Just off DeKalb Avenue, where the Beltline dead ends before jogging through the Krog Tunnel and into Reynoldstown, a long metal wall hugs the curve of an unpaved path. The wall is rusty with a few panels missing, its function a little unclear beyond separating one kudzu-lined dirt lot from another. The words "Hense Dose" are painted side by side in yellow and red on the wall's surface, which roughly measures 12-by-100 feet, about the size of two billboards lined up next to each other.
Two miles east on DeKalb, the facing walls of the rail overpass at Arizona Avenue are also covered in yellow and red paint — and blue and pink and black and orange and white and plenty of other colors, but no letters. Shapes collide like a massive pileup on the interstate, thick black lines crimping like bumpers under the impact of giant orb against giant orb. Beyond its style, the bright geometry is void of any signature to let passers-by know that this is also the work of HENSE, aka Alex Brewer.
Born and raised in Atlanta, the 33-year-old Brewer has spent the better part of the past 20 years under bridges and on top of billboards writing graffiti under the name HENSE. He was so prolific that he achieved what's known as all-city status for having left his mark on pretty much every neighborhood. His piece with DOSE at what is now the southern end of the Beltline's eastside trail shows its age up close (it's more than five years old) but remains a bright beacon among the kudzu from MARTA's elevated vantage point.
The City of Atlanta commissioned the Arizona Avenue mural "Float" from Brewer for 2012. "Float" was his third mural in as many years bankrolled all or in part by city money. (He also contributed murals in 2010 and 2011 to Art on the Beltline, which is partially funded by Atlanta's Office of Cultural Affairs.) It's a telling moment when a city with an anti-graffiti task force pays for one of its most recognized graf writers to create a mural for its official public art program. Supersized exterior projects such as "Float" have kept Brewer lawfully busy, and visible, the past few years as he's worked on fine-tuning an aesthetic that's as identifiable as a tag but far more nuanced in its means of communicating authorship than the five letters he's relied on for so long.
On Sept. 14, Brewer's Spray opens at Sandler Hudson Gallery. It's his first solo exhibit in three years, and his follow-up to the 2011 group show Mark Making in Black and White at the gallery. Brewer's pieces in Mark Making were, like the artist, smart, compact compositions full of concentrated energy, like fuses waiting to be lit. And now, "It's like it's exploded," says Robin Sandler, co-owner of Sandler Hudson, which has represented Brewer in Atlanta for the past five years.
"For a while I wanted to keep everything subtle and muted," Brewer says. "And now I'm kind of thinking the opposite — to create something that isn't typical of what I would do in the past."
Brewer came up in the Atlanta graffiti scene of the mid to late '90s and early 2000s, a time when the city was far less gentrified and there existed a handful of legal walls, most notably the Civic Yard at Peachtree and Pine streets, that "we were really inspired by because it was a place where you could go look and see pieces and examine them and watch people paint," Brewer says. Atlanta's 2003 anti-graffiti ordinance put an end to that fun by, in part, outlawing public murals on private property painted without city approval. (The ordinance was rewritten in favor of property owners in 2006 after pressure from the Georgia ACLU.) In those days, "there were more people doing quality work," says Brewer's close friend and fellow artist BORN, the recipient of the Forward Arts Foundation's prestigious Emerging Artist Award for 2012-13. "It was much more about piecing and a lot less about bombing like you see a lot of around Atlanta in the last few years."
Those years Brewer spent working outside as HENSE were formative. He gave art school a shot early on, but left Richmond's Virginia Commonwealth University after less than a semester. "I was very young at the time and knew I wanted to pursue art but I was consumed with graffiti and what was going on in Atlanta," Brewer says. "I liked the energy of what was happening here with the graffiti scene at the time."
Brewer and BORN originally met as kids playing on the same soccer team coached by Brewer's dad but didn't become friends until they wound up playing soccer together again at Grady High School. "We both had started coming up with a tag name and we kind of reconnected as far as both being interested in graffiti, or art really," BORN says. "The art and graffiti kind of solidified the bond."
Nearly 20 years later, the friendship has turned into one of the more important relationships in both their lives.
"I feel like we have one of those John and Paul relationships — he's Paul, I'm John," BORN says. "I was more kind of out there, like a little experimental, crazy, and he was more solid and down to earth. I feel like we complement each other well, like I can be jealous, super-proud, motivated, inspired by the same person. I think that's healthy to have those kinds of relationships as an artist because it's very hard to have a clear perspective when you're looking at your own work. It's funny how I'll be sitting back thinking, 'Man ... he's doing things, he's making moves, his stuff is so fresh!' And then I talk to him and he's saying the same thing about feeling stale, and then you realize that, OK, we're both doing things, we're both growing."
Part of that growth has been getting older and having priorities start to shift a little, or maybe a lot.
"I knew at some point that if I was to make the transition from being a guy who's out there doing illegal graffiti to somebody who's showing in galleries and trying to do commissions and start being noted more for legitimate work, I knew that would be a risk and that I could potentially have some kind of not only criticism but something like what happened," Brewer says referring to the ongoing $1 million lawsuit filed last year against him and more than two dozen other local graffiti artists by a pair of Edgewood Avenue property owners. "But it was a natural progression that I think has a lot to do with age. I'm 33 now. Ten years ago I wanted to go out and do [graffiti], now I'm more concerned about the future."
For Brewer, that has meant making murals, enormous exterior ones that sometimes encompass entire buildings, including an abandoned oyster factory in Virginia and a historic Art Deco building in Miami. "Taking an existing object like an architectural building and painting not just one side, but the entire thing recontextualizes it and makes it a sculptural object. I think that was a good breakthrough for the imagery," says Taylor Means, Brewer's assistant and collaborator.
But, "I would never be doing murals period if I never got into graffiti," Brewer says.
That's a significant point, since his murals have turned out to be a major muse for his interior work. "I feel like some of the older interior work I did was very calculated: 'This is meant to be a painting that somebody would have inside and this is what I do outside,'" he says. "I really want to do work that informs the murals, or do murals that inform the paintings."
Spray will feature, among other things, big, bold, physical works, with marks smeared on 6-by-6-foot expanses of wood with mops and dusters, or scribbled across surfaces with an aerosol can. The new palette is charged, an electric scramble of Day-Glo. The large compositions are layered with the stories of their creation. They read like details of his murals and are refreshingly nonliteral expressions that reflect his graffiti background.
"It's very much to me about the physical process. So every line that I make and every mark that I make is intended to show the process of how it was made," he says. "I kind of make marks knowing that whatever I make could eventually get painted over."
That focus on the means over the end mirrors the nature of working in the street and having to act quickly and purposefully. The phrase "unapologetic mark making" comes up a few times when discussing Brewer's current body of work with Means. And it's interesting that Brewer would be so focused on contemplating his painting in such terms considering he already has a history of being quite unapologetic about his mark making. But there is a difference here and it has to do with purpose, with the function of the work.
"We learned long ago that you take graffiti off the streets and it loses everything. It's pointless to take graffiti and put it into a gallery. I hate seeing that," BORN says. "He's starting to realize he doesn't have to keep things separated. [Gallery work and street work] can blend together if they need to."
"There are [people who don't like graffiti], like, 'Well, I like the murals but I hate the tags.' And it's like, one wouldn't exist without the other, you know? But I'm completely at peace with it," he says. "I'm not hiding from anybody. ... This show will be Alex Brewer, aka HENSE. I want to pursue both."
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