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Art review: 'Art in the Streets' at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA

April 15, 2011 |  4:46 pm


It’s generally not a good idea to censor a mural you commissioned, especially when that mural is part of a show about uncommissioned street art.

When Museum of Contemporary Art director and curator Jeffrey Deitch whitewashed a mural by Italian artist Blu in December, the episode perfectly illustrated how graffiti’s unruly, in-your-face attitude, even when sanitized under the banner of “street art,” might not be a good fit for a museum retrospective. The very idea of the exhibition “Art in the Streets” at the Geffen Contemporary asks whether this erstwhile outlaw culture can or should be folded into the grand narrative of art history.

Despite its first, faltering steps, the exhibition answers this question with a resounding “Yes.” Viewers will encounter a bombastic, near-overwhelming cavalcade of eye candy: colorful swirling murals, immersive installations, walls papered with candid and provocative photos, and a custom-designed skate ramp. Immodestly anticipating the response, there’s even a big “WOW” painted on the inside of the building’s roll down doors. But the exhibition’s strong suit is not its impressive array of large-scale work but rather its art historical treatment of an outsider form, complete with a timeline, “period” rooms, and plenty of video and photographic documentation.

Although bright colors, lights and sounds beckon from the galleries on the main floor, it’s worth spending some time with the terse but informative timeline upstairs. It moves briskly from the movement’s beginnings in tagging in New York and Philadelphia in the 1960s, through cholo graffiti in L.A. in ’70s, and the form’s emergence on the New York gallery scene in the ’80s.

It also charts graffiti’s overlap with punk and skateboarding cultures and the emergence of the “Wild Style” that famously blanketed New York subway cars in the ’70s and ’80s. The timeline stops abruptly in 1989, when the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority began its anti-graffiti campaign, but picks up again on the other side of the galleries to chart the movement’s increasing popularity: the founding of Juxtapoz magazine, Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” poster, and last year’s Academy Award-nominated documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”

Because of its outlaw status (despite its long-running influence in art and fashion), street art has not been fully welcomed into the annals of art history. At the press preview, Deitch, his co-curators Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose, and artist Fab 5 Freddy compared street art’s effect to that of Cubism, Constructivism, Dada, Surrealism and Pop Art. That might be a stretch, but this hyping of the exhibition is completely in step with graffiti’s ethos of self-presentation. Spawned with tagging — scrawling one’s name on every available surface — graffiti began as a simple act of self-assertion. In fact, perhaps the first piece of graffiti was created by World War II shipyard inspector James J. Kilroy, who inscribed every piece of equipment with a long-nosed cartoon face and the words “Kilroy was here.”

Streetart This character is revitalized in Lance Mountain’s and Geoff McFetridge’s custom skate ramp, basically a collection of inclines and blocks decorated with large, Kilroy-esque faces. Nike, a co-sponsor of the exhibition, will send members of its SB skate team to skate the ramp twice a week, filling the galleries with a soundtrack of scraping and crashing. It’s not the first time skaters have been welcomed into a museum — co-curator Rose built a skate bowl in the 2004 exhibition “Beautiful Losers” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco — but in the context of this show, their performance underscores the importance of the body and self-fashioning in street art.

Created on the street, at night, often in inaccessible places, graffiti writing is itself a species of physical performance. It’s not surprising then that images of the artists and their friends appear everywhere in the exhibition. As Deitch noted, graffiti is an ephemeral form. Like performance art, it is often only experienced as documentation. This ranges from Gusmano Cesaretti’s gritty photographs of the cholo scene in 1970s L.A. and Martha Cooper’s vibrant portraits of New York artists in the early ’80s to darker images of more raucous, 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 decay, reflecting disillusionment and broken promises. This underbelly of consumerism also surfaces in several large, immersive installations. “Street Market” by Todd James, Barry McGee and Stephen Powers is a facsimile of a clutch of narrow city streets lined with decaying, fetid buildings and bedecked with cheap electric signage. The buildings are filled with what look like miniature art studios and makeshift living spaces that can be glimpsed only through the windows; they’re like little dens of creativity amid the ruins of consumer society.

