Sweat the Technique: Art Battles at (Le) Poisson Rouge


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Art hung inside the white walls of a gallery is enjoyed in its finished state—the artist is only known through the indexical signs left behind that originally inspired the form and content of the work. Seeing the artist in action is quite a different experience than viewing the finished object inside of a cultural institution, however. Watching the process unfold transforms a static piece into a visceral experience that gives an inanimate object life and sheds light into the many cryptic strategies of creating contemporary art. ArtBattles is one event that allows viewers to glimpse behind closed doors into the artist’s individual methods that define artistic creation. What makes this event even more exhilarating is the underlying competition as viewers are invited to witness a battle of creative hubris on stage.

Le Poisson Rouge

Trendy East Village club (Le) Poisson Rouge is hosting ArtBattles every Thursday night during the month of April. The objective of ArtBattles is to create live art events and competitions as a way to expose emerging artists to the public in a more interactive format than the standard night at a museum. The first ArtBattle took place on Houston Street in 2001 inside of an abandoned lot. The events at (Le) Poisson Rouge are not as pop-up or street-credible as the original ArtBattles, but still uphold an unexpected energy triggered when pairing creation with competition.

Each Thursday hosts a different round table of artists, and on Thursday, April 2nd, I witnessed four artists throw down the painted gauntlet. Artists Cern, Sole Rebel, Damien Mitchell and Jose De Olio may have shared a graffiti likeness, but their individual styles were dramatically different. Cern mixed abstraction with figuration to create a bubbling streetscape that delicately hovered over the face of an animated woman. Sole Rebel—the only woman in the group—painted a doe-eyed female face through an expressive use of saturated pigments and playful brushwork. Damien Mitchell began very methodically mapping out a grid with a pencil and ruler. His end result is seemingly a self-portrait of the artist with a jubilant expression holding his weapon of choice—a spray paint can. Jose De Olio was the only artist to leave out figuration altogether. His finished work was an expressive rendition of The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1829-32), a famous woodcut print by the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai.

Sole Rebel

The four large canvases were placed adjacent to one another on an elevated stage in the center of the club. The canvases were angled in a way so artists were unable to sneak peaks at their competitor’s works. The evening was divided into three separate rounds with all the materials provided by Liquitex: the first round used markers, the second used only acrylic paint, and lastly the spray paint round ended the evening. For an event beginning at 10:00 p.m. and lasting until 2:00 a.m., the club was vibrantly filled with spectators for the entirety of the battle. Between rounds viewers circumnavigated the Battle’s stage, sipped on cocktails, snapped photos for Instagram, and enjoyed the musical styling of iLLspokinn, the MC and DJ for the evening.

The audience judged the finished works and ultimately crowned the victorious champion. At the beginning of the event participants were given one red ticket to write down their favorite artist. No set of rules dictated how to review the artists; the judging process was informal and the winner was based on the overarching personal tastes of the audience that evening. The victorious artist of this ArtBattle was the surrealist-meets-graffiti artist Cern. His abstract painting of a caricatured woman overlaid with bustling shapes and expressive brushstrokes had the greatest attention to detail out of the four competitors. Overall, ArtBattles was an invigorating evening that illuminated the diversity behind individual artistic creativity.

See ArtBattles through April 30th at (Le) Poisson Rouge, 138 Bleecker Street. General Admission is $10. Click the link here to purchase tickets in advance.

All photos provided by Caity Arthur. Opening image: Cern


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