By Jamie Bufalino
America is in the midst of having a political nervous breakdown, and the 29-year-old artist who goes by the name of WhIsBe (an acronym for “what is beautiful”) has been capturing it for posterity. WhIsBe’s first acclaimed work, “McDictator”—which he made way back in 2013 when white nationalists weren’t yet emboldened to march their tiki torches through town squares—was a piece of street art featuring Ronald McDonald wearing a Nazi uniform (complete with a golden-arches armband) giving the Heil Hitler salute. “There’s a lot of work I’ve done in the past that continues to stay relevant which is interesting,” says WhIsBe. “I couldn’t have planned that.”
These days, the artist wants his work to focus on the question posed by his name: “What is beauty to you?” Still, the topics he explores continue to have political resonance. For instance, his work presented in the recent Sag Harbor pop up show Chaos Theory—curated by Octave Studio and Joyce Varvatos—seems to come with a strong Black Lives Matter undercurrent. Titled “Vandal Gummy,” the sculpture is a 7-foot tall orange fiberglass Gummy Bear holding a Department of Corrections placard. “I wanted to do my own interpretation of the mug shot which is a common subject in contemporary and pop art,” says WhIsBe, who cites Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat as inspirations. “The bear was symbolic of innocence lost, where one minute everything is very innocent like a kid with candy and then the next minute something happens and shit gets real.”
WhIsBe—who was born in New York City and then moved to the exurbs (“I was playing in a park and I came out of the bushes with a hypodermic needle and my mom said, ‘That’s it, we’re raising the kids upstate,’” he says)—admits that his Gummy Bear series “has a little bit of me incorporated into it,” referring to a crisis point in his late teens when he dropped out of design college in Buffalo and gave up pursuing art. After a five year hiatus, he decided to take a silk screening and an art history class at New York City’s School of Visual Arts and “it just opened up the flood gates when I connected to that creative side again and I finally had an understanding of what it’s like to do something that you’re passionate about,” he says.
Now WhIsBe is finishing up a slew of new works before his appearance at Art Basel this December. One street art piece to keep an eye out for: “Basically, it’s Trump hitting a piñata and the piñata is going to be painted in the American flag. And coming out of it are going to be different issues, money, guns and all sorts of things. It’s symbolic of him breaking this country apart,” says the artist who—as he continues to document the ongoing political maelstrom—can’t help but marvel at his own personal uprising. Says WhIsBe: “Where things were 10 years ago and where things are now—what I’ve accomplished in the past five years since I’ve gotten back into art—it’s just mind-blowing.”