By Jaime Calder
“Here it is,” he says. “It” is stunning. To enter Peter Lemke’s gallery is to enter a forgotten world of Chicago street art, a time capsule of work from nearly a dozen artists, some of whom have since moved on to other cities and other projects, some of whom are still residing and creating right here on these very streets. Lemke walks over to the nearest wall and grabs from a heap of poster boards.
“These are my Wesley Willis pieces,” he boasts, and holds up a fish-eyed image of Milwaukee Avenue drawn by the deceased outsider artist. “Wesley gave these to me,” he explains, placing the poster alongside sixteen others like it, “but these I saved.” Lemke gestures to the walls of the gallery. Though the stack of Willis works is impressive, it is the gallery walls that truly amaze: the product of Lemke’s self-imposed rescue operation, an operation that has provoked the interest—and the ire—of a number of artists.
Peter Lemke began collecting street art in 2004 when, while living near the intersection of Milwaukee and Halsted, many of the installations Lemke had enjoyed seeing in his neighborhood began to disappear or suffer defacement. “When one of my favorites went,” he says, “that was it. I started taking them down before any more got ruined.” He holds up an older piece by (art)illery, a yellow canvas featuring a wounded eagle in flight. A Sharpie-scrawled “holla yo!!!” mars the work, alongside childish doodles and scrawls. “This is disgusting,” says Lemke, who is very vocal about what he does and does not consider art. Insistent that he couldn’t let taggers and Daley’s buffing crew continue to destroy these installations, Lemke spent the next four years taking down the works—some of which are impressively large—and storing them in his basement and garage so that they could later be enjoyed by the public in a safe environment, free from the city’s deleterious elements.
According to Lemke, his four-year campaign has been conducted with the single intention of rescuing great works of street art (which, in his opinion, is inclusive only of sculptural and installation pieces. Pasting and stickers are not represented in his collection and, when asked about sprayed works, Lemke defines them as “lame”). Lemke’s act of preservation, which ended the weekend street artist Solve died, is to, as he puts it, “show the world that there is a great alternative for regular graffiti.” With the upcoming Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival, he hopes to do just that by bringing the whole of his collection—more than a hundred pieces by a number of Chicago artists, living and dead—out of his basement and into his temporary gallery so that the public may once more enjoy these works in a safe, contained environment.
And that’s where it all gets a little sticky.
According to Elisa “Pooper” Harkins, “Every street artist wants his/her work to become part of the landscape. That’s why we do it.” Harkins, whose art is included in the collection, is a local artist, musician and curator who says she finds Lemke’s curatorial statement offensive and his motives as a curator suspect. “He never asked if he could show my work,” she says. “He never thanked me. He’s never purchased any of my work, supported me financially, even though he finds it so interesting he would get a ladder and unscrew it off of a wall.” The Grocer, a prolific artist who specializes in large acrylic paintings of produce, echoes Harkins’ statements, stating: “Peter Lemke took my 4’x3’ painting of avocados that was intended for public enjoyment and put it in his stairwell. To my knowledge, he has never purchased a painting from any other street artist I know in Chicago… I’m not a rich man but have purchased many paintings from this group of artists to support their work and what they’re doing for the community.”
It is the very community of which the Grocer speaks that seems to be up in arms over Lemke’s ‘acquisitions.’ Fighting to display their installations against Mayor Daley’s Graffiti Blasters Program (a program that costs Chicago taxpayers $7.8 million a year), many of these artists are deeply offended by Lemke’s removal of their work, which they risked fines and arrest to display.
“Once our work is on the street, it’s out of our hands and up to chance,” says artist SARO, who was notified of the collection by Lemke himself. “[But] when we put up work, the general idea is you want the most people to see it. A stolen board [limits] the amount of people it will be shown to.”
There has also been much talk on the subject of Lemke’s profiting from the sale of his collection, but he insists he will not be selling anything. Says Lemke, “It is a time capsule in a way of a brand of art that doesn’t appear all that often and not usually in these quantities. For every piece that I managed to bring home many more were destroyed by the city, vandalized or otherwise met their doom.”
The artists, however, remain unconvinced.
“He is using his line of ‘preservation’ to cover up for the fact that he took something that wasn’t his,” steams Harkins, who says Lemke tried to provoke her in texts and Facebook messages.
The Grocer concedes that the matter of “ownership” when it comes to street art is up for conjecture, but he still can’t help but feel that there is something off about this whole situation: “If he was an avid patron of urban artists in Chicago and did his ‘saving’ I think that might change the way most artists perceive him. As-is, though, I feel like what he’s doing is not supporting artists and stealing from the public. I don’t think he’s a bad man, I just think he’s made up this justification in his mind for taking what he wants from the community around him.”
Chicago citizens, artists and collectors alike are welcome to decide for themselves next weekend, when Peter Lemke’s Collection of Milwaukee Avenue Street Art will be made available to the public… again.
Peter Lemke’s Collection of Milwaukee Avenue Street Art will show at 2630 N. Milwaukee during the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival, July 31-August 2