Barcelona, Artists' Beacon

Courtesy Ruben Sanchez

Barcelona artist Ruben Sanchez's art graces the inside of a bowl at a city skatepark.

Pablo Picasso was never one for formal instruction.

As a youngster, the Spaniard had a history of cutting classes and engaging in the kinds of disruptive classroom behaviors that later generations would be more likely to label an "attention deficit" than to see as a sign of precocious artistic genius.

Yet throughout his adolescence Picasso exhibited an eager willingness to learn from others, an aptitude for finding peer groups and an ability to draw important lessons from his immediate surroundings.

When, for instance, the charismatic painter with the piercing gaze was 19, he became what we would now describe as a "scenester" at Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats), a Barcelona tavern, hostel and all-around popular hangout for members of the avant-garde. It was that thoroughly bohemian establishment that not only allowed him to pay an outstanding bar tab by designing some menus, but also provided space for his very first solo show. Oh, and some of the conversations he had there, lectures he would have attended, probably helped shape the direction of modernism and forge global visual culture for decades to come.

All the while, the teenager would be filling sketchbooks with the characters and ephemeral scenes he encountered in Els Quatre Gats and on the boulevards and atmospheric alleyways of Barcelona.

Though Picasso had famously little taste for school, you could say that the city itself became his classroom -- a campus, an MFA program and an artist's residency rolled into one.

As the artist himself is reputed to have said, "Here [Barcelona] is where it all began ... this is where I realized where I could get to."

Picasso's Playground: Art In Barcelona

Barcelona still artists' haven
Though certainly much has changed since an adolescent Picasso strolled the streets of this singular city, more than a century later Barcelona remains an attractive locale for a number of artists who -- though they may labor in touch-screen media not yet invented during their predecessor's lifetime -- are as stimulated by its cafés, galleries and museums as Picasso once was.

Bearing Barcelona's rich artistic history in mind, and as X Games prepares for its third international stop, we recently invited a diverse assortment of contemporary Barcelonan artists -- natives and transplants -- to give us their perspective on Barcelona's cultural life and to help us understand why the Catalan city remains an alluring destination for creators of varying types and stripes.

Though none was blind to its shortcomings and flaws, all were able to point to something enduringly special about the urban center Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes called "fatherland of the brave" and "in beauty, unique."

Michael Swaney, 35, a painter who moved to Barcelona from his native Canada seven years ago, says friends have noticed Spain exerting its influence on his exuberant palette, which incorporates elements of the "art brut" and outsider art anti-traditions. (Swaney maintains a well-curated blog devoted to the subject.) Though he has always considered himself a "colorist," Barcelona may have made his work brighter, sunnier.

"I came to Spain on a whim while travelling for a couple of years, thinking it would be an ideal place for me," Swaney wrote in an e-mail interview. "It turned out to be exactly the right place for me and I met my Catalan wife here as well. I'd say the main thing it has influenced is the subject matter; the Spanish landscape and architecture, store fronts, window displays, and the national folklore has crept into the work.

"If I told you Barcelona was a mecca for young artists, I wouldn't necessarily be telling the truth," he continued. "It is however one of the most 'magical' cities I've ever visited or lived in, and is a perfect place to create art, that is of course if you're not distracted easily."

Courtesy Michael Swaney

"Bosch to the Future," by Michael Swaney. Found and painted cut paper, pen, pencil, felt marker, gouache and flashe.

In a totally different artistic vein, Alex Trochut -- born in Barcelona and currently dividing his time between there and Brooklyn, N.Y. -- is an accomplished graphic designer who creates refined work for a wide array of clients like the band Arcade Fire and brands such as adidas, Wired magazine and The New York Times. In 2010 he also partnered with the legendary skateboard shop FTC, the San Francisco-based retail outlet with a satellite store in Barcelona, to create "psychedelic" wall-mounted, melted ceramic skateboard sculptures, which he said can function as stand-alone pieces or, well, coat hangers.

