Monday, July 18, 2011

Graffiti Behind The Museum Doors & Beyond

Whatever you think of it, graffiti is the ultimate merging of art and writing in an expressive form. Additionally, in the United States, it is a transgressive behavior. The work can be insightful, beautiful, disquieting, or ugly and can be viewed with awe, indifference, scorn, or fury. The viewer may make a judgment based on aesthetics, on personal beliefs, on morals or some mixture. I was in L.A. last week and definitely experienced a mixed reaction to the Art in the Streets exhibit at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. I was only able to see the downstairs works and what I saw was mostly spraypainted. (I am partial to wheatpaste postering, where the artist makes the large work elsewhere on paper then uses a roller to apply paste to the wall and smooth the poster onto it.) Context changes everything. Bringing the graffiti inside the museum doors made the art very strange, indeed.

MOCA presented the exhibit as a history of the form with many of the key players from major cities. I believe the artists and the artform deserve recognition, although I am not sure this was the best format. The show was overwhelming in scale, with several hidden gems. I liked the constructions made of old signage, the wall of doors and windows, the drumset and wall of stereo speakers with faces on them. Creepy but interesting was a nest made of telephone wire with three surveillance cameras attached to it. We stood in front of a stylized alphabet and took pictures of individual letters in order to spell friends' names, which made me feel a bit like I was at an amusement park. Perhaps that was the problem. All the place needed were graffitied funhouse mirrors. Even the bathroom stalls were painted (in pink letters and images). I'm all for humor, but what was the show's message, again?

The dark side was not neglected. One hallway simulated a dark alley with writing on the walls and a mannequin streetperson at the end. Another room had glow-in-the-dark painted graffiti. There were painted cars and recreated, gritty city blocks as well. The scope was broad and the show could easily be split in two: political, satire, dangerous, and content-heavy on the one hand and fun, bright, and playful on the other. In my short visit it is entirely possible that I missed something. A catalogue is available.

For a deeper look into the world of the artist, I felt that the Banksy film, real or hoax (sometimes fiction is more accurate) Exit Through the Gift Shop gave me a better picture. What the MOCA exhibit did for me was to heighten my awareness of the walls outside rather than inspiring me inside of them. I had an uncanny feeling as we left the building. Downtown Los Angeles has plenty of graffiti that is deemed illegal and instead of vaguely noticing it as usual, as we walked to the Metro stop I began hunting for it, studying it.

Most graffiti is created in cities and urban neighborhoods, often poor ones, and brings art out to a public that can't afford to go inside a museum, but there we just were and now we were outside again. Art inside. Art outside. Same, but different. Very strange. No catalogue out here.

The exhibit stirred up many questions. What about the women? (There were a couple, like Swoon—more of her work here—but the majority of work presented was by men.) How much does the element of danger figure into the exhiliaration of painting? How much does cultural heritage, political, or economic background figure into it? What if the artists got permission from the building's owner first? Would the painting lose its edge? Which is more important, the art or the transgression? Is it vandalism if the art is carefully done rather than hastily scribbled? We got off the Metro and from the parking lot we saw this painting (above left) neither worse nor better than what we had seen inside the museum.

The Obama poster by Shepard Fairey was in the exhibit, framed. I took this picture in Oakland, California in February 2008. Same, but different. I remember how excited I was at the time to see it on the streets.
Reviews of MOCA exhibit:
Huffington Post review.
L.A. Times review.
N.Y. Times article and here.
Information about Jeffrey Deitch, new Director of MOCA and his former projects.
On our drive from Downtown we saw graffiti on an overpass: "The median is the message." What would Marshall McLuhan do?
In London, a freshly painted Banksy image appeared in April and my wanderer took this picture just after the paint had dried. Later, she said, someone came and put plexiglass over it to preserve it. It seems that the definition of value varies, depending on the context, depending on who and what and where…

1 comment:

ersi marina said...

Graffiti baffles me too, especially for its aesthetics -or lack of them. Though it can be beautiful at times, it is mainly a provocative, against-the-rules form of art. But I think that's its main purpose of being. Ugliness can be more thought-provoking than beauty, more unsettling and puzzling. So to your question 'Which is more important, the art or the transgression?' I would answer 'both' as far as street art is concerned. Art in all its forms needs to be transgressive to survive. Never mind the ugliness, it can coexist with beauty. Where else would the people express their genuine feelings if not on the street?