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The Very Public Life of Street Art

Judith Supine Dirt Mansion English Kills April 12 – June 8, 2008

Pink & Aiko The Brick Ladies of NYC Ad Hoc March 21 – April 20, 2008

Super Combo Chashama ABC Gallery April 4 – April 25, 2008

A view of Gaia's
A view of Gaia's "Bryce" (2007) at the SUPERCOMBO show at Chashama ABC Gallery, photo courtesy

Everyone dreams about having it both ways and street artists are no different. On one hand they are rebellious lawbreakers exerting their right to public space, and on the other they are the ultimate capitalists monetizing their talents into commodities that sell increasing well.

Free of the stigma of graffiti’s spray-painted scribbling, street art is a kinder, prettier, gentler, more intellectual evolution of the same genre. The consensus of the street art community is that the term refers to work of any medium made on the street. In an email interview with Gaia, a 19-year-old street artist, he explained to me some of the intricacies of this constantly evolving form, “…the one defining factor is that it directly addresses the question of what is the definition of private and public space [and its ownership]...this is a question that street art inherently poses simply due to its illegal nature and that other art inherently does not consider because it is sanctioned.”

If the power of street art to drive the debate between public and private is somewhat questionable, what isn’t in doubt is the fact that New York is experiencing a fresh surge of the genre outside of its customary venue and inside the more conventional setting of the gallery.

If London is the global center of street art, New York is only a step behind with north Brooklyn acting as the epicenter of that American hub. Relatively cheap rents, a burgeoning hipster/arts community, the ubiquity of derelict spaces and an established graffiti culture makes north Brooklyn fertile ground for the new experimental world of street art.

One Bushwick gallery, Ad Hoc, is already making a name for itself in the scene. Gallery director Andrew Ford says Ad Hoc began three years ago with a passion for the work of street artists, graphic designers and even some gallery-inclined artists. It was a venue for work that didn’t have much of an art buying public. In the last year Ad Hoc started mounting a number of high profile group shows, including one curated by the street art icon Michael De Feo.

Ford explains the gallery’s program this way: “We believe in the work of street artists but we see them as more than just street artists. We feel they give the public things for free and street artists are at the forefront of making decisions and bold moves about who owns public spaces and what that means. There is obviously a dialogue with street and gallery work but when it is in the gallery it is not street art.”

The difference between art in the street and that created in the gallery is one he consciously emphasizes, since the NYPD Vandal Squad has also taken an interest in street artists and, like the graffiti writers, it is well known that the police maintain files on them.

Ad Hoc’s recent Brick Ladies exhibition showcased two well-known—and rare—female artists: old skool graffiti artist Lady Pink and the up-and-coming Aiko, formerly of Faile. It was a huge success for the gallery, with dozens of works sold for upwards of $10,000. The show was filled with images that at a first glance could easily be construed as sexist portrayals of provocatively posed women. Aiko’s “Pandy Drive” (2008) depicts two identical images of a woman bent over, ass in the air, staring at us with blank eyes. Her thighs and butt cheeks are tattooed with clip art images of a butterfly and an ice cream cone. She is surrounded by super-chic graphics, including Japanese anime characters, gothic lettering, and the word “Brooklyn,” which appears repeatedly on the large canvas, as if to assert Aiko’s street pedigree. Her super-slick manner is highly commercial, extremely decorative and virtually devoid of any emotional depth, reminiscent of a watered-down Takashi Murakami. Still, the shifting contextual significance of much street art would make it a mistake to dismiss her style as simply decorative.

Detail of Aiko's
Detail of Aiko's "Pandy Drive" (2008)

Lady Pink’s work is, like Aiko’s, fully at home in the gallery. “The She Temple” and “Women Breeding Soldiers” look like textbook examples of feminist art, with their powerful sense of femininity in conflict with the larger world. One work, “Ghosts of Graffiti,” is a dreamlike image that seems to attribute mythical status to the origins of New York’s graffiti scene. A green lady confronts a boy with an aerosol can standing in front of a wall displaying bubble letters, filled in with the American flag, that spell the word “sane.” Three crudely drawn cherubs float above, and ghostly figures melting into one another frame the scene.

A large pink camouflaged wall filled with amoeba-like wood panels, a collaboration between Aiko and Lady Pink, feels more about establishing an artistic lineage for the current wave of street art than to highlight the commonalities (which are hardly more than skin deep) between the two talents. What is a little surprising, however, is the abundance of stereotyped images of sexualized women. In Pink’s work they can appear aggressive and strong, but in Aiko’s they seem passive and weak, more conspicuously conscious of the viewer than of themselves.

Back in 1974, Norman Mailer wrote an article for Esquire magazine about the rising cult of graffiti and it’s “marriage of cool and style” and noted, “There is a pleasureable sense of depth to the elusiveness of the meaning.” It is an observation that rings true with street art as well, particularly with Aiko’s strain of pop abstraction.

