By Tali Zeloof
Adopted from the streets after being forbidden by law, graffiti finds an unlikely home scribbled, scratched and sprayed onto the walls of the Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles. Art in the Streets, the first U.S. museum survey of street art, offers audiences an entrée into a countercultural movement that has overcome odds to cement itself in the contemporary canon. Director of the museum and curator of the exhibition, Jeffrey Deitch, stated that he ‘put street art into the context of the museum to engage new audiences’ (Lyn Winter 2011). While Deitch’s innovative curation and mega-marketing budget brought in a diverse crowd, the record-breaking attendance is largely due to the generous donation made by acclaimed British street artist, Banksy. Justifying his sponsoring free admission every Monday, Banksy claimed, ‘I don’t think you should have to pay to look at graffiti. You should only pay if you want to get rid of it’ (Juxtapoz Magazine 2011). Although spoken with tongue-in-cheek humour, his statement highlights the ambivalent relationship street artists have with the commercial art world, while insinuating that despite the recognition of graffiti as a legitimate art form, street artists still grapple with their dichotomous insider/outsider status.
Entering a grunge warehouse turned contemporary art museum in the middle of Little Tokyo, Los Angeles audiences plunge into a cross-cultural environment evoking the mash-up of eclectic genres and styles that influence street art. It feels like the Geffen Contemporary has been put in Little Tokyo to gentrify the downtown area, which is brilliantly appropriate when you think about graffiti as beautifying a city. Twice a week the Nike skateboard team visits the museum to perform freestyle tricks on a series of custom-made ramps designed by pro-skater Lance Mountain and artist George McFetridge. The skate-ramp, located at the beginning of the exhibition, instantly arouses an atmosphere of fun and frivolous youth. The wheel tracks marking the steep inclines of the structures offer metonymic traces of risk, rebellion and raw adrenalin, the vibrancy and precision of design fulfilling the duo’s ‘goal of making an artwork truly skatable’ (Salo 2011). The building’s acoustics enable the sound of skateboarding to echo throughout the space to assault and amplify audiences’ sensory experience.
The introductory ‘period’ rooms historically contextualise the street art movement. Curators have done this by displaying authentic newspaper clippings of anti-graffiti campaigns, photographs capturing early attempts of political street art as well as a collection of spray paints that dates back to the 1960s when it was first invented for industrial markets. Exhibited in transparent vitrines, the spray paints are artifacts of the graffiti movement, tangible evidence of the art-making tools used by countercultural creatives before pre-made stencils were invented. By charting street art’s evolution, Deitch encourages visitors to shift perceptions of graffiti as vandalism and try to understand the political dimension of this democratic practice that implores the public to engage with the semiotics of the street (Deitch 2011). Although the period rooms seem to offer audiences a holistic history of the street art movement, the absence of female graffiti artists perpetuates the idea that street art is a ‘boys club’ (Acevedo 2011, p.1). So while Deitch advocates the democratisation of image-making, his egalitarianism fails to translate into equal representation of genders.
Although the curators concentrated on street art in key cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sao Paulo, it was a rookie error to leave out Paris, where graffiti art has its genesis with the Situationist movement and Guy Debord. Debord was the founder of the anti-establishment movement known as the Situationists. Their famous slogan “Never Work”, graffitied on Parisian streets, signalled the start of street art as a form of social and political critique (Andretti & Xavier 1996). The Situationists significantly influenced the oeuvre of stencil and graffiti artist Shepard Fairey whose iconic Obey sticker (displayed in numerous incarnations throughout the exhibition), drew inspiration from Debord’s critical theory on the predictability of bourgeois urban life. According to the exhibition wall text, although the Obey sticker started as a stencilling experiment, it quickly turned into an international phenomenon with pro-wrestler Andre the Giant’s face becoming ubiquitous in major city streets around the world. In contrast to the signage associated with advertising campaigns, the Obey sticker has no apparent commercial motives and so it forces the public to read further into the image and question other manipulative forces enacted by the ruling class.
