Stop making HENSE 

Alex Brewer's fresh artistic perspective nods to his graffiti writing past without succumbing to it

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HIGH STYLE: A billboard near Krog Street painted by Brewer in 2001. - COURTESY THE ARTIST

Nearly 20 years later, the friendship has turned into one of the more important relationships in both their lives.

click to enlarge THE BRIGHT SIDE: “Rearrange” by Alex Brewer - COURTESY THE ARTIST

"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."

TAG TEAM: Piece by HENSE and BORN from 2003 or 2004 painted under a bridge. It is no longer there. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • TAG TEAM: Piece by HENSE and BORN from 2003 or 2004 painted under a bridge. It is no longer there.

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