Inside D.C. entertainment

Gaia Mural Painted Over in Misunderstanding

August 9, 2010 - 03:21 PM
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Gaia Mural
Gaia's mural in happier days. Photo courtesy Irvine Contemporary

When Martin Irvine, director of the gallery Irvine Contemporary, discovered that the P Street NW Whole Foods had painted over an Irvine-commissioned giant mural by the artist Gaia in the alley behind its store, he first blamed NIMBY neighbors.

Irvine said that he had spoken to a manager at Whole Foods, who responded to a complaint about graffiti in the seldom-traversed alley behind the store.

“It’s unfortunate that [Whole Foods] reacted to a complaint without checking out what it was about,” Irvine told me. His assistant, Lauren Gentile, told Worn Magazine that the mural was legal, and commenters on the post bemoaned the “Whole Foods Fail.”

Turns out, they may have been a little too hasty, as well. A call to Jim Abdo, the property manager who has encouraged Irvine to let artists use many of his buildings as their canvases, revealed that the P Street Whole Foods is not an Abdo property. It's owned by Whole Foods, a representative for the corporation confirmed. (Steven McDermon, assistant store team leader for Whole Foods, declined to comment on the whole affair.)

So there was a double misunderstanding: 1) neither the neighbor nor the store realized the work was from an artist whose work regularly commands prices in the thousands; 2) the gallery thought that Abdo's blessing extended to the entire alley.

“When I was in the back alley with Jim [Abdo] we were looking at the wall and gesturing in general about what we could do with it...I guess I misunderstood,” says Irvine. “I thought his empire was bigger than it is.”

Abdo, a supporter of Irvine’s street art projects, has given the gallery permission for several other mural projects in the alleyway, including a giant, ever-changing mural on the side of Logan Hardware, and a Shepard Fairey Obama mural above the CVS. Thanks to Irvine and Abdo’s support, the neighborhood has become known as a street art destination. I picked it as the best place to see street art in City Paper’s Best of D.C. issue this year.

“It’s a great example of taking advantage of these urban corridors and allowing them to be something more vibrant,” says Abdo, who says he’s never received a complaint about the art in the alley. That’s why Irvine was surprised that the mural would be painted over in the first place.

“Everyone in the neighborhood knows where the art comes from,” says Irvine, who says he has received only positive feedback about his artists' contributions to the neighborhood. With two exhibitions at Irvine Contemporary in as many years, it’s been hard to miss Gaia’s whimsical, sketch-like wheatpastes throughout Logan Circle.

Irvine says his gallery remains on good terms with its neighbor. When informed that the Whole Foods was not an Abdo property, Irvine said that he would approach the food retailer about participating in future projects.

“I think it’s worth me meeting with the people at Whole Foods to see if they find it consistent with the way they want their image seen in the neighborhood,” says Irvine. “I have a feeling that once we put everything out in the opening, and they see that I am bringing in internationally known artists, they’ll see that it’s legitimate art.”

As for Gaia, when Worn Magazine's Josh Yospyn told him his mural was buffed over, he was nonplussed. Street artists, working in an impermanent medium, are used to this sort of thing happening all the time. Irvine says the artist might come back to put another mural in the same space.

“He’s been working on some new imagery, and I’m sure he’d love to come back,” says Irvine. “Anyone who does street work takes this in stride.”

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