This review was originally published in May 2011 on ArtSlant Chicago. Follow what these artists are doing currently: Photographer Chris Diers, the Grocer, You Are Beautiful, Hebru Brantley, Chris Silva, Brooks Golden, and Ray Noland.
The closest you will get to spray-paint graffiti in the Chicago Urban Art Society’s “Chicago Street Art Show” is the TRK piece across the street, ironically visible from the gallery’s windows. This was a conscious decision and posits street art (or is it Street Art now?) as something that is by now separate from, though related to, its forebear in spray-paint graffiti.
Of course the fundamental aspect of street art is, logically, its life on the street. Greeting you when you walk in the door is a corridor densely hung with photos of street art out in public, by photographer Chris Diers and others, with examples from the artists in the exhibition on view. The array of photos is fascinating to peruse; you’ll find locations you know and pieces you remember that have long since been removed or damaged beyond recognition. There is humor, longing, anxiety and whimsy in these photos and the work they document.
Since the street is the natural habitat for this art, the transition to the gallery setting proved challenging for several artists. The Grocer is an artist who pastes up images of gleaming, luscious fruits and vegetables that look like they have been excised from a grocery store circular, blown up and put on the street. It’s a weird experience seeing these glammed up foods on a rundown and dirty street and it is that tension the work operates on. But with that tension gone in the gallery, a different artistic method needs to be employed. However, The Grocer continues with the fruits and veggies, just painted better and on more substantial supports. The pieces seem to be self-consciously reaching for recognition as Art but they never needed to prove their status as art in the first place.
There is a similar problem with the pieces from You Are Beautiful. This phrase is put up around the city and likewise operates on countering the atmosphere of the street, and I have had some meaningful and mysterious encounters with the project. But in the gallery this phrase loses that tension as the expectations of the viewer change. The curating of the piece is also at fault here, with two examples stuck into a corner, where one would have been sufficient.
Installation view of Hebru Brantley's work in "Chicago Street Art Show" at Chicago Urban Art Society. Image courtesy of the gallery.
Hebru Brantley’s large solo exhibition at Zhou B. Art Center just recently closed but it seems that he brings the most conceptual clarity to his new project in this exhibition. Brantley is apparently leaving behind his highly detailed, racially charged, all-over canvas compositions from the “Coon Toons” series (which I really enjoyed) for new work that features a cast of costumed children (which I enjoy less). But Brantley’s pieces here show the series moving in a discernible direction and linking directly to current events. Written in a hand that overtly nods to Jean-Michel Basquiat, complete with the copyright symbol, the phrase “blame us” floats along with the kids’ heads. While state and federal governments all rush to bridge budget gaps, somehow education, teachers and schools have come within the crosshairs. The education of our nation’s children is the basis of our debt problem according to many politicians and conservative commentators, nevermind the near-decade of funding two wars half-a-world away. Hopefully Brantley’s work will stay connected to current events rather than escapism.
Installation view of (T)HUG LIFE(?) in "Chicago Street Art Show" at Chicago Urban Art Society. Image courtesy of Thomas Fennell IV and the gallery.
The highlights of the show are the collaborative projects. The Chris Silva-initiated (T)HUG LIFE(?) now involves at least 11 artists and is a room-sized installation of a city-like construction, a street art Gesamtkunstwerk. Unexpectedly, this artwork uses operations similar to those of modernist sculpture to compel the viewer to walk around and in it. Without doing this the sculpture is not fully experienced, like walking by a Richard Serra piece without walking through it or around it. As one explores the sculpture, hidden details emerge and blocked views open up. By squeezing in a niche in the piece a quasi-peepshow becomes visible, making the viewer conscious of his own act of looking while simultaneously referencing the exploration of an urban environment that street art thrives on.
Installation view of "Chicago Street Art Show" at the Chicago Urban Art Society. Image courtesy of the gallery.
The second collaborative project is the street art wall that very effectively evokes the placement and conversation of art on the street. Geometric designs in green paint from Mental 312 provide the base for the rest of the artists to build on. Ray Noland’s artfully ripped Run, Blago, Run paste-up of impeached former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich still runs from the hounds of justice as his second trial (the first being declared a mistrial) begins to conclude. Brooks Golden nods to his graffiti roots in a paste-up of a cool dude holding a spray paint can. A paste-up grapefruit from The Grocer shows the artist in much better form. Shout-outs are sent to the members of the street art community who were taken tragically before their time—SOLVE, EVOL and AFROE—keeping their spirit, memory and their art alive. The awesome weirdos from Goons and Don’t Fret are included, with one literally riding in on an elephant. The competition of the street is present here too, with Viking declaring him/herself “The Top Kat!” The energy, conversation, community and vibrancy of the street are continued successfully in the gallery.
In a city like Chicago where taxpayers fund the removal of street art through wasteful graffiti-removal programs like the Graffiti Blasters, exhibitions like this provide a record of the artists who are participating, despite the legal threats, the destruction of their work and the utter and complete indifference of local cultural institutions to their art. Paradoxically, street art is the leading form of public art; kids know the work of Banksy and Shepard Fairey and it actually gets them excited about art. Street art is an alluring new art form and it’s up to the artists to develop it further, bridging the gap between street and gallery. Challenges still remain for artists who want to show their work in a gallery rather than on the street, but this exhibition proves those challenges can be surmounted if the artist is up to it.
-Abraham Ritchie, Senior Editor ArtSlant Chicago