Adam Neate

Elms Lester Painting Rooms has been at the centre of a revolutionary concept; bringing street art into the gallery space, by persistently showcasing international street and urban artists. Small, Medium and Large ran from 5 October ­— 10 November 2007, and showcased some of the most prevalent international street artists in a sensational group show of counterculture work, which is a reaction against the old school contemporary art scene.

The concept for the show was realised by the 12 featured artists submitting three pieces of work; one small, one medium and one large, plus a small object for display in a cabinet or on a plinth. The artists were left to make their own judgement on scale. One of the artists featured in Small, Medium and Large is Futura. He was born in New York in 1955 and is one of the most famous graffiti artists in the world. He comments, “Back then, I don’t think anyone ever thought much about the future of the movement and where it was going. Surely I didn’t. It was a passing fancy, a fad, a sign of the times. Social unrest and war were at the forefront of our culture. There were gangs and there were causes, there was indecision and there was pressure. There was a feeling of helplessness and there were messages to be delivered. Modern day graffiti was that movement.”

Futura is famed for his abstract approach to graffiti, his aerosol strokes sometimes as thin as the fine lines achieved only through the use of an airbrush. He is also a prolific illustrator and designer of record sleeves. He was involved with The Clash; producing a sleeve for their Radio Clash 7” single. Also featured is Ron English, who has pirated over one thousand billboards over the last twenty years, replacing existing advertisements with his own hand-painted “subvertisements”. Ron revels in taking on the establishment, tearing down corporate icons and unravelling social constructs. His canvas-based works showcase an equally biting commentary whilst being flawlessly painted in a hyper-real style. Other featured artists include Phil Frost, Space Invader, Anthony Lister, Dalek, Delta, Jose Parla, Mark Dean Veca, Stash, WK Interact and Adam Neate.

Adam Neate is heralded as being at the forefront of the street art movement. His two-year relationship with Elms Lester has seen his work transfer from the street into the gallery space. How did Neate become interested in street art? “In the mid-80s my cousin was interested in the graffiti scene. VHS was coming over and there were a few graffiti videos coming from America and also acts like the Beastie Boys and hip-hop music. I would go to my cousin’s house where we would mess around with spray cans; I was only nine or ten at the time. As I got older I discovered books including Subway Art and Spray Can Art, which I would get from the library, they were really colourful, and I wanted to replicate what I saw.”

Neate uses recycled cardboard boxes as canvases. “I couldn’t afford canvases, but where I lived there was a lot of cardboard in the street, I would collect it and re-use it. I have used it for so many years and developed different techniques, using different sizes and shapes. I am tentative to use canvases, because with cardboard, it doesn’t cost anything so you are free to do whatever you want. I’ve been using cardboard for so long, I have found what types of cardboard are good for painting, some of the cheaper varieties wrinkle up, or the paint does not adhere well onto it.” Neate’s paintings are captivating and are both two and three-dimensional, the cardboard is torn, layered and stapled together and Neate’s work includes warped self-portraits and figurative compositions.

Neate has left thousands of pieces of work on the streets of London. “I used to paint portraits of my friends, and then I ran out of friends to paint for. I began just painting for myself. I ended up with a house full of paintings, so I decided to do some good and took the paintings and left them outside a charity shop. I was coming home one day and I saw my paintings were still outside. I looked at them and they had been opened and then discarded by the shop for rubbish collection. I couldn’t leave them there, so I picked them up and began walking home. I knew I already had a house full of paintings, so I thought it would be funny to leave them hanging on nails, or leaning against lampposts in the streets, they looked really surreal.” How did the transition from the street to gallery occur? “I’d always steered away from the gallery route and didn’t see it as the thing to do. Elms Lester contacted me and said that they liked my work and offered me a space to show inside their gallery. I decided to differentiate between my street work and gallery work I would do something different and extend to different styles and techniques, I’m still learning as I go.”

Neate has been featured in a number of exhibitions at Elms Lester’s Painting Rooms, but Small, Medium and Large was a highlight. “It’s a real honour to be featured alongside these guys who are legends in America, Europe and across the world, like Ron English, I felt a bit star-struck. A lot of the time I’m working away at home in my studio, but it’s nice to see all the different styles and the other artists’ nterpretations of Small, Medium and Large coming together.”

What does Neate envisage as the future potential for street art being exhibited in the gallery space? “I think that street art should originate in the street as this is where the energy comes from; it’s good for people to use it as a platform into what they want to do. I do not think there have ever been street artists continuously exhibiting in galleries and to have the opportunity to showcase their work somewhere else is amazing. Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat both painted in the streets. There are many different street cultures in many different forms, and I think in ten years time what will be exhibited will have changed depending what the kids are into and perhaps what music is being produced too.” And Neate’s own plans for the future? “I want to travel, paint and enjoy life. I will never say never to anything, I would like to diversify into sculpture and photography and to travel to places including Venice and America.”

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Shona Fairweather