“Spank the Monkey”

It’s fitting that on the exhibition floor beneath Baltic’s big show of street art—loosely ranging over two floors of the former flour mill—was a small display of early Keith Haring drawings. Haring, along with Jean-Michel Basquiat, was the first street artist to jump the curb and enter the gallery; since then graffiti and other work that falls under the catch-all label “street art” has—at least according to Pedro Alonzo and Baltic director Peter Doroshenko, the curators of “Spank the Monkey”—not only transcended the street to take up residence in the white cube but become the wallpaper of any number of video games (if the presence of Nintendo PlayStation kiosks in the gallery is anything to go by) and moved onto the shop floor (an early iteration of which was Haring’s Pop Shop).

Thus, the first objects the visitor encountered were three handbags created by Louis Vuitton in collaboration with Takashi Murakami. Prominently placed behind the handbags was a screen showing Murakami’s short animation Superflat Monogram, 2003, which stars a little girl in a near-hallucinogenic reverie on the “LV” logos that float around her. The curators claimed the exhibition explored “urban art and street art scenes” and celebrated artists working on the “fringes of the artworld.” While that description doesn’t adequately describe Murakami, it does successfully embrace other artists who can fairly be said to be ready for the leap into the gallery setting.

The installation The Love Invisible, 2006, by Neasden Control Centre (illustrator and designer Steve Smith), for example, is gallery-ready: a combination of wall drawing, manipulated film, and Joseph Cornell–esque boxes. The carefully arranged vignette makes the most of Smith’s many talents—and his dry wit. Appropriated ’70s corporate-training filmstrips mesh seamlessly with collages made up of the stuff of polyester nostalgia: wide-eyed papier-mâché owls, reel-to-reel tapes, and space suits. Mexican artist Dr. Lakra’s richly embellished photos and vintage magazine pages also stood out here for their detail. Operating both as visual puns and as studies for the elaborate creations of his day job as a tattoo artist, his aboriginal designs and time-honored prison tattoos disguise the faces of ’50s centerfolds, Mexican wrestlers, and a pro-fascist former Brazilian president, all to a slightly carnivalesque and often sinister effect.

Barry McGee, without whom no show on street art would be complete, proved his gallery-readiness to the English public in 2005 with his solo show at Stuart Shave Modern Art, in London. So it was disappointing that his contribution here, Untitled, 2006, was largely derivative of his 2005 installation: an overturned white van, the open back of which reveals a bank of televisions screening a mix of live video and psychedelic patterns, and rough-and-ready tagging along the gallery walls. McGee has a knack for installation and sculpture, but he’s capable now of taking on something with more historical or intellectual heft, and should.

A more puzzling inclusion was Yasumasa Yonehara’s collection of Polaroids, a cheap update on Nan Goldin without any of her pathos or much connection to anything else in the show. Despite a sign warning of their “adult nature,” the poorly lit snapshots of young women in compromising positions didn’t seem any more likely to “harm” a stray youngster than the multi-armed, elephant-eating monster of A Matter of PRIDE: The Battle on the River-Tyne (Ootside! Yeandme!), 2006, Kozyndan’s impossibly detailed mural nearby. Shepard Fairey’s Obey installations, 2006, inside and outside the gallery, are graphically powerful and admirable feats of labor, but they are ultimately empty—all skulls, Andre the Giants, and peace signs. Fairey’s work won’t age any better than the Soviet-style pastiche he exploits for his wall pictures, but if legitimizing street art is the aim here, the curators can rest easy: The Keith Haring drawings downstairs have done the job for them.

Eugenia Bell