A graffiti tag taunts passersby from dizzying heights. Vibrant splashes of paint invigorate decrepit, lifeless buildings. A mural proclaims hope amidst the desperate conditions it decries. In street art, the where is as meaningful as the what, the how and the why.
Or is it? From the Street Up, the fascinating new group exhibition at Woodward Gallery, explores what happens when street art comes in from the streets. Curated by artists Royce Bannon and Cassius Fouler along with gallery owner John Woodward, the exhibition presents sculptures by John Ahearn, Michael Alan, Richard Hambleton, Robert Janz, NohJColey, Miguel Ovalle, Leon Reid IV, Skewville, Gabriel Specter, stikman, and UFO 907 – a group of artists known for their street and public art – in a traditional gallery setting.
Keeping It Real
Despite the unconventional environment, From the Street Up preserves the essence of street art: the connection with the community. Stepping through the gallery door, one is greeted by the universal sign of the hood: sneakers tossed over power lines, as re-imagined by the twin brother duo Skewville. A human face to the community appears on John Ahearn’s breathtakingly lifelike cast sculpture, Henry Manns Descending the Stairs.
Gabriel Specter honors the community at large with Bodega Cross, a sculptural cross made of the artist’s renderings of hand-painted signs from the Brooklyn neighborhoods where he lives and works. Specter explained that these signs, as well as the beauty salons, bodegas, bars and grocery stores they advertise, are rapidly disappearing, and with them, the crucial community centers for these neighborhoods.
Other works offer more critical commentary of their environments. Skewville’s HYPE mocks the shiny consumerism that pervades the urban landscape, while Leon Reid IV’s Rising Homicide is a grim reminder of the reality of street life. With a pull of the puppet strings, NohJColey’s kinetic sculpture Just Another (please insert racial slur here) bares its chest, revealing a surgeon operating on a heart, leaving the viewer to wonder whether the subject’s dream is to become a doctor or his destiny is to need one.
Other works play with the medium rather than the message. Artists Robert Janz, UFO 907 and Miguel Ovalle use the added dimension of sculpture to bring their graffiti to life. Janz’s animalistic sculptures, made of painted plywood, branches and bits of wire, appear to have stepped directly off the walls that Janz himself adorned.
UFO 907 re-envisions his iconic tag into an undulating alien creature made of wood, while Ovalle transmutes the letters of his tag, Dizmo, into a conflagration of bone and gold. Stikman goes meta with his installation, creating a tableau of tire tread, brick, street sign and star, then tagging them with his iconic figures.
Many artists prefer the term “public” over “street” art. Indeed, several works in From The Street Up demonstrate the inadequacy of the latter, such as legendary artist Richard Hambleton’s Viewpoint. Hambleton, known as the Godfather of Street Art, designed this enamel-on-wood sculpture not for the city, but as part of the 1982 Art on the Beach series of sculptures, which were placed knee deep in the ocean. Of the original twenty sculptures, only Viewpoint survived.
Similarly, Michael Alan’s The Lady Who Said She Can Walk was born not in the streets, but as part of a community participation art project. Alan, whose work NYC-APs has covered here and here, described how the sculpture began through his drawings, then came to life through layers of clay, collage, toys and more at his living art installation shows over the course of ten years.
From The Street Up demonstrates that what makes something street or public art is not where it is located, but what it is. As Alan explained, it is simply art for everyone.
- Woodward Gallery – "From the Street Up" Group Exhibition – July 6th through July 31st, 2013 – Tues-Sat: 11am to 6pm; Sun: 12pm to 5 pm and by appointment [Prices range from $500 to $30,000]
Article Marisa Office