For his piece Tile Pry (Gentrification) (2008), artist Brad Downey used a hammer to remove a section of tile façade from a building in Amsterdam. Underneath: a swath of graffiti that city officials had attempted to hide. The piece is an apt metaphor for Downey’s “spontaneous sculptures”: They peel away our banal surface perceptions of the city to reveal its serendipitous beauty.

Downey, who is also a videographer and writer, creates spontaneous sculptural works using materials that happen to be on hand. Like other artists who use the urban landscape as a sculptural medium, Downey’s tools include a keen sense of humor and a biting commentary on the bourgeoisie.

But the audacity of his works is what sets him apart. Some of his actions—an overturned street planter, a toppled telephone booth, a street surveillance camera torched with gasoline—are distinguished from hooliganism only by the artist’s intentions and the documentary photographs that designate the acts as works of art.

Still, even these pieces are surprisingly cheerful. Other works—a sandcastle built in the space left from excavated paving stones; a telephone booth stuffed with balloons—are positively buoyant.

This uplifting spirit is perhaps attributable to Downey’s underlying artistic philosophy, which is less a critique than an invitation. His artwork is successful when it “has given people a new way of seeing artistic potential in their surroundings,” he says. “I like that someone could be standing somewhere in a city looking at a pile of stones and thinking: ‘Maybe that’s Brad Downey’s work.’”

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