Graffiti art may be selling, but it has yet to be widely accepted as a legitimate movement that will stand the test of time. Overtly subversive and a bit shrill, graffiti exists in the art world like a witty wino at a debutante ball; he may be the most stylish dancer at the party, but as the hired help empties the ashtrays at evening's end, the founding fathers are apt to sniff, "Yes, but he's not really one of us."
New York artist Fred Brathwaite (also known by his nom de graffiti, Fab Five Freddy) was one of the first graffiti artists to achieve notoriety, having been immortalized in Blondie's ground-breaking crossover rap hit, "Rapture." That was five years ago, and heaven knows how many cocktail parties Brathwaite has endured in the interim. Being courted by the rich and famous is no doubt a heady experience, and it must be difficult for an artist to resist becoming a mirror image of his patrons. In light of all that, Brathwaite should be commended for managing to keep the teeth in his work. Sure, his pictures are brightly colored and collectible, but they're also about as friendly as a clenched fist.
Combining elements of science fiction, black folk art, superhero comics and psychedelia, Brathwaite dismantles the Pop vocabulary and reassembles it in a primitive shape with more power than an American Express Gold Card. Luridly colored severed limbs mutate into tentacles, while thorns and spikes sprout in place of a woman's sexual organs. A black figure flexes a bicep while clutching a white mermaid with the other arm, and an alien creature flanked by the words black star floats in menacing dark space. The subtle references to television that appear in most of Brathwaite's canvases become overt in a painting of a black, spear-clutching warrior in orange bikini briefs. Around his neck is a gold chain and a medallion that reads HBO. Brathwaite seems none too keen on the network of mass media that shaped his generation and made him a star. It's too overwhelming a force to ignore, however, and it stands as the omnipotent central presence in the fantasy landscape of his mind. (Flow Ace Gallery, 8373 Melrose Ave., to May 17.)