April 2, 2009 / 7:21 PM / 10 years ago

Recession provides big break for New York artist

NEW YORK (Reuters) - For most of the past decade, New York City street artist Peter Zonis has sold his oil pastels to the rich and famous from a sidewalk outside Barneys, an upscale department store on famed Madison Avenue.

But his big break may have come with the financial crisis.

A series of his large-scale, recession-themed paintings called “Metropolis Now” has gone on exhibit in the lobby of the Durst Organization building in midtown Manhattan. It runs until April 10.

“Being a street artist and going through some hard times in the past, I could see people becoming nervous with the economy and stop spending money,” Zonis said. “But at that point, the best thing to do rather than to focus on the negative of the situation would be to transform what was happening into art.”

His whimsical, brightly colored paintings already had generated interest, particularly among New York real estate moguls, when a curator at the Durst Organization offered an exhibition.

Zonis’s paintings sell for about $500 to $10,000, and well-known buyers have included former baseball star Reggie Jackson and television host Pat O’Brien.

But the 50-year-old artist, who grew up near Boston and moved to New York in the 1980s after graduating from design school, has yet to gain acceptance from curators in places such as The Museum of Modern Art.

“Unfortunately for some, being a street artist can carry a certain stigma ... as if you were not a serious one,” Zonis said. “That’s something I’m trying to change.”

The paintings in the Durst exhibition are large, unframed mural-size canvasses and show dollar bills, coins and gold falling from the sky over New Yorkers in Times Square, at the Plaza Hotel and other famous city landmarks.

A bronze sculpture of a charging bull — symbol of market prosperity a few blocks from Wall Street — also appears in some of the paintings on exhibit. Zonis, however, decided to place it in front of the New York Stock Exchange in his work.

“I started selling on the street near the bronze bull many years ago, and I had a lot of luck from the get go,” Zonis said. “By placing the bull where it is needed most right now, I’m trying to give luck back to New York.”

Editing by Daniel Trotta and Paul Simao

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