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One Foot on the Sidewalk, Another
in the Brain

David Lindsay, New York Press, 1994


Behind the counter, three identical telecasters mime the news in expressions of grave concern. Cassandras of the flickering light, prophets of the rumor mill - what audience they have is slumped over vapid magazines, invaded by a virus of idle contentment. Not that we’re here to parse the finer points of the News Bar (366 W. Broadway at Broome St., 343-0053). We’re just stoking a smart cup before venturing into the fray, out where the culuture pilgrims are coursing onward.
And coursing over our subject at that. Late last night, Elyasaf Kowner repainted the stencil on the sidewalk outside - three pump shoes, his moniker and the slogan, ETERNAL FAITH IN GLAMOUR - and now the legions of 3-D Reeboks are pummeling it without mercy. In the next three or four months, the forces of tourism will grind it to dust.
“It’s funny,” says Kowner as a stray journeyman slows down to puzzle over the piece. “None of them come here to see art. But they see my shoes.”
With thoughtful eyes and an unreconstructed smile, the Israeli-born artist hardly looks the part of a fashion designer, never mind the mastermind of an ironic ad campaign that, over the past year, has become a visible grain in the downton masaic. He measures his words carefully. He seems ready to rescind his opinion in the face of a sensible argument. If you saw him during daylight, you probably wouldn’t assume he was up to anything unusual. You’d think he was a student, or maybe a particularly gentle bike messenger.

Then again, being inconspicuous can only help in his line of work, which has to be accomplished after-hours. “You get scared from both sides,” he says when I ask him about this. “On the one hand, you’re afraid about the cops, and then you’re also afraid about the other people on the street. I usually dress like a homeless person so no one will bother me.”
It’s got to be a harrowing way to sell the sizzle. Picture Calvin Klein, dappered and lathered and ready for the ball, trying to slap a poster to the side of a bus stop while someone who thinks of prison as a vacation pukes at his feet. Then imagine that his product doesn’t exist. There are no plans to create things that people will buy. There is no markup, no insidious clause designed to scrape the last tattered dollar from your groin. These are the trimmings that Kowner has conveniently left out of his project. Like Christof Kohlhofer, whose Vogue interzone is an end in itself, he’s forsaken the tangible for the perfume of pure belief. With the added kick that he’s doing so in locations that Weegee would have loved.
How you feel about this campaign without a correlation depends a lot on whether you’re on to it. Those who believe that a Kowner shoe line actually exists - and there are more of these people than I had expected - are likely to view the stencils as just another addition to an already logo-logged biosphere, bad if you hate that kind of thing, good if you love it. As one who’s ever on the lookout for critiques of fictitious nevelists and trailers of unmade movies, I didn’t have this problem, but I can understand how some people might, and I told Kowner as much.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s not narrow enough,” admits Kowner before lapsing into silence. I begin to worry that I’ve shut him up before the interview has even begun. The day is screaming blue into our eyes, The telecasters point to a nondescript border.
“Come on,” he says, draining his cup. “I want to show you some stuff.”
To walk the streets of Soho with Kowner is to discover the Soho that still exists underneath. As we jostle throuth the herd, he singles out what I would normally consider to be inscrutable scrambles of paint secreted by late-night pigeon terrorists, Egyptian moon surfers, the odd necrophiliac passing through. Somehow, though, he makes these squibs seem approachable.
He can spot the unexpected one, too. We’re dodging our way along Prince St. when he stops dead in his tracks and homes in on a dilapidated cardboard box lying next to a street vendor’s wares. On the side of the box is a finely detailed stencil of a businessman berreling off to work, handsome briefcase leading the charge. I would never have noticed it in a million years.
“Did you do this?” he asks.
“I did,” replies the vendor in a full-bore Northern Irish accent. “I started out with this idea of homeless people living in boxes and such, and then I thought about these very American images. I couldn’t believe how easy it all was.”
Each yes, but depending on your choice of surface maybe not so permanent. Before jumping to the sidewalk and getting noticed by nearly everyone, Kowner did a slew of anonymous wall stencils - the NIGHT ART bat, the POST NO BILLS / CREATIVITY KILLS series on Houston St., even some hand painted one-offs. He still does these kind of pieces on occasion, though not as much as he used to, because wall art gets covered up so fast. “You work so hard, and for what?” he sighs. And indeed, as we round a corner, one of the wall pieces he wanted to show me has been replaced by a gleaming coat of avocado enamel.
Fortunately, we can’t dwell on this particular tragedy, because the crowd, with its eternal faith in glamour, has caught us in its undertow again. In fact, the hordes have become all consuming, and suddenly we’re being pushed inexorably along, buoyed by the urges and the currents and the mandate of merchandise. Kowner is visibly fatigued by the ordeal. “Oh my God, I hate people,” he blurts. “No. That’s not true. I don’t hate anybody, but it’s just so...”

In lieu of an adjective, we break away from the main thoroughfares, and abruptly the city is quiet again. From here on in, we skirt the edges of Soho, inspecting the multi-textured walls on Grand, Broome, Hester, Crosby. Our pace slows, and our reference points begin to fade. When we come across a 1951 college yearbook, unattended and perfectly intact, I begin to have the feeling that I’m in a foreign land. Glee clubs. Sororities. Women named Myrtle with misshapen heads.
Farther on, we stop to study a patch of peeling posters and begrimed hieroglyphs. Layers upon layers of chickenscratch, both insipid and inspired, cake the surface. “Hey, do you see those skulls?” he askes me. “I never saw them before. Those are really great. ” He shakes his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe I never saw those skulls before.”
As evening sets in, we park ourselves on a loading dock and drift into a more general conversation. I tell him that I once imagined a New York in which everyone looked down and communicated solely but what was written on their shoes. “So I guess we’ve thought about some of the same things,” I suggest.
“That’s weird,” he says, his inner cogs engaging. “Somehow that seems very sad. Almost, like, I don’t know - that people look down so much. Maybe you could write about that.”
We nod, and I make a point of looking at the sky. A thin strip of cumulus, slamon trimmed, drifts high above us like a much too obvious clue. It’s an elusive splendor, the payoff somewhere beyond, a decision to promise fog. Beauty covers New York, just for a moment, and then it’s gone.

New York Press, October 28, 1994


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