Interview with Michael "RJ" Rushmore on ‘The Thousands’



Michael “RJ” Rushmore is passionate about street art and active in promoting it through his extremely popular blog, Vandalog. Frustrated with the lack of acceptance of street art by the contemporary art world, RJ has organized ‘The Thousands’,  a large street art exhibition in London (11.18) featuring work by top-flight artists including Swoon, Banksy, KAWS, Futura, Anthony Lister, WK Interact and more.  Dailydujour had the pleasure of interviewing RJ about the show and his views on street art.  Enjoy — it’s a good read in our biased opinion.]

Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m an 18-year-old expatriate (originally from Chicago, now living in London), and I spend most of my time on things that relate to street art. I’ve lived in London for a little more than four years, and in that time, my dad and I have become involved in the street art scene here. Last year I started, primarily a street art blog. When I’m not thinking about street art, I’m probably snowboarding or reading fiction.

Q: You’re extremely passionate and well-versed in street art as your top-flight blog Vandalog and the upcoming ‘The Thousands’ show attest.  What is it about this evolving art form that moves you so?

Usually I answer this question by saying that I love how accessible street art is to the public or how fascinating the lack of gatekeepers can be, but recently I’ve been thinking a bit more on this topic and another thought comes to mind: street art is perhaps the most provocative and timely art form in existence.

Artists can see something in the news one day and make a poster about it the next. The Enjoy Banking guys seemed to start putting out their stickers and posters almost as soon as the economy started to falter and there have been a number of campaigns in New York City direct at Mayor Bloomberg. Because people are practically forced to look at pieces on the street, they are inherently much more powerful than those same messages in a gallery because people make a conscious choice to look enter art galleries. Maybe these particular artworks won’t be remembered in 5 years time, but they are having a powerful effect today.

A lot of the street art I like doesn’t do the things I’m describing, but some does, and I think you’d have a hard time finding another part of the art world where these things are possible.

Q: You’ve mentioned that your decision to put on ‘The Thousands’ is a response to what you perceive to be lack of respect for street art by the contemporary art world. There have been notable inroads made recently.  The Street Art exhibit at the Tate Modern was a very high profile statement by one of the world’s top modern art museums.  It’s notable that the Tate exhibit was restricted to the exterior of the museum in the form of huge wall murals and didn’t include pieces inside its gallery.  Do you feel the momentum that led to that exhibit has lessened? When will you know that street art has truly been accepted by the upper echelons of the art world?

While I applaud the Tate Modern for what they did, and I think that Cedar Lewisohn, the curator of that show, has written one of the best available histories of street art, I think that show did not push the boundaries as far as it should have. As you noted, that show kept work on the outside of the museum. Thousands of people saw those pieces by amazing people like JR, and that’s fantastic, but not seeing the same artists inside, even on a small scale, was a serious disappointment to me.

Actually, I think the momentum is just picking up. I didn’t know this when I started planning The Thousands, but this year’s Basel Miami is going to be huge for street art. Besides the Primary Flight project which has been around for a few years and a few galleries at Scope representing street artists, OHWOW’s It Ain’t Fair 2009, the Stages exhibition and Deitch Projects bringing numerous street artists to Basel says to me that there is really a push to place street art in the spot light.

Frankly, Banksy (and other street artists) deserves a place in art history books, but I’m not sure what that’s going to take to be assured of that. In the shorter term, I think that within the next five years a major art museum should put on a serious group exhibition of street art.

Q: The Thousands.  What does the title of the show refer to?

When I was still trying to think of a name for the show, a few people suggested that I try to thing of something like Young British Artists or Beautiful Losers, a name that could identify a group of artists. Another friend suggested that I find inspiration from the written word. In the end, I combined both of those suggestions, which turned out a lot better that my original title: With Love and Kisses.

The name is taken from a short story called The Thousands by Daniel Alarcón. It’s an amazing story about a community of people who are inspired to create a community on the outskirts of their city by squatting on land and piecing together a village with pieces of discarded materials they find in the city. It was published in McSweeney’s #28, and I recommend that anybody who likes short stories pick up a copy.

Q: How did you decide which artists to include in the show? Do you consider graffiti especially the old school variant with an emphasis on lettering to be part of today’s street art movement?

The line up is a combination of my own tastes (hence a lot of art by people like Swoon), the artists that I think are important to the scene and the artists whose work I had access to. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to include everybody that I would have liked to, but I’ve managed to get pretty close.

I made a conscious decision to favor “street artists” over “graffiti writers” with Futura 2000 and Tek33 as the possible exceptions. While old-school graffiti definitely influenced street art (ESPO and Barry McGee almost certainly wouldn’t be around without it), I see street art and graffiti as two separate movements. Besides, Paris hosted two major exhibitions of graffiti this year and I think street art deserves an exhibition of its own too.

Q: The Thousands will live on as a book coming from Drago. Tell us more about this aspect of the project.  Will you include essays or written commentary about the work as well pictures of the pieces?

The Thousands: Painting Outside, Breaking In was a really fun side project for me to work on. It’s a fairly short book (just over 40 pages), but there is a lot of content that you aren’t going to find anywhere else.

The book has photos of artwork on the street and in the gallery by some of the artists in the exhibition as well as artists that I couldn’t include in the exhibition or whose work is more impressive on the street. Alongside those photos, each artist either has a standard bio that I’ve written or a really cool essay written by an art-world personality. For example, Know Hope has written about Chris Stain and Elisa Carmichael has written about Dan Witz. So if you don’t know much about street art, you can read my bios, and if you’ve been reading Wooster Collective since 2001, there are bits for that you will find interesting too.

You can buy the book on Drago’s website or in stores, but I’ll also be releasing a series of box sets with a book and a limited edition print by one of the artists in the book. The first of those prints is a lithograph by Hera and it goes on sale at The Thousands.

Q: Beyond the book, what’s next?  The Thousands II or a touring exhibition?

There are definitely a few projects in the pipeline, but I’m not really sure yet what will happen. I’d like to keep working on shows, and I would definitely like to continue with The Thousands, but first I need to make back the money that I’m losing to put on this show. For now, the only sure thing for now is that I’ll be at Basel Miami in filming for in December and then taking a very relaxing break to go snowboarding in Colorado.

The Thousands @ Village Underground
54 Holywell Lane
London, EC2A

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