Wall Art at Walmart: Two New Exhibits

Thanks partly to a legal settlement with a major online retailer, which was ripping off his work to sell posters via Walmart, Oakland artist Eddie Colla was able to travel to France and Thailand this year. There, he put up new street art that — like the ripped-off image — is eye-catching and a gut-check. Young women in masks make a statement. The ones Colla creates tend to cover their mouths with bandanas, scarves, or medical fabrics, and they tend to look purposeful — as if on their way to a big protest. A wall in Montmartre, one of Paris' fanciest areas, has borne Colla's work since January, mostly untouched even while other pieces on the same wall have been painted over.

Parisians like Eddie Colla's art. So do people in Bangkok. And so did Walmart's online shoppers, who bought posters featuring a bandana-clad spraypainter who'd just tagged a wall with the phrase “If you want to achieve greatness stop asking for permission.” Colla despises Walmart, saying its business practices helped create a permanent underclass of workers. Beyond the lack of attribution, the online retailer Wayfair marketed Colla's image as an original Banksy.

“It wasn't a tremendous amount of money, but the money was beside the point — I felt vindicated,” says Colla, who sells renditions of his own work on T-shirts and prints. “I worked with an attorney in Los Angeles who works a lot with artists, and he told me, 'My problem is this kind of thing happens all the time, and more often than not, the artists shrug their shoulders and say, “What can I do?”' And he has this whole bag of tools that exist to protect artists.”

It worked for Colla, whose new San Francisco exhibit at 1AM Gallery, “Nothing Lasts Forever,” revisits his travels from the past year, using some of the same stencils that he employed in Europe and Asia. For a gallery show, Colla doesn't have to work quickly at midnight to avoid attracting attention, and can add touches that accentuate his art's mood and intensity. In Never Going Home, layers of dripping letters — almost like multicolored hieroglyphs — dominate the background and even part of the woman's forehead, where blood-like words spell out “straight to hell boy.” Then there's Insomnia, which, like Never Going Home, is festooned with background scribbling that asks to be deciphered, but is the exhibit's only piece that's plugged into an outlet. The electricity lights up Insomnia and its central figure, giving the woman's flesh a glow that plays off the yellow and white background. Insomnia wouldn't last a minute in the street, even if Colla (who's been doing street art for years) could rig it with batteries. Then again, this exhibit celebrates the idea that street art is ephemeral.

Insomnia “is not the kind of thing that would be feasible or even reasonable to do illegally,” Colla says, laughing. “There are just logistical problems to doing something like that, and having it last or stay. That's why it's good to do both street work and gallery work. When I do stuff on the street, that's great and has one sort of aesthetic and practice to it — which is a lot about speed and placement and environment and juxtaposition. There's also a time-factor involved that doesn't allow for elaboration. So it's more about trying to get a strong image that conveys something, and putting it in a place that's going to be seen by a lot of people.”

The street is the inspiration for another noteworthy Oakland artist who's exhibiting in San Francisco. At Paul Thiebaud Gallery, painter Jeff Bellerose shows off his skill as an interpreter of architectural forms and the enthralling angles and sight lines they can create against crowded skylines, deserted corridors, glowing streetlights, moving waterways, and the occasional tree. New York's streets and bridges are the star of the exhibit “Jeff Bellerose: An Introduction — Recent Paintings.” Anyone who's walked around Manhattan's less touristy areas on a Sunday afternoon or evening, when other people disappear and the shadows create unique apertures, will recognize the scenes and moods that Bellerose layers onto his canvases. Sky, for example, has the viewer looking up at tall buildings that cascade toward a turquoise atmosphere. Bellerose's painting cuts off the scene at an odd angle, so that the buildings — in effect, a triangle and two parallelograms — tuck the viewer into place. The forms create a feeling of intense space and dimension.

“A lot of my paintings are from memory,” says Bellerose, a self-taught painter whose parents paint professionally. “I use a photograph for detail, but a lot of it is I see something when I'm walking that I really like, and what I see is usually something about light or contrast or shapes and shadows, and something about the mood and feel of it.”

Bellerose's paintings and Colla's artwork both revel in a kind of urban impressionism. While Colla's work channels a sense of defiance and anti-commercialism, Bellerose's work celebrates the textures that exist in cities if you just look around. The exhibits are entirely complementary, even if — at first glance — they seem to have nothing in common.

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