In a more illusionistic vein, Neckface has created a dark, filthy alleyway littered with broken bottles and debris whose only purpose seems to be inspiring trepidation. Such installations were obviously never intended for the street. Rather, they attempt to re-create a “street” atmosphere that is both carnival-esque and unsettling. In this, they are not unlike the works of mainstream installation artists — Mike Kelley comes to mind — or for that matter, the artificial environments at Disneyland.

This extension of street art aesthetics to illusionistic installations raises the question: What happens to street art when it is no longer in the street? Certainly it loses some of its shock value — part of the beauty of street art is that it might take us unawares. Perhaps the examples above are attempts to shock us by bringing the street into the gallery. But they feel overly labored and oddly, a bit fussy.

This elevation of street art in the museum — essentially, the show’s premise — is the target of the ubiquitous Banksy’s contribution. He asked local high school students to tag panels in myriad colors and then framed them inside a drawing 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 enshrining graffiti art within the museum turns it into an icon requiring our submission. In case we missed this point, Banksy has also placed a real, full-sized steamroller in the space as a not-so-subtle reminder of the implacable march of commodification. Ever the contrarian, he brilliantly continues to bite the hand that feeds him.

In the end, the show is not just about showcasing street art but about recovering in some way what has already been lost. Henry Chalfant’s installation of hundreds of photos of graffiti-laden New York subway cars is oddly touching, not just for its nostalgic look at the past but because it’s a testament to the sheer volume of work that has been erased.

L.A. artist Saber responds to this phenomenon in a huge white and gray mural — a grisaille, really — with a trompe l’oeil tear in it that reveals layers of graffiti underneath. The piece acknowledges not only that graffiti is a temporal medium — painted over layers and layers of previous work — it’s also a nod to those writers who came before. Street art may be a product of a particular moment, but as the energy and variety of this show attest, it is constantly reinventing itself.



Veteran N.Y. graffiti writer Lee Quinones leads artists (not including Blu) in painting mural on Geffen

Graffiti and street art show to take over Geffen Contemporary

 L.A.'s street art pioneers paint a colorful history

 --Sharon Mizota

Top: "Stained Window" by Banksy and students from 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.

Comments () | Archives (26)

You write: "At the press preview, Deitch, his co-curators Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose, and artist Fab 5 Freddy compared street art’s effect to that of Cubism, Constructivism, Dada, Surrealism and Pop Art. That might be a stretch, but this hyping of the exhibition is completely in step with graffiti’s ethos of self-presentation." To compare institutional "hyping" and "self-presentation" is a category mistake, making a continuity where there is none.
In any case, it was the merit of some Romantics (Fichte) to insist that the comparative method was a form of domination: a technique of appropriation, of making the different into the same. Institutions require such methods in order to make false continuities and identities; art requires no such thing. That's why Banksy and Blu, with a critique of war, money and State, made things difficult to appropriate. At least you brought yourself to use the word "censor," finally.

The question is not whether these artistic practices are transgressive ("outlaw") or not. These artists' works have, from very early on, been widely accepted by legitimizing art institutions. The questions need to be directed at the curatorial premise of this exhibition. If this were a historical exhibition about "art in the streets" it would include contemporary muralist practices (Judith Baca comes to mind), sculptural works in the city-scape (any artist from Sculpture Projects Münster ’07 comes to mind), or actionist groups (the collective Asco comes to mind). This is instead an exhibition of a very select few artists that Jeffrey Deitch thinks are really cool, and who Dietch has had an interest in as a collector and dealer.

The exhibition is a missed opportunity, and contradicts precisely what Deitch promised not to do, by staging exhibitions that promote his private collecting interests.

my post above was directed to the review signed by C. Knight. The review now up is signed by S. Mizota. What is going on with the Times?

The show is amazing with cool things around every corner, but the store was the most amazing part for us. So many great things to buy we spent more time there than in any other part of the show.

