It’s usually not a good idea to censor a mural you’ve commissioned, especially when that mural is part of an uncommissioned street art show.
When the director and curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jeffrey Deitch, whitewashed a mural by Italian artist Blu in December, the episode perfectly illustrated how the unruly and unruly attitude of graffiti, even when sanitized under the banner of “street art,” might not be a good fit for a museum retrospective. The very idea of the “Art in the Streets” exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary raises the question of whether this once outlawed culture can or should be integrated into the grand narrative of art history.
Despite its hesitant first steps, the exhibition answers this question with a resounding “yes”. Viewers will encounter an explosive and almost overwhelming cavalcade of eye candy: colorful swirling murals, immersive installations, walls lined with candid and provocative photos and a custom-designed skate ramp. Shamelessly anticipating the response, there’s even a large “WOW” painted inside the building’s rolling doors. But the highlight of the exhibition is not its impressive array of large-scale works, but rather its art-historical treatment of an outward form, with a timeline, “period” rooms and a abundant video and photographic documentation.
Though bright colors, lights, and sounds beckon the galleries downstairs, it’s worth spending time with the concise yet informative timeline upstairs. It evolved rapidly from the beginnings of the tag movement in New York and Philadelphia in the 1960s, through cholo graffiti in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and the emergence of the form on the New York gallery scene. Yorkers in the 80s.
It also traces the overlap of graffiti with punk and skateboard cultures and the emergence of the “Wild Style” that covered New York’s subway cars in the 70s and 80s. The timeline ends abruptly in 1989, when the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority launches its anti-graffiti campaign, but picks up on the other side of the galleries to chart the movement’s growing popularity: the founding of Juxtapoz magazine, Obama’s “Hope” by Shepard Fairey,” and the Oscar-nominated documentary by last year “Exit Through the Gift Shop”.
Due to its outlaw status (despite its long-standing influence in art and fashion), street art has not been fully welcomed into the annals of art history. During the press preview, Deitch, his co-curators Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose, and artist Fab 5 Freddy compared the effect of street art to that of cubism, constructivism, Dada, surrealism and pop art. It may be overstated, but this exhibition hype is completely in line with graffiti’s self-presentation ethic. Spawned with tagging – scribbling one’s name on every available surface – graffiti began as a simple act of self-affirmation. In fact, perhaps the first graffiti was created by World War II shipyard inspector James J. Kilroy, who inscribed each piece of equipment with a long-nosed cartoon face and the words “Kilroy was here”.
This character is revitalized in Lance Mountain and Geoff McFetridge’s custom skate ramp, essentially a collection of inclines and blocks decorated with large Kilroy-style faces. Nike, co-sponsor of the exhibit, will send members of its SB skate team to skate the ramp twice a week, filling the galleries with a soundtrack of scratch and crash. This isn’t the first time skaters have been welcomed into a museum — co-curator Rose built a skate bowl in 2004’s “Beautiful Losers” exhibit at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts — but in As part of this exhibition, their performance highlights the importance of the body and self-construction in street art.
Created in the street, at night, often in inaccessible places, graffiti writing is itself a kind of physical performance. It is therefore not surprising that images of the artists and their friends appear throughout the exhibition. As noted by Deitch, graffiti is an ephemeral form. Like performance art, it is often only experienced as documentation. It ranges from grainy photographs of Gusmano Cesaretti’s cholo scene in 1970s Los Angeles and vibrant portraits of New York artists from Martha Cooper in the early 80s to darker images of a noisier and sometimes violent youth. by Ed Templeton, Teen Witch (Andrea Sonnenberg), Dash Snow, Terry Richardson and Larry Clark.
If pop artists responded to the shiny new consumer culture that emerged after World War II, graffiti artists responded to its decadence, reflecting disillusionment and broken promises. This belly of consumerism also surfaces in several large immersive installations. “Street Market” by Todd James, Barry McGee and Stephen Powers is a facsimile of a set of narrow streets lined with dilapidated, fetid buildings and adorned with cheap electrical panels. Buildings are filled with what look like miniature art studios and makeshift living spaces that can only be glimpsed through windows; they are like little lairs of creativity amid the ruins of the consumer society.
In a more illusionistic vein, Neckface has created a dark, dirty alley littered with broken bottles and debris whose sole purpose seems to be to inspire apprehension. Such installations were obviously never intended for the street. Rather, they attempt to recreate a “street” atmosphere that is both carnivalesque and unsettling. In this they are not unlike the works of mainstream installation artists – Mike Kelley comes to mind – or for that matter, the man-made environments of Disneyland.
This extension of the aesthetics of street art to illusionist installations raises the question: what happens to street art when it is no longer in the street? Admittedly, it loses some of its shock value – part of the beauty of street art is that it can catch us off guard. Perhaps the examples above are attempts to shock us by bringing the street into the gallery. But they feel too laborious and oddly, a little picky.
This elevation of street art in the museum – essentially, the premise of the exhibition – is the target of Banksy’s ubiquitous contribution. He had local high school students label panels in a myriad of colors and then frame them inside a design of a Gothic arch that resembles a stained glass window in a church. Below he added an illustration of a praying figure kneeling next to a can of paint. The piece suggests that the enshrinement of graffiti art in the museum makes it an icon requiring our submission. In case we missed the point, Banksy also placed an actual life-size steamroller in space as a not-so-subtle reminder of the relentless march of commodification. Always against the current, he brilliantly continues to bite the hand that feeds him.
In the end, the show is not just about showcasing street art but somehow reclaiming what has already been lost. Henry Chalfant’s installation of hundreds of graffiti-laden photos of New York City subway cars is oddly touching, not only for its nostalgic look at the past, but also because it bears witness to the volume of work that has been erased. .
Artist LA Saber responds to this phenomenon in a huge white and gray mural – a grisaille, really – with a trompe-l’oeil tear that reveals layers of graffiti underneath. The piece not only acknowledges that graffiti is a temporal medium – painted over layers and layers of previous work – it’s also a nod to writers who came before it. Street art may be the product of a particular moment, but as evidenced by the energy and variety of this show, it keeps reinventing itself.
Veteran New York graffiti artist Lee Quinones directs artists (except Blu) in mural on Geffen
An exhibition of graffiti and street art takes over Geffen Contemporary
Above: “Stained Window” by Banksy and students from the City of Angels school. Middle: “Painted skate ramp” by Geoff McFetridge and Lance Mountain. Bottom: “International Ice Cream Truck” by Mister Cartoon. Credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times.