Street art - over the Web and into the gallery

LONDON Mon Feb 10, 2014 10:16am EST

1 of 4. A visitor photographs artist Phlegm's art installation 'The Bestiary' at the Howard Griffith Gallery in London February 4, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

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LONDON (Reuters) - The artworks at a new gallery in London's Shoreditch are not for sale, and their creator plans to destroy them when the show is over. Phlegm, known only by his pseudonym, did not attend the opening and does not give interviews.

Gallery owner Richard Howard-Griffin plans to pay the rent from sales at other shows. For now, he is providing the first ever gallery space to an artist who has already won recognition in the underground art world and many thousands of followers.

"Phlegm is immensely respected around the world", after more than a decade of painting enormous urban murals across Europe and in the United States, Howard-Griffin said.

A new, mass audience has emerged for street art as the Internet and smart phone cameras enable people to capture images and share them across the world.

Howard-Griffin calls it the "democratization of art" and said he wants the gallery to act as a conduit for this new wave of artists, rather than an arbiter.

"In the past, museums were how Joe Public got to see artwork", and the artist depended on an elite audience of gallery owners and museum curators to win recognition, Howard-Griffin said.

"Street art plays to a huge audience, but it doesn't have an elite audience."

Phlegm - who Howard-Griffin says "doesn't care about money" - makes a modest living by selling a limited number of his prints and books directly to fans. He took six weeks to build his show, called The Bestiary.

THE ARTIST AND THE OLD DOG

This is only the second show for the Howard Griffin Gallery. Its first last September did make money, around 70,000 pounds ($115,000), for the gallery and the artist - Londoner John Dolan, who was then homeless.

For three years, Dolan had sat at the same spot on the inner city borough's High Street, drawing cityscapes of gritty London and portraits of George, the Staffordshire bull terrier at his side.

Meanwhile, Howard-Griffin, 31, had quit his job in a corporate law firm to try to make a living from his interest in street art - leading guided tours, curating small group shows and organizing festivals and mural projects.

He saw Dolan drawing day after day, liked his work and proposed doing a show. The owners of an unused storefront across the street offered the space.

It took 11 months to organize. Howard-Griffin recruited well-known street artists to add fantasy touches to Dolan's citscapes. The roughly 100 pieces in "George the Dog and John the Artist" all sold.

It was originally meant to be a one-off. "(But) the John show did so well that it gave me the resources and impetus to fund this gallery," Howard-Griffin said.

Dolan, who said he has signed a book deal on his life story, describes himself as the gallery's resident artist. He can often be seen there drawing, while George sits in the window and helps attract visitors.

"The gallery launched me, and I launched the gallery," Dolan said.

For his next show, Howard-Griffin plans to feature Thierry Noir, a 55-year-old French artist who lived in a squat in Berlin and painted miles of the Wall from 1984 until it fell in 1989, dodging arrest by the East German police.

His exploits took place long before the rise of an Internet audience, and the forthcoming show will be his first solo exhibition, Howard-Griffin said. "He has nowhere near the level of recognition in the art world that he deserves."

(Editing by John Stonestreet)

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