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BANKSY (B. 1974)
BANKSY (B. 1974)

Smiling Copper

BANKSY (B. 1974)
Smiling Copper
spray paint and acrylic on shaped cardboard
200 x 79 cm. (78 ¾ x 31 1/8 in.)
Executed in 2003
unnumbered series of 10
WUK Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna, Austria
Acquired from the above by present owner in 2003
This work is accompanied by a Pest Control certificate
Vienna, Austria, WUK Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Bad Press, June-July 2003.

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Shanshan Wei
Shanshan Wei

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Lot Essay

“As soon as I cut my first stencil I could feel the power there. I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars.” – Banksy.

”Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” – Banksy.

Executed in 2003, Banksy’s Smiling Copper is an early iconic image depicting a heavily armed officer masked with a bright yellow smiley face. Forged in his signature graphic style, the work takes its place within Banksy’s subversive pantheon of helmeted authority figures. Well-known for his anti-establishment wit, the artist has depicted policemen throughout his oeuvre, creating biting satirical images including Flying Copper, Kissing Coppers and Snorting Copper. The yellow face – a nod to 1990s rave and acid-house culture – is similarly prevalent, most notable for its appearance in Banksy’s Mona Lisa which he hung in the Louvre as part of a prank. In the present work, the figure’s glowing cartoon smile is uncomfortably juxtaposed with his hefty riot gear, creating an image that is simultaneously humorous and unnerving.

Banksy’s characteristic use of multi-layered stencils, as seen in Smiling Copper, was first inspired by a run-in with the cops at eighteen. Fleeing the police one evening, he hid underneath a garbage truck where he studied the lettering on the side of the cabin door. Immersing himself in the thriving graffiti scene of his native Bristol, and subsequently branching out across the UK, Banksy’s stencilled works began popping up on walls, trains and unlikely public spaces. His fascination with the motif of the police officer, in this regard, may be understood in relation to the apparent lawlessness of his own practice. Bansky himself preaches a utopian view of street art: “Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal,” he has written, “a city where everybody could draw wherever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet” (Banksy, quoted in P. Gough, Banksy: The Bristol Legacy, Bristol 2010, p. 9).

Questions of ownership and permission remain central to Banksy’s practice, and have come to define his reputation as an artist, activist and rebel. Yet despite the bold social ambition of his works, his own identity remains an aching mystery. For over 20 years his imagery has spread around the world, gracing sites including the Israel West Bank barrier, Disneyland California, museums and a host of other public spaces. The ubiquity of his works, with their distinct visual language, is made all the more intriguing by his anonymity. Through simple but powerful visual motifs, he offers brazen commentary on contemporary issues, refusing to put a face to his campaign. In this sense, the present work’s yellow smiley visage – vacant and impenetrable – might be seen to reflect something of the artist’s own status.

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