A gimmick is only as worthwhile as what you do with it. It’s hard to fault somebody for using any means necessary to capture our attention when it’s stretched as thin as it is these days. Once they’ve captured our interest though, there has to be something substantive in place to hold it. French artist Zevs manages a balancing act of extremes. His public work is ruthless and minimal, a bullhorn of cheap thrills. But if you heed those calls to come closer, you’re rewarded with refined work capable of engagement without shouts, as his New York exhibit proved with its opening last week.
He’s best known for his interventions of billboards and popular logos, altered with drips that make them appear to bleed or melt. It’s light on effort and skill but bold and loud. The work in the main room of his show, on the other hand, is full of craftsmanship, with pieces depicting subtle images of the female form. They’re made with transparent pigments on the inside of glass, which cover a layer of wrinkled golden foil beneath it all, and they change in appearance depending on the lighting and the angle of viewing.
Instead of brash and sarcastic, it’s sleek and elegant. It’s also more effeminate. Despite the change in style, the works touch on the same issues of luxury, popular iconography, and corporate symbolism. The foil suggests precious metals, creating a feeling of wealth. And the dripping patterns of high-fashion brands could be found embedded in a couple of them. The base images are also repetitions of a previous series by Zevs, but shown in this new mix of mediums, or they continue along that same idea of recycling canonical imagery. The second room brings the two extremes together, using the new materials of opulent comfort, but mostly as a means for the blatant reappropriation iconic images, like the Mona Lisa print situated behind a Chanel purse in a red velvet encasement.
There was nothing showy outside the opening, held at the Debuck Gallery, and as I passed by, it looked like just another show amid the dozens happening that night. The materials were so different, I had no idea it was a Zevs show when I went it. Even the name of the show—titled Elle after the Parisian fashion magazine—added to the confusion of what I was actually viewing.
To clarify, I’m not trying to be too harsh about his street art. Although some of his earlier work was nothing but a dot of red paint sprayed so long that it dripped, it was threatening and aggressive. It overtly challenged the billboards he was defacing, resembling bleeding eyes or a bullet wound to the head of whichever unfortunate model was featured on the ad. His more recent work of melting signage, which evokes less emotion and isn’t as obviously rebellious, can still be arresting (he’s been literally arrested, too). Even if his point takes some more explanation, it could also arguably be called more accessible.
That blurring of lines poses its own problems, but may be a sign of growth as he seeks to argue his point to a larger audience. The show’s opening was also at times hard to distinguish from luxury in itself and a criticism of the luxury industry. While the one room was obviously ironic, the front room wasn’t as clear. The advanced craftsmanship and focus on aesthetics over message pushed it closer into the realm of opulence. And shown under dim, warm lighting, the pieces sparkled and glowed, resulting in an environment of comfort and safety. That may challenge his underlying identity as an artist, but who doesn’t like to feel that way? Everyone needs a break, a place of reprieve and retreat. And Zevs, with talent and creativity, did just that, while offering blunt arguments in the next room over.
His street art resembles a fake Gucci bag copped on Canal St. It’s cheap and illegal but functional and scalable. The work showin in Chelsea, a neighborhood known for luxury, blends right in, shining in the window like jewelry on display. Even if it’s not made from 24-carat gold, it’s just as valuable.