At KEMP Gallery, Street Art Comes in From the Cold

Even just a few years back, Steve Kemp would have been wary of opening a street-art gallery. The marketplace was wobbly. People had shallow pockets.

But when, more recently, Kemp was offered a small space on South Frederick Street, in the heart of the city’s gallery and auction-house district, not far from the Oriel Gallery, Adam’s and Whyte’s, he decided now is the time.

The market is a little more settled, he says, and street art is beginning to be acceptable.

The Right Time

KEMP Gallery opened two weeks ago, and Kemp’s mission statement is pretty much as you would expect: to put street art on the market and showcase the work of Dublin’s urban paint-slingers.

On a Saturday afternoon at the gallery, Kemp offers a quick “thanks” to a visitor on the way out of the door.

“For about two minutes I had doubts,” says Kemp. “But if it’s not going to me, it’s going to be someone else pretty soon.”

On display, and for sale, are original works by RASK, DMC and ADW, amongst others. Before the gallery opened, each artist arrived to spray paint the walls to accompany their original canvases. The idea behind it, besides an urban effect, was to show that street art can be transferred to the canvas.

For Kemp, that each work was created using spray paint marks a break with the traditional gallery show in Dublin. And after all, streets artists need to pay their rent too.

Artist DMC at work. Image courtesy of KEMP Gallery.

“I don’t think I’m reinventing the wheel or anything,” he says. “I just think the artists deserve a platform to display their work and the public deserve an opportunity to be hanging this kind of art in their homes.”

RASK has been tagging streets globally for the best part of two decades. His brightly coloured signature has been sprayed on walls from Miami to Belfast. Dermot McConaghy, or DMC, is best known for his Dublin works, most notably Saudade on Chancery Street. ADW has a reputation for humorous outdoor projects.

When these artists move from the street to the gallery, though, it’s unclear what makes it still street art.

Street Art? Urban Art? Or Something Else?

Kemp says he often finds gallery shows intimidating and will have an open-house policy. No pressure to buy, just a chance to appreciate works without having to shuffle off the street for a passing car or eager photographer.

“The purpose is not for me to take it off the streets forever,” he says. “Some people can come and view it and buy it, or just come and view it with a roof over their heads.”

With seven works for sale, Kemp has attempted to make street art defined less by where it than by a style, which, he says, “can stand beside anything else that’s being produced in the country and hold its own.”

He’s still trying to figure out a term for the works on display. Urban art, perhaps, rather than street art. That might be closer, he says. He’s wary of pigeon-holing though, as he feels any set criteria for display leaves him in danger of becoming elitist.

“To sell work, there has to be some kind of compromise,” he says. “But most of the lads do gallery work, or have done.” The days of hoodies in the darkness being chased by the Garda are over in Dublin, says Kemp. Street art has been elevated, almost become mainstream.

In 2013, RASK created work for the 2013 Art Basel at Miami Beach, a fair where international art dealers display and sell works by the artists they represent. This week in London, Maser opens Orbiting on the Periphery. Showing at the Lazarides gallery until 5 May, Steve Lazarides was Banksy’s agent until 2009.

This attention led Kemp to believe it’s time for Dublin to have its own space to appreciate, and purchase, the work of those trained down alleys and on street corners. Each work, including one by Kemp himself, is priced between €1,500 and €1,600. Like street art itself, they’re all large and loud.

Kemp had prepped himself for a handful of people to show up on opening night, but he reckons around 200 passed through the gallery’s doors. He’s aware that street artists, often unseen and unheard, are not immediately creatures to mingle and hopes the art will speak for itself.

“You have to respect and appreciate that everyone’s different,” he says. “Some people have built their identity on being low-key and being incognito so if they wish to remain like that, that’s their own business and I would never impinge on their personal wishes in that regard.”

It’s certainly a change from the usual gallery-going. Kemp wants to imbue a punk ethos within the space and lets visitors know immediately what it’s all about with the words painted at the entrance: “Regard the Art, Disregard the Rules!!”

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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