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Cleaning Up a Small Corner of the World

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British Artist Paul “Moose” Curtis recently led PNCA students in a form of “environmental comment,” transforming a dirty concrete wall in Northwest Portland into a work of art.

When artists think of negative space, they tend to think of the white space on a page, or the space around an object.

British Artist Paul “Moose” Curtis actually creates negative space in an unusual way. Using a power washer and large, wooden stencils, Curtis creates designs on walls, roads—any dirty surface within an urban environment. Curtis recently led PNCA students in this unusual form of “environmental comment,” transforming a dirty concrete wall in Northwest Portland into a work of art.

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“Portland was made for this method of working,” said Curtis via e-mail. “The whole basis of this artform is that there is already too much of what we don’t need in the world and that this can be used as a platform for creation, stripping away at layers of the past excesses and waste, and writing in the dirt (again a process of removal) to show the contrast with the original cleanliness of the surface against its current grimey facade.”

The process has also been called dirt graffiti, grime writing, cleanworks or refacing. But however its termed, communities across the world are intrigued by Curtis’s work. CNN recently featured his work on its Eco Solutions site and Fast Company magazine ran the short feature, “Reverse Graffiti” Artist Paul Curtis Shows Us How Dirty We Really Are” on him.

“Curtis takes the elementary if slightly aggressive act of cleaning, turns it into a street form, and uses the process to show the sheer facticity of environmental pollution as well as explore issues of property, public space, erasure, ephemerality, and anonymity,” says PNCA Faculty Anne Marie Oliver. “What’s particularly interesting is the fact that in a number of cases, reverse graffiti has precipitated substantial cleanups. It’s the opposite of the well-known law of litter begets litter, according to which if one person drops a piece of trash on the ground, others feel free—even downright obliged—to add to it. What would it mean to turn this propensity into something more salutary—and more interesting? What would it mean to clean up even a small corner of the world, and watch the act catalyze something much larger?”

Curtis came to Portland this past spring directly from the UK through a partnership with The Pacific Northwest Rain Ensemble (PNRE), PNCA’s Intermedia Department and the MFA Program in Visual Studies, along with the Cooley Memorial Gallery and Arts and Practice at Reed College.

“It’s cheeky, but in a very productive way,” said Nathan Henry-Silva, one of over 20 onlookers and participants in Curtis’s Portland project. “It’s subversive, because of the interpretation of the law and the fact that he is washing the wall.”

In the late ’80s, Curtis became known for his maverick T-shirt designs that played with modern symbols and logos and appeared in magazines like The Face. The artist later appeared as a masked man on BBC 1’s “The Clothes Show,” where he demonstrated how to recreate logos using basic screen-printing methods. He then used these screens to print directly onto walls in a shop as he turned into a human photocopier.

After briefly attending Goldsmiths, University of London, Curtis began experimenting with creating high-contrast images with simple swipes of a rag. He soon was clean-tagging the ring road tunnels of Leeds. He has since put “reverse graffiti” around the world. Curtis’s client list includes the British Government’s Department of Work and Pensions and the Metropolitan Police, with which he worked on an anti-gun crime initiative, as well as groups like Greenpeace, Shelter, and Water Aid. He has been featured in the New York Times and on the Discovery Channel and National Public Radio.

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by Leah Bobal
Photos by Thomas Wheeler Castillo ’10

— Posted on 10/22 at 05:34 PM

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