Urban, edgy, lucrative
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I have a rendezvous with Pure Evil, one of the most prominent names of the thriving street art scene, at his own gallery in Shoreditch. I am expecting a journey into the heart of darkness. But British contemporary art is nothing if not noted for its ironic touches, and Evil – real name Charles Uzzell-Edwards – is of course a genial, well-spoken, middle-aged man who instantly asks me out for a drink up the road.
So far, so wholesome. As we leave the gallery, he does a double take. He points to an abandoned car park across the road, the surrounding walls of which are festooned with elaborate street paintings. One of them is missing, Evil tells me. A Frankenstein’s head that was there a few hours ago has disappeared: one of the walls has been demolished. A boutique hotel will shortly be built on the site, he says. Frankenstein is an early victim. The rest of the art will follow. Here today, betrayed tomorrow.
And yet urban art has never been in ruder health, its ephemeral zest turned into something more long-lasting, and commercially viable. Banksy, the movement’s flag-bearer, has become an auction-house favourite. And Pure Evil himself, quite apart from owning two galleries on the same street in Shoreditch, is becoming an unlikely interloper in the traditional art establishment.
He was recently commissioned by Royal Doulton to produce a set of plates for the company. “The limited edition of large plates reinvigorates the concept of using ceramic as an interior design art form,” gushes its promotional literature. “These are pieces to be displayed and are bound to create conversation!” Evil’s enthusiasm is drier in tone: “I really liked the idea of appearing on Antiques Roadshow one day.”
From the contrived drama of his moniker to his easy way with a paradox, Pure Evil symbolises much that is good, bad or uncertain about the art world today. A descendant of Sir Thomas More and son of an artist, Uzzell-Edwards left Britain, or “the ruins of Thatcher’s Britain”, as he likes to put it, in 1990 to design a streetwear clothing label and make electronic music in San Francisco. He returned to the ruins of the old world a decade later, just as the British street art scene was taking off, and joined it, spraying his signature bunny rabbits all over town and reviving a childhood signature.
He enjoyed the movement’s playful nature, he says, pointing to an early print, “Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Bastards”, which replaced the randomly chosen figures in Peter Blake’s original artwork with an assortment of historical miscreants (the faces of The Beatles are substituted by Lenin, Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler). “I read somewhere that John Lennon always wanted to put Hitler on the cover, but wasn’t allowed to,” he says, claiming provenance with a rebellious spirit. He opened his first Pure Evil gallery in 2007, initially as a pop-up, and then as a permanent fixture of the burgeoning east London art scene. He makes a joke about his “stature as an artist”, supplying the ironic quotation marks himself: I flip them back to him, wondering if he ever worried that his commercial activities compromised his “integrity as an artist”.
“Not when you have a family and a baby and a constant supply of nappies to pay for,” he replies. “I am not going to worry about a 19-year-old complaining that I am a sellout.”
He tells me two anecdotes which seem to sum up the dilemma that urban art faces as it gains acceptance. An acquaintance of his was recently asked to design a graffiti-strewn background to a video game to emphasise its sinister environment; while at the same time, estate agents were photographing street art to promote the “edginess” of up and coming neighbourhoods.
There is no greater act of pusillanimous surrender for art, I say, though not quite in those words, than to be promoted by estate agents. Evil admits that the genre is at a crossroads, in danger of losing its authenticity. “The battle is to take it back,” he says. A recent trip to South America restored his faith. He watched passers-by giving thumbs-up signs to a bowdlerised version of “Guernica” in Chile. “That’s so much more important than 4,000 ‘likes’ in Shoreditch.”
There are, in the meantime, signs that street artists are becoming more ambitious in their scope, keener to align themselves with the centuries-old subjects of traditional art forms. ALO is an Italian street artist whose new show at London’s Saatchi gallery is said to be “informed and influenced by …the German Expressionist movement, the raw simplicity and directness of art from Africa and the energy of Punk”. This is the language of the gallerist, rather than the spontaneous argot of the back alley.
The works of Pure Evil on display in his gallery, Warholesque prints of celebrities who are shedding trademark tears which often flow off the canvas all the way down to the floor, have a certain emotional resonance of their own. “Why are they all crying?” I ask him as we say our goodbyes. “They are remembering relationships,” he replies. “Bad relationships, that you don’t realise are bad at the time, and then you get out of them …”
Pure evil? Pure schmaltz.
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