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

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.

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