New York

“Street Market”

Deitch Projects

There’s an idea afloat these days that art movements are purely academically generated and driven by a handful of art schools. What that vision fails to account for are the exceedingly vital “fringe” movements that currently flourish at the doorstep of contemporary art: One is digital art (think Sony PlayStation 2); another is graffiti. The former is radically commercial; the latter, radically public. Both embrace the idea of the artist as hero and, occasionally, outlaw, too. Aside from a moment of brief rapture in the ’80s when graffiti artists turned their spray-paint cans to canvas (it looked good but the politics were wrong), the contemporary art world has generally ignored the activities of artists who work in the street. Meanwhile, graffiti has morphed from a style into a full-fledged movement, contrary to reports from the mayor of New York.

Graffiti culture epitomizes hybridization, subversion, and community. Individual development of style is as valued as sheer daring in the guerrilla placement of work. Fusion, sampling, appropriation, excess, in-your-face bombardment—graffiti gets its gumption and its inspiration from urban streets, a raw zone that rips right through the niceties of life. If ever they were, graffiti artists today aren’t delinquents from the ghetto; rather, their common link is the desire to produce unauthorized, noncommissioned, noncommercial public art. Barry McGee, Todd James, and Stephen Powers—aka Twist, Reas, and ESPO, respectively—have, variously, gone to art school, published books, won awards, and had museum shows, all of which does nothing to diminish their considerable “street cred.” They have collaborated to produce “Street Market” (a larger version of “Indelible Market,” exhibited at the ICA Philadelphia last summer) with the intent to annihilate the viewer by recreating urban cacophony in the gallery. A lot more happens here than visual overload, and much of the art goes way beyond anything that might be considered graffiti.

Whether in the sophisticated use of signage (informed as much by retail culture as Conceptual art) or the two major installation works (overturned delivery trucks converted into squalid shelters, and a row of storefronts with customized consumer products, straight out of the ’hood), their understanding of complexly related subjects, from the effects of excruciating poverty to the commercialization of every aspect of life, is impressive for its sympathetic approach. There’s realism, wit and sophistication, sarcasm, and plenty of commentary about social politics, but there’s no outrage. Instead, there’s ample “graffiti-attitude,” which comes into play particularly in the signage pieces, with tags turned into logos and unique graphic styles that demand to be read on their own terms or not at all. Apropos insider language and the ambient spirit of collaboration, the walls of the storefronts and sides of the overturned panel trucks became increasingly tagged up by visitors—one among many of the exhibition’s social components that fully qualify as a “realtime” event (in the way we imagine Happenings to have been).

And apropos the idea of the picturesque, McGee, James, and Powers are quite articulate on the subject of the culture of excess as seen from the margins—“’All the Shit I Don’t Have,’ Vol. 6,” reads a title from a CD display in the storefront—which McGee refers to as “the cheerful hell of urban life.” For a big gallery or museum show they crank it up to the level of a theme park—like a visit to an authentic ghetto village whose inhabitants practice conceptual art—and it “delivers as much dope as the leading brand.”

Jan Avgikos