Buggin’ Out

A gritty new Richmond exhibit proves that street art is more than murals.

“Unfortunately the only visual content that’s updated with any real frequency is commercial advertising spaces. This is why the ephemeral nature of street art is so essential — because it creates a visual heartbeat in the city by people who are living in it, rather than just marketing to it.” — artist Mark Jenkins

A headless body sits on the living room floor facing a stripper pole. Next to the body are a few pairs of legs made of clear packing tape. On a nearby flight of stairs, a man in a black hoodie and jeans holds a can of spray paint to the wall, his back to the room. He, too, is made of clear tape, but looks so realistic that you’re startled upon noticing him.

Welcome to the unnerving, often poetic world of acclaimed Washington street artist Mark Jenkins, a rising art star whose international work creates public theater out of everyday surroundings, adding mystery, humor and provocation that demands we look up from our cellphones.

The unfinished sculptures are sitting in the Oregon Hill home of Jenkins’ old college friend, Chad Niemi, a local graffiti artist (well, not since he went to jail, he says) who goes by the moniker Dr. Bastard. In 2009, Niemi says his ex-girlfriend turned him in for doing graffiti under bridges. The police searched his home and he was charged with 13 counts of vandalism. All but one charge was dropped and he did a week in jail and community service, he says.

Along with their mutual friend, East Coast painter Tim Conlon, the trio is launching a thematic show titled “Bug Spray” on Jan. 18 that will feature their respective street artwork in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse on West Clay Street.

“Instead of the hyper-realistic work, this show will be more mutations, like humans with extra arms,” says Jenkins, a tall, soft-spoken and intelligent 43-year-old with a wildly creative imagination. He is currently awaiting some women encased in plastic cocoons (his Chrysalis series) to arrive from his last show in Miami. “I think we’re looking for a pretty gritty show. The bug spray theme gives you something to play with and helps you break out of what you would normally produce.”

Richmonders may remember Jenkins’ piece, “Bullseye,” in the inaugural RVA Street Art Festival at the flood wall. The work featured several khaki-adorned legs sticking out of a bullseye much like human darts that missed their target. But just visit his website tapesculpture.org or Google his name and you’ll find some amazingly diverse work around the globe, often surreal and stunningly beautiful. One of my favorites is from a nature series that involves tape-sculpture horses he temporarily set into thin trees so the woods became a frozen carousel.

“This year’s RVA Street Art festival at the bus station was not really street art,” says Dr. Bastard. “Those are muralists. They’re fine artists, but it’s not like what Mark does.”

Indeed, Jenkins is one of the best-known street artists working. Even as we spoke, three young fans waited patiently for his autograph. He is part of a lineage that stretches back to Basquiat and Keith Haring, through the graffiti of Lady Pink, and more recently, Shepard Fairey and Banksy, with whom he shared a show in London.

Street art as a movement defines itself as nonpermission based and creates a dialogue with the public or between artists. Jenkins says he feels two of the most important aspects should be sincerity and originality.

“I’m not out there making political art or trying to send a message. It’s out there and it happens. You might call it performance or a play,” Jenkins explains. “Andy Goldsworthy says he makes the art but then nature takes over. For me, as well, the life cycle is part of the artwork — if the police come, they’re a part of it. But it can be a poetic social experiment. What’s the difference between science and art sometimes, anyway?”

Fittingly, Jenkins didn’t study art but geology at Virginia Tech — where he played in a ska band that later became the Pietasters. He began his installation sculptures in 2003 while living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, forgoing the template of exhibiting in galleries to display in random places throughout the city. “Having all that open space, it seemed like a great place to put art,” he recalls. “The way a sculpture can affect a space around it became more interesting than the sculpture itself.”

“The prankster part of him was always there and the interest in human observation,” says his sister Lisa. In the beginning, Jenkins would set up hidden cameras and capture the reactions of bystanders who came across his art — usually head-turning stuff such as a man with his head seemingly buried in a concrete wall or a woman sleeping high atop a billboard. The bizarre images were popular online and helped spread the word about Jenkins’ public dialogues.

When fire trucks and police began showing up, Jenkins figured that was the end of the urban experiment, he says. That’s when he started getting invitations to visit other international cities and do the same work. “I had a letter from the mayor of Bordeaux saying I could do anything I want. I was scaling big bronze sculptures and fountains and putting tape babies up. Police would show up, I would show the letter. It was awesome.”

Jenkins’ work never damages its surroundings, but his critics complain that it’s a waste of taxpayer money when people call 911 due to his projects, like a body he left floating face-down in a pond in Sweden (albeit with balloons coming out of its back). That piece prompted a rescue dive team. In our nation’s capital, bomb squads have shown up. “My biggest battles are often with the city saying this object can’t be here,” he says. “It’s classified as an abandoned object and post 9-11, anything not identifiable can be classified as a suspicious package.”

Jenkins travels much of the year doing outdoor projects and conducting workshops. Last year he was in Paris, Munich and Baku, Azerbaijan. He has ongoing relationships with galleries in Paris, Los Angeles and Cologne, Germany.

He says the Richmond warehouse show is really to keep things fun, a break from the intense demands of the art world. “Sometimes the fun drizzles out because the galleries want a certain thing, you have price points and it’s stressful if the work doesn’t sell,” he says. Working indoors means that everything gets softened in comparison to the more threatening environs of the street. “It is a kind of refuge for the sculpture, whereas in the street it can disappear in as little as an hour,” he says.

Much of the controversy surrounding street art can feel like an absurd Kurt Vonnegut novel, Jenkins says. He points out that Richmond officials often are clueless, attacking an art form and then supporting it two years later in some officially sanctioned form [RVA Street Art Fest].

“When that stuff [with Chad] happened you have people who worked for the city saying what he was doing wasn’t art and it was scaring children,” Jenkins says. “Now that’s when things get unnerving to me.” S

“Bugspray: A Street Art Exhibition” featuring Mark Jenkins, Tim Conlon and Dr. Bastard opens on Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. with a reception at Sound-Check Studios at 3300 W. Clay St. An afterparty to follow features Gladkill, Elliott Ness and others. The exhibit runs until Feb. 1.


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