Editors Note: When museums and movie theaters were shuttered in March, The Metropole suspended its reviews of shows and films relevant to urban history. As we make our tentative way back to museums, some just beginning to re-open, we may encounter a changed city. The anxiety, frustration, and sometimes sheer rage following months of pandemic confinement has given rise to street art ranging from crude and vulgar defacements to pandemic-inspired works calculated to mock, inform, and delight. Though critic Lee Michael Klein has covered high art at the Venice Biennale and Miami Art Basel, he also maintains a keen appreciation for street happenings. He submitted this report on Glasgow’s Rebel Bear, hoping that it may inspire readers to report on what happens as their towns and cities come alive or at least continue to cope.
By Lee Michael Klein
The anonymous artist often referred to as the “Scottish Banksy” paints street murals in a pink bear costume. He has come to be known as “The Rebel Bear.”
This ursine character has brought great joy to Glaswegians during the highs and lows of the pandemic. His insightful tableaus shed light on what it means to be alive during a fearful time. The Rebel Bear first gained public attention and later renown with Fear and Love in which a couple drops their masks just enough to engage in a kiss. We imagine Prince singing “Dig, if you will, the picture of you and I engaged in a kiss…Can you my darling, Can you picture this?” Score one for The Rebel Bear who has given us a wonderful moment on the wall of a tenement house.
Wishing to “provoke hope” the Bear then struck on Glasgow’s famed Ashton Lane, with a painting of a nurse forming a heart with her hands. Here we are walking with the Bear on the tightrope between fear and love.
Covid or not, the Bear has ranged beyond Glasgow, stopping here and there, leaving work in Calais and London. Finding himself in Brooklyn, the hippest and least-affordable borough next to Manhattan, the non-hibernating Bear painted Rotten Apple. It is a statement on sky-high New York City real estate prices, waning public funding, and tax breaks for the superrich. In the satiric piece in Bushwick, the title “The Big Apple,” is crossed out with the word “Rotting” appearing above as a fat cat sits atop the apple gnawed down to the core. A downtrodden man sits at the bottom of the core, in utter dejection.
To prove that he not only leaves no scone unturned, but also no croissant unbuttered, the Bear ventured across the English Channel to create in the entry port of Calais a work appropriately concerned with immigration. In “No Hope” a girl in hijab and middle-aged overweight British gentleman in union jack shorts together grip a can of beer. We leave its meaning to you and your imagination.
The Bear may be distinguished from Banksy not only artistically, but also financially. To protest the insane profits of the art world, Banksy will publicly shred receipts from the sale of his work at auction. But the Bear is not averse to a buck or a few quid. His works are for sale at a multitude of online galleries and at his own internet outposts. We cannot say how posterity will value these, but right now we can say that they show the terror, joy, and rage of those living through a plague. These works may be hard to value, but what we have before us is no mean thing.
Keep your eyes open, focused on the street and oh yeah, the wall that awaits!
Lee Michael Klein has written for Performing Arts Journal (PAJ), L’Etage Magazine, M: the New York Art World, and NYArts. He was a contributing editor to NIGHT and A Gathering of Tribes, a literary journal. For the Florence Lynch Gallery in Chelsea, he curated shows on hypertexture as it applies to the plastic arts. Klein’s “World’s Biggest Shopping Mall Poem,” (Linear Arts, 1997) may be viewed by appointment at the Beinecke, Yale University’s rare book and manuscript library. Klein has long been recognized as among the most freewheeling and irreverent of New York City tour guides.
Featured image (at top): Covid-19 graffiti by The Rebel Bear, Glasgow. Daniel Nasczk (April 2020), Wikimedia Commons.