Street artist Toven is known for his iconic images of Mr. Baltimore, the slinky suit with a revolver for a head, and Edgar Allan Poe as an astronaut. His installations crop up in various places around the city, wheatpasted to the walls of crumbling vacant and neglected townhomes. Toven’s art does not usually appear on the walls of galleries. But it did last Saturday, where the artist opened his first solo show at the Bank Gallery in Highlandtown.
Saturday night found empty spraypaint cans turned into art by the artist arranged in one of the windows of the gallery, while various pieces, recognizable from the street, stared downward from the spare white walls. The exception was the back wall of the gallery, where several installations – including a large representation of Poe the astronaut – were wheatpasted directly onto the wall itself. Poe’s soulful gaze greeted visitors as they walked into the gallery to view and purchase the art.
Much of the art was wheatpaste and paint on wood. Toven is attracted to wheatpaste because of the general impermanence of street art: “I start out with a drawing, and I try to put that somewhere that I know it won’t get torn down. I used to put originals on the street. When they’re gone the next day it’s horrible.” The medium also allows the artist to take more time with his work: “I couldn’t paint this on the street. A cop could come. So I can really take the time I need with images, and get what I really want.”
The medium’s easy reproducibility allowed him to transition his work to the gallery, where he has attempted to maintain his “street sensibility.” Toven accomplished this effect in much of his art by layering graffiti on slabs of wood and then pasting one of his grayscale images onto the piece, much as he might have done on a vacant. The attempt succeeded, looking much like he might have just carved a slice off an existing street installation and hung it on the gallery walls.
Toven said that he chooses his subjects based on what he loves and is interested in. One series he has been pursuing is images of predators juxtaposed with fashion: on backdrops of loud, colorful graffiti, the artist pastes photomanipulations of the heads of predators – a crowned eagle, a king cobra – rising from the impeccably suited bodies of fashion models, walking or posing on the runway. The images could even say something about the show itself: the raw power and energy of the street transposed into the smoothness of gallery or home life, the images hanging on walls exposed to the eyes of admiring viewers instead of the harsh hands of time or the elements.
Writers are also a particular interest of Toven’s, including William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, but especially Poe, the subject of his iconic astronaut image. When asked what inspired him to put the nineteenth century writer in a spacesuit, Toven explained that the author was very interested in the stars: “He was actually fascinated with astronomy, that’s why I did the astronaut. There’s actually a theory that he came up with in astronomy [where] he wanted to know why if there are billions of stars, why the whole sky isn’t incandescent.” Poe’s questioning anticipates the first plausible solution to this paradox, known as the “dark night sky” or “Olbers’” Paradox.
Toven’s art references the writer’s history in a way that is intellectual without being pretentious, a quality that attracted Gabriel Kirk, the owner of the Bank Gallery. “You see people doing a lot of things that are kind of sarcastic, kind of tongue-in-cheek… Toven’s work is raw, and it’s fresh, it’s not overly academic, it’s not necessarily ironic. He likes what he does. He’s not really trying to say much about something happening in society, he just likes the images and he likes what he does,” the gallery owner said. Kirk, a street artist himself, said he considers Toven challenging and envelope-pushing, and most of all very Baltimore: “He’s from Baltimore, and really from the streets of Baltimore. It’s organic, and it’s fresh, and it’s good work.”
Kirk said he sees Toven’s show as the beginning of an ongoing, transformative show that focuses heavily on street art: “This show is going to change, and it’s going to get bigger, and louder, and we’re going to do some more street ventures, and some things to get more and more people here, and some international artists. So this is the introduction to a larger body of work that we’re going to be putting together, and Toven’s going to be a significant part of that, and that’s exciting.” Kirk said he envisions Baltimore street art as emergent and evolutionary, a form that is beginning to bubble up and grow into something socially acceptable. “People are becoming okay with it. [They’re saying] okay, this is legitimate, they’re doing this in Europe. Not only is this accepted, it’s valuable. It’s art.” Toven’s work is transforming not only the streets of Baltimore, but the way people see art in the gallery and, eventually, in their homes.