Thierry Noir is the artist most famous for the cartoonish and colourful illustrations that he painted directly on to the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s. Elongated faces with cartoon lips set against blocks of bright colour were vivid splashes of paint against a concrete symbol of communist drabness and repression.
As a political statement, and a template for the street art movement that he partly inspired, Noir’s graffiti stood as a powerful assertion of creativity in opposition to oppression. Berlin at the time was a bastion of culture, its art and music immensely influential, and the time forever associated with the punk and avant-garde rock that its natives and many expatriate artists made in the interzone of the western part of the partitioned city.
For Jazz, at the Howard Griffin Gallery, Noir turns to this legacy and music more generally for inspiration, drawing his familiar figures strumming guitars and pounding drums on canvases and pieces of cardboard, packaged and ready for sale. Alongside the framed visual works and the 3D sculptural versions that are placed throughout gallery, Noir has also collaborated with artist-luthier Chris Tsonias to produce musical instruments that are shaped and painted like the figures from his paintings.
Under a large canvas reminiscent of a cartoon musical version of Matisse’s La Danse (1909) the apparently playable musical instruments are arranged in place with prices available on request. The concentration of images and the attention to detail on show is impressive, but like so much street art, when it’s taken out of its public context and placed in a gallery something fundamental is lost.
It’s an installation that is reminiscent of Keith Haring’s Pop Shop (1986), and Noir’s visual cues – brightly coloured block flat drawings of stretched heads and stooped postures – cover the gallery’s ceilings and floor, and the walls that hold the individual art works.
It is true that Noir shares much with Haring, in political resonance, bravery and bold style, but also in relentless marketability. For all of Haring’s cultural activism, his images are now plastered all over the t-shirts in Uniqlo. For all of Noir’s statements of liberty and artistic freedom, the opening drinks are poured from his own branded Hennessey bottles, the corporate sponsors of the show.
This is art from which the street has been stripped, and when that happens all that’s left are the images. Whilst impressive and immersive they are a little empty when placed in such a relentlessly commercial and sanitised environment.
Jazz by Thierry Noir is at the Howard Griffin Gallery, 189 Shoreditch High Street, E1 6HU until 26 July