The third installment of Brian Nuda Rosch’s Paper! Awesome! show at Baer Ridgeway picks up where the previous two left off and with the same premise: limit artists to an 8 ½ by 11 paper canvas (with a notable few exceptions) and a relatively short time frame. The resulting works offer an intriguing cross-section of young and young-ish artists working with a broad range of media. Sprawling over the two level exhibition space, the install certainly has the look of diversity, ranging from pen on paper, to collage, gauche, ink, photo-copy, cut outs, paper papier-mâché, and of course, ever so finely rendered drawings. There’s an improvisational feel running throughout, though with over 100 participating artists, things eventually start to blend into one another, with a familiar stable of images emerging, including dirty sneakers, cigarette buds, bongs, cartoonish scribbles, echoes of tagging, etc.—in short, the sort of thing one would expect from this sort of thing.
In this, the show raises a titillating critical question. It goes without saying that the specters of Chris Johansson and Barry McGee hang over the exhibition (quite literally for McGee whose contribution hangs like a reluctant patriarch over the proceedings)—and once this duo enter the picture, we must invariably contend with the legacy of the Mission School, the influential street turn of the nineties and early 2000s, which coincided with a significant shift in youth "counter-culture" (but it can also be argued, anticipating its current comodification). Of course, Beautiful Losers has now slipped into American Apparel, and that may speak volumes of the state of the state of street culture and “street” inflected art.
I suspect most of the artists involved in the show would have ambivalent feelings to being tied to the Mission or to “street” art in general, in one way or another. After all, these are both heuristic constructs (thought: an apt and timely one?) that group together a disparate range of players who happened to be mining a similar vein. And this most recent amassing of artists is in no way local—sure a few hark from the neighboring district, but they also include artists from Portland, Chicago and New York. Then again, the Mission School was never truly local, it was more of an ethos, and change in the mode, which anticipated the Lower East Side boom in New York, for instance. (Where would Nate Lowman and Dash Snow be without Barry McGee? But that may be a different conversation.) Like it or not, the nomenclature stuck and perhaps more importantly so did the imagery which has become over the years a type of international street style. So though the Mission School may be a thing of the past, its aesthetics linger on.
Here’s the tricky thing. Initially, this “style” (for lack of a better word) has it’s own criticality (even if it refused to acknowledge it as such). The low-brow, disingenuous approach and its imagery was also a strategic turning away from the tedious discursive criticality of art of the early nineties when artists started to compete with the October group for who pigeon the most turgid of their jargon. But that was over ten years ago, and much of the street lexicon remains the same. This is just to say that the weight of historical legacy looms, and I wonder if much of this work, despite its formal accomplishments, can’t help but be filtered by the cliché of street art—which at a certain point needs to be unraveled. It’s interesting that the freshest-seeming work in the bunch seems completely removed from this legacy. There’s Chris Duncan’s Everything All At Once, all works 2010, a large scale collage and relief print that takes on the roto-relief in Technicolor splendor (with echoes of Jim Drain); there’s Dean Smith’s large scale Rorschachs, with their intensive workmanship and obsessive composition (one of the true pleasures of graphite), and perhaps most notably, Alika Cooper’s goache on paper paintings, which are striking because they are simply weird. There’s Do or Die, a portrait of Grace Jones in Pierrot regalia, and the captivating slow dance of Jones and Warhol. The overall effect is almost like Luc Tuymans gone disco—which, I suppose, is pretty street in its own way.
And that’s the point, not the re-iteration of a canonized lexicon (a process which even art outside of the mainstream, despite its best efforts, is not exempt from), but a maximizing of limited parameters to draft something strange and quite wonderful. Here are the boundaries: whether a 8 x 11 sheet of paper or a 46.7 square mile city or decade, now make something.