When Dan Witz was obtaining his art education at prestigious Cooper Union in the late 1970s, realist painting was like the proverbial fart at a dinner party: People of taste pretended it didn’t exist. This fact was enough to hook the iconoclastic Witz. From his first exhibition, however, featuring hyperreal portraits of pasty, overweight, middle-aged men stripped to the waist, it was clear that Witz would appropriate painterly realism to his own ends.
Eventually, Witz brought the medium to the streets. His first series featured gorgeously rendered, life-size hummingbirds painted on doors and walls in Manhattan. Since then, Witz has consistently pushed the boundaries of street art, using humor, his considerable skill, and his enduring irreverence to pioneer new territory.
In Plain View is a compendium of Witz’s compelling projects and has much to recommend it. The text is refreshingly straightforward, the bulk of it being an interview conducted by Marc and Sara Schiller of the Wooster Collective instead of the usual inscrutable scholarly essays. Witz’s engaging personality and humorous self-insight are perfectly suited for the question-and-answer format.
The rest of the volume is given over to luscious full-color, full-page illustrations that amply document Witz’s work. Most of these photos are devoted to his street art. In addition to the hummingbirds in the Birds of Manhattan series, these include a wistful series of boats and, more recently, disturbing images of incarcerated (and sometimes bloody) people peering through faux ventilation grates and security bars. Witz’s paintings are also represented.
At his best, Witz captures the unique blend of camp and rage that are the unlikely twin sensibilities of the punk ethos. His Lonesome Boats series, for example, portrays a fist-sized rowboat titled Lonesome, which transforms the two-dimensional steel planes of dumpster walls into beautiful expanses of water.
Witz describes the project as one of “letting go,” since he deliberately chose impermanent surfaces on dumpsters and freight cars. But the series also demonstrates what is probably Witz’s most radical achievement as a street artist (and the thing that sets him apart from many others in his tribe): his ability to find—or invent—beauty in the urban streetscape.
In Plain View: 30 Years of Artworks Illegal and Otherwise
Berkeley: Gingko Press, 2010
222 pages, $39.95 (hardcover)
Purchase (via Amazon)