New York

“Street Stencils of the Lower East Side”

Henry Street Settlement

This exhibition was devoted to the culturally neglected and often persecuted art of the street stencil. It represents the first historical survey in New York of this vital form of expression. The show was well-executed and appropriate within the spirited, informative, intercultural, community-based context of the Henry Street Settlement. Yet it was almost completely ignored by the larger art-going public, making it one of the most lively, educational, and provocative shows the art world missed this year.

In New York, street stencils have had a parallel development with graffiti and other forms of urban expression. They have come, for the most part, out of an environment of poverty, crime, and decay, and as a response to mass alienation, brutality, and discontent. Created outside legal boundaries, they are a reaction against the consumer, military, political, and economic establishments and their implicit or explicit policies of what’s tolerable, marketable, and morally correct.

“Street Stencils” was expertly curated by artist Anton Van Dalen, who has a keen eye for the artistic qualities, as well as the ideological intent and informational content, of the work. He included the work of more than three dozen artists, produced out of the creative ferment on the Lower East Side during the past two decades. Though the show was remarkably comprehensive in breadth, it was still far from a complete collection, testifying to how prolific, multifaceted, and energetic this art is.

The historical emphasis here traced the use of the stencil as a hit-and-run transgression in the angry void of urban alienation. The graphic immediacy of the stencil has an obvious appeal as an urgent sign language. Van Dalen’s selection came in various forms: photodocumentation, posters, and original stencils. Together, they created a piecemeal reconstruction ranging from the nearly forgotten early works, to the form’s creative zenith in the mid ’80s, to its recent struggle and tenacious persistence as an underground, alternative voice that will not accept the tyranny of silence in the public realm. Once lost amidst the confusion of the East Village art scene’s ahistorical self-inventions, it is being kept alive by the individual artists’ poetic acts of faith and evident concern.

Among the many noteworthy highlights of “Street Stencils” were some early classics, such as Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s poster from 1969 for a modest do-it-yourself artist’s-studio-as-alternative-gallery, with the address “53 blocks South of 57th Street”; a photo of a large “Crazy Horse” portrait (date unknown) on the front of an abandoned building on Ludlow Street by the highly influential yet unacknowledged West German artist, Christof Kohlhofer; Rebecca Howland’s octopus-as-landlord-metaphor poster for the radical “Real Estate Show” of 1980, in which artists took over an abandoned building for an exhibition until the police and civic authorities intervened and returned the property to its state of wasteful disuse; David Wojnarowicz’s poster from 1980 for the band 3 Teens Kill 4, full of stark, nihilistic symbols of dehumanizing greed, insensitivity, and violence, including a building in flames, syringes, soldiers, a table setting, and a head as a target; and a photo of John Fekner’s TOXIC JUNKIE, 1981, a stencil rendered in huge computer-digital letters on a bricked-up, vacated apartment building in an area of heavy drug traffic. The show included a large number of group-mobilized, protest-stencil-campaign projects, including images from the “Anti-Gentrification Show,” organized by PAD/D in 1983; the 1982 Artists for Nuclear Disarmament Stencil Mural Brigade; the 1986 nature trail, consisting of forty miles of purple footprints covering Manhattan’s streets, in protest of the city’s razing of visionary-madman Adam Purple’s Edenlike garden, which once rose surrealistically from amidst the rubble of urban decay; and a fifty-foot banner created by more than 70 artists, for the consciousness-raising, city-wide, stencils-for-the-homeless blitz organized by the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 1986. Among the esthetically superior works on display were Rolando Vega’s mural Rican Rock, on the side of the community cultural center Charas; Conrad Vogels’ images of leaping dogs, “Beast-works”; W W III magazine publisher Seth Tobacman’s brutal political cartoons; and pieces by Michael Roman, whose Meso-American-inspired skulls have found prolific and varied application without losing any of their tremendous impact and appeal.

In a brief statement printed on the gallery wall, Van Dalen wrote, “The first stencils were done as hand tracings in caves and on rocky ledges during prehistoric times.” Funny—this is the same kind of primitive-art reference that high-art analysts first used to coopt other outlaw forms of self-expression. What, after all, does this guerrilla art have to do with ancient art expressions? Maybe no more than the simple commitment and energy that seem so much at odds with most contemporary art, for all its inevitably hypocritical avant-garde polemics against institutional authority and the trappings of commodification, permanence, and absorption. This art reflects a choice of existing outside the dominant social order, of maintaining control over all creative aspects of one’s work, including its production, dissemination, content, and context. It has been so long since we’ve had any measurable public awareness of this kind of concern that we can’t really separate it from the narrow framework of acceptability, instead finding in it more primitivist fodder for our numbed market appetites and treating it with distaste and horror when it refuses to conform. Aside from this one unnecessary justification, “Street Stencils” makes a convincing argument for a vital art of social witness.

Carlo McCormick