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‘The Threat of Chance:’ New hope in very hard times

After being handed the keys to the Ad Hoc Art Gallery, Chris Stain and three other graffiti artists have decided to turn the space into a 1930s era shantytown complete with village houses made from found wood and particle board for the gallery’s latest exhibit, “The Threat of Chance,” opening on May 2.

“It will be like those little shacks that you see along the railroad tracks in areas that are more depressed than others,” Stain said. “It’s a mix between Hoovervilles and what is starting to pop up in areas where people are losing their jobs and living in their cars. It’s about finding hope in hard times.”

Stain, best known for his nostalgic hand-cut stencil paintings on found metal and wood, will be showing pieces with other graffiti artists Josh MacPhee, Billy Mode, and The Polaroid Kid. Their works will hang in and around the walls of the makeshift wooden shacks and in other unexpected spaces, which gallery director Andrew Ford has not yet visualized.

“The installation was their idea,” Ford said. “They’re bringing the wood this week from bookcase shelves and wooden planks from industrial factories in the neighborhood. This will take more work putting up a show than I’ve ever done before.”

Stain’s works reflect the blue-collar aesthetic of his experiences growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Baltimore among steamfitters, brick-layers, and steel workers. Most of the working class jobs people in Baltimore had long since fled the region, leaving a wake of unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse among the population. As a teenager, Stain sought out the hip-hop and graffiti cultures of his generation, which integrated much more easily than among older generations.

“Hip-hop has such an influence on me,” Stain said. “It was a ray of hope, and when I got involved on graffiti I saw the whole world of art and self expression open up.”

Stain first began creating stencils in high school where he learned the art of screen printing. When he left high school, he found that he could not afford the screen printing technology but had a large space to work and discovered he was adept at cutting stencils.

“One reason I chose stenciling was because I had some experience and because it’s very bold,” Stain said. “It’s very easy to do. You can use cardboard razor blades and spray paint. I like the way it looks graphically, I can do it relatively quickly, and it’s inexpensive.”

The pieces that Stain and other artists will be showing at Ad Hoc Art reflect the pain and nostalgia for a bygone era populated by farmers, fisherman, and machinists. They will join proletarian signs, flags, prints and banners by Josh MacPhee, interactive sculptures, drawings and paintings from Billy Mode, and photographs of train cars and decaying industry by the Polaroid Kid. Stain often bases his stencil paintings from historic and iconic black and white photographs of working-class people at their jobs.

“What I got out of living [in Baltimore] was a sense of hope,” Stain said. “Instead of taking the things that would drive me down further, I took those things and focused on what I really wanted to do and that was to make artwork that reflected what was going on in my life. I always wanted to paint people in these situations.”

One piece is a rusty painting of a New York City dockworker, resembling a scrimshaw etching, while another shows the anguish of firefighters rescuing a civilian from the scene of a disaster. There is even a framed version of an original stencil of a farmer operating a plow that Stain cut.

“I can’t paint well and I can’t draw that well and I had very little time to do artwork. And now I have kids and I have even less time. There’s no time to do anything, man. I can cut a stencil over five hours when the kids are asleep and seven hours to do the painting."

Andrew Ford disagrees, admiring the intricate stencil work and painting that Stain put forward for the show.

“He almost brings old black and white photography to life” Ford said. “The depth is created from the amazing quality of the stencil. Any perception of depth is from the stencil cutting and painting.”

Stain knows that the exhibit will not change the economic conditions of his hometown or distressed urban neighborhoods but he hopes to inspire people.

“All I really hope from the show will somehow inspire other people to become more compassionate and speak their mind about things that they truly feel are right in their heart,” Stain said.

Ad Hoc Art's next show “Exposition: The Threat of Chance” will be opening May 2 at 7 p.m. and running until June 1. The gallery is located at 49 Bogart Street. For more information, visit www.adhocart.org.

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