Michael ‘KAVES’ McLeer is a man of faith.
For McLeer (b. Brooklyn, 1969), faith and spirituality are derived not from a theistic higher power but froma rich fabric of personal memories firmly anchored to a sense of place. That place has always been but one:Brooklyn. McLeer’s work has continually been inspired by the crumbling, many-faced Brooklyn of the 1970s and 1980s in which he was born and raised.
McLeer has carried memories of this place in time and spent years recounting them as a kind of folklorethrough the formats of graffiti, music, and painting. He began making artwork in his early teens illegallyspray painting subway trains, buses, and handball courts. This instilled in him a tendency of capitalizing onbold lines, high contrast, and fast mark-making. Graffiti also functioned as a form of storytelling and socialcommentary. It was a citywide bulletin board, a system of communication, and a platform for the youth forthe development of individual fable.
This tradition culminates here. Frenetic blacks, whites, and grays pulsate across sheets of canvas. Closerinspection reveals they are formed by words and sentences. McLeer mines memories and scrawls theirimpressions in mantra-like repetition. He urges us and himself to give in to discord; revelations often layunder the surface. The series of gestural vistas conveys the solace that was to be found in the brick andconcrete labyrinth of McLeer’s childhood neighborhood of Bay Ridge. Urban decay had become a forest ofunexpected beauty and solitude. Contained within it were both the claustrophobic quarters of working-classapartment living and the sprawling mazes of girders underneath the Verrazano Bridge- a makeshiftplayground for trespassing neighborhood children. The enormous inner chambers of its anchoragesswallowed them- vast industrial caverns, unidentifiable ceilings fading into darkness. Shadowed walls werecanvases to practice painting with a spray can. Its narrow catwalks, shuddering with passing cars andsuspended hundreds of merciless feet above water, became a jungle gym from which to steal pigeon eggs.Larger than life was the world around them. Faraway views offered by apartment building rooftops thrustupon them a sense of scale and a possibility to thrive beyond socioeconomic oblivion. Subway trains weresteel behemoths from which to learn the letterforms of graffiti- a Sunday school scripture.
In this seminal group of new works, McLeer is at once the fable-weaver sitting at the fire and theparishioner praying at the pew. The series is meditative both in its method of application and in its functionof purging through visual storytelling. It is the result of recollecting a youth spent within concretecathedrals, and recounting the mix of real and mythical which accompanied it. In this world, local legendswere martyrs and deities. Daydreams and artistic expression were salvation. McLeer’s body of work hasroutinely endeavored to recount these experiences as both folkloric on the one hand, and on the other,intrinsic to the historical fabric of Brooklyn. From his youth writing graffiti, to his years of songwriting andperforming hip hop, to the current era, McLeer has often addressed personal tragedies and joys of urban lifeand related them as part of the greater narrative of a city.
McLeer lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. His work has been featured in the Gunter Sachs Museum of Fine Arts in Germany, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, The Blackstone Hotel inChicago, Illinois, as well as Henry Chalfant’s acclaimed 1984 book Spraycan Art and countless other graffitibooks.
Words by Bella Kozyreva