We asked Trochut to draw cultural comparisons between Brooklyn and Barcelona.

"Being here in Brooklyn, I get a different energy," he said in a phone interview. "There's a lot of positive energy to get things done. In Barcelona, because of the [economic] crisis, we are not as confident of the good outcome of things. But people are expressing themselves, not just looking for economic reward. It's personal reward."

But Trochut downplays differences in the cities' visual culture.

"I don't believe we are different because we are in Barcelona or New York," he added. "It's always connected with this global movement of trends and things that come in and out. Yes, you are influenced by the place you are born and the Mediterranean culture. There are things moving around the spirit of Mediterranean culture. Spontaneity, but not a lot of perfection. A lot of quality. Quality, but not slick. Doing things in our way, without showing off."

Whereas Trochut has logged little time on a skateboard, Alex Castañeda has the distinction of being the most advanced skateboarder among all the artists we spoke with. Indeed, his friendly, approachable images of animals and colorful shapes suggest someone who has maintained a skater's sense of play well into adulthood.

His art, he says, is "simple and colorful."

Though he has since relocated to Stockholm, Sweden, Castañeda was able to refine his technique by learning from influential skate and surf artist Thomas Campbell when Campbell resided, for a time, in Barcelona.

"Skateboarding influences me in a way of seeing different perspectives of the common use of the urban environment and makes me open to experience the unknown and explore new territories while learning a lot from different people and cultures," Castañeda wrote in an email. "Same with my art."

A flawed paradise for public art
And, of course, in Barcelona, as in so many major metropolises, art is not confined simply to gallery walls and high-end design studios, but spills out into the streets.

For a variety of reasons, the Catalan city plays host to a robust number of graffiti artists. One skilled practitioner of the form is New York-born Max Rippon, who goes by the nom de guerre "Ripo."

Rippon's art often beguilingly creates a hybrid of classic graffiti's bombastic, heated colors and plunging lines with the more restrained, cooler conceptual approaches of text-based art -- "Wild Style" meets Ed Ruscha. Perhaps not surprisingly, he exhibits this work (which straddles "high" and "low" cultural traditions) in both galleries and on city walls.

"Barcelona provides a lot of freedom and quality of life that I never could find in the U.S.," Rippon wrote in an e-mail. "A lot of the freedoms, to paint in the streets especially, have changed since 2003 when I first arrived. But the relaxed attitude of society here and the lower rents and cost of living still provide the space and breathing room to create my work how I like without a lot of the pressures of living in a bigger city like New York (where I grew up)."

Barcelona's more relaxed legal atmosphere also appealed to the native New Yorker.

"Definitely the U.S. is harsher," he wrote. "Various states have laws that allow the police to put people away for years for painting on things that aren't their own. This would never happen here."

And for someone who sees underutilized industrial spaces as potential canvases, the economic downturn has an upside.

"The economic crisis has also left a lot of factories and buildings abandoned, which for Spain's economy isn't a good thing, but for those of us who are always looking for walls and interesting places to paint, it's opened up an endless number of unexplored canvases," wrote Rippon.

Finally, we sent a few questions to Ruben Sanchez. (If there were an award for "most boisterous and high-spirited e-mails by an artist currently residing in Barcelona," he would certainly win the top prize.) Sanchez has emblazoned warm, whimsical, mustachioed faces and cartoonish designs on everything from a friend's surfboard to driftwood to a Louie Barletta Enjoi skateboard.

When we asked him to describe his work, he replied, "I guess it's a mix of graffiti, Cubism, Mediterranean life, flamenco, stained glass and jamón iberico." (Jamón iberico is a kind of cured Spanish ham.)

And what, we wondered, is your favorite thing about living in Barcelona?

"Architecture, sun, friends from everywhere living here, street life, riding my bike or skate through their narrow streets, my studio, night."

Picasso couldn't have said it better himself.

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