San Francisco Guardian Online

Dan Witz gifts SF his finest S&M grates

By Caitlin Donohue
01.11.11 – 2:37 pm

Given that he’s best known for his series of tiny, jewel-like airbrushed hummingbirds, it may strike his hordes of ardent fans as dissonant that street artist Dan Witz’s latest offerings are so, well, fucked up. His current show at White Walls (on display through Feb. 5) is comprised of fake grated windows that Witz sneak-bolts onto buildings. The windows reveal chiaroscuro women with ball gags in their mouths and wasted man-prisoners. Witz, a classically trained artist, has rendered them realistically enough to invoke stomach-lurching concern in the onlooker. WTF, right?

But the artist, who I called up at while he was working at his chilly studio in dead-of-winter New York City, doesn’t see the birdies and the ball gags as being all that different. “Everything I do is an act of cultural aggression in some way,” he says. In 1979, when a young Witz airbrushed 40 of his now-famous hummers below 14th Street in Manhattan, their preciousness was a radical departure from the then-current trends in street art. Now, he says, his window grates onto depravity similarly represent what’s lacking in today’s milieu.

“There’s a darkness and provocation that I think is missing from street art right now. Those uncomfortable moments, there’s just not much of it,” he reflects. Witz is a genius at creating, as my gallery-going companion at the White Walls opening on Saturday put it, “art that makes you feel something. Really any art that makes you feel something, I mean, that’s good.”

Witz thinks the very act of making art that people don’t have to pay to enjoy – or be disturbed by, in the case of the grates he’s installed in undisclosed locations all over SF in anticipation of his White Walls show – is subversive. Y’know, the whole “taking the art to the people thing.” One of the problems about art today, Witz tells me, is that “as artists, we’re making art for rich people.”

Wait – but the whole point of this article is that he’s having a gallery show in which his grates are being sold at prices that most people reading this article will not be able to afford (presumably, I’m actually kinda nervous to call and inquire – that whole “if you have to ask” business and all). I raise the point with Witzy, who tells me not to hate, essentially.

“We have to support this art. I think that’s mainly why people buy these pieces,” he tells me. Galleries are where Witz makes his bread and butter – otherwise how would he afford a life of donning maintenance worker outfits and affixing freaky photo-paintings of fetish models in shackles to buildings? It’s an argument that I’ve heard repeated a few times, by many different artists who’ve gained notoriety on the streets – public art is what inspires them, but without price tags and collectors, they’d be back to their day job.

Plus, Witz informs me, the street is never far from his shows. At White Walls, great pains have been taken to locate the grates’ original use for the casual viewer – photos of them in their pavement-side locations abound, and each buyer of the indoor grates receives a photo print of their purchase’s al fresco twin, most likely made by Witz in the same batch of work.

He says that as he ages, he’s become less concerned over what the art world’s opinions of his work is – but he’s created hundreds of the grates so far, to try to figure out which images snap the most necks, or as he puts it: “lie plausibly” on the streets. Indicative of the care, love, and reptilian focus that Witz injects into his work, this is a process in which he likens himself to a fertile mother sea turtle. “Those sea turtles, they lay a hundred eggs and only like two survive. I have to lay a fucking lot of eggs.”

Dan Witz: “What the %$#@?”
Through Feb. 5
White Walls
839 Larkin, SF
(415) 931-1500

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