Banksy street art finds a home in Oklahoma City
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK / LOOKatOKC
Rarely does this much come from a game of H-O-R-S-E.
In fall 2012, Oklahoma City’s James Nghiem, a comedian, musician, and writer, planned an art show loosely based on the elementary basketball game. Each artist’s piece had to have a title that corresponded to one of the letters in the game. Nghiem said a visual artist friend of his had lamented a lull in her productivity, and he planned the art show partly as encouragement to spur her to create a piece for it.
Oklahoma City artist Mike Allen, then a casual acquaintance of Nghiem’s, submitted art for that show, and the two struck up a friendship. Shortly afterward, Nghiem relocated to Los Angeles for a while, and upon his return, he, along with Allen, found new inspiration in their shared interests and specifically in a type of gathering of pop culture aficionados he experienced in Los Angeles that he couldn’t find here.
“These shows totally started because I was depressed that California had something that Oklahoma didn’t,” Nghiem said, recalling a “Ninja Turtles” art show he saw while he was living in Los Angeles. “I have a lot of talented friends who don’t get a lot of opportunities to express themselves. I just want to see cool things happen and be involved in them in an invisible way.”
Nghiem, along with Allen and in partnership with the venue, started a series of themed art shows at 51st Street Speakeasy. The video game “Street Fighter” was the concept for one, the next was based on Japanese animated series “Cowboy Bebop,” and the last borrowed elements from the films of Wes Anderson.
“James and I have long, winding conversations when we hang out, which sometimes lead to an idea,” Allen said. “We try to steer away from subjects that are too popular or too niche, but really nothing is off the table. I’m still shocked that so many people are into ‘Cowboy Bebop’ in this city.”
On Saturday, this creative conglomerate opens “Enter Through the Drink Shop,” a curated gallery show featuring the work of several area artists tasked to create pieces inspired by mysterious London street artist Banksy.
Allen, a longtime visual artist, said his submitted pieces for the Speakeasy shows have been different from his other work. “I have made a conscious effort to shed my normal style for these in order to fit the theme,” Allen said. “I’ve found that what I trade away in freedom of subject matter, I get back in freedom from expectation.”
Nghiem agrees about what the Banksy theme offers artists that other shows may not have: “Freedom. I think this theme is a lot more open-ended. I want people to say what they want in their pieces.”
The shows also push the boundaries of what visitors may expect from an ordinary art gallery: themed food menus, performance artists in character and live music are on tap for the Banksy show. The aim is more to create an environment based around the theme than to just have sterile art viewings, though the art itself is garnering attention as well.
“Someone from Allied Arts told me we have amazing pieces and is interested in a lot of our artists. That felt validating,” Nghiem said. “Also, the Speakeasy rearranged their space to have more of a gallery vibe upstairs for us. I’ve been doing comedy there for seven years, and I never thought they would do something like this for a project, especially something that isn’t my specialty.”
Nghiem may consider himself a comedian first, but his social experiments are sparking a considerable amount of creative interaction from those around him, visually and socially. “I like to use pop culture to try and get people to experience other culture. It’s a good way to put bands and artists in good situations and get people talking to one another,” Nghiem said. “It’s not really anybody’s job to facilitate this, but it’s better than living in a state where no one talks.”
From the artists’ side, Allen said, “A theme ‘levels the playing field,’ because it’s likely that most artists who submit, whether established or not, are trying something new.”
For people interested in participating in upcoming shows, Nghiem and Allen want everyone to know the door is open — and dedication and interest can trump perceived skill level.
“If I could just get people who live here to believe in themselves as much as I believe in them, we can really make something,” Nghiem said.