Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto (b. 1987) has been interacting visually with the urban environment under the name of Vhils since his days as a prolific graffiti writer in the early-to-mid 2000s.
His groundbreaking bas-relief carving technique – which forms the basis of the Scratching the Surface project and was first presented to the public at the VSP group exhibition in Lisbon in 2007 and at the Cans Festival in London the following year –, has been hailed as one of the most compelling approaches to art created in the streets in the last decade.
This striking form of visual poetry, showcased around the world in both indoor and outdoor settings, has been described as brutal and complex, yet imbued with a simplicity that speaks to the core of human emotions. An ongoing reflection on identity, on life in contemporary urban societies and their saturated environments, it explores themes such as the struggle between the aspirations of the individual and the demands of everyday life, or the erosion of cultural uniqueness in the face of the dominant model of globalised development and the increasingly uniform reality it has been imposing around the world. It speaks of effacement but also of resistance, of destruction yet also of beauty in this overwhelming setting, exploring the connections and contrasts, similarities and differences, between global and local realities.
Vhils grew up in Seixal, an industrialised suburb across the river from Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, and was deeply influenced by the transformations brought on by the intensive urban development the country underwent in the 1980s and 1990s. He was particularly inspired by the way city walls absorb the social and historical changes that take place around them. Applying his original methods of creative destruction, Vhils digs into the surface layers of our material culture like a contemporary urban archaeologist, exposing what lies beyond the superficiality of things, making visible the invisible and restoring meaning and beauty to the discarded dimensions buried beneath.
Since 2005, he has presented his work in over 30 countries around the world in solo and group exhibitions, site-specific art interventions, artistic events and projects in various contexts – from working with communities in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, to collaborations with reputed art institutions such as MAAT – Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (Lisbon), Contemporary Arts Center (Cincinnati), Le Centquatre-Paris (Paris), Centre Pompidou (Paris), CAFA Art Museum (Beijing), or the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (San Diego), among others. An avid experimentalist, Vhils has been developing his personal aesthetics in a plurality of media besides his signature carving technique: from stencil painting to metal etching, from pyrotechnic explosions and video to sculptural installations. He has also directed several music videos, short films, and two stage productions.
His unique approach and artwork have been garnering critical acclaim around the globe.
[Text: Miguel Moore]