First he paints on walls....

...Then Alexandre Orion uses a camera to bring his street images to life.

Matthew Vree, Special to The San Francisco Chronicle

Link to Original Article
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Sao Paolo, Brazil -- At the dead end of a grimy street, Alexandre Orion crouches behind a row of overstuffed trash bins and quickly gathers his aerosol cans to begin painting. A horde of flies buzzes overhead as the midday sun slow roasts the rotting food and steaming garbage bags.
With short bursts of black spray paint, Orion stencils the figure of an eager dog peering up longingly at the garbage can's contents. He fills in the outline with white latex paint before adding another layer of black aerosol to define the dog's features.

Orion wants the piece to remain simple and understandable, as the painting is just the beginning of what will become his final work. He retreats a few yards, climbing over some brush and more garbage to get the best view of the painting. He then grabs his old Canon EOS Rebel and sets it up on a tripod, explaining that he only paints the stencil to later photograph it.

"There is so much graffiti out there," he says. "People walk by and don't even notice it. I am trying to show how people interact with it."

Orion, 27, has brought his distinctive blend of painting and photography to the United States for the first time for a solo exhibition at the 111 Minna Gallery. He had his first show outside of Brazil last fall, in Paris, and will travel to New York in June for an exhibition at the Foley Gallery in Chelsea.

The series of images that he is exhibiting, which he calls Metabiotics, began when he was still a visual arts student at university. His first piece was the stenciled figure of a boy pointing a gun at what looks to be a startled old man, a comment on the rampant violence in Sao Paulo.

After completing a few more images, Orion left his portfolio with a curator at the Pinacoteca, one of Sao Paulo's three big museums. The curator liked it, but was concerned whether Orion's technique would continue to produce compelling pieces. So Orion kept returning with new images -- of a family wearing gas masks, of a man staring back at the painted image of a scantily clad prostitute, of an old woman carrying grocery bags who appears to have enormous wings growing from her back. The curator had no choice but to give Orion his first show.

Back on the street, from his perch behind the trash bins, it is easy to see the image Orion is envisioning. The crowded shacks of a Brazilian favela, or shantytown, frame the scene. Along the street, with its front wheel missing and its body engulfed in rust, sits a Volkswagen Bug. Drying laundry hangs motionless on a clothesline.

The street is bustling with activity, but Orion is content to observe from behind the camera, waiting for the right person to enter his frame.

"I love the waiting," he says. "Waiting for that exact moment, it's the best part. For me, it is a very spiritual moment."

Orion's artistic life began when he started hand-painting T-shirts and selling them at fairs and open-air markets when he was 14. He soon moved into "traditional" spray-painting graffiti -- wild stylizations of his name and other cartoonish characters -- though he often found himself focusing more on social issues than other artists. Pretty soon he started thinking about the way the community interacts with graffiti, and playing with the visual conflict between the real and the unreal.

"It is so true and it is so false, that is the essential idea of my work," he says.

Orion has emerged out of the fertile graffiti art scene in Brazil, where a new generation of artists working on the streets is redefining the genre. Sao Paulo is so covered in graffiti it makes New York in the '80s seem as sterile as a hospital ward. There is barely a blank wall in the city. In the new book "Graffiti Brasil" (Thames & Hudson), Caleb Neelon writes that over the past decade "Sao Paulo has become the new shrine to graffiti."

Orion's work looks nothing like the American conception of graffiti art. There is no elaborate lettering or wild coloring. His signature is nowhere to be found. And his final piece is ultimately a large black and white photograph of the painting, as it exists within the natural environment, blown up to 4 by 6 feet.

As he waits near the trash bin, he watches as characters flow in and out of the camera frame. A garbage man arrives and dumps a fresh load of waste into the already-full can. Click. A group of kids kicking a soccer ball shuffle by. Click. An old woman delicately sifts through the rubbish. Click.

The woman notices neither Orion nor the painting, but as she extends her arm out over the trash bin, the entire scene suddenly takes on a new meaning. The dog appears to be begging for scraps from the old woman, who herself is rummaging through the scraps of a Brazilian slum. Click, click, click.

"I know what I think the final photograph will look like before I paint the stencil, but it always turns out better than I think," Orion says. "If this were staged and I was the director, I could never get it that good."

Metabiotics: Works by Alexandre Orion. Through March 31. 111 Minna Gallery, 111 Minna St., San Francisco. (415) 974-1719,