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Scaling walls sans safety nets at the dead of night, graffiti artists risk life and limb to make their art. But the leap they make from street to gallery is just as tough a challenge in its way: in winning over the art world, they threaten the credibility as authentic outsiders that is their calling card. The consequence is a strange phenomenon: wealthy and successful artists such as Banksy who still slip out with their spray can and cling to their anonymity as a symbol of their rebelliousness.
For Saber, whose show The Ugly American opens at the Outsiders gallery in London’s Soho this week, the situation is a little different. Fired by a sense of social injustice, the Los Angeles-based artist has channelled his energy into a high-profile political activism that has left him nowhere to hide. In 2010, he attracted the opprobrium of the US right – including the wrath of Fox News – when he graffitied the Stars and Stripes in an effort to highlight the injustices of the US healthcare system. (The video he released was used by the US administration as part of its healthcare campaign.) A year later, he caused a sensation when he commissioned light aircraft to write slogans across the LA and New York skies that raged against cuts to the arts and against a new law censoring public murals.
His commitment to a greater collective good places him in a lineage of politically driven mural painters spearheaded by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Yet his new London show makes no secret of its commercial ambitions. “I want an average person who knows nothing about graffiti to say, ‘This is a beautiful painting.’ That’s the most important thing to me,” the artist declares in the exhibition’s press release.
Will he be rewarded? His work was showcased prominently in 2011’s exhibition Art in the Streets at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and resides in several important private collections.
Nevertheless, his flag works are tough, turbulent exclamations of outrage. Drawn on a pair of objet trouvé packing crates, the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes have been scratched, gouged, stapled and submitted to wild, airy sprays. Both look equally uneasy, angry and raw, and yet one – “Another Man’s Treasure” – is a homage to Britain’s National Health Service, and the other – “Another Man’s Trash” – is an indictment of US healthcare’s punitive attitude. Think of Matisse’s desire for an art that would welcome you like a comfortable armchair; then imagine its polar opposite, and you have an idea of their uncompromising grit.
Where Saber’s graphic genius really shines is in his abstract paintings. Assembled from complex collages of painted papers, “Unburied Names” is a palimpsest of shifting texture and colour as open wounds of purple, teal, indigo and violet seep through scarred, cloud-grey skins. The painting “Transitions” lays similar tropical efflorations over a thicket of the signs – warped, blade-sharp lines that scythe to and fro in a hypnotic switchback motion – that are the artist’s trademark.
To an eye untrained in the lexicon of graffiti art, such paintings appear to be the children of Abstract Expressionism: gestural messiahs of impassioned but imprecise emotion. Yet an urban art aficionado will decipher the artist’s name, warped yet legible: a literal and symbolic signature that betrays authority and structure within the chaos.
“My name is like a mantra,” Saber tells me, as he walks me around the gallery. “It gives me access to this free-flowing abstraction.” With his shock of red hair and beard, flame-blue eyes and a gaze that demands that you give him your undivided attention, his personality matches the intensity of his art.
“The style is the signature,” he continues. “It’s like a handprint.” Then he bends down in front of a canvas. “Look, this is the ‘E’,” he murmurs, his finger tracing the contours of a calligraphic whiplash so that I can just pick out the letter’s strokes, distorted out of all recognition.
The hidden name is the tip of an iconographic iceberg. At varying points in our conversation, Saber describes his signs as human beings, spells, angels and halos. At one point he traces an ephemeral S, telling me that his fellow travellers in the graffiti orbit will perceive a dragon within its curves. “There’s the head, the neck, the belly and the tail.”
His conviction that his signs are alive is of a piece with the impulse that propelled him to pick up his spray-can as a 13-year-old boy. “I needed to feel like I existed.”
His crackling presence makes it hard to credit that he ever entertained such doubts. Yet growing up in LA as part of a creative and far from underprivileged family – his father worked in advertising, his mother rose to hold a vice-presidency at the Disney corporation – some inner demon drove him into the vicious underworld of urban gangs. “Fuck, I was bad!” he says, when I ask him if he was one of those teenagers who crept out of their bedrooms at night. “Most of my generation are not around any more.”
Where are they? I ask naively. He looks at me in surprise and says gently, “They’re dead.” How did they die? “Drugs, beatings, suicide ... ” His voice trails off.
At the age of 15 Saber sustained such severe head injuries from a beating that he developed epilepsy. It was when he sought medical help – “a seizure could wipe me out for days” – that he discovered the merciless nature of US healthcare insurance, which wraps complex conditions such as epilepsy in such a labyrinth of clauses that sufferers are all but abandoned to their fate.
Now seizure-free for two years, he believes he has healed himself through painting. “I would stay in my room making these white, wild-style pieces, repainting them over and over again. Searching for purity. Now people who know me say that I have come back to myself. Apparently, there was a light in my eyes that was gone for many years and it’s returned.”
Today, his challenge is to maintain the intensity of a vision which springs from a movement that he insists has “violence and aggression built into it” – while no longer pursuing that rush himself. Although he still sneaks out with his spray-can now and then, his sense of responsibility as a family man – he has a three-year-old daughter, “a beautiful little monster”, and his wife is about to give birth again – has entailed retirement from life on the edge.
Instead, he says he sees himself as an “ambassador” for graffiti art, which he perceives as the most exciting movement of the age, as revolutionary in its way as cubism. “My personal goal is to get the story out about this movement. There’s a reason people are excited about this.”
‘Saber: The Ugly American’, Outsiders Gallery, London, to February 15. theoutsiders.net