Articles written for various community newspapers in the Lower Mainland, B.C. and special interest print and online magazines

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Living Canvas: Jordan Bent Takes His Brush to the Street

Heading down the hall to Jordan Bent's live/work space in the ARC building at the bottom of Vancouver's Commercial Drive, I hedge my bets that his studio is the open door at the end of the hallway. There is rakishly thin Bent in rolled up jeans, a cardigan and standing on cold tiles in his bare feet in January, his face as wide open as the threshold to the studio. He was preparing to make tea. Not just any tea, tea he ventured down to Chinatown to procure from Daniel, his supplier who sourced this particular block of 12-year-old Pu-er from the Yunnan province.

It's his way of inviting ritual into his life, he says softly, handing me a tiny clay cup and calmly watching my face as I tasted the first flavours of what will become many ceremonial pours throughout the afternoon.

We sit at the East-facing window perched on stools and looking out at the reflection the sunset makes on the snow-capped mountains. On Bent's walls are pieces from his last show False Teeth: Real Bite and a mural with the word IGNORANCE in block letters and filled in with his signature figurative drawings.

The show was what several hundred people viewed on Vancouver's famous East Side Cultural Crawl, an art walk that draws crowds - and his art - out of obscurity.

In watching people wander into and out of his studio, he said he gained “a statistical access” to people which sharpens his ability to produce public art that jumps off a wall and really speaks to people.

Bent made the transition from doing exclusively gallery and commissioned work to painting on brick and concrete canvases in 2007 when the city approved a two mural proposals for Charles and Graveley streets off Commercial Drive. Though he describes the early stages of choosing what to put on the wall and as daunting, he has since became enchanted and humbled by doing work that is transient, so much so that it has become the thrust of his artistic vision.

“There is something beautiful about doing something that is non-consumable: you can't take it home, you can't buy it, you can just observe it and let it impact you. It is by nature just an idea.”

His impassioned speech borders on political commentary. As he talks about his work in the context of social reform, he takes on the air of a young revolutionary.

“It's a beautiful confidence to feel that the world is changeable, that it's no longer as it seems and that we can continue to alter it. That is a huge feeling because we get so daunted by systems and oppressions around what we should be and where we should be and so it's great that graffiti as a nature can really change that view on just a very visceral level – something that wasn't there before is now there.”

Looking at his murals, you feel like he first dips his paintbrush in a mythical dream before setting to work. His Pirandello-like characters that have stepped out of another dimension. His work is powerful enough to catch the preoccupied eye of the busy daily commuter, almost forcing them to look up from their iPhone and pause to ponder. He is someone you can picture sitting by the glow of a kerosene lantern, smoking a pipe and typing out a Once-Upon-A-Time story on an ancient Smith Corona he fixed after lovingly rescuing it from the back alley.

It wouldn't be the first thing he rescued from the back alley, having restored the well known wall of Aisle 45 in the Downtown Eastside - popularly referred to as Canada's poorest and most drug-addicted neighbourhood with a mural.

The wall was badly dilapidated – chunks of brick would break off – and the mural would, at most, last for two years. Showing up some days, he would often find people sleeping in the doorway he was supposed to paint. But for Bent, the experience is what makes it the most rewarding journey of discovering how to refract a very intense but beautiful culture, he said.

“This is a place where street culture lives, where they do their drugs, where they sleep, where they throw up, where they fuck. This is where they lose themselves or maybe gain themselves.”

But in creating temporary wallpaper for the homeless' collective outdoor home, Bent's face troubles with concern as he talks about the darker forces at work behind the project. He acknowledges that his presence there could be just another wave of gentrification that is quickly spreading throughout the city.

“The small gesture we're doing is part of that change that might even push them out of there or alienating them. Making that first aesthetic difference, saying, “Actually, you know what, you guys should probably move on. There's a hint of that too.”

Speaking about his own home as we moved onto eating dates and Lindt chocolates, Bent said he will have to pull out of his space at the ARC - known as a hub for artists – simply because it is too expensive for him to maintain.

It has been a hard slog to foster imagination in a city that seems to pride itself on leaving concrete walls bare as a sign of its safety and cleanliness, and by extension muzzling the smattering of artists that have managed to survive the post-Olympic cost of living here.

However, Bent seems to buoy above the burden of obstacles. There is simply no room for them in his idealistic personality. The process of overcoming bureaucratic red tape looks like this: he creates the dream, sits through a bunch of meetings with the municipality and then, somehow, the technicalities are sorted out and it happens.

He is currently waiting on securing financial backing for his next project called Whispers, a multi-media piece that will record the voices of those living in the Downtown Eastside and post their comments throughout the city on different alleyways. The quotes will have little icon tags with them so that people's phones will register them and then feedback to a website where the longer stories are posted. The cyber version of a down-the-rabbit-hole art walk.

What he loves about the medium are all the unanswered questions that live in him afterward as he produces new material. He sees the artform as a highly visceral public process that engages people in discussions about how their neighbourhoods are defined.

But while pushing the envelope, he is still respectful of the fact that there are still some tensions around what he does, despite galleries legitimizing it and graffiti artist Banksy's popularity. He is highly sympathetic of building owners who have to pay a pretty penny to remove bullshit from their walls and might be hesitant about a mural going up, but that is all part of what makes the work so vital, he says.

“You have people with negativity. Some people slam me just because they can, because they're aggressive by nature and they'll sort of lash out, but that's kind of interesting too. I need to associate with it and not ignore it and say, 'Yeah, I hear your concerns. I'm doing a specific thing here'.”

On top of the maelstrom of dissent, his work is sometimes defaced. His Aisle 45 mural was tagged already. But Bent doesn't seem to be affected by this. In fact, he is almost the happier for it.

“It's an alley. That's going to happen. That's the nature of it. That's the nature of people - no matter what, they want to be seen. They want to be heard. The scribbles on the wall, they look stupid, they are stupid, but they're a voice, They're a necessity for people to get out of that place where they don't feel any power. We're dominated by remarkable forces around us that sustain our comfortability.”

His big blue eyes bulge with a vision: the possibility of a world bursting with legalized public expression.

Full of ethereal delight and refreshingly na├»ve curiosity, he asks me “Would people burst past apathy and do it? Would it actually explode and there could be something quite different appearing each day instead of all of these images that keep us trapped and only associating with advertisements?” He looks at me like I have the answer.

The conversation rolls into guerrilla initiatives of removable wheat puppets and laser graffiti, New York City's Swoon and a whole host of other artists who create brief monuments that are built on principals of freedom that get people thinking without pissing them off.

We have digressed, but in the spirit of a true artist, Bent trusts the creative flow of ideas and seems to relish in the company of people who drop into and out of his day to deliver messages of inspiration, essential ingredients to grow his mind for his next project Mapping: City of Dreams a multi-media performance piece for the PuSH festival.

When I am on my way out the door, young neighbour enters with a teacup and saucer. Bent warmly invites her in and she is absorbed into his ever-changing, living canvas. One more colourful character to set the tone in his evolving fairytale. It is time, again, for tea.

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