Vanessa Platacis is going back to her roots—spray paint in hand.
The artist and former graffitist-turned-educator has “tagged” 2,700 square feet of wall space inside the newly renovated section of The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) for her latest installation “Taking Place.”
Platacis is the first female artist to have been commissioned for the size and complexity of this large-scale painting installation.
From the start
It was a balmy Boston morning in 2005. Her alarm went off at 2 a.m. Dressed in all black with a large piece of canvas tucked under her arm, Platacis snuck out of her downtown apartment into the darkness to tag a nearby building — the stencil she used was inspired by the delicate lace curtains of the brownstones she passed on Commonwealth Avenue.
Platacis would soon become known as the artist “Pixnit” and for the next five years, she eluded the Boston scene with her non-commissioned street art. Her distinctive stenciling technique garnered both praise and anger from the local community. Even still, her urban art changed the landscape and the architecture of the city. It also created dialogues about the uses and misuses of public spaces.
“Graffiti has a way of mapping an urban environment,” said Platacis. “On top of the stencil, I was thinking about the design of the space itself. I wanted there to be unexpected interventions that the viewer would see.”
The element of surprise is always on the mind of graffiti artists, Platacis included. The idea of turning vandalism into poignant works of art is about creating that experience. There’s an underlying acceptance of art on the street coupled with a rejection of its graffiti form. But for Platacis, street art is an engaging form of expression.
“Working anonymously provided me the freedom to make work that energized and interested me, even though street art wasn't accepted as a legitimate form of art at the time,” she said. “Today there is an entire generation that has grown up with street art as an accepted visual language. Cities, institutions and arts organizations also understand that art that engages the public provides many benefits for individuals and the community.”
Now an educator at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Platacis used those same skills to rewrite the majority of the painting department’s curriculum to include street art and installation art classes.
Her work, much like her teaching, continues to be research-based and referential. She absorbs moments, patterns, decorations and architectural features in everything she does. Her stencils become an extension, constantly abstracting and moving further away from the reference as she explores.
Here and now
Just like the first stencil she placed on a brick wall in Boston, her latest installation reimagines beloved objects, this time from PEM’s decorative arts collection. Platacis returned to the Northeast and researched the museum’s vast collection, diving deep into a multicultural perspective.
“I was looking for context in everything I used to inform the work,” she said. “The project seemed tremendous because I know what PEM is known for—they have almost two million objects in their collections. That is a tremendous resource of American history.”
Platacis transformed her findings into more than 200 canvas stencils, all drawn and cut by hand with X-Acto blades, adding up to nearly 2,000 hours of painstaking cutting.
Then, for two weeks straight, morning to night, she and her assistant used a variety of spray-paint and graffiti techniques, including drop shadows, high contrast and layering, to apply color to the walls of PEM, giving life to her forms.
In much the same way her process was functional and pragmatic in moving quickly on the street, the same application allowed her to produce this large-scale painting installation in a short amount of time. There was little room for error, said Platacis. Despite this, she didn’t compensate for the element of surprise.
“When using stencils, at any moment it could fall apart,” she said. “It creates tension in that spontaneous making and the large-scale physicality of it. In that moment it’s solidified, and I’ve accepted that it’s a part of the work. And it’s an important part of it. I’m using the quotations from history to create an entirely new environment.”
From decorative plates of yesteryear to gold boots donated recently by Iris Apfel, Platacis has reimagined the museum’s collections in a way that offers the viewers their own version of interpretation, making it a comprehensive tome for contemporary art.
“I often struggled to fit in to most of the art world in a kind of contemporary context, especially with work that looks several hundred years old,” she said. “All contemporary art demand that the viewer work. Oftentimes we don’t understand contemporary art when we first see it and that is completely OK.
“There tends to be much research, development and history that goes into an artist’s practice, that the intent is undiscovered on first glance,” she added. But art is meant to be uncomfortable. It makes you think beyond what you are seeing.”
And after decades of honing her craft, Platacis has moved past that place of uncertainty.
“I have finally become comfortable with how uncomfortable making art can be. Coming out about my past as an artist and making that public made me take ownership,” she said. “I’ve accepted who I am as an artist. There can be a lot of pressure; we’re under a lot of scrutiny, especially when we put work up for public consumption. The more visible it is, the higher the stakes. This is part of the package. This is who I am. This is what I do. Just make the work and let the rest fall where it may.”
“Taking Place” opens to the public on Sept. 28 and will be on display until Jan. 1, 2022. During the opening exhibit, PEM will simultaneously debut its new 40,000 square-foot wing and new garden space. “Taking Place” lies at the intersection of the old museum and the renovated space.
Molly Hayden is a local writer, photographer and problem-solver. This is her column about art. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.