CDH, a Melbourne street artist, recently sat down for a chat with reputable collectors, fans and all round wonderful philanthropists of Australian Street Art, Sandra Powell and Andrew King …
I never fully understood the expression ‘jaw dropping’ until I went to Sandra and Andrew’s house. Walking around corners, I found my mouth dropping open at the amazing art on display; Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and so many more street artists, nestled among Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley. Andrew and Sandra tell me that they’re slowly selling their modernist Australian artworks to make way for more street art. There’s a subtle irony in that because there’s an obvious comparison to be made between this couple and John and Sunday Reed. Andrew and Sandra are more than just collectors; they are people who are trying to facilitate and grow street art in Melbourne.
They also recently organized and curated the recent show ‘Young & Free’ in San Francisco, featuring thirteen Australian street artists. They have a small flat at the back of their house that is set up as a guest space for visiting street artists. ELK, D*Face, Kid Zoom, Lister and Dlux have all stayed here and left their tag behind to mark their visit. At the end of the interview, Andrew and I sit around and just chat about art and life over a few beers, then later we talk at length about how to grow street art in Melbourne – he’s a genuinely nice guy who enjoys a few beers and loves talking about street art.
You only need to speak to them for a few minutes to be able to see their enthusiasm for street art coming straight through.
“We want to dedicate ourselves to this,” Sandra tells me later.
Do you think that street art is the art movement of the day?
Andrew: It’s the first movement of the internet age – without a doubt it’s the biggest art movement, ever. There are more people involved in it than any other movement in art history, in the world. You can’t go to any city or town in the world where someone hasn’t made their mark on a wall.
Sandra: …well we went to a little town in New Zealand recently and that wasn’t the case.
Andrew: Yeah, but I fixed that up. [I had a good laugh at that]
What type of art are you interested in collecting?
Sandra: What we’re especially interested in is Melbourne art. Australian, yes, but especially Melbourne art. We’re really interested in getting art from the 1990s onwards and just getting anything historic because so much has been lost. Andrew and I wish we had started collecting street art earlier when it was such an exciting time in Melbourne between 2000-2004. That whole stencil time when Melbourne street art really hit its straps. The artists say it wouldn’t have really made a difference, then, because they were doing it for themselves.
When they had empty shows, they were only for other artists and artists’ friends. They weren’t gallery shows, so the people who have got most of the early stuff are the artists themselves.
Can I put one thing to you? You’re clearly very close to Everfresh and you often describe Melbourne’s street art through the prism of their experiences. But there are so many other things that came before and have come since then like yarn bombing, guerilla gardening, video projection, installation art; these are all part of the same urban intervention movement. I don’t share your view that the best has already happened, I think it’s broader than that and there are many innovative and interesting things happening today.
Sandra: Sure – but my interest is in aerosol. I love looking at tags. I love anything that’s done with paint. So I think our interest is very much from a painterly point of view, not so much from the craft or sculpture. I love stuff on walls. I might start loving yarn bombing or something else, I think it’s really terrific but the smell of aerosol drives me crazy.
You both organized and curated the ‘Young & Free’ show in San Francisco. I know organizing artists is a lot like herding cats. I like to imagine the two of you as the mum and dad at a children’s birthday party where someone has spiked the red cordial. Are there any anecdotes you can share of artists running amok?
Andrew: One of the supposedly amusing ones was several of the artists went out one night and did some illegal stuff. We got a photo pretty early one morning of the escapades from the night before of some pretty good work on the wall of a church and they’d put Sandra’s mobile phone number below.
Did it have ‘for a good time call…’ above it?
Sandra: No. It looked like I had done the work. It had my name and my phone number on it. Then it became a joke that they started calling us ‘Sandrew’, so then they started signing everything ‘Sandrew’. It was like organizing a children’s birthday party. That’s a good analogy. I don’t know that there had ever been so many Australian street artists in one place overseas. They were all staying in the same hotel. We very wisely stayed down the road.
Andrew: We had Ironlak as our sponsor for the ‘Young & Free’ show. They were really supportive and they gave us every piece of paint we could ever hope for – but one of the artists didn’t like the smell …
Sandra: …There was some confusion amongst the artists that played out in a huge email exchange.
