An Interview with Geometrical Street Artist Poeta
I’ve been fascinated with the rise of abstract and geometric street art. The disciplined approach these artists take toward their “canvases” forces them to consider negative space in a way that most street artists working in other styles do not. Covering all available areas of a wall or canvas is often the mark of an amateur, or at least someone afraid of the formal properties of their art. There are always exceptions — Maya Hayuk’s edge-to-edge patterns for walls in NYC, for example, in which the work transforms the wall into something else, with a completely different visual character and texture, as well as suggesting another, entirely different purpose for its existence. Painting every square millimeter is the point.
Some abstract and geometric street artists behave more like designers than artists, treating the available space in its multiple dimensions like a problem to be solved, not a billboard. Here’s a wall, a building, a façade. How do I organize the volumes and expanses I see now into something else? The lines, shapes and strokes of the work allude to, work with and against the existing lines of whatever is painted on, whether it’s an architectural detail like an abutment, a cornice, the shape of a window, or the irregular line where a wall meets the sidewalk, or the sky. Argentine street artist Elian is a good example of this approach. Elian is not indifferent to what’s painted upon. What already exists is important to what the work eventually becomes and the finished piece could exist nowhere else.
I’m less interested in street artists that simply mimic abstract masters from the past, or worse, hacks from the present. Their work references another tradition and ignores context, or rather the register is simple novelty.
The work of Argentina’s Poeta is somewhere in between. It’s clear the bulk of his work owes its forms to a whole host of contemporary artists working with pure shapes and color, and they are often just abstract paintings that just happen to be on a wall outside rather than on a canvas in a gallery, such as this one in San Telmo, long since painted over, once by Poeta himself.
This collaborative piece in La Boca with French abstract street artist Neli0 is striking, with its bold contrasts and the austere color palette but there’s not much site-specific about the painting. The shapes do play off the wall’s natural borders but that effect could be seen in a framed canvas as well.
However, at times he’s more aware of the architecture he’s appropriating, particularly when he’s collaborating with other street artists. For instance, look at this transformation of the rear of a Buenos Aires building with its crenelated rooftop and narrow windows:
A four-day collaboration with BA-based street artists Mart and Dos, this piece could exist nowhere else. I particularly like how the black background behind Poeta’s jumble of colorful, modern puzzle pieces allows the whole to both float and cut across the building in multiple dimensions. Its placement in the structure’s corner defies the original spatial logic.
It’s hard to get perspective and size from this photo below — it’s corrugated tin but I’m not sure if it’s a storage container or the side of a building. But the obliteration of its purpose and context while playing off its texture and surface variety is one strong effect of the piece.
In this piece, the shape of the building pushed Poeta over into a rare-for-him figuration. Hey, it’s a flower!
In a different direction, but equally rare, this graphic and typographical collaboration with loutsider works well, I think, as Poeta’s shapes commingle and explode inevitably outside the confines of the basic sans-serif letterforms:
Recently, in a group show at the tiny Mundiroff gallery in San Telmo, Poeta presented a handful of small format, ink-on-paper works.
Like his acrylics — seen here, both styles strongly reminiscent of Argentine painter and illustrator, Yente — they flirt with figurative three-dimensionality kind of half-heartedly, as if pulsing indecisive ever so slightly off the page or canvas but refusing to rouse themselves. But I was surprised and pleased to find one watercolor, consisting of a cluster of strong black lines sharing space with spontaneous washes of color and transparency.
I had a chance to talk with Poeta aka Christian Riffel about his affinity for geometric work and the tension between street art and gallery-based contemporary art.
Rick Powell: I have been interested in your work for years and I saw you paint a piece in Juanele‘s office when I was director. I think that you were the only artist that came with a sketch in a tiny sketchbook and then proceeded to paint that sketch exactly, more or less, as is, and very quickly. Is that how you usually work? I have an idea that you have an affinity for geometric shapes.
Christian Riffel/Poeta: If I work that way, drawing first what I intend to paint, I consider it very important. It’s a method I use to keep the line and elements of composition up-to-date in my work. But I don’t always work that way.
RP: How long have you been painting in the street?
CR: I’ve been painting on the streets since I was 17. But I’ve been painting as an artist since I was 9.
RP: Tell me about your ambitions for exhibiting in traditional gallery spaces.
CR: I love how my work looks in a gallery, It’s a totally different appropriation of space and you can act on all the senses and create a more delicate work. I’m very passionate about painting and so exhibiting in a gallery for me is a recognition of my work and career. I would love to have a gallery represent me.
RP: I recently saw your pieces in the Joint exhibition at Mundiroff in San Telmo. The lines and shapes in the ink-on-paper work was familiar to me but I was surprised to see the lone watercolor. There were your basic lines but with spontaneous washes and loops of color. I liked it a lot.
CR: Gracias! I like to paint with watercolors. They have a distinct and beautiful effect and it’s good to experiment and practice with color combinations and gradations.
RP: Right, which most of your line-work doesn’t have.
CR: I attach a different importance to each type of work, but each has its place.
RP: Besides, Mundiroff, where have you exhibited your work?
CR: Washington, D.C., Berlin, Cologne, Paris, London and Buenos Aires.
RP: Do you think you are moving away from street art to more traditional modes of exposure or is there a good balance?
CR: The balance for that is determined by the artist. Many have managed to work with both so that the gallery side of things has the same or more impact than a mural in the street. But, in the street it’s also interesting to work with the versatility of formats, although that is not news. Mural art has good visibility and acceptance today, giving a good deal of exposure to artists as opposed to traditional gallery exhibitions which few will ever see. Just look at the number of blog posts on the subject.
RP: I remember you were once sponsored by Red Bull? Are you going to do any more Pop-Up Galleries?
CR: I still do pop-up galleries every two years. If all goes well and I find good sponsors, there will be another edition next year!
RP: How did you get the sponsorship?
CR: I am a friend of the brand and I am very grateful to them to have helped me grow so quickly. Sometimes I still do work for the brand.
RP: Many of your paintings are geometric or abstract rather than figurative. Tell me why.
CR: I took a break from painting in 2009 and it was a conjunction of factors. One was that for ten years I had been painting figurative things and felt it was a good time to delve deeper into my work. It is very clear in my paintings at that time that my work was changing shape. The second was wanting to express from a more genuine and more interior place inside me, and to finally be aware of who I am in this more mature stage of my life. I realized that I like to think of the work in this way: Abstract art is the art of thinking, creating things not yet established. Also I believe in the communicative power of color and form. Feeling that the abstract had more to do with my present way of thinking and realizing that it could be associated with other things I like such as philosophy, mysticism, religions and esoterica. A tree drops a seed and then something grows. So the meaning is kind of if you drop something, something new and good comes of it.
Tell me about your collaboration with him.
CR: Nelio is an artist from Lyon, France, whom I met in Berlin. It was a good meeting and I consider him a great abstract artist. I am very interested in contacting other abstract artists and learning their fundamentals.
RP: What about new projects?
CR: Recently, I had to really focus [Rick’s note: in castellano, this is literally “step into a tunnel”] for the Joint show at Mundiroff. Also I was asked to paint a large mural with Roma in Villa Ballester in late October. After that, for next year, another pop-up gallery, a solo exhibition and I want to travel!
Museo a Cielo Abierto / Villa Maipu / San Martin / Buenos Aires.
All photos courtesy of Christian Riffel.
Want to learn more about graffiti in Buenos Aires? Book a tour with Buenos Aires Art Tours and discover the stories behind the vibrant walls of the San Telmo neighborhood.