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Abstracted 1: Where art and the street meet

On paper skateboarding and abstract art have zero in common. One takes place in gritty urban settings, while the other winds up in pristine white galleries, or museums and is part of a tradition in painting that dates back to the early 1900s. The two activities, however, are not as diametrically opposed as you would imagine. The culture and social circles connected to skateboarding influenced graffiti and when brazen tagging turned into a prized art form, dubbed urban art it played a significant role in gentrification cycles. This is one area where ‘art’ and ‘the street’ meet; artists too have been caught up in the regeneration of vacated industrialised urban spaces. Think of how Woodstock is home to a cluster of galleries and draws from the ‘street’ cachet to up its edgy credentials. It is no coincidence that a group of abstract artists who participated in street culture, Paul Senyol, Andrzej Urbanski and Paul Edmunds have studios in this part of town. Their art is influenced by the street too –gliding through urban contexts on a skateboard (or rollerblades in Urbanski’s case) engendered a keen awareness of the built environment. The contours of shapes, surfaces and lines that intersect in cities can be traced in their art.

This curious phenomenon will be the focus of a Saturday’s #artcrawl, a curated walking talking tour created by this author as a means of exploring various narrative threads in contemporary SA art. Abstracted I, as this one is titled, is the first of a series of ‘crawls’ dedicated to coming to grips with the revival of this mode of expression. In this first installment, the three artists, Senyol, Edmonds and Urbanski, found their way into art through the ‘street’ and their abstract art has been heavily influenced by their childhood pursuits.

This is not only confined to these artists, graffiti techniques have been creeping into painting for some time. Typically this is traced through messy lines or the use of spray paint with oils that paraded a desire to ‘destroy’ the underlying image as per graffiti mode. Senyol’s abstract paintings are permeated by seemingly spontaneous lines left by some rebellious ‘tagger’. He was involved in street culture as a teenager growing up in Bellville.

Skateboarding kept him moving through the urban landscape, while tagging and graffiti allowed him to express himself in this environment. This was his introduction to art, or creativity. Like many South Africans he didn’t frequent galleries. He spied the work of famous abstract artists such as Robert Rauchenberg and Cy Twombly in books. He didn’t study art, which has to some degree been an advantage.

“I don’t see boundaries between mediums,” he says. As such his abstract paintings consist of paint, crayon and collage. They are defined by colour blocks which read like different countries, or territories on a map. Skateboarding made him acutely aware of the structure of the urban environment.

“Every bump in the road had an impact, you would be aware of it,” he says.