Visual Arts

Street Art: From the Frying Pan Straight into the… Museum

Martha Cooper, photograph of Lion's Den by Lee Quiñones (LEE), Lower East Side, New York City (1980)

Los Angeles seems to be on a mission to make street art/graffiti old news. And fittingly so, since it may be the city that hates it the most.

City: Los Angeles, California
Event: Art in the Streets
Venue: The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
Artists: Banksy, Roa, Shepard Fairey, Swoon, KAWS, Martha Cooper, Henry Chalfant, Gusmano Cesaretti, Hugh Holland, Larry Clark, Terry Richardson, Craig Costello, Ed Templeton, Neckface, Invader

Date: 2011-04
City: Los Angeles, California
Event: Street Cred, From Concrete to Canvas
Venue: The Pasadena Museum of California Art
Artists: Chaz Bojórquez, Rojelio Cabral, Paul Kanemitsu, Alix Kizu, MAN ONE, RETNA, REVOK, RISK, SABER, SINER, ZES, CODAK, Juan Carlos Muños Hernandez, KOFIE, PUSH, REVOK, SHANDU, AXIS TEMPT, Jesse Simon, DASH 2000, HASTE, Evan Skrederstu, Jeff Soto

Date: 2011-05
City: Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Event: Street a.k.a Museum
Venue: The Portsmouth Museum of Art
Artists: Bumblebee, Herakut, Shark Toof, Alexandros Vasmoulakis, and Andreas von Chrzanowski

Date: 2011-05

Something important is happening in Los Angeles. Contrary to what everyone might expect, it has nothing to do with a movie star, or the weather. It has to do with, (gasp!), culture.

Late last month. A bunch of well-known street artists came together and took over The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA with their street art/graffiti work. The thing that’s important about this, though, is that these artists didn’t really "come together". They were invited to the same place. And they didn’t really "take over" the MOCA. They were commissioned to put up their pieces, all for an exhibition, curated by director Jeoffrey Deitch, called Art in the Streets. This is important given the nature of street art – clandestine, invasive, contra-institutional – and begs the question: if it is now lending itslef to curation, what will happen to street art from here on?

The show is massive. You walk in, up and around the ramp to see the skateboard ramp built by Nike, meant as an homage to godfather of skateboard and punk rock culture in Venice Craig R. Stecik III. (If you’re there on a Tuesday you can catch part of the Nike pro-skating team perform.) To the left, upstairs, you’ll find a historical timeline of East Coast graffiti, starting with Cornbread in 1967 through 1989, coupled with pieces from the late Martin Wong’s collection. From up here, you can see (and hear) the busy, noisy Style Wars, the Musical installation on the main floor below.

Everything is so taxing on the senses; one tries to grasp on to something familiar and tranquil, moving along through the Banksy section and along the other superstars’ cubicle galleries. Fab 5 Freddy, Lady Pink, Gusmano Cesaretti, RETNA, Shepard Fairey, KAWS, ROA, Invader… to name a few. A visitor might then marvel at the gorgeous and ethereal paper sculpture by Swoon, hidden behind a black curtain next to Spike Jonze’s skateboarding films, only to be immediately confounded by Neckface’s Untitled, 2011 installation that looks more like a would-be entrance to something called "The Haunted Alley Ride" at Disneyland.

Other than a few older pieces, like Margaret Kilgallen’s 2001 piece, the recreation of Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery, Keith Haring’s 1983 Buick, and Kenny Scharf’s 1981 Cadillac, most of the works you’ll see are original and site specific to the show. Historical context is provided mostly by artifacts associated with graffiti, like cans of spray paint, books, like the 1974 Norman Mailer/Jon Naar The Faith of Graffiti, and photographs, which document the movement on both coasts.

Terri Richardson’s snapshots, taken of himself and his friends in the '80s, show an orangey glimpse into the Southern Californian punk rock discomposure of the time. As an added, multi-sensory bonus, we get to hear an audio recording of voicemails left for Richardson by his father, the influential fashion photographer, Bob Richardson. Henry Chalfant’s photo-mural of subway cars reminds us of the heyday of graffiti, 1982, when New York City became a giant, mobile, open-air museum with painted subway cars going by every minute, showing onlookers something new. Showing people that something was happening.

It must feel intoxicating for Jeoffrey Deitch to sort of bookend an entire art movement like this, from the early '80s as an art buyer for Citibank, to now, as the head of a museum. Of course, it’s not entirely his doing. Street art and graffiti has long been experiencing a process of commodification and assimilation into the mainstream. Works by street artists are bought and traded on the art market. Veteran artists like Fab 5 Freddy sell their works on canvas. Shepard Fairey has a clothing line, and designed our president’s campaign posters. Os Gêmeos have designed sneakers.

This is just to name a few. Shepard Fairey said* that, "The aesthetics that you associate with street art might be getting mainstream, but street art isn’t getting mainstream. There are very few people out there taking the risk, getting arrested... It takes people with a lot of dedication and persistence." [From Bomb It (2007), directed by Jon Reiss] Maybe so; but nothing lasts forever. Will street art still be risky in a couple of years once it has been safely fed to everyone in the quiet galleries of museums?

MOCA’s comprehensive exhibit is not the only example of curated street art. The Pasadena Museum of California Art has an exhibit up. Street Cred, Graffiti Art from Concrete to Canvas is a selection of works by Los Angeles-based graffiti artists, which is thematically broken down to show the evolution of styles from street graffiti into fine art. Here we see art history textbook terms like "letter-based formalism", "abstraction", "representation".

Wild Style mural by Zephyr, Revolt, Sharp, (1983)
photo by Martha Cooper

Meanwhile, the Portsmouth Museum of Art, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, patrons can take a walking tour of the downtown area, where artists Bumblebee, Herakut, Shark Toof, Alexandros Vasmoulakis, and Andreas von Chrzanowski created murals and pieces for the show Street a.k.a Museum, curated by Los Angeles-based gallery LeBasse Projects. (Los Angeles seems to be on a mission here: to make street art/graffiti old news. And fittingly so, since it may be the city that hates it the most.)

There comes a time in every art movement’s life when it ceases to be an art movement and becomes an art period, documented in art history books, discussed with assigned readings in art history classes – ossified into the past. This usually happens when the movement at hand is accepted by (first) rich buyers, and (second) by preservationist institutions. It would appear that street art has covered both.

Has street art, then reached this point, where it is no longer evolving but rather ready to look back, take inventory of its pieces, and let itself be filed away into posterity? It’s hard to tell. There are some disgruntled protestors, who whether intentionally or not have served to keep things controversial, or at least edgy. (A great number of vandalism arrests were made around MOCA’s opening.) The great innovators of the medium don’t seem to have any plans for retirement, or for slowing down production.

It’s never as simple as, "Is this thing over yet or not?" One movement doesn’t end abruptly while another one sets up and gets going, like bands at an open mic night. If indeed street art is winding down, then it is only doing so to inspire and usher in another movement, and as sure as that is true, so it is that there’s another, young, Jeoffrey Deitch out there, waiting for it.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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