It’s been ages since street art was of and for the streets: These days, star street artists move seamlessly from wheat-pasting and tagging in alleys to having their work displayed in museums. Ora Nwabueze hopes that his VeraCruz Gallery, opening Tuesday off the U Street corridor, will be a new stop in their career trajectories — he’s founding a space that will invite local and international street artists to install murals on the gallery’s walls on a rotating basis.
“I won't say [street art] is becoming more mainstream, but I think it is a function of artists and patrons wanting more of it, and people with spaces accommodating more of it,” Nwabueze says. VeraCruz is “specific in its focus on murals, but a logical extension of the quality of the work exploding.”
First on VeraCruz’s roster is local artist Brandon Hill who, amid the sound of sawing, the painting of glossy black baseboards and Lupe Fiasco’s “Superstar” turned up on the stereo, began installing the space’s first mural Thursday afternoon. Hill, who has previously exhibited at the G-40, the Lamont Bishop Gallery and a number of pop-ups and sometimes goes by the nickname “Babychickens” — bestowed upon him by his grandmother, he says — paints his murals both indoors and out.
“If there’s a wall that I can paint, then I paint it,” he says, having applied a base layer of blues and yellows that he described as “polyester tones.”
The second-floor space at 2106 Vermont Ave. NW will open to the public Tuesday at 7 p.m. in a soft launch. Nwabueze says the gallery will be filming time lapses of Hill’s and any future artists’ work to be displayed on flat-screen TVs so visitors can watch the murals in progress.
“When you get people engaged in the process, their curiosity piques a bit and they’re more interested in the work,” he says.
Nwabueze will run VeraCruz as a multipurpose creative space, similar to his other gallery in Columbia Heights, The Dunes, which hosts concerts, parties and screenings in addition to mounting exhibits. He has modeled it after art spaces he visited in Brazil, which incorporated food, restaurant and entertainment into their art programs. He says the space has obtained a liquor license, and will serve a Latin-inspired menu of beers, tequilas and tacos, which will be contracted out to local restaurants.
Inspired by the space’s Latin flavor, Hill spent Thursday evening plotting out a mural of a luchador, a Mexican wrestler, reaching for the sky. The mural and its accompanying 2-D pieces will have a 1960s’ “Mad Men” vibe, he says, “but like, bling.”
The work reflects his longtime interest in Mexican wrestling. “Before even ‘Nacho Libre’ came out, I was following up on the Blue Demon and El Santo. They were bigger than wrestling. . . . They were like Macho Man in the ’80s.”
“I get as crazy as I’m allowed to get,” says Hill, whose murals usually feature three-dimensional sculptural elements. “This is kind of minimal crazy, because they have a certain aesthetic.”
Mural artists, who may be more used to working outdoors, will face unfamiliar challenges when they install work in a space like VeraCruz. Hill says he was taking traffic flow near the bar into account, and was working to make sure his mural complemented the space without becoming a backdrop.
“I didn’t want to do something that was just wrapping the entire place, because it’s easy to get lost in something like that.” he says.
The gallery’s leadership — curator Peter Chang of the No Kings Collective and managing partner Justin Young of ReadySetDC — is experimenting with ways to sell the work of its featured artists. Nwabueze says they might make panels of the murals removable for collectors, and they will also offer separate, smaller works by the artists for sale. He says he does not plan to take a commission.
Hill’s and the gallery’s aesthetic aligns them with the DIY and lowbrow art movements, proponents of which are often featured in other area galleries such as Art Whino and The Fridge. It will not be a wine-and-cheese-every-first-Friday kind of place — instead, it’s a beer-and-tacos-and-party kind of place, and whether it will become better known for the latter or for its art remains to be seen. Regardless, Nwabueze says that just getting the art in the sightlines of his patrons will help raise the artists’ profiles.
“We have kind of turned a corner on what a gallery is,” Nwabueze says. “It is completely up for grabs.”