It was across from a cemetery and appeared to be some sort of abandoned warehouse or place of manufacturing, a ghost from the great industrial days of Baltimore; it was however, the current residence of Gaia and some of his fellow street artist friends. Once inside, we were met with the disconnected visual of his living space; unfinished and open, littered with chairs, couches, paint cans, canvases, stencils, and all sorts of works in progress; even roommates were scattered about, under mounds of blankets or appearing suddenly from some hidden empty space which functioned as a room.
Along with a friend of mine, I was there to buy one of Gaia’s linoleum cut prints; and ended up with a Le Corbusier inspired Lion Rabbit image. Le Corbusier saw architects and planners being of utmost importance, calling them the lions of society, while the people were merely rabbits. It was Le Corbusier’s ideas on quick and inexpensive methods of construction, based on a system of identical design that would later be used to create working class apartment homes; this concept morphed into project buildings, and a way to perpetuate segregation and concentrate poverty.
In typical Gaia fashion, his work has multiple references and connections to both art and our cultural history. Pasted on project buildings around the country, the image of the Lion Rabbit, reminds us of the lack of certainty that we must deal with; how well intentioned ideas can have dire consequences.
One Lion Rabbit image adorned the now demolished Cabrini Green projects in Chicago, which once housed 15,000 low income residents and became the stereotypical project home in America; a place that dealt with crime, gang violence, poor living conditions and complete neglect from landlords.
Just prior to our visit to Gaia’s studio, he had just done a show called “Blight”, a street art themed show, at my friend’s store front Gallery 788, in a neighborhood referred to as “Pigtown”. The quality of the show and the buzz surrounding Gaia, Nanook and the other artists involved, even attracted the attention of the Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, who surprisingly came to this long forgotten, drug riddled block of Baltimore to see the show. It was in this show, that Gaia would showcase his now famous painting of a man whose head has been interchanged with that of a rooster, opening his robe, to showcase a beautiful landscape. It was a remarkable image, powerful, confusing, unsettling, that created a sense of wonder for its audience. This was 2011, and while Gaia was known in the city, he was only starting to gain the attention of major institutions. In a year’s time, Gaia would be asked by Smith Commons, a restaurant in the newly popular H street corridor of Northeast Washington, for a mural to cover the entire exposed side of its building; he would decide to use the image of that painting in Pigtown.
The landscape within the robe of the figure, is an homage of sorts to the work of Albert Bierstadt and his wonderful late 19th Century paintings of Yosemite. Some say that the images of the Old West speak to the concept of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the US believed it had the right to expand its territory and influence throughout the whole continent; and while Gaia could very well be comparing the idea of Manifest Destiny against that of Gentrification, I think there is also something else here. The paintings of Bierstadt and also Thomas Moran helped people fall in love with the West, the images lead to the Conservation Movement and the establishment of National Parks and Wildlife Refuges; maybe Gaia wants us to see our environment again for the first time and see that it’s worth saving.
Gaia’s work is a collage of influences; from direct references to architects and city planners, to commentary on urban renewal and gentrification, to ideas on storytelling, symbolism and homages to art history; Gaia is creating his own myths, with his own characters, ones that can mean both what he intended and that which you want them to mean.
Three years following his mural at Smith Commons, entitled “Dusk of H Street", he would be listed in a Forbes magazine article about the top 30 artists under 30. His work, notoriety and accomplishments have continued to progress over the years, he now participates in projects in countries throughout the world. But I still remember the young MICA student, with the unusual hair, crouched on the floor, shuffling through his Lion Rabbit prints, to make sure he gave me a good one.