By PAUL LASTER, October 2019
A native New Yorker, Greg Lamarche expresses the vitality of urban living in everything he creates. One of the city’s legendary graffiti artists, Lamarche is now best known for his cut paper collages, which regularly appear in gallery exhibitions, news editorials and brand campaigns.
Blurring the boundary between fine art and graphic design, his collages employ some of the same inventive techniques as his graffiti once did. Through the use of bold color, movement, fragmentation, layering, rhythmic repetition and negative space, he creates crisp, clean artworks that speak to multiple audiences.
Born in 1969 to parents who had a serious interest in art, Lamarche started writing graffiti and making collages at age 11. Inspired by the tags he saw on the graf-covered walls behind his elementary school and the flyers his mother made for neighborhood events, he began developing the dual artistic interests that he continues to pursue in different ways today.
One of Lamarche’s earliest memories of experiencing contemporary art was a viewing of Red Grooms’ popular Ruckus Manhattan exhibition in 1975. A public art project, it recreated such famous landmarks as the Staten Island Ferry, Brooklyn Bridge and the 14th Street Subway Station with painted and sculpted models that comically captured the daily hustle-and-bustle of the city.
By the time Lamarche started making his own urban art in 1981, his parents were taking him to museums and galleries like Graffiti Above Ground for inspiration and soon carving out a studio space for him to make art at home. Before long he was visiting the East Village’s radical Fun Gallery and the edgy SoHo gallery spaces of Tony Shafrazi and Gabrielle Bryers to meet graffiti writers on his own.
His first graffiti tag was Spankey, which he later reduced to Spy. But he soon settled on Sp.One, which he continuously drew to perfect his style and started tagging in the subways and streets while attending the High School of Music & Arts. After graduating, he studied fine art and graphic design at Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, traveled across the States with spray paint in hand and then moved to Boston in 1992, where he founded the graffiti magazine Skills, which he published for the next three years.
Produced in a completely analog manner, Skills was a visual montage of contributed snapshots of graffiti-bombed trains, trucks and vans and was peppered with interviews of up-and-coming graf artists of the day. It was the golden age of graffiti art, and while Lamarche was honing his skills on the street—moving from just bombing his tag to building a brand with the production of complex wall pieces—he was also sharpening his style of cut-and-paste collage, which paralleled the energy and motion of the street.
“Some of my earliest letter collages are based on my tag, but then they evolved to collages of related phrases,” Lamarche told Juxtapoz Magazine in 2007. We clearly see the artist’s tag in the 2005 collage Untitled (Sp.One Series) and can chart an evolution of his phrasing in such cut paper pieces as Ah Yes (2005), Develop-Destroy (2005), Old Habits Die Hard (2008) and The New Hustle (2008), as well as in the wooden letter assemblage W.T.F.I.G.O. (2012).
“Graffiti made me look at letters and think about them in a totally different way. Color, composition, movement, layering and repetition all play huge parts to developing letters and the creative possibilities are endless,” Lamarche told Ghettoblaster Magazine in 2011.
Although he had started to show his collages in galleries in Boston, he decided to move back to New York in 1995. Getting a job as an art handler, he found himself looking at fine art as often as he was spending time in the graffiti and developing street art worlds. The collages of the German Dada artist Kurt Schwitters and American Surrealist Joseph Cornell, who spent most of his life making work in Queens, had long been an influence, but Lamarche was also drawn to the minimalist canvases of Ellsworth Kelly and maximalist hybrid paintings of Frank Stella.
Kelly’s command of color and simple geometric forms can be seen as inspiring Lamarche’s collages like Corner Cluster (2005) and Cut Corners (2010), while Stella’s dynamic mix of bold paint and cut metal shapes in his Exotic Bird Series could be pegged as impacting Lamarche’s Untitled (2013) and Summer in the City (2014) works on paper.
Further exhibitions of the collages in galleries led to Lamarche getting commercial work. He established his art and design practice in 2000—spending part of his time on graphic design work and as many studio hours as possible making letter and colored shape collages. The collages would often get scaled-up to make big paintings and murals, even as he additionally experimented with assemblage and other forms of torn paper collage.
Over the past two decades, he has produced cut paper designs for everything from t-shirts, posters and skateboard decks to book and album covers, wrapping paper and shopping bags for such companies as J. Crew, Shake Shack and Bloomingdales, while creating illustrations for major media outlets like New York Magazine and The New York Times.
His mural projects have also been in demand. Since painting his iconic Coney Island mural for Creative Time’s The Dreamland Artists Club in 2004, Lamarche has created colorful murals for Facebook, Nike, IBM and numerous galleries and art fairs. His clever use of the words Think and Out Think made for playful wall paintings related to IBM’s longstanding “Think” campaign, while his massive painting for the Mural Arts Philadelphia is a lively attraction in the city’s burgeoning Brewerytown neighborhood.
Lamarche’s torn paper collages, including Houston Street Station (2006), Hot and Heavy (2011) and City to City (2013), are inspired by chipped paint and ripped posters in New York’s decaying subway stations. He photographs and collects the crude chips, which he poetically sees as indicators of the passage of time from when he tagged the trains to his life as an artist now, and then studies them before making new works. Equally rich in art historical precedent, these painterly pieces recall the decollage works of the Nouveau Réalist artists Raymond Hains, Mimmo Rotella and Jacques Villeglé.
Never standing still, Lamarche continues to capture the zeitgeist of New York in new puzzle-like pieces, such as Life of the Party (2018). An accumulation of letters that he hand-cut from colored papers with an X-acto knife, the composition moves across a field of white paper like a diverse crowd of people. Mixing existing fonts with newly invented ones, he uses color and form to encapsulate a sense of moving through the city’s subways and streets while catching glimpses of fashions, cell phones and graffiti.
“Graffiti is the foundation and I am very much into expanding on it and not trying to be only one-dimensional,” Lamarche further shared with Ghettoblaster. “I know a lot of former graf writers will say, ‘I was young and stupid; I don’t do that anymore.’ I think that one should not deny or make excuses for the past but rather embrace your experience and build off of it. To me it is the spark that set you off and makes life exciting so even though I don’t get down like I used to I still get down.” WM
Greg Lamarche: All Good Things is on view at Trustman Art Gallery, Simmons University, Boston through November 1, 2019
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author