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Outside In: Caging Street Art in LA

By Jonathan Jerald

Art in the Streets
The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
Little Tokyo, Los Angeles
April 17 through August 8, 2011

Street Brewed
Angel City Brewing
Arts District, Los Angeles
April 29th through July 3rd, 2011

Art in the Streets has finally opened at MOCA’s vast Geffen annex in Little Tokyo and it is indeed a spectacular installation, certain to be a blockbuster, featuring street artists from around the world and across the decades. As curator Jeffrey Deitch intended, the show succeeds in revealing the profound impact of street art on popular culture, an impact generally overlooked (with a few notable exceptions) by the art establishment — though not by canny marketers (Nike and Levi’s are among the show’s sponsors).

The work of (primarily) New York artists Keith Haring, Basquiat and Taki 183 are confirmed as inspirators and innovators whose impact was most immediate on the East Coast graffiti scene while Left Coast wheat paste artist Robbie Conal (whose work deserves a more prominent position in the show) is confirmed as a pioneer of political poster art, a genre enlarged and elevated by Shepard Fairey.  The wit and whimsy of the elusive, mythologizing Banksy is also on display in a particularly intriguing corner.   In all, the work of fifty artists are showcased, including Fab 5 Freddy (New York), Lee Quiñones (New York), Futura (New York), Margaret Kilgallen (San Francisco), Swoon (New York), Shepard Fairey (Los Angeles), Os Gemeos (São Paulo), and JR (Paris).  Los Angeles’s role in the evolution of graffiti and street art is, as might be expected, the most well documented with exhibits of cholo graffiti and Dogtown skateboard culture.  Among other local artists are Craig R. Stecyk III, Chaz Bojórquez, Mister Cartoon, Robbie Conal, RETNA, SABER, REVOK, and RISK.

There are some notable weaknesses in the MOCA show, however.  The political roots of street art are vastly underplayed.  There is also a senselessly kitschy feel to some parts of the installation – one faux tenement corner, in particular, is a bit too cartoon-like, even for the most playful bombers.  Street art is all about context and reducing the grim realities of urban decay to a Disneyesque diorama, complete with animatronic bombers, does nothing to explain how graffiti exploded out of rotting city centers in the 70’s.

Graffiti artists whose work is essentially literary are shown to merge with artists whose colorful typographical distortions are found in urban landscapes on every continent, with political intent evolving into the kind of absurdist sentiment more often associated with artists with academic pedigrees (“Another Senseless Act of Vandalism” inscribed in letters ten feet tall on a Berkeley wall back in the 80’s is an engaging example not included in the show).

MOCA’s exhibition of Street Art is global and historical in context but just a few blocks away, at the new home of the Angel City Brewing (www.angelcitybrewing.com) on Alameda at Traction, there is a complimentary exhibition of work, Street Brewed, that focuses on contemporary street art, some by artists not featured in the MOCA exhibition, and by artists from around the world who have been drawn to LA by the MOCA show.  Many of the artists whose works are featured in this smaller but more playfully anarchic show have come to Los Angeles to enlarge on Art in the Streets by seeking out wall space to create commissioned and un-commissioned murals, one of the largest concentrations of which is throughout the area around Angel City, the downtown Arts District, where the works of JR, Shepard Fairey, Nomade, Dabs and Myla, Huglife, How and Nosm, Mr. Cartoon, Swoon, Kid Zoom, ROIA, Saber, and others can be found.

Street Brewed, which opens officially on April 29th, includes some remarkable works, including a billboard-sized work by New York based artist Ron English, “X-Ray Guernica.”   On the Alameda side of the Angel City Brewery building, Shepard Fairey has created a new mural, one of a new series that is a sly commentary on the apotheosis of Ronald Reagan in American political mythmaking.  Among other artists featured in Street Brewed are Aiko, Nomade, Cryptik, ABCNT, Phil Lumbang (aka Hug Life), Ernesto Yerber, Cern, Tanner (aka Racecar 13), Brek, Eye One and James Haunt.

The informal quality of Street Brewed (located in a classic industrial-era structure), and the democratic design of the exhibition itself (all the artists were give 10 foot by 12 foot panels) seem more appropriate to the essentially rebellious and anarchic character of street art than the sterile walls of a museum.  The works on display at Angel City flow out into a courtyard and there is an organic feel to their connection to the street art on surrounding walls that gives the show vitality and validity.

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