Colors erupting onto train cars and empty walls fill in his block letters, boldly pushing the words beyond the two-dimensional surface. This daring image identifies Optimist as the Bay Area-based tagger, painter, writer, graffiti artist. But last Saturday, October 8th, he tamed his after-hours wild style, moving his art indoors, in his show “Man, Animal and the Machines” at Old Crow Tattoo and Gallery in Oakland. Optimist revealed his fine art side to the world with eight canvases, each layered with images of industrial settings, transportation vehicles, animal heads and hard-hitting human portraits.
Those familiar with Optimist’s work would be surprised to see the sobered-up canvases, carefully planned and calculatedly painted. Optimist’s street artworks have been popping up around the Bay Area for the last 12 or 13 years, spelling out his name in electric hues applied in geometric and curvilinear strokes. The overall effect is a paradoxical combination of effortless spontaneity and in-your-face confidence.
Born in San Francisco and bred in Oakland, Optimist is not new to the Bay Area art scene, but this exhibition, his third solo show, marks his movement into fine art. He is a part of the growing trend of street artists bringing their works into galleries and other commercialized (and legal) spaces. While some artists take the transition literally, simply uplifting their street style and placing it within frames to be displayed and sold, Optimist takes a different approach to his evolution, straying far from his own street style.
Although Optimist’s street-minded sensibility lurks somewhere below the surface in these recent works, his fine art possesses a much cooler demeanor and also relays a deliberate message. All the pieces are acrylic on brown butcher paper and adhere to a similar composition. His piece “Green-Haired Girl,” depicts a tiger’s head, dinosaur skull, industrial crane, half an RV and half a packed cargo ship all layered behind the head of a green-haired girl in red thick-framed glasses. In the center of the canvas, the six objects come together in a point of union, representing the ever-changing overlapping relationships between man, animal and machine.
While the images hold societal significance when taken together, the individual images draw from his own experiences and observations. The spray-painted metro bus, graffiti artist and Transamerica building link to his Bay Area roots, while the Chinese characters and boys lugging trash on their bikes are reminiscent of his three years in Taiwan, where he moved when he was 24. Optimist projects his own surroundings right onto the canvases, making them directly relatable to the audience and to the artist himself. The viewer is granted a moment to look at things from Optimist’s point of view.
This is especially true in the piece “Inside Light, Invisible Lights.” The viewer becomes a spectator spying on a graffiti artist spraying his art onto the blank brown canvas. The familiar images of a bus and metro car, each driving towards opposite ends of the painting, further draw the reader into the scene. Optimist adds comic relief and shock value in the form of a giant pig’s head, preventing the composition from becoming too profound or stuffy.
Optimist’s works are crisp, witty and aesthetically interesting. Each canvas fuses local and worldly influences, and incorporates the unplanned strokes of a graffiti artist with a realistic, deliberate painter sensibility. Well established in the Bay Area street art scene, Optimist is driving his fresh, inspired compositions straight into the intersection of street art and fine art.