Revok received a hero’s welcome upon his return to his hometown of Los Angeles, marked by the April 10th vernissage of his first L.A. solo exhibition, organized by Library Street Collective and held at MAMA Gallery in the Downtown Arts District. In a gallery packed with friends, fellow writers, and fans, he spent most of the night enveloped by a patient congregation of adherents, blackbooks in hand, waiting for a coveted autograph from the famed graffiti writer. The mood that night was celebratory—and rightly so, for Revok has a lot to celebrate right now.
It was just four years ago that the artist made headlines when he was the subject of a high profile arrest, prompting the widespread circulation of signs and t-shirts bearing the slogan “Free Revok.” Significantly, this all occurred while his work was on view in one of Los Angeles’s most prominent art museums, part of the controversial Art in the Streets exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. After a short stint in prison and nearly $24,000 in fines, Revok, whose given name is Jason Williams, withdrew to Detroit, where he would spend the next two years. This time would prove pivotal in the development of this new body of work, which, at first glance, seems very unrelated to Revok’s graffiti past. In Detroit, Revok initiated a studio practice involving the collection and assemblage of discarded wood, which he subsequently paints and fits into intricate abstract geometric patterns.
Revok, _Untitled_3.B_ (2015) Courtesy Library Street Collective
But firstly, let’s identify what it is we’re seeing, because this is important. You and I and everyone reading this article right now are looking at a series of jpegs, which were registered on a digital camera, processed in Photoshop, sent to me via WeTransfer, uploaded to the ArtSlant server, resized and formatted for this article. They now appear on your computer monitor or mobile phone or tablet, viewed under whatever slight variations of color cast your individual screen holds. As jpegs Revok’s compositions pop and vibrate, resonating in their digital disembodiment. Crisscrossing lines hover over vivid patterns like Photoshop layers incarnate. Some works resemble mosaics of rudimentary pixels, others confound the eye with an impossible ouroboros of overlapping layers, and yet others convey dizzying contradictory levels of depth, verging on the architectural.
Revok _D.3.A_ (2015) Courtesy Library Street Collective
These pieces were born to live online, and Revok acknowledges this in their titles as well as in their colors and compositions. Each piece bears a file name as a title, such as _01.A_2x3_MAGENTA_, an assemblage that features two grey gradient bars, a device familiar to any user of Photoshop, overlaying a serape-like pattern of pink, yellow and white. The use of the gradient—a recurring motif here—is a clear signifier of the prevalence of our increasingly digital apprehension of artwork. So this begs the question: does it matter that they are, in fact, physical artifacts? Does it matter that they are laboriously constructed by hand, when they could be entirely constructed out of the digital ether, so to speak?
Revok, _01.A_2x3_MAGENTA (2015) Courtesy Library Street Collective
Interestingly, all references to Revok’s current work make very clear this work’s handmade origins: writing in the KCET Artbound blog, G. James Daichendt references Revok’s “love of handicraft,” while Hypebeast makes the connection even more evident in this passage, accompanying a revealing interview with the artist:
REVOK’s paint-stained hands are surely amongst the most coveted in graffiti, with the Los Angeles-based artist’s handstyle setting the standard for generations. After those hands were placed in the harsh metal cuffs of the law, the resilient creative has focused his energies into gallery work, specifically: large, wondrous mixed media woodwork—an offshoot from his past endeavors.
This focus on the hand of the artist is critical in these pieces, and I’d contend that this focus is a logical or natural extension of Revok’s street practice, which, under duress of the law he has been forced to relinquish. In this new practice—a challenging new realm for an artist who has more than mastered the medium of spray paint—Revok experiments with a new handstyle of sorts, one of geometric abstraction. His long-held mastery over color serves him well here, as well as the fluid ease by which he uses sprayed pigments to achieve those perfect gradients, but the emphasis on symmetry seems to be a new direction.
Revok, _-8.A_SHOCKVIOLET_ (2015) Courtesy Library Street Collective
New directions always pose new challenges, and this much is admitted by Revok himself: the graffiti world provided a very comfortable and known environment for the artist, while the world of contemporary art constitutes “a new place to prove myself.” The gallery is essentially a brave new world for Revok, and geometric abstraction comes with its own long history, which he’ll need to contend with. Many strains of contemporary art (for instance Sol LeWitt, to whose wall drawings Revok’s new work bears a strong aesthetic resemblance) try to dissolve or destabilize the notion of authorship, whereas Revok’s work tenaciously insists on it (in the works of artists who come from a graffiti background the notion of authorship is a complicated and consuming construct), but ultimately in a rather oblique way. Revok rejects the sleek finish that these geometries and angles seem to beg for, revealing their handmade origins not by gesture, but through the introduction of flaws in the finish, a state of futuristic ruin and decay implied by the flecked paint. This tendency falls apart, however, in other details only observable on close inspection, but offering no meaningful implications—the numerous tiny wood nails holding together each wooden segment, for instance, become quaint and distracting.
Revok’s work is in fertile territory right now: it lives in the very potent tension between the immaterial and the physical, between the digital and the handmade. I look forward to how his work will progress and change, as he becomes more comfortable and experimental with the space of the gallery, going beyond two-dimensional pieces hung on walls. The impressive powder-coated steel bench indicates some thinking in this direction, and I think some of the works that were hung on the wall could be invested with radical new meanings if they interacted with the architecture of the space in other ways—for instance placing some works on the floor, or spreading the abstract patterns over an entire wall. And hopefully next time his works are on display it will be for a longer period of time. Until then, we can continue to pass them around in their digital forms.
(Image at the top: Revok, _Metadata_2 (2015) Courtesy Library Street Collective)