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(Margaux Delalex / The McGill Tribune)

Urban art in Montreal: Somewhere between starving and sellout

Art/Arts & Entertainment by

”Integrity” is a word that I have always had trouble defining. It seems to imply something more virtuous than plain old honesty, but equally as earnest. When coupled with the word ”artistic, it becomes even more ambiguous.

It was an awfully ambitious endeavor, then, to try and define integrity within the contentious and nebulous world of urban art—but it seemed a worthy one nonetheless. As urban artists have begun to transition from the streets to galleries, their work has started to take on a new meaning. Some see this change as a chance to finally legitimize street art and give artists the respect and recognition that they deserve. Others, however, see the popularization of the medium as something akin to betrayal.

Street artist Raymond Pilon, for example, otherwise known under his alias “Zilon,” is what you’d call a purist. In the age of information, self-promotion, and relentless branding, he’s achieved the kind of fame that is becoming increasingly unusual—the underground kind. Although he’s best known for the colorful depanneur he so artfully defaced at the corner of Marie-Anne and St. Dominique in 2015 for the MURAL festival, he’s been around far longer than that.

“People tend to think that life started in the ‘90s,” Pilon said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “I started to do my stuff on the street in ‘75 but people forget […] today, everything is a market, I never worked that way.”

Pilon believes that had he been in New York during that “Keith Haring, Basquiat moment” as he calls it, he’d be world famous. Instead, he was in Laval, running around at night, stealing cans of spray paint from his local hardware store. Still, Pilon hasn’t done badly for himself. In many circles, he’s lauded as an urban legend. The grandfather of street art, Pilon blazed the trail that so many younger, more internet-savvy artists are travelling now.

“All I know is that, urban legend or not, I still have to pay my rent,” Pilon said. “I do murals, exhibitions here and there, little contracts [… ] I’m surviving, that’s about it.”

It’s not that Pilon is a poor businessman, and it’s certainly not for lack of talent that he remains underground. The problem, he says, lies within art galleries.

“Finding a good gallery is like [finding] a relationship—you have to go through a bunch of perfect assholes to find someone you can have a conversation with,” Pilon said. “They treat you like a machine in these galleries […] [your art] is a commodity, it’s an object. You’re like bubblegum that they chew on and then spit out and then they take on a younger, more naïve artist and they sign him!”

At 63, Pilon has been around longer than most artists on the scene, and he has witnessed street art morph into something almost entirely unrecognizable—something his 17-year-old, spray paint-stealing self would not approve of. As a self-made man, he’s frustrated about what it’s become. He described being on welfare in the ‘70s, growing up with parents who didn’t approve of or believe in what he was doing, but forging ahead anyway, only to find his craft co-opted and warped by people who weren’t there in the beginning.

Amanda Brownridge, on the other hand, is a curator and art historian who works for one of the galleries that Pilon so disapproves of. Located on Saint-Laurent, Station 16 brands itself as an urban art gallery, featuring works from a large roster of artists working on and off the street. Brownridge says that urban art is changing; that people from within the community are working to remake it into something more modern, but still accessible.

“I don’t think that bringing street art into the gallery takes away from the integrity of the work, I think it enhances it and is really exciting!” Brownridge wrote in an email to the Tribune. “It gives the artists another venue to promote their artistic careers and often helps to finance some of their more clandestine adventures!”

Galleries play a major role in the distribution of art today: Establishments like Station 16 have enabled street artists to legitimize their work in the safety of a legal venue. Street artists used to work under aliases in order to protect themselves because their work was illegal. Although many modern artists still do (Stikki Peaches, Miss Me, and Whatisadam to name a few), they now have business cards and representation. They’re supporting themselves; they don’t have to steal their spray paint.

But commercialization comes at a cost. My dad tells a story about being in a nightclub in the ‘80s and seeing that someone had written “FREE NELSON MANDELA” on the inside of a bathroom stall. Beneath it, someone else had Sharpie’d “With every six pack of Coors Light!” Although it hardly qualified as art, in many ways this is the illicit quality that street art loses when it is bought by a gallery. It’s no longer ephemeral, interactive, or taboo.

Nicholas Riggle, a street art enthusiast who holds a PhD in philosophy, thinks that the cool thing about street art is that it defies formalist critique. In a 2010 article entitled “Street Art: The Transfiguration of the Commonplaces” in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, he wrote that, “strictly formalist art criticism cannot handle street art, in spite of its often dazzling aesthetic qualities.” Traditionally, art criticism requires that the critic focus exclusively on the aesthetic elements of the piece. But there’s so much more to consider with street art—the context in which it appears is so integral to the medium that it’s easy to see why the transition into galleries is so difficult for some people.

“When you [draw] on a toilet cubicle in a nightclub, it’s like a ready-made installation!” Pilon said. “You cannot reproduce that in a gallery or whatever. A gallery is a shop. I mean, you take something I do, you put it over your sofa and it’s gonna be a conversation piece for your visitors. It’s not decoration I’m doing […] It says something.”

MU Montreal is a publicly funded organization that seems to have done the impossible and created a compromise. The project aims to turn the city of Montreal into an “open air art museum” by working with building owners and artists, commissioning those murals you see everywhere. Each mural is project-based—meaning that artists are hired mural by mural.

“The process is as important as the result,” MU’s artistic director, Elizabeth-Ann Doyle, said.

Most are site-specific, meaning that they revolve around the theme of the neighbourhood. Artists and building owners have complete creative control.

Like it or not, art is evolving and Montreal has embraced it. The art world used to be an exclusive and elitist place, only accessible to a select few, but all this is changing along with the meaning of the word “integrity.”

Despite all the caveats, Pilon still very much believes in art, just as he did in the ‘70s.

“Art is living,” Pilon said. “You can have someone doing pastry and it’s art. You can go to a restaurant and it’s so damn good that it’s art! You see a lady dressed in something from a thrift shop or Winners or whatever, and she looks great! That’s art.”

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