Slogging along in Colonial Drive’s perpetual, sweltering traffic jam has become less oppressive, thanks to two new art murals adorning walls just west of Mills. If you’re escaping downtown in slow motion, look for local artist Andrew Spear’s new Red Bull-sponsored Wings2Walls mural on Thornton Avenue – it covers the side wall of Little Saigon with a warm, colorful splash of humanity. (You may remember the older mural beneath it, a school of tropical fish.) But if you’re heading west, just look up, up, up at the side of the old Cruises Only building, where Mark Gmehling’s giant new painting rises above the exhaust fumes, head in hands, lips pursed, looking the picture of exasperation.
“Some critic nicknamed it ‘contemporary drinsch’ and the name for my style has just stuck,” said Gmehling in an interview on the day that he finished the mural. Berlin-based contemporary art publisher and event producer Pictoplasma first published Gmehling’s art, which came out of the street art he made as a teenager. “I did graffiti, but I got tired of writing my name over and over again, so I studied art and communications,” he says. “Murals are one form of art I love because making one is like meditation.”
Tall, blue-eyed and with a quick smile, Gmehling makes his home in Dortmund, Germany. “I’m back in America for the first time since I was 6 and left San Francisco for Germany,” he says, proudly sporting a Magic cap. “I loved it here,” Gmehling laughs. “See – I got a sunburn while working!” he grins, showing off his Florida sun-reddened arm.
Gmehling adopted Orlando for a week as his home, courtesy of contemporary art gallery Snap Space, to create the project. Snap and Gmehling worked hard to make sure the mural’s completion would coincide with the opening of Snap! Attacks (a group show curated with Art Attacks that includes a few smaller pieces of Gmehling’s work), so both could be celebrated together.
Europe is familiar with Gmehling’s squishy, shiny drinsch characters in various poses of sorrow and surprise, with its look-but-don’t-touch aesthetic, a visually sensual cross between Mylar balloon and porcelain doll. Delicious furrows and wrinkles contrast with a glassy smoothness somehow chilling in the hot summer sun. “Drinsch” has no direct translation from the German, but the character’s emotional state couldn’t be clearer.
Gmehling’s been making this guy in Germany for years, but somehow he’s just right for Orlando. He could be grieving world climate change or social unrest in general, or perhaps just our downtown art scene’s unnatural co-opting by city officialdom, his scarlet lips prissily censored in an X-shape.
Gmehling’s character also brings some familiar hands – look at those hands! – back home. The mural lends a worldly art sensibility to our tropical city, and truly, for people headed downtown, its subtle gateway statement is at once a celebration and a warning.
And so an emerging European artist gave Orlando his first American mural, one of many to come in the future. Snap’s director, Patrick Kahn, talent-spotted Gmehling. “I admired his work in the European new art scene and contacted Gmehling on Facebook. He was immediately receptive, and we spent months arranging for his project to happen,” says Kahn. The result was worth the effort, with Highway 50 getting a new sensibility, lifting Orlando just a little bit out of its provincial funk and perhaps setting a trend by placing our town, for once, ahead of the curve.