21 July 2016

The Flower Guy

It’s not uncommon to stumble across a bus-stops shelter that has Jennifer Lawrence plastered on the side, nonchalantly gazing at her Dior bag. What is uncommon, is for J-Law to find herself accompanied by the delicate brushwork strokes of blooming bouquets. Michael De Feo is the artist giving the ads that we’ve all seem a million times, a floral makeover. Unlike a certain Miranda Priestly’s reaction to floral à la Devil Wears Prada, De Feo’s work contains all the necessary components to make it well and truly “groundbreaking”.

The artist was gifted a key that opens the bus shelter ad boards in NYC, allowing him to switch the existing images out for his own work. He installs his paintings in broad daylight, taking his time and acting as though it was his authorised duty to be doing so as – strictly speaking – none of it is legal. Apparently hiding in plain sight works pretty well after all.

A new solo exhibition at Danziger Gallery features a range of De Feo’s images; from the towering bus stop advertisements to more manageable magazine tears. With 25 years worth of street art expertise under his belt, Michael De Feo’s aesthetic and conceptual dialogue is a breath of minty fresh air in this age of appropriation. I hear from the man himself about his improvisational approach, the power of Instagram and the magazine pages he uses as his canvas…


If you weren’t an artist, what do you think you would have ended up doing?
It’s almost unfathomable to consider anything else. As long as I can remember I knew I wanted my life to be about creativity and sharing that creativity.

You’ve been doing street art for nearly 25 years now, how have you seen the art scene evolve in that time?
When I first began installing works on the streets there wasn’t the street art scene as we know it today – New York had plenty of graffiti and some street art, however, not much. Back then, most people weren’t even on the internet yet so once the internet grew, so did the movement. Artists creating works around the world had the opportunity to see what else was going on and could share their works with others.

When you were graffitiing the bus stop shelter ads, was there a bit of a thrill in the “risk” of doing something you’re not supposed to be doing?
There’s always a certain excitement that happens when you take a risk. In all the years I’ve been working on the streets it’s always a part of the process. Last year I was gifted a key that opens the advertising cases in the bus-stop shelters in New York by my friend Jordan Seiler. He’s the creator of Public Access, an initiative to distribute the tools needed to reclaim outdoor advertising infrastructure for public use. I decided to initially remove the ads and install floral paintings in the cases. After a while I had a growing collection of fashion advertisements in the studio so I began painting on top of these fashion ads.

Do you have a trial and error approach to painting or is it more of an in-the-moment explosion of sorts?
Painting is very improvisational for me and I usually have no idea what I’m going to do before I do it. Every action informs the next steps – colour creation, brush size, stroke qualities, etc. It’s a sort of a dance between control and abandon. I pay close attention to the photograph I’m working with and let it speak to me.

How important do you think that Instagram was in making a new demographic of people aware of your work?
Instagram has been an integral part of the sharing process for me since I signed on a few years ago. Shortly after installing a takeover of a J.Crew advertisement last year, J.Crew regrammed the image to their followers. I was really surprised at their approval of my unauthorised “collaboration” and that they would share it on their feed. Other brands and artists have done the same since, for example, Peter Lindbergh regrammed a painting I did atop one of his photos of Kate Moss for David Yurman. To have such a legendary photographer and talent like Peter give me a stamp of approval is amazing. Instagram has also led to my working with Christian Louboutin as a social media influencer as well as my collaboration with Neiman Marcus for the men’s and women’s covers of their April edition of “The Book”.

There’s been such a positive reception of your work within the fashion world, was that at all what you were expecting when you began working with fashion photography?
I kind of figured I’d turn some heads but I didn’t really consider how many. It’s very exciting and a great honour when artists, brands or publications give me positive feedback or press or sometimes invite me to collaborate. My paintings have been featured in the online editions of WWD, The New York Observer, Dutch and Italian Vogue, i-D and now with you for Wonderland, which I’m very excited about!

Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming exhibition?
My exhibition at Danziger Gallery in New York features paintings I’ve created and fashion photography that I’ve culled from magazines, as well as some pieces on advertisements I’ve sourced from bus-stop shelters and works mounted on canvas. It’s the very first time I’m exhibiting these fashion-centered works here in my hometown of New York.


One of the images in the exhibition is from the pages of Wonderland, a shot of Hari Nef by Terry Richardson. What is it about that image that compelled you to use it as your canvas?
I first saw Hari in the flashback sequences of the second season of the television series, Transparent. I remember her standing out in those scenes; she was really terrific. When I then saw Terry’s recent photos of her in Wonderland I knew I had to utilise these images. Not only because of Hari’s beauty or Terry’s signature shooting style, but because transgender equality is so important and I wanted to include that in my show. Transgender people have faced a terrifyingly huge amount of discrimination and violence. I know that one painting isn’t going to change that, however, if showcasing a transgender actress and model in my work can help spread some love then that’s a good thing.

Are there any interesting stories you can tell us about any of the pieces on show?
Before I began working with the bus-stop advertisements I was experimenting in the studio with collaging magazine pages to canvas and painting on top of them. The three resulting paintings are included in the exhibition and are my very first fashion takeovers. There’s one painting that’s very different from the others. It’s Lili Summer shot by Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent. She’s covered in wavy brushstrokes of rainbow colours. I created the piece after learning about the terrible tragedy of the Orlando shooting in a gay nightclub.

If you could pick one emotion that you want people to leave your show feeling, what would it be?
I’d like my work to spark a conversation not only about the fashion world or appropriation, but also about how we can interact with images. I like to tamper with things and inject a sense of whimsy and play into my work and I hope that comes through.


Read my interview for Wonderland here.