Andrew: After this email exchange, we got an email from Ben Frost, saying he used Ironlak for aftershave. Then he said, ‘perhaps that’s why my wife left me.’
Sandra: It was just so funny – hysterical.
You collect a huge amount of street art, but you also advise and facilitate street artists. I don’t know if you’ve been asked this before but are you the John and Sunday Reed of our time?
Andrew: Hopefully there’s not a Sidney Nolan lurking in the background there somewhere! [laughs]
[I had a good laugh at that too - Sidney Nolan had an open affair with Sunday Reed]
Sandra: When we first started collecting art, we were collecting from the Heide artists. So we’re very familiar with that story – but we never really understood the connection they had with the artists. So when we started collecting art it was from artists who had either died or have died since; for instance Joy Hester and Sidney Nolan. So the excitement now is, without a doubt, collecting the works of artists we know and have become friends with. That completely changes the whole idea of collecting in a way I hadn’t realized it would. It makes you look at people’s art differently.
Andrew: We can’t go back to Albert Tucker and say ‘what’s the story behind this work?’
Sandra: Buying works that we have actually watched them paint is just extraordinarily exciting and are things I wouldn’t give up in a million years. You just have a totally different connection to the art that you collect when you have a relationship with the artist. So when you’re saying ‘Are we the John and Sunday Reed?’ well maybe in 10 or 15 years time when we’ve been at it a lot longer – but one of the things that Andrew and I want to do at the moment is to support the artists. I don’t think there’s an artist I’ve met whose ideal isn’t to be able to live off painting – they all want to be able to.
Andrew: As an example, Rone contacted us and told us that Meggs was going over to LA, and asked would it be possible for us to organise an introduction with Justin [Giarla] at White Walls. So I said, yeah, sure; I wrote a letter of introduction and Meggs went up to San Francisco – and now he has a solo show at White Walls this year! Cool.
Sandra: To be in a position to make a few connections like that is really fantastic, and it’s really interesting for the artists to trust somebody. I don’t think there’s anyone we’ve met that doesn’t understand that we’re not in it for the money.
Andrew: When we first met them, they thought ‘who the hell are these people?’ There was a lot of suspicion. I heard that at first they thought I was an undercover cop or something – now we’ve got their confidence, we’re just friends, and it’s no big deal.
Sandra: I think they know that our hearts are in the right place. They just have to talk to us to see that we’re just so passionate about it. They have more to teach us, more than we have to teach them. Then sometimes there’s an opportunity to give a little bit of advice – it’s a relationship on a different level. It’s more like family.
That reminds me of the parental-children relationship we talked about before.
Sandra: Definitely. That’s it, and if they get out of line I’ll tell them off, don’t you worry [laughing]. I think I’m more a mother than Andrew is a father.
Andrew: Yeah, definitely. I love going out with the artists. I love going out with them at night – just for the thrill.
Sandra: We have a running joke – ‘Andrew you are not a street artist.’
Andrew: I do love putting up stickers – I just find it really exciting.
Sandra: I get really embarrassed by this. I say ‘Andrew you shouldn’t do it’. But the artists really love it. They love going out with him, and they just think it’s a real hoot. It’s a bit like putting your money where mouth is. He embarrasses his wife and his daughter sometimes.
[Andrew got his phone to show me stickers he’d put up. One is on the rear bumper of a US police car]
[Laughing] That’s one thing I really love about street art. Sometimes it’s really quite creative, but others it’s just the sheer ballsy-ness of it.
Andrew: That’s part of street art. Even if it’s a simple tag, if it’s really dangerous to get to (physical danger or the danger of getting caught) that just adds to it. Anyone can go down a back lane when there’s no one around. That’s simple. This was another good one. [checking his phone] I was with Meggs.
Sandra: No, I was with Meggs. It was the three of us in London. A cop car drove past and you went chasing after the cop car (to sticker it). Meggs couldn’t believe it. So he and I took off. That was pretty funny.
