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New York City Gallery Commissions George Floyd Mural To Transform Shuttered Chelsea Storefront Into Street Art

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Mural outside of Chase Contemporary art gallery at 521 W23rd Street, New York, NY. Commissioned by Chase Contemporary and created by street artist DISTORT with artist Anna Sibel, and overseen by artist Wyme Santos. Courtesy of Chase Contemporary

Peaceful protesters opposing systematic racism and police brutality passed by 521 W23rd Street in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood as graffiti and mural artist DISTORT transformed the storefront of Chase Contemporary art gallery into a tribute to George Floyd. 

Artists across the country have been reacting to the death of Floyd by creating art that honors his legacy and draws attention to the need for immediate action to combat the prolific abuse of black people by white police officers and the underlying racist legacy of the United States. 

The 46-year-old black man died two weeks ago, after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned his knee onto Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, as three colleagues watched without making any effort to save a man’s life.

“The intense energy of protest that is unfolding is undeniably as inspirational as it is painful. I chose imagery that would capture the moment while giving credence to the threads of history leading up to it,” said Jersey City, New Jersey-based DISTORT. “The parallel between the protest at the 1968 olympics and Colin Kapernick stands out, as their actions helped to create a conversation about racial justice with the public beyond the realm of politics.”

DISTORT was joined by Anna Sibel, an artist from Philadelphia, who added Gossamer, an animated character in the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of cartoons, holding a sign calling for “ONE GOAL” to engage children who walk by. 

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Closeup of mural outside of Chase Contemporary art gallery at 521 W23rd Street, New York, NY. Courtesy of Chase Contemporary

“For me, it is very rare to be able to paint together with another artist. I have a tremendous amount of respect for DISTORT, artistically and intellectually so working together with him on this project was therapeutic for us both,” said Sibel. “This piece was an important statement of energy and balance for me.” 

Gossamer is a fine, filmy substance consisting of cobwebs spun by small spiders, or a term referring to something very light, thin, or delicate.

“That’s why I wanted to make it large scale and use a bold, heavy, thick red,” said Sibel of the orange monster. “While the character is portrayed as destructive in the cartoon, I gave him a soft feel because I believe this movement has the ability to be related to and joined by everyone.”

DISTORT said he chose eglantine roses, also known as sweet briar, fragrant, large, and sprawling, with single pale pink flowers blooming in late spring and early summer, to symbolize "a wound to heal." He selected the leaves of a ficus tree, sometimes called weeping fig, native to Asia and Australia, as “the tree of peace.” "The seeds in the fruit represent unity and universal understanding and knowledge,” he said. 

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Courtesy of Chase Contemporary

“The idea of one love/one goal came together from a collaboration with everyone involved in the mural,” DISTORT said. 

Forced to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chase Contemporary is hoping to lead a movement by converting protective panels into art that passers-by can appreciate. Taglialatella Galleries has already followed the lead, hiring an artist to create a mural for its closed space on 229 Tenth Avenue. Chase Contemporary is looking to quickly commission another artist to create a mural for its location around the corner on 231 10th Avenue.

Isabel Sullivan, director of Chase Contemporary, met artist Wyme Santos while he was spray painting “LOVE,” and he introduced her to DISTORT and Sibel.

"The cause itself is equality and a lot of people think it's a black issue as opposed to a human issue. The reason why it has gotten so out of hand is because of those ideas and it's very important for artists these days to add their perspective not only through everyday conversations in the community but also on canvases and other art forms and media so that those perspectives could be evaluated and understood,” said Santos, who helped to facilitate the process on site. “We exist as a culmination of ideas and understandings. Every thought is valid, whether it points out how you get in or get out. The main idea is for us to have a genuine connection so that we can identify those societal flaws and approach them in a real way.”

Peaceful protestors stopped to watch as the vibrant mural came to life. 

“The past week was an extraordinarily sad time in the United States. We believe in the power of public art to heal communities and to address social issues. The city felt so dismal the past months with quiet, empty streets in a once bustling Manhattan, and especially after the looting when stores all over downtown were boarded up with plywood,” said Sullivan. “We invited local artists to come spread messages of hope and solidarity to the local community. We want to bring art to the streets where it can be seen and experienced while the local residents are not able to visit galleries or museums.”

As the urban landscape of New York changes amid peaceful protests and the threat of looting earlier this month which forced closed businesses to protect glass storefronts, so does the needs of its residents. 

“It’s an interesting juxtaposition to see graffiti and street art in the Chelsea district, which is widely thought of to be inaccessible, uninviting, and unapproachable. Often the entrances to galleries have frosted glass windows or concrete facades,” Sullivan said. “The murals have this feeling of an all-embracing place of expression, where the monetization of art is stripped away and people can come together to simply experience something. I think public art — and art in general — has the ability to unify and uplift.”

Jakob Bokulich, creative director of Chase Contemporary, said the idea came from his friends at San Francisco art agency Building 180, who in April partnered with Art for Civil Discourse, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded by Ukrainian-American artist Inga Loyeva Bard, in an effort called Paint the Void. The Bay Area effort brings murals to boarded-up businesses while providing a stipend for artists who have been affected by the global pandemic.

“While the protests grew, I increasingly felt urged to use art to serve the movement, and I began working on some drawings. Looting began on Saturday night, and the next morning I walked to our gallery in Chelsea, through SoHo and up Broadway, from my place in the Lower East Side. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bokulich said. “We made the difficult decision to board up both of our galleries. We had been using the art in our windows to try to spread positive messages, and my immediate thought was that if we’re going to do this, then we need to paint some murals on our boards.”

By Natasha Gural
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