What appears to differentiate street art from its graffiti predecessor are two things: the self-consciousness in its conversation with the city and its lack of the aggression and violence. If spray-painted names seem as much an act of ego as aesthetic statement, the newer and younger variation seems to take a step back and self-critically examine its social role. Sarcasm and irony is rife in the new street aesthetic. Gone is the radically transgressive scribbling on very public places (subway cars, store shutters, commercial walls, etc.) and in its place is street art’s obsession with niche spaces such as abandoned buildings, alleys, construction sites and doorways. What doesn’t exist is an external critical dialogue around the work; in fact, its “what you see is what you get” matter-of-fact-ness makes it highly palatable to the general public that is often confused by critical discourse.

During our conversation, Ad Hoc director Ford tried to conjure up a name for this new emerging style. He offered “urban folk art,” “tattoo art,” and “the new contemporary art” to name just a few. None of them seemed to stick but it doesn’t mean they won’t.

Elsewhere in the East Village, I met Celso, a street artist with a taste for experimentation, a knack for making things happen and a predilection for drawing colorful naked women. He guided me through the Super Combo show at Chashama ABC Gallery on Avenue C, which he curated. It was a mixed bag of collaborative work that featured a long list of established and emerging talents, including Shepard Fairey, Skewville, Infinity, Dark Cloud, Abe Lincoln Jr, Gaia, DAVe, Elbowtoe, Deeker and Celso, many of whom are members of the Endless Love Crew.

Some pieces looked literally dragged off the street and propped up against a wall, while others were created to suit conventional canvases and panels, priced to sell. There was a mixture of appropriated material and a profusion of sticker collages typically known as “sticker combos,” often repeating the same forms in rhythmic patterns that have come to define each artist’s brand. The exhibition pricelist is designed as a Chinese takeout menu, offering tasty artwork with wacky names like “Gaia Shrimp Foo Young” or “Infinity Sticky Buns.”

Unlike other street artists, Celso hand draws almost all of his work. He mentions that the police have stopped by the gallery, asking questions and taking notes.

Branding Street Art

The New York art world’s notice of street art is nothing new. Art historian and critic Lucy Lippard lauded John Fekner’s street works from the 1970s and 1980s and tagged him with the sexy title of “ad-man for the opposition.” Fekner’s stenciled word pieces addressed environmental, socio-economic and even philosophical issues. In the 1980s there was a long string of graffiti writers and street artists who parlayed their work to big gallery deals, including Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jenny Holzer.

One of the most curious features of today’s street art is the role of branding. At its most basic, branding is a form of storytelling. For street artists, that narrative can emerge in several ways: its interaction on the street, its interaction with fellow artists, or the message of the work itself. Yet, there is another factor differentiating it from other art as well as most commercial products—the advertising and the work are often one and the same. As outsiders to the traditional art scene, these 21st-century children of Warhol have done little to fight the system but have done much to turn it on its head. Why distinguish between gallery and street work when they can be part of a continuum? Street art patrons seem unphased that they are buying the same artworks that are pasted on the sides of buildings for free. Why not bypass the market system with its big bucks ads in Artforum or Art in America for a DIY approach? Not everyone is happy, however, with street artists’ self-declared liberty to appropriate public space and then turn around to make a fast buck at the public’s expense. Enter the “Splasher.”

In late 2006, a street artist, dubbed the Splasher by the blogosphere, popped up in Williamsburg. The anonymous artist or artists defaced the work of established figures like Swoon, Judith Supine, Neckface, and Shephard Fairey, sending shockwaves through the street art scene. Soon revolutionary declarations emerged alongside the splashes of paint, such as “Avant-Garde: Advance Scouts for Capital,” and squawked about the hypocrisy of street art and its bourgeoisie propensities. The incidents attracted mainstream media attention but at the end of the day most people concluded it was just another form of street art acting out its drama, appropriately, on the street.

The paradoxes of street art, which the Splasher helped publicize, seem unavoidable. At a recent Ad Hoc panel, Lady Pink stated that in order to create graffiti “you need to not care that you’re breaking the law” and then later, when asked about corporate appropriation of street art images, she flipped the script, urging artists to fight for their rights and trademark their images. No one in the room appeared to blink at the contradiction.

Emerging from the crowd

One street artist who has been attracting some attention is the Baltimore-based Gaia. His first real piece popped up on the Lower East Side only a year ago, his linocut style obviously influenced by artists like Swoon and Elbowtoe. Currently in art school, he has already participated in group shows at Ad Hoc and is preparing for shows in Los Angeles. He has sold work through the influential Black Rat Press in Britain.

