New York

Phase Two

Gallozzi-LaPlaca Gallery

Graffiti is the only art movement of the time. It has thousands of practitioners working seriously in defined and evolving styles, and it has transformed the way things look, the way we look at things, and the way we look at art. In a way, graffiti is the first formal revolution in painting since Cubism, and in a way Phase Two is the Marcel Duchamp of graffiti. He may have done more than any other artist to transform and develop styles of graffiti, to paint the word and design the letter.

Phase Two originated ways of forming letters and composing pieces that were adopted by legions of graffiti writers and became the state of pop graphics, and he’s still on the cutting edge of spray-can penmanship. He and Rammellzee are the arch-innovators and theoreticians of graffiti, creating visual art that is itself the resonance of the word—a kind of “gnostic futurism” in which the beginning is the word and the seed is the letter. Phase Two’s paintings are remarkably similar to the paintings of some of the Italian Futurists—Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrá, and company, in their pre–World War I work. There is similar motion, a similar romance with scientific form, and similar force. But Phase Two is not interested in mechanics. He doesn’t glorify technology. Where the Futurists applied ideas of motion and the motion picture to vision and painting, Phase Two synthesizes calligraphy, gnostic analysis, and Cubism. He relates the language of the printed word to the language of the printed circuit. He paints in search of an alphabetical Rosetta stone, extracting meaning and ideology from the design of letters usually considered arbitrary symbols. He moves back through calligraphy and hieroglyphics to elemental forms and their dynamics.

Majestic, 1984, is a large canvas of vibrant forms that are preliteral or postliteral—letters are forming or breaking up, perhaps both. This is perhaps a recombinant alphabet propelled by structural forces, a diagram of the physics of meaning. The picture is subtitled “Athanasian Confrontation,” apparently referring to the doctrines of divine incarnation and immortality known as the Athanasian Creed: a confluence is suggested between the laws of conservation of energy and matter and the gnostic concepts of the divine word. The protoletter shapes are boldly outlined and filled with variable combinations of green, orange, red, blue, and yellow. Their array creates a kind of dimensional mystery of implied and denied depth.

The show included several drawings that elucidated Phase Two’s theories. One, in blue ink, shows the evolution/devolution of the tag (the personal signature in decorated letters) toward abstract forms. In a drawing in silver-and-red marker a face is constructed, of and bordered by linguistic forms, forms transforming into related forms: hieroglyphics become calligraphy, calligraphy becomes a printed circuit, the printed circuit becomes an architectural blueprint. Another drawing relates, mingles, and distinguishes styles: Futurist, Mayan, Arabic calligraphy, Egyptian hieroglyphics, sci-fi spaceship blueprints, Tibetan heraldry, and the armoring of the letter elucidated in Rammellzee’s “Ikonoklast Panzerism.” Phase Two’s work is rich in theory and profoundly eloquent in its visual/literal correlation. These beautiful works don’t need to prove anything, but they are proofs of ideas, and their effectiveness is also proved by the movement they inspire—an art movement that moves around town on wheels of steel.

Glenn O'Brien