setting oneself apart in such a way as Beastman has is testament to his philosophy of self-reliance and his commitment to constant betterment. This is not an art of mimicry or simple reinterpretation of previous forms.
“Work harder than everyone else you know – Find that style that is different to everyone else…[inspiration is found in] Just living life and searching for good things, not just looking at what is thrown in front of me – the good stuff is hidden out there, you got to search for.”
It is this trail-blazing spirit that has reaped the reward of originality and a burgeoning recognition of Beastman’s work as an important and challenging contribution to contemporary art.
Beastman is to be featured in a solo exhibition in Sydney in December 2011.