A participant in the “Super Combo” show in Alphabet City, Gaia’s style is distinctive and detailed. His linoleum prints are dominated by simple head forms, either human or animal, and irregularly shaped—simple black-and-white images that pop out from whatever backdrop of brick, wood or metal they’re pasted on. “Bryce” (2007), which is included in the East Village show, depicts a young boy with flowers in his hair. It is printed on three large plates whose joints don’t align perfectly, suggesting a humanity and vulnerability that creates a halo of innocence around the young face. His collaborative pieces in “Super Combo” stand out due to the respect for his work shown by his fellow street artists, who avoid covering over his wheatpastes—another dominant form of street art—with their own.

“I get up the most in New York because there is a powerful precedence of street work there and the spots run for a very long time,” says Gaia of his attraction to Gotham. For street art to achieve physical longevity is rare. An artist from Chicago, Saro, mentioned that his city’s Giuliani-style mayor fosters an antipathy for graffiti and street art. “Compared to other cities, here in Chicago if it’s not legal it doesn’t ride. In Queens/Soho/Brooklyn I saw stuff that’s been up since the 70s.” Gaia was also forthcoming about how he hoped his street and gallery work would interact in the future. “My ideal goal would be to find a balance between the gallery scene and the street. I have absolutely nothing against selling my work and am in fact currently working with numerous galleries all over the world. Honestly, my work in the street has made it very easy for me to become assimilated into the gallery market because the street work has served as an incredible self-promotion and has afforded me some very exciting opportunities. I like to think of it as not ‘street art’ but just art in a non-conventional setting. Even if your work is not political, it becomes political by the nature of that act of putting it on the street. It is a constant dialogue; it questions what people take for granted.”

In making the jump from street to gallery, one artist seems to have found a workable solution. Judith Supine recently opened an exuberant show in Bushwick’s English Kills Gallery. The solo exhibit, titled Dirt Mansion, is a carnival of images that successfully captures the thrill of the street in an installation that looks like the black light lovechild of a Victorian scrapbook enthusiast and a freak show performer.

Sculptures of men sporting rectal thermometers and little girls holding aloft a giant break up the space, which also contains ominous black dollhouses with strange domestic interiors that act as planters for bizarre growths emerging from their roofs. One corner of the floor was scooped out to create a pool of water for an adjacent sculpture of divers, should they come to life and choose to dive in.

Best known for his Simpsons-hued people pasted on buildings across the city, or in one case, hanging off the Manhattan Bridge, Supine has developed a distinctive cut-and-paste style that combines impossible settings with bodies that twist and turn in improbable scales.

The show, like his street work, appears to spring from some well of dark and tortured childhood emotions. A large, three-part wall piece, composed of three untitled works that the artist tried to sell together but to no avail, incorporates two green hands, one pruning the fingers of the other as the disembodied digits fall neatly into a pile on the floor, and two flanking figures against a backdrop of flying, fuschia-colored flowers. This psychotic composition, metaphorically creating and destroying itself, mimics the tension of the street, where the artist simultaneously defaces and beautifies public space. Supine distills the raw energy of his street work into his gallery pieces without sacrificing the edginess that makes it so appealing. Unlike other street artists who simply superimpose their style or brand onto gallery-scaled artworks, Supine hasn’t leashed his sharp imagination, preferring instead to manufacture a stimulating visual space where you fall under the illusion that anything can happen.

That the Supine exhibit sold out almost as soon as it opened was an eye-opener to most who were skeptical of the ability of a Bushwick gallery to move large, expensive pieces.

There remains some anger at the “sell-outs” among those who believe street art should be a wholesale rejection of mainstream commercialism. Yet as street art comes of age, perceptions are shifting among proponents as well as antagonists. A police officer from the NYPD Vandal Squad is cashing in on the graffiti and street art craze by publishing a book on the topic with powerHouse Books. An artist, Jason Eisner, who exhibited his work last December at English Kills, recently started bolting his gallery pieces to construction site walls in Williamsburg. He obviously saw a cache in advertising—or exhibiting—on the street something originally conceived for a gallery. The blurring of venue boundaries is starting to go both ways.

Gaia is honest about the dilemma many street artists face. “It is a question that I can attempt to address but I never seem to come to a conclusion. At first I had a small tinge of resentment for those who don’t get up on the street any longer and only create work for the gallery, but now I don’t,” he says about his desire to make money at what he loves but not to turn his back on an audience who appreciates his work but lacks the financial means to own his gallery pieces.

With street art sensations Skewville slated to open a shop named Factory Fresh in Bushwick in early June, and rumors of other galleries catering to the genre may move into the neighborhood, there might just be a solution to the dilemma Gaia and others face. “You have a set of galleries here [in Bushwick] being run by different types of gallery dealers with different philosophies. Our artists like the way we run things and have horror stories from mainstream galleries,” Ad Hoc’s Ford says. “We don’t want to treat the work as a commodity and I think they know that. We’re all in it together to win it.”


Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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