Time keeps passing along and street art continues to battle for wider acceptance in the art community and society in general. The City of Chicago is one of the most aggressive eradicators of street culture, retaining “Graffiti Blasters,” a privately owned business based within the city government, at a cost of $9 million this year. As one can see on the Graffiti Blasters’ website, City of Chicago makes no concessions about how they view street art: “Graffiti is vandalism, it scars the community, hurts property values and diminishes our quality of life.” Personally, I believe that rampant political corruption, gang violence, under funded and under performing public schools are far more of a threat to our quality of life in Chicago than the work of street artists, but it is much easier to point the finger at a vague menace (coincidentally a tag that has sprung up in Chicago recently) than actually work to fix problems. Recently, the Chicago Police stepped up their persecution of street artists by arresting high profile artist Ray Noland, whom I interviewed for ArtSlant over the summer, on charges of suspicion of graffiti.
It is against this civic backdrop that the fledgling art organization Sixty Inches From Center organized their exhibition “Contemporary Graffiti,” at the C33 Gallery in Chicago, featuring the work of Azteca, Klepto, Blutt, Zoe McCloskey, Hebru Brantley, Magda Sayeg, Brooks Golden, Stockyard Institute, Jova el Graffista. The curators invited me to contribute the following essay to the catalog, which addresses the situation described above and issues that were raised in my previous essay on graffiti art. Here is the introduction to the catalog for Sixty Inches From Center’s “Contemporary Graffiti”:
Regularly graffiti art is erased from our midst, incorrectly lumped in with gang graffiti. Where once there was colorful art there’s now only a grimy gray or whitewashed wall and we feel a loss. Those that never saw it to begin with will never know what they missed. This exhibition celebrates street art, graffiti art, writing, bombing, or whatever moniker you prefer, and gives the work a measure of public memory. This is a place where the art is not threatened and where the public can go to see it presented as the art that it is. What it does not signify is the isolation, sanitization and classification of graffiti art into an all-consuming institutional context.
There are some who are alarmed by museums or galleries presenting graffiti art. Rightly so, there are many street artists who use the aura of graffiti to advance their own fortunes rather than advance the art form. Or they may be worried about the very nature of the museum or gallery as an institution. A nature described by Douglas Crimp in “On the Museum’s Ruins” as “a history of all the various attempts to deny the heterogeneity of the museum [and its artwork], to reduce it to a homogeneous system or series.” Or museums as described by Dave Hickey, paraphrasing Theodor Adorno, “the great mausoleums where images . . . having done their work in the world, are entombed.” But do these concerns mean that the public should not see graffiti art in a gallery or museum setting? Surely not, that would be a disservice to the artists, their creativity, the art, and the public. Artists included here have chosen to work within the gallery setting and their work responds to that context in some way.
Graffiti art may still be most at home “in the world,” but this is an opportunity to see the art in a contemplative environment, rather than passing by in a car or a train. There’s still much work to be done in advancing street art and graffiti writing to the widespread credibility and recognition it deserves in the slow-moving and cautious art world. Sixty Inches From Center’s “Contemporary Graffiti” is an excellent step towards this goal.
~Abraham Ritchie, a writer living in Chicago.
(Images: Sixty Inches From Center: Contemporary Graffiti, Installation, September 2010; Zoe McCloskey, Stencil Installation; Brooks Golden, oustide window installation; Courtesy Photographer: Nicolette Caldwell)