Brad Downey talks Spontaneous Sculpture in Atlanta

Berlin-based artist responds to the shape of cities with sculptural approach to street art

Last week, Berlin-based artist Brad Downey spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in the white cube of space that used to be Solomon Projects on Monroe Drive. For Living Walls Concepts, a scrappy nonprofit aimed at bringing international street artists to Atlanta, the acclaimed Downey was a not only a coup but also a refreshing change of pace. Although street artists are often seen only as painters, Downey is a sculptor who works in the same tradition of anyone holding a can of spray paint.

Downey’s talk consisted largely of showing a series of videos occasionally interrupted by his comments. This served as a survey of his career thus far, which can also be seen in his recent book Spontaneous Sculptures. He described an urban boredom (shops closed, broke, and without proper art supplies) that motivated his early forays into spontaneous sculpture. Downey played a few light, humorous videos: a rope sculpture of falling street trash that functioned like an urban Rube Goldberg machine; a series of odd rolling objects (a Yugo with skateboards under the wheels, a string of wind-up ducks pulling a spray can); and so forth. “So, the budget for those films was, like, nothing,” he said.

More interesting were the later films he screened that reveal his process. In one, he climbs construction scaffolding and cuts a building-size heart from the red exterior netting. “A month later, [the building owner] wrote me a letter saying how much he liked it,” he said, pausing. “I mean, after everything was paid back.” Downey’s work is very much defined by that unsanctioned approach.

Petty theft and minor vandalism are omnipresent in his films; there is always a feeling that you are watching an artist do something he isn’t supposed to be doing. Another film shows him lift a white brick from a construction site and then drag it on the sidewalk, leaving a white chalk-like line, until he has worn the brick into a new, crooked form, left to sit idly on the sidewalk. He punctuated this moment by announcing “Monument!” — but no one could have missed the point. We’d seen the entire process and the finished sculpture. This is work defined by the object’s relationship to the street.

Downey is clearly drawing on minimalist sculpture as much as graffiti in these pieces. He had a few unkind words to say about Carl Andre and Constantin Brancusi, but, if anything, that seems to come from a struggle to respond to those masters. One of the best pieces in Spontaneous Sculptures is “Ashtray Stack,” a black tower of aluminum ashtrays outside a building that immediately brings to mind Brancusi’s “Endless Column,” a sculpture currently on display at the High’s Picasso to Warhol exhibition. The effect is effortless, lovely homage.

Graffiti artists have repeated for decades the line about their work being a response to the language of advertising; that they’re drawing on the environment of billboards and posters that often define urban life. Sure, fine. What’s exciting about Downey’s sculptures is that he’s taking that notion and looking closer, responding to the sidewalks, lampposts, construction projects, and other physical language of city life. Atlanta could probably use a few more paintings on the walls and Living Walls will certainly keep working toward that, but Downey’s work suggests that we really look at the wall itself and see how to respond.

Spontaneous Sculptures by Brad Downey. Gestalten. $40. 128 pp.