By Brian Goslow
Milton, MA – “Percy Fortini-Wright: The Spray Can and the Brush” opens on May 3 with a Friday evening reception from 6-8 p.m. at Milton Academy’s Nesto Gallery. Artscope managing editor Brian Goslow “cornered” Fortini-Wright, who teaches at the Art Institute Of Boston at Lesley University and Montserrat College of Art, to talk about the exhibition, how he fell in love with graffiti, the four-decade long hesitation by the art establishment to accept the genre, and who’s buying his work.
TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE WORK THAT’LL BE IN THE SHOW …
The show consists of approximately 30 paintings with multiple subject matters ranging from cityscapes to portraiture all the way to 3-dimensional graffiti pieces; some are a melting pot of all the above. Working primarily as a traditional oil painter and a traditional graffiti artist, a portion of the works are more representational but done with only spray paint while others are in only oil paint and many are a combination of the two.
These paintings explore the interaction between language — graffiti style — and form. I use my language as a way to thread different images together creating an abstracted conversation. I’m not interested at all of what the words I write mean, but the angles and rhythms they create and how they relate to the architecture of forms and images I make. Like a DJ scratching words creating a new sound, I take a similar attitude with my work where I scratch into my images with tags, marks as well as scratching images into my words. I literally deface the portrait…
HOW DID YOU END UP IN THE MILTON GALLERY?
A close friend and colleague, Ian Torney, is the art director there. We met at the AIB grad school program. We have maintained a working friendship since his days as art director of St. Paul’s Academy, coordinating exhibits and workshops merging the spray can and brush as part of a visiting artist series.
HAVE YOU HAD MANY SOLO EXHIBITIONS IN THE PAST — AND WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED WATCHING YOUR AUDIENCE’S REACTION TO YOUR WORK, FROM BOTH THOSE FAMILIAR TO THE STYLE AND THOSE WHO ARE NOT?
I have had several solo shows and the reaction has been positive and constructive. Many people are amazed at the level of realism you can get with a spray can. My more hybrid graffiti pieces laced with imagery people view as different, which is my intention. With these pieces they are to be viewed as the other, I like how they are a melting pot of images and really can’t be pinned down to a specific genre. This gets to the core of who I am as an artist
WHOSE WORK INITIALLY DREW YOU INTO BEING A GRAFFITI ARTIST?
I learned how to write graffiti at an early age by an older friend named DJ KON world-renowned record collector that I’ve known since I was in diapers. To me he had the illest style, a true letter technician, but he’s mostly known as a DJ.
WHEN DID YOU START?
I started probably around 9 years old writing in black books but didn’t do real graffiti till about 14.
DID YOU DO YOUR SHARE OF “STREET ART?” IF SO, WHAT DID YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT IT?
I did a lot of graffiti, I loved the technical aspects of graffiti learning and mastering different lettering styles. I don’t really consider street art graffiti or at least want to acknowledge the subtle differences. I loved every aspect of graffiti besides the cultural aspects and the who’s who and so on. I was more into the technical aspects of tagging, bubble letters on rooftops and trains to wild style lettering with intricate images and murals. I liked it all.
I take an academic approach to studying the angles of lettering the same way I do when painting a portrait. I’ve found an interesting relationship between the proportions and rhythms of language that correspond to patterns seen in nature, as also seen in the “flower of Life.” For me, that gives the art form more power; that makes it timeless. I hate even calling it graffiti; somehow I feel that limits its power keeping it in a time box. Writing on the walls was probably the first form of communication among the ancients.
I STILL FEEL A BUZZ GOING PAST TRAINS AND TRAINS OF FRESH ART; IS IT POSSIBLE TO REPLICATE THAT SENSATION IN A GALLERY SETTING?
I get a buzz off seeing someone’s name up a lot, but doing it with class, style and finesse. Even though the trains and galleries are different objects they are both ultimately both surfaces. Even though the early trains painted by subway artists or people who paint the freight trains now I see it just as a mobile canvass or surface. I try with my work to bring the wall to the gallery and the gallery to the wall.
DESPITE IT BEING ALMOST 40 YEARS SINCE NYC GRAFFITI STARTED GRABBING MAINSTREAM ATTENTION, MOST MUSEUMS STILL SEEM TO SHY AWAY FROM DEVOTING GALLERY SPACE TO THE GENRE — UNLESS, IN MOST INSTANCES, IT HAS ACCESS TO A BASQUIAT, AND IN THE PROCESS, ARE IGNORING ONE OF, IF NOT THE PREVALENT, ART FORMS OF THE PAST TWO, IF NOT THREE GENERATIONS? WHY DO YOU THINK THIS CONTINUES AND ARE YOU SEEING ANY SIGNS OF A BREAK IN THIS ATTITUDE?
I have. I feel graffiti has contributed in the last 40 years the most exciting work to the art world because it is bold and daring; I’ve risked my life at times to make my mark or sign my name. The untamed nature of the art form gives graffiti its edge and rise to its popularity, but in the same sense this untamed expression leads to its seclusion. For me personally, the edginess of graffiti validates my fine arts and my fine arts background validates graffiti work. The more people who walk in both worlds, the more you’ll see interesting projects merging the private and public sphere.
HOW ARE YOUR SALES AND WHO IS BUYING?
Sometimes the dough rolls in, sometimes there’s no dough to roll. On the serious side, teaching helps to supplement my income, while giving me freedom to create. There is something for everyone, it’s a wide demographic, yet, the majority of my higher sales range from 35 to 65 — many of whom grew up observing the birth of the graffiti culture.
BESIDES PREPARING FOR THE OPENING, WHAT PROJECTS ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON?
I divide my time between teaching at the Art Institute Of Boston, the Montserrat College of Art and various projects. Many of my projects include, but are not limited to, non-profit organizations — i.e. Barlett Yard, Harbor Arts, One Love productions and educational institutions. As well as maintaining my private commissions, live mural pieces and performances, I just recently was in a photo shoot featuring my work of this month’s Improper Bostonian centerfold and of course creating my art work for gallery exhibitions.
(“Percy Fortini-Wright: The Spray Can and the Brush” continues through May 31 at the Nesto Gallery at Milton Academy, 170 Centre Street, Milton, Mass. For more information, call (617) 898-2335. To see more of Percy’s work, visit http://www.p14ewright.com.)