Why the Mobstr Exhibition Failed

A few weeks ago I was tweeting a Vandalog interview and was enthusiastically calling Mobstr “my favourite street/ conceptual artist”. After two visits to his solo show “Sex, Drugs and Painting Walls” at the Truman Brewery, I feel the need to revisit my position, and clarify what I think about the work in this exhibition.

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First of all, there is too much of it. Almost all the work in the show is based on statements reflecting on the status of art in general, the art market or the indoor production of graffiti, each of which is meant to pack a punch and deliver it with sharpness and wit. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t get stronger with accumulation, and seeing so many of these statements side by side only dilutes their punch and makes them look, well… repetitive. Mobstr was on to something when he kept brevity at the core of his text-based work, but it seems that this principle should have also been applied when editing the work for the show.

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I have seen and heard many enthusiastic visitors on the two occasions I visited the show, first for the opening evening and second with a great group of people from I Know What I Like. Smiles, laughter and the words “clever”, “witty”, “brilliant” and “playful” seemed to be on everyone’s lips – but have all these people forgotten all about the existence of text-based conceptual art? Mobstr’s show had a rather unpleasant feeling of familiarity hovering in the room, as many of his statements seem to have already been stated decades ago, in very similar (if not identical) forms, by the likes of Lawrence Weiner, Christopher Wool, Mel Bochner or Matthew Higgs. The only new elements were the additions of #hashtags and of comments on indoor graffiti, which are really not enough to create a distinctive artistic voice in any history of conceptual art.

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So why is it that one can still produce, show and sell art made from quasi-clever black-and-white text that references art and text, and be received with such enthusiasm?

Mobstr is indeed a well-loved character in the graff/street art scene and for good reasons (I am still standing behind my tweet), but how come these works can acquire such kudos and visual capital when they seem to fail most of the important tests – material and graphic skill, message, self-awareness and situatedness?

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The tricky bit about this show is that it seems to actually check all these boxes: letters are hand-painted, surfaces have different finishes according to their statements, labels are (counter-)parts of the works and there is a mention of the art world being “full of stupid actions that end up being declared as clever” (referencing Duchamp and Warhol). However, there is no real provocation, no memorable insight, no visually stunning display (except perhaps for the Writer’s Block installation) – and in the end it all comes across as a bland story that has been told many times before.

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It seems to me that it’s a matter not so much of the works themselves, but of the entire cultural field of street art and graffiti. In order to establish itself as legitimate, this whole area of cultural production has to undergo formative moments and processes that fine art has already traversed in its history. Legitimation then comes by re-producing these moments and offering them to a new and candid audience, who is prepared to receive them as fresh and genuine artistic outputs.

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It’s like everything has to be done again, because this time it’s being done in the street art world and for a street art audience, and there was still a gap to fill in the conceptual street/ urban/ graff section (although Lush produces some excellent conceptual graffiti work and manages to somehow be very specific to the trade – as obnoxious as he may be). Mobstr has indeed successfully filled the gap, making sure that conceptual art doesn’t remain uncharted territory in the field of legitimised street art – but let us keep an open memory and give the conceptual art credit where it is due.

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On my part, I have two end credits to give, both of which go to a different side of Mobstr’s work: the HUH? installation in the exhibition – paying tribute to his tag, his crew and his roller:

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– and the HUH? tag on Holywell Lane, which still remains one of my favourite bits of street work in London.

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