Michael De Feo's studio is tucked in a basement on one of the West Village's quiet side streets. Though it's underground, it's about the least gloomy basement I've ever been in; the space is illuminated by red and blue neon tubes, virtually all of its surfaces dotted with rainbow paint drips. Considering the motif that's persisted throughout De Feo's 25 year career as a street artist - flowers - it makes sense that his paintings begin their lives underground before blossoming out in the world.
After graduating from the School of Visual Arts, De Feo began making art on New York's streets. "The city was my playground, my canvas," he says. His first floral mural bloomed on the side of an East 23rd Street building in 1993; that flower line drawing has persisted throughout his work ever since, sprouting on Nolita dumpsters and Upper East Side construction sites.
Four years ago, De Feo began exploring these floral motifs in new ways - the unexpected and organic results of which comprise his new solo show, opening tonight at the Lower East Side's Danziger Gallery. De Feo first created a series of paintings in homage to 17th century Dutch Master works, and later worked with a brand on a series of scarves and handbags. At that same time, a friend gave him a master key to open up ad spaces at NYC bus shelters, a public service offered by his guerilla collective Public Access. "When he gave it to me, I hesitated to use it because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with it just yet; I wanted to make something that was important, something of value to me," De Feo explains.
He decided to create paper works to replace the fashion advertisements inside these shelters, and as a result, accumulated a collection of giant Chanel and Dior campaign images. "I decided to paint on those to see what it could result in, and found I liked what was happening aesthetically and conceptually when I interacted with the advertisements," De Feo says. He began putting them back inside the shelters, leaving viewers to question if these lush florals were part of the brand's original messaging. "When I couldn't find fashion ads I wanted to paint on the streets, I started buying fashion magazines and tearing out pages to paint on," De Feo explains. "It's all kind of snowballed from there."
The Danziger show follows exhibitions in Amsterdam (at The Garage), Paris (at the Urban Art Fair), and Houston (at Rice University, where De Feo enlisted a billboard printer to help create works that would fill a 16x40 foot glass wall). All of them have opened within the last three months. The NYC exhibition will treat its viewers to pastel pink bus shelter paintings and magazine pages coated in autumnal hues - some from recent issues of i-D, stacks of which are neatly piled in a corner of De Feo's studio ready to be plucked.
Ahead of tonight's opening, we caught up with De Feo to learn more about his unique takes on fashion and flower power.
Have you seen any changes or trends emerge in fashion advertising as you've interacted with more images?
Since I'm still so fresh to it, it's difficult to have a historical context. But I was surprised that I quickly started getting invitations from these companies that I was, essentially, defacing. I did the cover of the Neiman Marcus catalogue and an influencer campaign for Christian Louboutin's Instagram.
Do you spend time sketching your interventions to the photographs, or are things more intuitive?
I don't really plan ahead, the images I'm drawn to are based on gut feelings. Sometimes I'll pull colors out of the ads themselves and use them when I mix color for applying the paint. Because I've been doing this stuff on the street, I'm more interested with having a non-aggressive interaction with the ad. I don't want to completely mark up the ad and violate it; I want to do something that when a viewer encounters it, maybe they think that's how the ad is supposed to look. It kind of slips under the radar until they scratch their head and think about it.
But it's an interesting sort of idea that growing flowers are taking over a space - sprouting here and there, disappearing, and growing again. For me, the fashion world was something that I didn't know anything about, something that seemed impenetrable, but by infiltrating it by the way of doing, I found my way in. Which wasn't necessarily my intention. I get charged from working with the right types of people and when an exchange happens, some really beautiful things can happen.
You've got some great i-D paintings, especially the photographs of Adele. What first drew you to i-D?
I've only discovered you guys — and everyone else, for that matter — about a year ago. But I think it's very different from a lot of the other stuff that's out there, it pushes a lot of envelopes; it's sexy in such a different way. And it's been fun learning about the different avenues of creativity that exist within the fashion print world. I pull images from Vogue as well, but I'm interested in i-D because it doesn't look like that.
Do you have a favorite neighborhood or place to make work in New York?
Anywhere I can share it.
What do you hope people take from the work?
Typically, we don't question what we encounter on the street or even in the magazines, we just ingest it. So if people can think about what's there and see it in a new way, I'm happy. I'm having a lot of fun with what I'm doing and learning a lot while I'm doing it. I'm making stuff that I believe in; where it's gonna go from here is anybody's guess.
'Michael De Feo' is on view at Danziger Gallery through August 12, 2016. More information here.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Katie McCurdy