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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Kurt Wenner

Xintiandi Art Festival, Shanghai, China, Kurt Wenner
It's a dirty job but someone has to do it.
On at least two or three occasions I've written about street art, sometimes called sidewalk art, or pavement art, all meaning more or less the same thing. In fact, when I taught art at the elementary level, every year in the fall I would load up with colored chalk and take my classes out to decorate the many sidewalks and sometimes the empty parking lot. For the most part, each kid worked on his own area and parents probably wondered when they got home, "What the hell you been doing that you got so dirty?" If the kids themselves complained, I simply reminded them that "Side-walk art is a dirty business but someone has to do it." For the most part, I simply wandered amongst them handing out pious pontifi-cations as to what they might try next or how they might improve their efforts. Mostly I simply kept them on task and scanned the clouds hoping it didn't start raining. So, although I've never actually tried such art, and I'm way to old to crawl around on hard concrete to start now, I do know a bit about the whole subject. Or, at least, I thought did until reading the reminiscences of a real street artist named Kurt Wenner.
Andrea Pozzo's painted ceiling in the Church of St. Ignazio, 1685, Rome
A few years ago I took it upon myself to write about a couple sidewalk artist, Joe Hill and Max Lowry (3D Joe and Max). Another time I highlighted the street artist, Joe Mangrum, who works not with chalk or pastels but with colored sands creating decorative floral and symmetrical designs. For that reason when I came across the work of the American artist, Kurt Wenner, though quite impressed with his talent and audacity, not to mention his incredible work ethic, I was more than a little skeptical of his claim to have invented sidewalk art. He didn't, of course. Sidewalk art seems to have originated in England more than a century ago. However, in digging a bit deeper I discovered he claims only to have invented a certain type of sidewalk art, anamorphic 3-D pavement art. Let me be perfectly frank here, I'd never even heard of anamorphic art, (pavement or otherwise). Well, actually, turns out I was aware of such art, I'd just never heard it called that. Anamorphic art involves Anamorphosis, which is a distorted view or perspective requiring the viewer to occupy a specific vantage point (or viewing angle) to reconstitute the image. The science of such art had its birth during the Renaissance in the work of Leonardo, Hans Holbein (the younger) and later, during the Baroque era, the ceiling paintings of Andrea Pozzo as seen in his magnificent dome and vault of the Church of St. Ignazio in Rome (above).

Born about 1960 (sources are slim in this regard) in Ann Arbor, Michigan,
Wenner lived for 25 years in Rome, but now resides in the United States.
Typical of Wenner's Rome work.
Kurt Wenner's claim to have "invented" 3-D street art seems valid. I've done some looking at others doing similar work and I can find none of them having been at it since 1984. Mostly such work became popular in the 1990s. Outstanding street artists such as Julian Beever, Manfred Stader, and Edgar Muller all seem to have come later and been heavily influenced by Wenner. Wenner is a man who has paid his dues, his first mural commission coming when he was just sixteen. Though born in Michigan, Wenner grew up in Santa Barbara, California, where he first tried his hand at 3-D pavement art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. A year later he helped found the first street painting festival in the United States, at the Old Mission, about the same time he began to support himself with mural commissions. After high school, Wenner attended the Rhode Island School of Design and Art Center College of Design, before finding a job working for NASA as an advanced scientific illustrator, creating conceptual paintings of future space projects. Then, in 1982 Wenner sold all he had and left NASA to go study Classical art in Rome.

Rome favored the religious classics, in northern Europe, Wenner discovered a newfound creative freedom where his tromp l'oeil pavement art could flourish.
Ceres Banquet, Kurt Wenner
In Rome Wenner learned the art of living on the street, drawing on the street, and surviving upon the proceeds from nearly worthless Italian coins. Actually the money was pretty good, only very heavy. Few merchants or banks wanted anything to do with the tons of coins (literally) he accumulated in his studio. Finally, he found a pizzeria near the Trevi Fountain where people exchanged paper money for coins to toss in the fountain. The owner was expecting a bag or two of coins. Wenner delivered a roomful or two of coins. Later Wenner moved on to Germany and Switzerland where he was able to go beyond drawing copies of the famous art he found in Rome's museums to original, secular works, which allowed him to develop an all new form of anamorphic perspective designed to be seen up close, rather than several stories above a church floor. This gradual development of a new set of rules for drawing is the true nature of his invention of 3-D pavement art. The only problem in working in northern Europe was the colder, wetter weather and the penchant German cities have of washing down their sidewalks every morning. Like most artists, Wenner didn't care much for getting out of bed before dawn to rush back to his drawing from the day before to protect it from destruction.

Las Vegas, Chevrolet, and art with "depth."

Kurt Wenner is also a first-rate
portrait artist as well.
Having extolled the talent and virtues of Kurt Wenner and some others of his ilk, I have two problems with 3-D street art. The first is its transient nature, at the mercy of rain, footprints, vandals, and municipal sidewalk cleaners. Of course, sidewalk artists have long since dealt with this unavoidable problem by switching to paint on walls or simply accepting the fact that sidewalk art is a performance rather than a product. Very well, if they can accept that role, so can I. However the second limitation I see to such art is much more fundamental. It is totally beholden to a second art form in order to be effective. Anamorphic perspective has only one optimal viewpoint from which it must be seen and photographed for it to be fully effective, not to mention that in order to have any chance of preservation, it simply must be photographed. Even when the work is done inside, away from the brutal elements, which have no respect for fine art, such work is never intended to be permanent. Even in is most serious form (as in the case of Wenner) it is art akin to "trick" photography--fun to look at, and a performance fun to watch--but at best, it's only a showcase for the artist's other types of work. Fortunately, in this regard, Kurt Wenner is well equipped to make the most of his eye-catching strengths (above, right).

Ho, man, what time is it? What year is it?


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