Musings on the Transient Nature of Found Art in New York City

Written by Barton Lewis
Photos by Barton Lewis

As a photographer who documents found and accidental art on the street and in the subways of New York, I’m conscious of how my work doesn’t fit neatly into the categories of street art or street photography. I don’t photograph people, which is what most street photographers do, and I don’t photograph murals, which is the most popular form of street art. My work intersects with other disciplines and genres within art and photography, including abstraction, environmental art, appropriation art, fine art, and collage.

I found my niche in 2018, after making short, experimental films about the urban landscape and natural light.  After seeing my film about the wall cuts (ad panels) in the subway, a collector asked me why I didn’t shoot them as large-format photographs.  I headed back into the system, with a newly acquired DSLR.  The panels lent themselves to life-size reproduction; many were layers deep with ads and had been languishing for years – some for decades. Subway artists cut and tore the ads, creating dense collages, and paper curled and decayed.  The effects were wide-ranging, from bold and graphic collages to exquisitely delicate and detailed surfaces of torn and deteriorating paper.

My excursions underground led me to search for similar surfaces on the street.  Soon I discovered ad campaigns on construction fences and building facades.  Like the wall cuts, these artworks were ad-based, but unlike those officially sanctioned campaigns, they were products of wild posting or wheatpasting, a form of guerilla marketing.

I also discovered sticker art, as it found its way onto doors and the large, muddy green mailboxes known as relay boxes, used by postal workers as temporary deposits in their rounds. Sticker art – really miniature versions of the posters placed in panels and on walls – began life as a simple marketing tool for artists, but evolved into a critique of ads, brands and logos that also celebrates ads, brands and logos.

As someone who embarked upon a journey of personal self-discovery in the period after COVID, I was pleased to discover how my art reflected my spiritual wanderings.  Specifically, meditation made me aware of the transitory nature of thoughts and feelings and the value of impermanence.  My artworks – or rather, the subjects I document – are physical manifestations of these concepts, constantly mutating into obsolescence.

My work as a photographer is to document the visual fabric of city life, and in the process, to expand the definition of what constitutes art, how it is made, and where it appears. What follows is a selection of my work, and what I think are the interesting or salient aspects of each piece.

 

I photographed this wall cut at the Fourth Ave. station in Brooklyn in 2022. I thought someone did a terrific job tearing layered posters to create a dynamic collage. A film (Invictus), TV show (The Mandalorian), Broadway musical (Frozen), and video game (Brink) are among the ads displayed, with the earliest occurring in 2009 (Invictus) and the latest (The Mandalorian) in 2019. 

 

This quartet of ads, at the 14th St.-8th Ave. subway station, was skillfully transformed by an anonymous street artist.  The same Timberland ad had been hung throughout the station (with others), but by tearing the same sections of each poster, distinct artworks emerged.  I liked how the artist’s interventions mirrored the poster’s minimalist design and underlined the contrast between the ad’s uniformity and its individuation as artworks.

 

 

This wall cut, from the Church Ave. station in Brooklyn, is the product of a very different kind of transformation.  No street artist may have been involved, just the passage of time and the slow, delicate unfurling and curling of paper.

 

 

 

As with the Timberland ads above, this construction fence – or sidewalk shed – communicates visual pleasure through repetition and variation, as 2 ads are serially hung and subjected to individual transformations through organic decay or human tearing, though it’s not clear which (maybe both?).

 

This door on Avenue C on the Lower East Side was a riot of sticker art when I discovered it in 2018.  Stickers advertising artists’ websites, 24 hour locksmiths, political positions (“Kick Out the GOP in 2018!”), and a recipe for butternut squash, to name a few, alternated with the slaps of well-known sticker artists like Twazzo and Bines. 

In the Spring of this year, Daylight Books is publishing a photobook of my work, entitled The Many Pleasures: Found Art in New York City.  The hardbound book is 9” x 9”, 118 pages, with four foldout images of panoramic fences, panels and walls – one measuring five feet wide.  Kathleen Hulser, a noted public historian and curator who has held positions at the New York City Transit Museum and The New-York Historical Society, contributes an essay discussing public space and its use by advertisers and street artists to create images with different and even competing agendas, as well as advertising’s role in international art movements of the mid-late 20th and 21st centuries.

I’m running a Kickstarter ending Jan. 31 to fund my share of the publishing costs, and offering as rewards signed copies of the book, as well as open and limited-edition prints.

Barton Lewis is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and photographer whose current work centers around features and fixtures of the street and subway transformed by street artists and organic decay. His photography showed in an exhibit at Gallery 85, in Google’s New York headquarters, from February through July 2023; in The Indian Photo Festival, in Hyderabad, in October 2022; and at the Barcelona Foto Biennale, the same month. His work was featured in the May-June 2023 issue of The Harvard Business Review. Before turning to photography in 2018, Barton made films about natural light and the urban landscape. His films have been shown in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Szczecin, Poland and elsewhere in the US and Europe.

Website – bartonlewis.com