London gallery aims to be conduit for new wave of street artists

Gallery draws from street life

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 10:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 10:18am

The artworks at a new gallery in London's Shoreditch are not for sale, and their creator plans to destroy them when the show is over. The artist, known only by his pseudonym, Phlegm, did not attend the opening and does not give interviews.

Gallery owner Richard Howard-Griffin plans to pay the rent from sales at other shows. For now, he is providing the first ever gallery space to an artist who has won recognition in the underground art world and has many thousands of followers.

Street art plays to a huge audience, but it doesn't have an elite audience
Richard Howard-Griffin 

"Phlegm is immensely respected around the world," after more than a decade of painting enormous urban murals across Europe and the United States, Howard-Griffin says.

A new, mass audience has emerged for street art as the internet and smartphone cameras enable people to capture images and share them around the world.

Howard-Griffin calls it the "democratisation of art" and says he wants the gallery to act as a conduit for this new wave of artists, rather than an arbiter.

"In the past, museums were how Joe Public got to see artwork," and the artist depended on an elite audience of gallery owners and museum curators to win recognition, Howard-Griffin says. "Street art plays to a huge audience, but it doesn't have an elite audience."

Phlegm "doesn't care about money", says Howard-Griffin. He makes a modest living by selling a limited number of his prints and books directly to fans. He took six weeks to build his show, called "The Bestiary".

This is only the second show for the Howard Griffin Gallery. Its first show last September made about £70,000 (HK$909,000) for the gallery and the artist - Londoner John Dolan, who was then homeless.

For three years, Dolan had sat in the same spot on Shoreditch High Street, drawing cityscapes of London and portraits of George, his Staffordshire bull terrier.

Meanwhile, Howard-Griffin, 31, had quit his job in a corporate law firm to try to make a living from his interest in street art - leading guided tours, curating small group shows and organising festivals and mural projects. He saw Dolan drawing day after day. He liked his work and proposed doing a show. The owners of an unused shop across the street offered the space.

It took 11 months to organise. Howard-Griffin recruited well-known street artists to add fantasy touches to Dolan's cityscapes. The roughly 100 pieces in "George the Dog, John the Artist" all sold.

It was meant to be a one-off. "[But] the John show did so well that it gave me the resources and impetus to fund this gallery," Howard-Griffin says.

Dolan, who says he has signed a book deal on his life story, describes himself as the gallery's resident artist. He can often be seen drawing there, while George sits in the window attracting visitors. "The gallery launched me, and I launched the gallery," Dolan says.

For his next show, Howard-Griffin plans to feature Thierry Noir, a 55-year-old French street artist who lived in a squat in Berlin and painted his graffiti on kilometres of the Berlin Wall from 1984 until it came down in 1989, dodging arrest by the East German police.

His exploits took place long before the rise of an internet audience, and the forthcoming show will be his first solo exhibition, Howard-Griffin says.