Three Decades of Exploration of a Single Motif
The work of the anonymous street artist known as stikman presents something of a conundrum. For three decades the artist has created variations on a single motif: the image of a humanoid figure (also known as stikman). Over this period, many thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of images of the figure have appeared on the streets of the U.S., Canada, and Europe. One might suspect this consistency would quickly become tedious and uninteresting. Yet the wide range of variations around that singular theme–both in style and medium–keep the project fascinating. For thirty years the stikman artist has found new ways to present his namesake figure.
STIKMAN 30 YEARS at Philadelphia’s Works on Paper gallery (December 10, 2022 to January 25, 2023) shows the breadth of the artist’s work over those three decades.
As you enter the gallery, a full-sized stikman figure, appropriately made of wood, faces you from across the room. The figure’s scale is striking relative to the much more petite versions found on the street often tucked inside the post of street signs.
A hodgepodge of pieces in the gallery’s front window provides a delirious overview of the artist’s work. The stikman figure is painted on a slab of concrete and on a raft of bricks. Street signs are adorned with various stikman stickers. A large three-dimensional cutout figure is embellished with dozens of spray painted stikman images. Above, a flurry of wooden stikman figures attached to wires fly around like a swarm of mad insects.
One wall of the exhibit contains over 30 street signs to which stikman figures have been applied. These give an overview of the many variations of the stikman image. Some show the conventional shape of the figure made of wood. One has the figure cut from an IBM computer punch card. One image is contorted, barely recognizable as stikman. A number of the recent “bubblehead” figures can be seen. There are stikman figures incorporated into previous works of art, such as Frank Paul’s famous flying man. A STOP sign contains a large version of the recent eerie, jet-black “shadow skin” images.
Also among the signs are (relatively rare) examples of the artist’s political views. A bubblehead modified from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video holds a card that reads, “Wear your bubble to prevent facial recognition.” A STOP sign shows the hapless stikman figure partially submerged in a blue, water-like film as an Inuit family stand atop the sign’s letter T while the waters perilously rise.
While covering many of the styles seen throughout the history of the artist’s work, the exhibition features a number of recent pieces.
Multiple examples of the recent “shadowman” series are displayed together in a group. Two large canvases are painted with a rich mélange of stikman figures. Another stikman figure is cut out from comic book pages.
A highlight of the show is the set of sixteen sculptures constructed of wire and other found objects. Their style and construction are likely an homage to a different anonymous artist from the 1970s, Philadelphia Wireman. Although similar in construction, in contrast to Wireman’s more abstract shapes, these figures are, of course, variations of the stikman figure. Photo images of these figures have appeared recently in the streets of New York and Philadelphia. Seeing the physical models in person is an extraordinary experience.
The stikman artist is often associated largely with the figures embedded in the asphalt of roadways. Some may also be familiar with the stickers found on street signs and utility poles. The exhibition at Works on Paper provides a wider view of the vast range of works of this eclectic artist.
For a full photo gallery from the exhibition, see the author’s Flickr album, Works on Paper: STIKMAN 30 YEARS.