You obviously collected a lot of Australian tonalism and modernism. With a view to your art collection history, how do you think street art will fit into broader Australian art history?
Andrew: I think it’s here to stay – a lot of people think it’s a passing fad. It’s not like impressionism or Dadaism or cubism or something. It’s here to stay, and it’s just going to evolve. In Australian art history I don’t know when they’ll say it first started, but it’s going to stay.
Sandra: I think it started in the 80s with train painting, but there’s still a heap of people who paint trains. I find that part of it really fascinating too. There is no doubt in my mind that the movement will have to be taken seriously in the history of art. It is evolving. We were talking about that before; has Banksy peaked? It does just keep on changing and evolving. Lately I’ve seen more tags. It turns into an abstract piece of art.
Andrew: If we achieve our aim of setting up a street art museum, that will help bring it to the fore. The Space Invader show at the NGA last year, that has given a lot of cred to the movement too. Also having the Everfresh boys in the Atrium (studio space in Fed Square) gave the movement a lot of credibility. We’ve been told that more people went to the Atrium exhibition space that month than went to the Vienna exhibition in the international part of the NGV – what does that say?
Sandra: I also recognize that there must be many people in the movement who hate people like us – people who are supposedly trying to gentrify the movement, but that’s really cool too. I must admit, we’ve met quite a few rough nuts.
I think your enthusiasm for street art cuts through a lot of that. People who haven’t met you might feel that way, but I think once people meet you they see a more sympathetic side.
Sandra: I think that’s what happens. We have met a few guys who were not aggressive but were very nonchalant. They were like ‘who are you and why are you interested, and why do I care?’ But then, within a few days, they’re emailing me photos of what they’ve done.
Andrew: Some of the really hardcore artists, you could just see how stand off-ish they were. When you’ve got this dichotomy with the council; on the one hand they’re encouraging street art and using it for tourism. On the other hand you’ve got the Lord Mayor calling the artists peanut brains and graffiti vandals – I just don’t get it. A lot of people in the movement can’t speak up for the movement. I think it helps to have someone who knows the way of the world better than some of the artists do – hopefully that doesn’t sound too arrogant.
Sandra: We also know how to run a business. In bits like that we can help the artists because a lot of them are trying to run their businesses – we can help with things like that.
Who else have you met that stands out in your mind?
Andrew: Well Saber, what a guy he is! He’s done the biggest piece of street art in the world. We’ve been to his studio. One time he was being chased by the cops, he jumps over a fence (not very successfully) and impales himself on this iron spike. He’s got a piece of the fence and framed it. Luckily it stopped just next to his stomach lining. So he’s stuck on the fence and has to push up with the cops still following him – and he got away. He is as hard core as you can get.
Sandra: After the MOCA opening in LA (in April) we had a dinner at our hotel and we invited Swoon and her family. She didn’t get back to us and I assumed she had gone back to New York. I had booked a really nice table, so we asked Saber and his partner to join us instead. He’d just said yes and then we got a text from Swoon, saying ‘I’m sorry, I’d lost my phone, we’d love to come.’ So I thought uh-oh we’ve got Swoon and Saber. They are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Saber is a gang guy. He’s got these holes in his ears. They’re like plugs but they’re not plugs that can heal, they’re punched holes in his ear lobes. He told me it’s a gang rite thing. They’ve got some bit of iron – they bash out the center part of your ear and you’ve got to eat it.
… No way. That’s made up.
Sandra: No, no, no. It’s true. He had to eat it in front of people. This guy is really hard core – and Swoon is just so gorgeous. So, I rang her up and explained that I hadn’t heard back so I’d asked someone else to dinner. I said you’re welcome to come but I don’t know that you’ll get on with the person we’ve asked. She said ‘Oh, who have you asked?’ I told her it was Saber.
She replied, ‘Oh my god I love Saber. He’s my favourite person in the world.’ – we had such a cool night!
You can also check out last years Art Nation segment on Sandra Powell and Andrew king, as well as a great write up in The Age, for more info – and there are also a bunch of great images of their beautiful home here. We’d also like to thank Sandra and Andrew for their time for this great interview, we enjoyed it immensely!