This far reaching 5 month exhibition at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA has been billed as “the first major U.S. museum exhibition on the history of graffiti and street art”. Interesting. It is a broad concept housed in a 40,000 square foot former police car warehouse renovated by famed California architect Frank Gehry.
The full list of artists range from former graffiti artists that have successfully crossed over to the commercial gallery scene (like Banksy and Barry McGee), to art world unknowns, historical figures of borderline obscurity, a skateboard-able installation and an esoteric and impenetrable list of tag names or nom de’ graffitis. Beyond the sweeping and dense exhibition, there were numerous spin off events of the ‘feel-good’ nature (a mural jam to replace the controversial mural by Blu with old and new school hip-hop personalities) and even unplanned interventions (a massive fire extinguisher tag on the side of the building by Katsu, police arresting Revok at the airport), as well as related historical archives (Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper). If that doesn’t sound chaotic enough, read on.
The first question that comes to mind is how did curators Robert Gasman and Aaron Rose narrow down a cast of millions to a handful? Is it based on the criteria of graffiti and street art itself; who is the most famous? How would one determine something that is comprised of such high levels of subjectivity and temporality? And who determines credentials, criteria for success in an activity that exists in its own right and primarily outside of the law? MOCA Director and long-time New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch claims that ““Art in the Streets will be the first exhibition to position the work of the most influential artists to emerge from street culture in the context of contemporary art history…” A challenging starting point to a spectacularly broad premise for an exhibition.
This first major curatorial hurdle relates to the fundamental question of street art vs. graffiti (which exists much like the decades old division between roller-bladers and skateboarders). It can be safely asserted that graffiti as we know it today, as the words derivation implies, relates to writing on walls, i.e. it is text based. As such, it shares a common language with typography, illuminated lettering and calligraphy. Street art is everything else: the creative non-letter work in the urban public sphere. In more practical terms it is the icon and cartoon character driven spray-painting, it is the posters and stickers and it is a few other inventive methods of affixing works (e.g. mosaics by Space Invader), without permission, into the city landscape. So in Art in the Streets how is the important question of street art versus graffiti answered? ‘Its all good’ appears to be the resounding answer.
Art in the Streets is indeed on one level representative of these subcultures. It is brazen. But it also is contextualised in a fine art institution and it is confusing. Unfortunately constant movement reads as static, negating its own energy. This, combined with the a questionable layout and a lack of focus or restraint hurt the shows theme and its artists. Few, if any, ideas-based works are present. By and large the show is a psychedelic wash of colour and form. It has its dark corners too, but these are overdone as well. In short, what I’m trying to say is that total installation works in opposition to the normative gallery experience, but an entire exhibition of total installation becomes static. The inverse or opposite can be said about minimalist works.
Now I don’t blame the individual artist for the chaos, I blame the curators. Many of the invited artists are truly outsider artists: they learned and practiced their craft outside of art institutions. Given the opportunity, a budget and a blank wall they will no doubt maximise their presence. In other words, they are coming from a world were audacity, balls and drawing attention to yourself are prized methods to achieving the desired goal: fame. But, if you let loose dozens of individuals trained in this mindset to do as they please in a 40,000 square foot warehouse gallery, you will no doubt have everyone of them vying to create the loudest, brashest work. Subtlety isn’t the first thing I think of when I think of graffiti.
In fairness many of the artists did break out of conventions and employed innovative sculptural and installation pieces to accompany. It should also be said that as graffiti and street artists proliferated world wide from the 90’s til today and the notion of crossing over into fine art become both viable and accepted, that many standards have developed in this new gallery world. Themes of using rubbish, dense salon-style hangs, stylistic and cartoonish characters, sign painting, a connection to skate boarding, incorporating Brazilian, Phillie Tall or Cholo style tagging into their art works, etc., etc., etc. have all become gallery standards. Initially a novelty 15 years ago, passed down and copied because of its success, it is now a convention. And some artists didn’t innovate. The result is a tightly packed show where no one holds back, where every corner of the Geffen space is packed with shape and colour. Sounds exhilarating, right? Or maybe not.
Having said all that, I will discuss some of the works indivually.
A city bus with a perfectly executed eponymous graffiti piece by Risk is amazing. It relives a moment in history and does it one better. Risk famously and illegally painted a city bus in the late 80’s. He revisits his heyday and that moment in LA’s graffiti history. It works on the level of die-hard insiders who ‘get it’, it works for graffiti newbies who see it as simply ‘sick’, it captures the essence of what graffiti is all about at its best and it articulates the material and historio-temporal differences of New York and Los Angeles and their respective histories through this microcosm.
