A Palette’s Palate
Photography by Stéphane Brügger
Graffiti art can be a difficult sell. For many, the term is simply an oxymoron for visual vandalism, at best a lazy if annoying lashing out of juvenile angst, at worst a beggaring of the quality of the built environment at everyone else’s expense. For others it represents an invigorating forum for the disenfranchised to challenge complacent society in general or its socially bowdlerized art industry in particular.
Such practitioners as the U.K.’s enigmatic Banksy, whose stenciled graphics are often simultaneously biting satire, amusing contradictions and even imbued with gently whimsical twists, has proven ironically quite commercial. Cities like Toronto have sanctioned “curated” graffiti and sometimes even commission works. Before Banksy, New York’s Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work now sells in the double digit millions, galvanized appreciation of chaotic graffiti infused with a Black/Latino sensibility.
Montréal’s recently revitalized W-Hotel restaurant, Être avec toi (Ê.a.t.) relies heavily on Basquiat-like graffiti art applied directly to wall surfaces but mixed with some 120 canvass-based paintings, some from artists who have transitioned from street to gallery. But rather than a set piece, the restaurant is about evolving over time. “We opted for a project that was less about architecture and more about art and events,” says Jean Pelland, principal at Montréal-based Sid Lee Architecture. “We wanted to create an event space rather than a design driven environment.”
A collaboration with MASSIVart, a creative brand agency under Arthur Gaillard’s curatorial direction, the restaurant’s art is both transient (the “graffiti” may disappear after a year as the restaurant’s design evolves) and emerging. With many unpainted canvasses installed in the dining areas, street artists such as Alan Ganev, Jason Botkin, Bonar and Labrona have been producing new paintings while patrons dine. At writing, 25 per cent of the canvases remain blank. Even Ê.a.t’s music harmonizes with the powerful visuals with DJs crafting unique soundtracks played while artists work and clients dine. To round it off, waiters, trained to act as “artistic mediators” answering questions about the artistic content, are dressed by Montréal fashion designer Travis Taddeo.
While much of the restaurant’s original form was retained, highly textured surfaces such as oyster shell finishes on columns were stripped back, some walls were removed with others painted white and windows were uncovered. It was a process of creating what Pelland calls a “white out canvas space.” To reflect Montréal’s edgy culture with its deeply ingrained symbols and countless murals, artists WIA (aka Whatisadams) and Stikki Peaches (Montréal’s own anonymous Banksy) collaborated to create mixed media collages applied directly to the wall surfaces. Their contributions rework some of their best known images including both iconic hockey greats and “hockey hooligans” (Stikki), Pure Maple Sizzurp Cans (WIA) and street art portraits of famous composers (Stikki). Every wall from the entrance right up and including the bars is packed with these two artists. Some may be temporary; others may be “redeployed” into other buildings.
Illustrator and artist Jason Wasserman has inscribed large communal tables with cheeky images inspired by comic books, fantasy art and vintage illustration. Jason Cantoro’s curving “colour fields” embracing the restaurant’s booths may consist of dynamic printed shards of colour but they provide an almost restful counterpoint to the creative chaos of the layered urban street art.
“The era of dark dining is shifting toward a more intellectual approach,” concludes Pellard. “[Ê.a.t.] may be temporary; but it is not just an ephemeral stopgap, it is an unfolding event.”