The name ‘Banksy’ is synonymous with non-conformity, subversion and defiance - against the inherent snobbishness of the art world, and political corruption across the globe. It is here; at the CUT & RUN: 25 Years of Card Labour exhibition, we see the first major retrospective of his work. Indeed, this is “the closest we have come to seeing behind his mask” in all of his 25 year career.
An artist whose oeuvre has never failed to shock and compel, Banksy announced on the 14th of June the imminent opening of perhaps his most elaborate and extensive exhibition to date, which promises to showcase 25 years of Banksy’s ‘card labour’. Some may have been lucky enough to spot a Banksy original in the past, lurking on the walls of their local high street, but it is truly a unique opportunity - both for the city of Glasgow, and all the visitors who will subsequently flock here - to see his works displayed at the GoMA in an entirely different capacity.
The nervous energy outside the GoMA when I arrive is palpable. Approaching the stately doors of the gallery, it feels more like queuing to see the retrospective of an old master than that of Bristol’s bad boy. The anticipation rises; as one by one we are asked to place our phones in sealed bags, before descending into the unpredictable world of the illusive Street Artist.
The nature of Bansky’s work has of course rendered location a vital aspect of his practice - and this time is no different. He selected Glasgow for the location of CUT & RUN because it plays host to his “favourite work of art in the UK”: the Duke of Wellington statue, which you can find directly outside the doors of the GoMA. For at least forty years, Glaswegians have been placing a traffic cone on the Duke’s head, costing the council £10,000 to remove every year.
The first room of the exhibition is an ode to this artwork. We see the familiar stencil of two children reaching up to steal a spray can (The Street Is In Play) - but this time, it is a traffic cone that is precariously balanced on the corner of the cardboard that they attempt to grasp. This is accompanied by the statement: “If nothing else, you’re going to see one masterpiece today - you just walked past it”.
Curated by the man himself, the exhibition accentuates the vigorous and pointed nature of his work - and does so with ease. With dark painted walls and dim lighting, the air of uncertainty that surrounds the artist is present in the room. A child beside me asks his mother “Where’s Banksy?” - she replies “Banksy’s not here… or maybe he is?”.
The unprecedented decision to reveal his stencils make for insightful and somehow winsome viewing. In the following room, a studio scene has been set up. A large desk surrounded by haphazardly placed stencils and sketches is covered in old spray cans, worn cutting mats and used razor blades. This installation emphasises the immeasurable relevance of CUT & RUN being an official display of Bansky’s work. Unlike the multiple unauthorised Banksy shows that have occurred in recent years, which he states have works that “might look like sweeping from my studio floor. CUT & RUN really is the actual sweepings from my studio floor”. Here in Glasgow, we can see the artist as he wants to be seen; which, in tune with his style, is like nothing we have witnessed before.
Down the road from the GoMA, a quintessential Banksy Rat has appeared on the facade of the Bier Halle pub. The rat, executed in signature Banksy style, holds a dimple pint glass and - on the right-hand panel - are the words “FREE BEER 2MORO” sprayed in red. The work has not been confirmed by Banksy, but tunes in perfectly to the spirit of rebellion and the humour at the core of the exhibition.
Banksy states he “kept these stencils hidden away for years, mindful they could be used as evidence in a charge of criminal damage”. The display of these allow us to see the origins of the artist - they are his first major tool to achieve insurrection. As we move through the show, we see vast room’s littered with used stencils - the veritable quantity of breathtaking and law breaking work is staggering. Stencils with political messages are transformed into placards, some are hung away from walls - creating delicate shadows - while others are painted on directly, transforming them into entirely different artworks.
The artist also demonstrates his sense of humour, with a sprayed version of Queen Victoria. The work - which depicts the monarch sitting on the face of another woman: the sexual act known as ‘Queening’ - rises up and down on an electronic shop shutter.
A preliminary version of Stormzy’s Union Jack stab-proof vest is one of the first major artefacts on display. Unlike the monochrome version worn by the musician for his Glastonbury set, this version includes the colour blue; something we learn was removed as “somehow the blue made it feel too patriotic”. Untold stories behind different works are strewn throughout the exhibition space - answering the questions that have puzzled the public for years.
This is followed by a detailed model of the picture frame that allowed him to shred his Girl With Balloon work at Sotheby's (later renamed Love Is In The Bin), which is certainly a highlight of the show. Having an entire room dedicated to it, the dissected frame is hung alongside annotations explaining how it was made, and even the cause of its malfunction.
The main atrium of the gallery is home to some of Banksy’s most playful work: Dismaland ephemera, the Meat Truck from his self appointed ‘artists residency’ in New York 2017, and a scandalous sculpture of a riot policeman - erotically thrusting back and forth on a rocking horse, all of which show the artist at his most playful.
While these works offer for amusement, it is the surprisingly personal and candid narration Banksy offers that really makes CUT & RUN stand out. At the close of the show, he admits: “I only started painting graffiti after I found myself friendless, unemployed and heart broken”. A blown up comic strip work titled I Blame The Parents depicts the artist as a troubled youth who feels “trapped between two worlds”. We exit the show through an installation made to resemble the artist's childhood bedroom, and here see the foundations to which ‘Banksy’ began.
CUT & RUN offers a revealing, striking and sensitive view into the nature of Banksy’s practice. While many, if not most, would regard him as a leading graffiti and street artist - CUT & RUN shows him as something wholly different. Powerful yet tender, this exhibition proves Banksy as an artist that has transcended his subculture, and reaffirms his place as the leading figure of the contemporary scene.
CUT & RUN is on at the GoMA until 28 August 2023. While tickets are now sold out, “Walk-Up” tickets are available from 9AM at the GoMA, and queuing starts at 8AM.