The first graffiti is Kilroy? Has this writer any education at all? What about the walls of the ancient world? As usual the discourse of the LA Times is sadly wanting.

"This is instead an exhibition of a very select few artists that Jeffrey Deitch thinks are really cool, and who Dietch has had an interest in as a collector and dealer."

Nail on the head, Samuel. Well done.

" In fact, perhaps the first piece of graffiti was created by World War II shipyard inspector James J. Kilroy, who inscribed every piece of equipment with a long-nosed cartoon face and the words “Kilroy was here.”

Are you kidding me? You really wrote in this article that the first piece of graffiti as "Kilroy was here."?
Graffiti is from an Italian word, graffito, and has been around for thousands of years.

MOCA? ?Que? How about a New Puppy actually Sniffing Glue! ABCNT - Cryptik - Nomade - Eddie Colla

Let's stop pretending this vandalism-nonsense is "art". Even a monkey can spill paint onto a canvas. This grafitti does NOT educate. It does NOT communicate a message. It's all about someone's little ego trying to make a name for themselves. That's why gangsters use grafitti. (The same could also be said of the majority of MOCA's exhibits.)

Want to see real EDUCATIONAL art? Look at Diego Rivera. Look at Frida Kahlo.
Look at The Anahuac Mural www.AnahuacMural.org


Mr. Cartoon was pertinent! Orale Raza Cosmica!
'Car/tunes' 'OtrO' Angulo

I have always wanted to reflect this city from an 'auto-motive' perspective.
Auto as in the self circulating in the flow of the city.
I recall what John Lennon said of LA:
‘Everything is happening and nothing is going on.'
Movement, energy, mobility of thought is what I’m seeking in these
digital drawings. Everything is more or less fleeting you might say.
The flux and flow of existence. The word existence in German is dasein
which is similar to the word dancing and very well so since there is a
performance element to the work. LA with its long octopustic extensions
of freeways and neon signs especially at night give off unprecedented hues
of color and energy. Trying to reflect this is what drives these pieces
in the end.
All the titles which are in Spanish end with ‘car’. For instance: Atracar,
Notificar, Masticar and so on. . .
The 'tunes' part is related to words, quotes, observations hovering
over this vehicle which transport one from A to B. I think it’s that space
between A and B, the journey you might say which I find interesting and
which where I see the logos (words, thoughts) having an impact in the scheme of
things. It’s not easy to combine words with form. One tends to supercede the other.
I think Rene Magritte, Ed Ruscha and graffiti artists resolved this well in their work.
And now I have attempted to do the same.

May 7, 2008
Rene Angulo Trujillo
'OtrO' Angulo

Why is this show arbitrarily limited to the streets? There is often fantastic, clever graffiti in public restrooms. I'm looking forward to a future "Art of the Stalls" exhibition...

Renowned architects like Thom Mayne & Frank Gehry use building designs to express anger and alienation while street artists must settle for vandalizing their neighborhoods.

It's a terrible tragedy knowing that so many pieces of ephemeral performance art are painted over. I remember I made the terrible mistake of painting over some art on my wall, I was ignorant back then, not knowing that the scribbled signature was art.

Awesome review. Thank you. I went to the opening tonight; I was amazed. A wow, escaped my lips.

@One-coatl- go see the show, it's amazing.

Good article - I was around showing at Hal Bromm Gallery in the East Village at the time....and recently did a video conflating graffiti and a self-portrait dancing to the same tune.

a lot of that stuff has no place in an exhibit on graffiti

What is that dog doing in the photo?

My 19 yr. son went to visit NYC for the first this month from LA . He was arrested, punched in the back repeatedly doing a "tag" in Chinatown. Then he was in lock up for 28 hr. and when he saw the judge he sentenced him to either 10 days in Riker Island or 4 day's of community service, he chose the latter.
He also has return in June for court date regarding this offence. If this is ART why is the artist being punished?
The galleries and musuems are sending a message to youth that is artistic to do tagging/graffiti. Prison is not artistic.

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