A visual emblem of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, Fairey’s Hope poster employs a Russian Constructivist colour palette to depict the then presidential candidate with the words ‘Hope’ printed beneath his portrait. The iconic poster appears in the exhibition next to a letter from President Obama thanking Fairey for his contribution to the campaign. However, there exists an irony in the head of state sanctioning images which he claims, ‘have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign’ (Fairey 2008). While Obama’s letter recognises the potential of street art to polarise public opinion and bring attention to global issues, his praise perpetuates double standards in street art culture. While an unknown graffiti artist would be fined for sticking his/her stencil on public street signs, the rock stars of graffiti receive thank you letters from the President. Even in a movement characterised by democratic values, there is still hierarchy.
The majority of the exhibition space feels like a candy-coloured jungle gym with ramps constructed to seamlessly guide visitors from room to room. The vibrant murals depicting cartoon creatures with bulging eyes, bucktooth teeth and distorted features create a carnivalesque ambiance that is at times dizzying. In stark contrast to this lollypop land is the immersive installation entitled Street Market, a facsimile of a bleak narrow street. The brainchild of legendary street artists Todd James, Barry Mcgee and Stephen Power, Street Market reflects society’s disillusionment with the ‘new consumer culture that emerged after World War II’ (Los Angeles Times April 15 2011, p. 2). Lit with cheap neon lights and lined with miniature shops, some of which have bullet holes puncturing their front windows, it is an attempt by the artists to authentically simulate society’s moral decay, but the installation felt contrived, over-worked and at times indulgent. Perhaps installing a pseudo street in an exhibition about street art is a little too obvious.
A taxidermist dog casually marking his territory on a serrated steel gate greets visitors as they enter the central gallery. Could the dog be the animal incarnation of a graffiti artist who marks public property as a way of conquering and reclaiming public space? Furthermore, the urine, which is an abject bodily fluid that causes a visceral repulsion in audiences, parallels the negative view of graffiti as a desecration of public streets. In the same gallery, a stencil of a male figure kneeling next to a bucket of paint in a prayer position is superimposed on a wall that Banksy and the students from the City of Angels school graffitied on to resemble a stained glass window. This image of worship perhaps alludes to the ritualistic strategies employed by street artists, some of which include working late at night, wearing inconspicuous attire and signing their work using pseudonyms. The quasi-religious iconography aroused by Stained Window is juxtaposed with war arms that include a gun sporting a string of coloured pencils instead of bullets and an army tank with a heart-shaped balloon hanging from its rocket launcher. Violence is subverted with quirky creativity that articulates Banksy’s anti-war stance.
The Italian street artist known as Blu by his peers also offered a politically charged critique of war. However, his large-scale mural that depicted wooden coffins draped in American dollar notes instead of American flags had to be painted over due to the controversy it generated. Although Blu’s mural had a fleeting life on the outer wall of the Geffen Contemporary, it achieved exactly what a lot of street art tries to, and that is make people question political ideology and no longer accept it as gospel. His correlation between capitalism and causalities offended Bible-belt America; however it is through provocative content that Blu was able to bring the uncomfortable question of ‘Who profits from war?’ into public consciousness (Lambert 2011, p. 2). By refusing to change the subject matter of his mural, Blu preserved his integrity, autonomy and credibility in the street art world. The erasure of his mural highlights just one of the dilemmas that arise when taking art from the streets and inserting it into the museum (Lambert 2011, p. 2).
The exhibition is littered with Banksy works that subvert street signs’ original meanings. A personal favourite was a sign that read ‘any person found painting graffiti on these premises will be reported’ and then crudely scribbled underneath Banksy wrote ‘to the nearest art dealer’. Although this text-based work critiques surveillance and the commodification of art, it’s an ironic statement coming from Banksy who counts Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as clients and whose works are held in major museums worldwide. So while Banksy has maintained a mystique around his true identity, his status in the art world and the $500,000 price tags his works fetch makes one question whether he is complicit in his own commodification.
Art in the Streets amalgamates under one roof some of the most cutting-edge, creative and thought-provoking graffiti art. If you have ever paused to contemplate urban art on a brick wall, stop sign or highway, this exhibition is a must see.
Art in the Streets, The Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 17 April-8 August 2011.
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