New York

Group Material

Taller Latino Americano Gallery and the IRT subway line

I’ve always thought that one of the main motives of the graffiti writer is the desire to personalize the urban environment, to rebel against the corporate nature of written language in public space. Few of the words that cover cities refer directly to the people that inhabit them: signs carry the names of corporations, name products, give orders, but rarely say anything about people. Signs do not say “José Torres lives here.” Signs saying “Fred loves Marie” are usually illegal. Signs tell us that the city belongs to the corporation.

Group Material has taken the graffiti writer’s struggle for a human environment to another stage. This group of artists put art on the subway, not by the illegal decoration of their interiors and exteriors, but by purchasing space on the poster area that lines every car. The show included work by 103 artists or teams of artists, each producing a design or designs to occupy 14 card spots on the IRT subway line. For one month, an officially sanctioned (thanks to the $5,060 paid for the space) work of art was displayed on one out of four IRT cars.

Some of the most effective cards were plays on the advertising medium. Lyn Hughes’ piece was Generic Subway Ad, which is what it looked like—no frills design—and it said to the riders: “Advertising space should: (check one) be used by the public; use the public.” Some of the posters were as slick or slicker than their agency-made neighbors. Dona Anne McAdams’ card showed an impressive Manhattan aerial photo under the slogan, “There Is No Emergency Evacuation Procedure.” Other cards played on the medium by employing a crude style, guaranteeing that their work would seem out of place. Luis Stand’s card said simply “Art Here . . . ” stenciled on a bright orange background looking very homemade. Vito Acconci’s piece was the word “baby” written over and over in white on black, as on a blackboard, like a third-grade handwriting exercise.

Perhaps the most startling work to the sleepy-eyed rush-hour commuter was Komar and Melamid’s poster in official Soviet style—Stalin’s head on a red banner with a Cyrillic slogan. A small print translation explained, “Thank you comrade Stalin for our happy childhood.” There were many other funny cards: Teri Slotkin showed two cats approaching their dinner bowls, each occupied by a whole dressed chicken with the slogan “If the Bird Fits.” Vanalyne Green’s card showed a group of coffee mugs with copy explaining that her boss would always ask her to get coffee and she would always use a dirty cup—a delight, no doubt, to many of the secretaries who saw it on their way to another day of drudgery. Andrea Evans’ card was a photo cartoon—a poodle says to a collie, “Like my hair? I just came from the beauty parlor.” The collie says: “Yea? What’d they give ya, an estimate?”

Olivia Beens’ card was a short story, telling of the day she sat next to a semi-wino on the train, the two exchanged words rather warmly, and she found it rather sexy. As she left the train a woman approached her and said, “Pardon me, dear, for being so inquisitive, but are you a social worker?”. “I laughed and told her I was an artist.” I loved that one. It should have been in every train.

My favorite card, by Aric Obrosey, combined the McDonald’s and Burger King logos and the words “Merger King.” Around this chimerical logo was a wonderful funny poem paraphrasing Dickens—“It was the best of beef/It was the most of beef. It was fast/It was food . . . It was the winter of doing it all for us/It was the spring of Jedi glasses . . . It was a time to ask aren’t you hungry/It was a time to ask aren’t you fed up. . . .”

I saw some of these anti-ads at work on the trains and I think every painter at work on one-shot canvases destined for collection should have seen the double takes, bafflement, and laughs the works brought to the riding public. Many of these were delightful posters, made even more so by their subway context. Subway riders often read the ads obsessively, occupying their eyes and minds with anything but their fellow passengers. This show was a wonderful relief from the hypnosis of these ads. Group Material had to pay for the space but they should have been paid to use it by the Transit Authority. A little art in public places might help cities’ populations feel more like people.

Glenn O’Brien