The Banksy installation approaches contemporary methodology the closest, as his individual works are indeed concept based. But it amounts to a series of half-baked, partially informed, Ad Buster-style political one liners. The work is cartoonish. The painting of the LAPD beating a piñata recalls the controversy over the artists stencils in Palestine. There was offense taken to the portrayal of the victims as animals or non-human. The Art in the Streets painting refers to the famous Rodney King incident, and while doubtless it was well intended, it inevitably reads as a party, as fun and ok. So Banksy thinks the LAPD are having fun and partying while beating an unarmed working-class black man to within an inch of his life. Is that a statement? What about portraying his actual pain? What about humanising the victim? Ostensibly, this piece takes the point of view of the police and looks to the victim, just as in Palestine, as the helpless other. And that’s where he goes wrong.
Many of the other works in Banksy’s installation are of passing interest and almost immediately digestable. Some show the budget this artist has grown used to in their appropriation of ‘real’ things like a steam roller. A dog pisses in a frame and wins a prize. It is is an easy swipe at abstract painting, but doesn’t say anything of lasting importance on the matter. Or perhaps it is a self deprecating take on the supposed ‘territorial’ nature of graffiti and its equivalent in dogs marking their turf. This fictional painting has now won the prize of a “major U.S. museum exhibition”. The one work that stands out is the large mural. The piece is comprised of a layered composition of hundreds of colourful tags. No one is readable, but a rainbow like wash of colour is the result. This was then ‘cut’ back with the hard lines of a window framing in a gothic arch. A quintessential Banksy figure of a young man is painted at the base genuflecting in respect to the shrine.
The inclusion of Ramalzee’s Battle Station installation was a highlight. A strange genius, Ramalzee was an early pioneer of interdisciplinary art practice relating to graffiti. Frequently creating neologisms to communicate his new visual language, he has remained a somewhat strange and enigmatic figure in graffiti history. The installation at MOCA may only reinforce that, but it becomes clear that the man that is quoted as describing his work as “Ornamentation to armamentation… What was being done on the trains at the time was a taking over of language … another type of war, a political war of languages… Wildstyle graffiti involves taking a letter or sign and adding armor to it to deflect the ‘isms of society” is indeed a bit mad and 100% visionary.
The “Los Angeles version of Street Market, a re-creation of an urban street complete with overturned trucks by Todd James, Barry McGee, and Steve Powers” felt like a replay of a greatest hit. Fans clamouring to the concert to hear the hit song. It was a safe call on the part of the curators, as the original version was immensely popular amongst street art fans and even to a broader art audience.
Pop, car culture and street art history were evident: Keith Haring’s painted cars, Henry Chalfant’s collection of subway photographs displayed in a large organic cluster was historically poignant, (balanced and a good refresher on the art form’s history) and the inclusion of Chaz was significant. Although a more protracted examination of the unique and much older history of Cholo graffiti or an even more expanded history of gang graffiti and gang symbology in the US would have been more to chew on. In fairness an entire exhibit could be dedicated to this subject matter. Or hobo monikers for that matter.
Los Angelino Retna’s murals on the gallery walls were an earnest application of graffiti fundamentals. Instead of dressing his work in a loose concept or superficially in the language of contemporary art, he stuck to what was vital. The result is an enjoyable return to what I did the first time I saw graffiti… I simply tried to decipher it. And I enjoyed it. Drugs crew worked in a similar vein, albeit in a completely different style. Representing a particular style of absurd and playful ‘back to the basics’ graffiti that has become increasingly significant in San Francisco, New York, Barcelona and Berlin, they just did what they do best… paint their names on the walls.
There were numerous other, very large works and installations that filled the space. However much of this added to the generally noise of the exhibition and left the audience with little or no breathing room. There was no expense spared however in works like Neckface’s alley install, which was a massive one-liner. Space Invaders dotted the gallery space akin to his home streets of Paris. An alphabet by MSK could be read as scholastic even reflecting a world view of teacher/student? The criticisms of KRS One come to mind.
The Ayer ‘Heaven’ is perfect. It is an actual free way sign in the space. Painted over the informational ‘Next Exit’ text is an Ayer piece. It is exceptional in its ability to convey what is the essence of graffiti: skillful, colourful, daring, high-risk, audacious, innovative, competitive. It also works like Risk’s piece as an interesting historical marker and maybe the ultimate found object installation. But most importantly, it opens up to a personal story of a young artist who eventually took his own life. This art work was made by the MSK crew as a tribute. Well done.
Overall the show reads as chaotic, unplanned, noisy and over-saturated. The layout is crammed with work and the curation is more akin to a greatest hits album or a selective nostalgia, as opposed to what could have been an insightful and novel approach to a now well trodden subject matter (thanks primarily to the glut of clearly lucrative graffiti/street art publications). That is not to say the show is without highlights, but it is hampered by favoritism and a lack of inspired curation and editing.