It’s Saturday—actually, I should say Sunday, about 12:30 AM. I’m at a bar waiting on a friend. My whiskey isn’t contributing a whole lot to the conversation, so I do what any bored person does when alone in a public place: I check my phone. Scrolling through my apps, I settle on Instagram. A new update from @jackgravesiii appears, revealing a series of cardboard paintings abandoned in almost-familiar places, cryptic captions providing just a whiff of context. I notice a patch of pink graffiti about the size of a fist just to the left of the painting, hung with staples to a wall that I suddenly remember. Reluctantly leaving my drink in the hands of the bouncer, I sprint from the bar to find this very specific section of wall. When I arrive, I yank the 30-by-40-inch cardboard canvas from the backing plywood in one quick jerk, thrilled with my new find. It’ll look great in my kitchen.
For the record, this is not my first painting acquired in such a manner. I’ve been an eager participant in several of the spontaneous scavenger hunts orchestrated by Jack Graves III. A Charlottesville artist bursting onto the local scene, Graves is applying new technology to an old problem, skirting the traditional gallery model in the process.
The carefully hidden paintings hit just the right amount of engagement, each cardboard piece decorating the downtown streets for only a few days at a time, thereby forcing would-be treasure hunters to act quickly. As Graves puts it, they’re “something to break up the monotony.” These hunts have created a platform for viewers to not just see, but actively seek out his work. His followers are encouraged to identify, locate, and ultimately take Graves’s paintings for their own. Think Banksy meets Pokémon Go.
But this is more than just a game of hide-and-seek. These experiments serve specific purposes for Graves, namely branding and exposure. When he started painting, he thought to himself, “‘This is what I want to do. I like this, right?’ But then there’s the reality of the outside world: one, you got to sell it and, two, you got to try different things.” These self-imposed games force Graves to stay creative and allow a large audience to engage with his work. Each piece has a business card affixed to the back. People who find his paintings usually follow him on online, tell their friends about the experience, and keep an eye out for the next hunt. When he does host a more traditional art event like a gallery exhibit, his army of followers are that much more likely to make it a success.
Ironically enough, Graves is a lifelong artist who grew up in an art gallery, yet is unsatisfied with the often difficult process of booking exhibitions. His family’s brick-and-mortar establishment, Graves International Art, relies more on its permanent collection than monthly shows. It only recently moved to Charlottesville from its former location in the rural town of Gordonsville. “The gallery art world is so nebulous and weird, I don't know how you do it,” he grumbled.
He may be giving himself a bit too little credit, as Graves has an exhibit of his work currently on display at Live Arts. The Icon Series, his most minimal and arguably most commercially viable work to date, depicts close-up portraits of actresses and models in hyperreal color and spare linework. “I know people like color and they want it big,” he says under the gaze of the massive five-foot-square visages of Jennifer Lawrence and Cara Delevingne.
His aesthetic choices are considered yet malleable, starting with one style and soon layering several more on top of it. Around age 17, Graves began crafting finely detailed pen and ink drawings, never larger than one square-foot. But as Graves put it, “It’s small. It’s on paper. It’s harder to sell.” So, he went bigger and bolder. Adding painted collages to the mix, the emphasis shifted from hundreds of tiny lines to only a handful of large elements. “Color, structure, face, tigers. That’s it,” he says, pointing to a painting across his room.
The evolution of his art echoes his growing desire to reach others and to ultimately have a presence in the art scene. His most recently adopted style emerged from mid-day walks on the downtown mall. With chalk in hand, Graves began sketching cat-like creatures—“Pananimals” he calls them—on blank walls throughout the city. The figures, which “may or may not be thinking something,” are both groovy and ghoulish, ephemeral and mysterious, and they have caught people’s attention. In fact, he often spies folks snapping a photo of his murals, unaware that the “cat guy” himself is in their midst.
“It’s a way to have fun with people and it’s an easy opportunity to make someone happy.” The quick chalk drawings increased his mystique through sheer repetition. Moreover, street art gave Graves a forum to interact with a larger audience at a distance. As he explains, “I can have a conversation without talking to anyone.”
Ultimately, his story is a lot like those of other artists. While he would love to “just paint all day and have someone cook some food for him every once in awhile,” his present situation requires a little more cunning and a lot more exposure. So he experiments, trying to balance the seemingly opposite worlds of authenticity and commercial viability. Whether he’s successful or not, only time will tell. Either way, it’s a fun process to watch. And who knows, you might just get the chance to rip a painting off the wall.
Jack Graves III will have his Icon Series on display at Live Arts through February 26. Follow him on Instagram at @jackgravesiii to participate in the scavenger hunts. To see more of his work, visit jackgravesiii.com.
Photography by Tristan Williams