Saturday, 4 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - KEITH HARING: STREET ART BOY review


Telling the life story of Keith Haring, the enfant terrible street artist who found an extraordinary level of fame in the New York art scene of the 1980s, holding regular parties with celebrity friends like Michael Jackson, Grace Jones and Yoko Ono in attendance; this new documentary speaks to his family members and art world friends to uncover the genesis of his particular style of artwork.

If you don't know the name Keith Haring, you will probably still recognise the bold, graphic line drawings of his art from campaign posters, album covers and even as a backdrop to a Madonna tour. This film is largely composed of contemporary interviews with his friends and family; but also Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31, has a constantly present voice here, with excerpts taken from countless interviews (both audio and video) he did at the peak of his fame. Growing up in Pennsylvania, Haring would cut photos of The Monkees' Davy Jones out of the girl's magazines he was allowed to buy, and write anti Richard Nixon graffiti on local buildings using soap. Clear to all the Pennsylvania was not a big enough canvas for him, he moved to NYC in the late 70s to attend the School of Visual Arts, and to explore his sexuality in the gay nightlife of the East Village. Haring was an artist who, similarly to one of his idols who he would work with, Andy Warhol, knew the importance of exploring his own image; and so this doc makes use of a ton of archive photos and self-shot videos made by Keith in the early 80s.

Having taken inspiration from the graffiti artists that would spray paint on the sides of subway trains, he adapted this approach into something more befitting his style, using the subway system to travel from station to station, drawing his 'baby' and 'dog' cookie cutter outlines on the blank, black, unused advertising hoardings and gaining infamy among the many commuters who would see his work spring up every day. Whereas the graffiti artists (among them Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy, who are interviewed here) used the trains as a moving canvas, Keith Haring used the trains as a vessel to transport you through the art gallery he created across numerous subway station platforms. His style was simple in execution, but unique, bold and inventive.

What this doc tries to express is why Haring, who was a formally trained artist able to present his work in major exhibitions around the world, chose to include his artwork to walls and lampposts, gratis. He was among the artists who knew how his work could entertain and delight, but in the capitalist Reagan years of the 1980s, was not coy about making money from their artwork. He even went as far as creating 'The Pop Shop' to allow people to buy both mass produced and unique pieces of his art for a reasonable price  (he was prolific, popular and profitable); but he would also design murals on blank walls in his beloved New York to highlight his increasing activism as the 80s went on and his health began to worsen.

It's incredibly touching to see his now elderly parents display so much of the trinkets, drawings and art pieces they have kept and collected from their son. Even if they do seem to be completely baffled by some of the art, their pride in his achievements is clear. A moving, intimate study of an artist, with a poppy post-punk, Devo and B-52's infused soundtrack; a prior knowledge of Haring's work is not needed to appreciate his story or his cultural relevance, with his ability to create meaningful, impactful activist art especially resonant in these times.

Verdict
4/5

Keith Haring: Street Art Boy was available via the Doc/Fest Selects streaming platform, and is now available via the BBC iPlayer.

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