A few years before he died in the ’80s, pop artist Andy Warhol worked with a younger, up-and-coming artist on a series of paintings. Some cynics say Warhol was using Jean-Michel Basquiat for his youth and to reignite his fame, while others think it was actually Basquiat who was taking advantage of Warhol’s celebrity and cachet.
Whether the collaboration had ill intentions or not, the opportunity pushed both men to produce works they’d never done on their own. Warhol often took to the canvas first, sticking with his brand of painting popular subjects and icons. From there, Basquiat added to or layered over the work with his graffiti-styled neo-expressionism. The best products of this partnership revealed a masterful blend of colorful yet sinister social criticisms.
A joint exhibit garnered mostly negative reviews, but no matter.
“Jean-Michel got me into painting differently,” Warhol is quoted in “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” “and that’s a good thing.”
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It’s that spirit South End’s Ciel Gallery celebrates in its July show, “Collaboratus.” For this exhibit, 19 of the gallery’s partner and consignment artists have teamed up with each other and with people outside the gallery to create new works. The result is a tangible reminder of what can come from working with others.
Spearheading the exhibit is Jonathan Grauel, one of the seven partner artists who own and run the gallery. He was inspired to curate “Collaboratus” by his own five-year creative partnership with English artist Fabric Lenny.
The two met in New York five years ago at a digital art conference.
“We were at Times Square, painting,” Grauel says, “and his battery on his iPad died, so I gave him my iPad and I painted on my iPhone. After the event, I emailed him the images he had been drawing. He was like, ‘Well you didn’t do anything to them,’ and that’s how (the collaboration) started.”
They’ve dubbed the project Woven Narratives.
“One of us starts a piece, emails it to the other, the other draws on it, emails it back, and a piece might travel thousands of miles before it’s finished all digitally.”
In addition to showing a few of these pieces at Ciel this month, Grauel, a self-described digital fingerpainter, will also unveil a three-dimensional painting he worked on with painter Emily Andress. (Andress was recently commissioned by the city to paint a portrait of Queen Charlotte to send to England as a gift to Princess Charlotte.) The work will reveal their responses to watching a local dancer perform, as well as how her movements are shaped and affect the environment around her.
Another three-dimensional work in the show is courtesy of Randy L. Dean. When she first heard about the expectations of the exhibit, she thought to work with the developmentally disabled adults she teaches in a partnership with the North Carolina nonprofit UMAR. She also tapped Marianne Huebner, a Ciel consignment artist and full-time arts counselor at UMAR. By the time the installation, titled “Freedom to Create,” is ready, Dean, 12 students and five UMAR staffers will have had their hands on it.
Dean hopes even more people will get in on the collaboration. The work is made up of cardboard cut into cups, PVC piping and found objects, such as puzzle pieces and fabric. “We will have some of the cups be away from the piece, where people can find them throughout the gallery, and there will be an invitation for people to come be a part of the creative process.”
An artist statement will share the installation’s goal of offering an inclusive environment for all people, including the disabled, to create.
“That (work is) an example of not only different mediums coming together, “ Grauel says, “but different artist levels and artist experiences, pulling together as one.”
Ladianne Henderson, another member artist of Ciel Gallery, has two works in “Collaboratus.” The first, “Inky Dinky Spider Boo,” resulted from a collaboration among Henderson, Andress and Pam Goode, who founded the gallery. Goode sent Henderson and Andress some of her poetry, and the two each painted a work based on their interpretations of what they read. Henderson, an illustrator, wanted to have some fun with this piece and opted to go in the direction of “a slice of kid-stuff pie in a visual format.”
Her second contribution, “The Workhorse,” is more serious. She teamed with Ciel mixed-media artist Caroline Brown and an artist friend of Brown’s, Jimpsie Ayres. Ayres and Brown wanted to do something with horses, so Henderson went back to her grad school days when she’d studied Ted Hughes’ “The Rain Horse” for inspiration. (The horse of that short story is menacing, and the story has to do with people’s ability or inability to connect with place, Henderson explains.)
Henderson, whose mural was unveiled last month in the newly renovated Charlotte Chamber, says she’s participated in several collaborations before this exhibit. She distinguishes the two ways artists tend to collaborate: “They either contribute their perspective, technical skills and aesthetics to a piece together – so they all put their hands on whatever it is – or the collaboration becomes a process of translation. The difference lies in process: Is it all the cooks in the kitchen looking into the pot, or is it cooks in different kitchens, preparing ingredients or even translating ingredients?”
No matter how you stir the pot – or paint it, as it were – collaboration challenges artists. Grauel says working with other people makes you take a hard look at your own work, and maybe even question some of the choices you make. In his experience, it’s only pushed him to grow as an artist. “I know the work that I end up with in a collaboration was not achievable on my own.”
Certainly, when Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat came together on the canvas, they couldn’t have known their joint pieces would continue to speak volumes decades later.
This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.
All events at Ciel Gallery, 120 E. Park Ave., www.cielcharlotte.com. Coming up:
Poetry & Paint, 6:30-9 p.m. July 17. Local artists respond to poetry read aloud.
Artist Talk, with Jonathan Grauel: 7-8:30 p.m. July 21.
Dance & Draw: 4-6 p.m. July 25. Artists respond to live dancers.
Cadence & Creation: 6:30-8:30 p.m. July 28. Artists respond to melodies from live performers.