The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers
Parking lots exhibiting Rothko and Diebenkorn paintings in Portland Oregon? That’s what I encountered during the Covid Pandemic of 2020. Like everyone else I had to change my usual routines in 2020. After the closure of gyms and other forms of exercise my wife and I started taking long walks through various neighborhoods of Portland Oregon. It was on these walks that I first noticed this interesting phenomenon.
Like many urban areas Portland has a fair amount of graffiti. There are truly beautiful murals and graphics, which by their lack of any marring or damage seem respected by the public and even by those who owned the walls on which this art appeared. Over a long span of time no one graffitied on these pieces and no property owner painted them over. They were art for the public and were appreciated.
There is another form of graffiti less appreciated by the public and especially by those who
owned the walls on which they appeared. These were people simply “tagging” a wall with their name or maybe a statement, political or obscene, sometimes both. It is this graffiti that led directly to the accidental creation of abstract expressionist paintings. When property owners felt compelled to paint over graffiti they found offensive or unattractive they would use whatever paint they had on hand, or whatever paint they could get cheap. It appears there was little thought about color and the eventual appearance. A battle of wills between the graffitist and the property owner played out as layer upon layer of crude rectangles would be laid over each new layer of graffiti. This resulted in colorful rectangles on top of or adjacent to other colorful rectangles. I could not help but notice and consider how this unintended collaboration could yield what was ultimately art.
On every walk I brought a camera but often would return a few days later, better equipped in order to photograph this art more deliberately, when the light would be better or the parking lot would be empty. I’ve gotten to a point where I know virtually all the graffiti in every parking lot in Portland west of the Willamette River. These excursions and the resulting photographs developed into a substantial project, to date there are over 100 images in this portfolio. But did I create this work or am I purely a curator of the work of others?
To be fair none of these images is exactly as they appear on their walls. The camera’s software interprets the colors and contrasts and I in turn interpret that even more. I might emphasize a certain color or saturation, bring out the differences between values, and of course I chose the cropping of the scenes. Then again my searching for these scenes and then collecting them into a body of work is more the act of a curator I would think. And what about the other collaborators? What did they bring to the final piece?
Each graffiti artist contributed to the work by their choice of the location, the position on the wall, the size and shape of the graffiti and the layering of new graffiti over old. And this was not the work of just one graffiti artist, this had to be the work of many. And for all of them no trace remains of their handiwork, their efforts acted merely as an underpainting. But without them there would have been no basis for the final work. Like all artists their intent was one of self-expression, possibly political or merely just to make their mark on the world.
The property owners or managers contributed to the work by their accidental choice of paint color, their decision regarding shape and when to apply new paint to new graffiti. Their intent was purely one of utility, to cover what they found unsightly with something a little less unsightly. You can wonder how much thought was given to the aesthetics, at some point did they think to themselves, “That looks about right or should I do more”?
There has to be at least 60 walls that I have photographed, some walls were so large that they had a several choices available. I wonder how many graffiti artists and how many property managers made their marks on these walls? I assume that there were many more graffiti artists than property managers, and quite prolific were they. All of these contributors have never met, and in turn I have never met any of them. But in the end they created something far more interesting than just another blank urban wall. I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder, but to my eyes, these strangers created art. Brian Kosoff
To learn more about the work of Brian Kosoff please visit his page by clicking on his name.
“I thoroughly enjoyed viewing these modern day “Rothko’s”. And Brian’s explanation enhanced my pleasure. Thank you for sharing this wonderful series!” Fran Forman